Everyone, Go and Get Schooled at the Intergalactic Academy (This is Not a Drill)

I know we like to believe we hold the keys to the city of invention, and we are the ultimate force that defies physics and logic on a hourly basis, but here's the thing: you, especially if you're treading water in a whole new genre pool, have no idea what you're getting into. Just as fantasy-paranormal writers have cardinal rules outlining the behaviour of nasties, the weapons available to fighters against nasties, and the general course of worldbuilding, science fiction, the new shabang, has rules of its very own. And the thing is, well, it overlaps with science sometimes. I know, I needed to sit down after that too. 

But you can't well go treading through space the internet, searching for reason amidst technical terms and mathematical equations and theories with really long words/phrases and maths. For God's sake, man, we're writers, not physicists! And if you get lost, well, in space no one can hear you scream.

So, as a YA writer in need of some layman's terms, when you stumble across YA writers who, sometimes weekly, lay those terms out for you, you grab a fistful of their hair and you let them drag you through the universe.  Enter: The Intergalactic Academy. If you aren't following these guys, do it now. Sean Willis and Phoebe North, if you asked them the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, Everything, would cooly reply 42, and you could just as well ask them to define their problems with female roles, logic, plot, pacing, anything, about Sci-fi and they would cooly reply 42 reveal the answers.

As a self-proclaimed Head Girl of the Intergalactic Academy, I figured it was my duty to give the new, or even seasoned and a little disillusioned, students a quick rundown of the school's most incredible parts. It's hard, since the whole school is shiny. (That was a Firefly reference. I couldn't figure out how to make it more explicit. Sorry.) But I'll forgo the reviews and interviews, and get right down to the articles.

1. Your Space Travel Might Be Terrible If...  
Sean Willis goes into "the fundamental aspects of space that almost every SF author overlooks". It's pretty bloody amazing, and he brings up Newton's First Law, and debunks every scramble in deep space by the team to adjust their trajectory after engine failure; the fact that space is frictionless, our spaceships can't be shaped like jetliners, and can't manoeuvre that way; and that we have no sense of scale, really making you scratch your head about people jetsetting across the universe, even a significant fraction of the speed of light, makes zero sense, as well as the quick response time of rescuers to distress signals across the galaxy.
    "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space." Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
2. Defining Genre: The Problem with "Dystopian Romance"
Sparked by Jay Kristoff's Goodreads status: Calling your book a dystopian when it's actually just a romance with dirty windows is kinda like lying. Phoebe North discusses how lately, science fiction in YA has been labelled 'dystopian' by publishers; how she doesn't classify poor worldbuilding (a popular argument against the integrity of the novel) as poor science fiction but just "science fiction with poor worldbuilding" and is therefore reluctant to take away science fiction badges from authors like Ally Condie and Lauren Oliver; and how she's still concerned about science fiction's strong reaction to girl coodies (linking Debra Doyle) in YA, since girls dominate the marketplace.

I quite liked the quote included from Debra Doyle:
    We start by positing the existence of a body of sf readers and writers (numerically perhaps fairly small, but nevertheless extremely vocal) who are deathly afraid of getting girl cooties. “Hard sf” is their science fiction of choice, because it has the fewest girl cooties of any of the sf subgenres. No subjectivity, no mushy bits, none of that messy relationship stuff getting in the way of the classic sf values of hardness and rigor (and no, I don’t think the elevation of those particular values is coincidental.) Admixtures from other genres are allowed provided that the secondary genre also provides the reader with a low-cootie environment. Westerns don’t have girl cooties, for example, and neither do technothrillers. Men’s action-adventure is about as cootie-free as it’s possible to get. And so on.

    “Romance, on the other hand, is absolutely crawling with girl cooties, and any sf which contains, or appears to contain, romance elements is going to be viewed with alarm by this set of readers. It’s often possible to offset the presence of girl cooties by including a sufficient number of explosions and fistfights and rivetty bits, or (in cases where even violence and rivets aren’t enough) by the inclusion of an appendix full of knotty-looking equations — but the readers are ever-vigilant and you can’t fool them forever. The incorporation of romantic elements into a work of sf, therefore, has to be done with considerable care, not to say deviousness.

3. Defining Genre: Science Fantasy, featuring John Carter.
4. Defining Genre: Space Opera
5. Defining Genre: Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic


6. Your Science Might Be Terrible If..., featuring genes and human evolution.
7. Points to Consider When Writing Your Future Neo-Victorian Society Pt. 1
8. Points to Consider When Writing Your Future Neo-Victorian Society Pt. 2
9. The Minority Checklist in YA: Some Cautionary Advice

and guest posts:

10. How the Awesomeness That is Firefly Inspired the Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer
11. Creating a Killer Virus: How We Fall and Research, Megan Crewe

And after that heavy linkage two cents.

Find the informed. Seriously. You might avoid those snarky, but-they're-all-doing-it-wrong people on the bus or you roll your eyes at them at the bookstore, but when it comes to,,, and basically any one of these sorts of forum/review spots, sit down and shut up. Just read, soak in what they're saying.

Often enough, they know what they're talking about. You might think it's pretentious that they draw diagrams and scan them or they fashion them in Paint to debunk the core concept of a novel, but they have a point. And you mightn't agree with me, or think artistic license overrides this, but it is science fiction. And the science does precede the fiction.

But now I want to turn over to you. Thoughts on logic and facts in science fictions? Have you been over at the Intergalactic Academy? Where do you get your facts from?

