Depth, Height, and Mass of SF

How to read (and critique) a book, especially a science fiction book:

A tale is a magic trick, a glamor, a mesmeric spell, a craft of illusion. The reader of a storybook attempts to deceive himself into believing the dreams in the book are real, so that, in the case of mainstream books, he may visit other lives vicariously, and, in the case of science fiction, other worlds.

The writer’s task is to assist the deception insofar as possible by means of two sleights of hand.

The first sleight of hand is called verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is to make the drama, setting, props, and persons to come alive in the reader’s imagination by means of a pretense of reality or realism.

In mainstream novels, the verisimilitude is done by an appeal to the realistic details the reader knows or pretends to accept as conventions from real life—including such basic conventions as the idea that nothing happens for no reason. In science fiction novels, the verisimilitude is done by an appeal to scientific principles or inventions or extrapolations either that are known to the reader and known to be possible, such as rocketry, or that the reader will accept as a convention despite its impossibility, such as faster-than-light drive or time travel. In high fantasy, the reader accepts the convention of the world as it was before the industrial and scientific revolutions of the Middle Ages (yes, that scientific revolution is older than you were taught in school that it was), that it is peopled with spooks and haunted with dangerous twilit elfin glamour, and that the horns we hear echoing dimly over the untrod and hollow hills do not sound for us.

The introduction of unconventional, unrealistic, or reasonless elements can be accomplished, if at all, only by some craft that does not jar the reader out of the verisimilitude. This is an important point, often overlooked: verisimilitude does not mean realistic. It means unrealism that creates the illusion of reality. Verisimilitude means believable.

The worst thing a write can do is add some element to his story merely because the real-life events on which the story is based actually happened that way. Real life is not realistic. Real life is filled with strange and baffling coincidences. Real life is startling and defeats all expectations and accounts. In real life, the wicked prosper and the good are punished. In other words, real life is not believable. If you must introduce a realistic element in a story, by which I mean an unlikely and impossible coincidence, then introduce it at the beginning, or make up some believable excuse to shoehorn it into your tale in a fashion the readers will accept: such as a gypsy curse.

Keep in mind that the conventions of verisimilitude depend on the genre. In a comedy, no one is startled or baffled if the most absurd coincidences happen, provided only that the absurdity is funny. Horror likewise: the readers will very generously allow for the most unlikely events, even supernatural events, provided only that they are scary.

The second sleight is drama, by making the story mean something more than a mere recitation of events. The story has to have a theme and a conclusion and other bits of craftsmanship real-life stories rarely have, but which human beings, because we are not merely robots or beasts who walk on two legs, intuitively know should be and must be in a story.

A story that was full of verisimilitude but lacked drama would be like a history book or newspaper account.

The tale of the life of Alexander the Great is full of action and huge events, but it ends with him dying of crapulence after a drinking party. The tale of Julian the Apostate and his magnificent if foolish and doomed attempt to return the Roman Empire to the vile practices of paganism ends with the young Philosopher-Emperor falling before a Persian lance in combat, during an engagement where he simply failed to don his armor.

These two stories have (to my knowledge) only infrequently been dramatized because they are dramatically incomplete: even then dramatists were compelled by their muses to add meaning to the meaningless if real events. Gore Vidal’s version of Julian is assassinated by an evil if stupid Christian, who cuts the armor straps of the brilliant Julian. Alexander the Great dies by poison, concocted by his generals who feared his overweening pride brought on by the Oriental corruption his victories, and his conceit that he was a god.

Compare these tales to the Passing of Arthur, an event so rich with mythic and mystical significance, so fraught with tragedy and grandeur, that everyone from Tennyson to TH White to John Steinbeck to Roger Zelazny to Marion Zimmer Bradley has quested to capture the Matter of Britain.  The great advantage Arthur enjoys over Alexander is that we know nothing of him—not even whether he really existed.

Verisimilitude makes the dragons of the reason close their lidless eyes and slumber. The reason is lulled to sleep by the accuracy of the detail. Even when fantastical events happen, if the reactions and actions of the persons involved seem realistic (“Yes, indeed, this is exactly how I would act if I met a vampire samurai or a UFO crewed by unicorns!”) then the spell lingers and the story can continue.

When, in story, something happens to jar the dragon awake, the skepticism of the reader rears up, he realizes that the dream is false, and that the events described could not have happened and cannot be taken seriously, and the spell is broken.  This can happen for a number of reasons, but the basic reason is that if the reader sees the strings making the marionette dance, he stops being able and willing to believe the dancer is real.

The reason why readers feel not only disappointed, but betrayed, when a story is bad, is because a bad story snaps reader suddenly out of a pleasant dream. The fairy gold turns into yellow autumn leaves in his hands, the wine turns back into water. Readers feel betrayed because they feel cheated of something implicitly promised to them: all stories promise magic the same way all doors promise egress and escape.

The way you read a book, if you want to enjoy it and to understand what the writer is trying to put across, is to become infatuated with the story as quickly and deeply as possible. Once you are infatuated, as if with a schoolyard crush, the flaws of the book become easy to overlook, and you no longer see the strings on the marionette. The way not to read a book is to not fall under its spell, to notice the artificialities and craftsmanship and tricks used to produce the effect, and to watch the magician’s other hand, not the one he is holding up, to see when the coin comes out of his sleeve.

Unfortunately, falling under a spell is like falling asleep or falling in love. It is not something you can really do deliberately. We mortals cannot invite Cupid to strike; even hoping he will come sometimes drives him away. The most a mortal can do is put himself in the right state of mind.

