Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Semester Commences

(more notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

I have a truly fine class this term. They haven’t read much in the field, which would infuriate some of my colleagues, but several of my students have answered that complaint very well already.
“I haven’t read a lot of science fiction but … that’s why I’m here.”
Students are students. That’s what they do.
And I know, in some instinctual way, they won’t let me down. Which puts the burden on me, but that’s okay. I’m looking forward to the challenge. If I’m lucky, every class teaches me something new, and I’m looking forward to what I’ll learn this time.
I ran across a posting on Facebook, from another teacher, who was trying to work out a comprehensive definition of “speculative fiction.”
Speculative fiction is what you call science fiction when you’re taking it to meet your parents for dinner. Yes, I’m being facetious, but you know what I mean.
I never define speculative/science fiction. I let my students do that in the first session. Then I check with them at the end of the term and see if their definitions have changed.
Science fiction, contrary to its strongest defenders, is a living form. It changes and reshapes itself as the world changes and reshapes itself. If one can successfully define it in a way that makes all other definitions superfluous, call the undertaker. We’re outta here.
In the meantime, I’m rolling a number of things around in my head, juggling them around to see what comes up.
What we want from life is magic.
What we want from science is magic.
If we want to figure out where we’re going, and write about it, look for what we want, and what it will do to us.
If you want to write about future science and technology, look for magic. Look for mystery and miracles.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” – Sir Arthur C. Clarke
“I am only really interested in a fiction of miracles. – Flannery OConnor
All great stories are love stories.
All great stories are about loneliness.
The two sentences above do not exclude each other.
A good story is a good story, whether it is based upon objective reality or a subjective interpretation of reality. A good story, however, does not necessarily result in a good reality. Fiction remains fiction, no matter how many people believe in it.
But if you have to believe in a fiction, at least pick a good one.
We return you now to our regularly scheduled programming …

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Semester Approaches, Part Two

(more notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

I’m never satisfied that I’m teaching what my students need, but at least at times I feel like I’m making an effort at it.
Science fiction is a moving target a.) because it is moving, and b.) because it’s a target, has been a target, remains a target (in spite of many assurances that our work has become “respectable,” whatever that means), and may always be a target – perhaps because no matter what we do, someone who knows better thinks we should be doing otherwise.
There are times when a syllabus looks like a death certificate. The good news is that the patient isn’t dead, just the syllabus. We leave it in the rearview and the class goes where it needs to go.
The syllabus doesn’t teach the class – the teacher (for lack of a better word) teaches, or leads, the class. Or at times the teacher runs just fast enough to keep from being rolled over – by the students, the subject, or by the teacher’s own expectations for what the class should or can accomplish.
The thing I want most from my class – the thing I set out as my highest goal – is that they leave by the end of the semester thinking like science fiction writers. What they write is their own business. What they do is their own business. But if they can think like science fiction writers (and it occurs to me that many people who write science fiction can’t) they will at least have the equipment not only to write in the form, but to think of the world around them in ways they wouldn’t have before.

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I have no trouble calling what I write science fiction. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what it’s called. I’ve noticed a lot students I encounter do worry. “I’m working on this story. I’m not sure if it’s sci-fi or something else.”
“Are you finished with it?”
“Don’t worry, then, until it’s done. We’ll figure out what it is when you’ve got something.”
As much I love science fiction, and as much as I believe that science fiction will save our planet, our universe, our culture, and maybe even our lunch, what I love more is story. A good story means more to me than all the categories you can come up with.
Back to the student:
“I’m working on something. I don’t know if it’s a story or not.”
Oh dear. Here we go again.
“Keep working. When it’s ready, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll find out what it is. You won’t tell if it’s a story. I won’t tell. The thing you’re working on will tell you if it’s a story or if it’s something else. Keep working.”
I know that answer may strike many here as unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory. Here you are, a roomful of writers who want to write all the great things you know you can, and will, write, and I’m telling you that a pile of scribbled letters is going to tell you what it is.
Remember, that pile of scribbled letters is yours.
I’m not trying to be “literary” or “aesthetic” about this. I am, I believe, being practical. My employers at Columbia College Chicago hired me, I suspect, because they wanted someone to teach what they believe is a “commercial” form of writing – i.e. something that someone will pay you to write as compared to something that no one will pay you to write but will exist for – well, for some reason. My employers seem to make some distinction between what they think they want their students to do and what they think I want my students to do. It’s a misapprehension. We both want them to write the best possible work they’re capable of producing.
Besides, I don’t think they know what writers of science fiction really get paid. If they ever find out, my butt is on the street. We’re paid crap compared to what writers in other fields receive.
What it means is that a good story goes beyond the boundaries of the teachable. I have colleagues who go on about three- and six-act structure; they’ll go on about narrative “arcs”; they’ll talk about having an “A” story and a “B” story; they’ll talk about character and motivation and conflict and complication (hell, even I do that).
They can show you how to build the statue that is Galatea – perfectly life-like, but without life.
How do you make Galatea live and breathe and speak and laugh, and even cry?
The question is big. The answers are many – or the same answer worded many ways.
I came upon this wonderful quote from the great screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who worked with Michael Powell on such classics as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. He is talking about films, but what he says applies to any kind of writing:

