Science fiction matters, but not as a forecast of future events. (Where are the flying cars? Eternal youth? Meal-in-a-pill?)
The under-rated literary category offers top-notch entertainment—and an overlooked benefit. The success of certain sci-fi stories holds a key to your own writing success.
Technical fiction—use that term if the rocket ships, ray guns, mages and alternate histories distract you—measures society’s fears about technology-wrought change. The backbone themes of sci-fi include hubris, the mad scientist, monsters, and playing God. These have struck a chord with readers for millennia.
Set your Way Back Machine and travel with me 3500 years in the past to consider one of mankind’s earliest technical thrillers. You’ll recognize it from Genesis, Chapter 1. It also pops up in ancient Sumerian’s cuneiform inscriptions, in Sanskrit seals, in the Koran, in Aztec and other native peoples’ stories. Most likely, you know the story as the Tower of Babel.
Technical thriller? Indeed! The survivors of the Great Flood elect to build “a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven…” This was grand a goal for its time as H. G. Wells’s First Men on the Moon was for his. The ancients fired “brick for stone”. That’s your disruptive technology. Bricks replaced sun-dried mud and permitted vertical buildings and city walls. City states replaced tribes. Heredity and political acumen replaced wisdom and experience in the appointment of rulers. Bricks set nomadic life on the path to obsolescence and created social upheaval.
The Tower of Babel account still resonates because it employs one of the oldest literary devices, metaphor, and one of the oldest themes in science fiction, playing God—hubris. “The Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this [building the tower] is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.’”
The rest is history, or metaphor, if you prefer. Individual city-states produced individual cultures, languages and fragmented society. Add metaphor to history, create a mythology, and the story has legs that carry it across the centuries.
Other early sci-fi writers used these tools successfully. Icarus’sill-fated flight towards the sun or Belleraphon’s abortive flight to Mt. Olympus are metaphors that represent hubris.
Fast-forward to modern times and you’ll encounter the stubborn persistence of these themes. Read no further than Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and you’ll find technologists playing God with DNA. Monster stories are as old as darkness, but Crichton struck a vein when he married technology and mythology. That, and damned good writing.
Another long-lived premise is that of the unhinged individual in control of limitless power, the Mad Scientist. I explore this subject in my novel, Little Deadly Things, the story of an emotionally-damaged woman whose mastery of nanotechnology makes her wealthy…and dangerous.
I believe that the conscious use of our primal mythologies blended with modern technology produces great stories. Call it science fiction or technical thrillers—whichever you wish.
Literature’s answer to playing God (a term coined in the 1931 film version of Frankenstein) is technology in service to mankind. Think of Isaac Asimov’s beneficent robots, harnessed by the Three Laws of Robotics. Consider the second Terminator movie, in which a new cyborg must protect John Connor from an even more powerful and advanced Terminator, the T-1000. Look to Marta Cruz in LittleDeadly Things, a character who melds nanotechnology with ancient rainforest medicines for the good of an ailing world.
When writers grok the relationship between technical change and mythology, they add to their inventory of time-tested literary devices. Imbue good writing with technical knowledge and mythology and the results just might be a damned good thriller that stays popular, millennium after millennium.
I’ll tell you if it works for my novel. Just look me up in a thousand years and we’ll compare notes.