Thursday, February 21, 2002
Imagine you are reading a book set in the year 2002. You come to this passage:
She needed to go to the grocery store. There, she would purchase food (some of which came in containers), using the small, round coins and green, rectangular papers known as bills. She left her house through the door -- which was made of wood and closed behind her on hinges -- and got into her car. This car was a vehicle with four wheels, two of which were turned by a drivetrain. The power for the drivetrain came from a series of coordinated explosions of a liquid fuel known as gasoline...You get the picture. Imagine having to write a story and, knowing your readers are ignorant, having to describe the most commonplace things. That's what it's like writing SF -- because, of course, the commonplace things in 2134 or on Arrakis are utterly unknown to your readers.
Now, I've always hated this part of writing SF. I love concocting the weirdness of imaginary ages and places; but trying to describe things without falling into some sort of Tolkienesque excess is a real chore.* I've never admired SF that exists for the speculative constructions; I confess I can like reading it, but I don't admire it. My feeling about SF is that, at its best, it should be no different than straight literature. And this means skillfully weaving the weirdness into the human tale, so that the reader is never tripped up by any talk of "coordinated explosions of liquid fuel."
One of the things I loved about cyberpunk was that it just went forward. Man, it could be so filled with technojunk but the best authors just said it, as if they were talking about spatulas or garden hoses. That has always been my standard. I don't know that I have always met it; but I try to avoid explaining anything that, really, is just a spatula in the story.
And the things that are rather more important than kitchen utensils? Well, in the case of The Spare Midge, the lace between Midge and her sister is pivotal; the reader really does have to undertand how it works. At the same time, though, I try to be, oh, untechnical about it, even while employing technical language. Notice how I mention "folded quanta" -- what the hell are those? How should I know? I'm being suggestive. I'm not writing a treatise on aether-mediated dual-mind integration, which would be BORING. What matters is the effect of the lace, on the characters and the plot; as long as I make the lace's nature and effect acceptable to the mind of the reader, the speculative construction can be mostly unspoken.