Subject Knowledge is Important in Science Fiction, Too!

Saturday , 3, March 2018 25 Comments

One of the appeals of writing science fiction is that it doesn’t have to be tethered to anything in our current world.  Presumably then, one doesn’t have to do any research or have any prior knowledge in coming up with a fictional society, planet, or universe.  Forget having to spend months of research to write a proper Western novel.  Even a monk living in a cave can come up with a great science fiction tale!

And yet, time and again, we see authors using elements of their background or interests to tremendous effect in their stories.  And on the flip side, we also observe authors whose works suffer from a lack of knowledge.  Let’s examine both scenarios.

Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey is an Appendix N adventure classic frequently mentioned on this blog, one that has delighted countless readers.  A significant portion of its success is the sheer exuberance of its post-apocalyptic animals, whether it’s giant mutated turtles with twisted fangs or friendly telepathic bears.  And Lanier’s skill and creativity in this area has much to do with him being trained as an anthropologist, and having a lifelong interest in cryptozoology.  Without this vital background, a strength of the novel might well have been a weakness.

Consider, by contrast, The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster, perhaps the lousiest science fiction book I’ve ever read, Scalzi included. In a dangerous planet where planned evolution has run amok, what are the deadly creatures the human descendants face?  Why, giant versions of insects.  Merely that, and nothing more.  And these enormous ants and wasps are described poorly, in the same manner any average person who used a reference book might, preventing a reader from forming a proper mental image of the action.  Moreover, the idea of insects growing to thousands of times their normal size because of a bountiful environment is far more preposterously stupid than any of the creatures in Lanier’s story arising due to thousands of years of heavy nuclear radiation.  It won’t shock anyone to learn that Leinster didn’t know a damn thing about the subject matter.

Harry Harrison might have hated his time in the army, but time and again, one sees its positive influence on the Stainless Steel Rat series.  Firstly, whenever there is a military organization, which is frequent, its structure, chain of command, and logistics are all described believably with keen detail, while its hypocrisies and peculiarities are mocked and skewered mercilessly.  A particularly memorable passage is when the protagonist describes the dehumanizing nature of registration and basic training in the The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted.  It’s no great stretch to claim that Harrison was writing autobiographically there.  However, the military experience is present in less obvious ways.  For instance, Harrison is familiar with a large variety of tools, disguises, and forms of espionage.  While he might not be an expert, he knows far more than the average person, which is enough to endow the books with the sheen of authenticity, allowing the reader to buy into the story and accept its wackier, more comic elements.

Since there is apparently a SJW movie adaptation of it coming out soon, I should note that I hated the original A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle when we were forced to read it in grade school.  There were many reasons of this, and a major one was the author’s ruthless ignorance of math and science beyond a few slogans she might have picked up from magazine articles of the time.  (Back when magazines occasionally covered science, and magazines existed at all!) For instance, she claimed it was impossible to draw a representation of a four-dimensional analog of a cube (a tesseract) on a piece of paper the way one could with a cube.  To which I spent a minute or two drawing one and presented it to my surprised fifth grade teacher.  L’Engle also misused the term “cytoplasm” to such an egregious degree that I believe she failed high school biology and never bothered learning anything more about the subject.  If one is going to write heavily about time travel and the fourth dimension, and directly address these topics, one had better not be spewing garbage, or else the reader disengages, and the rest of the novel falls apart.  It’s no different than someone deciding to write about 16th century Spain and not bothering to learn anything about their society.

This is of course only a small sampling of instances where subject matter expertise plays a significant role in a book’s success.  What are your own favorite examples?

25 Comments
  • Mr Tines says:

    One that stuck in my mind as particularly annoying — in his book _Ring_, Stephen Baxter, who has a background in maths and engineering, and ought to have known better, commits a number of howlers regarding a relativistic flight intended to take an expedition 5 million years into the future.

    Not only does he give a subjective time for the journey that’s nearly 20 times too long, given all the other parameters stated, but in addition the travellers return to a solar system where there’s still a W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia opposite in the sky to alpha Centauri.

