Kat’s got a good post up about eleven things one should never put into an SF novel unless with the intention to undermine them. It’s actually a riff on a slightly different meme about fantasy novels, but like Kat I don’t write them things, so I’m gonna go with SF instead.

Let’s see if I can cook up a list of the same, and not include anything already proscribed by the Turkey City Lexicon:

1. The ancient story of Earth.

Okay, maybe sometimes it works. I’ve seen it work. But I’ve more often seen it flop. Either humanity knows where Earth is/was, which is presumable, or else we’ve lost all our tech and whatnot, and we know damn skippy and Earth would be subsumed into other myths and legends not differentiated from the colony world or whatever.

2. Humanlike aliens.

I will never, ever, ever, ever truly buy the idea of human-like aliens. I may whip out some kind of bipedal alien, occasionally, but it’s just too implausible to me that aliens would ever look like us without them doing some really fancy self-morphing. This is one reason I really hate Star Trek.

3. The rockstar hero/heroine.

I just don’t find the rockstar figure all that compelling. Spritzed hair and leather jackets? Surely there must be a more compelling style than that to arise in the galaxy sometime between now and the distant future. In fact, all it is to me is more anachronism. If your universe doesn’t have a new form of celebrity within, say, a century or two of the present, you’re not thinking (or stealing) hard enough. After all, it’s not like we all sit around listening to and lusting after operatic stars, do we? No, we don’t. And Boosey and Hawkes doesn’t run the music industry either.

4. The Superwoman.

I know, the great payoff of feminism has finally arrived, and its form is the superwoman. And she bores the crap out of me. It was pathetic and juvenile when all the male heroes were supermen, and it’s just as pathetic and juvenile now that it’s superwomen, no matter how liberated they were. We needn’t trace the steps of the past hegemony in order to usurp it completely, need we? I should think not.

5. Political Structures Anachronistic to the Tech Level of the Setting

Did I ever mention I found the Foundation trilogy outright unreadable? There’s a reason: when you transplant the Roman Empire onto space, you don’t get cool SF, you get the Roman Empire transplanted onto space. Okay, okay, I only ever read the first book, but still… it was ridiculous. Spacefaring Lords and Dukes and Kings and Imperial Stormtroopers? I think part of worldbuilding is actually thinking through to new models of politics and so on.

This may be why, for now, I’m always doing near-future or alternate history; you can be damned sure when I get to far-future, the political and economic structures will have to be different. Technology and the vastness of space demands it.

6. Magic of Any Kind in an SF setting.

I have no problem with tech so powerful the protagonists cannot explain it. Heck, that’s a major technique for me: characters who know even less than I do, grappling with explaining tech they don’t understand.

I also have no problem with magic in a fantasy setting, or with other SF objects — cute robots, say — showing up in a fantasy setting. I don’t mind a little steampunk mixed into a fantasy setting, either.

All of that’s different from science fantasy a la Star Wars’ “The Force”, or other forms of magic. I very much do mind a little magic mixed into an SF setting. It just turns me right off. Orcs should not be piloting spaceships.

The one vague exception is my desire to write a ghost story set in the future. It seems a rather difficult thing to do, but I am determined to someday pull it off. But the difference between magic and the supernatural is sticky enough not to get into here…

7. The Exemplary Society, aka The Good Society Unexamined.

Show me a utopia, and then show me the cracks. Don’t show me the cracks, and I won’t buy it for a minute. I won’t even read beyond a reasonable amount. However, I am willing to accept as believable societies with no redeeming features. I just may not be interested enough to read for too long.

8. Crap Explanations of Science.

I have a surprisingly high tolerance for (deft) discussion of science that I don’t quite actually understand. But what I cannot deal with is really implausible science. When I can tell it’s wrong, then it’s game over. Which suggests to me that I need to be reading more science stuff in order to bolster my own chops and fake science that I didn’t used to know quite as well as I will know after reading more of it. If that makes any sense.

9. Unconvincing Ideological Handwaving.

I don’t care how much poststructuralist theory rocks your world. I don’t care how big a libertarian you are. I don’t care how devoted to the Buddha you find yourself. If your book seems like its purpose is to convert me to your way of thinking, I’ll probably put it down and back away quickly.

In my own case, as I discussed with a couple of teachers during conference at Clarion West, I have only just begun to get over my own tendency to write stories that also function as vaguely socialist diatribes.

10. The Somehow Habitable Planet.

Yeah, like we’ll ever find a planet we could ever just live on, without changing it or ourselves completely. Not gonna happen, folks.

11. The Common Tongue.

It’s a great device in RPGs, but a world with only one language is more than hard to imagine. It’s more of a horror. Worlds, species, who have languages would have more than one. At least more than one. I am thinking of writing a story about a world with only one language, but it’d be central to the story, not just a contrivance to do away with the problem of a language barrier. Instant Universal Translation is also way too easy a copout.

Anyone who has any others, contribute! And yeah, I know, I’m just no fun!

