We are delighted to welcome Alex Lamb back to the Gollancz Blog. Alex’s latest book, Nemesis, the sequel to the hard-hitting and action-packed Roboteer, is out now in bookshops.We asked Alex to tell us the five things that make world-class Science Fiction. Here’s what he had to say . . .
I’ve spent my life drenched in science fiction. When I was a small boy, before Star Wars arrived in our town, my fixation with all things extraterrestrial made me odd. For a brief, and unexpected time after that movie came out, my esoteric knowledge granted me a kind of popularity. Then I went back to being considered odd.
Now, as an adult, I write SF. My fascination with the genre has never waned. I still read it avidly and am still generally considered odd. But these days I inhabit that identity from a position of strength. I am odd and proud.
What has a lifetime permeated in all things alien gained me? If nothing else, I’d like to think I have an unusually informed appreciation for the SF novel, in all its forms. Today, I’d like to share with you what I think makes the very best science fiction books—the five core strengths that a book requires to become a classic. And if you disagree with me, I want to know about it.
The first great strength of the truly epic science fiction novel is novelty. There are many enjoyable books set in worlds we already know and love, but if you want to write something that astounds, there is only one way to do it, and that’s to come up with something truly new.
That’s harder these days, of course. Many of the obvious extrapolations of our world into the unknown have already been charted. Some might even say that the future is mined out. But that’s what makes the discovery of books that really do go to fresh places so rewarding. Whether you’re talking about new kinds of worlds, or characters, or even just a new voice to convey your story to the reader, novelty is how you make a mark that people will remember.
People talk about plot and character, and endlessly debate the relevance of each, but the truth is that plot and character are two sides of the same coin. Plot is people getting into trouble. Character is watching people change when trouble happens to them. What makes the synthesis of both worth reading is a well-crafted sequence of extraordinary, emotional experiences that highlight your characters’ uniqueness, while drawing the reader through the book. In other words: adventure.
The wonderful Lucius Shepard once told me that there was a difference between character and characterization. Characterization is what people wear, he said, their music taste and the color of their eyes. Character is what they do when all hell breaks loose. I was three blocks away from Ground Zero during the September Eleventh attacks, and I can say with confidence that this observation is accurate. There’s nothing like a crisis to reveal who people really are.
Novelty on its own doesn’t inform greatness. A faulty toaster that bleeds and screams when you put bread in it is a novel idea after a fashion, but in isolation, it’s not going to take you very far. A world that has repurposed human parts into appliances because people are cheap and plentiful while machines have become scarce is somewhat deeper. A future in which the use of recycled human biomachines is mandated by the state out of a crazed drive for sustainability is slightly deeper still. And a story in which the construction, economic implications, and ironic allegory of such a technology that can be understood and enjoyed by the reader is deepest of all.
The point to my ridiculous example is this: what makes novelty work is the architecture of ideas that sits behind it, and what you can learn from it about the world you’re visiting. Novelty is the candle in the dark. Vision is the vast cavern that’s illuminated by it in glimmering snatches.
No science fiction book is truly world-class unless it can make you feel that new reality you’re visiting. It needs to be palpable, with lighting and texture and mood. A great SF novel will give you the sense that you’re standing there in that foreign, incomprehensible land, using your wits to figure the place out along with the characters you’re accompanying. It will compell you to understand the world before they do, by making it feel relevant and immediate.
A good SF novel is like stepping off a boat into some unfamiliar port where the signs are written in gibberish and all the animals and plants look unsettlingly wrong. It is the immigrant experience writ large and shared wide.
The best science fiction novels don’t have bad guys who’re bad just because evil. Likewise, there are no flawless heroes or cardboard damsels. Desert planets don’t work like deserts on Earth. Forests there aren’t like forests here. But in order to reveal those differences, a strong SF story will lure the reader in with a sense of false familiarity before pulling the rug and exposing our assumptions. That’s how our minds our changed. An SF novel that leaves its readers looking at the world the same way at the end of the book hasn’t done its job properly.
Another way to say this is that strong SF makes active use of story tropes, but does so precisely so that they can be subverted. The best evil emperors love puppies and crush the galaxy in the hope of making the place kinder. The best damsels don’t need rescuing and have their own dark plans that require faking their kidnap, and so forth. When we explode a cliche, we discover our own bias lurking behind it.
There are plenty of other elements you need to tell a great story, of course, but to my mind, SF is the genre that’s all about channeling awe. It’s the fiction of the unbounded imagination. When done best, it’s the opposite of comforting. A good SF book is always a fun ride, but if that’s all it is, you could have been reading something else.
Through SF, we see our own world through alien eyes and are transformed by it. World class SF embiggens the soul. And if you disagree, the comment box is all yours. Tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.