Science Fiction is more often than not about the development and exploration of future technologies and how they affect humanity. It is imperative that this science sounds plausible, even if we currently do not have the technology or understanding for your particular invention to be realised any time soon.

Though complicated explanations are not necessary, after all not all Science Fiction writers have PhDs in astrophysics or engineering, the writer must give enough detail for the reader to appreciate how that technology works. A virus that can affect both nanotechnology and human cells brings the industrial Chasm City grinding to a halt in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. It seems a preposterous idea (and probably is) but the concept that Reynolds builds around the disease makes it plausible. The other danger is trying to explain too much, over-complicating a concept and allowing the reader to pick apart your dodgy science.

What Reynolds did when he invented the Melding Plague, is use bolognium. The word is an invention of Larry Niven and is a plot device that portrays an idea that defies everything we have come to understand about the the world around us. The concept is usually nonsense but in the context of the plot, it is believable nonsense because it is connected to something that is completely reasonable (in Reynolds case it is the real world understanding we have of biological viruses and computer viruses).

Learn to identify technobabble and how it is different from bolognium. Wiktionary defines technobabble as Technical or scientific language used in fiction to convey a false impression of meaningful technical or scientific content. Basically it is using long and complicated sounding words without explanation for what the concept means. Star Trek was guilty of this quite a lot. It is bad writing and when used with the deus ex machina cliche, the reader should feel very cheated.

Here is a selection of technologies that have become part of science fiction lore. They are accepted as part of future developments, perhaps even as inevitable but are they just bolognium that we accept because they have become essential plot devices?

* Hyperspace/Warp drives
* Wormhole technology
* FTL drives
* Dyson Spheres
* Teleportation
(I mean through the Star Trek method of beaming matter from place to place through technological, not telekinetic, means)
* Stasis
* Energy shields that protect against particles or weapon blasts
* Robots with a degree of sentience
* Cyborg/technological implants

For more on bolognium and technobabble, see David Gerrold’s World’s of Wonder.

Fantasy and SciFi Comedy writers

Today’s ‘Post a Day’ question is:

Who are the three funniest people in the world?

Instead, I’m going to discuss three writers who manage the difficult task of fusing science fiction or fantasy with comedy.

Terry Pratchett: Arguably the king of them all. Set on Discworld, a flat planet that rests on the back of four elephants that stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space, Terry Pratchett’s fiction through both comedy and fantasy offers a unique insight into how he sees our own world. He deals with big issues in a way that can often surprise and delight. Hogfather, for example, is arguably the most serious statement about the meaning of Christmas since Dickens invented Scrooge. And Pratchett does it with humour and warmth.
Of particular note: Hogfather, Nightwatch, Small Gods

Robert Rankin: Most of his titles are playing on words or phrases (like: Sex, Drugs and Sausage Rolls; The Brentford Chainstore Massacre; The Da-Da Dee-Da-Da Code) and usually his fiction comes across as a parody of a particular social trend. The Da-Da Dee-Da-Da Code for example was written around the time that Dan Brown’s remarkably similarly titled conspiracy novel was storming book charts. Decidedly more adult than Pratchett with less philosophy and a greater dose of the abstract, the gags come thick and fast and can sometimes be easy to miss.
Of particular note: Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, Knees up Mother Earth, The Da-Da Dee-Da-Da Code

Jasper Fforde: Most definitely the writer for avid bookworms and fiction writers, Fforde’s alternate reality Swindon in his Thursday Next series is a delight to any native of the town. But even better is the world of fiction coming to life. It is possible to enter into a book and interfere with the plot (Thursday is taken to court for changing the end of Jane Eyre). Books that never get published get lost in a void, it is a world where typos are caused by bugs called grammasites, where Miss Havisham is the ultimate petrol head and croquet is as physical as ice hockey and twice as dangerous.
Of particular note: The Eyre Affair, The Big Over Easy.

Using all of your senses #2 – Sound

Today’s ‘post a day’ is about favourite sounds but once I answer it, I’m going to discuss the importance of sound in fiction writing.

There is a tiny village in West Somerset, just before you reach Porlock (the gateway to Exmoor), called Bossington. This village has a long pebble beach that stretches from a heath headland at its eastern end to Porlock Weir at the west end.

There is something about the way the waves retract over the pebbles (perhaps because the beach slopes upward and the water is pulled back faster) that makes an interesting sound. It is almost like a rattle. I’d never encountered it before and I don’t think I’ve heard it anywhere else.

The importance of sound.

Despite that written fiction is a visual medium that, when written well, puts a visual image inside the reader, we must never underestimate the importance of the description of sound. It can invoke many different emotions and adds atmosphere to the text.

For example, what sort of reactions can a reader expect to feel if they read the line “From beyond the door he could hear the sound of a baby crying”.

