Should Science Fiction Be Believable?

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Damn right! But not according to the movie and television industries.

With one exception – 2001 A Space Odyssey – every other science fiction film or television series that has come out of America simply beggars credulity.

The fact that the film in question didn’t become just another highly fanciful and therefore totally nonsensicle entertainment, is all down to Stanley Kubrick’s deep respect for Arthur C. Clark. After all, Arthur wrote the book on which the film is based, as well as co-writing the script with Stanley.

Like Arthur, I am a traditionalist. By that I mean that as a science fiction writer, every story I write has to be based in reality. Blame my father for introducing me to him and two other top science fiction writers of the twentieth century, Isaac Asimov and John Wyndham, at a young age. All three authors took great pains to make sure that their stories were believable, based on their scientific backgrounds.

While I’m no scientist, I did work in the School of Science at the University of Waikato in New Zealand for a quarter of a century, rubbing shoulders with chemists, physicists, biologists, earth scientists and many fine artisans like tool and die makers, glassblowers, photographers, cartographers etc, etc. So in my own small way, I try to adopt the same approach to writing science fiction that Arthur, Isaac and John took. It’s called research, if you were wondering…

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Click on the cover to got to The Guardian on Amazon.com

Take my latest scifi novella as an example of what I’m talking about. There are no weird and wonderful creatures to be found anywhere in its pages. Only believable characters. As for how they get to and from the Earth, there are no starships as in Star Trek. Only totally feasable computer controlled solar wind powered cargo transporters. The same can be said for the weapons they use. Each one actually exists, even though they are still in development by the US military. Even the two aliens and the guardian itself are totally believable. If you want to get a sense of what I’m on about, maybe you should get your own copy and read it for yourselves.

I seriously doubt The Guardian will ever make it to the plasma or silver screen. Why? just take a look at what is considered to be watchable science fiction these days. It seems to me that every so-called scifi film, and television series made on either side of the pond, is aimed at a collective audience with the combined mental age of a retarded one year old…

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When writing some types of fiction, how accurate do you have to be?

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Unlike some genres, when it comes to pure science fiction, if you as the author prefer a quiet life, the answer is – extremely!

If you want examples of wild inacurracy, look no further than the many sci-fi films and video games churned out by Hollywood and others. Accuracy means nothing to them, spectacular sound effects do. For instance, while it may be acceptable to have music playing in the background via a speaker system when you see a space ship travelling through space, what isn’t acceptable to the pureist is the sound made by the ship’s engines. Or far worse, the sound of any weapons being fired in the depths of space; bearing in mind that it’s actually impossible to hear sound in a vacuum. On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable if what you are hearing is happening during a scene filmed inside the said space ship. But you just try pointing out that fact to the producers and directors responsible. They couldn’t care less. Nor could most movie goers and scifi gaming fanatics.

In that case, why is it that when it comes to a pure sci-fi book, if you as its author have the effrontary to say something about a particular phenomena that flies in the face of what is currently accepted, or when you are referring to a specific celestial body, that the nerds and others who endlessly obsess over minutiae will immediately take you to task. I can give you a ‘for instance’. I had one individual have a go at me here on my blog several months back, maybe a year, I forget exactly, when I called the Earth’s satellite a planet in one of my recent scifi books – The Next Age, after he had read it.

While learned gatherings of academics like the International Astronomical Union are emphatic that it is not, as seen here in an extract taken from one of their interminably boring papers –  A planet is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, other academics argue that the science behind their reasoning is sloppy at best.

In other words, the jury is still out. Maybe I was correct, maybe the nerd was. In the end, what does it matter? If you want peace and quiet, trust me it matters. Nerds, or anal retentives as I have come to think of them, can’t accept the simple fact that your book is just a fiction. To them anything like that has to be correct, fiction or not! In that particular nerd’s case, as far as he was concerned, what the IAU said on the matter was sacrosanct, not to be flouted by a successful mid-list scifi writer like myself!

If only he could have seen my instant reaction to his hissy fit when I read it. If memory serves, it involved the rapid upward motion of the extended index finger on my right hand, in conjunction with my tongue protruding from my mouth as a loud raspberry was blown in his general direction by your’s truly.

