This presentation, “Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe”, was from scientist and author Athena Andreadis. It covered some of the responsibilities of authors who wish to write good science fiction that is both realistic and interesting but also something that allows the reader to suspend their disbelief over the course of the story. Simply put, “We cannot write memorable stories without dipping into deep roots.”
This was the first panel that I found myself questioning in regards to the topics that the panelist went over, as well as some of the assertions that she made. To her credit, Andreadis noted that she was an opinionated person, which was fairly clear over the course of her presentation. With some of the smaller details aside, she made a number of good points throughout the topic.
One of her main assertions was that science fiction had become formulaic. Going back as far as the classics of the 1970s—with works by notable authors such as Arthur C. Clarke—she found that there was a predominantly American outlook on the world. This did not make sense simply because the world is far too diverse and different between cultures. Even up to the present she noted that conventional wisdom for major publishing houses was that there were really only two styles of stories that could be sold: Futuristic, American dystopia stories, and Victorian elves, with very little in between. It’s very telling, I think, that some of the more notable novels that have come out lately in the genre have largely come from some of the smaller presses, such as Night Shade Books and Pyr.
It was noted over the course of the panel that “We cannot become citizens of the universe without becoming citizens of the world.” Andreadis noted that people, particularly Americans, who are major consumers of speculative fiction, appear to have cultural blinders, with very little awareness of the world around them. I think this is largely true, from my own observations of people who study abroad or from traveling as a tourist in other countries. In order to write about other nations, one must have a better knowledge of said country. When dealing with wholly alien and different cultures, a similar world-view needs to be gained in order to fully bring over a truly alien culture that isn’t a facsimile of something else.
To another extent, there needs to be the understanding that the writing, of any type, is a business, one upon which writers need to survive. In order to do that they have to sell copies, so a novel as a pure academic exercise is something that really doesn’t work simply because it’s not a viable thing to sell to a wide audience.
At the same time, fiction, or art of any type is created within the contexts of its surroundings, and thus needs to be relatable to the audience. I can understand some elements of America in the far future showing up in stories because that makes sense for its audience. It doesn’t necessarily hold up as society changes, but eventually, very little will.
When I was in college, I studied for a B.A. in History, and gained a minor in geology at the same time. Learning in numerous fields, from the sciences and arts, provided an excellent outlook on the future for me, as I found that lessons from one could be applied to the other. This was true especially when it came to history and understanding an empirical level of the subject, which in turn changed how I viewed the subject. The same needs to be held true for science fiction, especially when an author is building their own world. World building is incredibly important in any science fictional field, and at points I wonder if some people simply don’t understand how complicated the world is no matter what field you study, whether it is military history or science fiction.
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer, historian and longtime science fiction fan. He currently holds a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and has written for SF Signal and io9, as well as for his personal site, Worlds in a Grain of Sand. He currently lives in the green (or white, for most of the year) mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books and a girlfriend who tolerates them.