The Escapist Imperative

     Not long ago, I encountered a gentleman who ran an unusual business: he positioned himself as a writer’s “pre-agent.” That is, he assisted aspiring writers in persuading an actual literary agent to represent them. (I have no idea what percent of his customers actually acquired representation, but he didn’t do badly…for himself.) As you might expect, he was also an aspiring writer. We exchanged a number of thoughts about the writer’s life and trade.

     One of his emphases was that the typical reader wants to “escape:” that is, he wants the fiction he reads to remove him from mundane concerns and show him something with which he’s unfamiliar. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I was aware of that impetus. I was also aware of how it raises the bar on what every writer of fiction must get from his reader for a satisfactory acquaintance: the “willing suspension of disbelief.”

     If your reader can’t set aside the constraints of “real life” sufficiently to buy into your story, its strangeness will be continuously jarring to him. He’ll keep asking himself, though perhaps only subconsciously, “How could this be?” and “How could that happen?” He won’t get much enjoyment out of it.

     Oddly, that willing suspension of disbelief – henceforward, WSD to save a few milligrams of finger tissue – becomes easier to achieve the further from “real life” the story’s setting diverges. A tale set in a distant galaxy a few million years from now tends to be easier for the reader to enjoy than one just a few years in the future. Similarly, most readers find medieval or “high” fantasies easier on their WSD than “urban” fantasies that feature vampires, werewolves, et cetera. Writers in the SF and fantasy genres are generally aware of this. Many strive to exploit it.

     But the inverse is also true – and it presents a stimulating challenge. “Near-future” science fiction set on Earth, with only one or two scientific or technological differences from contemporary reality, must be very carefully drawn to earn the reader’s WSD. Isacc Asimov engaged this challenge in his collection of stories Earth Is Room Enough. Some of the stories therein are among his very best.

     I’ve found that I really like writing “near future / on (or near) Earth” SF. Not many writers do it well today. Perhaps the Star Wars movies have blunted appetites for that kind of tale. And I must admit, the challenge of writing it is considerable, as I discovered in crafting the books of the Futanari Saga.

     Mackey Chandler’s April series starts off as a near-future / near-Earth tale, and gradually “reaches out” to realms further away in time and space. Chandler’s background in technology and the “space sciences” surely helped to make it believable. Another writer who surmounted the challenges is Ben Bova, in his Kinsman tales. And who could forget John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, or the great John Wyndham’s magnum opus Re-Birth?

     To young SF writers who seek “new worlds to conquer,” I suggest: Why not try this one? Make one or two scientific / technological changes and see what happens. Can you make it believable to yourself? That’s the all-important first step. Then try it on a few “alpha readers.” You might be surprised at how difficult it is to persuade them – always through the words and deeds of your characters, never through auctorial intervention! – to grant you their WSD; to allow that “This could really be; these things could really happen.”

     Give it a try. Soon, please. I need something fresh to read!

1 comment

    • gl on November 6, 2023 at 4:31 PM

    I’ve always had a major love, SciFi. Started with Asimov and then all the other great ones. But when real tech took over and we put a man on the moon SciFi seem to degenerate into knight in armor and vapid ladies so I quit and moved on. I started your Futanri but not the 1st. As I didn’t have a clue what that word even meant I was lost. I was on Gab one time and notice they had a site? Now that I have some knowledge I will go back and start on the first. But I did find a novel recently that really caught my interest. Heather G Harris is an English author and her world is still on earth but with 3 layers. Interesting take but I love her using words that I have never seen before. Daughter loves words and she can usually break it down to meanings but I’ve sent her more than one she admits she has no clue. They are fun but other than words that I have to look up they are a good couple of hours spent getting away from yourself.

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