The obvious one is that the “he” is the father and his wife has just given birth. The reader will expect to feel happiness, or relief if there had been difficulties during labour. But there are other scenarios that could be built around hearing a baby cry:

* “He” has just been in the room and had locked it himself. He knew it was empty. If the story is a ghostly tale, the feelings of the reader will be a shiver down the spine.
* “He” is a Nazi soldier who believes that a family of Jews is hiding in the house. Now he has confirmation. The reader might feel apprehension at the possibility of the family being discovered
* “He” might be a Detective on the trail of an abducted baby. The reader might feel excitement at the prospect of the discovery

There is bound to be more, but see how many different scenarios can be constructed through the description of a sound.

Following on from the earlier post on Sight, make good use of simile and metaphor where necessary. Referring back to the landscape description, think about how wind can sound. It can whisper or whistle or it can roar, growl, or blast.

Progress made

So today I have finally changed the narrative to reflect, not a modern purpose built complex, but a Scottish castle. I have reduced the number of occupants from eight to six. Eight was too many, though six major characters in a short story is no easy task either. I’m still not decided on whether it will have a supernatural element or not but I’m pretty sure I know what the end result will be and what will happen while they are in there.

The story has edged forward a little, but I have cut more than I have written. Still not sure whether I’ll finish it by the end of the month, this is a tough one.

Free writing

The post a day section has an interesting article on Free Writing today. For fiction writing, I have a similar idea.

Either write down the first three objects that come into your head, or better still, get somebody else to suggest them and then construct a short story around it. Example: dog, mobile phone, snow. You might then start writing a short story about a dog that finds a mobile phone when playing in a pile of snow. I’ve just pulled those three words out of the air and I have already thought of several potential short story ideas.

1) The makings of a crime thriller or murder mystery when the dog owner either attempts to keep the phone or return it to its owner.
2) The makings of a scifi story – it is found many years before the mobile phone is invented. How did it get there?
3) Romance mystery. The owner discovers it belongs to an old flame

I’m sure there are many more and even within those categories there are many permutations. One of my own (so far incomplete) short stories began by building a premise around these three words: OTTER, CYBORG, RAIN. I intend to resume that particular short story when this current one is finished so keep watching this space.

Post a day challenge 19/1/11


The question for ‘post a day’ today is “Describe a time when you witnessed bravery: a) in your profession b) with your own eyes c) in someone you admire” but I’m going to discuss bravery and heroes in fiction.

In one way or another, the protagonist in fiction is brave; if he or she is not (mostly) brave then he or she probably shouldn’t be the primary protagonist in the first place. It is an obvious mistake but one I’ve seen even experienced writers make.

Ultimately, bravery is doing something that we fear or may cause us physical or psychological harm.

A hero also needs to have a character flaw or weakness in order to be brave and end up facing his or her demons. A hero should never surrender to their demons or the reader will feel unsatisfied. After all, what use is a hero that isn’t heroic?

EDIT: I’ve been giving some thought to the “post a day” idea and I’ve decided that from here on in I’m only going to do those challenges that I find most interesting or advantageous to my blog subject matter. I never wanted this blog to waffle and I find already that I am waffling just for the sake of posting every day. It has been an interesting experiment but ultimately it could prove counterproductive to what I’m trying to do.

Post a day challenge 18/1/11

Today’s post a day question is what gives you hope? I’m going to change the subject slightly and talk about hope as a requirement of fiction.

In the same way that people expect justice to be served in fiction, hope is also a powerful and arguably necessary tool. We hope to see the hero succeed and the villain thwarted. We hope ‘they’ get together at the end of a romance novel, that Miss Marple will figure it out (even though she always does).

The lack of hope in fiction can make it bleak and depressing, though sometimes that is no barrier to success or accolades (1984 – George Orwell; Tess of the Durbevilles – Thomas Hardy; The Road – Cormac McCarthy) but only exceptionally written material can get away with it, hence the high regard of the three titles above.

Fiction is escapism, as writers we need to remember that there is a requirement for a greater level of justice, order and hope than exists in real life.

Post a day challenge 17/1/11

Do you believe everything happens for a reason? Why or why not?

No. I do not believe in fate or determinism. Though it might give comfort to a lot of people, I find the idea of an ordered universe quite daft. We make our own fate, forge our own destiny and succeed or fail by our own efforts.

I would even say sometimes that I find it offensive when people try to suggest that horrific events happen for a good reason and offer it up as proof of whatever supernatural causes they subscribe to. I cannot accept the idea of a divine plan, events such as those we have seen in Australia in the last few weeks show only the indifference of the universe to our happiness or suffering.

So, dragging that question back to the subject of my blog, it is important that everything does happen for a reason in fiction. It is not real life, we expect it to be more ordered, with justice being served for villains, and heroes getting the reward. Too many unfinished threads will leave the reader unsatisfied. Too many events leading nowhere will tempt the reader to skip chunks of your novel.

Update on my short story

January has been pretty busy and I’m finding little time to write but this morning, i’ve decided on how to proceed with the current short story and am currently in the process of making some changes to the narrative.

Too early to know whether I’ll be submitting it to Elfwood before the end of January though.