If All Stories Were Written Like Science Fiction Stories
September 26, 2004 5:13 PM   Subscribe

If All Stories Were Written Like Science Fiction Stories. "Roger and Ann needed to meet Sergey in San Francisco. 'Should we take a train, or a steamship, or a plane?' asked Ann. 'Trains are too slow, and the trip by steamship around South America would take months,' replied Roger. 'We’ll take a plane.'"
posted by Johnny Assay (47 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How stupid, inane, and inaccurate. It's more like a parody of the worst science fiction stories of the 1940s. The ignorance being paraded there is staggering.
posted by bingo at 5:20 PM on September 26, 2004

Why would anyone bother to write that?
posted by krisjohn at 5:29 PM on September 26, 2004

I think it's cute.
posted by inksyndicate at 5:33 PM on September 26, 2004

if you've ever read a story by the "acclaimed" hard-SF writer larry niven, you'd get it.
posted by LimePi at 5:38 PM on September 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Holy exposition Batman!
posted by Armitage Shanks at 5:40 PM on September 26, 2004

I found it sort of clever. Describing the technology in far more detail than is strictly required for the sake of the narrative is fairly typical, and often a lot of the charm of sci-fi. Most modern, semi-respectable sci-fi authors aren't quite so obvious about their techno-expository dialogue, but it is, after all, a parody.

Sure, the story's only got that one joke, and he perhaps gets a bit more mileage out of it than was justified, but whatever. I found it funny.
posted by mragreeable at 5:43 PM on September 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Let's see, picked up Snow Crash, read first two pages, yup this is somewhat accurate.
posted by bobo123 at 6:00 PM on September 26, 2004

See, this is why I liked Firefly.
posted by dmd at 6:08 PM on September 26, 2004

Accurate, and funny, though it doesn't need to be so long - I was bored with the joke after a couple of paragraphs.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:08 PM on September 26, 2004

It did have that SNL stretching-the-joke feel, but it was a good joke.

'I loved it. Much better than Cats. I will go and read it again and again and again.'
posted by boaz at 6:12 PM on September 26, 2004

> Would Joe Friday or Marshal Dillon explain how his gun works to a bad guy? (attr. Roddenberry)

It's funny, 'cause it's true. Of course, the best sf does much better, but plenty of it is expositionary at heart. Niven isn't this bad (sheesh) -- he knows how to frame the exposition -- but the idea that you have to have a verbose character (or conversely, a dumb or inquisitive one) in order to get your explanations out is one of those conventions under which sf all too often labors. A good writer will come up with a story device (which may well be a, you know, device) that will mitigate the problem. Roddenberry's brilliant one was the transporter -- not only did it fit in with the 24th century motif, but it also allowed them to move the story from ship to planet quickly and dispose with expensive shuttlecraft special effects shots.

In that case, of course, you had grouchy Bones as the foil. I don't want my atoms scattered and scrambled was not just a character trait, but disguised exposition.
posted by dhartung at 6:30 PM on September 26, 2004

I like the idea, but the execution was lacking.
posted by Krrrlson at 6:50 PM on September 26, 2004

well, a hard sci fi author will more likely explain the rational about how things work because...it's HARD sci fi (meaning that the concepts and devices created are supposed to be based on short term extrapolations of how current technology works). For me the fun of reading sci fi is seeing someone take a modern concept and extend it beyond the expected (i'd strongly suggest Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars).

However, what this doesn't make up for is the piss poor writing in this story. A good author can mix in explaination through naration or mere description without having to have specific characters say things. this is like an essay on how not to write sci-fi meant for fourth graders.
posted by NGnerd at 6:51 PM on September 26, 2004

Another example of a foil is Pham Nuwen in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. He's important to the story, but having a comparatively primitive background to the rest of the characters gives him a usefully naive perspective and gives a few other characters the opportunity to explain some details which would be well understood by most ordinary people in the story.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:53 PM on September 26, 2004

Orson Scott Card's written some interesting things about how exposition style reflects what the author expects the reader knows about the setting/milieu in which the story takes place... his How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction especially so...
posted by weston at 7:14 PM on September 26, 2004

Oh for crying out loud. It's a cute idea, and a good joke. You guys are NO FUN.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:33 PM on September 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Personally I'm irritated with sci-fi that puts explanation of concepts ahead of believable characters, but I'm just a pulpy kind of guy I guess.
posted by inksyndicate at 7:45 PM on September 26, 2004

The problem with this is that the writing is simply bad. You could tell the same story, with the same exposition and not sound like a 3rd grade dissertation.

