Changing the Rules: A Muse on Science Fiction

I loved science fiction when I was a kid.

Authors like Robert Heinlein, AE Van Vogt, Michael Moorcock, John Wyndham, John Christopher, Philip K Dick and (my favourite) Andre Norton (a woman who wrote under a male nom de plume) spun tales that fired and stretched the imagination – introduced readers to concepts strange, hyper-logical and otherworldly.

I won’t say that you had to be smart to like sci-fi (there were smart kids who didn’t care for it), but I will say that the kids who did like sci-fi tended to be smart. Which begs the question: do you have to be intelligent to have a taste for sci-fi? Or could it be that the brain-stretching nature of sci-fi helped kids to develop in ways they might not have otherwise?

Looked at another way, my wife is very smart – a scientist, no less – but she finds the simplest sci-fi concepts rather strange. She wasn’t exposed to those ideas as a child, so finds them weird as an adult. Her brain has not been stretched in the sci-fi sense.

Of course, it’s not just any sci-fi that is stretching. Space Opera like Star Wars or shoot-em-ups like Independence Day or Starship Troopers can be entertaining in a popcorn sense, but the truly challenging stuff happens in the context of scenarios that change The Rules.

So what are The Rules?

The Rules are the standard PEST conditions – the Political, Economic, Social and Technological arrangements to which we are accustomed. Most sci-fi changes at least the T part of this formula, but major changes in technology are likely to be accompanied by other changes. For example, if someone announced a safe, cheap alternative to oil – like cold fusion, or hydrogen for example – the political and economic situation would change profoundly, overnight.

If that announcement came from a benevolent source who wanted to achieve a Utopian dream, the open source technology might be donated to the world so that all countries and peoples could enjoy access to clean, cheap energy.

If that announcement came from an aggressive corporation who wanted to control access to the new technology – let’s call them Janx Corp – then Janx would very quickly become the wealthiest organisation on the planet with far reaching powers into the socio-politics of every country. They could drive, if they wished, a quasi-corporate fascism in which only those keenest to do the company’s bidding would get (and in turn be able to control) local access.

The sociological conditions attending both of these scenarios are obvious.

Staying with technology, a favourite trope of sci-fi is speculation regarding what might be possible in the future. Faster-than-light (FTL) travel, for example, is fundamental to much sci-fi despite the fact that, according to our current (Einsteinian) understanding of the universe, FTL cannot happen, as mass approaches infinity with the increase in velocity. This means that nothing (except light) can ever quite get fast enough to reach the speed of light – let alone go faster – as the rules of the universe simply won’t allow it.

The thing is, like Newton before him, Einstein’s equations may only be true within their particular frame and context. There may be other realities, or other aspects of our own reality, which currently elude us. Ideas such as wormhole travel in the region of blackholes, the Alcubierre drive (which in theory moves space around a ship rather than move a ship through space) or other fanciful exploitations of the multiverse are legion, and some of my favourite stories concern the discovery of such drives.

Sci-fi, of course, is not content with just the technological developments. In many cases, we enter the story in the future – even the far future – where all PEST conditions have changed and it is the reader’s job to work out exactly what that means.

There are some shortcuts to the process though. Standard themes and tropes are recognised by regular readers who will adjust quickly (unlike my highly intelligent wife). Dystopias are fairly common. Environmental disaster (loss of habitat) through alien intervention, robot rebellions or our own neglect are popular means of changing The Rules.

What all these things do is place a main character(s) in a difficult situation – preferably a novel situation – so the reader can enjoy watching the characters resolve the problems in ways which make sense according to The Rules within the story.

Let’s say the heroes are Jack and Jill – junior executives within Janx Corp who have their eyes opened to the evil of Janx’s manipulation of the world and decide to do something about it; eg, steal the secret hydrogen production process and publish it wikileaks style so that anyone can create cheap fuel.

All of a sudden we have the bones of a plot, but from this point it becomes a standard thriller formula. The evil corporation, assisted by their government/military lackeys, are pulling out all stops to prevent Jack and Jill saving the world. We’ve all read or seen dozens of these stories – flip it about and the story is pretty close to Avatar – peaceful natives have something the evil corporation wants and will lose their Utopian habitat if it succeeds.

