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[personal profile] jade_sabre
On why people like Beth and Quark might not like science fiction
Did you see the part where I mentioned that true science fiction focuses on exploring philosophical concepts of human existence in terms of strict technological boundaries? Science fiction is about ideas, not individuals, not characters or plot. Now, this is fine for short fiction, and can indeed be absolutely mind-blowing, but for ladies like you, who enjoy characters and plot, I can see why you wouldn’t find this enough to sustain you through a work of long fiction.

(Also I linked to Harlan Ellison earlier—I read the entire short story collection in which he first published “I Have No Mouth” last year, and it is holy crap disturbing. I read him because he wrote “City on the Edge of Forever,” which is my mom’s favorite Original Star Trek episode, but uh, he was/maybe still is a seriously disturbed individual. Not all of his stories are strict science fiction, but man does he dig deep into the murky parts of the human psyche.)

Along with this is the complaint I’ve heard that a lot of the old science fiction writers (50s and 60s) are, well, not that great at writing. Which, again, if you’re interested in exploring an idea over the course of a short story, you can make it through that and even do good things, but it might not make for good long-term fiction.

“But Jade,” you’re saying, “all these guys wrote novels like fifty years ago, what about modern science fiction?”

“Ah,” I reply, “well, most modern ‘science fiction’ is really ‘space opera,’ and ‘space opera’ has its own problems that I will address in a moment.”

Honestly, though, I haven’t really read much modern science fiction—the best example I can think of is actually Mass Effect, which is a video game. I’m grouping it under “science fiction” because the codex has tons of background information about the science behind mass effect technology, the guns have bullets, and the technology and its consequences are an integral part of the plot.

But really, even Star Trek has departed from its science fiction roots—think about Enterprise (with a few episodic exceptions), or the last Star Trek movie. I don’t know how much published and labeled “science fiction” today actually fits within the category I’ve created. But I don’t necessarily see that as a cause for changing what “science fiction” means—the name, by definition, implies that science is a focus.

And I am definitely not trying to say science fiction is superior to space opera—they’re simply two different ways of addressing the concept of HUMANS IN SPACE OR ON OTHER PLANETS OR WITH MASSIVE TECHNOLOGICAL ABILITIES AAAAAAAAH THE FUTURE IS SO COOL. Science fiction has serious drawbacks, as previously mentioned, but its focus also allows for a cleanliness in its approach—and perhaps it simply is best suited for short fiction.

On why people like Quark and Beth might not like space opera
(Note: I’m going to start using the phrase “sci-fi” to refer to “stuff that is marketed as science fiction but really is space opera.” Feel free to create a link between this and "SyFy" as a further indication of the denigration of science fiction in its true form as a genre.)

One word: Series.

One of the things about the Star Wars book series is that, being over a hundred books, it’s written by many, many authors. These authors are usually drawn from the current greats of sci-fi (and occasionally fantasy), and so people like Vonda McIntyre and Barbara Hambly (notorious for two of the worst SW books in existence) and R.A. Salvatore and Greg Bear and Terry Brooks have all, at one point or another, written a Star Wars novel. Many of these authors have also written several books of their own, but several of them, in addition to their own canon, have contributed to other popular sci-fi series. On top of that, their own books tend to fall into trilogies—Mike Stackpole, in addition to the Star Wars and BattleTech books, has written at least three of those.

(TIM ZAHN HAS A NEW STAR WARS BOOK OUT, AND THERE’S ANOTHER ONE COMING OUT IN DECEMBER? /puts on list to read)

Alan Dean Foster, who wrote the first (later jossed) Star Wars EU book, has at least three other series to his name. Karen Traviss, who basically invented Mandalorian culture from the ground up, is now also writing Halo books in addition to a set of Gears of War books and her own six-book chronicle. A.C. Crispin—a multi-book series in addition to her Star Trek and Star Wars books. Troy Denning—is Satan in authorial form. Kevin J. Anderson—many Star Wars books and oh every Dune book after Hebert’s original trilogy (and let’s not even talk about how the second and third Dune books suck so bad). And this is just a small sampling based on my knowledge of authors from the Star Wars books—I’m sure you would find a similar list if you looked into Star Trek books, those being the first two big major “sci-fi” franchises.

Furthermore, the majority of these authors (and this becomes truer and truer as the years have gone by) are really writing more space opera fiction than science fiction. Yes, there’s some crossover in terms of the amount of time focused on explaining technological systems, but that doesn’t change the fact that these authors are writing stories in space, not stories set around exploring the consequences of their technological system. More on this in a moment.

So here are some of the problems, as I see them:
1. Sci-fi series suffer the same problem as fantasy series: where the heck do I start?

2. Many of the major sci-fi series are spin-offs of other media—movies, TV shows, video games. So if you’re not familiar with the source material, you’re not going to want to pick up the books. (Unless your fiancé hands you one of his favorite books from middle school and you have to read it.) Futhermore, this spin-off material is basically published fanfiction—it exists to generate money off people who are desperate to keep reading about their favorite characters, so they just keep churning out books. And as anyone who’s ever read fanfiction knows, sometimes you put up with mediocre writing in exchange for this chance to keep reading (and with published novels, you can be secure in the knowledge that you’re reading canon, which matters more to some people than others). It’s not the writing you care about at all—it’s the story and the people. Or maybe just the fact that it’s IN SPACE AND SPACE IS SO COOL.

3. Now, not all of the authors I’ve listed are necessarily bad—I’ve enjoyed Karen Traviss’s books, and I love Timothy Zahn—but I would hesitate to call any of them “great,” or group them with say MWT. And I know that bothers Quark less than it bothers Beth, but either way you have the problem that if you don’t like one of these authors, chances are you’re going to have to rule out a large chunk of the bookshelf. Kevin J. Anderson, for example, is not a particularly talented writer, so if I ever felt a desire to read any of the other Dune books, I would be deterred by his name on the cover. Don’t like Karen Traviss but love Halo? Sucks to be you, ‘cause she’s about to write six books for them.

And even if you leave franchised-series land, the authors from those franchises are picked because they’ve established at least one independent series first. There are very few (that I’ve seen) stand-alone sci-fi novels, so if you don’t like series, you’re a bit screwed. I mean, I’ve never read David Weber, but his books take up an entire row at B&N. It’s like going to the fantasy section and not liking Mercedes Lackey or Robert Jordan (never read them), or the romance section and not liking Nora Roberts or Johanna Lindsey—their books dominate the shelves. This is obviously not a sci-fi-specific problem, but I think the crossover from independent to franchised series is more unique—the likelihood that the same authors will pop up no matter what you’re reading.

So I guess to conclude this section, on the negative side of things, the sci-fi-really-space-opera-fiction section is full of series and the same authors over and over again no matter where you look, tons of spin-off material, and generally mediocre writing, which might put one off reading it.

one other problem that I forgot to fit in earlier but which needs to be said

back to the definitions!

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November 2012

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