What do you see when you read a book?

I read China Mieville’s The City And The City recently (I’m slowly chipping away at my ‘to-read’ list). I enjoy his writing style, and I think his world-building is fantastic (in many meanings of that word). But something strange happened as I read the book.

It’s written in first person, and I automatically pictured the narrator as female. I’ve no idea why, but even when it became clear that the character was male, I still saw him as female. I don’t think there was anything specific Mieville wrote that would make me picture his protagonist as anything but male, so I can only think this is down to how I approached the book.

And this got me thinking. When I read, I picture things in a certain way, but this isn’t necessarily how others picture the book, or even how the writer saw the story in his or her own head. Every reader is different, and we each bring our own unique perspectives to anything we read.

octopus-1235006_1280Stories (in books) pass from writers to readers through the medium of words, but there is always going to be interpretation involved in this. Writers aim to give as much action/emotion/description in as few words as possible. If everything was described in enough detail to convey every single aspect of the story, the action would move at a glacial pace, and all sense of forward momentum would be lost. Stories that describe too much are (for most readers) tiring to read‌—‌hence the search for conciseness. Gustave Flaubert talked about finding ‘le mot juste’, the right word.

But even that causes problems. Words mean different things to different people. I’ve heard the word ‘solid’ used to mean both good (as in ‘rock-solid’, firm and unmoving‌—‌a solid fellow) and difficult (as in ‘hard’‌—‌“that game’s well solid!”).

Think of that classic story opening; ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That might conjure up thoughts of uncertainty, maybe even fear. But to some, storms can be exciting. Or maybe darkness helps others escape from their day-to-day troubles, and the addition of poor weather brings up thoughts of being beside a fire, enclosed in the safety and warmth of their very own home.

There is no perfect word. There is no ideal way to describe something.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. One often-repeated piece of writing advice is to picture your ideal reader, and write to them. I believe Stephen King’s ‘ideal reader’ is his wife, and others might use real people too, but many create their own ideal reader (maybe a female forty-something divorced librarian living in Pittsburg, or a heavy metal fan working an office job but dreaming of becoming a professional musician). This might seem strange, but it is impossible to write a book that pleases everyone, and trying to make a story too universal usually means creating something bland, something that many find ‘okay’ but that nobody gets excited about. Anything designed to appeal to a wide range of people will fell watered-down.

Attitudes to books will naturally differ. Even if two readers enjoy the same book, it could well be for different reasons‌—‌some King fans might get a kick from the build-up of tension, and others might love the way he pulls them into the minds of his characters. Some people read Iain Banks’ sci-fi books for the vast ideas, others enjoy his way of telling a story.

There’s no right or wrong here. Every book is written by an individual (or a few individual in the case of co-written works), and the words are formed through the filter of their own lives. These books then get consumed by individual readers, who digest these words through the filter of their own experiences and ideas.

And this means that books are never static.

There’s this idea that, when something is created, it’s completed. In some ways, this is true‌—‌when a writer puts a book out, it stays the same unless they bring out a revised version. It’s the same with any art form‌—‌music, paintings, sculpture, films. But this ‘completed’ work can be digested by different people at different times. It can bring forth different emotions or lead to different thoughts. Every person who reads a book experiences something unique. And even re-reading a book can be a new experience.

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As we grow, we develop, learning and understanding more, and our appreciation for things changes. The books we read ten, fifteen, thirty years ago might contain the same words in the same order that they did when we first picked them up, but if we re-read these words today we experience something totally different. Our interpretation is not only tinged with nostalgia, but also with our different perspective on life, our different personality. It’s part of the reason why books we loved as children can sometimes seem flat when we read them as adults, and why books we struggled to get into a few years ago can later become favourite reads full of meaning and excitement.

We never simply read words. We absorb them, run them through our experiences, our own unique thoughts. We take those marks on page or screen, and we breathe life into them.

The writer takes a story, moulds it, and lays its foundations on the page. But the reader brings it to life.

New short story – ‘Time Away’

Some years ago, I spent a few months working at a holiday centre on the Isle of Wight (a small island by the south coast of England, for those of you unfamiliar with it). I enjoyed my time there, but the place was very dated. I could easily picture pre-war holiday-makers resting in deckchairs, or taking part in organised activities. In fact, much of the island felt like that, as if the ferry across took passengers not only a couple of miles in distance but also back thirty years as well.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Yes, it provided its own source of amusement, but there was also something relaxing about it. The pace of life felt slower. Yes, the island has many beaches, and is in the warmer part of England, but I think it’s a popular holiday destination in part because of the feel of the place.

I was thinking of that time of my life recently (no idea why), and I started getting ideas for a story. I worked on this, and Time Away developed.

You can read Time Away here. If you’ve got a moment, I’d love to hear what you thought of it‌—‌simply comment under the story, or on this post.

Is science fiction a genre?

I read genre books. Yes, I read literary fiction too (whatever that actually means), but because I enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror, the occasional thriller and so on, I’m predominantly a genre reader.

As I both read and write more, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of tropes in different genres. These are those scenes or events that are expected, those parts of the story that almost define it as a certain genre. Thrillers have the ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene, the ‘speech in praise of the villain’. There’s often a false ending, too‌—‌and this crops up in horror as well. In romance there’s the first kiss, the misunderstanding that appears to ruin everything, but there’s always a happily-ever-after (miss this and endure the wrath of countless romance fans). Then there are all the internal genres, those that follow a characters development (either positive or negative)‌—‌the moment when they have to make a choice from which there is no going back. In a maturation story, there is that moment when it becomes clear to the main character that the world they believed to be true is based on a lie of some kind.

