Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fiction, research, and nonfiction boondoggles

An article about the link between science and science fiction:

"SF authors do their research. They tend to read widely, to generate ideas, and then think deeply, to focus in on the details. In the age of the author blog, readers can observe (some of) the authorial process. A lot of research can go into a book, much of it hidden, or even discarded. Inferior authors will info-dump every little last detail they’ve discovered; better authors weave their research seamlessly into the story, discarding what doesn’t fit. Sometimes the raw research reappears in footnotes, appendices, or bibliographies, which can be interesting in their own right; for example, Peter Watts’s Blindsight includes a fascinating technical appendix."

I can see both sides of this one.

On one hand, authenticity always enhances credibility.

It doesn't matter whether you’re writing a science fiction novel, or an urban thriller.

A sloppy mistake will always detract from credibility. If you’re writing a novel set in Kentucky, for example, you should take the time to learn that Frankfort is the capital of the Blue Grass State (which is actually structured as a commonwealth, by the way) if such a detail is relevant to your story.

That having been said, not all scientifically detailed science fiction makes for good reading, and a lot of very entertaining science fiction plays fast and loose with the scientific details.

A number of years ago I read Michael Crichton’s novel, State of Fear. (Yes, I realize that hardcore science fiction fans don’t regard Crichton as a science fiction writer, but work with me, please. At the very least, much of Crichton’s work could be described as “science fiction thrillers”, with emphasis on the last word in this description.) 

State of Fear basically represented Crichton’s attempt to debunk global warming alarmism. I don’t want to get into the global warming debate in this post; but suffice to say that the book overflowed with facts, figures, and not a small amount of argumentation.

On a less controversial note, James Michener, the virtuoso of the historical novel, usually managed to “weave the research seamlessly into the story”. But in his 1992 novel, Mexico, Michener goes off on a long tangent (or “info dump”) about the sport of bullfighting. 

Back to Michael Crichton. My favorite Michael Crichton novel, without a doubt, is Timeline. This is the one in which a group of academics travel through time back to medieval France.

Crichton did pay attention to some of the pertinent historical details in Timeline. (For example, he accommodates that fact that residents of medieval France would speak a variety of languages, some of them extinct or nearly extinct in modern times.)

The science of Timeline, however, is basically hokey. You don’t need a PhD in physics to realize that Crichton’s time travel scenario would never stand up to…well, scientific scrutiny.

Here is the crux of the matter: Some fiction writers clearly have nonfiction books lurking inside them. But because of the constraints of the publishing industry, and the need for author branding, it is fairly rare for a writer who is branded as a novelist to publish a book-length work of nonfiction.

And there may be some perfectly valid market reasons for this constraint. Stephen King’s novels all become bestsellers, practically without exception.

However, King’s nonfiction analysis of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, is barely in print.

In fact, unless you’re a Stephen King completist, there is a very good chance that you’ve never even heard of Danse Macabre. You can also be forgiven if you overlooked Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. This is a nonfiction book that King co-wrote with Stuart O’Nan, a lesser-known but accomplished literary novelist.

It turns out that Stephen King’s fans want to come to him for horror tales and thrillers, and go elsewhere for sports writing.

Likewise, I’m not sure how a nonfiction Michael Crichton book about global warming would have gone over in the marketplace. Crichton had a medical degree—but he hadn’t practiced medicine for years, and environmental science is of course an entirely different bailiwick.

And we needn’t wonder how many copies a standalone exposition on bullfighting would have sold, even when the late James Michener was at the height of his popularity.

The takeaways:

Fiction is primarily about storytelling. Period. This doesn't mean that an author (of science fiction or any other genre) should play fast and loose with every fact out of laziness. However, the primary function of fiction is to entertain. Instruction and information are what nonfiction is for.

If a novelist wants to write a nonfiction book, he should write a nonfiction book. A nonfiction book shouldn't be embedded in a novel.