QUESTION : why do wizards wave their hands to make magic? Damien lays out the strange connection between writing and magic, and how the two meet in our wonderful, wonderful hands!
QUESTION : why do wizards wave their hands to make magic? Damien lays out the strange connection between writing and magic, and how the two meet in our wonderful, wonderful hands!
Premiere! Read on for details.
After five years teaching creative writing at universities, and a decade leading writing workshops in schools, libraries, prisons, care homes and more, I saw a problem in how we teach writing.
The Rhetoric of Story is my answer to that problem. Across seven lectures I layout my best understanding of how story works. The course took me a year to create, and years to research.
Since I first published Rhetoric of Story I have gathered over 13,000 online writing students across Udemy and Skillshare. It’s a great honour and I’ve been happy to help so many people, in more than 140 countries, develop as writers.
Overwhelmingly, my students agree that the final talk in the Rhetoric of Story is the most powerful. I’ve been gradually making the talks available on my YouTube channel. The final talk, on Emotion: The Highest Art of Storytelling, will “premiere” there on Sunday 3rd March at 14:00 GMT.
The entire course will be free on YouTube for one week after Sunday. Then it will be available at specific dates and for all students enrolled in my RoS seminar groups.
I want to make all my teaching available free on YouTube. You can help me achieve that goal by subscribing to my channel, or becoming a sponsor on Patreon.
Damien Walter writes on sci-fi & fantasy for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop. Follow him on Twitter.
At any given moment on the inter-webs there are probably dozens of irate Sci-Fi & Fantasy fans getting agitated about those damn literary authors coming over here and writing our genres! Which is about as silly as shouting at someone for stealing your flowers when they have plucked some bluebells in the forest.
(Unless you happen to own the entire forest, in which case DOWN WITH THE FEUDAL ARISTOCRACY).
SF and Fantasy are a common ground that any writer can build their house upon.
The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse is set some 400 years in the future from its first publication in 1943. Hesse spent over a decade writing this, his last novel, which completed the body of work that won him the Nobel prize for literature. The Glass Bead Game of the title is played by the intellectual elite of Hesse’s future world. Through it the eras great thinkers synthesise and interweave all knowledge, from scientific equations to musical compositions and great works of art. It is often noted that Hesse’s novel predates and predicts the digital revolution driven by computer technology, which allows us today to easily manipulate all forms of human knowledge. But the Glass Bead Game is much more than simple futurism. Hesse, who had established himself as one of the 20th centuries great spiritual philosophers in Siddharta and Steppenwolf, is interested in his created game not as a hymn to technology, but as a critique of knowledge and the severe limits of the human intellect. For anyone living and working in the knowledge driven society of the early 21st century, The Glass Bead Game has perhaps more insight to deliver than ever.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy is regularly excoriated by genre fans for being just one among hundreds of post-apocalypse novels, and no more worth the literary plaudits it received. Which is about as ignorant as asking what’s so special about E=MC2 when there are so many other five symbol sequences in the alphabet. On one of its many levels of meaning The Road is indeed a post-apocalypse novel. On another level it is an allegory for the history of human civilisation, with each stage of human culture represented, from our tribal roots to modern industrial society, exposing our cannibalistic tendency to exploit other human life for our own benefit. And on another level it is a story about fatherhood, and the devastating weight of responsibility all parents feel bringing their children in to a world which is so often brutal and harsh. And on yet another it is an epic poem, as lyrically muscular as Homer and as critical of modern existence as T.S.Eliot. There simply is no equal to McCarthy’s vision of apocalypse.
Shikasta by Doris Lessing, in which the author of The Golden Notebook succeeded in uniting the infinities of the far future and intergalactic space with the psychological depths of human mythology and spirituality WHILST laying a feminist critique of the entire history of human civilisation. AND it has some of the absolute trippiest, mind warping imagery of any SF novel ever written. The alien civilisation of Canopus, who live on a plane of existence above ours, send an emissary to the colony planet Rhohanda in an attempt to prevent its corruption by the rival civilisation of Shammat. Despite his failure the emissary returns many times to the renamed planet of Shikasta, which it transpires is our Earth. Doris Lessing essentially rewrites the entire history of mankind in this book, to the end of unifying our generally opposed scientific and spiritual worldviews, and argues convincingly that they need never be opposed. All of which helped Lessing become the second Nobel prize winning SF author on this list.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is often cited as the leading example of the South American magical realist movement, in which Marquez combined the realist literary tradition of the that continent’s European colonists with the mythic stores told by its indigenous peoples. The novel follows seven generations of the Buendia family and the others who join them in founding the town of Macondo. The fantastic permeates Marquez’ grand metaphor for the modern history of Colombia on every level. From the early appearance of the gypsy Melquiades who brings fantastic scientific contraptions to the town, to the novels incredible conclusion where *SPOILER* the entire village history of the village becomes only a few notes in Melquiades journal*END SPOILER*, any sense of reality in Marquez world is continually undermined by the suspicion that reality is as much a fiction as any story. This book actually left me shaking when I had finished it. And I do not shake easily.
