A New Grammar for Science Fiction

Science Fiction is no longer a novelty.

We do not want to read Science Fiction because it is set in the future. Science Fiction must offer some deeper, truer view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.


Five Emotional States Every SF Writer Should Be Familiar With... has a post up today, 20 Crucial Terms Every 21st Century Futurist Should Know. It's standard, io9-content, heavy on ideas, light on the emotional consequences of the ideas. Reading the article, I couldn't help but conclude that IO9 simply doesn't get it. I mean do authors, artists, futurists, really need to understand these concepts? I would argue that even if these concepts are understood, you cannot make any good art out of them until you get your head around how these changes will affect, you know, people. So, in the spirit of trying to help out, here is a more important list, of just five emotional states you'll need to understand if you want to make good future fiction.


1. Overwhelmed by possibilities: 500 channels, six flavors of ketchup, several (shitty) types of emo-core, endless phone, computer, and tablet choices... It can all get a little overwhelming. This is an important emotional state, and will be increasingly common in the future. No longer can your SF character exist smug and comfortable in the future with everything in easy reach. Our characters must now encounter option paralysis (not the album by Dillinger Escape Plan). We have too much to choose from and the result is often stultifying, paralyzing, and numbing. Now having a bunch of choices is a hassle, in the future it will be painful.

2: Deeply and utterly in love with someone, or something: This is a fun one - scary - but fun. In the future, people won't be fundamentally different. In fact, our capacity for love is unchanging; from the earliest days, humanity has been into loving. On the one hand love is biological, part of nature's great script for preservation. On the other hand, love is transcendent, and in a way alleviates some of the existential angst we face. Love pulls us off course. Don't forget to have your characters immobilized by love, traumatized by past love, trampled and smothered by love. I'm coming to realize that pretty much every person is suffering some kind of post-traumatic stress stemming from some prior run in with love.

3: Terrified of your own flawed nature: Sure, the abyss is terrifying. But even scarier is the abyss within yourself. I mean when you really think about it, the stuff you don't know about yourself is nearly endless - and it's important stuff: why you are here, the meaning of life, the surest road to satisfaction. What's really scary is when you can't figure out why you do something. Don't feel like you always have to have answers. You don't need to always know why your character is doing something. There are wonderful, terrifying mysteries in the universe, and within ourselves.

4: Utterly disappointed in technology: In SF it's quite common for technology to solve the problem: a new warp core and the spaceship is good to go. But think about how often technology disappoints you - cars break down, computers crash, guitars go out of tune, CDs skip, refrigerators break and all the food inside spoils. Don't imagine any of this is gonna change. Instead, technology is just going to worm its way deeper and deeper into our lives. Vacation ruined when pacemaker gave out. Marriage changed when personality upgrade expired. Life altered by nano-virus which forced infected to buy gauche art. Technology, like love, runs roughshod over your characters.

5: Strangely ambivalent about your station in life: Too often SF uses sort of cardboard cut-out characters who wear their singular motivation on their sleeve, as it were. Guy who lost his sister, on a quest to find her. Space prince vowing to avenge his father's death. Notice this rarely becomes something cool like Space pilot searches for will to get out of bed. And yet, rising from the womb-like comfort of our mattress to face the unremitting cruelty of the universe and time, well that's a heroic act. Don't be afraid to put your character in between emotional states, in between a kind of push and pull - the push of ambition against the pull of occasional laziness, the push of desire to please parents against the pull of teenage rebellion. We are not ever just one thing. It's like that old guy said, We contain multitudes. Don't be afraid to cram more multitudes in your characters. In fact here's my first fiction writing rule: "Put multitudes in your dudes."