Editorial May 2004 : Talking Story By Hilary Williamson
'I'm in the entertainment business first. It's all right to include a pot of message, but that's not the key ingredient of wide readership.' (Frank Herbert in his essay Dune Genesis)
There's a long tradition of philosophical and political commentary by speculative fiction writers, from Robert A. Heinlein in books like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, to Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness or Sheri S. Tepper in The Gate to Women's Country. However, early editors, like the great John W. Campbell, Jr., demanded both the human element and strong story from their authors. And in Brian Herbert's biography of his father Dune author Frank Herbert, Dreamer of Dune, Brian recalls frequently 'talking story' with his dad.
My point? I've been reading more and more speculative fiction lately that's getting unwieldy, the story sinking under the weight of social commentary and/or futuristic concepts (brilliant though they might be) that it has to carry. Though still read, and appreciated for their imagination, by ardent SF fans, I worry that these volumes might discourage potential new readers of the genre. It's easy to be dazzled by the ideas, in novel's like Alastair Reynolds' remarkable Revelation Space, but their complexity slows down the action.
Though Sheri Tepper balanced social messages with characters and action brilliantly in her earlier works, later novels (in particular The Fresco and The Visitor) have been more stage than story. Recently, Gregory Benford's Beyond Infinity impressed me with its philosophical scope, but I kept losing the plot. And, while I loved the variety of alien races and the satire in another recent release, Heaven by Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen, the story thread gets tangled in the complexity, undeniably fascinating as it is.
Who succeeds in balancing the speculative and story aspects of SF? Steven Gould's Helm has family and societal conflict, martial arts, personality imprinting and a most surprising futuristic adventure. Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman's Road gives us science fiction masquerading superbly as fantasy, with thrilling adventure, horrific aliens and seamless science lessons. Richard Morgan's body-swapping anti-hero in Altered Carbon engages the reader in action that makes James Bond's wildest antics look tame. And in Nick Sagan's virtual reality, apocalyptic murder mystery Idlewild, even though the author addresses 'what's it all about?', it's his characters and story that keep us turning pages, not his philosophy.
So, if you're new to the genre, try some of these writers first, or go back to the classics before you venture into more tangled territory. And if by chance any writers or publishers read this - please, keep 'talking story'.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.