SF Hardness

science fictionScience Fiction — or rather Speculative Fiction — has the general quality that it contains all other fiction genres. There is mystery and detective science fiction. There is romance (and sexual) science fiction. Action? Horror? Psychological thriller? Drama and pathos? Allegory? Westerns? Science fiction has them all and more.

In a sense, SF is just a property that fiction can have. I’ve tried to explain what I think that property is. I also took a stab at separating science fiction from fantasy. Now that thread resumes to explore the idea of SF hardness.

But first we return to and start with…

SF & Fantasy

Dragonriders PernEvery fan knows the difference — we know it when we see it. But we vary a little in where we draw the line. Is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders series fantasy because it has dragons? Or SF because the dragons are scientifically engineered beings designed to fight Thread? My Eight Ball says: SF — the science part trumps.

Spells, however, pretty much scream magic (which is fantasy). I don’t care how mathematical or science-ological you make spells. Spells are spells; spells are magic; magic are fantasy.

Wizards? Wizards do spells. See above. Likewise Witches. Also likewise — and pretty much by definition — any form of elf, gnome, troll, nymph, sprite, fairy, etc. Basically anything that looks like a human, but isn’t. That includes werewolves and vampires, voodoo zombies and mummies, angels and demons,… at least in most cases.

Then there are the beasts and monsters. Dragons are usually fantasy (but see above). So are unicorns and any clearly mythical beast. On the other hand, Godzilla and Friends play the science card; they seem SF-ish. Monsters are often science-y in their origin.

FrankensteinFrankenstein is not only SF, it’s a story about science (as in: the evils of). (Remember that, metaphorically, Frankenstein is actually Prometheus. The story is actually mythical. Fantasy. But it’s actually actually about hubris. So really it’s allegorical.) By the way: Godzilla? Also about science (the atom bomb).

Spell use is a key. There could be gnomes as real beings so long as they weren’t magical or spell-users. That essentially makes them aliens in a science fiction story. Voodoo uses spells, but many zombies are science zombies. They’re created by meteor dust, or a genetic virus, or biological chemical leaks.

Saying a spell, waving complex hand patterns, scribing symbols; these do not — as far as we know — actually cause anything to happen. (And those are just some of the science-says-huh? ways of doing spells. If you’re going to say spells work, you need to explain that somehow. Doing so usually distinguishes between science or magic.

I ran into this a really long time ago:

If I transport somewhere across the galaxy (or planet (heck, or room)), and I have a machine that enables this, that’s science fiction. Anyone having the same machine could do the same.

If I transport somewhere across the galaxy (or etc.), and it’s because of some power or skill of mine — usually one that makes me somewhat unique — that’s fantasy. Spells, in particular, suggest fantasy.

science machineMachines are science (nearly always — exceptions except). The long form is: machines are engineering; engineering is applied science; science is the study of natural laws anyone can learn and use. To do engineering. To make machines. Machines are science.

You know… Usually. (In some cases, machines are magical objects!)

It’s less clear if magic is based on natural laws anyone can learn and use. Is it science now? Isn’t that what science is?

If Spells are actually just complex mathematical equations anyone can learn and use… science? When do you stop calling them Spells and start calling them Equations?

Whatever they are, if only certain people are endowed with the power to use them, that seems pretty magical. Be it personal power, personal will, or family tree, if it’s personal, it’s probably magic.

fantasy and SFBut it’s harder to draw a line just on the basis of natural (science) laws versus magical laws. One assumes magical laws are consistent and invariant (which is the thing about natural laws). Some stories do, in fact, posit magic as just another form of science. In some cases the “physics” of a different world are said to support magic but not science. (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books somewhat take this tack.)

We know it when we see it.

Wizards and witches need magic to be natural law to be considered SF. Mad scientists and insane inventors on the other had — it’s hard for them not to be SF.

Which, obliquely, references the real point: SF Hardness.

I just had to swing past fantasy to get here. It needed to be recognized and then set aside for the moment. This is about not-fantasy.

Hard SF

Isaac Asimov SF MagAmong fans of not-fantasy there is a spectrum of soft-to-hard SF. Drawing a line here is more complicated than the SF versus fantasy line, because it is a spectrum. Unlike the Yin-Yang of SF-Fantasy — which are true opposites — science fiction has a hardness property. Soft SF, therefore, is science fiction lacking in hardness.

Note that SF hardness has neither a positive nor negative connotation. It is merely the degree to which the science plays a key role in the narrative. If SF is the fiction of ideas, hard SF is the fiction of really science-y ideas. This includes the extension of science into awesome feats of engineering and technology.

I’ve mentioned (yes, I know, repeatedly) Larry Niven’s Ringworld. That’s rock-hard SF. Most of Niven is hard SF (but he did venture into fantasy; Inferno, for example). More recent authors known for hard SF include David Brin (a favorite of mine) and Greg Egan (whose work I also really enjoy).

Inherit the StarsAnd I always liked James Hogan. He’s squarely in the hard SF club. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be guilty about liking him or not. For that matter, Orson Scott Card is another hard SF author whose work I like, but whose personal views seem questionable. But Ender’s Game (and sequels)? Hard SF. (Really good hard SF!)

For contrast, the classic Dune. That’s less hard. It has witches. And visions that come true. And Spice — let’s face it — is magic pixie dust. Part of what makes Dune so cool is how even the science bits seem tinted with magic.

Alien, for all its trappings, is fairly soft SF.

A lot of horror or monster science fiction is pretty soft. Often they only qualify as SF because they take place in space and — necessarily — on a spaceship. Mindless marauding monsters who fly spaceships are such soft SF as to be essentially fantasy (or in some cases, allegory).

Startide RisingIn general, science fiction action movies are typically softer SF. (Most monster or horror movies are just types of action movie.) They all often qualify as SF only in virtue of their trappings and locations. A purist might not consider them true SF at all.

Star Wars, again despite the trappings, is so soft that I file it under Fairy Tale. It essentially begins with “Once upon a time,” has evil wizards and emperors, black and white “magic,” sword fighting, a prince, a princess, and a knight with a dashing steed and a faithful squire. There’s a reason little kids adore Star Wars!

