Narrative Voice in Science Fiction

I have no pretensions at being a science-fiction writer. When I was a little boy, almost all the stories I made up had spaceships in them, but that goes to show how little I knew about the genre. Susan Sontag called science fiction a close relative of pornography. It was to me, in a way. Just as you really do not care about the plot or story when you are reading smut, I had little interest in the human aspirations and character emotions as long as there were robots and aliens that made things go bang, boom and zoom.

After I had become acquainted with George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury, I composed very few stories that could be characterized as science fiction. There was this one time, back in the ’80s when “portable” telephones were too large to fit in brief cases, I envisioned a pocket sized communication device through which you could read messages posted from around the world. A schoolgirl mixed up in a murder asked for help through this device and not only received vital information on how to escape, but gained millions of viewers voyeuristically following her escapades. If I had committed that story to print I would have been credited for predicting Twitter.

But the more I wrote, the more I realized that science fiction was not my medium. Science fiction was born from a need to expand our horizons when people stopped believing in ghosts, fairies, and angels. The original audience of Hamlet responded to the story differently because a lot of people actually believed in ghosts in Shakespeare’s time. Even when it was a stretch to suspend your disbelief about ghosts, there was a time when it was easier to entertain the possibility of Martians invading Earth, or dinosaurs surviving in the depths of the Amazon jungle. My idea that someday something like Twitter might be realized was in line with this genre. You create an adventure story just within the borderline of the believable, maybe even possible, sometime in the future.

But “science” in fiction is only speculation. It is a stand-in for ghosts, fairies, and angels that we do not believe in anymore. As such, these imaginary elements must engage our emotions in the way ghosts and angels used to. In short, Twitter doesn’t cut it.

True science fiction is hard to imagine, hard to compose, and hard to write. Not only is it highly dependent on how you “tell” (and not “show”) important plot points, but you must mask the “telling” in a stylistic smoke screen.

Here is a passage from Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Among his kind, Moon-Watcher was almost a giant. He was nearly five feet high, and though badly undernourished weighed over a hundred pounds. His hairy, muscular body was halfway between ape and man, but his head was already much nearer to man than ape. The forehead was low, and there were ridges over the eye sockets, yet he unmistakably held in his genes the promise of humanity. As he looked out upon the hostile world of the Pleistocene, there was already something in his gaze beyond the capacity of any ape. In those dark, deep-set eyes was a dawning awareness – the first intimations of an intelligence that could not possibly fulfill itself for ages yet, and might soon be extinguished forever.

All telling and no showing, it could be the script for a Discovery Channel documentary. But it also carries an authoritative, almost Biblical, voice. You can hear it in the voice of a preacher giving a sermon, or in the tone of John F. Kennedy giving a speech.

Here is a passage from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:

The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered. He almost thought he heard the motion of her hands as she walked, and the infinitely small sound now, the white stir of her face turning when she discovered she was a moment away from a man who stood in the middle of the pavement waiting.

Whether this is telling or showing is hard to tell, but it is exposition for certain. Current vogue is to cut exposition to a minimum, which is a rule that Bradbury, and many other science fiction writers, ignore with abandon. Unlike the Biblical, documentary intoning of Clark’s voice, Brandbury is more lyrical and more poetic and rambles through a 46-word sentence. It projects the voice of an American narrator; an old-timey Hollywood voice. Try reading a Bradbury short story after watching Vincent Price recite Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. You will see what I mean.

Frank Herbert, on the other hand, sounds vaguely Oriental:

Paul sensed his own tensions, decided to practice one of the mind-body lessons his mother had taught him. Three quick breaths triggered the responses: he fell into the floating awareness . . . focusing the consciousness . . .aortal dilation . . . avoiding the unfocused mechanism of consciousness . . . to be conscious by choice . . . blood enriched and swift-flooding the overload regions . . . one does not obtain food-safety-freedom by instinct alone . . .animal consciousness does not extend beyond the given moment nor into the idea that its victims may become extinct . . . the animal destroys and does not produce . . . animal pleasures remain close to sensation levels and avoid the perceptual . . . the human requires a background grid through which to see his universe . . . focused consciousness by choice, this forms your grid . . .bodily integrity follows nerve-blood flow according to the deepest awareness of cell needs . . . all things/cells/beings are impermanent . . . strive for flow permanence within . . .  

Is there Deepak Chopra in there somewhere? Part of this must be the reflection of 1960’s counter culture that adopted various elements from Oriental mysticism. Oddly, it seems to read best if you imagine the voice of Shakespearean actors like Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen.

Phillip K. Dick exudes a much more distinctive voice. His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep opens with a tense dialogue that sets both the tone and the future world stage in a distilled movie-script sort of way. The first person POV narration sounds as intimate as Phillip Marlowe’s investigation monologue.

The morning air, spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun — beclouding, belched
about him, haunting his nose; fie sniffed involuntarily the taint of death. Well, that was too strong a description for it, he decided as he made his way to the particular plot of sod which he owned along with the unduly large apartment below. The legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties. Despite his lead codpiece the dust — undoubtedly — filtered in and at him, brought him daily, so long as he failed to emigrate, its little load of befouling filth. So far, medical checkups taken monthly confirmed him as a regular: a man who could reproduce within the tolerances set by law. Any month, however, the exam by the San Francisco Police Department doctors could reveal otherwise. Continually, new specials came into existence, created out of regulars by the omnipresent dust. The saying currently blabbed by posters, TV ads, and government junk mail, ran: “Emigrate or degenerate! The choice is yours! ” Very true, Rick thought as he opened the gate to his little pasture and approached his electric sheep. But I can’t emigrate, he said to himself. Because of my job.

Voice in science fiction is very important because you face it over long stretches of intricate exposition; not just an exposition of something you can clearly see, like that of an old manor home that appears in a Dickens novel, but an exposition of a world that nobody has seen with technologies and cultures that are not yet invented.

I have stated before that it takes time and experience to develop a voice. And that is why I do not recommend science fiction to young aspiring writers, or fantasy either for that matter. Creating a suitable voice is a daunting task.

That is not to say that there are crafty sci-fi works out there that have almost no multi-paragraph expositions and cut straight to the chase. The Hunger Games comes to mind. Books like these do not depend on heavily affected voices. They are like sharks. They survive by staying in motion. As such they require a different skill set to write. Most people do not seem to categorize “speculative fiction” like The Hunger Games as science fiction, even though they follow the same tropes.

As a matter of fact, science fiction no longer seems to be defined by spaceships, aliens, and robots that go bang, boom, and zoom. It never should have been. There once was a time when Star Wars was a representative example of science fiction, but it isn’t anymore. Science fiction is not a close relative of pornography, but of fantasy. It is a fairy tale without the fairies, but substituted by something slightly more believable. We do not need robots and aliens for that.

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