“I’m thinking of doing some blogs on how to write science fiction,” I say.
Nige appears to consider this statement. Either that or he’s mesmerised by the upwards travelling bubbles in his pint of Stella.
“Do you know how to write science fiction, Tel?” he says.
I’m about to protest that I’ve been a professional writer for longer than he’s been patching up holes in walls with damp newspaper and Polyfilla but realise he really means ‘science’.
“Good question. There’s a bit of a war that goes on in SF as it happens, between soft and hard types.”
“I’ve heard they go on about that quite a bit in the porn industry, too.”
A rumbling, mumbling, loosely parallel set of noises starts up at the musicians’ end of the pub. It might be ‘Desolation Row’ by Bob Dylan. Or it could be ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele. Perhaps they’re so indistinct in order to avoid any claims for royalty payments.
“Some critics claim, ” I say, “that SF’s nothing much more than a scientific idea stretched out across a lot of one-dimensional exposition. Either that or it’s all light sabres and spaceships making impossible engine noises in space. Or, in the case of art house SF movies, both.”
“In other words,” he says, “leaving aside the movies, hard SF is only read by hard scientists who probably don’t read much fiction anyway, whereas soft SF isn’t read by anyone much because it’s too literary and literary lovers wouldn’t be seen dead reading SF.”
“Um, actually, that’s not a bad summing up. The frustrating thing, though, is that literary ideas can be really enhanced by SF, because you can use it to accentuate the conditions that affect us all.”
“Well, the last few years with my missus was somewhat akin to being somewhere no one can hear you scream.”
“I have a theory.”
“That she’s going to say sorry and return Led Zep albums, those and my masculine dignity?”
“It’s not just accentuation – the really good SF writers actually lead with interpretation, awareness and proposition.”
“Now you sound like the introduction to a business seminar. Let me get some more drinks.”
The musical rumblings lumber into a different set of possibly parallel noises. It could be ‘Come on Eileen’ or it could be ‘Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West’. I realise that it doesn’t really matter.
While Nige is at the bar, I try to marshal my thoughts. I’ve often noticed that someone who has greater insight and awareness and ability to detect the motives of others accordingly, is usually ignored by everyone else. Well, not ignored so much as just not seen. Perhaps you can’t ‘see’ someone who has more insight than you. Insight is developed out of meaningful observation; and if you don’t have that ability, you simply won’t see what it portends.
The real prophets are not the holy book thumpers; they’re the quiet people in the corner of the room, reading everyone else around them. They could predict someone’s future, but they never get asked to.
Nige returns with two pints and looks at me curiously. “I worked with this guy once, a plasterer,” he says. “Now, you don’t talk much while you’re slapping on the plaster but this guy didn’t say anything even in tea breaks or the occasional team trip to the local boozer. We all thought he was a bit simple, notwithstanding his skill with a trowel. Then, one night, after we’d all had a few and we were gooning on about footy or some such crap, I glanced at him and just for a second, before he adjusted his expression, I saw this kind of knowing glint in his eye. And I realised he’d been reading us all, probably understood us better than we did. I vowed to myself that I’d get him on his own soon and ask him what he saw.”
“But you never did.”
“Nope. I guess I was scared to. Instead, I just went along with the standard line that he was a bit thick.”
“A really good literary writer,” I say, “can write beautifully and with meaning, and get right up close to real insight. A really good soft SF writer might not write quite as well as the literary guy but they can have real insight which means they’re on the other side of the line, the one that marks a shift from what is basically still just observation, to real awareness. Which maybe is why that kind of writer chooses SF in the first place, because it’s the tool that best allows him to express that insight. But even really great literary writers are perhaps scared of that tool.”
I stop, realising I haven’t thought this out very well. Then again, we may be touching on a subject that by its very nature defies being worked out exactly.
“Those guys at the back, plugging away at their guitars,” he says. “They enjoy themselves but they never lead, do they? They’re just belting out other people’s songs.”
I think I get the connection. “It’s not that literary writers don’t create while SF writers do. More like SF writers are more willing to lead – to write about what happens when you extrapolate where human behaviour is heading, not just in terms of technology but more in how the individual is mostly unaware of their possibilities, negative and positive.”
Again, I’m not sure what I’m trying to get at and try a different approach.
“I went on a date once,” I said, “with someone I’d met through the dating pages of a newspaper. We had a pretty funny conversation on the phone, so I was really looking forward to it. But within just a few minutes, she was giving me advice on how to run my life, saying that I need to ‘lighten up’ and not be so ‘deep’. It was frustrating because I knew I wasn’t being deep or, um, non-light.”
“She didn’t really think you needed advice, Tel. She was just scared.”
Is that it? The scorn that literary types can pour over SF writers – is it not so much that they really believe they can’t write as well as ‘proper’ writers; more that they’re just plain scared?
When I don’t reply, Nige says, “One of the reasons I never got on at school was we once had to read a novel by Virginia Woolf. In class, the teacher asked us what we thought and I said she wrote in a way that other toff intellectuals would reckon was clever but in truth she had nothing much to say about anything.”
The band is now playing what could be ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ by the Hollies but I choose to hear ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ by the Beach Boys. As such, I realise I could be in danger of diluting my beer with eye-juice.
“Kurt Vonnegut turned his back on SF,” I say, “because he thought it was a ghetto he wanted to get out of as fast as possible – a drawer that serious critics often mistake for a urinal.”
“Was he as vacuous as Virginia Woolf?”
I sigh. “No, he was a brilliant writer.”