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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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Science Fiction

So, I’m reading Red Mars (1993)…….

……..by Kim Stanley Robinson, in part because I love good science fiction, like Dune by Frank Herbert or Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. I’m also reading it because Mars is starting to look like a nice place to live.

I speak sarcastically. Sort of.

Science fiction is best when speaking to us about our social issues through the prism of the future and technologies that far surpass ours. Star Trek is famous for touching on politics, racism, sexism, war, and religion, among other things. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, regarded as the first science fiction novel, dealt with the humanity of the Other.

Set in the (not so distant) future of 2026, Red Mars and its companion books deal with the early days of terra-forming the red planet. Unlike the Genesis Project, which would take minutes as proposed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, transforming Mars into a hospitable planet would take decades, if not centuries. Against this backdrop of traveling for nine months to Mars and creating a new home on a hostile planet, there are a cast of characters from various countries. Some of these countries are political enemies of each other.

English is the Standard language, which everyone speaks. This is also a hindrance to the American crew if they do not speak another language (1), which then creates another layer of tension. Suspicions arise if a conversation is going on and you don’t know what’s being said. I’m about sixty pages in and, given the enclosed space aboard their ship, the limited number of people and the long voyage out (no cryogenic sleep), pairings, jealousies and intrigue are already creating problems.

That’s where things get interesting. Historically speaking, people pretty much behave the same way, regardless of the time. Science fiction explores the now from the time frame of the future (or the past). Sometimes that’s the most effective way of starting and maintaining a dialogue about social or political issues. If you’re already open to listening to a fictional story, then you’re also receptive to the ideas and perspectives presented.

Sometimes the best way to learn about a new idea or gain a new perspective is to come at sideways.

Image source: 8screensavers.com
Image source: 8screensavers.com

(1) Learning a foreign language is helpful in many ways – it could lead to job opportunities you might not ordinarily find and it is very good for the brain. Also, it will help you navigate should you choose to travel the world.

Recommended:
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Survival by Julie E. Czerneda

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So, I grew up on the mystery genre……

…….and while it’s not the only genre I have a definite passion for, it’s one I tend to return to more than fantasy or science fiction or even horror.

As a reader, I cut my teeth on Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and many more. Like many others before me, I got caught up in solving the puzzles put before me alongside the likes of Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason.

The requisite exclamations of “How did I not see that?” and variations thereof would often follow the reveal at the end of each case. So, of course I had to go back and re-read these books, to see what I had missed. This taught me, as I did this, to pay closer attention at how the set-up was constructed to get to that ‘surprise’ reveal.

My first fictional detective wasn’t introduced to me through his novels. The meet-cute was through a black and white movie on Channel Five, occasionally broken up by static. Basil Rathbone, in his deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe, brought to life Sherlock Holmes in a manner that few have matched since. Yes, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch (to name a few) have brought their distinctive talents into recreating and interpreting this iconic detective from the 19th century and I enjoy their works immensely.

But it was Mr. Rathbone’s portrayal that led me to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before the age of ten. I didn’t just read them, I devoured them. The Hound of the Baskervilles was my first tale and I’ve re-read that book at least once a year. I met Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty, Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson and more through Doctor Watson’s descriptions of Holmes’ exploits.

Now, after years of reading about other fictional detectives (some with licenses, some who had left the police force, some who would always retain the status of amateur), I find that I have come full circle back to my first fictional detective. I’ve read maybe a handful of interpretations of Holmes by other authors and, while they handled the character with obvious care and love, it wasn’t the Holmes I knew. I craved Doctor Watson’s words about his intelligent, arrogant, exasperating friend as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t written my own adventures involving Sherlock Holmes. I have done so, many years ago, but they aren’t meant for anyone’s eyes other than my own. As I re-read his exploits or re-watch the many film adaptations of Holmes and Watson, I find myself feeling challenged (as a writer, as a reader, as an intelligent, reasoning being) to be more observant, to work things out through deduction and logic.

And then I go and do my best to practice it.

sherlock

So, one of the things I like to do…….

……when writing in a particular genre is to read as much of what’s been written before I decide to try my hand at it. It helps me to get a sense of style and word choice within a specific setting (one’s characters are not going to be speaking 21st Century slang in 31st Century society. Or 11th Century BCE society, either). It’s also helpful in seeing how other authors develop mood, setting and location, as well as character.

This goes for every genre, from the Western to the Mystery to Historical to Erotica, a genre that relies heavily on evoking a wide variety of sensations and emotions that lead to a specific….well, climax.

There is the argument floating around that reading works by others in the genre you want to write in is harmful in that it may ‘influence’ your own work. This is true, but not in the way you’d think. Reading the newspaper influences you. Reading poetry, or historical non-fiction, or biographies or archaeology or whatever you pick up to read is going to influence what you write. The more you read, the more  you learn about language, about style, about story and character and development.

Not reading the genre you want to write in only hurts your own work. Why? Well, in addition to not seeing what’s out there, you’d also fail to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. You’d never know how, with your own unique perspective, you could approach the Epic Quest Fantasy. Or the Space Opera. Or find a new twist on the Western or Mystery.

If you read enough (and I highly recommend reading everything you can get your hands on), you can see how similar the genres actually are. What makes them different is the emphasis – a mystery with a dash of romance could be the inverse of a romance with a dash of mystery. A historical novel set in real place could be, with just a few changes and a splash of magic, an epic fantasy. A Western is just an adventure on horseback, whereas Science Fiction is an adventure on a spaceship.

So read. Read the Ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, pulp fiction, genres you love and the ones you don’t like, authors you despise as well as the ones you admire. Read history and biographies and true crime, to learn how real people behaved and real events played out.

When you read, always seek to be entertained, but be conscious of how language, story and characters are handled.

What book and/or author was your greatest influence? Was it more than one? A specific genre?

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