Subtle Sci-fi: Opening soon on a blog near you

Having a rule-bound structure in my own fiction writing allows me to quickly generate ideas and ‘practice’ writing without being too precious about it. ‘Subtle Sci-fi’ is not my claim for a new genre (I’m not so misguided) but simply my way of setting up a particular type of rule. Every ‘Subtle Sci-fi’ story starts with a premise, a slight change to one of the conditions of the ‘world’ or living experience. So for example: People can only see in black and white. Immediately I find that these premises set up a series of questions and problems that the writing then has to solve or negotiate with. What would change if people could only see in black and white? Would there be art, television? How would music be effected? Would scientists ‘discover’ colour in the same way they discovered radiation? Would people have survived and if so, did they have to evolve other abilities? Would people have any appreciation for flowers or nature or rainbows, if not, what takes there place?

Of course, there is something fairly macroscopic about these ‘subtle’ changes (the effects themselves are far from subtle – like a time-traveller treading on a plant in the Jurassic period) and the stories necessarily have to focus on a limited set of protagonists and offer only one of many possible responses. However, they are subtle in the sense that they don’t automatically import broader aspects of science fiction: space travel, laser guns, aliens etc. Unless of course the premise was: Props from Science Fiction imported in to the real world.

There is also a question of depth that comes with writing these stories. How much is the writing of the story affected by the premise? If people can only see in black and white then perhaps language would become more ‘colourful’ in compensation. Or, maybe text wouldn’t have developed in the same way. So when writing this is another thing to negotiate, how ‘deep’ are you going to go? And there are questions here relating to accessibility too. Changing the use of language can be difficult. Think of Will Self’s “Umbrella”, William Burrows or the language in Anthony Burgess “Clockwork Orange”. The ‘deeper’ the narrative and the more difficult it becomes to read – but I’m not knocking difficulty, you gotta work at things. There’s also the distinct possibility that the story could be fallible  too, what about the premise: All written accounts and libellous? Would you believe that story?

The other thing I like about the idea of ‘Subtle Sci-fi’ is that while raising all these interesting but tough questions I see it as an endless series. Each story simply has a number and a premise, no title, so some can be ‘deep’ but others can enjoy the relative ease of conventional story-telling methods. Some can be short and throwaway, others can grow and maybe lead to other off-shoots and variants. Once people get the basic idea it can be playful and I think the ease or difficulty will become acceptable. There is also the possibility of going mega-subtle (MEGA-subtle like a brick falling on a pillow) and setting up a premise but then really telling a ‘straight story’, so the subtle Sci-fi is kind of in the reader’s mind.

Some premises could be specific and obscure: Susie Roberts misses her train. They could be based in history or biography, or imagine the near future: David Cameron joins Labour party. What? How did that happen? Maybe Cameron had a stroke and it kind of rebooted his brain so he saw things differently. Maybe the Labour party changes dramatically. Maybe the recession leads to revolution, the current upper classes’ bubble bursts and desperation sets in – there is somehow ‘only’ viability in a left-wing politics. Ok, I’m getting carried away, that’s maybe too far fetched. What about: Men’s penises grow in to babies and fall off. That’s weird, what about: Wales is still a matriarchal Society? There’s an openness to this that I hope will encourage people to have a go. What subtle Sci-fi premises can you think of? Where do you think a writer of subtle Sci-fi has gone wrong, how would your responses vary? Any premises you want me to try – leave a comment.

I want to add that although I’m not academic in my approach to this ‘subject’ I am interested in a broader context for the development of this kind of writing. So, as well as playing with this fiction I hope I can start to piece together good examples from other writers and get a sense of the kind of community of writers our there doing this kind of thing. I’m not up to speed enough with contemporary literature or science fiction to know if there is some kind of coherent history to this type of writing – but I know it’s not new – I’ve got my work cut out (do chip in if you can). It seems that ‘Subtle Sci-fi’ is mainly circulated at the present in relation to cinema. Films such as Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009) or “District 9” are being called ‘subtle Sci-fi’ or contemplative ‘Sci-fi’ in contradistinction to blockbuster films that tend to bury intelligent plots under bombastic effects. In literature I think there are more treads leading from writers like Kafka and Borges to contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami. Then there are groups like Oulipo – writers like George Perec – who use(d) mechanical and algorithmic restrictions. Alfred Jarry. There’s also a lot of art press and art writing that works along these lines. It’s obviously a big area… I’m really just skimming a pretty obvious surface. But I think the beauty of blogging is that it can tolerate  and even celebrate such dilettante ambitions. So, I’ll try to add bits and pieces of research too. Get in touch if you’re interested.

So lastly, where is all this stuff? Ah, well, it’s just beginning. I hope to have finished editing the first one for online publication on Friday.

James 08/05/2013

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