Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sexy Sci-Fi (or To Read: Century Rain)

My apologies if I've posted about this before, but I've discovered that my taste in science fiction is more refined, yet less sophisticated than I thought it was. I wrote about it in my personal journal at the time, so some of these thoughts are borrowed from there.

I like Battlestar Galactica. I like Star Wars. I like some Star Trek; mainly just Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. I like Firefly. I like Doctor Who. But a couple of months ago I started wondering if I really like science fiction. I was reading a complete collection of Isaac Asimov's robot stories and was bored to death. And I usually like robots.

I also like spaceships and blasters and aliens and dogfights in space. But those are kind of the superficial trappings of science fiction. Battlestar Galactica is as much drama as sci-fi. Star Wars is a pulpy adventure story. I liked Next Generation because of the character development and Deep Space Nine was a political thriller/war series. Firefly was a Western and Doctor Who is a comedic adventure. None of the "sci-fi" I like is actually about the future or technology or anything like that. They're just other genres that are set in outer space.

I started to think that I didn't really like science fiction and the realization sort of rocked my world. (I decided that it was possible that I just don't like Asimov, but I'm not sure you're allowed to like real science fiction and not like Asimov.) Fortunately, Star Wars artist extraordinaire Grant Gould came to my rescue and coined a new term for me to describe the sci-fi that I'm into. "Sexy Sci-Fi."

Another writer pal of mine, Shara Saunsaucie, pointed out there are many kinds of science fiction and that perhaps I just don't like the "hard" stuff, stuff that's about the technology. That makes sense to me too.

Most of Asimov's robot stories are mysteries and I kept figuring them out too soon. I thought about the reason that the stories are all so similar and figured out that it's because he keeps pounding on the Three Laws of Robotics over and over again. Or, to use a different metaphor, he keeps circling around them and examining them from every which way. I think it's because he's fascinated by the idea behind that technology: what would make an artificially intelligent robot work? And other people who are fascinated by that will probably like the stories much more than I did. For me, once I figured out the mystery, I was done. I'm bored by the science and technology aspect.

"Soft" sci-fi is more in line with my interests because of the focus on people and relationships and social structure. I love Farenheit 451 and Logan's Run, for example (though not 1984, which I found to be too slow).

It'll come as no surprise that space opera is another appealing sub-genre, but I'm surprised at how much space opera I hear about that bores the crap out of me. That's why I like the term "sexy sci-fi." It doesn't describe the theme of the work so much as it does the way it makes you feel. It's exciting. It's the difference between 1984 and Logan's Run.

Unfortunately for me, most blurb writers for science fiction books don't use words like "exciting" and "adventure." They're more interested in "original," which is an important trait, but doesn't tell me whether or not I'm going to like it.

I was reminded about all this when I recently read about Alastair Reynolds's Century Rain. The word "adventure" does actually appear on the front flap of the hardcover, but it's in the same sentence as "hard science fiction." The back flap describes it as "hard SF space opera," which seems to be another contradiction in terms, but probably just further makes my point above. "Hard science fiction" tells me that it's about technology, "adventure" and "space opera" suggest that it'll be sexy. One tells me what the book's about; the others tell me how I'll feel about it.

The summary of the book goes like this:

"Three hundred years from now, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable due to the technological catastrophe known as the Nanocaust.

Archaeologist Verity Auger specializes in the exploration of its surviving landscape. Now, her expertise is required for a far greater purpose.

Something astonishing has been discovered at the far end of a wormhole: mid-twentieth century Earth, preserved like a fly in amber. Somewhere on this alternate planet is a device capable of destroying both worlds at either end of the wormhole. And Verity must find the device, and the man who plans to activate it, before it is too late -- for the past and the future of two worlds..."

That sounds cool, huh? An archeologist-adventurer going up against an evil madman with the fate of two worlds in the balance? Indiana Jones with some Stargate thrown in.

Very sexy.

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