Let me make an attempt.

Sergey was in San Francisco, and he was waiting for them.

"How about a train this time?" Ann asked. "Or maybe we could take a boat."

"I wish we could take months to round cape horn too." Rodger said. He looked away from her, he sighed. He said: "I'm not looking forward to this either. But we don't have a choice, you know. We'll take a plane, get there quick and get this overwith."

They left the city on the bi-rail, after Rodger purchaced the plain tickets using a computer network. Ann wore a tight shirt made from long-chian polycarbons spun into thread and woven into mesh that streched around her body. Thin and gaunt. Her pants were cotton.

Ann's hair flittered in the wind and it made Rodger think of a shool of fish running from a shark or something. He'd seen her so many times, now, and he knew her face in every depth of every detail. It made him sad to look at her now.

They handed their identity cards to the airport counter girl, who typed quickly for a moment, and handed them a bording pass. She looked like she was 16. Fat cheeks, and cherry red makeup.

"You think we'll fly on a turboprop?" Ann asked, out of the blue. She wasn't looking at him.


And so on.
posted by delmoi at 7:55 PM on September 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Btw, if you want to see exposition done right. Read Neil Stephenson's Quicksilver. Might want to read the first book as well, if you can get through it.
posted by delmoi at 7:57 PM on September 26, 2004

If you think this is what science fiction is like, then you have been reading bad science fiction. Newsflash: A.E. van Vogt is both irrelevant and dead.
posted by interrobang at 8:02 PM on September 26, 2004

Oh for crying out loud. It's a cute idea, and a good joke. You guys are NO FUN.

Wait a minute -- science-fiction fans taking science fiction way too seriously? This is unprecedented!
posted by jjg at 8:17 PM on September 26, 2004

Wait a minute -- people who don't read science-fiction aren't taking things seriously enough? This is unprecedented!
posted by interrobang at 8:37 PM on September 26, 2004

It's a good parody. If the writer reads this thread: GOOD JOB.
posted by Hildago at 8:40 PM on September 26, 2004

Klutzy, not clever.
posted by FormlessOne at 8:44 PM on September 26, 2004

Yes, transmit that positive message back to 1938, Hildago, where it really would have mattered. THAT'S scifi, right, guys? Skiffy starwars for everyone!
posted by interrobang at 8:47 PM on September 26, 2004

I liked it.
posted by Salmonberry at 9:06 PM on September 26, 2004

Let me make an attempt.

delmoi, it seems to me what you've proven here is that it's possible to tell the story in a less amusing fashion. A sober-minded retelling, being careful to avoid the expository traps that a lot of sci-fi authors fall into, while fair and charitable on your part, doesn't exactly make for a funny parody.
posted by mragreeable at 9:09 PM on September 26, 2004

Wow, I didn't think that this would elicit such a negative response. I do think, though, that Mark Rosenfelder (the author) knows his sci-fi, so don't go thinking that this is some effete ivory-tower intellectual who only reads litera-toor. I read it as an affectionate spoof of some of the tropes of the genre, nothing more, nothing less.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:16 PM on September 26, 2004

Now you see, this is what much of "Return of the King" felt like for me.