  • deuce says:

    SM Stirling has lived all over the world and has hands-on experience with a wide variety of topics. It shows. I rarely catch him in a blunder, though his writing has gone downhill over time.

    • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

      I was a fan of his two Lords of Creation books. I was always hoping he would continue with them, but alas, he kept pumping out the stupid Change books.

      • M says:

        He had some comments on Charles Stross’s website some years back indicating that he wrote the Change books to cater (rather cynically) to the people who believed in magic (pagans, witches et al.).

        If I remember Stross ended up banning him.

        I suppose he keeps writing them because they keep selling.

        • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

          Isn’t Stross kind of a D-bag himself? I’m really not that familiar with him. But I can definitely see that aspect of Stirling’s Change series; he was kind of phoning it in.

    • deuce says:

      Yep. I wanted more “Lords of Creation” books as well. Also, his PESHAWAR LANCERS (dedicated to Howard, Haggard and others) was pure, pulpy goodness.

    • TWS says:

      His only glaring weakness is warrior women.

      • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

        It is. And its a pretty big weakness. But I loved the Lords of Creation setting, especially the ‘bio-tech’ of Mars.

        Peshawar Lancers WAS excellent wasn’t it.

        Was it standalone? I wouldn’t mind more of that one either.

      • deuce says:

        SMS wrote a short story set in the “Peshawar” universe that was an homage to REH called “Shikari in Galveston”.

        Yes, his warrior women get tedious. As a man with martial arts experience, he should know better.

  • deuce says:

    H. Rider Haggard spent 5yrs in South Africa. It put him in very good stead when he later wrote his Quatermain novels. William Hope Hodgson ran away from home and joined the British merchant marine. His deep knowledge of seafaring showed in his horror tales set at sea. Lovecraft, not knowing WHH’s bio, guessed that the man must’ve been a sailor. Western writers like L’Amour and Kenton both benefited from growing up in a Western environment and working with/talking to old-timers. Robert E. Howard did the same. REH helping his father on doctor’s calls probably gave verisimilitude to his gory battle scenes as well.

    • Vlad James says:

      Oh yeah, Haggard’s knowledge of the land and people of Africa is very evident in his Quatermain novels.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    I always look forward to your articles Mr James, and don’t mind if we disagree. I have been on a bit of a ‘Leinster kick’ this past year, reading his biography plus quite a few of his stories. I just don’t want your readers to dismiss the Man and his prodigious body of work, much of which is memorable.

    Murray Leinster’s THE FORGOTTEN PLANET was a ‘fix-up’ novel published by Gnome Press in 1954. It was made up of three stories cobbled together, with the first two originally published in Argosy in 1920 (“The Mad Planet”) and 1921 (“The Red Dust”). And long, long before the use of the term, science fiction. The third, “Nightmare Planet” wasn’t published in Argosy till 1952. So it is not surprising the ‘frankenstein’ THE FORGOTTEN PLANET may creak quite a bit today.

    But the popularity of the first story with Argosy’s 1920 readers lead to its sequel appearing in the April 2, 1921 issue.

    In his two daughter’s biography of Murray Leinster, they note that their father was a voracious reader and that he had consumed the French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre’s books on the insect world– such titles as “The Life of the Spider”, “The Life of the Fly’, and “Social Life in the Insect World.” And that they inspired Leinster to write “The Mad Planet.” Leinster would write in his ‘Author’s Note’ in the 1954 Gnome Edition of THE FORGOTTEN PLANET that “these books, while absolutely factual, are much more interesting than most fiction and can be read as if they were make-believe instead of the sound and honest work they are.”

    • deuce says:

      That’s my favorite book from Leinster. Murray was a Robert E. Howard fan, BTW.

