Monday, April 04, 2011

How To Write A Generic SF Novel

Your hero must be likeable and sympathetic at all times. Like James Bond in the Roger Moore era, he’s quick with a quip, and is unruffled by any situation. No amount of exposure to suffering or slaughter should alter your hero in any significant way, although he is allowed to shed the odd manly tear or to express cold steely determination to do something about the death of a loved one. This makes him even more sympathetic. But all trauma is temporary; showing genuine emotion is difficult, and can hold up the plot. A secret past is always good -- you don’t have to deal with the parents. No bad deed goes unpunished; no good deed goes unrewarded; anyone who disagrees with your hero must suffer for it. Everyone’s behaviour has a rational explanation -- Freud is useful in this respect. No one refuses to get with the plot. Everyone acts their part, and is in character all the time. All problems are solvable. Traditionally, SF heroes solved problems by application of intelligence and scientific knowledge. These days, you can substitute lasers or AK-47s for scientific knowledge. Or swords. The equivalent of the internet or mobile phones are used only when the hero needs to find something out. Usually someone else does the actual typing. Don’t include any science that might frighten the readers.  Anything found in SF written before the 1980s is usually okay. Nanotechnology is basically magic. So is genetic engineering. Also quantum mechanics. Virtual reality is more or less the same as a video game. Planets can be treated as a single country, with uniform climate and culture, and no more than three unique features that distinguish them from Earth. Always include some non-Americans for local colour; like the Irish steerage passengers in Titanic (the movie), they're cheerful, deferential, and possess a quaint and lively culture. Also include either a kickass woman who can do the unacceptable things that would make your hero unlikeable, or a wise old soothsaying woman who speaks in parables and knows things that can’t be found on the internet. See also: sidekick comedy robot. Infodumps can put off readers. Have your characters tell each other about their situation instead. Bars are good places to do this. Bars are also great places to meet people. Unlike airport bars, spaceport bars are packed with colourful characters who all know each other. Aliens can usually be found in the corners of spaceport bars, or in a mysterious rundown quarter of the city attached to the spaceport. They’re basically cats.  Or turtles. Or some other pet animal. They often lack a sense of humour, which puts them at a disadvantage when dealing with humans. Interstellar merchants can be found in another corner of the bar, trading in spices, exotic liquors, and rare elements. No matter how technologically advanced your future society might be, its sociology and economics are basically those of the seventeenth century.  Also its battle tactics. All spaceships are big. Very big. Except the one owned by the kickass woman. And they never run out of fuel, power, breathable air, potable water, food, or reaction mass. Despite possession of gigantic highly-advanced starships, wars are usually won by your hero and a few good marines. Death is optional. At the end, everything is as it was before, except your hero is richer, more powerful, and married to the right woman, who is never the kickass woman.
There’s your story.
Goodnight, children.

30 Comments:

Blogger Adam Roberts said...

So that's what I've been doing wrong. Thank you, sensei.

April 04, 2011 8:10 PM  
OpenID saintneko said...

"A secret past is always good -- you don’t have to deal with the parents."

This also makes for a great girlfriend.

April 04, 2011 8:45 PM  
Blogger buddydon said...

that thar is one of the funniest thangs i have yet red. thankee fer it. a bidy could do wursern follern ever idee ye menchunned. jes one ye missd: yer care ackters kin travel fastern the speed of lite thru sum kinda wurmhole or such lack.

April 04, 2011 8:45 PM  
Anonymous mike cobley said...

Right - I`ll get me coat...

April 05, 2011 3:01 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

That sounds brilliant. When will it be published?

April 05, 2011 3:07 PM  
Anonymous talkie_tim said...

That's perfect. Now I don't have to read any more books. I am done with books. I now live in a post-book future.

April 05, 2011 3:23 PM  
Blogger The Plashing Vole said...

Well, that's half my library summarised. No need to buy any more.

April 05, 2011 6:37 PM  
Blogger MjM said...

That was fun.

I wrote something similar a while back.

Hope you enjoy it.

April 05, 2011 7:24 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

TVTropes already has this covered, in considerably more depth.

April 05, 2011 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Jack And all the words he used are also in the OED. What a hack.

April 05, 2011 9:24 PM  
Anonymous Mikey G said...

And never forget that paragraph breaks are for sucks.

April 05, 2011 9:54 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

@Anonymous: So, no such thing as prior art in your world? Intriguing.