To some extent, if you can remove the science fiction element, and still have basically the same story, it’s less science fiction-y. Time travel SF is a good example of requiring the SF element to tell the story. (Keep in mind: none of this is bad. There’s nothing wrong with a good story with sci-fi trappings. They can be just the local color.)

Venus EquilateralI absolutely lean towards SF when it comes to fiction. My tastes span the gamut, from fantasy to all degrees of SF hardness. But I love me some diamond-hard SF! I love stories about ideas that might actually happen, at least in theory. (“Theory” generously includes things like time travel and warp drive, which we think are probably impossible.)

George O. Smith wrote short stories where the plot often centers around the use of vacuum tubes. In space. Where they don’t need glass envelopes. Because in space everything is in a vacuum. But in his The Fourth “R” he swings the other way, focusing on character and plot.

Hal Clement (another big favorite of mine) wrote amazing novels, each completely different (minus a few sequels). Each one hangs on a scientific idea that is manifested as an essential plot element. They’re cool because they’re not obviously hard — almost covertly hard. (Unlike Smith above, who is unabashedly hard.)

The Nitrogen FixHardness is a basic quality; just a property of the narrative. If the science is really interesting, sometimes that’s enough — especially with short stories. Sometimes it’s fun to read about just a clever idea or obscure part of science. Some of my early science training came from SF!

What elevates any fiction is quality narrative, and that’s something else.

Quality hard SF is, for example, Clement. The science-y stuff that hardens SF needs to be subsumed in something necessary to the narrative. I like David Brin so much because of how he puts amazing technology to use in telling a story. In Sundiver, the explorer ship is central to the story (no ship, no story), plus it’s really cool technology.

Brin, like another favorite, Robert Forward, is a scientist who turned to writing science fiction. (Isaac Asimov is another with a science background who wrote SF.) Due to their backgrounds, they tend to write very hard SF well-grounded in physics which makes them favorites among readers with science backgrounds.

reality and SFI very much suspect that a love of hard SF is directly related to a love of science. I’ve never really understood why some don’t find any kind of science fiction interesting, but I have known many who don’t. My parents, despite many efforts over the years, never found it interesting. (They both enjoyed mystery and detective fiction, so we shared that.)

I used to think science fiction needed to be discovered at a young age, but over time I’ve met too many exceptions to that rule. It appears to require a certain kind of mindset, but I couldn’t begin to describe it.

It’s hard enough just describing science fiction!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

29 responses to “SF Hardness

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    There seems to be some disagreement on the terms hard and soft science fiction. Orson Scott Card actually doesn’t regard his stuff as hard sci-fi, but as soft, but by “soft” he means stories based on social sciences rather than natural sciences.

    But from what I’ve seen, “hard” more usually relates to scientific accuracy and “soft” to where the science is less accurate. But it’s usually more of a spectrum since even the hardest sci-fi authors often introduce some unrealistic aspects to their stories to make them more interesting. By that measure, most literature science fiction is far harder than most TV and movie sci-fi.

    The line between science fiction and fantasy is tough. Most TV and movie science fiction is more fantasy than science. I like the idea that science fiction is when the science is important enough to the story that if you remove it, the story collapses, since it makes much of Star Trek science fiction. But if that science is really just magic in disguise (as in Star Wars) then it’s more fantasy.

    Card himself, in his book ‘How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy’, said that the real division between the genres of fantasy and science fiction is appearances, or dragons, wizards, elves, etc vs spaceships, machines, aliens, etc. He mentions a science fiction story he once tried to sell that took place in a primitive village; it was rejected by the magazine because they “didn’t do fantasy”.

    It seems like any speculative author would do well to make sure the genre of their piece is obvious in the first few pages.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Most of Card’s stuff is very accurate in the science sense, but that science never plays a key role in his stories, it merely enables them. In the post, I used the phrase “the degree to which the science plays a key role in the narrative” (emphasis added), so Card and I are somewhat on the same wavelength here.

      Science accuracy, as you mention, is tricky. Depending on how strict one is (no warp drive, no time travel), very few works really qualify. Some that would: Egan, Clement (although I think he allows FTL), Allen Steele, and probably a lot of Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein. Brin, who is generally rock-hard does have FTL. The FTL restriction is a serious gotcha. Few SF authors stay away from some form of it. Egan is a bit unique in having a galaxy-spanning civilization but no FTL.

      As you say, TV SF tends not to be all that hard by any definition. (And truth is, Sturgeon’s revelation (aka “law”) was never more apt than when it comes to TV SF. A lot of it is for people who think Star Wars is great science fiction.)

      I think — at least for me — hardness is mainly proportional to how much the science is a “character” in the story. On that account, a fair bit of Star Trek is quite hard, but some of it is softer. The Doomsday Machine, for example, is pretty hard, but Let That Be Your Last Battlefield is very soft. At the same time, science accuracy does play a role.

      I’m comfortable with “magic” being the dividing line between SF and fantasy. Usually magic isn’t too hard to recognize, although it gets a little tricky if the magic is a form of physics. That’s why I ended up resorting to personal magic as a strong litmus test.

      One of Brin’s softest novels, The Practice Effect, involves an alternate reality with some very weird thermodynamic characteristics: The more you use a thing, the better it gets. Make a crude axe from a stick, some twine and a sharp rock, and over time — with lots of use — it becomes a better and better axe. It can become a perfect axe given enough time, including having a steel handle and diamond edge. It’s a really cool idea, and I love the book, but… magic or (really, really) weird physics?

      That one material can transform into another, to me, says magic.

  • siriusbizinus

    I’ve never really thought about classifying my tastes in science fiction on any spectrum. Then again, I am a fan of fantasy and science fiction. I’ve read Arthur C. Miller and George R. R. Martin.

    Part of me also is averse to finding too many niches for stories. I feel like classifications of fiction is getting to the point where the label is longer than the story. For example, I have no idea what the difference between Young Adult and regular fiction is. Is there a language requirement? Are certain subjects limited?

