On problems in writing science fiction and fantasy (with a Christmas link)

By , 9 December 2006 12:49 pm

I have already touched on some of the issues in this general area but I was just writing something just now and a particular issue emerged which I thought I would share it. The sentence I was writing was this: “He gave the order and the man jumped to his feet as quick as….” As quick as what? As quick as… A rabbit? A speeding car? The recoil on a Strumback M31 battlelaser? In ordinary speech we use similes endlessly. ‘As thick as X,’ (our most disliked person); ‘as good-looking as Y’ (our current hero/heroine), ‘as strong as an ox’ (Hmm, when did you last see an ox?) But we use similes (and related metaphors) all the time and when we do we use imagery from the world about us. Our language reflects our world .

Now do you see the problem with dealing with the exotic cultures of fantasy? In my case, my character is a military man from worlds where there is very little in the way of nature. And with its loss, goes a whole range of imagery. He can’t easily used words such as bird-like or tree-like. Of course, I could do something wacky, like ‘as fast as a Jegerbanian rat’ but you can’t do it often and sometimes it comes over rather odd. What is rather alarming is the speed with which some of our imagery dates. ‘As fast as a Pentium’ sounds pretty pathetic now. How about ‘with Spitfire like’ speed? Even ‘watch-like complexity’ sounds a bit dated.

In this respect, future and fantasy cultures are much easier to deal with in film. We can see rather than be told. The good news about fantasy and science fiction is that it exposes us to strange and exotic cultures. The bad news is that it is sometimes hard to relate to them. I suspect it is this, amongst other things, that C. S. Lewis is referring to in a wonderful aside of his in an article whose location I have lost (reference please someone) about the importance of having ordinary people in science fiction/fantasy/ speculative fiction. He writes thus: ‘to have strange things happen to strange people is a strangeness too much.’ Here as elsewhere, I doff my metaphorical cap in utter agreement. Not just true, but elegantly expressed.

Now let me add a seasonal aside. As a Christian I believe that God, acted uniquely in human history in the events recounted in the Bible. Why then, some people ask, then rather than now? Is it perhaps, I answer, because the biblical cultures were so low down in the development of technology that their imagery is almost universal? Even if we personally have no experience of shepherds or carpentry we do not have to go too far back in our own culture to know what a shepherd or carpenter did. We must be very grateful that the Son of God did not become incarnate as a computer technician or a car mechanic: his words would have become incomprehensible within a generation.

4 Responses to “On problems in writing science fiction and fantasy (with a Christmas link)”

  1. KB says:

    C. S. Lewis wrote:
    “Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. If they had been more remarkable they would have wrecked their books…To tell how odd things struck odd people is to have an oddity too much: he who is to see strange sights must not himself be strange.”

    “On Science Fiction.” On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Page 60 of the 1982 edition published by Harcourt.

  2. Mark Goodyear says:

    You said, “What is rather alarming is the speed with which some of our imagery dates.”

    That is so true.

    I’ve run into a bit with my own fantasy where I’ve come to rely on inherently natural images and images linked to the human body. Though in the case of your work it sounded like naturarl images were a problem too.

    It is a good reminder to be careful of the imagery I choose–and to remember to consider what prior knowledge any imagery requires.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Very insightful. I hope you keep writing blogs like this for all of the aspiring sci fi/fantasy writers out there.


  4. Chris says:

    Ah thanks KB. And it was a misquote too.

    BTW sorry for the delay in posting these. Blogger was supposed to send me an email when they came in. In fact it only works when the blog is open. Go figure!

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