When I was at the Willamette Writer’s Conference a couple weekends back I attended a session called “Eleven Rules for Writing Science Fiction.” The instructor was enthusiastic about the subject matter and probably has a real strong industry knowledge about publishing Science Fiction in the current market but I found myself seething with barely concealed contempt for an hour and a half. My notes from the panel include a couple of pretty sweet lightning bolt doodles that my middle-school notebooks would be jealous of, and a lot of “truths” offered by the instructor: “Science Fiction IS real”; “In sci fi there is nothing supernatural/fantastic”; “ESP/telepathy is NOT Science Fiction.” Aside from the fact that there are plenty of sci fi classics that defy these “rules” (there were more than eleven – I counted), they seem arbitrary and exclusionary. Is that what Science Fiction is about? Is that what any kind of storytelling is about?
I grew up in a small city in Southern Oregon and when I was a teenager my life revolved around four things: new comic book Wednesdays, new episodes of Star Trek, (the Next Generation and then Deep Space Nine), the release dates of sci fi/fantasy/horror/awesome movies, and my regular Dungeons & Dragons games. I hated going to school. The students were culturally conservative bullies that would sometimes yell out “devil boy!” and tackle me while I was walking toward the bus. The aggressively religious teachers and counselors used their positions to proselytize and shame me in front of classes, like Mr. Fox who boomed “may God strike you down!” in front of about thirty kids after I got caught with a fantasy book in my backpack or the academic counselor that told me I could get out of detention (for bringing that same fantasy book in my backpack) if I went to his Christian youth group. I didn’t get along with my family and I didn’t have many friends. The few friends that I did have bonded over being outcasts and we escaped, like so many kids then and now did, into fantastic worlds where the freaks had a school where they got to be superheroes (X-Men) and a future where smart kids were respected (Star Trek). Science Fiction didn’t have rules for us. It had possibilities. Time travel, telepathy, lasers, jetpacks, aliens, and spaceships hung out with spandex and cape wearing supermen, elves and paladins. If we could imagine it, it belonged, like we did in a small pocket world free from gay bashing, racism, religious intolerance, and the casual abuses of modern cynical American culture.
This story about how I first found Science Fiction is the same story you could hear from a million others. So what happened?
Eventually the playful arguments over who would win a fight, Wolverine or Batman, turned serious. I don’t know if it was just me and my friends getting older and becoming more set in our ways, if we created rules that allowed us to be the ones rejecting other people for the first time, or if it happened to everyone universally around the same time as genre fandoms grew and matured. The Tim Burton Batman movies were great. Batman Forever was not and if you disagree, you have to go. If you like the Star Wars original trilogy, you have to hate the prequel trilogy or you need to get out. If you like the odd numbered Star Trek movies, there’s something wrong with you. ESP/telepathy is NOT Science Fiction and if you disagree, you should leave the class, you should stop liking Science Fiction, you should never tell Science Fiction stories.
When someone talks about rules for imaginary worlds what I hear is “may God strike you down, Devil Boy!” or “your fag brother is going to get AIDS and die.” Obviously that’s not what the instructor of this WWC session was saying or thinking. She was just talking about the tropes and accepted norms for a marketable genre. But it rankles me the same.
I find myself a lover of science fiction that has a really conflicted relationship with science fiction fans that I find sometimes hostile and standoffish. I’ve been called a “self-loathing geek” because of how uncomfortable I am with some of the trappings of fandom but I’m not self-loathing at all. I’m proud of my geek bonafides. I was married in a Superman t-shirt and I have a cool rancor toy in my regular Christmas decorations. I love Science Fiction more than I can capture here. It was a life raft for me and I have no contempt or hesitation for it but all of the rules and segmentation just make me really sad and disappointed. When I wrote about comics and other genre topics at Bleeding Cool regularly I would often get comments that said something like “you don’t like X or Y the same way I like X or Y? FAIL” – and a lot more that used saltier language. I was celebrating the culture and content and I was on the receiving end of flippant vitriol. It seems that the only thing outcasts can agree on eventually is the need to make more outcasts. I’ve seen people use the “rules” of Science Fiction to say that Anime fans can’t come to the same parties as Doctor Who fans or that cosplayers don’t belong at comic book conventions. I’ve seen these rules used to discriminate against women, minorities, or just enthusiastic fans that like things other people don’t like as much. Genre “rules” start out as fun debates between equally accepted fans but they turn ugly as soon as those debates aren’t equal anymore.
I believe in stories as a means to bring people closer – not a means to keep people on the outside. So much of modern Science Fiction (or fantasy or comics or Vin Diesel movies) seems to be a series of litmus tests to “prove” you’re a real fan. When people asked me what I was pitching at the Willamette Writer’s Conference I told them I was pitching Science Fiction but I wanted to tell them that my Science Fiction doesn’t have your rules. My Science Fiction doesn’t have any rules. My Science Fiction thinks your Science Fiction is interesting and wants to talk about it more but my Science Fiction has better things to do than fit into your Science Fiction box.
Alright, I don’t like to waste a whole blog post on a soapbox diatribe so I’m going to give you, right here without the necessity of a weekend writer’s conference, all you need to know about writing Science Fiction:
- Always focus on your story and your characters – don’t get hung up on gadgets or backstory (even if they’re pretty cool)
- Be aware of the tropes and expectations of your setting/sub genre so you can play to them or play against them
- Make it new and wonderful and awesome for all the lonely outcasts reading it on crowded school buses
- Have fun with it because at the end of the day it’s all just stardust and hope from your fantastic imagination
I got an email from someone that’s reviewing one of my manuscripts. He wrote that he was at the part where they (the superheroes) are fighting a wizard in the basement of the moon base. I was so proud. Hell yeah they are. I wouldn’t have it any other way.