Ordinary Life and Science Fiction

I just finished reading Marsbound by Joe Haldeman as a serial in Analog SF.  The book won’t be published until August but all parts of the serial can be found at Fictionwise.com.  I got to study with Joe Haldeman and his wife Gay for a week in 2002 when I attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, so I feel bad for making criticisms of his new novel in the narrative below.  I’m going to be critical but not in an ordinary review way – I’m going to use Marsbound as a jumping off point for talking about some general problems I have with science fiction.  Overall I found Marsbound to be a fun novel and if you read Jason Sanford’s review he reports its his favorite SF novel from recent years.

Jason also has the same reaction I had reading Marsbound because we both felt it was modeled after Robert A. Heinlein juveniles – which in my book is very ambitious.  Part of my criticism will be how this story doesn’t measure up, but that is unfair criticism too.  Joe has to write his own novels and they shouldn’t be compared to Heinlein – even though I do.  However, I think the qualities I want can’t be described as belonging to Heinlein, I just saw them first in his juvenile novels.

This essay isn’t a review.  I’ll try to avoid specific spoilers, but I will mention plot elements because they will be examples of what I want to talk about in general.  Normally I hate serials but the title Marsbound just grabbed me because I love books about colonizing Mars.  Part of my disappointed deals with the fact that the story turned out to not be about colonizing Mars.  Again, this is not the fault of Joe’s writing or the story.  Instead of being Red Planet its more like Have Space Suit-Will Travel my all time favorite SF novel.  That is both good and bad.

Let’s get down to business.  I call this essay “Ordinary Life and Science Fiction” because SF seldom deals with ordinary life and people.  Marsbound starts off being a story about a young woman of 19 who is traveling to Mars with her brother and parents.  In the future this could be about ordinary life and the beginning was very promising to my hopes.  Because Haldeman was pacing the story slow, dealing with the background of Mars exploration and explaining a space elevator I assumed Carmen Dula’s story would be a step by step narrative about what living on Mars might be like. 

This excited me because I don’t think enough science fiction deals with the reality of space travel.  Kids need to see what hard work it will be to conquer another world.  And the first installment of this story appeared to be exactly what I wanted.  Early on Carmen admits she’s a virgin and one interesting plot problem appears to be centered around romance in a limited colony.  I thought this complication was excellent.  Haldeman had done something interesting for a SF juvenile by having a female lead and dealing with sexuality and romance, topics Heinlein could not touch back in the 1950s.

Alas, Joe takes a sharp plot turn at the end of the first segment and Marsbound becomes a completely different story.  Like Have Space Suit-Will Travel, the plot is structured like a multi-staged rocket.  When the second stage kicks in Marsbound leaves the story I was hoping to read.  Again like Have Space Suit-Will Travel it takes on good and bad aliens, and eventually deals with the fate of the Earth.  All exciting stuff by traditional science fiction.

What I’d like to read is non-traditional science fiction novel.  We’re now leaving Joe Haldeman’s territory.  This is something I often do with films – fall in love with the beginning but I end up wanting to rewrite the ending myself.  I must emphasize again this can’t be consider criticism of Marsbound.

From now on I’m speculating about a new book that could be considered inspired by Marsbound.  Even one of my favorite Mars colony books, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson moves away from the details of day to day colonization and ordinary life.  SF seems to hate the mundane life.  Too often SF seems bored with any plot smaller than save the world.

When I started reading Marsbound I hoped it would be two things.  First, a detail speculation about ordinary people colonizing Mars – much like stories about colonists in early America.  Second I wanted it to be a true science fiction romance from a female’s POV.  I wanted Jane Austen meets Robert A. Heinlein.  Heinlein never could have done Austen because he didn’t have a clue about women but he was great at telling stories to youngsters about how to survive and succeed.

If mankind is to ever explore space beyond low Earth orbit we’ve got to colonize the Moon and Mars.  Such adventures will involve millions of mundane details not normally found in SF.  People who colonize these worlds will be ordinary and romance will remain a big part of their lives.  Because SF is addicted to epic plots it has trouble dealing with the minute problems people face daily.

Strangely enough Philip K. Dick attempted this in 1964 with The Martian Time-Slip when he dealt with a union on Mars and mental illness.  I think part of PKD’s success is sticking close to the little people, the ordinary person rather than writing about heroes that save the world.

