Captain Kamen slowed the skimmer down to the point where the planet’s surface was no longer a blur and switched the controls to manual. His pressure suit partially deflated; the control yoke swung over his shoulders and into his hand. He turned his craft towards the coordinates the Kasstelleeian had given him before he died. He barrelled on, safe in the thought that his Galactic-issue mark IV magpistol was strapped to his right thigh, three spare clips on his left.
‘Fisheggs,’ Captain Kamen swore softly to himself as he stared into the mouth of the cave system that lay at the coordinates. The Galetti lay moored within, out of sight of the satellites that swept the sky overhead searching for her.
But that wasn’t what surprised the ageing spacetrooper. ‘That spaceship… miaowed.’
I have a confession.
I find much sci-fi, possibly most sci-fi, slightly embarrassing.
This isn’t much of a confession, unless you’re trying to write sci-fi and get it published. Which I am.
I’ve been meaning to write this confession for a while, but have struggled putting it into words, giving it definite form. Because I’ve struggled with exactly what it is that I find embarrassing. I’ve tried to write a bit of breast-beating space opera to illustrate what makes me squirm, although it’s nowhere near as bad as I wanted to make it. I think I must have some kind of quality threshold which I can’t push myself below.
I think at a very surface level it’s authors’ obvious enjoyment of making up names - of spaceships, planets, races, weaponry - over and above deepening character and focussing on story. George Lucas, for both JarJar Binks and the elements you revealingly focussed on in scrubbing up the earlier films - no, Mos Eisley was never crying out for flurries of little furry creatures, I’m very much thinking of you.
At a more sophisticated level, given sci-fi’s reputation for being a 'genre of ideas', it’s when there is a surfeit of ideas. Just boy meets girl or black hats versus white hats in space.
‘In space’. Hold that thought. Because any pitch with ‘in space’ afterwards become sci-fi, in a way that doesn’t apply to any other genre. Northanger Abbey, the story of Christ, the wide-mouthed frog joke. Add ‘in space’ afterwards and they all become sci-fi. But not real sci-fi. Just stories wearing sci-fi’s clothes. In short, there’s too much of it around.
This line of thought has been prompted by Tomorrow’s Worlds, Dominic Sandbrooke’s TV history (? personal walk-though?) of sci-fi. It’s reasonably engaging stuff, but all a bit random, because it’s such a wide genre that it doesn’t really have much of a history that can be grabbed hold of easily. Sure, there’s a few milestones - Melieres, Verne, Lt Uhuru - but for the main part it’s a ragbag of Dom’s favourites.
One of the more thought-provoking parts was when Sandbrooke contrasted and compared HG Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ with the US film versions, with the book set in the Surrey stockbroker belt, the stateside versions in the big city. He quite rightly contrasts the quiet of Surrey’s rolling landscape with the coming of the Martians in a way that doesn’t quite apply to the American versions as the story arc begins to tend towards ‘more is more’.
And it’s this contrast between the everyday, the prosaic, and the alien that makes sci-fi disconcerting. And disconcerting, I've decided, is what I look for in thought-provoking, adult, idea-driven sci-fi. And - I think this is where I find sci-fi squirmy - there’s a direct correlation between lack of disconcerting-ness and feelings of silliness. There’s a disconcerting-shaped hole left behind.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s a British or Commonwealth thing. Maybe it’s a non-Californian thing. Or maybe it’s something that everybody except Michael Bay shares. But I’d much prefer a story in which nothing happens except everybody who was left-handed became right-handed and vica versa than the planet blows up.
Captain Kamen, out.