Of course I've got this neat trick for skipping the boring but here for your edification bits. It's called "scanning."
posted by ilsa at 9:17 PM on September 26, 2004

With preemptive apologies to delmoi and mragreeable:

Delmoi hunched over, considering his reply to mragreeable. His tileboard, a grid of letters and numbers arrayed before him, waited expectantly. His index finger lingered momentarily over the 'F' tile. THUNK. Gone was the satisfying click of the old mechanical keyswitches. In its place emerged a dull thud as a bubble in a plastic sheet collapsed under his finger's weight, pressing the wires within together. The completed circuit traversed the grid back to the main box, and, milliseconds later, an 'F' appeared on the lightscreen in front of him.

But his fingers were already moving on. 'u' THUNK 'c' THUNK 'k' THUNK. His thumb shot to the long bar in the center, marking the end of his first word. 'Y' THUNK 'o' THUNK 'u' THUNK. He stopped, leaned back and gazed at his work. Pleased, he ordered it posted, deftly maneuvering a small arrow on his lightscreen using the control box to the keyboard's right. Yes, that would do fine.

posted by boaz at 9:48 PM on September 26, 2004

I think it's actually a deeper problem with narrative in general that old SF merely makes clearer. We're facile enough with media and familiar enough with it's constructions that it's now much harder to accept the role of the storyteller and the storytelling. The omnicient third-person narrator now leaves us unsatisfied - how does this person know all this? Why are they telling it to us? Is the person telling the story biased in some way?

Overly-expository SF simply hearkens back to the time when we simply accepted the story as it was told to us. We didn't wonder why a person taking an airplane would expound at length on something that must be blindingly familiar, we just enjoyed the ideas it gave us.

I love the games we now play, the new forms and toyings with the very process. But to poke fun at good old A.E. Van Vogt - or even call him irrelevant - let alone decry the giants on whose shoulders the "new school" fiction rests is self-adulatory and cheap onanism of the worst kind, in that it actually does induce blindness. You may as well condemn Western Classical music or Eastern Butoh dance for conforming to rigid structures and forms that don't sound 'natural' to you: you reveal only your own small-mindedness.

Having said that, I thought this was really funny. I'll defend the old guys till the cows come home, but you've got to admit a lot of them lay it on a little thick and this pretty much nails it accurately.
posted by freebird at 9:53 PM on September 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Personally I think it's excellently written, gets the point across well and had me chuckling. Too long? It's not even a thousand words.

Though this did remind me of Houllebecq's 'Elementary Particles', in bits of that novel were written as if the reader was non-human, so it goes into these extended scientific explanations of everyday things. Though that was so well written I didn't realize that too might be a parody of science fiction writing.
posted by bobo123 at 9:56 PM on September 26, 2004

That was pretty funny, right there.
posted by majcher at 10:31 PM on September 26, 2004

See - boaz has the right idea. Now THAT is good literature.
posted by Krrrlson at 10:37 PM on September 26, 2004

"The door dilated."
posted by dglynn at 11:16 PM on September 26, 2004

boaz did it better.
posted by sharpener at 11:39 PM on September 26, 2004

I think it's actually a deeper problem with narrative in general

I go along with that. I think this all misses the point that mainstream writers can be equally guilty of this. My wife is a writer, and one of her pet hates is what she calls "Cup of Tea Syndrome", common in female-written literary family saga (there's a male-written hardboiled variant, "Cigarette-Lighting Syndrome"). This is where the author pads out short interactions between characters to page-length with irrelevant physical detail and action. I caricature, but not much:

"You'd best sit down," she said.
Myrtle sat in the hard-backed chair as her mother prepared a tray, setting out white china cups, a bowl of sugar lumps, a carton of semi-skimmed milk, and a porcelain teapot. She rinsed the pot then spooned in three large portions of Earl Grey tea, pouring the boiling water over the leaves.
"How are you?" Myrtle said.
Her mother gently stirred the tea in the pot. She set out a cup and saucer for Myrtle and one for herself, then poured a little milk into each cup.
"Well enough," she said, picking up the strainer. She poured accurately, the amber stream gently splashing as the aromatic bergamot-scented steam rose in a plume. Holding the tongs carefully in bony arthritic fingers, she dropped two lumps of sugar into her cup, and stirred it.
"So why are you here, Myrtle?
posted by raygirvan at 3:32 AM on September 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

So they took a plane. That's not a story, it's barely an anecdote.