I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have, if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing – it should have a little bit of magic. Magic being untouchable and very difficult to cast, you can’t deal with it at all. You can only try to prepare some nests, hoping that a little bit of magic will slide into them.

Yes, even a science fiction story needs a little bit of magic.
Where does it come from?
I don’t know. Like most of the universe, it remains a mystery.
But very often, most often, the magic comes from you. You give to every story a little piece of yourself that no other writer can give to that story. It may come easy or may come with unbearable agony, but it comes from you.
Let me throw in some words from smart people, so that you don't just have to take the word of a stupid teacher-guy:

“ . . . The mature science fiction writer doesn’t merely tell a story about Brick Malloy vs. The Giant Yeastmen from Gethsemane. He makes a statement through his story. What is the statement? Himself, the dimension and depth of the man. His statement is seeing what everybody else sees but thinking what no one else has thought, and having the courage to say it. The hell of it is that only time will tell whether it was worth saying.” – Alfred Bester, “My Affair With Science Fiction” (1975)

“It was 1956, and the beginning of a conscious realization that to limit science fiction to outer space was just that – a limitation, and that science fiction has and should have as limitless a character as poetry; further, that it has a real function in inner space. This in turn led me to a redefinition of science itself, and to an increasing preoccupation with humanity not only as the subject of science, but as its source. It has become my joy to find out what makes it tick, especially when it ticks unevenly.” — Theodore Sturgeon, in his introduction to “And Now the News . . .” in the collection, The Golden Helix

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader reading it makes it live: a live thing, a story.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

“Any bad fiction, no matter the genre, is a wild exercise of the imagination which explodes in the night of our minds, makes garish pyrotechnics, then dies, leaving the night blacker than before. But good fiction is a steady light even if sometimes a small one. By it we walk without stumbling and we may return at any time to see under its flare other topographical features we did not understand the first trip.” – Philip Jose Farmer

I know – if I’m teaching a “genre” class, is that what I’m supposed to be talking about? Aren’t I supposed to be talking about tropes and arcs and structure? Isn’t it all about the “Three Rs”: Rockets, Robots and Rayguns?
No. No. No.
Not necessarily so.
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
The thing that probably most infuriates my colleagues who have no interest in science fiction – or any forms of “popular” literature – is their belief that it doesn’t have to be good writing, by their standards, to be “successful” – by their standards. What those standards are is an argument for another time, but let’s say we can agree on what constitutes the basics of good writing. They have a point. All you have to do is review the quality of prose in most bestsellers to see that a lot of bad writing makes a lot of money for someone. They will also see that bad writing is not the exclusive domain of science fiction – in fact, our standards are much higher than they are in many other forms. And yet the belief persists that science fiction depends mostly on “ideas” illustrated through cheap dramatic conventions, which makes none of it “real” or “serious” literature.
And very often, to be honest, they’re right.
This isn’t to say the work has no value, but that it engages in a currency they do not recognize.
I believe it’s possible and even necessary, to write to the higher goal, i.e. it takes as many sheets of paper (or equivalent electrons) and as much ink to write a good book as a bad or mediocre one. A box of good books weighs as much as a box of bad ones. Why not fill that box with the best work possible?
The coolest thing about science fiction is that, so long as we keep “story” somewhere in the upper corner of our imaginations, we can invent the form as we go along. And we can imbue it with a finesse and nuance it never had before. Why I maintain such prominence for “story” is a subject for another time.
We are situated on the corner of Popular Street and Personal Avenue, and the cross traffic comes from both ways. In a culture that is changing in so many ways, it’s not a bad place to be.