Right, but I mean what’s it about?
When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I was doing primarily fiction. That is, the stuff I was doing just because I wanted to, instead of being assigned it by a professor, was fiction. I had what I would call extremely satisfying but extremely limited success. In those few months, I had an explosion of creativity in which I wrote what I consider to be the best piece of fiction that’s ever come out of my head (or wherever it comes from – maybe more on that in a later entry). Since then, the well of fiction has apparently dried up, at least for the time being, and instead I’ve had some real fun and (I think) good success in writing non-fictive pieces, between my undergrad thesis, some technical writing, and the sort of article/blog stuff I’ve been doing here. But even at the height of my fiction creativity, I still never had much success in writing the genre that I love to read most: science fiction.
Science fiction is a funny thing. I have had a lot of what I consider to be good, interesting ideas for sci-fi stories, most of which have not come to anything. That’s typically how I write: I start with a concept and then progress outward. The characters and plot are formed around the concept, and they in turn affect the concept, which affects the characters, and so on. But the concept is always primary for me. I don’t think I have ever started with a character.
Historically, I have thought of science fiction stories as being more or less in one of two categories, both based on TV shows which are each excellent in their own ways. There are the Outer Limits Episodes, and the Firefly Stories. Most of you probably know the Outer Limits. If you don’t know Firefly, then do yourself a favor: browse on over to Netflix and watch the pilot. No worries. I’ll wait.
Everybody back? Good.
Stories that fall into the Outer Limits Episodes category tend to be extremely concept-heavy. Often it’s something like “What if there some kind of crazy teleporter, but when you got teleported, it really just made a copy of you and destroyed the original?” Aaaaand go. That’s an actual episode, by the way, and I think it does a pretty good job of summing up the category. There are often elaborate sets, a lot of lighting and flashy visual effects (which come off as extremely campy a lot of the time, but anyway…) We’re people, and we tell stories with people in them, so the stories are always about people to some extent. That said, I tend to think of Outer Limits episode-type stories as being very much about the sci-fi.
Ok, now for Firefly: What if there was some kind of crazy smuggling ship, crewed by a bunch of characters each of whom has his or her own rich and complicated history, secrets, demons, and enemies, and now they all live and work together? Aaaaand go. Yes, it’s a spaceship. Yes, it’s the future (although it’s also kind of the old west, somehow. Just go watch it. Seriously). Yes, there are laser guns. No, it’s not primarily about any of those things. It’s about the people.
Looking at it now, I realize that this two-category system is something of an oversimplification. For one thing, it’s more of a spectrum, with concept-heavy at one end, and character-heavy at the other. A show like Star Trek, for example, balances the two nicely, with some episodes being more character-centric and others less so. Also, Firefly and Star Trek are at an unfair advantage in the character development realm in that they have persistent characters from one episode to the next, unlike The Outer Limits.
I think it would be fair to say that the two story types explore different questions differently. A Firefly episode might ask questions about selflessness and what it means to know a person. An Outer Limits episode, though, would more likely ask questions about “self” (in the abstract) and what it means to be a person (Are we just electric meatballs? Is an exact copy of me really me, especially if the original is destroyed? Stuff like that). Given more than a forty-five minute episode-span in which to explore these ideas, they would necessarily spin outward into the kind of interpersonal questions that Firefly has the space to ask.
Historically (there’s that word again…), I have regarded Firefly-type stories as being more worthwhile. Deeper. That’s not right, though. Each story type goes deep into different areas, both of which are important and valid. And, I think if either type had the space to go deep enough, it would find a place where the two are one and the same. Maybe I’ll go revisit some of my concept-heavy stories, and this time I’ll be a little nicer to myself.
And once again, I’ve written a blog that has ended up in a vastly different place than I thought it would. Thank you, as always, for reading. More to follow.