Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.

Downward_to_the_Earth

I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.

JWH

The State of Freedom 100 Years Ago

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 14, 2015

If you think terrorism and war is bad now, just study how things were one hundred years ago. We think of America as the land of the free, but during the 1910s people were being jailed for printing words and jokes about things we commonly see in sitcoms. Language we’d consider G-rated would get you jailed back then if you used it in a literary work that was sent through the U.S. mails.  Writing about contraception, condoms or abortion could also get you thrown in the slammer. Using phrases like “snot-green” or “old fart” would get you labeled as a horrible lower-class person. And it sickened and horrified cultured people when James Joyce wrote about Leopold Bloom eating organ meats, even though everyone ate organ meats. One hundred years ago people just didn’t like facing up to the gritty details of life, details we embrace today.

Because of laws regulating decency, sedition, sexual practices and other moral issues, most of 21st century writers, movie makers, publishers would be jailed if their work appeared a hundred years ago. This doesn’t mean the common people didn’t say anything they wanted, but state and federal governments tried very hard to control what people printed and shipped through the mails. If liberals think conservatives are controlling now, just read about the history of censorship in America. We’ve come a long way baby.

The Most Dangerous Book - Kevin Birmingham

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham thoroughly entertained me with his history of censorship and legal battles to publish what is now considered the best novel in English literature. Even if you have no interest in James Joyce, this book is fascinating history. It does deal with Joyce’s immense struggle to be an artist, and to push the limits of literary expression, but it’s also about why and how our society wanted to rein in artists. It’s about the editors and publishers that risked jail to publish writers like Joyce. In 1920, the year my father was born, Jon Stewart would probably have been sentenced to ten years in jail for each episode of his show, if they could have seen The Daily Show back then.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Book to prepare me to listened to Ulysses. I keep trying to get into Ulysses but I always fail. Ulysses is an almost impossible book to get into, very tough going, but not because Joyce was so intellectual and learned. Joyce wrote about ordinary events and people, but used new writing techniques to show how people actually thought and felt.  Since we often think about sex and bodily functions, or feel thoughts about people we’d never express, our minds are chaotic tangles of incoherent phrases and perceptions, and Ulysses tries to capture this stream of consciousness. In the 1910s and 1920s, readers found his experiments startling, offensive, unnerving and threatening.  Some European and American government officials thought Joyce’s apparent nonsense could be coded messages of espionage. Even his most ardent admirers struggled to decode his prose.

Joyce set the stage for comic observations about humanity that armies of standup comics still mine today. Yet, a hundred years ago, this so horrified government officials they did their damnedest to erase, and keep from the public. Their paranoia over strange ideas was fueled by radicals and anarchists who promoted conflict, disorder and social unrest. There were hundreds of terrorists bombings back then each year. The government associated anything Avant-garde with radicalism.

We have practically no censorship now, and a lot less social unrest and terrorist bombs. Strangely, the lingering forms of censorship we see today often come from terrorist bombers who want to revert our freedoms. The Comstock Law of 1873 was a kind of American Sharia Law, and the people who terrorized the literary world back then was the U.S. Post Office.

The founding fathers made free speech legal, but they didn’t understand what that meant. We’re still exploring the social implications of real free speech.  Kevin Birmingham’s book is a stunning history of the fight for free speech in the early part of the 20th century. He focuses on an array of literary freedom fighters who were directly or indirectly connected to helping James Joyce get his book published. Whether or not you’re interested in literary history hardly matters if you love history itself when considering reading this book.

History is like a jigsaw puzzle with an infinite number of pieces. A great history book is one that helps you put hundreds of pieces together to reveal the big image of the past. A great history book also helps connect its images with pieces of images you’ve assembled from other great history books. The Most Dangerous Book helped me see a lot more of 20th century American and European history.

I still find listening to Ulysses hard going, but I’m making a greater effort because of The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham explained the tremendous struggle by Joyce to write his book, and why. Birmingham gives a great deal of background facts that interpret each chapter in Ulysses. But most important, he testifies to the valiant effort so many people made that allows us to read Ulysses and books like it. I’m very grateful to those people. I think we all should be.

JWH

Ethan Frome

For my May monthly selection for the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge I decided to read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  This is my first reading experience with Wharton, and I was very impressed.  Ethan Frome was first published in 1911, but is set earlier, in a time before cars, when people lived very differently from how they do now.  I listened to an unabridged edition of this book from Recorded Books read by George Guidall, and as soon as I started listening I knew I was hearing very fine writing.

The reason I joined the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge was to seek out books I’d normally never read, and to discover views of life that would be surprising and novel, and I think Wharton succeeded well with those goals.  Ethan Frome is a very short novel that is often assigned to school kids to read, and I can understand why.  The writing is vivid, sharp and full of details that should stimulate a lot of discussion with young modern minds.  At one point Ethan talks about stars and constellations and regrets he wasn’t able to escape from small town life to become educated and pursue scientific ambitions.  We seldom hear 19th century characters talk about science.

Ambition versus reality is a common thread throughout the story, and I can’t help but think any reader of this novel not comparing their own life with Ethan and Mattie.  We all want more than we’re given, and Wharton creates a rather horrific analogy of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control.  The heavy ironic ending would fit naturally into a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.

Classic novels of the past are a vehicle of time travel for me, especially ones like Ethan Frome that are written with a significant accumulation of details.  I started listening to Ethan Frome just after listening to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction novel.  I was surprised by the stark contrast of details and lack of details.  Heinlein provided damn few details about his vision of the future, instead telling his story mostly in dialog.  Wharton told her story in a chronicle of observations, descriptions of moods and voice, and sparse dialog.  It would be fantastic if science fiction writers could make-up such realistic details about the future for their stories.

The Heinlein book was overtly about sexual relationships, but it was unrealistic.  The Wharton book dealt with sexual undercurrents at a time when writers couldn’t write directly about sex.  It was far more realistic.

Jim

* I was disturb by the number of out of print editions of Ethan Frome on the web that seemed to be no more than traps to get people to look at ads.  In the old Internet days there were a few sites for free books that would nicely format the texts for reading online.  These ad honeypots did not do that.  A lot of these sites were geared to school kids, knowing they had to research the book.  Some of these sites offered study guides, which is admirable, although the content on many were thin.  I’m hoping over time some of these study guide sites will emerge as true centers of study, and not just for school kids.  I think all of these book sites should try to format the text to make online reading easy, and offer links to common ebook formats for people who want to read on ebooks, PDAs, phones and laptops.  It would also be nice if they could integrate their ads into a layout that is more appealing to the eyes.  Fewer ads should get more attention, and if placed properly they shouldn’t detract from the content.  Most of the time the layout was so bad I immediately closed my browser tab.