The right state of mind for science fiction is, of course, the state of mind of a twelve year old. That is when you are old enough to grasp the basic conventions of the scientific world view, and young enough that even infatuation with every new idea is a first infatuation.

Science fiction by its nature (despite some brave attempts to break into a more literary mould) is not primarily literary, not primarily concerned with the depth of the characterization or the technical niceties of the story-telling craft.

Before my literarily-inclined science fiction friends raise their voices in polite disagreement, or howls of outrage, let me forestall them with a simple thought experiment. Take your top three favorite science fiction stories. Strip out all the science fictional elements, and recast the same characters and events in a modern and mundane setting. Is the story still as gripping? If so, it is a literary story. For example, WEST SIDE STORY is a modern retelling of ROMEO AND JULIET. For that matter ROMEO + JULIET is a modern retelling of ROMEO AND JULIET.

The first thing you will notice is that good science fiction stories cannot have their science fiction element stripped out because those elements are central to the tale.

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein if recast as a story about an orphan raised by, say, Hopi Indians or hairy Ainu, returning to civilization to criticize monotheism and monogamy, starting a new cult and being stoned to death by Christians would be particularly flat and uninteresting, precisely because if Michael Valentine Smith is not from an ancient and superior and non-human civilization of Mars, and does not actually have Way Cool mind powers, then Smith is not the proper foil to launch a criticism of Western civilization. He is just a barbarian who does not grasp the advantage or point of Western institutions.  Without Way Cool mind power, he is not a real Messiah, and ergo his messianic martyrdom lacks any dramatic point: he is merely a charlatan who angered a mob that had a right to be angry.

Likewise FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov if recast as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire but without the Seldon Plan of Psychohistory has no story.

Likewise, if DUNE by Frank Herbert were recast as the tale of Byzantine intrigue in the modern world, perhaps among Oil Sheiks or Chinese Nomenklatura, would be a story of murder and revenge, nothing more.

Indeed, those stories that could be retold with no loss of story-telling power with their science fiction elements stripped out are precisely the ones science fiction readers mock as being derivative: Robinson Crusoe on Mars  or the Count of Montechristo in Space or King Arthur A.D. 3000 may be perfectly cromulent flicks, paperbacks and comic books, but they are not the one that win Hugo and Nebula awards, pleasing neither the readership nor the critics.

Twelve year olds usually do not have tastes discriminating (or jaded) enough to notice or care about literary quality. To them, SWORD OF SHANNARA  is the same as LORD OF THE RINGS; and  STAR WARS is as good as KRULL. This is not because of some defect in the brains of twelve year olds. It is because the capacity for infatuation and wonder is greatest when the mind is uncluttered by memories of previous disappointments.  Your first crush is your deepest.

If not on literary merits, then, on what merits ought we read and critique science fiction?

I submit that a literary book is judged by three criteria:

First, it’s depth. How well does it reward rereading?

A shallow book gives you everything there is to get out of it on the first reading; a deep book upon rereading reveals new aspects of itself or of its subject or theme rewarding to contemplate.

This is not different for science fiction. Gene Wolfe is an example of an author who rewards rereading (some would say too much so, because the first reading remains maddeningly mute and enigmatic). The difference, if at all, is that a science fiction book should upon rereading give you more of what you come to science fiction for, namely, the Copernican sense of wonder at discovering what you thought was the center of the universe is actually somewhere else, the awe or terror of the immensity of the universe, the romance of scientific progress which challenges or overcomes that immensity, or the cautionary fear that the progress of science leads to dystopia, etc. While it might seem that this sense of wonder would quickly pale, I will ask my reader merely how many times he saw STAR WARS when it first came out, and how deeply it touched something in your youth, and leave the question otherwise unanswered.

Second, it’s height. What high topics or great thoughts or idea does it reach?

Here is one area where literary works fall laughably short of science fiction, even of pulp science fiction. I can pick up an issue of THRILLING AIR WONDER STORIES at random and have a better chance of discovering some meditation or mention or new idea relating to the nature of man, destiny, deity, fate, fortune, liberty, tyranny, heroism, villainy, cosmos, chaos, the nature of war and peace, the causes of love and hate, our place in the universe and the meaning of life than you will ever find in the novels allegedly adored by the literati. Such novels tend to a grotesque overabundance of realism, by which I mean an unrealistic emphasis on depravity and dipsomania, adultery and despair, and such novels tend to be uniform in their philosophy, political theory, and outlook on life. This uniformity means that the writer need not bother, and the reader does not seek, and penetrating questions into any of the great ideas.

I will not say that science fiction deals with these high ideas in anything other than a playful and sophomoric way — you will not get an insightful disquisition on the nature of destiny and free will in Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION nor Frank Herbert’s DUNE, nor anything but a comic-bookish rant on the nature of God or Love in Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND—but at least science fiction stories lend themselves to addressing these high ideas.

Literary works of the modern cast discourage such contemplation: one must read literature older than one hundred years, works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, and Homer, to get literary works dealing with the high things of life. I note wryly that these ancient authors routinely put mythical and mystical elements in their books, ghosts and fairy kings, angels, gods and monsters, which these days are rarely found off the reservation of science fiction.

A high idea is a philosophical idea, one that looks at the general picture, the abstract foundation.

Third, it’s mass. A great book is one that inspires or challenges others, both those who imitate and those who suborn or subvert. This criterion is the same for literary as for science fictional books. A massive book is one whose passage disturbs the orbits of lesser bodies. Even those who have never read, for example, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, cannot be unaware of its massive influence on the books they have read.