What? What’s wrong with that? Writers are no different from anyone else. We can’t stand total idiots either. We have feelings just like any other human being don’t forget.

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Yesterday morning I had just begun to write some more of my current WIP The Guardian, when I came to a grinding halt. I had just written a mini scene involving Lynne and one of the other characters – Cliff. In it I suggested that she had sensed something when the pair were exploring a part of Mars’ surface.

Bearing in mind that the planet’s atmosphere is 95.32% Carbon Dioxide, 2.7% Nitrogen, 0.13% Oxygen, 0.08% Carbon Monoxide, with minor amounts of water, Nitrogen Oxide, Neon, Hydrogen-Deuterium-Oxygen, Krypton and Xenon, I was about to say that she had heard it, when I wondered if that was possible. So I had to stop writing to research whether or not you could hear sound on the surface of Mars.

Eventually I came across this article –  On Mars, no one can hear you scream. According to the article the theory is that sound does travel through the CO2 rich atmosphere, but not nearly as far as in our oxygen rich one, which means that she probably could hear sounds extremely close to her, always providing her space suit’s communications equipment was tuned to the lower frequencies of the Martian atmosphere.

But just to be on the safe side, I have inferred that she felt vibrations brought on by a tremor, through the soles of her space suit’s boots, when she stamped one of her boots down hard, indicating a void beneath her. I don’t need any more nerds taking me to task over a minute detail like that after they eventually get to read The Guardian, now do I? Chances are though that one of these idiots will do just that, arguing over whether or not Lynne would feel anything like a tremor through the thick soles of her space suit’s boots.

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I’m not the only one in the firing line. I know of one well known writer of historical fiction, Michael Jecks, who also gets his fair share of flack from idiots who complain about all kinds of things in his books. Even my good friend Robert Bauval is constantly being taken to task about his knowledge of ancient Egypt. Lets face it folks, there’s just no pleasing some people.

Well, I’d better get back to it now I’ve found out how far sound travels in the Martian atmosphere.

PS – My ego was given a major boost yesterday when one young lady, Emma Paul, said of me in passing, “Jack Eason is a master storyteller.” It’s always nice to be appreciated. Thank you for making my day yesterday Emma.

That’s all for now folks. More later if your lucky.

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Writers I admire – Part 2

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J.W.P.L.B Harris

I know I’ve said this in the past, but I will continue saying it until the day I die. When it comes to science fiction, if like me you are a purist, Hollywood simply doesn’t have a clue. Look at what they did to H.G Wells’ classic science fiction tale The War of the Worlds.

Both cinematic versions – the original from 1953 starring Gene Barry and Anne Robinson, and the more recent effort in 2005 starring Tom Cruz veered so far away from Wells’ original vision that for anyone who has read the book in its two parts –  The Coming of the Martians and Earth under the Martians, which first appeared in 1897 in serialised form before they were eventually published in 1898 as The War of the Worlds, would be forgiven for assuming that what they were watching bears little or no resemblance to H.G’s book. It’s a safe bet that were he still alive today he would be suing the pants of those responsible for tearing his work apart, merely to please a largely American audience.

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Now we come to the next in my list of favourite writers – J.W.P.L.B Harris (pictured above), or if you prefer it –  John Wyndham.

He was born on the 10th of July 1903 in the village of Dorridge in Warwickshire here in England. After leaving school, he tried several careers including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, but mostly relied on an allowance from his family. He eventually turned to writing for money in 1925, and by 1931 was selling short stories and serial fiction to American science fiction magazines, most under the pen names of ‘John Beynon’ or ‘John Beynon Harris’, in each case utilizing his other Christian names along with his family name. He also wrote some detective stories.

Without a doubt, every science fiction tale he ever produced is a classic. His titles include The Day of the Triffids (1951), also known as Revolt of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes (1953), published in the US as Out of the Deeps, The Chrysalids (1955), published in the US as Re-Birth, The Midwich cuckoos (1957) – filmed twice as Village of the Damned, first here in England in 1960 starring George Sanders, and later in 1995 by Hollywood, starring Christopher Reeve and Kirsty Alley.  He also wrote The Outward Urge (1959), Trouble with Lichen (1960), and Chocky (1968).

