As a slush reader for an anthology, I’ve been reading lots of stories lately. Mostly, I’ve been rejecting them out of hand for things like hideous grammar, obscene behavior (including but not limited to child rape, necrophilia and nonconsensual beastiality), stories that go absolutely nowhere and stories in which I can predict the ending by paragraph four.
One story offended me more than usual lately.
In it, a character somehow got into a slum on another world. The writer’s description of the slum was not only cursory, but offensively cursory and filled with such a deep lack of understanding that I rejected the story with curses...(Of course, the executive editor would likely simply reject the story without my curses, but they made me feel better.)
Why did it offend me?
The author took no time at all to describe the slum with anything approaching detail, attention or veracity. I would quote it, but my contract says I can’t. Suffice it to say that the writer not only glossed over the suffering of the individuals in the slum with glib stereotypes, they clearly had no desire to give any consideration to what (for them) appeared to be a simple backdrop – but for that world was a cesspool of suffering and a found of creative energy.
Besides the fact that I’ve been to slums in Lagos, Nigeria and Monrovia, Liberia; and I spent a day in a Libyan refugee camp on the Cameroon/Libya border; I recently finished SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts. In it, he fictionalizes his own experiences in Bombay, India in the early 1980’s. Reading it, I underlined and dog-eared it extensively for one reason and one reason only: he was so clearly describing an alien world, that even though I felt as though I was there, I was light years from the Bombay he described so lovingly – and so gruesomely.
The same thing happened when I read ROOTS (Alex Haley), CITY OF JOY (Dominique Lapierre), THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN (Anne Fadiman) and THROUGH GATES OF SPLENDOR (Elisabeth Elliot). All of these books described the experiences of the author in such detail and presented cultures that were so different from the one I live in that I felt as far from Earth as I would have had I been reading PERDIDO STREET STATION or DUNE.
While the short story often precludes creating a world exhaustively, science fiction authors can use a sort of literary shorthand when placing a story on some alien world. What it requires – just as it did for Haley, Lapierre, Fadiman and Elliot – is a keen eye and careful “observation” of a specific action, place or thing that Earth Humans take for granted that in the imagined world is radically different.
An example from a recent Nebula winner, Eric James Stone’s, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made”:
“The Sol Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had only six human members, including me and the two missionaries, but there were forty-six swale members. As beings made of plasma, swales couldn’t attend church in the chapel…”
Another from an old short story that changed the face of science fiction, Bruce Bethke’s “Cyberpunk”:
“The snoozer went off at seven and I was out of my sleepsack, powered up, and on-line in nanos. That's as far as I got. Soon's I booted and got-CRACKERS/BUDDYBOO/8ER
-on the tube I shut down fast. Damn! Rayno had been on line before me, like always, and that message meant somebody else had gotten into our Net-- and that meant trouble by the busload!”
With a few keystrokes, both authors let you know that you are no longer in the world you know and love best. Within paragraphs of reading ROOTS or THROUGH GATES OF SPLENDOR, you are certain that you can’t possibly be on Earth.
Every science fiction author is under obligation to create truly alien worlds. There are countless resources out there besides the author’s imagination. The author had better make dang sure they use the resources at their fingertips! When that SF author chooses to take us “where no one has gone before”, they’d better make sure that those places are more alien than anything we can find on Earth – and they’d better make sure they show us the place clearly!