    Your description of science fiction seems workable to me. But it also seems like good fiction tends to defy simple classifications.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Good fiction is available in any classification, but I’m not sure I agree it defies classification. Can you name a work you think does? I’ll give it my best shot. 🙂

      There’s a good point about niches and classification. Labels should be merely tags that describe, but not boundaries that constrict. An analogy might be the undesirability of being “type cast” as an actor. Leonard Nimoy (RIP), for example, was “Spock” and he never really escaped that. (OTOH, being a cultural freakin’ icon and being in the Smithsonian… not bad for three years work. We should all have such woes.)

      I think the answer to your questions about Young Adult fiction is probably yes in both cases. Certainly, if you’re going to write YA fiction, you’d better at least be clear about the difference between it and pornography (to pick an extreme example). You do have to write for your intended audience and, likewise, be aware of how your readers will take what you write. George O. Smith’s Venus Equilateral stories, for example, assume you know something about electronics or are at least enjoy all the technical talk.

      BTW: Do you mean Arthur C. Clarke? I don’t know of any SF author Arther Miller. There’s a famous playwright by that name (but not with the MI “C”). Clarke was one of the greats! Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, are — for many — the classic Triumvirate of science fiction. They certainly ushered me into the genre!

      • siriusbizinus

        Blargh! I meant Arthur C. Clarke =( I liked some of his books, and the movies based on his works were great as well. I think I was trying to type out his name while I was fixated on the “M” in “Martin.”

        As for the Triumvirate, I haven’t read much Heinlein, but I did get a lot of Bradbury in literature classes growing up. Ray Bradbury, to me, did some really awesome SF. Asimov did as well, but I was used to his short stories and not his longer works.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Bradbury is one reason I qualified the Triumvirate with “for many” — Jack Williamson, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Frederick Pohl, Ursula Le Guin, and Robert Silverberg are all, if not quite the giants those four were, certainly only a notch down. (Bradbury spoke at my high school back in the early 1970s. He arrived chauffeured in a Duesenberg! 😀 )

        An aside about Clarke: the only movie truly based on his work is 2010. The Kubrick film, 2001, is based on a short story of his (The Sentinel), but he wrote the novel in parallel with the filming of the movie (hence the many differences between them).

        Bradbury, on the other hand, has had many of his short stories made into various TV series episodes (such as Twilight Zone), and The Illustrated Man was made into a film. And, of course, Fahrenheit 451! (Plus other of his works have been made into teleplays.)

        One of these days I want to try to create a list of SF literature into movies or teleplays. I think the winner for most will be Philip K. Dick, who has had a surprising number of his works filmed (Blade Runner, most famously, but also Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, and others).

      • siriusbizinus

        Philip K. Dick is one author I really want to find the next time I get a chance to go to the bookstore. Blade Runner was amazing, as well as Minority Report and Total Recall. I can only imagine the stuff I’m missing out on in his stories.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        If you like Philip K. Dick (it’s so tempting to write: “If you like Dick…” but I’m much too evolved to do that XD ), check out Kurt Vonnegut and maybe John Brunner. Strong, and dark, social elements to all their work. What can be alarming reading their work is how prescient some of it is.

        Total Recall, the original with Ah-nold, has always struck me as the high water mark for violence in his films. It falls between T1 and T2, and as I’m sure you recall ( 🙂 ), T2 featured a kinder, gentler Terminator (“He’ll live!” 🙂 ). Total Recall is also worth noting for the remake being better — in many ways — than the original.

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Since I’m not really a Sci-Fi or Fantasy reader (or a novice in any case), I’m not sure what I say has much bearing here. I was stuck by your point about the science being necessarily integrated in what you’re calling “hard” Sci-Fi:

    “The science-y stuff that hardens SF needs to be subsumed in something necessary to the narrative.”

    And I immediately latched onto this point as an interesting insight.

    I agree with Mike (SAP) “I like the idea that science fiction is when the science is important enough to the story that if you remove it, the story collapses…”

    When I pick up a novel, I expect to find a movement towards organic unity. (Not saying I usually do, but that’s another story). For me, there’s something sublime in finding that every detail added to the story, that nothing could have been cut. I want each word to have to be there. That’s the goal, the pinpoint in the distance. The closer a story gets to this ideal, the better.

    In any case, perhaps what puts people off about Sci-Fi/Fantasy is the feeling that these elements are not incorporated, that they could just as well be taken away. I don’t know how much of Sci-Fi is like this, but I do have a sort of aversion to trappings, especially if the trappings seem a little silly but not in a funny or interesting way. Actually, the trappings have to be really awesome to make up for being trappings, and that’s really rare. So far I haven’t read much Sci-Fi and all the books I have read have been wonderful, and all of them have been written in this organic-unity way. Honestly, if the Sci-Fi/Fantasy elements aren’t incorporated in this way, I probably wouldn’t be able to read the book because I just don’t care about dragons and space ships and such.

    So perhaps when it comes to the soft Sci-Fi, it’s just a matter of taste and some people like that science-y stuff on top of a good story, and others don’t.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Some good points, here!

      Let me draw a distinction between the definition of “hard” SF and what is required for quality hard SF. My line you quoted comes from a bit about quality hard SF. Mike’s idea applies to SF in general and distinguishes it from fantasy, but could be extended to refer to quality SF.

      This ties into your anti-preference with regard to trappings.

      For me, a story has a context — a setting — and just as one can decide to set ones story in history, one can equally decide to set ones story in the future. As such, the “SF” aspect becomes trappings or background, and I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with that.

      It’s just another type of “period piece” where the period contributes to the flavor and tone. Which brings me to your interesting point about every detail of a story contributing to its organic unity.

      Is a scene that does nothing more than add flavor, depth, or texture, to a character or story a necessary detail? For purposes of the question, assume nothing relevant to the plot happens. The scene could be removed with no real harm to the story.

      Yet such scenes help us get to know a character or situation. One could argue their necessity either way, but I think there’s a place for tone and texture. Obviously this is one of those matters of taste.

      Star Wars, for example, could have taken place on one planet and told largely the same story without the SF trappings. Spaceships can be replaced with land or air vehicles. Blasters can be replaced with guns. Funny robots can be replaced with funny servants. None of the SF is required, but would it be the same thing or something completely different?

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Ah, yes, I see what you mean about Mike’s point. Now that I’m reading more carefully, it does seem to be different from mine.