The Magus by John Fowles. Magic. You can’t stumble far in Fantasy without tripping over some, but no other author has ever come closer to describing what magic really is than John Fowles. The young Nicholas Urfe journeys to the greek island of Phraxos to take up a teaching position and escape a relationship he feels trapped in. But Nicholas has all the emotional intelligence of a dishrag, and having abandoned the only person in the world who really loves him, promptly has a complete existential breakdown. In this vulnerable state he is drawn in to the mysterious world of millionaire recluse Maurice Conchis, where he is ensnared in an ever more complex series of psychological games and experiments. Is Nicholas a victim of a sadistic manipulator, or is he being helped to understand the mysteries of a world he barely begins to comprehend? The Magus never entirely resolves the mystery at its heart, but it does explore how the human heart uses magic as a pathway to its emotional and psychological growth.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf is, like all great Fantasy, as much a book about the imagination as it is a product of the imagination. There is probably no writer who epitomises the sterotype of the ‘literary novelist’ than Woolf. English, upper middle class, a Bloomsbury bohemian and the author of plotless novels about upper middle class English women wondering what life is really all about while aimlessly wandering around starring at things. In to which Orlando bursts like an explosion of pure colour and joy. The story of an Elizabethan nobleman who decides to live forever, sleeps with Elizabeth I among many others and changes sex before roving through English history on a quest for sex and adventure. But in amongst all these hi-jinx Woolf plays some post-modern games of literary revelation. Is Qrlando real? Or a character in a fiction? Do we care, or are we happy just to enjoy the ride? Like Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote, which very nearly made this list, Orlando is at heart a story about the labyrinthine quality of the stories we tell ourselves.
Lanark by Alasdair Gray is a novel in four books, presented out of order as Book Three, a Prologue, Book One, Book Two, Book Four and an Epilogue four chapters from the end of the novel, and illuminated with Gray’s own extraordinary illustrations, both book and pictures calling to mind Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of hell. Lanark awakes with no memories in the city of Unthank where he falls in to a life of bohemian unemployment and poverty. His body begins to grow scales and he is sucked down a tunnel to The Institute where he rescues his love Rima, transformed in to a dragon, from being exploded for fuel. Lanark is shown his history by an oracle, which reveals his past life as Duncan Thaw, a sickly young artist and, possibly, murderer growing up in industrial Glasgow. None of this does justice to the book, which unfolds a vision of heaven and hell so staggeringly forceful that I had to stop reading for a year half-way through to give myself time to recover. Alasdair Gray’s novel is nothing less than a vision of how we create heaven and hell on Earth, through our own selfishness, ignorance and incapacity for love. It has inspired dozens of great authors including Iain Banks, whose novel The Bridge is something of a homing to this great Scottish novel. If you read only one book from this list, make it Lanark.
A few books I did not choose and why…
From zero experience, to three 10k runs a week, then back down to a regular 5k distance, running has changed my life. And taught me some valuable lessons.
It’s coming up for five years since I left the UK and began “digital nomading”. This time has been occupied with two stories, building my writing practice, and learning more about Buddhism. I write about both of those topics now and again. This is an essay about a third story I don’t mention so often.
In early 2012 I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (The answer, incidentally, is writing) and was inspired to buy some Nikes and try running. I don’t remember loving it, and those early runs were often only a few hundred metres.
“I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done.”
Just before I left the UK I bought my first pair of “barefoot” Merrell trail runners. In my first test run (on a treadmill) I was awed by how much more interesting running became when I could feel the ground under my toes. The Merrell’s were also lightweight for the single, carry-on backpack that I am, five years layer, still travelling with. They quickly became a centre-piece of my new minimal existence.
Early in my travels I fell in love with the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I stayed there for fifteen months on my first visit, and it was in CM that running really became part of my life. Freelancing full time meant I could set my own schedule, and mid-afternoons, as the Thai heat abated towards sunset, became running time.
