Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Elephants and Icebergs


Monday I gave a lecture at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Are you terrified yet?

Before you make a run for the Canadian border, I should clarify that.  I was lecturing Herbert Gilliland's science fiction writing class, which he titled How to Sell to Analog.  As I have indeed on various occasions sold to Analog (a friend told me that Stan Schmidt once said to him, "I've just bought a story from Michael Swanwick -- and it contains real science!"), I was qualified to be there.

The French have a useful expression, l'esprit d'escalier, which translates as "staircase wit," which is what happens when you think of the clever thing you shoulda said on the way out of the party, when it's too late to say it.  Inevitably, I've thought of something I should have said then but didn't.  So I thought I'd share it with you here.

One midshipman asked me a question about the use of science in the story.  My answer was solid.  But I should also have said that a great deal of science fiction is knowing the science but explicating it as little as possible.

The example I like to use is that if you're writing a story about elephants, you must know that it is physically impossible for an elephant to lift all four legs off the ground at the same time.  You should not have one character turn to another and say, "As you know, Raj, an elephant can never..."  But you need to know this fact because when you write that exciting scene in which your elephant is being chased by timber wolves, the moment it leaps effortlessly over a ravine, you're going to lose every elephant lover in your audience.

So, any gonna-be writers reading this take note:  Get your science right.  Explain only as much as the reader needs to know to get the story.  Research is like an iceberg -- nine-tenths of it goes unseen.

Oh, and if any of your writing buddies are midshipme n, be sure to pass this along.

Above:  Yes, they have bespoke Coke machines at the Academy.  I have no idea if the franchise is lucrative enough to justify the cost of the graphics or if it's just that somebody in the graphics department was feeling patriotic


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