Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Ideal SF Story

Every reader likely has a different vision of what precisely they are looking for in a science fiction story. For some it might be something amorphous such as “a good read” or “characters I can relate to” or “sense of wonder”. For others the ideal story contains several distinct elements which vary from reader to reader. For me the ideal sf story would contain all of the following aspects:

• a thought-provoking foundation: I prefer a story which leaves me thinking after it is over about some moral or philosophical issue which lay at the story’s core. Stephen Baxter stories tend towards this as well as any contemporary author;

• well-developed, primarily sympathetic characters: if I cannot understand the people inhabiting a story, I tend to take it less seriously; and if none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, I generally lose interest in the story rather quickly. This latter reason is why I never particularly enjoyed Cyberpunk. Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Bishop are sf writers I look towards when I consider good characterization;

• a strong plot which is well-developed and interesting: I have never particularly enjoyed either end of the non-plot spectrum, either mindless adventures or navel-gazing stories. Poul Anderson and Robert Silverberg are my prototypes here;

sense of wonder: if this were not one of the aspects I prefer I would enjoy contemporary fiction a lot more than I do. My wonder is usually excited by exotic settings, particularly alien worlds or far-future societies greatly different from our own. Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.J. Cherryh and Jack McDevitt come to mind here;

• strong writing: you might think somebody who grew up reading pulp sf (referring to the type of stories, not the paper it was printed on) would not care about the writing style, but my Golden Age was during the New Wave, so writers such as Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany scarred me forever.

historical development: whether “true” history, alternate history, or well-developed future history, the development of historical change has always fascinated me (I recall in high school being totally obsessed with how feudalism could possibly have grown out of the remnants of the Roman Empire!). Robert Silverberg and Jack McDevitt come to mind on the sf end, while Steven Saylor and Iain Pears on the historical end.

Some comments on these aspects:

• Obviously all 6 aspects might not take place in any given story, but the more of them which occur successfully in a story, the more likely I am to enjoy it;

• If only a single aspect dominates one particularly story, but does so very successfully, I could very well love that story in spite of its lack of the other aspects;

• A handful of sf stories come to mind as containing the above aspects to my satisfaction: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion; Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings; Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light; Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series; C.J. Cherryh’s Brothers of Earth; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy; China Mieville’s Perdito Street Station (which might be fantasy, but so what?); Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee collection Resplendent; Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels; Marion Simmer Bradley’s Darkover novels; Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories. I am sure there are others, but I would be very happy reading sf as strong as these works for the rest of my life.


  • The sense of wonder you mention is the thing that has kept me reading the science fiction genre. "Great Books" (Defined by the literary community) these days have lost this quality for the most part. The science fiction genre stimulates the imagination in ways that other writings seem unable to do anymore, for the most part. (Exception: Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction has pleasantly surprised me)

    My theory is that writers in many other genres are writing not to the ordinary reader, but to their colleagues and to literary critics. Science Fiction has some of these, but the proportion seems lower. In other genre, it seems the writer is almost more concerned on writing in just that new and until-now-unused-style than they are concerned with writing something that entertains most of the readers.

    By Blogger Michael, At 1:31 PM  

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