What is truly incredible about the human mind is its capacity to generate scenarios that are manufactured wholesale. Everyone creates what-if concepts in their imagination, and weighs the various likelihoods of a given circumstance to come about. This intentional striving for pre-cognition guides all of us to make many of our choices based upon our best estimation of what is likely to happen. Almost always, the reality we generate in our minds isn’t what occurs. Sometimes we’re pretty good at determining the course of events, other times… not so much. Still, our minds never quit trying to divulge the arrangement of the future before it arrives. This may appear a mundane facet of life, but it’s surprisingly different than the average experience of most of nature.
Considering that, I’ve thought back to some of my favorite fiction novels and stories, trying to ascertain how much of the actual text consists of the characters attempting to foresee the future. It varies by author, but most stories must contain a great deal of this phenomenon, and really ought to, given that it is part of the human makeup. Whether used to disguise what is actually coming down the pike (playing with the reader’s unknowns), or to make easier the explanation of the events when they actually occur; pre-cognition is an enormously valuable tool for writers, especially considering that readers are going to be using their own discerning powers to interact with the story.
That’s the real key here. The human mind is one of intense classification and investigation. It attempts to dissect every aspect of the world and fit each edge into the puzzle of reality, as often with disastrously inaccurate interpretations as with sound results. For writers, this is a mixed blessing. Readers will be ever on the lookout to find holes in a plot and so every story must be meticulously combed and surveyed for any potential issues with the plot, characters, settings, etc. At the same time, readers don’t want a book’s viewpoint to constantly justify what is happening. Such a strenuous over-emphasis to explain a scenario is only necessary when the scenario really doesn’t work and shouldn’t have been offered. Authors must construct plausible arrangements and circumstances that fascinate while passing every test of circumstance for the average reader, and it must pass these tests without the reader even knowing he is submitting the story to a screening for realism.
Resulting from all this is a proliferation of genres, not only because readers and writers will be particular as to the things they like, but also because each genre maintains different standards of plausibility at any given time. Here’s what I mean: a reader of thriller novels would find many characters in a biography much more suspect than they ought, while a fan of biographies would consider the antagonists in a thriller to be deranged and the protagonists to be paranoid. These distinctions are of note, even among people who read all manner of books.
For writers and readers of science fiction, there can be a great plausibility hazard and benefit all wrapped up into a finicky package. Where else can you find ludicrously outlandish ideas considered commonplace and conceptually normal, while at the same time the truly commonplace is considered too normal to be acceptable vogue? It’s this paradox which makes science fiction a vibrant marketplace of stories. We can embrace the profoundly imaginative and unshackle ourselves of the usual, law-bound limits of reality. I’ve mentioned the dichotomy between fantasy literature and science fiction before, but here I will say that fantasy alters the rules of reality, redefines them to a very different state. Yet, as often as science fiction embraces all scientific rules of reality, it also abolishes any such rule. Because of this, science fiction seems to offer an impressively diverse allowance of concepts. A quick note of advice about science fiction: if you want to sell something really big, have your characters treat it as the regular sort of affair. It is the normalcy of very foreign ideas that can bring them quickly to acceptance.
Nevertheless, what will always stand out in any genre is the plausibility of a given story. Having a great idea is a wonderful start, but that idea must be implemented carefully so that its realness is maximized in the mind of the reader. Without that texture, that flavor of reality, a writer would have a tough time selling a given story. Think of Firefly/Serenity’s language structure. Intermixing phrasing and wording of an evolved English language (including the occasional use of Mandarin, which is altogether reasonable for the future) gave Firefly a unique texture that it would have otherwise lacked (though little seems to impress Fox). Between the vibrant grain of language and the well-written interaction between very authentic-feeling characters, Firefly was good enough to generate a gargantuan following with only half a season of episodes.
Everyone knows my warm spot for The Hunger Games (see my fanfiction links to the right). Collins generates a realistic texture, which is able to sell a wildly different future, by making Katniss a very relatable viewpoint, though she remains unique and distinct in many ways as well. She’s stand-offish, and yet most readers adore her. In truth, a small fraction of readers don’t get what the Hunger Games hype is all about, because Katniss’ attitude can come across as bitter and lame. But most of us really associated with her. There seems to be a strong one-on-one companionship between her character and whatever level of alienation complex is felt by the average reader. It’s the grit about Katniss Everdeen that makes her character so compelling.
Texture can make the difference between good and terrible in the reader’s eyes. What is plausible is only made so in its context, the framework through which it is viewed. Think of texture as the contact points. When you’re driving a car, all of the parts of the car are designed for many functions, but it’s the tires which translate the fundamental purpose of the vehicle; hence the phrase, ‘where the rubber meets the road.’ It’s the place that matters the most. This is what texture is for a book. It must be consistent and it must be present.
About a week ago, I ran across a short story that really grabbed my attention. A Pail of Air a fantastic sci-fi story. Its setting is conceptually familiar to me, in that Sunlost (my current work in progress) bears a passing similarity in terms of setting, although the mechanics are entirely different. The texture aim remains different as well, but never mind that.
A Pail of Air shows a world that has cooled until its very atmosphere has frozen in a thick blanket of powder on the ground. No one survived except for one small family who must shovel air into buckets and bring them inside their shelter to feed oxygen to their fire.
It’s short and suspenseful, and will probably stir up misgivings of claustrophobia (or perhaps even agoraphobia). The author, Fritz Leiber, generated a texture both bleak and stunning, which is really why it has stayed in my mind since I read it.
Now, to be sure, Sunlost isn’t anything like A Pail of Air. There’s still atmosphere in my forthcoming book, and there’re several large societies of a few million people total, all of them living in vast underground mines. In fact the surface in Sunlost might be slightly harsher than that in A Pail of Air. When you have no atmosphere, a space suit can contain heat very well, since there is no surrounding matter to transmit heat into. But when your atmosphere is oppressively cold, while still in gaseous form, any environmental suit will rapidly transmit thermal energy away, requiring constant heating to preserve the occupant.
Regardless, I was quite forcefully diverted by the story and decided to convert it into digital formats. It’s available online here, and I copied the text from that page and made a PDF, an epub, and a mobi file, all of which are available for free here. Hope you enjoy it! Sunlost to come soon!