by Peter Wood
“Never the Twain Shall Meet,” my story in this month’s Asimov’s [on sale now], is about many things speculative. It also delves into North Carolina pork barbecue and college sports. Why did I waste time on such minutia?
Because North Carolina was built on a firm foundation of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and the feud between eastern- and western-style barbecue sauces. And, no mere technological breakthroughs—sentient robots or cloning or matter transportation—is going to change that.
People are still people and technological change doesn’t mean everything changes.
There’s an exchange in Star Trek Four: The Voyage Home that sums up what separates good science fiction from bad science fiction.
Dr. Gillian Taylor: Don’t tell me, you’re from outer space.
Captain Kirk: No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space . . .
Kirk is a regular guy. He cracks jokes. He plays poker or at least knows the game. He likes a good chess match with Mr. Spock. He enjoys literature and history. Most of us would love to have a cup of coffee with James Tiberius Kirk.
Science fiction needs to be grounded. We need fantastic settings and ideas, but good science fiction is about people and the reader has to be able to relate to the characters.
So, good science fiction leaves the reader somewhere to hang his hat. It doesn’t change everything. Among the speculative, science fiction masters toss in familiar trappings and details that the reader can understand.
The first scene of Greg Bear’s short story “Blood Music” (1983) has a very brief conversation about health insurance. The mundane discussion doesn’t advance the plot of this apocalyptic story, but it does ground events. The reader realizes that these characters live in the same world to a certain extent as all of us.
The little things matter. That’s why 2001: A Space Odyssey has scientists in sight of the alien monolith discuss what type of sandwich to have for lunch. That’s why they still celebrate Christmas in the future on Doctor Who. If you don’t alter the little things too much, the big things are easier to swallow.
The worst science fiction assumes that everything will be different in the future. I’m not saying that characters need to zip around in interstellar space ships watching Game of Thrones, wearing Life is Good T-shirts and drinking Dr. Pepper. I am saying futuristic people need to act like regular folks.
Roger Zelazny understood this. In his novella “Damnation Alley” (1969), the main character is a Hells Angel. Before he drives across a nuclear-ravaged United States on a rescue mission, police in California pursue him in a high-speed chase that could have been lifted out of the Rockford Files. The biker gets arrested and has a meeting with law enforcement in a very mundane office that could exist in any police station in the country right now. Ordinary stuff. The highlight of this juxtaposition of the everyday with the fantastic has to be where the “hero” calmly incinerates nuclear mutants from his super duper futuristic transport while munching on a corned beef sandwich. Genius.
Mordecai Roshwald did not get it. The Israeli writer published Level Seven in 1959. The novel tells the story of a soldier tricked into living the rest of his days in a deep underground bomb shelter with hundreds of other similarly unlucky souls. Nobody has a name. Nobody is angry about a government that forces them to live underground for the rest of their lives. Nobody talks in a manner that isn’t overly formal and stilted. I have a hard time thinking of any hints of modern life that anyone might recognize. No books, movies, familiar food. Not even conversations about such things. Consequently when these people behave like good soldiers and carry out nuclear Armageddon against an unnamed enemy, we just don’t care. We can’t relate to anyone.
Everything doesn’t change all at once. The world evolves piecemeal. That’s why I live in a house built in 1951 and still use the CD player in my fourteen-year-old car. That’s why people are still reading books and singing centuries-old hymns in church.
In the worst sort of science fiction, the characters wear silver unitards and eat food pills and speak without contractions. Hacks toss out the baby with the bathwater and change everything.
In Rollerball, the 1975 movie about a futuristic death sport, we are told that in the near future all sports will be gone except rollerball. Not buying it. The NFL, NBA, and college sports aren’t going anywhere. And, don’t even get me started on how this early-twenty-first-century dystopia has abandoned contemporary pop culture. Everybody listens to classical music.
Readers need little footholds to relate to good world building. Of course, sometimes writers guess wrong. Nobody can predict the future completely. I gave up reading Stranger in a Strange Land several months ago, because the “futuristic” landscape is obviously 1950s New York City. The food. The slang. The scenery. The sexist stereotypes. It reads more like Mickey Spillane.
I don’t have those issues with most Heinlein. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, By His Bootstraps, and The Door Into Summer hold up pretty well.
Of course, maybe all this is just wishful thinking on my part. I want to believe that things I like will survive. The robot in my short story, “Robots, Riverboats, and Ransom in the Regular Way” (Asimov’s, May/June 2018) reads Mark Twain. The stranded colonists in “Salting the Mine” (Asimov’s, January/February 2019) have bluegrass jam sessions. And, the mother in “Searching for Commander Parsec” (Asimov’s, September 2015) enjoys doughnuts and coffee at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, a Raleigh staple.
And who could blame those characters? Bring on the aliens and the time travel, but don’t take away my books and my music and my glazed doughnuts.