        Same goes for your point about quality rather than defining the hardness of Sci-Fi.

        “For me, a story has a context — a setting — and just as one can decide to set ones story in history, one can equally decide to set ones story in the future. As such, the “SF” aspect becomes trappings or background, and I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with that.”

        There’s nothing wrong with a fun read! I just tend to read meaning into setting, so if a story takes place in the future, I don’t think it could very well have taken place in the present without changing the story. At least that’s the assumption I make as I’m reading. Not saying it’s not possible for the setting to be arbitrary, just that I’ll wonder what the point is if I start to sense its arbitrariness, especially if that setting stands out as something unique. I’m not saying that the setting must carry as much weight as it did in Dune, but I don’t think Dune would have been nearly as good without that handling of setting.

        “Is a scene that does nothing more than add flavor, depth, or texture, to a character or story a necessary detail?”

        I definitely don’t have a problem with character-developing scenes, but these are usually linked to the main themes. (Otherwise they’re just arbitrary characters.) It’s better if these scenes advance the plot at the same time, but sometimes that’s not possible. I’m just saying that in so far as a story integrates the various elements, the better. I don’t actually expect every word to carry that much weight, but that’s the ideal. I read as if the author meant for everything to be there, not as if the author put trappings on the story.

        Funny thing. Last night I finally got around to watching the newer version of Solaris with George Clooney and I just about had a fit. The whole point of the novel was changed and they turned it into a love story. I wasn’t annoyed that they took the movie in a new direction, but that they didn’t do it well. The details from the novel were tweaked as if they didn’t really matter. I was amazed by how thoughtfully those details were placed in the novel, and how the writers of the movie had done away with them as if they were mere trappings. Because the movie makers had tweaked these details, they then had to do a lot of explaining about what was going on and this explaining shouldn’t have been necessary. They wasted a lot of good opportunities to tighten up the story.

        With Star Wars, I’m inclined to think you’re right that a lot of those details could have been changed without changing the story, but only to an extent. And if you’re going to replace blasters with guns, then you might have to do a lot of other changes to the technology that might then affect the story, otherwise you’ll have inconsistent technology. Think about the implications of using guns instead of blasters. There’s no technological advancement, but if the story is set in the far future, that detail says so much about culture and progress. If you want to draw attention to lack of progress in one area of technology, a great way to do that is to have everything futuristic except for that one area, but this must be made explicit otherwise you have just a strange inconsistency. On the other hand, if you replace blasters with something similarly futuristic, that would probably change very little.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I just tend to read meaning into setting, so if a story takes place in the future, I don’t think it could very well have taken place in the present without changing the story.”

        Just to play devil’s advocate here: what about a story that pits human individuality against the needs of the state. The story could be played out in the past (with Lords and Serfs), or in the present (with farmers and government), or in the future (with humans and our alien overlords). Isn’t it the same story wrapped in different flavors?

        Kind of like how you can make a smoked ham and Swiss cheese sandwich with a variety of breads. Just as you can pick a bread you favor, can’t an author pick a context they favor?

        I do agree about the importance of setting in many cases. Dune is a great example. Many stories that take place at sea cannot be told without the sea. OTOH, a story that uses a Caribbean cruise as background flavor could equally be told on land.

        I think what I’m saying is that both types of stories are equally valid to me. Setting can be flavor (like bread) or it can be crucial (like the filling). I resist the notion that one is better than the other, but in general I resist notions that art has to be done a certain way.

        This may just be “dealer’s choice” — a matter of preferences.

        “I’m just saying that in so far as a story integrates the various elements, the better. I don’t actually expect every word to carry that much weight, but that’s the ideal.”

        I think, to me, what you’re describing is poetry more than fiction. Every word in a poem tends to be part of what the poet wants to communicate. I don’t really have any problem with tone and flavor, but this seems more and more an issue of personal taste.

        The Jim Jarmusch film I reviewed recently, Only Lovers Left Alive, is loaded with tone and flavor. They definitely don’t move the plot along in any way, but give you a sense of mood. That does make some people restless (even me at times), but done well it can suck you into the moment.

        “I read as if the author meant for everything to be there, not as if the author put trappings on the story.”

        I’m not sure those two things are necessarily exclusive. Jarmusch certainly intended to shoot the film the way he did. The real question might be whether the “trappings” — in the artist’s mind — might need to be there.

        It may be that we need a better definition of “trappings.” I use it to refer to things that could be altered without significantly changing the plot and theme. I see them as “unnecessary” only in the sense that flavor is unnecessary in food. This is true, but ick!

        Filler is a different kind of thing. Filler is common in books that publishers demand to be as long as possible (to make the price as high as possible). Filler is when authors of long-running series start milking it. (In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, I believe it was volume six (of 10+) where I realized I’d just read an entire thick novel in which really nothing happened!)

        “Funny thing. Last night I finally got around to watching the newer version of Solaris with George Clooney and I just about had a fit.”

        Heh, yeah… that’s a whole other kettle of fish, isn’t it. No doubt the studio felt American audiences “couldn’t handle the truth!” You have to admit, not the most accessible novel ever written.

        Novels into films often suffer, and it seems the deeper the novel, the more it suffers. (Kinda works that way with deep people and life, for that matter.)

        “Think about the implications of using guns instead of blasters. There’s no technological advancement, but if the story is set in the far future, that detail says so much about culture and progress.”

        Or about reality. Blasters are probably technically fantasy. Putting that much power in a hand weapon is pretty ridiculous (and, yes, Star Trek phasors were equally so, especially in how they could vaporize a person but leave only scorch marks behind). Projectile weapons actually make a lot more sense.

        In Star Wars we’re talking about a situation where blasters are defected by swords, so all the consistency trains kinda left the station in a big hurry! XD

        I do take your point about a lack of progress in one area being a way to suggest something about the society. SF isn’t always explicit (some of the best stuff isn’t), and sometimes that jarring inconsistency is left for you to figure out. Or sometimes it’s fed to you in spoonfuls or dumped on you at the very end. That’s one thing I love about SF — it often deliberately keeps you guessing. (I’m reading a trilogy that does that right now.)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        “Just to play devil’s advocate here: what about a story that pits human individuality against the needs of the state. The story could be played out in the past (with Lords and Serfs), or in the present (with farmers and government), or in the future (with humans and our alien overlords). Isn’t it the same story wrapped in different flavors?”