      • Mark McSherry says:

        And Howard probably encountered Leinster stories. Jenkins adopted the ‘Murray Leinster’ pen name for his adventure, western, and mystery stories and starting in early 1918, he was averaging two stories a month to either ALL-STORY WEEKLY and ARGOSY with that moniker. Plus a few of his Murray Leinster stories
        appeared in WEIRD TALES– one in 1925, a three part serial in March-May 1928, one in 1930, and another in 1933.

        ‘Murray Leinster’ was even appearing on movie screens. His mystery story, “The Purple Hieroglyph”, was the basis for the movie, THE PURPLE CIPHER, which opened in October 1920. That story would also be the basis for a 1930 movie (MURDER WILL OUT) and 1939’s TORCHY BLAINE IN CHINATOWN. Looking at IMDB, it looks like the first two are lost. Another western story was made into a 1927 movie. And other stories were used for four western serials between 1927 and 1931.

    • Vlad James says:

      Appreciate the compliment. And I recall either you or someone else previously defending Leinster in the comments here.

      He might have been a swell guy, and enjoyed some of the same authors I do, but that doesn’t make “The Forgotten Planet” any less awful.

      I haven’t read all of his “prodigious body of work”, no, but what I have, while nowhere near as bad as “The Forgotten Planet”, was mediocre enough to where I didn’t wish to try more, or consider that book an aberration.

      • Mark McSherry says:

        That was me. Leinster’s strength, and his reputation, is with his shorter stories- not his books. I’ve come across varying numbers, but in more than 50 years as a full-time writer, he did write some 1,500-1,800 stories and published 70+ novels/collections.

        His prose was not stylish, but at times it did sing. I would give the last paragraph of his famous 1934 story, “Sideways in Time” as proof. Sure, the story is cited as the first appearance of the ‘parallel worlds’ concept in SF but it is told in workman-like fashion. Which makes the last paragraph, building up to that final (ironically) exultant sentence, so unexpectly heady. ‘Sense-of-Wonder’ resonating with the quote from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE (1962)- “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

        Ok, I’ll go away now.

        • Vlad James says:

          It was actually Leinster’s short stories that I read besides “The Forgotten Planet”.

          Specifically, the collection “Doctor to the Stars”.

  • HP says:

    I think Miles Cameron writes better quarter-turn fantasy than George R.R. Martin, in part, because he isn’t just a voracious reader of history but a committed historical reenactor (it should also come as no surprise that Cameron, unlike Martin, served in the military).

    I’m reading about Tolkien at the same time that I am reading The Hobbit out loud to my unborn daughter. It really is true that Tolkien could intuit things about language every other fantasy writer struggles to do because of his deep, deep knowledge of philology. There is a brave knight and a deadly dragon in every man, and they stir when you put a copy of The Lord of the Rings in his hands.

  • Jeffro says:

    I’m pretty sure A. Merritt had real life encounters with the sort of sketchy characters that turn up in his stories. The mafia boss in Burn Witch Burn in particular comes to mind…!

    • deuce says:

      Merritt spent a couple of years in Central America as a young man. Explored ruins, drank his share of the local beverages and–I’m sure–rubbed shoulders with a lot of shady characters.

      The whole reason he was down there was because he saw something, as a working reporter, that he shouldn’t have in Philly. Had to get out of town, expenses paid. Merritt was a man of the world, no mistake.

  • Mary says:

    Of course, the big problem is that your readers are going to know more than you do. They outnumber you, after all. While one reader is admiring how you took the importance of supplies into account, another one is rolling her eyes because in your polytheistic culture your characters each pick a god to worship, whereas in real life, polytheists regarded such a person as a dangerous maniac, it being your duty to worship all relevant gods.

    Plus of course the problem of the things your readers THINK they know.

  • Andy says:

    IIRC, Charles Harness was a patent lawyer who wrote a number of space operas featuring patent lawyer heroes.

  • Anthony says:

    One day we will have to fight it out over “A Wrinkle in Time”.

  • Anthony says:

    I think, however, all men of good will can agree peacefully that the new “A Wrinkle in Time” movie will be a complete and utter dumpster fire.

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