On Being Blasted!

I spent Sunday on the South Bank,  in the midst of the Thames Festival.  Music, food, and a Night Carnival featuring the fabulous London School of Samba.  And at lunchtime, I saw people playing on the sandbanks on the shore of the Thames, a rare sight – and then, even rarer, I saw a crocodile and an octopus beautifully sculpted from sand.

Later on I took my family to see this amazing spectacle, only to find the tide was high and the sand was all gone; and I was once again exposed as a probable fantasist. (“A crocodile, Philip?”)

In the afternoon, I did a sci-fi workship for Blast! in Theatre Square, outside the National Theatre.  It was a delightful session, with a small group of 13-19 year olds who listened, either enraptured or bored to tears but hiding it very well, at my account of SF extrapolation, and the principles of quantum teleportation as used in the novels of Charles Stross and Michael Crichton.

A few of the young people said they didn’t really know what science fiction actually is.  I’ve heard various good accounts over the years, and most recently this definitive account from Darrell Schweitzer on the Benford/Rose website. (His comments directly follow Benford’s comments about fantasy.)  But it’s harder than it seems to summarise the essence of science fiction.  No, it doesn’t have to be about the future; no, it doesn’t have to have lots of gadgets.  And in answer to one young person’s question – yes, Orwell’s 1984 is definitely science fiction – because it’s an extrapolation,  a brilliant guess about what society might be in 1984, as well as being a satire of life in Europe and Russian in 1948.  (Hence the title.)

The best definition of SF for me though came in the second part of the session, when I asked my wannabee SF writers to come up with their own extrapolations. I won’t describe them in detail – because some of these young people may be planning to write their own stories, which they will want to sell for money. But the range and imagination of the ideas they generated were heartening.  One girl had an idea for a new form of energy, in a way that was ripe for exciting dramatic development; one boy had a great mystery/thriller concept about an object buried in the Thames; another of the participants had an idea involved ‘mutated souls’ which I adored.  Another had a wholly new angle on identity swapping, which could be a great basis for a thriller.  All great stuff! Though no one of course had time to develop an actual storyline.

But this experience confirms for me that, more often than not, in SF it’s the idea that starts it all. Yes you need great characters, yes you need emotional truth, yes you need suspense and thrills and a strong narrative.  But ideas that inspire – SF is the only genre which starts and ends with that.

There are, of course,  SF novels that are not about scientific extrapolations or ideas, where characters come first. Those books are cool too; and if they’re in the future, or an alternative present, they’re still SF.  (I hate definitions that act as slammed doors; I prefer definitions that illuminate.) But as a rule of thumb, I do think ‘ideas that inspire’ fits aforesaid thumb.

Elsewhere, I’ve given this definition; science fiction is the collision between extrapolation, speculation and imagination.  That also works for me.

But does anyone else have a better definition….?

Anyway, a great day; and many thanks to the BBC for organising the Blast! workshops, on the South Bank, and all around the country.

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