I think Houllebecq writes from a detached perspective. If I recall, 'Elementary particles' was written as though distant history, not current events, and as such would well need explanations of what we consider commonplace.

And why doesn't anybody mention Tom Clancy? Joe Queenan did. Yes, yes, Clancy's not quite science fiction, but he certainly has been known to cram lectures and technical specifications into exposition.
posted by codger at 7:18 AM on September 27, 2004

It's not just the inclusion of technical information, it's the (intentionally, in this case, which makes it funny) lazy way that it's presented to the reader. The use of the phrase "As you know..." is the tip-o-the-hat. More at writersdigest and SFF Net.
posted by dammitjim at 8:07 AM on September 27, 2004

As an sf fan of long standing, I enjoyed it, with the proviso that I was pretending the title was If All Stories Were Written Like Science Fiction Stories From 1928. This has nothing to do with any sf written in the last 60 years or so.

And don't knock AE Van Vogt -- he was no Hemingway, but what he did, he did superlatively. If you don't enjoy "Black Destroyer," I feel sorry for you; you're severely lacking in sensawunda (as the fen used to call it).
posted by languagehat at 9:18 AM on September 27, 2004

Yah! I thought a good night's rest would make it all go away, but while I'm past the perhaps overstated reaction above, I'm still grumpy about the Van Vogt dissing. Kids these days, they jus' got no repec' for they elders.

Though frankly languagehat, I 've read plenty scifi written in the last 5-10 years which, while not exactly like this - since the technology fetishes and writing style have changed - are still guilty of essentially the same thing. So I must differ with the statement that it has *nothing* to do with sf written in the last 60 years. And in fact broaden it beyond sci-fi, as several have done above.
posted by freebird at 9:29 AM on September 27, 2004

I dub this "Roger and Anne Swift and their Flying Aero-Machine Adventure."

I grew up reading my dad's Tom Swift collection, wherein every book has Tom meeting adventure via some new device he just invented (wonderous things, including a motorboat and a submarine), so this piece hit a nerve of nostalgia. All it needed was a demented German scientist next to them on the plane for it to be perfect!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:08 AM on September 27, 2004

freebird: But the fact that writing style has changed is the whole point! This is a parody of a very specific style ("Golly, Jane, isn't it grand that our flying carriages can take us so conveniently to our destination?") that was prevalent 70-80 years ago and was in fact parodied much like this at the time. If you're going beyond that to simple bad writing, 1) the parody loses its point and 2) it isn't about sf in particular.
posted by languagehat at 11:18 AM on September 27, 2004

But I didn't see it as being about the overall style. As freebird did, I read it as a specific dig at the practice of overt explanation of environmental detail that'd be trivially commonplace and need no explanation for the characters.
posted by raygirvan at 11:54 AM on September 27, 2004

It's true, there's two things intertwined: a specific 'voice', which is linked to a specific period, and the confounding of the roles of 'character' and 'narrator', which is not.

As in my rant above, I see the latter as an interesting issue for fiction in general, and this specific egregious example as exactly that.
posted by freebird at 12:27 PM on September 27, 2004

It really ought to be in the Turkey City Lexicon; while resembling 'Information Dump' and 'As You Know, Bob', it seems to be a recognisable entity in its own right. I keep running into it. For instance, a British crime novel I've just been re-reading has examples like "She bought a small crusty loaf with four points like a King's crown that the assistant called a coburg" (author's italics, not mine) when the buyer is an English adult who'd find a coburg loaf perfectly commonplace.
posted by raygirvan at 1:04 PM on September 27, 2004

"So if you ride the expressway today, remember that it's greased strictly with S. O. Benedictae, Strain AG-47. Developed right here in this room."

*waving my geek flag high*
posted by zoogleplex at 1:25 PM on September 27, 2004

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