        I’d say that the context plays a huge role in the outcome for a story. As they say, there really aren’t that many stories, the same ones keep getting retold. So it’s all in the telling. Now suppose the individual vs. state plot is told in the context of WWII, Vietnam or the Civil War. We hold definite opinions about these times that could be used to influence the outcome. In Vietnam, for instance, we could have a story about a draft dodger. The context plays a huge role. If we took that same draft dodger character and moved him into the future, we wouldn’t necessarily know how to feel about what he’s doing right off the bat; we’d have to figure it out. So in a sense, yes, it’s the same old story, but in another sense, the context plays a key role in how the story turns. So using the past is a great way to establish a whole set of established relationships without having to teach the audience. The story also says something about that time period. A kind of two-way relationship. Of course, there’s a lot of grey area as people will have different attitudes about the past, but at least we know in advance the outlines of the debate and know what to look for.

        Anything set in the future automatically sets up a comparison to the present and comments on the direction of the present. We look for things that have changed and things that remain the same.

        I tend to think of the present as more neutral ground. A story set in the present might not be using the context quite as much as something in the past or future. Or at least the context wouldn’t necessarily automatically place us in a certain debate.

        Then there are stories that don’t really have a time relationship because they might be invented worlds, not necessarily in the future. These I would think would be similar to a story set in the future in that we’d draw our comparisons.

        If there’s a story that doesn’t rely on the context, and it’s placed in the past or future or some make-believe land, I can’t help but wonder why. Why not just make it in the present?

        “Kind of like how you can make a smoked ham and Swiss cheese sandwich with a variety of breads. Just as you can pick a bread you favor, can’t an author pick a context they favor?”

        You probably don’t want to know how I feel about bread!

        “…in general I resist notions that art has to be done a certain way.”

        My husband likes to call me a fascist in pretty much everything I do. I prefer to be called a benevolent queen. 🙂

        No seriously, I get your point. All I can say in defense is I’m not as much of a literary snob as I’m sounding right now. I know a lot of people wouldn’t come near Sci-Fi or Fantasy, but I personally think they’re doing a great disservice to the literary world in disparaging these genres. I’m getting the feeling that these genres allow for more theoretical, idea-based themes that’s very much needed in fiction and ought to be taken seriously. But this could be another kind of snobbery on my part.

        Should art be done a certain way? Well there’s a lot out there that I like that doesn’t fit my damned rules. In music especially, I’m very lenient. All of what I’m saying could be because I spend a great deal of time thinking about good writing, but in music I just look to have fun. My musician friends must think I’m extremely low class.

        “I think, to me, what you’re describing is poetry more than fiction.”

        This is a good question. I don’t know how to answer that without getting into distinctions between fiction and poetry (and I’m not prepared to do that.) I do know that a lot of novel writers look to poetry for inspiration…we talk about that tightness in poetry and see it as a thing to strive for in our novels. Now you’re right to think that a novel should be a lot looser—it must be, its scope is larger. It’s not clear that there could ever be a novel in which every single word is necessary. I think probably impossible. But like I said, that pinpoint in the distance, something to strive for.

        “It may be that we need a better definition of “trappings.” I use it to refer to things that could be altered without significantly changing the plot and theme.”

        I guess so. And we probably have a different idea of what “significantly” changes a plot or theme. I’m the kind of person who would err in reading way too much in the details, so that could be our difference!

        ” I see them [trappings] as “unnecessary” only in the sense that flavor is unnecessary in food. This is true, but ick!
        Filler is a different kind of thing. ”

        I admit I haven’t been making this distinction between filler and trappings in my mind, but it’s a good one. I was thinking of trappings as simply unnecessary, and not thinking about filler at all. I get the feeling that Anathem has a good deal of filler, but I could be wrong…I haven’t given it much thought yet as I haven’t finished it. And while I’d like to see that book shortened and made less episodic, I’m still loving the book.

        “In Star Wars we’re talking about a situation where blasters are defected by swords, so all the consistency trains kinda left the station in a big hurry! XD”

        LOL. That’s a detail I hadn’t thought about! But actually it is kind of interesting. It’s a way of marrying the future to the ancient, where the ancient is made relevant and powerful. And that theme continues in the character of Yoda and “may the force be with you” kind of stuff.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I’d say that the context plays a huge role in the outcome for a story.”
        I agree it can play a role, but I don’t agree it must play a role. OTOH, as you continue, you say the Second, Civil, or Vietnam, wars “could” play a role. I absolutely agree with that. All I’m saying is that I don’t think they have to.

        “If we took that same draft dodger character and moved him into the future, we wouldn’t necessarily know how to feel about what he’s doing right off the bat; we’d have to figure it out.”
        If I read you correctly, you’re saying that context can be a shorthand, and I would agree with that. What about a story that opposes expectations? Then I need to provide for the reader figuring it out. I can certainly leverage context, but can’t I also defy or ignore it?

        “A kind of two-way relationship. Of course, there’s a lot of grey area as people will have different attitudes about the past,…”
        Agreed. For example, a Civil War story is likely seen differently by Southerners than by most others. Or not seen at all by those with little grasp of that bit of history. A Vietnam story might be seen very differently by “hippies” than by military people.

        I’m not sure one can assume any story with implicit context is guaranteed to be read correctly. You can’t assume people know, or view, history a certain way. (We tend to not view the present in the same way! 🙂 )

        “Anything set in the future automatically sets up a comparison to the present and comments on the direction of the present.”
        Agreed! Can that be flavor that isn’t instrumental to plot and theme?

        One thing that’s fun about reading SF from the 1970s (and the half-decades that bookend it) is that some of it is talking about the world we live in now, and it’s very interesting how prescient some authors were or how badly they missed the mark.

        For example, in the 1970s fax machines were a hot ticket, and it’s hysterical how some authors essentially projected fax machines into the “future” (our present). When’s the last time you got a fax? (Have you ever gotten a fax?) 😀

        Also funny is authors who thought magnetic tape would still be a thing.

