February 2014

I haven’t done a lot of interviews, but when I have done them, or had to prepare talking points about writing, one of the things I mull over beforehand is science fiction. For some reason, the topic always gets derailed and I’m left with a lot of things to say about it, even though I’m strictly a fantasy author with no real intent to challenge the hard SF guys. I mean the Aurora Award might as well just be named “National Robert Sawyer Appreciation Day.”

The weird thing is, sometimes I have way more to say about science fiction than I do fantasy. Why? It’s hard to say. Without wanting to sound like an elitist douchebag, I think some of my motivation to write fantasy is the fact that so much of it makes me want to jump out of my skin and throw the book into a vat of molten steel. But like the Skynet chip or whatever the hell it was they were trying to destroy at the end of whichever Terminator movie I’m thinking of, it would likely just keep coming back in different, more upsetting incarnations. I like a challenge, especially when I know it is within my grasp.

This post isn’t about things that drive me nuts about fantasy, but about why science fiction is so cool. And difficult.

Before I wrote Blightcross I wrote a lot of crappier novels. One of them was hard science fiction. It was doomed from the beginning, and part of me actually knew this as I wrote the first draft. But I also knew that abandoning projects in your first few attempts at writing is a good way to fail. So I pretended nothing was wrong and finished it, revised, revised again, and tried to sell. I describe it as “hard” science fiction but it probably wasn’t even close. It might have scraped by as hard SF in the 80s, but having been written in an entirely different millennium kind of made even that ridiculous.

So, let’s try to summarize the problem without getting into detail about the embarrassing story. See, one of the sins I had committed was writing from a place of opinion or protest. My opinions at the time meant nothing and weren’t based in much, and because I was young, were naturally pretty strong. The story was about some stupid trans-humanist fearmongering (on my part), and the objective of this novel was to tell people interested in transhumanism and the idea of the “singularity” that it was “bad” and should be stopped before it starts. Well, recently I read an article that outlined exactly why the “singularity” idea wouldn’t happen anyway. My understanding of the whole thing was embarrassingly outdated because I had been involved more in writing and music than I had been with computers and technology at the time, and had fallen way behind.

Anyway, I think the “singularity” idea came out in the 1970s, so it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge subject matter to begin with. I’m not entirely sure why I had become freaked out about the idea at the time.

Here’s the thing: you can make even an outdated premise work . . . with enough skill. Actually, you don’t even need that. You just need enough skill to barely make the material interesting PROVIDED THAT YOU HAVE EXPERTISE IN THE FIELD WITH WHICH YOU’RE TRYING TO BULLSHIT THE AUDIENCE.

To clarify: I knew nothing whatsoever about the topic. Well, except that for some reason it freaked me out.

Even John Ringo (if that is a real person, and I’m too lazy to research this but the one novel I read of his was so ridiculous I figured it had to be a joke . . . a really awesome, ironic joke) demonstrates some credible expertise that shockingly legitimizes the story’s bad taste. At that point in my life, I was offended that this guy was making money writing science fiction. Now I admire the guy’s chops. The books sell. They are definitely entertaining. I don’t care about his politics—not that you can tell from a writer’s fiction what those truly are.

A lot of hard SF drives me insane because it’s so boring, but at the same time really, really interesting because the author knows their stuff. I mean, the magnitude of boring some of these hard sf novels have is mind-blowing. The fact that they end up being good novels in spite of just how boring they are is a testament to the major chops these guys have. So when literary snobs trash genre fiction, they might have a point when it comes to hacks selling more stories about Jizznar the Elf Warrior, but they really need to examine just how amazing the hard sf writers are.

Flash forward to the present. I’m in a position that I never, ever would have dreamed could be possible: I have a good short haircut, lift weights, and . . . am in an engineering program. Suddenly the issue about expertise doesn’t seem like such foreign territory. And now, even with the most basic applied science education—barely scratching the surface—I’m seeing a clearer picture of what goes into good science fiction. Like I mentioned in the previous post, the amount of control and perception we actually have of the world is like magic. But it’s magic most people can learn, if they apply themselves.