Chiang Mai has a leafy, labyrinthine university campus where I love to run. Further out of town is the Huay Kaew reservoir where it’s possible to do a 10km circuit. There’s also the Moat Run, a 6km circuit around the city’s square moat road, negotiating crazy traffic and angry tuk tuk drivers all the way.
I did my first 10km run in Chiang Mai, and was so shocked to complete the distance that I spent the next hour lying in the shade wondering if my legs would ever work again. At one point I was running 5 to 7km daily with one or two 10km every week. It was too much, my weight plummeted so far that my 30″ waist jeans were falling off. I made a conscious decision to gear down the runs and replace them with weights, and at the time of writing have regained the lost muscle mass and added a bit more.
Today I hit my 555th run. An auspicious number in my 5th year of running. These are some lessons I’ve taken from the experience of running. Like Mr Murakami, when I talk about running, I’m also talking about something else. For me, running has been transformative, both body and soul. So these lessons are, in part, my reflections on how transformations happen.
Buy good tools.
I have often carried a poverty mentality through life. Given the option, I’ll tend to go for the budget solution to a problem. I think, with the things in life that matter, this is a mistake. I would never have run 555 runs in my squishy Nike trainers. My Merrel running shoes made all those runs much more enjoyable, and safer, I’ve had one minor injury in five years. Of course, there are all kinds of excessive and unneccesary things sold to runners, but when it comes to essential tools for any activity, I will always buy good ones now.
Nike didn’t win me with their trainers, but I have to thank them for the wonderful Nike running app, the reason I can look back and see my progress over five years. Being able to see how far and how fast I’ve run is really integral to my motivation. I like the satisfaction of hitting the 5k mark, and logging my minimum 3 runs a week. Every Sunday I take part in the Nike Global 5k race, with millions of people worldwide. Quality is important for running, as for any experience, you should enjoy the process first. But being able to quantify that process, whether it’s metres run or words written, is also a big help.
Habit is everything.
I wind down my work day about 4pm and usually run at 5. I’m lucky, of course, that I can do this as a freelancer. I’ve always found that time of day difficult, and commonly “slump” into negative thinking in the afternoon. Or did, until running replaced that old bad habit with a new good one. Habit, I believe, is everything when it comes to change. If it’s your habit to write for 3 hours a day, you’ll write great things. Anything you want to achieve, to change, or to stop in life, will be made easier or even possible at all, by thinking through the habits that feed it. It would take a lot, a real lot, to make me let go of my running habit. I’ll be 80 and on sticks, but I’ll still find a way to hobble for some distance.
Where is my mind?
I listen while I run. Music of course, but I also love good audiobooks and podcasts. I’ve learned more about Buddhism from audio recordings of dharma teachings than I have sitting in temples! And I’ve learned more about meditating from running than from sitting on a cushion. I listen because I want to keep my mind from worrying about feeling tired. I don’t know about your mind, but my mind is the biggest barrier between me, and me getting things done. My mind throws tantrums, declares defeat, cries exhaustion at the first drop of sweat. When I’m running I keep part of my mind present in the run, while distracting a different part with interesting stories and ideas. My mind is always happy to have run, so once I was able to train it to get out of the way and let my body take care of the actual running, it became much more positive about the whole endeavour.
Do what you can.
I’m not a fast runner. I average 6:30 per km. My fastest 5km is 24:30 but I’m usually well over minutes. If I held myself to the standards of competition runners I would always be failing. But by the standards needed to improve my own physical and mental health, I win every day. As a professional writer, I hold myself to standards of productivity I that would be completely counterproductive for anybody who didn’t make their living in the field. One of the quickest ways to kill any positive activity is to set lofty goals we will always fail at. I’ve done this so often in life, it feels like an achivement in itself just to value steady progress.
Thanks for reading!
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Lots of people dream of building a pro career that also feeds their creativity. Online freelance platforms can be a big part of making that happen, IF you know how to profit from them.
I was surprised and more than a little honored to look at my Fiverr profile last month and discover I was the number 1 rated professional writer in Articles and Blog Posts. Along with the 100% Top Rated status I’ve had on Upwork for the last year and a half, that gives me a pretty good claim to being the number 1 writer on the internet!
Hyperbole aside, I thought it would be helpful for many of the writers I work with to put together a short course on how I use these platforms. I use online freelance platforms as part of my digital nomadic life. But I’m very careful to use them as a tool to feed my larger creative practice, which I think is key to using them successfully.
