Saturday, September 12, 2009

It's all Geek to me

Science Fiction was traditionally considered a 'guy' thing. Books boys with black rimmed glasses and uncombed hair could hide behind to avoid talking to girls. The girls had no idea what kinds of world and fantastic adventures they were competing with. For many there was no contest.

That's changed somewhat over the span of the past, say, 40 years. But not so much as we SF writers would like. One of the big drawbacks for mainstream girls getting behind our genre is the slabs of expository techno-talk and science jargon that drop into the story from time to time. Since this blog is about hard SF, I'm not talking about the flavored patter of rocket jockeys, galactic conquerors, and so forth. What I'm referring to is the background story or tech talk that writers need to help the reader understand the science behind the story.

The two basic questions are: How much is too much, and how much pre-existing understanding should you credit your reader with knowing? Quantum SF puts those questions to the test. After all, employing quantum mechanics and planck scale physics demands some conceptual understanding from the reader if you want to engage them in the story. In my YA novel The Aquanauts my 1st person narrator , Greta, is not a scientist so she describes the forces that impact the story in layman's terms. In effect, she translates the geeks into plain English. I was very pleased to hear from many readers, including women, that said they appreciated this as it helped them with some difficult concepts without having to slog through a physics course.

The Aquanauts stayed mostly with Einsteinian relativity, concepts that most of us learn in grade school. I'm writing a continuation of that story (I hate to call it a sequel because these days sequels seem to be a rehashing of the same story in a slightly different setting) and the physics involved are much more complex. The narrator is the same but I can't assume she stays ignorant of thing that have happened to her.

My goal in this genre is to make concepts that I find exciting accessable enough so that a wide range of readers will get excited about them, too. My first insticnt is to feed them small nuggets throughout the first sections of the book, so readers don't have to blink uncontrollably when confronted by larger bites as the story zooms into full throttle. At the same time, it's important to have other elements of the story moving so the 'what happens next?' impusle keeps the reader turning pages.

Too many writers in the past have just poured extended explanatory hunks of dialogue out a character's mouth forcing the reader to plow through. That's okay for geeks but less enthusiastic readers who came that far will either blip over it or put the book down.

Personally, I loved it. It was a great way to avoid girls.


  1. I like it a lot!! Frankly, many SF writers hide behind the technojargon because they lack a conceptual understanding. In trying to make it explainable to others you make it understandable to yourself.

    Bravo, Brava!!

  2. We're all guilty of making crap up to fill in holes but it's a wise writer who knows where the line between jargon and science should be drawn.
    Thanks for your thoughts.