So different genres have different tropes. But what about science-fiction stories? What defines a sci-fi story?

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It has to be set in the future‌—‌unless it’s set in the past (like Star Wars), or an alternative present.

There has to be some kind of cool technology‌—‌unless there isn’t (think Planet Of The Apes.) And the technology doesn’t have to play a major role in the story either‌—‌it can be simply setting.

What about action? Well, there’s action in a lot of sci-fi‌—‌but not all. There might be battles in space, or there might be duelling in dialogue between two characters. Some sci-fi is fast-paced, but other stories in this area are slower and more reflective.

And are there any set scenes in sci-fi? Erm‌…no.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that science fiction is not a genre, at least in the same way that horror or thriller or crime or romance are genres. Science fiction refers more to the setting than the type of story being told.

Maybe a few examples will help:

TheMartian_AndyWeirThe Martian is definitely sci-fi, but it is also a survival story; one man against the elements. It’s just like Robinson Crusoe, or any other survival story. It just happens to be set on Mars.

DoAndroidsDreamOfElectricSheep - PhilipKDickBladeRunner (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) is a philosophical detective story, with musings on what it means to be human, and also has many noir tropes‌—‌downtrodden detective, questions over who are in fact the good guys. Oh, and there’s a love story underneath all this. But it has replicants, and it’s set on an Earth that many people have abandoned to travel to the stars.

EndersGame_OrsonScottCarfEnder’s Game is almost a sports story, with Ender starting off in the little leagues and working his way up to the big time. Ender takes his team and uses their weaknesses as strengths, overcoming all the obstacles in his path. It could almost be viewed as a coming-of-age story, too. The fact that the games involve space battles is secondary.

HitchHikersSeries_DouglasAdamsHitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is comedy, full of bizarre happenings and loads of satire. The plot is secondary to the humour, and the science fiction setting simply gives Adams more scope for letting his ideas run riot, and allows him to satirise many things in our current world/time.

Foundation_IsaacAsimovAsimov’s Foundation books (at least in the original trilogy) tell the story of a civilization over time, with much of the action involving political shenanigans and business dealings. The technology is used in trade, rather than in space battles, and the most important science is social science. And then, in the third book, there is the Mule, the lone individual who throws a spanner in the works, and proves that even the greatest minds are not infallible. Science-fiction is simply the setting in which Asimov tells his generation-spanning saga.

Dune_FrankHerbertDune is another saga, with all the political and familial intrigue of a historical novel. Like the best sagas, it draws the reader into a rich world populated by diverse characters, each with their own motives and desires. It just happens to be set on a desert planet.

Six science-fiction books, and all so different. Many sci-fi readers will enjoy them all, but there will be those who love getting embedded in the world of Dune but can’t stand the apparent frivolity of Hitch-Hikers. Those who become engrossed in Watney’s constant struggles in The Martian might be turned off by the socio-political dialogue in the Foundation books. These books area all undoubtedly science fiction, but they are very different story-types.

Have a look at the science-fiction sub-genres on Amazon‌—‌alternative history, first contact, metaphysical & visionary, military, time travel, space exploration to name a few. There is a science-fiction subgenre in romance, another in action & adventure. There’s science-fiction erotica, and there are technothrillers (where science-fiction and thriller meet). And that’s just the official categories. The film Alien uses the sci-fi setting to tell a classic horror story. Another film, Gattaca, is basically a society story (different classes of citizens and so on), but told in a future world.

I think this is a great strength of science-fiction, and it is something that sci-fi writers have utilised for years. In the late 1930s, L Ron Hubbard, already a successful writer of adventure stories, was approached by Astounding Science Fiction magazine to write for them. He was initially reluctant, saying that he didn’t write about ‘machines and machinery’, but about people. The publishers of the magazine told him that this was precisely what they wanted. His first story for the magazine was a success, and led to more and more people-based sci-fi stories, by writers such as Isaac Asimov.

There are some sci-fi stories that are primarily concerned with the science aspects (hard sci-fi, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama), but the majority use the setting to tell other stories, and may use this further to reflect on our present-day world. Science-fiction gives a writer great scope for asking ‘what if…?’ and then crafting a suitable story around wherever that question takes them. Or it gives them a vast canvas on which to tell a myriad of stories, drawing on whatever influences and preferences they have.

And this is one of the reasons I love reading science-fiction‌—‌the whole ‘genre’ gives me such a huge array of different stories. When I read sci-fi, I can explore types of stories I wouldn’t normally consider, but without stepping too far out of my comfort zone. I can escape to new worlds while still, for example, being presented with an intricate puzzle in the form of a crime/detective story. I can be entertained while being challenged, made both fearful and hopeful.

Much of this relates to fantasy, too‌—‌unsurprising, as the two ‘genres’ share many similarities. There are fantasy action stories, fantasy romances, fantasy thrillers, fantasy sagas‌—‌the list goes on.

Of course, in the end, the setting is only secondary to the story. A cool world is fun to visit, but without interesting characters being thrust into intriguing situations there’s little to hold us beyond a brief visit.

This is why, as a writer, it’s important that I understand tropes, and that I understand different kinds of stories. My own stuff fits in science-fiction, but to make the stories work, I first need to know what kinds of stories I’m telling.