You can watch the full hour long interview on Udemy, using course code LANCETEN.
Or you can watch it and all my other courses for free on Skillshare with a one month trial.
All great stories have momentum.
Every line of a great joke is building up to its punchline. Every scene of an action move is screaming towards the final fight. Every beat of a stage tragedy is building tension to the revelation of a flawed character.
The literary short story, made famous by authors from Anton Chekhov to Alice Munro, contains a singular element that powers its momentum.
“Derived from the Greek word epiphaneia, epiphany means appearance, or manifestation. In literary terms, an epiphany is that moment in the story where a character achieves realization, awareness, or a feeling of knowledge, after which events are seen through the prism of this new light in the story.”
“It probably has a million definitions. It’s the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.”
“The soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word, or gesture.”
Taking a deep dive into the literary technique of epiphany, and laying out what what I learn along the way, has made me realise just how central the idea is to all forms of storytelling.
One of the biggest challenges in storytelling is illustrating the internal transformations of characters. The journeys that human beings take, from innocence to experience, from victim to villain, from outsider to hero, and thousands more, are the stuff of great stories. And epiphany is the key to illustrating those journeys in your stories.
Follow my creative process for writing a short story with epiphany.
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I spent years searching, after I first read the Culture novels of Iain M Banks, for other space opera novels that equalled them. And this is what I discovered.
Nothing else in the space opera genre even comes close to the Culture. Nothing. Zip. Nada.
As Theodore Sturgeon said, 90% of everything is crap. But as a young reader I wondered why, with all these books marketed as space opera, did none read like the Culture?
The answer is – theme.
Science fiction tends to obsess over concepts, but almost entirely ignore themes. Scifi is full of big ideas about the nature of reality or the physics of space travel. But scifi that deals with the basic themes of human life is a rare, rare thing.
Banks was a genius at weaving high concept scifi stories together with great thematic depth. In my new video essay for the Technology of Fiction I look at the opening chapter of what is, arguably, Banks’ most thematically complex novel – Excession.
Read the full novel – Excession by Iain M Banks
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Over three decades after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.
Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.
But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his literary fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because of his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.
These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:
Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.
Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.
Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.
One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.
Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guadian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.
A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.
“Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic.”
It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.
Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.
It’s informative to list a few works that do not qualify as transrealism to understand Rucker’s intent more fully. Popular fantasy or science fiction stories like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games lack a strong enough reality to be discussed as transrealism. Apparently realistic narratives that sometimes contain fantastic elements, like the high-tech gizmos of spy thrillers, also fail as transrealism because their plots and archetypal characters are very far from real. Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic, for a very specific purpose, that seems to have become tremendously relevant for contemporary readers.
The potential list of transrealist authors is both contentious and fascinating. Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and her novels from Oryx and Crake onwards. Stephen King, when at his best describing the lives of blue-collar America shattered by supernatural horrors. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, among other big names of American letters. Iain Banks in novels like Whit and The Bridge. JG Ballard, as one of many writers originating from the science-fiction genre to pioneer transrealist techniques. Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, among others.
This proliferation of the fantastic in contemporary fiction has at times been described as the “mainstreaming of science fiction”. But sci-fi continues on much as it ever has, producing various escapist fantasies for readers who want time out from reality. And of course there’s no shortage of purely realist novels populating Booker prize lists and elsewhere. Both sci-fi and realism provide a measure of comfort – one by showing us the escape hatch from mundane reality, the other by reassuring us the reality we really upon is fixed, stable and unchanging. Transrealism is meant to be uncomfortable, by telling us that our reality is at best constructed, at worst non-existent, and allowing us no escape from that realisation.
“Transrealism is a revolutionary art form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person’.” Rucker’s formulation of transrealism as revolutionary becomes especially meaningful when compared to the uses transrealism is put to by the best of its practitioners. Atwood, Pynchon and Foster-Wallace all employed transrealist techniques to challenge the ways that “consensus reality” defined who was normal and who was not, from the political oppression of women to the spiritual death inflicted on us all by modern consumerism.
Today transrealism underpins much of the most radical and challenging work in contemporary literature. Colson Whitehead’s intelligent dissection of the underpinnings of racism in The Intuitionist and his New York Times transrealist twist on the zombie-apocalypse novel, Zone One. Monica Byrne’s hallucinatory road-trip across the future of the developing world and the lives of women caught between poverty and high-speed technological change in The Girl in the Road. Matt Haig’s compulsive young adult novel The Humans, which invites the reader to see human life through alien eyes. Transrealism has 30 years of history behind it, but it’s in the next 30 years that it may well define literature as we come to know it.