When us fantasy writers debate the differences, we get all pissy and claim that oh yes, we had to make detailed worlds too! They had to be convincing and internally consistent. Yeah, that’s a tough thing to do. But not as hard as building a story around real technical knowledge. And a lot of fantasy writers still have that—there are a bunch who know every detail about medieval life and it’s equally impressive. But it’s not necessarily required. Fantasy authors, if they’re good at it, can fake it if they have enough intelligence and attention to detail. There’s rarely a hard sf author who can fake it. That was basically the approach I took in my attempt, and it was just awful.

At school, stuff that’s boring is still interesting. Instantly my imagination is triggered by dry technical material. It’s hard-wired to find a way to make this stuff into a story, and an awesome one at that. There was a thread on r/engineeringstudents about what job we all wanted. Of course I put the absolute ideal, which for me would be on Mars. I mean, of course, right? Doing even the most mundane geotechnical work would be fucking awesome on Mars. It’s not that far-fetched, since private companies are already trying to throw together a Mars colony. I wanted to do it, but being old and tied down now, I can’t sign up. Hell, I even debated with my fiancée the morality of steering one of our future children into going to Mars. Sadly, the consensus is that being concerned about having one of your children get to Mars is “not normal” and probably not something to talk about in everyday conversation. Anyway, I might not be able to do civil gruntwork on Mars, but I can damn well write a good, convincing story about it someday. That would be impossible if I had thought of the story idea and knew nothing.

Some pros can pick a storyline that needs fleshing out, then immerse themselves in the technical details it needs for a month and pull it off. I don’t know if that works with hard sf. Stephen King does well spending a week or whatever with a police department to do research, but hard sf needs something more. It needs to pick up on the drive the author has to pursue the technical knowledge in the first place. It does come through in the writing—but don’t mistake this for “passion.” On the list of things that ruin a story, an author who is merely writing about pet interests is close to the top.

Will I end up writing science fiction in the future? Hard to say. Archon has some sf elements in it but is still going to be fantasy, which actually might bother people. My fantasy writing is evolving with the technical knowledge, but I wonder what it would be like to try my hand at a good, classic hard sf story someday.


At the time, I didn’t quite put it together and just chose the name for my fictitious subdivision CAD drawing because Geddy Lee is awesome, but then I realized that hell, one of Rush’s best songs is literally the thing I had just drawn.



Anyway, this is probably one of the more enjoyable things I’m doing right now. Actually, I’ve always been fascinated by drafting and technical drawings. To me it was like magic. As a kid I remember reading through my brother’s auto mechanics textbook and being more interested in how the hell someone drew an engine and transmission to scale than how to take it apart and fix it. My only experience with drawing–as someone encouraged to be an “artistic” person–had been just drawing artsy things, and I was really terrible at that. I think in the fifth grade, a teacher had felt the need to tell my parents that I had zero artistic ability. At the time I don’t think I consciously thought much of it. Even then, I knew that assessing someone’s abilities at such an age was a dumb idea. Nobody would have guessed that I would pick up a guitar at 17 and work hard enough at it to be able to shred, play classical guitar, teach myself jazz theory, and all sorts of things usually reserved for people deemed to be meant for it at an early age.

That’s not to say I didn’t pick up any weird subconscious hangups from the experience, though. I think that must be why technical drawings seem like such a godly feat to me. The programming in my head, without me knowing, was that it was something that will always be way beyond my understanding. Magic.

Never mind that I had always liked to draw and continued to draw really shitty things for my own amusement and nothing more. Fast-forward to high school, when little technical schools try to recruit students near graduation. I spoke with someone from DeVry, and when they mentioned drafting, it piqued my interest . . . to the point where the sales rep took my name and continued to call my freakin’ house a few times, trying to get me into the school. I found excuses to blow it off.

Thirteen years later, I’m drawing subdivisions and naming them after Geddy Lee. The above drawing hasn’t been marked yet, but I think it’s not bad for a first subdivision, having had little time to really digest the material due to having to deal with a calculus exam at the same time.


So although sometimes I think I envy kids who had more push in any given direction, I also know the downside of making absolute statements to a kid about what you think their abilities are. Those opinions are completely worthless.