        But I digress (“Tangent” is my middle name). You mention the present as more neutral ground, which I think argues that context doesn’t have to drive the outcome of a story (although it surely can). Obviously you have to work harder if you don’t leverage the shorthand. But I do like stories that surprise me, and playing against context is one way to do that.

        “If there’s a story that doesn’t rely on the context, and it’s placed in the past or future or some make-believe land, I can’t help but wonder why. Why not just make it in the present?”
        Flavor. Tone. A love of a given era and wanting to tell a story in that era.

        “All I can say in defense is I’m not as much of a literary snob as I’m sounding right now.”
        Nah, this isn’t snobbery; it’s just your point of view. I think any artist has very specific views about the art. As you go on to say, you’re “very lenient” with music.

        “I’m the kind of person who would err in reading way too much in the details, so that could be our difference!”
        Could be. As Freud said, “Sometime a cigar is just a cigar.” The term “trappings” has a specific application to ornamentation on a horse’s harness. Those trappings add to the flavor, but aren’t instrumental. They have no meaning other than an expression of the maker’s sense of “pretty.”

        I think that, likewise, story trappings can communicate nothing more than an author’s sense of “pretty.” I’m fine with that. I appreciate “pretty.” 🙂

        “I get the feeling that Anathem has a good deal of filler, but I could be wrong”
        Like a lot of fiction these days, Stephenson’s novels seem to get thicker and thicker. Compare his early work (Zodiac and Snow Crash) to even his middle work (Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon) and you see an increase in thickness. Just seeing his later works (which I haven’t read) in the book store, they seem as thick or thicker.

        Some of that is publisher-driven. There is a minimum cost to publish and distribute a book. But people will pay more for larger books than smaller ones, so the bigger a book, the higher the profit margin. Robert Parker’s first Spenser novel, in 1973, weighs in at a slim 188 pages. By twenty years later, he’s added 100 or more pages. Some of the later ones have over 300 pages.

        Some of that is how much people love the Spenser character and want more of him (and Susan and Hawk and Pearl). But I’m certain some of that is the publisher asking for bigger books. No doubt Stephenson gets the same pressure.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        It sounds like what you’re calling “trappings” I’m calling “a very important detail and if you cut it you will ruin everything”. 🙂

        “If I read you correctly, you’re saying that context can be a shorthand, and I would agree with that. What about a story that opposes expectations? Then I need to provide for the reader figuring it out. I can certainly leverage context, but can’t I also defy or ignore it?”

        Perhaps you can defy or ignore context. Actually I can see defying context being quite effective. Ignoring context seems kind of strange. I don’t know why it would be desirable.

        Quoting you quoting me:
        “Anything set in the future automatically sets up a comparison to the present and comments on the direction of the present.”

        Then you: “Can that be flavor that isn’t instrumental to plot and theme?”

        Maybe, but I don’t see how. I’d more than likely connect such a thing to the theme.

        “When’s the last time you got a fax? (Have you ever gotten a fax?) :D”

        Ha, maybe once or twice. I actually have one at home connected to my printer, but I rarely use it. I can’t imagine it making it into Sci-Fi, although when you think about it, it is pretty impressive! Hell, phone calls impress me.

        “But people will pay more for larger books than smaller ones, so the bigger a book, the higher the profit margin.”

        This is so funny to me. I look at a big book and think, “Oh brother, this had better be good.” Of course, if the book’s good, I want it to go on forever. So I guess that’s the idea behind that.

        With Anathem, I felt like skipping a lot of the descriptions and such, but I can’t ever do that because I’m afraid I’ll miss something. When the conversations begin, my interest increases. Those are the best moments. I love his way of bringing abstract ideas into dialogue. He makes it all very fun and easy to understand.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “It sounds like what you’re calling ‘trappings’ I’m calling ‘a very important detail and if you cut it you will ruin everything’. 🙂 “
        ROFL! Could be; could be.

        It’s possible that what I’m calling “flavor” — while being insignificant to the narrative — still creates a specific story (one having that flavor). Change the flavor, and it’s a (slightly) different story. In that sense, perhaps we are on the same page. In that sense setting is significant to the story as a whole (without being necessary to the narrative or theme). If that’s all you’re saying, then I think we agree.

        Yet, it seems like we have a fundamental difference in how we perceive storytelling. When I asked you about flavor that wasn’t significant to the narrative, you answered: “Maybe, but I don’t see how.”

        Whereas I genuinely don’t fathom why setting has to be significant to the narrative. For me, the significance can vary from zero to vital. I see it as just a property of the story. It can differentiate otherwise identical stories, but maybe that’s all it does.

        A question has occurred to me: Are you seeing this in regard to quality storytelling or just storytelling in general? (My take on it is the same either way, but I am wondering if you’re referring strictly to quality storytelling.)

        Another question that occurs is how much this ties to how you interpret or enjoy a story. You’ve mentioned several times that you tend to find context significant. Is this based on your personal appreciation of stories or are we discussing a theories of storytelling?

        And finally (last question): Why? Assuming this is theory, why is setting required to be significant? Or, alternately, what is wrong with it not being significant?

        Consider this:

        Imagine a story about a person’s struggle with alcohol. It’ll be a redemption theme, so we’ll start with a Scrooge and work them in a fashion that ultimately redeems them. Alcohol has been part of human experience a very long time, so there’s no necessary period required to tell the story.

        Can you not tell exactly the same story, same character, same interactions, same redemption, in a variety of settings? And by “exactly” I mean nearly word for word, minus words that happen to apply to setting.

        Let’s take that further. What about a story with no setting at all?

        Imagine a story, first- or third-person, present- or past-tense, that follows a character, that character’s thoughts, interactions, and dialog, but never ever gives the reader a single clue what the setting is.

        I think it sounds like a really neat exercise!

        (I once roughed out a short story (in first-person present-tense) that follows a character living in a strange situation. There are magical beings and magical events in this story that confuse, threaten, succor, and comfort, the protagonist. The reader is given very few clues as to context or even who the main character is (let alone the others). The punchline is that the main character is a dog and the context is perfectly normal present day. But from a dog’s POV.)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        “A question has occurred to me: Are you seeing this in regard to quality storytelling or just storytelling in general? (My take on it is the same either way, but I am wondering if you’re referring strictly to quality storytelling.)”

