Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Literary science fiction and big ideas

So why bother writing science fiction that incorporates big ideas from philosophy or science? After all, this is a genre that's become much more character driven over the past twenty years. And why take a chance on bogging down the narrative by salting in the necessary explanations to communicate those concepts? Then there is the extra effort required while world building to ensure that the important ideas not only reflect in the shape of the protagonist's life, but in the immediate choices that he or she faces.

After all, book sales continue to decline along with the advances that authors depend upon. So it's almost madness to undertake anything that runs the risk of distracting readers from a tight-paced narrative or that might give an editor pause.

Well, one reason to take a chance on big ideas is that there is an audience for them. One that you can make good money from, if you use your important concepts well.

For example, research that you've been doing on cutting-edge DNA reclamation techniques could end up becoming a novel inspired by the idea of "what if we could us these technologies to harvest the preserved DNA of dinosaurs and bring them back to life...in a nature park!"

A crazy notion to be sure, but sometimes best seller material in practice.

Having said that, it's not easy to sell concept- or technology-driven novels to editors. Even a brief look at the some of the best selling, ground-breaking idea-based novels revels that it's sometimes necessary for pioneering authors to make an end run around the gate keepers.

* Dune. Frank Herbert ended up going to an automotive manual publisher to get his novel of ecology, social engineering, and messianic religion into print.

* Tom Clancy. Both Clancy and Larry Bond, the founders of the techno-thriller had to go through the Naval Institute Press in order to get the first novels in that genre published.

* Daemon and Freedom™. Daniel Suarez could not get his near future novels about programing, robotics, and artificial intelligence picked up by traditional publishing houses at first. With some savvy PR work and self-publishing his story went on to become a recent multi-million best seller that was eventually picked up by Penguin.

Personally, I'm hoping not to have to go that route with my first novel. Having won a major industry writing contest and with several short stories going out the door this month, I'm plan on having my foot as firmly as possible in the door when I start shopping out my first novel later this year. But as with all things, we will see. I believe that I've got a good book-length story to sell, but it does approach human augmentation, biotechnology war, and the social responses to changing technology from within the larger perspective of humanity's biological and cultural evolution.

I think that people will be interested in these ideas. In recent years we've learned a lot about who we are as a species from our genes and the observed functionality of our brains, even as we continue to develop technologies to alter these building blocks of the self. And of course the pitfalls and opportunities made possible by such changes will give rise to a matrix of individual and social tensions.

Which is another reason to write science fiction that incorporates big ideas. To take part as an author in the Great Dialog between science, philosophy, and society. After all, fiction writers are a part of the chain of dissemination that moves ideas from laboratories, engineering test facilities, and the halls of academia into the into spheres of culture and public perception. Whether it's encapsulating the concepts of ecology in a dramatic narrative set on a desert planet, explaining how DNA might be reconstituted from unusual sources, or showcasing the synergy of technology and people in a military environment, we are often the transmitters of new ideas. Our playground in doing so is the intersection point of dilemmas within individuals where the changing worlds of the natural sciences, technology, speculative ideas, and culture meet.

Next up. The biological paradigm in science fiction: distortions, misconceptions, and the New Humanism

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