Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Author Scott Fitzgerald Gray: Characters are key in SF

With the recent release of his novel We Can Be Heroes, author Scott Fitzgerald Gray is blog touring this month and next, and my little ole spot is fortunate enough to feature Scott today.

Like most serious readers of speculative fiction of my generation, I cut my teeth on the masters of hard science fiction — people like Clarke and Asimov, Heinlein and Niven whose tales were unabashedly told against a backdrop of science and technology. At different points, I’ve been a voracious consumer of the works of some that SF generation’s most hardcore high-tech offspring — Greg Bear, Neil Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, David Brin, Rudy Rucker… it’s a long list. Even outside of fiction, I’ve always been drawn to technology and to the writers who celebrate or warn against it. On all the really important levels, I used to be what you could comfortably call a hardware geek. As a much younger man, I used to spend a lot of time reading Byte  (ask your parents) and  Scientific American  while not having a social life. I’ve rebuilt computers and wired LANs just for the enjoyment of it, I understand how black holes and quantum computers work, and Slashdot and ArsTechnica are at the top of my websites-I-should-really-spend-less-time-on-while-I’m-supposed-to-be-working list.

At the same time, though, I’m one of the many fans of SF who prefer that abbreviation to stand for “speculative fiction.” Because even at the most tech-heavy heart of the genre, the best SF for me is less about the details of possible futures and technologies and more about the questions those details inspire. What happens as a result of the changes that technology brings to bear on human society and culture? What happens when…? What happens if…? As they relate to technology, we see these questions writ large all around us every day. You’re reading this on a blog by way of a web browser, both of which might already know a whole lot more about you than you’re aware of. We’ve all seen the devastating WikiLeaks video showing helicopter troops shooting unarmed civilians in Iraq, at least partly because those soldiers’ reliance on video technology superseded the ability to look and question with their own eyes and minds. Just this past month, I read three different articles making the point that the use of unmanned drones to kill high-profile military targets doesn’t just represent a new tactic in warfare — it’s actually redefining what “war” actually means. These are huge changes, and as with all sweeping technological transformations, science fiction writers are often the front lines of the people reacting to these changes.

The problem is, I’m still not sure if I have what it takes to be one of those writers.

We Can Be Heroes is the first science-fiction novel I’ve published, and the second SF novel I’ve written. It’s a book that focuses in a big way on certain aspects of technology, and as such, one of the bigger challenges of writing the book was wanting the tech to look and feel “real” to some degree. But at the same time, I recognize that there’s a big difference between someone who maintains my kind of comfortable geek-amateur status and a person driven to use the pulpit of fiction to Make Grand Statements about technology. And that bothered me for a long while, to the extent that I actually got bogged down in an early draft of the story because I didn’t feel like I was properly coming to terms with the technology underlying the story. In trying to rise to the level of the masters who have inspired me, I fell flat pretty fast, and it made me wonder whether I was really the person to be writing this book in the first place. But then I came to an important realization.

The one thing that all my own favorite writers of science fiction and speculative fiction do is to look not only at the narrative possibilities inherent in technology, but at the interface line where technology impacts on and resonates in the human world. Technology changes things, but its changes are measured in the barometer of human reaction. Decades after having last read them, I’d have to struggle to give you any accurate technical details of Niven’s Ringworld or the asteroid/ship that’s the centerpiece of Greg Bear’s Eon. But I remember Louis Wu and Teela Brown, Mirsky and Patricia Vasquez like I might have actually met them all those years ago. And that realization led me to understand that in originally focusing on the technical side of  We Can Be Heroes, I was actually telling the less interesting side of that story — for me, at least.

Even though We Can Be Heroes isn’t a technological tour-de-force by any stretch, the book has a number of different layers of technology wrapped up in it. Most of these layers are less about speculation for the future and more just extensions of what’s already going on around us — things like the machinations of observation and eavesdropping; how that observation lends itself to the control of those being observed, and the risks involved in creating expert systems that get a little too expert for their own good. (There are also a lot of high-tech firefights and high-speed chases and things exploding, but those figure less in the philosophical underpinnings of the book.) And in the end, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to write a book that embraces the big issues of technology as well as the high-tech SF writers whose works have inspired me. But I can ask the same questions they ask, and I can answer those questions in my own imperfect way, and I can show how those questions and answers are written in the record of the characters at the center of the story. And in the end, I’m okay with that, because for me as a reader, the questions and the characters are what really count.

For more on author Scott Fitzgerald Gray
Insane Angel website
Insane Angel blog
Scott's Smashwords page
Scott at Amazon


Charles Gramlich said...

Cool. I'll check out his blog and page.

sfgray said...

Charles, much appreciated. And Ty, thanks as always for the topic suggestion and the chance to prattle on.