        Sorry, I haven’t been very clear! I would say quality storytelling, but I presuppose quality when I read. I suspend disbelief and let the story take me. I think it would take a lot for me not to read into the setting or to see it as something superfluous. That’s not to say that’s what the author intends—which really doesn’t matter much to me—just how I’d interpret the story. The time of year tells us the mood (we associate various things to the seasons, like spring is renewal, etc.), the weather tells us a great deal too, even if it’s used in juxtaposition to the events (which I love), whether or not the setting is mundane is revealing. I can go on and on here. Even the time of day is important. If the story is not told in omniscient, and a POV character comes into a room, what that person notices is character revealing. Hell even in omniscient we learn about the narrator by what details are drawn forth.

        “Another question that occurs is how much this ties to how you interpret or enjoy a story. You’ve mentioned several times that you tend to find context significant. Is this based on your personal appreciation of stories or are we discussing a theories of storytelling?”

        My personal appreciation. Of course, I could work this up into a theory, but remember, I don’t have a background in literature. Really I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to literary critical analysis and what’s been said about it.

        And finally (last question): Why? Assuming this is theory, why is setting required to be significant? Or, alternately, what is wrong with it not being significant?”

        If the setting is not significant, it’s like a dangling thread. It’s ugly. Now that’s just me, but maybe it will help if you think of it in terms of the Ptolemaic system compared to the Copernican system at that time when the two saved the appearances equally. I would just rather not have the epicycles. There’s a sense of elegance that I seek. Now like I said, I’m likely to find meaning there whether it was intended or not. I’ll only find that it wasn’t intended if the author doesn’t seem to be consistent. I haven’t actually had this encounter except in reading novice, unpublished writing where the writer is making use of the weather or something in a way that conflicts with their purpose.

        “Consider this:
        Imagine a story about a person’s struggle with alcohol. It’ll be a redemption theme, so we’ll start with a Scrooge and work them in a fashion that ultimately redeems them. Alcohol has been part of human experience a very long time, so there’s no necessary period required to tell the story. Can you not tell exactly the same story, same character, same interactions, same redemption, in a variety of settings? And by “exactly” I mean nearly word for word, minus words that happen to apply to setting.”

        I don’t think so. I think I should clarify what I mean by theme. As I understand it, theme binds together various elements in a story. It’s purpose is more than binding; it aims to tell us a truth about the world. Theme is something to be discovered through analysis of various parts: setting, dialogue, characterization, mood, even syntax. Really everything can be scrutinized in order to reveal theme. The best works reveal more and more the deeper you get in this analysis, and themes are found consistent and even expanded at all levels. There’s a great joy in this discovery, at least for me.

        I get the sense that you’re talking about plot, and at a basic level. Or maybe it would simply be called “subject” or something like that. A story about an alcoholic’s redemption can be told in many ways and in many contexts, but the theme could be a lot of things. Theme is of course tied to this basic subject, but it extends far beyond. So that’s why I say that context is almost always intertwined with theme (plot is another matter and only sometimes is context tied to that). And like I said, I can’t imagine context not being tied to theme. I suppose it’s possible, but I probably wouldn’t feel like the author is in control. Of course, the context or setting or whatever we want to call it is tied to theme in various degrees, and for a lot of (maybe most) novels, context is only used in a minimal way or just for that scene to convey a temporary mood. Still that temporary mood reveals where the story is going or who the characters are. So these things get intertwined.

        So let’s imagine that alcoholic recovery story. Just one scene, and only weather, just for clarity. So imagine that the alcoholic is at a low point in his drinking and it’s sunny outside, perfect puffy cumulous clouds and such. What does that mean? Life goes on without him. The world is happy, he is not. This is a great juxtaposition. This could work really well with the themes of the rest of the story, depending on further evidence, especially if he feels himself an outsider or misunderstood. Now imagine it’s raining out. Kind of cliche, but maybe it could work. Internal and external seem to coincide. Sadness is represented. Or maybe not, depending on further evidence. Something can be made of this correspondence and that could be interesting. Now imagine it’s windy out. Ominous, a change is coming. This could be foreshadowing, and so would relate to plot. Of course, if a hurricane is coming, this is a big deal and something must be made of it.

        “Let’s take that further. What about a story with no setting at all?”

        What a challenge! Perhaps we have a very internal kind of character. This is also revealing of theme. If we continue to have no setting revealed, this could get very irritating as he’d just feel like he’s floating in space, just a talking head. This could be effective too, in the right hands, but the point is…this says quite a lot! It’s actually so extreme to have no context that it would draw attention to itself and would have to mean something.

        I like your story idea, BTW! I didn’t know you wrote fiction! When did this start? Do you still do it?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m reminded of the teacher of a theatre lighting class who told us that “any lighting plot (design) has a message.” That message might just be “it’s day” or “it’s not dark” but there is always a message. The symbolism may be mundane, even thoughtless, but it does exist.

        On this account you and I (and that teacher) agree completely. Where we may (?) differ is in how significant that symbolism is or needs to be. You might read a lot of meaning into “it’s day” but that meaning may not actually be there.

        I think that’s why I resist notions of (what I perceive as) excessive symbolism. I think some level of caution is required, some awareness of how one brings ones own perceptions into art. That’s unavoidable and not wrong in any way, but I feel there needs to be an awareness of the distinction. And this is not to say that some art isn’t filled with intentional symbolism.

        There is a tension between the fact that everything in a work of art was put there by the artist and the idea that everything put there always has significant and necessary meaning. It is possible to read too much into the symbolism of a work. Or to misread the artist’s intent. In general the use of symbolism runs the risk of aging badly, not translating across culture, or being missed or misinterpreted.

        There’s a scene in the Jet Li movie, Hero (well worth seeing — it’s gorgeous cinematography), that takes place in the rain. The rain adds a wonderful beauty to the fight scene: the sounds and sights make a great martial arts fight scene stunningly beautiful.

        The film also makes breath-taking use of color primarily to differentiate things that would be spoilers to reveal. But Asians have different symbolic binding to colors than Westerners. White, for example, is linked with death. The colors were almost certainly selected with some intent, but we’d need know about Asian color symbolism to fully understand why.

