Saturday, 9 December 2006

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

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.