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If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.
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In perhaps the all time most fiercely contested fight over an acronym ever, fans have been declaring sides on the Science Fiction vs SciFi vs SF debate for almost five decades. But, I hear the still sane among you declare, what does this even mean? And why should you care?
For the ever growing army of writers, bloggers, editors, critics, academics and just plain old obsessive fans of this thing that may (or may not) be called sci-fi, there is at least some method in this madness. Each name and definition reveals a different aspect of the immense creativity sheltering within sci-fi. Or SF. Or whatever the hell it’s called!
So, here is a brief glossary of the various competing definitions of sci-fi. Much of this may reveal some bias on my part, so please feel free to correct me where I have strayed from the facts as you understand them.
Science fiction n by the late 1930s, stories featuring space rockets and robots had been around in the pages of pulp magazines for a long time. It was then that influential editor John W Campbell hit upon the brilliant marketing strategy of calling these stories “science fiction”, thereby claiming a veneer of scientific credibility for the genre. The idea stuck, and is the reason many readers now insist science fiction must be based on real science.
Hard SF n not satisfied with claiming scientific credibility, many writers of made-up stories further distinguish their work by only making up stories based on ideas drawn from the hard sciences. In particular, physics. Unless, that is, they happen to need a faster-than-light engine to transport characters across the universe, in which case they just ignore physics all together. See also aliens, time travel etc.
Sci-fi n Star Wars made “sci-fi” big business. But for many, it is not true science fiction because it has no basis in science. In fact, most of what the general public thinks of as science fiction is viewed with some disdain by core science fiction fans, who dismiss it as “sci-fi” or “skiffy”. Sci-fi became an early catch all term for many related things, like video games and RPGs, that are now more often called Geek or Nerd Culture.
SF abbreviation because science fiction fans didn’t like “sci-fi”, they started abbreviating what they did like to “SF”. Pronounced “ess eff”, not “sniff”. Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means “science fiction” before then correct people when they say, “Oh, you mean sci-fi,” which tends to annoy both parties. If someone says “I read / write SF” you know you’re talking to a true believer.
Speculative fiction n now things get complicated. Because lots of science fiction writers don’t actually have any science in their SF, they call it “speculative fiction” instead. To make matters worse, even though it’s specifically not science fiction, speculative fiction likewise gets abbreviated to SF. This has also become the default term for literary writers who want to write fiction with science in it, but without calling it science fiction.
So, to recap. Science fiction is a genre consisting of made-up stories with science in. Unless the stories are sci-fi, which doesn’t have science but is what most people think of as science fiction. Unless it’s called SF, of course, which most people think means “San Francisco”. Or speculative fiction, which is what posh people call sci-fi.
Phew! Right, now then.
Fantasy n (‘fæntsi) one solution would be to say that, because all these stories are primarily made-up or imagined by the writer, they are all kinds of fantasy. Problem is, because of JRR Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, most people think “fantasy” refers to stories with elves in. They therefore get confused if the word is also used to talk about stories with rockets in. Fantastika has been mooted, mostly by the critic John Clute, as an altertive catch all term, but sounds a little too much like a really good curry
I could continue with definitions of cyberpunk, steampunk, weird fiction, horror, urban fantasy, new weird, new wave … the list goes on. They’re all part of what makes [insert preferred collective noun] such an oddball and fascinating community to be part of, and create stories in.
But I did say there was method in this madness. Boil this insanely complex and largely pointless argument down to its essentials, and you arrive at something quite interesting. Is it enough for a story to be purely the product of its creator’s imagination? Or should a story instead be extrapolated from an external, rational and scientifically provable truth? In a world starkly divided between reason and fantasy, it’s an intriguing question to ask.
Originally pubished in The Guardian.
When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to every possible world! These are all novum of a kind.
The problem. And it’s a pretty big problem, at least if you’re a jobbing sci-fi author who would like to get read (and hence paid). The problem is that your novum, even when it sounds mighty interesting, is actually boring. There, I said it, novums are fucking insanely dull!
“something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being”
But but BUT Damo! A portal that leads to every possible world sounds really interesting! What did I just say? It SOUNDS interesting. But if it’s actually going to BE interesting for your audience, the novum has to do something much more than just sit around being a cool idea.