6 thoughts on “Elevensies

  1. Hmm. “Human-like aliens” are a tricky one. Without anthropomorphizing a little, it’s hard to milk dramatic and/or emotionally connected fiction out of them. There’s a delicate balance there. Still, if the standard for “human-like” is looking (not to mention speaking and acting) almost exactly like humans a la Star Trek, then we’re in agreement.

    (Personally, when I feel a vaguely socialist diatribe coming on, I try not to bother thinly disguising it.)

  2. Ben,

    Yeah, I meant looking, walking, speaking, thinking, and behaving like humans or certain stereotypes of humans, a la Star Trek. Especially looking like humans.

    Heck, I even have trouble buying the idea of the Greys, even in fiction. I can, just because it’s so embedded, but the moment I think about it… *poof*

    As for the diatribes, they used to be the backbone of my fiction, whereas now they’re more of a background thing. This is preferable, believe me! :)

  3. The Common Tongue

    Even if the world has many languages, once it’s attained a certain level of communication and transportation technology, a common tongue just happens. If aliens were to come today, they’d end up making a speech at the UN. It’d be in English.

    With a technologicaly, the same will happen on a solar system level or even on a multi star level if we can ever achieve faster than light.

    If it doesn’t help with the story, do we really want writers to describe the various languages on each world? It’s simpler to assume the protagonsists use the common language of the planet.

  4. Jean-Louis,

    Are you so sure aliens would make a speech at the UN? I’m not really convinced. The British didn’t make speeches at the homes of tribal chieftans in Africa.

    Common tongues tend to emerge out of empires, don’t they? I mean, English is the common tongue on Earth as a result of various wars won by the English, mainly; but many people don’t speak English, and many varieties of English exist as well. Aliens could arrive on Earth using a Bollywood formula for mixing English and Hindi, so as to communicate with more people. Or maybe they’d use Chinese. Or maybe they’d turn up in a few hundred years thinking English is the lingua franca but by then it’s Chinese. Who knows?

    (You’re also assuming the aliens could master English. I find it hard enough for people who’ve grown up outside of the language, speaking, say, Japanese or Korea, to master the language. Aliens, I imagine, would not be speaking English but some syntactically-messed-up, wrongheaded version of the language, let’s call it Xinglish.)

    But my real problem with the lingua franca is the way people often tend to all be native speakers of it. No accents or dialects, no language barriers, no concepts inexpressible in the common tongue that are familiar from the mother tongue.

    As for me, rendering a world more realistic cvan often serve the story. I wouldn’t say we want writers to describe the various languages of the planet. If I had a common tongue, I would certainly have to think of the reasons for its emergence — some imperial background, or the fact that maybe a colony planet was planned and has maintained its tech level and knowledge of history — but even so, I think linguistic diversity can be refreshing. And a lack of it, without sensible reason for it, jolts me out of the narrative because it pressures my suspension of disbelief, which is to be avoided.

    In any case, this was a list of things I wouldn’t unthinkingly put into a novel.

  5. Well, that was just an image. What I meant by it is that by speaking english, an alien can be understood by a sizable portion of the world, including anyone of importance, and 95% the rest is a single translation away.

    I think you’re wrong on the reason for the prevalence of English in the world. Yes, the British did win a lot of battles, but today, we see that English is prevalent even in former French colonies. The reason for this is the force of American culture and especially of American commerce. The Chinese speak English becase that’s the market. We won’t learn Chinese until they make the purchases, and even then since everyone will speak English, why bother?

    It’s true that there are various versions of English and I find that if English is a threat to other languages, the fact that so many Engish speakers are non-native is a threat to English. The reason for this being that only a subset of the English language is actually used by these people which in turn is influencing the language itself.

    Your other points are sensible, I won’t argue with them. Just don’t forget in your reasons for emergence that commerce is as good if not a greater force for dissemination of a language than conflict.

  6. You’re right, commerce is also an excellent reason. I wonder, though, whether English really would have become the global auxiliary language if the British Empire had for whatever reason collapsed a few hundred years early. Even with American commerce, would it have been enough incentive to learn the American tradespeak, or would Koreans instead be speaking Chinese and Japanese and not so interested in English. I wonder… actually, it’s a critical point to a novel idea I’m hammering away at these days.

    I agree, commerce is an important point not to be neglected. Then again, the globalization of commerce was also linked to European forcible conquest. But colonization doesn’t directly lead to international commerce and American dominance in that field, so that’s only a minor clarification. You’re generally right about commerce as a strong incentive to multilinguality. It might be the biggest one, historically, in fact!

    As for me, I don’t think English is a threat to most other languages; nor are loads of non-native speakers a threat to English. Most non-Anglos I’ve met who speak another mother tongue speak their mother tongue in the home and otherwise as often as possible. Whereas non-native speakers usually are a delight to the native speaker’s ear, once one gets used to a particular dialect or accent enough to understand it. I don’t think there’s real threat either way, at least not right now.

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