In which I alienate the entire sci-fi short story readership, fellowship, and mothership.
I just got back from Paris. Yes, I’m fancy. It was great, thanks for asking. I wrote a short story while I was there (which, given what I’m about to tell you, probably will never get published). On the way back I got to watch two recent sci-fi movies and I found them interesting to compare, particularly given my previous arrogance about “entertainment” (he said disdainfully), I was surprised which one I enjoyed more.
Arrival has gotten a lot of discussion in the sci-fi community, especially among short story readers because it’s based on an award-winning novella by Ted Chiang. This is the kind of story that’s read by just a small circle of people, and you can probably find all the people who read such stories if you go to a few conventions. That’s not because they’re bad or unintelligible, it’s because of television. Sci-fi short stories are these days what I would call geeky literary fiction, i.e. they’re written to test out how to write about particularly challenging (often psychic) situations, and their audience is largely other geeky writers. Some stories are entertaining, but everybody who’s “in” understands how they get written and why. These stories rarely get adapted into feature films as good as Arrival, and I’m glad this one was.
The other film was Passengers starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. This one was clearly Hollywood sci-fi. I was really curious about who wrote it, but of course it was some Hollywood screenwriter I’d never heard of and wouldn’t bump into at Readercon (please correct me if I’m wrong). It had music by Thomas Newman, whose work I always enjoy (Arrival‘s score was written by a man named Johann Johannsen, which is Norse for “John Jr.”). The sets were shiny and clean, the special effects were bold, and there was a lot of kissing and bangin’ on the breakfast table. Entertainment. A very different movie from Arrival, although both were sci-fi.
That’s not to say they’re exactly comparable, although I’m going to point out a crucial difference in how they were written. Arrival is what I would call a sci-fi drama whereas Passengers is sci-fi action/adventure and romance. The goal of Passengers was clearly to give the audience a good ride, and it’s a perennial story of boy meets girl, boy cracks open girl’s hibernation pod after a minor ethical debate, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, and so on until they end up together in the end. The only question was whether they have kids or not. Arrival, on the other hand, was clearly meant to provoke questions about the nature of time, language, and determinism.
Even though Passengers was predictable and clearly prioritized entertainment value, I enjoyed it more
These were both good movies, and I enjoyed both of them. However, a few things irked me about Arrival, and I think it exposes a general problem I’ve had with sci-fi lately. Passengers, despite its blatant Hollywood entertainment agenda, actually provoked its own big questions without the faults of Arrival, and was more subtle. Behind the predictable boy-meets-girl story there were some questions that were addressed only subtly in Passengers, such as corporate dishonesty, synchronicity, and the psychological value of creativity.
Arrival was very heavy-handed. It was hard to predict the ending, and I was certainly shocked by it, but after the credits rolled, I was sure that I’d read something similar in quite a few stories. Not to mention that things were spelled out instead of shown dramatically. And this is the big problem: The Nifty. Arrival is full of Nifties. A Nifty, or a Geeky, is a kind of authorial insertion, a fact or a story delivered directly to the reader/viewer from the author, often in a speech (or multiple speeches) by the main character. Above I told you that the composer of the music for Arrival was named “John Jr.” That’s a little wink from me to other fans of Nordic languages that tells them we’re in on the same cool bit of knowledge. How many times in Arrival did Louise say something really interesting or bold about language or history to one of the other characters? I didn’t count, but it was so much that it distracted from the story. A Nifty is usually something that the author thinks is expository, but is really a form of arrogance; it’s a little secret handshake that says to readers “Here’s this really cool thing we both know about.”
Nifties in sci-fi bother me for two main reasons other than distraction from the story. In my late thirties I have heard almost every supposedly cool idea in science fiction. Nifties are repetitive; you hear them in story after story, and after a while, there are only so many science fictional ideas. Not just me, but every literate person has heard these ideas a billion times, and I don’t know who still thinks they’re new. Maybe people under twenty. Maybe people under thirty-five.
The second reason is science is really just not as cool as sci-fi fans want it to be. The science of sci-fi fans is eternally optimistic, mind-changing, consciousness-altering, and frickin’ awesome! Yeah, it can make a great story, but most of the time when I hear the core ideas of science fiction stories blatantly spelled out in a speech I just think “Yeah, that would be cool, but that’s not really what Scientific Theory X is about.” Science fiction is often about how great it would be if it was that cool and easy to achieve, but the optimism is often too much for me. A good space opera that totally ignores scientific details often makes a better story when it’s so far gone that you have to suspend everything you know about science.
A good Nifty-free space opera is often better
Nifties happen in fantasy, too. The Renaissance Faire Effect is basically a Nifty on a grand scale. Wink: isn’t it great that we’re all into jousting? (Wink wink. Nudge nudge. Isn’t it great that we’re into Monty Python?) If sci-fi fans are optimistic and geeky about science, fantasy fans are geeky and idealistic about history, politics, and preindustrial home crafts. Any passage that details some historical fact or method for accomplishing household tasks or farming practices, for instance, is not inherently part of a story. Characters in that setting wouldn’t think about how cool it is that they’re weaving or spinning or putting up their lard, they would just do it. They might talk about it as a normal part of life, or it might affect when or how they do things, but that’s not heavy-handed, that’s just proper characterization.
The writers adapting “Story of Your Life” probably thought they had to spell these things out. After all, they were dealing with quite cerebral concepts and trying to tell an exciting story at the same time. The separation between the sci-fi story of understanding the alien language and the human story of Louise’s inner struggle was rather pronounced. Nothing in the story of her daughter’s life was so heavy-handed as when she spells out where the word “kangaroo” comes from.
The writer of Passengers, on the other hand, didn’t have to deal with such cerebral concepts as strong linguistic determinism. He was telling a much simpler story, but I think he respected the audience a little more by supposing viewers would understand the problems faced by the characters. You might never have seen a story about hibernation failure before but still could have gotten what was going on in Passengers. It’s easy to understand the choices faced by the characters given the world they’re in. Since there was no heavy-handed exposition the story could focus on the moral problems and romance.
Less cerebral material can make it easier to pose big questions without distracting from the story
The things that irked me about Arrival often irk me about published sci-fi short stories. Sometimes a story is actually quite boring except for its central Nifty. They are clearly written for a geeky audience. I don’t say “geek” with disdain, but merely to point out that there are people who want to be in on the cool science stuff and it doesn’t bother them or distract them from the story. I wonder if my unwillingness to resort to Nifties could be getting my stories rejected (incidentally I just got a story rejected from Analog). Nifties violate basic good storytelling as much as autobiography and reliance on stock characters does. It makes me feel dirty. If a character stops to spit out a cool story about the discovery of the platypus, that totally derails the story. If that’s a valid kind of storytelling, then I’m not geeky enough to enjoy it.