The One With Anil's Ghost and Crime, Part I (Challenging Your Readers and Their Perceptions, the Truth Edition)


Michael Ondaatje, of The English Patient fame, set one of his novels in Sri Lanka in the 1970s, in the midst of their civil war, about a UN anthropologist of Sri Lankan roots, raised in the US, who returns to her homeland and grapples with the cultural divide as she tries to determine the identity of a skeleton uncovered at an ancient burial site. This novel is Anil's Ghost. In this series, The One With Anil's Ghost and Crime, I'll explore the role genre plays in determining our characters, our plots, how it opens up our possibilities for originality, as well as structure and form, textual integrity and themes.

Today, I'm looking at how this novel is absolutely relevant to the discussion of forcing an engagement between your readers and your theme (not preaching, I should confirm right now), through the exploration of truth.

The problem that so many writers have with themes is that there is this preconception they stick up like a flag post, like a white flag in the middle of a charred battlefield, and although they stick into the same grounding as everything else in the work, they are somehow separate from what they don't directly relate to. You'll find themes so effective once you realise that they permeate every layer of the novel, that they resound through every character, through every plotting decision, no matter how minor they are. They interweave with setting, and if you figure out how to use them right, they'll help you unfold character information, backstory, etc.

Let's digress for a minute. Crime fiction blossoms in times of hardship as it offers concrete solutions to chaos, it lets us solve our societal, even personal, problems by solving a mystery with a hardened, superior detective. This sense of justice, this sense of truth, in the resolution of crimes and the punishment of the villain, is well and truly upheld by Western culture. Now, Ondaatje takes us into an Eastern culture (and we'll not get into how YA would only benefit from an expansion of its cultural borders) and in turn, through these foreign ideals, challenges our perceptions of truth and justice, where our values are forcibly rejected by our setting.

This is where your protagonist's characterisation is pivotal. Your protagonist is instrumental to the wiring of your entire work. Ondaatje gives us a Sri Lankan woman who was raised in the West. She looks Sri Lankan, she speaks the language, but everything she understand and everything she believes is entirely in tune with the audience. Her determination to identify one man, Sailor, the victim, out of the thousands of unnamed, unclaimed dead, is futile, and compels the audience into re-evaluating their own perception of what is right and wrong in this situation. Even when Anil solves the case, when she uncovers a conspiracy, when she goes to her superiors at the United Nations, they do nothing. They cannot do anything. So they do nothing.

This perception of truth, grounded into our empirical understanding, is what bred that ol' cliche of the normal kid sucked into a fantasy world. We need an anchor, we need a channel through which we can view what is foreign to us. In situations such as the dystopian trend, this anchor point, this common thread to the audience, was the age of the protagonist and the familial devotion, not to mention that sense of community against a figure of injustice (something which most of its readers could most certainly relate to). This is what we understand, this is how we gauge our sentiments, values, against the course of the novel itself.

In relation to how we forge our connection to characters, that development of identity is pivotal. The authenticity, this connection to our own true feelings, resonates in the facts of our characters. Anil adheres to the themes of truth and justice in traditional crime conventions, with her career as an anthropologist, delving into facts, but the depth of her character, as a crusader for truth, as a determined, moral person, is only conveyed through the events.

If you've managed to extract anything from me besides "anskgnals omfg igbas;ignas;gna;slmgh" about the Avengers, you'll know this scene made my skin crawl. I'll cover it in its own series, but for argument's purpose: this idea of theme, and in the Avengers, it falls into the idea of confronting one's regrets, one's fears and shortcomings, beautifully crafts our characters, particularly our newer, once-smaller ones. The ability of Black Widow to transcend the conventions of the genre (you know, the damsel in distress, the tough chick who cracks under threat) not only allows the audience to connect with her, but also uncovers thousands of words of dialogue about her character.

Loki threatens to let the Black Widow's bunk buddy secret lover friend, Hawkeye (who is under his strange, Norse alien brainwashing control) kill her "slowly, intimately". The truth of this genre is that the theme only applies to the "favourites" - you know, the headliners, the ones with their own franchises. However, (and this is why I would sacrifice virgins to the almighty Whedon on a makeshift Incan temple) Black Widow operates within gender paradigms, allowing the audience to move with her, to feel with her. In Loki's exploitation of her past, the facts ambiguous but just enough, we watch as her body reacts, a vulnerable, small form that is all she has - she's not a super soldier, she has no armour, she isn't a god. But, when we discover that she's playing him, that every motion has been purposeful, it challenges our perception of how our heroines act, it challenges our perception of this justice, this hero figure. One's fears, one's shortcomings - we've seen other characters demonstrate how they can impede a character, but we see through Black Widow that they can be manipulated, and they can be useful.

You can allude to your theme, even let your characters play with it. In Anil's Ghost, our foil to the detective - Sarath - constantly speaks about truth. "The truth can be like a flame against a lake of petrol". He continually berates Anil for her steadfast, futile pursuit of Westernised truth. She represents the view that mysteries can be unravelled and justice prevail, and this outlook changes over time.

Use your themes to spur growth in your characters, tie them to your characters so that they have to kick and writhe to get away, to transcend beyond. Accept your genre's conventions - and in YA, a multigenre category, there are so many, and let your themes direct your subversions. When you read books or watch movies, try and spot where directors have done exactly that, or where they could have. Interweave your themes, play with them. Crime, for example, usually looks at good overcoming evil, at restoring order, at exploring human nature and the perverted world, and instinctive justice versus tarnished justice.

Just think about those themes for a minute, and try and relate them to TV shows, to film and books you've read. Now, try and make a list of the themes in your own work. Make a physical list. Now make another list, or branch off or Buzzan mindmap or whatever, and determine how you could further the complexity of your setting, your plot, your characters, your backstory, through exploring these themes.

Now, I'd love to hear what you guys think! Drop me a comment below. How have you approached themes in your work? What themes do you think resonate the best in the books you've read? How about in YA - do you think themes are too prominent, too simple, or not taken seriously enough? Or, conversely, are themes overrated?

Let me know!
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