The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What's Your "What If?"?

So yesterday I spoke with the gentleman at MIT who wants me to write a story for their anthology. Now, this demands a number of different things, but the values of storytelling are controlled not only by such elements as theme and poetics, but also genre. The science fiction genre is a sub-set of fantasy, in that the core aspects must not only have an internal consistency, but also be congruent with the laws of physics. Or...those rules must be broken only consciously, sparingly, and with full awareness that the reader knows what you've done...and is suspending their disbelief in the hope that you will take them on a great and wondrous journey.

While there are many different definitions of the field of "science fiction" (or "speculative fiction" or whatever), I personally like to concentrate on the above definition, and Robert Heinlein's admonition that SF writers are asking one of three questions:

1) "What If?" (for instance: what if atomic energy caused grasshoppers to grow to the size of buses? The basic premise of many cheesy, enjoyable creature features.)

2) "If only..." (for instance: what if a man could slip into the past and prevent the Kennedy assassination? The basic premise of Stephen King's novel "11/22/63"

3) "If this goes on" (for instance: what if human population continues to expand in a Malthusian fashion? The basic premise of "Soylant Green" and other ecological disaster tales)

There are other ways of looking at the field. The important thing is that you must have your own theory, consciously or unconsciously pursued, and enough of your potential audience must agree that they recognize the tropes and tricks, and can relax and enjoy the show.


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