I believe classic science fiction inspired rocket engineers and early space exploration but I don’t think modern science fiction has that impact on young today.  I’ve talked to a number of kids who have asked me when will space travel be like Star Wars or Star Trek.  When I reply probably never they act like I just told them Santa Claus isn’t real.  They whine that the space shuttle and NASA is boring.

Living on Mars will be a whole lot about farming and recycling – not very hip topics.  Living on Mars and the Moon will be about living underground in confined spaces.  Few people will get to hot rod on the surface.  So what will it be like to be a teenager growing up in such a limited world?  How does romance unfold when there will probably be very little privacy.  Life will be hard and kids won’t be allowed to waste hours a day on television, computers and video games.  Survival will depend on everyone pitching in.  Success will not be measured by wealth but skills and hard work, not qualities often associated with modern teen.

This is all very different from the way kids grow up today.  It should make for a great story, so why don’t we see SF books like this?  Maybe writers feel it would be too dreary to sell.  Maybe I should get off my ass and write it myself.  What’s really required is using the conventions of normal literary story telling and meld them with the details of science and science fiction.  In other words I’m asking for someone to write the great American novel set on Mars.

This is why The Road by Cormac McCarthy beats the common after-the-collapse SF novel.  McCarthy deals with the little details.  At Clarion they taught us that good fiction is the accumulation of significant details.  That’s why the Heinlein juveniles were so good and why later Heinlein adult novels are so bad.  Opinions and far out ideas are fine for blog writing, but fiction writing requires a focus on finer observations about ordinary living.  It’s nothing for me to ask for such a novel, but it’s years of work for someone to write.

I’d love to read Great Expectations or Pride and Prejudice set on Mars but with all the Martian details known by a JPL engineer.  Like I said before, if that’s something I want then maybe I should go write it myself.  But that’s even more ambitious than modeling stories after Robert A. Heinlein.


5 thoughts on “Ordinary Life and Science Fiction”

  1. Hey Traci, great to hear from you. It’s also great to hear you are succeeding since Clarion. I see your novellette “Sixth Sun Rising” was on Dave Truesdale’s 2007 SF & Fantansy Recommend Reading List.


  2. I think the reason nobody writes the kind of novel you are thinking about is because there is no market for it. Modern SF is the way it is, because that’s what authors are told to write in order to sell it. The whole Hero’s Journey plot is what seems to be selling now.

    The only way your idea would sell in today’s market is as a YA novel. But most editors and agents are looking for near future stuff that takes place on Earth like the what Scott Westerfeld writes.

    You might get something sold if you had a bad boy in it like Holden Caulfield but that’s not what you are shooting for.

    I know what you are saying though, because I’ve wished there were something that young kids could get excited about in SF like Harry Potter did in Fantasy. Something that is strong on the Science and not the Magic. Something that will inspire kids today to become engineers, astronomers and astronauts.

    If you write it I will buy it.

  3. Yes Ken, that’s a great idea, a Harry Potter for science fiction. I was talking with people this afternoon about why kids hate school and why so many are doing badly. I didn’t like school either. The academic world is so abstract. It’s hard to tell kids to study hard and one day you’ll be an astronaut or an engineer when their payoff is so far in the future. They want everything now and they want it to happen like magic.

    I wonder if I could develop a story with a Hogwarts for science school. I see these documentaries where school kids build robots. Boy I wished I had that opportunity when I was going to school.

    I think one reason why Harry Potter books were so successful was because the characters grew up having many of the same problems as the kids reading the books. It wasn’t all about magic. And the kids were away from parents and had to act on their own and I think young readers love that idea.

    Over at http://eclipticplane.blogspot.com/2008/03/optimism-in-sf-is-it-dead.html Jetse de Vries asks: Optimism in SF: Is it Dead?

    I think such a pro-science YA novel would have to be optimistic. I’ll have to think about this. Set the story slightly in the future, say 2020, and have it be about kids solving real scientific problems – sort of a open source school for science.


  4. “I wanted Jane Austen meets Robert A. Heinlein.” That would be a great read! Get to writing it!!! 😉

    I sort of agree with the whole ‘there’s no market for it’ idea and at the same time I see books like A Time Traveler’s Wife and the more recent The Invention of Everything Else and they are novels with tried and true science fiction concepts but with the kind of literary bent…or maybe just a little something different…that they get classified as fiction, do step away a bit from conventional sci fi, and seem to sell just fine.

    I think there is a market for the kind of book you describe, it just has to be well written and marketed courageously.

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