There are lots of standard formulae – human exploration leading to alien contact and challenge; alien invasion leading to existential crisis; development in technology offering new opportunities; development in technology changing political landscape; discovery of alien archaeology opens Pandora’s Box; post-apocalypse; fantasy crossovers to provide for a special talent feared by the rest…

A favourite trope of mine is the secret alien or even human evolution (supermen) story. The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham) and Slan (AE Van Vogt) were excellent novels about normal humans confronted by alien evolved children (Midwich), or further evolved children confronted by the fear and prejudice of the normal (Slan).

Inevitably, these books can also be deconstructed in accordance with whichever mirror the author is holding up to contemporary society. Both of these books were written at the height of the Cold War arms race so existential catastrophe, xenophobia and fear of the other’s technology were prevailing themes.

I suspect that most sci-fi can be reduced, on some level, to PEST changes, but what would a story look like where all the PEST factors had changed?

Given that a successful story needs to be recognisable (on some level) to the reader, would it be conceivable to build a viable (from a story telling perspective) world which was alien in every way, including the motivations of the characters?

This is the challenge I have set myself in Mistletoe, the sequel to my new novel Asparagus Grass (being published by Hague Publishing in 2021).

* * *

Having reduced everyone else’s work to a finite set of themes and tropes, what can I say about my own? “Unique” would be a big call but unusual is probably fair enough. If I were to compare my work with anyone, I would probably include Ben Elton, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams (without the silliness) and John Wyndham, without being quite like any of them.

I like sci-fi (or fantasy for that matter) that starts out squarely in the ordinary present day, and traverses only gradually into the extraordinary. To my mind, this makes the sci-fi / fantasy seem so much more real when it comes and that’s what I find truly satisfying. I can enjoy reading totally far out fantasy or sci-fi – but what I produce myself must have the flavour and ambience of reality.

I always start with the here and now.

My novel THEM was a very strange story that starts with a young man (Lasseter) on top of the world. He is in the bank with his fiancée – refinancing their mortgage because he is expecting a promotion and wants to pay off his loan more quickly.

Pretty sci-fi, huh?

However, the reader is privy to Lasseter’s thoughts and knows there is something more – something deeper going on from the very start. Lasseter’s world suddenly collapses when he does not get the promotion and then learns his fiancée is having an affair.

At this point, Lasseter receives a letter in his own handwriting from a place he has never been imploring him to go to Thule – the multi-function polis in the middle of the desert. Accompanied by his friend Miles (who claims to be dead), Lasseter embarks upon a very strange journey. He thinks he is looking for gold but finds something far more interesting.

Then of course there is Asparagus Grass (to be published in 2021).

Mitch Kuiper works in the parks for Newtown Council and the bane of his life is asparagus grass – a tough spiky weed that will conquer entire suburbs if not ripped out wherever it takes root.

As the story opens, Mitch becomes involved with two quirky young women. One is a permanent uni student engaged in some very arcane research. The other has an even more mysterious secret and, as Mitch is drawn into their worlds, finds his head exploding with the enormity of the perils before him – a galactic war, in which he has suddenly become a key player.

How can a Sydney gardener save not just the earth, but the galaxy that contains it?

Like THEM, Asparagus Grass is an Australian story of pan-cosmic enormity.

But to return to my PEST theme, both stories start out very recognisably in the present day and only gradually morph into something dark, dysfunctional and downright odd. All PEST vectors are changed by the end of both novels, but I am attempting something more ambitious for the sequel to Asparagus Grass.

Having been introduced to some key concepts in the first book, the reader is launched into something much stranger in the sequel, delving into fundamental questions regarding reality, consciousness and purpose – while also flung headfirst into a rollicking adventure.

I won’t say any more at this time, but after the book is published, I’ll be happy to explore with readers exactly how successful I was at changing the Rules, while also telling an engaging and satisfying story.

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