        Not knowing doesn’t damage the ability to enjoy the film (which truly is spectacular), but no doubt knowing adds to the understanding of the artist’s choices.

        To me this is like the tension between how knowing the context of the artist can inform your perception of their art and the idea that art should be able to stand on its own. Knowing may add, but not knowing shouldn’t take away. Likewise, being blind to symbolism shouldn’t damage ones perception of a narrative, but seeing it (correctly) may add to the perception.

        “If the setting is not significant, it’s like a dangling thread. It’s ugly.”
        I can appreciate your sense of elegance. I have the same sense with to engineering and science. Exactly as you say, epicycles lacked elegance. It translates to what you’ve been saying all along about nothing extra, every part playing an important role.

        I just don’t share that sense when it comes to art, which I see as very different from engineering or science. Art can have style and creative flourishes, and it may be that our only difference is in how much meaning and significance we read into those.

        Other things:

        ¶ Theme and plot: I define plot as the events a story tells. Theme is what the story is about. A Christmas Carol has a plot about a guy, named Scrooge, and some ghosts. Its theme is redemption.

        ¶ I wasn’t planning to mention the weather in the alcoholic story! 🙂 The example was more about whether the setting really had anything to do with the story.

        ¶ The no-setting story would have plenty of character interaction, dialog, internal thoughts, and whatnot. What it wouldn’t have are any clues about era or country. It would be — as a lot of poetry is — timeless and placeless.

        Yes, that does mean something, but it may mean simply: this story is timeless and placeless. (I would think you’d appreciate the elegance of that! 😀 )

        ¶ I wrote fiction in high school and college. I don’t anymore for the same reason I didn’t pursue music or skydiving: I’m not good enough; I don’t seem to quite have what it takes to excel.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        “Where we may (?) differ is in how significant that symbolism is or needs to be. You might read a lot of meaning into “it’s day” but that meaning may not actually be there.”

        Which is why what I read into things is always up for discussion! I make connections, put them out there, see if they jive. Sometimes they don’t and it seems I’ve made too much of nothing. Sometimes someone will point out that my connections don’t make sense.

        “In general the use of symbolism runs the risk of aging badly, not translating across culture, or being missed or misinterpreted.”

        I think what you say about this is spot on:

        “Knowing may add, but not knowing shouldn’t take away. Likewise, being blind to symbolism shouldn’t damage ones perception of a narrative, but seeing it (correctly) may add to the perception.”

        I see a great work as having layers of interpretation. I’m not gonna catch all the references in Tolstoy because I don’t have enough knowledge of the historical background. At some level, I’m missing a lot. But I can still come away with a great deal even just at the surface level because there is still so much that’s universal.

        It’s interesting what you say about culture and symbols. My mother used to tell me some pretty weird things about dreams, none of which I really bought into, but the cultural symbolism was interesting. I once told her about a strange dream I had in which there was animal poop smeared all over the walls, and she told me it meant I would come into money. The fact that it was a lot of poop was particularly exciting to her. I just looked this up to see if my mom was just being uniquely weird, but apparently it’s a thing:

        http://prostheticknowledge.tumblr.com/post/428393974/eun-in-korea-poop

        We would undoubtedly react differently to such a dream. Just goes to show placing a story in cultural context does have payoffs.

        The no-setting story would certainly be tricky to write! Totally possible, but you’d have to watch out for all those details that give away a time period.

        And yes, I would appreciate the elegance of timelessness!

        Wow, skydiving? Someone would have to pay me millions of dollars to do that, and even then I might decline. Maybe a gun to the head would get me to jump. How was that?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I see a great work as having layers of interpretation.”
        Mos def! I think that is part of what makes them great works. It’s also part of what makes great narratives worth returning to time and again.

        “I once told [my mom] about a strange dream I had in which there was animal poop smeared all over the walls, and she told me it meant I would come into money.”
        I wonder where that symbolism descends from! Manure represents wealth in terms of prosperous crops? Success and prosperity leads to eating lots of food which leads to lots of visits to the outhouse?

        In any event, it’s a great illustration of the pitfalls of cross-culture symbolism. USAniams would totally take a different read off that! You’d need something like the dialog between you and your mom to make it clear to readers.

        “Just goes to show placing a story in cultural context does have payoffs.”
        Absolutely. We’ve never disagreed that context can be a huge part of storytelling!

        “How was [skydiving]?”
        Awesome! It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. It breaks my heart I wasn’t good enough to pursue it. I could never quite overcome the adrenaline rush enough to function calmly enough to play in skydiver games.

        If you like, you can read this post about my first AFF (skydiver training) jump (the two links in the first ‘graph lead to stories about my first and second skydives). And The CASA Boogie post is about one of the best (skydiving) days I ever had. (The first link in the first ‘graph there leads to a story about my AFF graduation.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        P.S. I’m not sure I was clear about the fax machines. The authors didn’t imagine them from the whole cloth. They projected existing fax machines decades into the future assuming the only change would be much better versions (including pocket versions). They completely missed the texting revolution! Likewise authors who assumed magnetic tape would always be a thing — completely missing the role of hard drives and solid state memory.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        LOL! A pocket fax machine? Do these still print paper? Like little business cards?

        And I don’t even know what magnetic tape is.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The pocket fax machines in SF printed on small pieces of paper, yes. Ironically, we do have “pocket fax” machines now in that many smart phones can receive and display faxes. What many authors completely missed — given the CRT display technology of the day — was the rise of flat-panel and miniature displays. They just assumed old-style TVs would just get better.

        No smilie, so you’re not kidding about “magnetic tape”? The stuff that’s used in “reel-to-real tape decks” or “eight-track tapes” or “audio cassettes” or “VHS cassettes”? You’re just not connecting that term with those things, yes?

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Oh! Yes, you’re right. I didn’t know it was called magnetic tape! I was thinking of tape that sticks to refrigerators or something. 🙂

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I hope I don’t sound like a terrible snob!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, heavens no! You sound like a wonderful snob! 😛

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I walked right into that one! 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Never hand me an irresistible straight line! 😈

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