Robinson’s Mars Trilogy: A Harbinger of Difficult SF

71bINMUVSPLAfter Matt Dovey asked me whether The Martian was Difficult SF, our mutual friend (and, to my knowledge, nobody’s nemesis) Stewart C Baker asked me about Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars trilogy:

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy might be a more Difficult SF read than The Martian (although I haven’t read the latter).

It has a huge, sprawling cast which recognizes that people exist outside the USA (although said cast, to be fair, largely splits over Cold War era space stuff, with Russia and the US still playing a disproportionate role which seems dated today).  Red Mars and its sequels also strike me, at least, as “emotionally plausible” with a satisfying ending, and Robinson is never afraid to pull out all the literary stops.

I have to admit: it’s been nearly twenty years since I read the trilogy, but I recall that the mission devolves in part based on deeply held personal beliefs without a clear right or wrong, lending weight to its emotional plausibility; the characters never feel like cardboard cutouts; and Robinson cares a good deal about his language at a literary level. The panoramic Martian landscapes are way more fully realized than in The Martian. (Which, again, I loved and I’m not criticizing here!)

So, yeah, the Mars trilogy points the way toward Difficult SF. Thanks for the excellent question, Stewart!

Why The Martian isn’t Difficult SF.

41DNuJfahyLRecently Matt Dovey, my friend and sometime nemesis wanted me to boil my rather waffly non-manifesto down into something a little more concrete.

I suggested that if Difficult SF had rules, they were to be realistic in depicting people and relationships, and concerned with good (not necessarily showy) writing.

Then Matt asked:

Is The Martian Difficult SF? It’s certainly rigorous, to the point that Andy Weir wrote software to plan launch schedules to work out when he had to set it to allow them to take potatoes for Thanksgiving (and then ran a competition based on who could work it out). It’s cognizant of the realities of the world—the Chinese space agency plays an important role, and the cast at NASA is diverse. But Mark Watney is inhumanly cheerful and resilient, and deliberately so—Weir didn’t want the novel to be about a man breaking down on Mars, but a man surviving and escaping. That’s fine as an artistic choice, and it made for a very entertaining book and film, but it isn’t “emotionally plausible.”

Great question. I loved the book. I loved its protagonist Mark Watney’s voice, and I inhaled it more quickly than any other book I read between Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 and Liz Hand’s Hard Light. (Quick test: am I reading the book while brushing my teeth? If so, I can’t put it down.) Moreover, I think it did just about everything that Andy Weir wanted it to do. To my mind, The Martian was thus artistically successful, and commercially successful too—but was it Difficult?

Matt was right: Mark Watney is inhumanly resilient and cheerful, and that’s a valid artistic choice, but not a Difficult one.

I did like the Earth politics, but I’m not sure they went far enough to be Difficult: the “just let him die” contingent seems to knuckle under quite easily, nobody’s leaking to the media to undercut other interest groups, the US President doesn’t put the kibosh on the Chinese involvement even though it makes the US look weak, and so on. But more than that, none of the Earth characters seem to have rich emotional lives—they’re described entirely in terms of their roles and functions. It’s absolutely a valid artistic choice, and one that made the book more of what it wanted to be, but it wasn’t a Difficult choice.

Also, Andy Weir’s writing seems to me to be functional rather than beautiful. And I don’t think he intended it to be literary in tone, so that’s not a criticism either.

The Martian is a great read, and a book I frequently recommend, but it’s not Difficult SF and it doesn’t want to be.

(Thanks to Matt for letting me break the Cone of Silence and use his questions for my blog.)

[2016-05-13: I’ve added a followup post here.]

Book Signing, WOTF release day

You're probably sick of this picture by now.

You’re probably sick of this picture by now.

Today’s release day for Writers of the Future, volume 32, and it’s climbing the Amazon charts—it’s in the top 100 now for both SF and fantasy anthologies, and hopefully it will keep moving up the list. With 42 reviews so far, and an average of 4.8 stars per review, things are looking pretty great.

