I’ve returned to the land of the living. My eyes track. I can walk through a doorway without colliding with a doorjamb. I can even keep up a conversation without sliding sideways off my chair onto the floor. Next week I climb the Matterhorn. Bravissimo!
I looked through the news feeds. And, so help me, I even considered watching the Georgia run-off. But there just wasn’t anything the least bit interesting. I even considered pulling a Jussie Smollett. I was going to claim that a Canon camera enthusiast sent me a derogatory e-mail making fun of my many bison photos of the day. But my hard-bitten honesty just wouldn’t let me do it. I love those bison!
I thought, “I’ll just write about something I like.” After all that post about nuclear war had some great comments and that stuff really interests me. Why not do something like that? So that’s why this is coming out of left field. I just didn’t feel like beating a political drum that’s already been beaten to a bloody pulp.
So, for a theme I’ll select the question, “What’s the most important component of a good science fiction story?”
Is it the tech? Is it a good plot? Is it well written characters? Or does it absolutely require some balance between the three?
Let’s explore this a little bit. Start with tech. I suppose that space opera has lost a lot of support among the modern readers of science fiction. Stuff like the Skylark of Space, The Legion of Space or the Lensman books are probably disqualified as too naïve and hopelessly early 20th century for anyone under sixty to consider reading. But is the inexplicable faster than light (ftl) drives of these stories any less plausible than whatever also implausible ftl drives are currently being used by modern science fiction writers? I’ve got to say I don’t think they’re disqualifications. I’d say the rule is it just has to be self-consistent with whatever “rules” you’ve made up for the tech. So, it doesn’t have to be somehow scientifically accurate. It just can’t be bone-headedly stupid. What it does have to be is convenient. The technology has to allow the plot to evolve the way you want. If space travel takes centuries, then don’t kill off too many good characters by leaving them back on Earth. Or if time travel can only go backwards then don’t leave your spare batteries for your ray gun in your other pair of pants when you head back to the neolithic.
And the tech should be a fun toy for the reader if you can manage it. I always loved how Heinlein lovingly designed his “torchships” and made the passenger and service areas of his ships seem well thought out. But I also know of authors whose tech is basically a black box and for all we hear we could be sitting inside the fuselage of a jet plane.
While tech is necessary (after all it is sf) it’s not the deciding factor whether a story works.
Well, how about characters? Yes, they are important, in the sense that they must at least exist. But I’ve read some supposedly classic science fiction where the characters are as flat as pancakes (Asimov and Clarke come to mind). Now this may no longer be the case. I’m not sure. I enjoy a good amount of character development in my fiction and I’ve been able to find it. But I could easily believe there could be a very good story where character was in short supply.
What about plot? Well, I could imagine a story that had a strong tech component and interesting characters but the plot was almost minimal. Maybe like some of Bradbury’s short stories like the one where the Ladies’ Sewing Circle is trying to ignore the impending nuclear holocaust by concentrating on their work. It’s all character. But I guess you still have to say there’s a plot or more like a scenario.
I feel like, for the most part, and except for very odd stories, the sine qua non of a good science fiction story is a good plot. If your tech is passable and your characters are at least bearable but you have a plot that rolls along and interesting stuff happening then you have a chance. But you can have great tech and witty, erudite, droll fellows populating your world and if not much of anything is happening except talk, then your readers will throw the book against the wall (or the digital equivalent) and go look for something better. And that’s that!
Now I know there are many sf fans in the audience. I’d love to hear your comments, especially if you disagree. I’m always interested in the opinions of sf readers. The floor is now yours.