During the Second World War he first served as a censor in the Ministry of Information then joined the army, serving as a Corporal cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals. He participated in the Normandy Landings. although he was not involved in the first days of the monumental military operation.

After the war, he returned to writing, inspired by the success of his brother who had had four novels published. He altered his writing style and by 1951 using the John Wyndham pen name for the first time, wrote his seminal work The Day of the Triffids. His pre-war writing career was not mentioned in the book’s publicity, and people were allowed to assume that it was a first novel from a previously unknown writer. The book proved to be an enormous success and established him as an important exponent of science fiction.

Fortunately the first film of the book was produced here in the UK in 1962, paying lip service to Hollwood by employing the American star Howard Keel in the lead role of Bill Masen, which meant the tale did not end up bastardised to the point where it bore no resemblance whatsoever to Wyndham’s original words.

For that we must all be truly thankful…

During his lifetime he wrote and published six more novels under the same pen name (see above). In 1963 he married Grace Wilson, whom he had known for more than 20 years; the couple remained married until he died on the 11th of March, 1969 aged sixty five.

Films are soon forgotten, transient in most people’s mind, gripping books like Wyndham’s are not…

 

Why has the traditional Science Fiction novel fallen by the wayside?

A year or two back I read Paul Goat Allen’s article concerning the demise of science fiction in literature on the “Explorations” web page (part of Barnes & Noble). Paul argued that fantasy had taken over in the reading world.

The following was my comment to his article at the time:

Science fiction like all other genre’s falls in and out of fashion. What was popular in the 1950’s and 60’s gets rediscovered and reinvented by later generations. Book genre’s fall in and out of fashion just like everything else; nothing is new. Everything gets rediscovered over time. It is completely understandable that the current generation read fantasy, using the genre as a literary head in the sand approach to the problems of the day.

Subjects like global warming, population explosion, modern day warfare, famine and exploitation in the third world are all subjects for future science fiction novels, certainly not fantasy. To my mind the current reading fashion decrees that fantasy is for the moment, king. But it won’t always be.

Is science fiction dead? No, merely taking a snooze, waiting for fashion and fads to change once more, putting science fiction back where it belongs at the forefront of literary exploration Paul.

Thinking about the subject some more after I wrote the above, I have to say I believe the real reason for the demise of  science fiction is down to the current, almost obsessively whimpish deep and meaningful approach taken by American television when faced with a sci-fi story.

Take the Star Trek phenomena for example. In the original series, apart from the chronically bad, highly camp acting (especially by the two lead actors) the story-lines were pure sci-fi. Lots of encounters with new planets; new species discovered – all good stuff. But by the time the great Shakespearian actor Patrick Stewart assumed control of the Enterprise, the bridge crew counted among its number a counsellor – give me strength people! Instead of action we got boring discussions by the angst ridden crew members. Then the rot set in even further when Star Trek Voyager appeared, or as I like to call it PMT in Space, with a female captain who spent most of her time mothering her delinquent crew.

There has only ever been one sci-fi series on television that truly shone and that was Babylon Five. There have been a few excellent movies over the years like the original Stargate starring Kurt Russell. But when the television writers got their paws on it, unfortunately they totally destroyed the concept by turning it into a television series starring Richard Dean Anderson aka MacGiver in the lead role. Half the time I fully expected him to get them out of a tricky situation using nothing but his penknife and a piece of string. Thank god they never got their hands on Arthur C. Clark’s classic, 2001 A Space Odyssey, or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or even Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series!!!

If anyone is truly to blame for the demise of pure science fiction in the world of literature today, look no further than those self-same television screen writers, who foolishly believe that simpering dialogue and angst means more to the hard core sci-fi fan than good old fashioned action. Why would anyone among the younger generation today bother to read a thought provoking sci-fi novel when their only experience of the genre is via their television set – think Farscape and Firefly if you want two classic examples of the rubbish passed off as sci-fi of recent times.

Because of the screen writers, those of us who write science fiction novels are going through tough times at the moment. But we will prevail.

Thanks for nothing Hollywood!