All stories, not just sci-fi tales, contain something like a novum. The Oscar winning 1979 movie Kramer vs Kramer isn’t even slightly sci-fi. But the film still has a novum…a couple go through a difficult divorce. But the divorce is only the surface, exterior level of the story. It provides the framework for the much more important story happening on the interior level, as Dustin Hoffman’s character has to finally grow up and take responsibility for home and family. It’s not details of divorce proceedings that make Kramer vs Kramer compelling, it’s the inner human journey, the EMOTIONAL journey, that the audience are captured by.
How hard do I have to argue to persuade you that a story that’s actually about divorce proceedings, with long detailed speeches from lawyer characters about the details of marriage contract law, will be quite boring? Then why would a story about a portal that connects all world’s, with achingly long monologues by competent scientists on the details of multiverse physics, be any more interesting? If the story is about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people, because the novum is only intellectually interesting.
Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the HUGE problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.
What’s the solution? Remember the portal that connects all worlds? If you find that, or another novum interesting, it’s because something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being. Spend some time sitting with your emotional response to the novum that inspire you. A portal that connects all worlds might give those who step into it the chance to be all people. That’s the seed of an emotional experience. Let it grow, and it might one day shiver your audience’s soul.
My name is Damien. I am a writer. Patreon is part of how I get paid. Become a patron.
There’s a theory of education called “learning thresholds” which I wrote about for my post-grad certificate, back when I was treading the academic path. It’s an idea I use widely in my professional life today, for reasons I’ll get to.
A learning threshold is a point on a learning curve where a paradigm shift in thinking is required. Not only do you have to learn new knowledge to cross the threshold, but you have to accept that the new knowledge alters or invalidates most of your old knowledge.
“Christian mythology gave us a millenia or so of cultural dark ages. I wonder sometimes if scifi mythology will be even worse.”
Examples of learning thresholds:
As an educator, learning thresholds are a very useful way of understanding where studemts will struggle, or even rebel. It takes a high degree of ego control from a student to admit that knowledge they hold is “wrong”. Not all students cross the threshold.
As a writer and journalist, learning thresholds tell me where the attention of my readers is. For instance, if I write about how Donald Trump uses socialist ideas to appeal to his voters, I’m hitting a learning threshold. The idea is true, but quite contrary to the more simplistic idea of Trumpism many folks hold.
We’re compelled to debate learning thresholds, as a way to cross into deeper understanding of the issue. Many people will insist the idea is wrong, “TRUMP’S NO SOCIALIST!” But if the idea was simply wrong, it would just be ignored. It’s because it represents a learning threshold that we give it our attention.
What are the learning threshold’s for science fiction?
On one level, science fiction is a genre of entertainment media, that tells stories with sciencey bits. Space rockets! Robowarriors! Hyperdrives! It’s a Will Smith movie you watch on Netflix, or an Arthur C Clarke novel you loaned out from the library when you were ten. Billions of people engage with scifi, and most don’t need to know any more than this.
But, if you start to dig more deeply into science fiction, especially if you start to think about making it, you’re going to encounter another way of thinking about scifi. Like all threshold concepts, it’s an idea that can only really be grasped if you’re willing to let go of your old understanding.
Science fiction is our modern mythology.
I’m not going to argue the case for scifi as mythology here. You’re either on it, and you’ve read Tolkien on mythopoeia and the other arguments in favour, or it’s an idea you’re not ready for. That’s the nature of learning thresholds – you have to cross them, nobody else can do it for you.
But I will look at some of the reasons why the idea hits resistance:
Will we one day worship the Best Science Fiction of The Year anthologies?
My recent list of “scifi novels to rewire your consciousness” got the same comment about 200 times on various forums where it was posted.
What’s the Bible doing on a scifi list? What’s the Bhagavad Gita doing on a scifi list?
If you’re asking that question, and especially if you’re angry or confused by it, you’re standing at the threshold of a deeper understanding of scifi. If it seems totally obvious to you, congrats, you already passed to the next level. Ten years ago I was studyng scifi writing at Clarion, and even though I knew of the idea, I didn’t really get it.
What I find fascinating, and a little bit terrifying, about scifi as a mythology, is how quickly it’s metastisising into a belief system of religious proportions. It took centuries for a some fantasy stories written by a Mesopotamian princess to be raised into a the holy text of the Abrahamic religions. In a matter of a few decades scifi has given birth to transhumanism, with a growing army of adherents convinced they have a shot at eternal life in silicon heaven, if they can just make it to the Rapture of the Geeks.
Christian mythology gave us a millenia or so of cultural dark ages. I wonder sometimes if scifi mythology will be even worse.