April 05, 2011 10:06 PM  
Anonymous Lois Ava-Matthew said...

Can't wait for the sequel! Better yet, a TRILOGY!

April 05, 2011 10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or a tetradecology.

April 05, 2011 11:40 PM  
Blogger voxnewman said...

Yes, but how do I READ it?

April 06, 2011 12:19 AM  
Anonymous joey t said...

eggsalad. not like any Iain Banks SF novel I have ever read. Thanks for learning us on what not to do.

April 06, 2011 2:25 AM  
Blogger Heather Massey said...

ROFLMAO! Good one.

April 06, 2011 2:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In other words, "Old Man's War."

April 06, 2011 5:41 AM  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

That was either very funny or very depressing. Either way, good one.

Now here's a challenge for all writers: what if humans lacked a sense of humour by an alien's standards? Now... could you make all the human readers sympathize with (and thus laugh with) the alien?

April 06, 2011 6:08 PM  
Anonymous desicant said...

@ Wm. Luke Everest

I think that is every Kurt Vonnegut story I've read.

April 07, 2011 12:01 AM  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

In honour of Kurt Vonnegut's memory, I feel compelled to say he wrote much more than one short story. Slaughterhouse-five is, for instance, very very good.

There is a level of excellence that cannot be attained, only striven for, because in truth it IS beauty. Kurt touched that beauty. I would argue that Paul has aswell (Prison Dreams, for instance). Let's promise them each we won't stop at one memorable work.

April 07, 2011 11:37 AM  
Anonymous Philip Athans said...

I'm not sure I've read a lot of books that follow this formula, but it pretty much describes EVERY SF movie.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some valuable unobtanium to mine.

April 07, 2011 5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Jack

Where on TVTropes do they cover "Unlike airport bars, spaceport bars are packed with colourful characters who all know each other"? I guess "colourful characters" could strictly speaking fall under Amazing Technicolor Population, but I don't think "the characters have coloured skin" was the main thrust of the sentence.

April 08, 2011 4:34 PM  
Blogger Ilya2 said...

I had not seen a single book published after 1980 that follows this formula. Movies, on the other hand...

April 08, 2011 6:40 PM  
Blogger ZarPaulus said...

Correction, the title should be "How to Write a Popular SF Novel".

Keeping in mind that the most popular Urban Fantasy novel is Twilight.

April 08, 2011 8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lly2 - then you're very lucky to have avoided them. I have the opposite experience. More often than not it's almost always the 17th century in the sci-fi I've been reading, quaint 'Titanic' cultures and all. I'm looking at you, Michael F. Flynn, Iain M. Banks, Garry Gibson, etc. For the cartoon hero awards we have Peter F. Hamilton, Shane Dix, Timothy Zahn, that other right-wing fella what's-his-name - David Webber, ha! - and a ton of old stuff dating back to Doc Smith.

Science Fiction needs a Razzi awards for repeat offenders who fall into multiple categories - it could be called the "Killer Protagonist With an Missing Memory" award. Or the Sci-fi that's heavily Medieval" award. It could be given every single year to Kevin J. Anderson.

I'm trying to think of a list of writers who don't ever use at least one or two of the listed tropes, and I'm coming up short, starting with Greg Egan ... J.G Ballard ... latter day William Gibson ... um, yeah. Yeah, I said Greg Egan, didn't I?

April 11, 2011 7:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on, we KNOW you're fond of the "kick-ass" woman in the deadly little space fighter thingy ...

April 11, 2011 7:47 AM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

I'm trying to get over it, anonymous, I really am. Last go-around it was a guy, and it all ended very badly because he was acting out his own version of the cliche. That's my excuse, anyway.

April 13, 2011 5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, am I getting my fighter jocks mixed up? Who was it of late who had the latest "embittered, burnt out" ex military fighter-style female pilot who is recalled by nefarious powers for one last mission? Who WAS that?

I recall the guy you refer to now, the bloke who was injured in the head. Am I right? If so, don't feel too bad. If I recall correctly - and I'm not doing too well here on the memory front - he went through a rather redemptive Lord Jim type character arc of self discovery that added something to the archetype.

So there's that.

April 14, 2011 1:46 AM  
Anonymous Robert Heinlein said...

You couldn't carry my jockstrap, McAuley. Now get off of my lawn.

April 15, 2011 2:03 PM  

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