Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Periodically, as I am out playing music, people ask what the hardest instrument is. “Oh, well, it’s all about the same,” is my usual answer. I say this partly because it’s true; past a certain level of competence, it’s all hard. There is a touch of defensive apology involved however, as those in the know widely agree that the sax, my chosen horn, is one of the easiest to figure out. (Among the hardest are violin, piano, and organ.) I wonder if writing is similar. Writing novels is hard; I understand this well. That said, are certain kinds of novels more difficult to write than others? Science fiction seems like it might be starting from a disadvantage. My claim is bolstered a bit by a Skiffy and Fanty podcast that features Two Dudes favorite Kim Stanley Robinson. He brings up a few points to consider and gives hints why SF might just be the hardest genre to write.

Let’s start with genre differences. Speaking in broad generalizations, and knowing that exceptions and blurred lines exist, I would offer the following as the central point of a genre. At the core, science fiction focuses on extrapolation above all else, spinning out an entire universe based on a small number of “What If?” questions. Fantasy largely depends on imagined geography, with maps, empires, and journeys frequently overshadowing what are often stock plots and characters. For most of the remaining genres, verisimilitude is the order of the day. Stories are set in one or another real, researchable place. (Magical realism bridges the gap somewhat, but my experience suggests that the realism generally eclipses the magic.)

If I want to write a mainstream story, I get to select some pre-existing location and bang away at the keyboard. Choosing something other than suburban America probably requires a glance at a few books, or maybe even a trip, but it’s all there for the taking. Fantasy is a bit more of a stretch, requiring me to create my world, the political divisions and cultures, a few select special locations, and probably some grab bag of real world cultures scrambled around to spice things up. For science fiction though, I need to peek into the future a bit, speculate as to how one or another development will alter said future, create the whole future society, churn out something between one and one thousand worlds, sort out whatever tech is being used, deal with questions of The Singularity/FTL/post-humanism/Earth’s environment/empire and colonialism/etc., and, if I’m feeling really nutty, do it all again with aliens who are probably nothing like us humans. Egad. I realize I’m being flippant about the writing process, but just looking at this list makes my brain hurt.

Digging deeper into this verisimilitude thing, what about issues of realism in writing? Non-SFF is, obviously, tied to the Real. It’s not too difficult to stay in these boundaries, since Real is pretty much agreed upon by everyone. There are boundaries in fantasy of course, a complete lack results simply in chaos, but we’re pretty forgiving. There is a trend towards well thought out magic systems, rational economies, and so on, but there are also wizards, lizardmen, demons, and the like. As long as things are internally consistent and more or less explainable, imagination is the limit. Science fiction, though, is a rather more picky animal. We’re not all dour, Mundane SF apparatchiks, but certain formalities must be followed. Crap can’t just happen, there has to be a reason; we demand our fig leaves! Even Star Wars tries to explain itself now. Hard SF is naturally the main offender here, but almost all SF stripped of its rationality is a strange beast.

As an example, I offer up dwarves. Dwarves in mainstream fiction are not a race, they are people who have a genetic reason for being very small. Dwarves in fantasy are, naturally, bearded mountain dwellers who wield axes and forge things. We care little why dwarves are like this, or what it means about them and their world, they simply are. They probably serve some purpose in the plot, but their existence lies mostly unexamined. In SF though, small bearded men (and women) would have a history, a reason or purpose for being that way, an environment that created and encouraged those traits, and probably their own way of traveling faster than light and/or some puzzle for little, bearded engineers to solve. At each step, the demands escalate.

The real killer, though, isn’t the science or world building. After all, that’s what attracts both readers and authors to SF in the first place. What puts SF over the top is our demands as contemporary readers. Long gone are the days when clunky dialogue, cardboard characters, questionable race and gender presentations, and stock plots are acceptable. We want more! There are still books out there about competent white men solving engineering problems, but they are generally scorned as relics of a faded era. Literary sensibilities have subtly invaded the genre and undermined many tenets of the past. I am just as guilty of the next reader, of course, seeking out books with engaging characters and a modern awareness in addition to exploding spaceships. I read Hard SF from the past and give it a pass as a product of its time, but expect more of people writing now. The sense of wonder remains a formal necessity, but it must now be accompanied by most of what we regularly lionize in mainstream literature.

I think we are in a golden age of science fiction, with the synergy between literary values and SF tradition producing an unending stream of future classics. This is fabulous as a reader, but must be death as a writer. Considering the requirements for scientific and futuristic literacy, world building creativity and rationality, and literary qualities of craft, character, and theme, I’m amazed that so many authors clear the bar. As a passable scribbler of non-fiction and overall dunce with fiction, I give today’s SF authors my highest regard.

2 thoughts on “Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

  1. “As an example, I offer up dwarves.”

    I find this line hilarious, yet can offer no coherent explanation as to why. So thank you for that.

    That aside, I must admit my eyebrow was slightly raised a bit as I read along to most of this, but then you go and nail it in the penultimate paragraph, so all’s well. It’s not that SF is hard to write, necessarily, but it’s very hard to write *well*. The same is true of any other genre, of course, but I think until relatively recently SF has been far more forgiving of shitty prose, characterization, etc as long as there’s sufficient sensawunda, or whatever. In Lit Fic, prose, characterization etc are basically the entire reason for it, so you have to nail them. Plus everyone knows people, and knows (or like to think they do) how they work. I’d argue it’s far harder to bullshit believable human relationships that coherent magic systems or FTL travel, or whatever. I remember seeing an Iain (M) Banks reading once where he said he had far more freedom when writing his SF stuff as his editor basically wasn’t capable of critiquing quite so much. SF traditionally gives the writer more places to hide; throw up a big enough robot army and it doesn’t matter so much if your protagonist is incapable of stringing two sentences together.

    That said, I couldn’t agree more with the assertion that it’s changing, and for the better. The ‘golden age’ claim is a bold one, and obviously we won’t know for a while, but I certainly wouldn’t say that you’re wrong on that.

    • I’m not totally buying in to what I published, but it was entertaining to write. It’s rather like how I find classical music a beast to play, while my friends boggle that I can play jazz. Different skillsets for different fields. But yeah, SF has given more leeway in the past, but I think it’s starting to change. I think it’s a golden age compared to everything else that’s come before, but will probably pale in comparison to whatever people are doing in twenty years. Or at least I hope so – would be a pity if the whole genre regresses.

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