Changing the Rules: A Muse on Science Fiction #1

I loved science fiction as a kid.

Authors like Robert Heinlein, AE Van Vogt, Michael Moorcock, John Wyndham, John Christopher, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick and (my favourite) Andre Norton 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, but I will say that the kids who did like sci-fi were always 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 yet another way, my wife is extremely smart – a scientist, no less – but she finds the simplest sci-fi concepts very strange. She wasn’t exposed to those ideas as a child, so finds them weird as an adult. Her brain is a formidable machine but has not been stretched in the sci-fi sense.

Of course, it’s not just any sci-fi that is stretching. Space Opera like The Fifth Element or Star Wars, or shoot-em-ups like Independence Day or Starship Troopers can be entertaining in a popcorn sense (I include movies alongside novels), 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 green hydrogen for example – the political and economic situation would change profoundly, overnight.

If that announcement came from a benevolent provider 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.

However, 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 corporate quasi-fascism in which only those keenest to do the company’s bidding would get (or maybe control) local access.

The socio-economic conditions attending both of these scenarios are obvious – one scenario promoting plenty and the other ensuring scarcity. Societies have always been ordered in terms of who gets rewarded with access to resources and in what measure, so enjoying plenty or coping with scarcity means two very different sets of political rules.

Staying with technology, some favourite tropes of sci-fi are 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 (with mass) can ever quite get fast enough to reach the speed of light – let alone go faster – as the physical 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 quantum multiverse are legion, and some of my favourite stories concern the discovery and use 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. Dystopias and apocalyptical scenarios 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 cold fusion process and publish it wikileaks style so that anyone can have cheap energy.

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. It’s also reminiscent of Dune and Total Recall.

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 implanted children (Midwich), or further evolved children confronted by the fear and prejudice of the normal (Slan).

Inevitably, all the best books can 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 subthemes within the mainstream news.

Possibly my favourite sci-fi novel is The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. To some extent it defies my PEST analysis and is more a satire about the banal mundanity of human existence using sci-fi as its vehicle. It is yet another Cold War novel and behoves the reader to ruminate on the meaning of life and the fragility of human beliefs and institutions. Vonnegut was good at that.

So, Vonnegut to one side, 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?

Dune has a decent go at such a context but the motivations of the characters are still recognisable. 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 storytelling perspective) world which was alien in every way, including the motivations of the characters?

This is the challenge I have set myself in The Lost Journal of Renza Kol, the sequel to my new novel Asparagus Grass (being published by Hague Publishing in 2022).

*     *     *

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. I deeply dislike comparisons but if I were to compare my work with anyone, I would shamelessly include Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams (without the silliness) and Michael Moorcock, without being quite like any of them.

I tend to 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.

In Asparagus Grass (to be published in late 2022), 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?

To return to my PEST theme, Asparagus Grass starts out very recognisably in the present day and only gradually morphs into something dark, dysfunctional and downright odd. All PEST vectors are changed by the end of the novel, but I am attempting something far 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 books are 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.

In the end, it’s the story that matters.

*     *     *

I started this essay by talking about the brain stretching (mind warping?) impact of sci-fi on young readers.

So what does that mean for adult readers (and writers)?

Can our brains be further challenged by novel concepts? Or have we become too hardwired in our thinking by the time we grow up, pay our own rent, and acquire a vested interest in the status quo?

For myself, I truly hope that I remain open to new ideas – that I can even recognise an idea as being new rather than just miss it in the wash of messages, memes and manifestos with which we are so bombarded in the C21.

When I was a student, I cherished new knowledge and used to say that there was no more pleasant sensation than having a new thought. Now, as a writer, I see it as the highest goal of my art to impart new ideas to readers and leave them pondering those ideas long after the book is finished.

Of course, the imparting of ideas won’t happen unless the story itself is strong enough to keep the reader’s attention to the end. The writers I mentioned at the beginning of this piece are, for me, the great storytellers of sci-fi. There are plenty of others with magnificent ideas (eg, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert, Iain M Banks, Orson Scott Card et al) but I find those writers very dry when it comes to storytelling. I don’t find their books to be as gripping and “un-put-downable” – perhaps because they tend to tell long rambling stories which don’t (always) obey the more recognisable “hero’s journey” / three act structure with complex characters responding to critical problems and forming interesting relationships.

The great storytellers do all of these things while also imparting novel ideas, and it is their ranks I aspire to join.

I’m not making any great claim to have created radical new ideas in my own latest fiction, but old ideas can seem new for those unexposed to them, and old ideas can also be put together in original ways to give fresh insights for those ready to see their world differently.

If I can do that for just one million readers, then I’ll regard my work to be successful.

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