I’ve also added an Appearances list on my site, as I’ve got my first (fiction) book signing: Saturday, May 28th at the Downtown Seattle Barnes & Noble. I hope to see you there!

My first Newsletter

I sent out my first newsletter today, and there were two time-sensitive items I’d like to bring to your attention:

Untethered adFirst, the Untethered Kickstarter has a mere 48 hours to go, and is only halfway to its goal. Now’s the time to contribute.









Writers of the Future, volume 32

Writers of the Future, volume 32

Second, I’m giving away a sampler with three stories from Writers of the Future, volume 32. If you e-mail me and request the sampler, I’ll send it your way. The catch is, release date is Tuesday, May 3rd, and we’re trying to get as many Amazon reviews as possible—250 or more—on that day.

Difficult SF

What is “Difficult SF?” It’s not just “hard,” as in Hard Science Fiction, though that too. Difficult SF likes just as much rigor with regard to the interior and exterior lives of its characters as with its science and world-building.

Difficult SF believes in facts–not the scientific facts that dry up and blow away with time and deeper knowledge, but the facts of life on Earth. More than a half billion people in China alone bear one of the top ten Chinese family names. Unless you posit racially-discriminatory designer viruses or an eternally-isolated kingdom, your characters should bear those names, as well as the most popular names from India and elsewhere. And I hesitate to mention that half the world’s population are women, but you could read many books and miss that detail.

Difficult SF is factually and emotionally plausible. Perhaps that’s why it’s difficult: life leaves us in the middle of our journeys, with mysteries unsolved and paths lost in the forest. There’s no way short of an NP-complete search to walk all those paths, and even the most epic tale will drop half its plot lines on the floor if it’s true to life. Even so, Difficult SF aspires to satisfying endings. It’s a lot to ask, but Difficult SF walks a tough line and isn’t afraid to stumble.

Difficult SF isn’t afraid to fly, either, which is why it’s not Mundane SF. In fact, Difficult SF reaches to include all of Speculative Fiction: high and urban fantasy, horror, space opera, and more. If the characters’ lives remain emotionally plausible and the worlds behave with internal consistency, they can hold up the funhouse mirrors of fantasy worlds and alien species to our own without loss of the rigor that Difficult SF aspires to. Therein lies the sense of wonder that Difficult SF will not relinquish: so often we are aliens to ourselves–how much more alien a mind can we imagine? The more different, the more wonderful!

Difficult SF believes in itself as a literature of possibilities and impossibilities. And it does mean literature: sinuous prose, striking metaphor. Which isn’t to say Difficult SF can’t have fun, even if it does have a tendency to “ha ha only serious” jokes and self-referential humor. It’s also not afraid of puns, wordplay, or scatology. Shakespeare’s full of dirty bits, and nobody dares deny it’s literature. If I can’t laugh at fart jokes, I don’t want to be part of your manifesto.

Difficult SF isn’t afraid of the second person or the future tense. Sentence fragments? Fine.

Difficult SF sometimes aspires to third-person oracular, the ten thousand foot view, where all the people and their problems look small, but this is a pose, a distancing. That’s how frightened people behave. Just the same, we find first-person plural a tempting mask, but usually it’s best to speak as oneself. In one’s own voice.

So here I am. I’m not describing a movement, just trying to lay out a productive artistic direction for myself. Maybe it’s a path that others wish to follow. Maybe not. Regardless, I’ve personified Difficult SF, turned it into somebody I can describe, perhaps converse with. (Difficult SF isn’t afraid to end a sentence with a preposition.)

If this were a manifesto, I’d add a capstone here: a grand summation, a call to action. Instead, I’ll walk away, whistling a tune, a strange smile on my face. If you don’t understand, if you’re sure I’m walking the wrong direction, that’s all right. I’m not trying to be difficult; I just can’t help it.

[2016-05-13: I’ve added a couple of followup posts here and here.]