Thursday, February 3, 2011

Science (fiction)

I’ve taken Vicki Cobb’s post (yesterday, 2.2.11) to heart, especially the part about true blogging being short, frequent, and relatively unstructured. OK, once a month doesn’t really qualify me for the ‘frequent’ part. And she didn’t actually say that blogs should be unstructured. I’m choosing to interpret her comments that way because it justifies a bit of rambling, which is what I intend to do today. I can only hope that it will be resonant rambling — alliteration is a start, no?

I’ve noticed that we nonfiction writers tend, in writing about our writing, to come across as a bit defensive (I’m talking big-picture now, not about Vicki’s post). It’s understandable, given the world’s apparent fictional bias. But it sometimes feels like we’re telling people that broccoli, as well as being good for them, tastes really great.

Now I’m going to do something quite unscientific. I’m going generalize about the way children perceive fiction and nonfiction writing based on nothing more than my observations of one child — my own youngest son Jamie (12). Adult writers, editors, and reviewers normally draw a clean, sharp line between fiction and nonfiction. And that distinction can be more than casual, as James Frey can attest. This makes sense. Am I reading something factual? Something supported by evidence, data, or witnesses? Or did what I’m reading spring from someone’s imagination? It’s an important question.

At the same time, I’ve noticed that to young readers (or at least my young reader), the distinction, while recognized, doesn’t seem quite as important. Last year my wife and son and I finished a six-month roadtrip-cum-homeschooling adventure. Along the way, we listened to many, many audio books — 700 hours worth, by my estimate.

We listened to classic literature: Lord of the Flies, The Old Man and the Sea, Huckleberry Finn — whoa — there’s a worthy tangent (I did say ‘ramble’). Of course I understand the discomfort caused by the language in that last book. At times, it was impossible not to wince while listening. And I understand that in a classroom the book would have to be presented within a cultural and historical framework. But it’s a remarkable book. Jamie, 11 at the time, had no problem understanding the historical context or the author’s satirical indictment of slavery. Changing the language to make it less offensive to 21st century ears — or the suggestion I read somewhere that the book not be introduced to students until college — is patronizing and underestimates the intelligence of middle-school — not to mention high-school — readers.

Where was I? We listened to classic literature, fantasy (Phillip Pullman, Garth Nix, Jonathan Stroud, Lois Lowry, R.R. Tolkien), science fiction, and, yes, nonfiction. For a long time I’ve thought that science fiction (and cyberpunk, it’s more recent close cousin) are under-appreciated as a sort of gateway genre to harder stuff — real nonfiction science books.

In fantasy writing, magic can be used to explain things that would never happen in the real world. Science fiction, on the other hand, follows certain rules. Even very improbable events may not be impossible, at least in the world created by the author, because they are based on extrapolations of actual scientific concepts. We listened to Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), Orson Scott Card (the Ender books), Arthur C. Clarke (2001), Carl Sagan (Contact), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), and Suzanne Collins (the Hunger Games trilogy). We listened to Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age) and William Gibson (Pattern Recognition).

When we listened to Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us or Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything — probably Jamie’s favorite book of the entire trip he seemed to see it as a natural and graceful segue from science fiction, not an abrupt change or as something is an entirely different category. At the same time, he was not at all confused about what was actual science and what was speculative.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure. Except that maybe our readers aren’t as preoccupied with categorizing our writing as those of us writing it.


Unknown said...

Wow! Steve. If good writing resonates, you've made my day! My post inspired your post!!! That's what blogs are supposed to do.

Yesterday, when I was shooting Penny Colman's video for INK LINK" Authors on Call, she shared something interesting with me. Penny teaches children's nonfiction literature to teachers. She discovered that teachers don't like teaching nonfiction because they "don't know enough." They feel that they don't have to know anything to teach fiction. (They can ask questions like, "What is behind that action by the main character?") The irony is that we write primarily for the uninitiated. We assume little or no prior knowledge on the part of our readers. Your son Jamie is way ahead of the game. He simply enjoys good writing.

Unknown said...

Steve, both my husband and I as kids grew weary of reading fantasy because random things could happen anytime for no particular reason, so it all seemed arbitrary after awhile. We both enjoyed science fiction then, and he still reads quite a bit of it. As you note, science fiction is based upon the possible (if unlikely at times!) He became a scientist and I write informational books, so go figure.

Vicki, that’s an interesting insight about teachers and nonfiction that I haven’t heard before. Maybe we need to interview some teachers.

teacherninja said...

Now I want to pack up for a long rambling drive with my family and listen to all those great books!