Science fiction, today’s reality and all the rest
(Morning all. I’m up to my eyes trying to finish up the final edits on Risen from Ashes, to be released Feb. 4th. I’ll be honest, I forgot today was Tuesday. So I went crawling through our archives and found the following. I’ve updated it some but the sentiment is still the same. The original post appeared Aug 5, 2014.)
Science fiction was the first “genre” fiction that I fell in love with. As a kid, I can remember reading everything the school and local library had with space ships and faraway planets as part of the plot. I dragged my parents to every SF movie to hit the local theater. Lost in Space and Star Trek were must sees on the TV. Why did these books, movies and TV shows call to me? Because they offered a look at a future that was exciting and a bit dangerous and they let my imagination run wild. Looking back, I can see just how true that was. When my friends and I played and decided we’d be the characters in our favorite shows or movies, it was almost always science fiction-related. And why not? We got to play with really cool laser guns and fight aliens and explore planets and fly in spaceships. What more could any kid with an overactive imagination want?
Of course, there came a time where, for a few years, science fiction wasn’t as much fun. Those were the middle grade years where the books we had to read were more focused on making sure we were getting the right vocabularies and focused more on non-fiction than fiction. Then, one day while digging through stuff at my grandmother’s house, I found some old copies of If Magazine and those flights of fancy started again and they have never stopped.
What has always called to me in science fiction has been the story. I’ve never paid attention to whether or not a man or a woman wrote it. Nor has it bothered me if the tech in a book written fifty years ago is outdated by today’s standards, much less what might exist in the far future. None of that matters, in my opinion, as long as the story is there.
However, I will admit that I’ve become more aware of how others look at science fiction once I began writing Vengeance from Ashes. I am now putting the final touches on Risen from Ashes, the sixth book in the series and the next book, Victory from Ashes, is already plotted. I looked at issues ranging from how I wanted the military in my mil-sf novel to be set up and operate to what name I would use when I published the book to how detailed I’d be in the technical aspects and much more. What I have learned is that there is no absolutely right answer to those questions and more. No matter what I — or any other author — do, someone is not going to like or agree with what we write.
What brought this home to me was a thread I saw a week or so ago where someone asked if, in the not too distant future, the USAF or the USN would be in charge of the ships our military sends to space. My instant knee-jerk reaction was that it would be the Navy. After all, we were discussing “ships” and that’s what the Navy has. I’ll admit to a bit of pre-programming along that line by authors like David Weber and his Honor Harrington series. But then I sat back and watched as the others in the thread started hashing it out. As I thought more about it, I decided it would probably be the Air Force with some blending of Navy traditions, jobs and possibly even ranks. But that is just me. (And now we have our own “Space Force” and who knows where that will go. — ASG 2020)
Going hand in hand with that thought exercise is what roles the traditional Army and Marine Corps would play. I can see the Marines being the driving force, the “go in, find the target and get it done” prong of an invasion — remember, we’re talking space right now — and the army being the occupation force. Marines, since they would be assigned to our space fleets — a hold-over from the Navy and part of the mingling of traditional roles — would also be the ones who would be the initial boarding parties after space encounters. However, because square footage is at a premium on a spaceship, Marines would be cross-trained to handle jobs also held by the Air Force/Navy crew so they could step in in an emergency.
Of course, that is all in my head and, as a writer, it is up to me to make it believable for my readers. But, as I said earlier, I won’t be able to satisfy everyone, no matter how hard I try. In a way, I think that it is especially difficult to do so with military science fiction. Why? Because everyone has his or her own view of the military and how it operates and how its members act and react. Those views are colored by their own experience with the military — and by which military they might have served in. But that is also true no matter what sort of genre fiction you write. There will almost always be at least one character or character’s profession that will strike a chord — good or bad — with a reader that will color the way they view the entire book.
I’ll admit I’m guilty of that. If I read a police procedural or legal thriller, I will be very vocal — at least in my own room — about how the details are wrong. Why? Because I’ve had some experience in both the law enforcement and legal fields. But I also try to remember that my experience isn’t within the parameters of the story I’m reading and I can usually hold my frustration in check — unless we’re talking something like The Client which went sailing against the wall before I was halfway through the book.
Anyway, back to the considerations I kept in mind while writing VfA — and which I think many writers do when writing military science fiction, especially if their lead character is female.
My next concern was to make my main character, Ashlyn Shaw, something other than a “man with boobs” without making her a wimp. She’s a damaged character and in a situation many of us might react to with upraised middle fingers. Some folks have criticized the book because she didn’t do just that. To me, she couldn’t because honor is a very strong part of her as is her sense of duty. However, running almost as deep is her need to find answers and get justice — or revenge and she’d really prefer revenge when the book opens — for what happened to her and her people prior to the opening of the book. That makes her dedicated and could have made her hard. Maybe it did. I don’t see her that way. But she is also a mother and daughter, worried about her family and those she cares about. I hope I made her into a believable character.
I’ve never liked the “man with boobs” critique when talking about science fiction. Part of it is because I’ve always thought that, by the time we reach that point in the future, a lot of the attitude some folks have about women not being fit to command will have disappeared. No, women and men aren’t the same. So they shouldn’t be written that way. But there are a lot of similarities between a woman in command — whether of a boardroom or a spaceship — and a man in command. The differences shouldn’t come out in their command decisions but in their personal lives and thoughts. But then, you should see those same sorts of differences between different characters, no matter what their sex, color, creed or whatever.
Nor have I liked the critique you see from some folks about the female main character being a superwoman. Again, there are and always will be differences between men and women. But, in the future, there will be implants or genetic modifications or drugs or whatever to help with reaction time and stamina and who knows what else. So it is possible for a woman to do more physically then than we can now.
But my objection to the term comes from something more basic than a belief that there will be “enhancements” for both sexes in the military to make them into better soldiers or Marines or sailors. It is the fact that most of those complaining about the woman being a superwoman wouldn’t bat an eye if Captain Jane Smith had been written as Captain John Smith. It isn’t that those complaining are evil white men who think women should be kept barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Far from it. They are simply judging by what has come before and by what they know to be true — today.
And that is the biggest hurdle we have when we write science fiction of any sort. The readers’ perception of today will color what they read about the tomorrows to come.
The final “big” issue I considered before releasing Vengeance from Ashes was whether to put it out under my name or the pen name I was also using. I thought long and hard about it and I talked to folks I trust in the industry about it. Part of the consideration was did I want to publish under what is obviously a woman’s name in a field where the readers are predominantly male and so are the writers? There is a preconceived notion that the readers won’t give a woman writing military science fiction the same chance they would a male author. Then there are those who say that is exactly why you should publish under a female name. After all, how are you going to beat back all the evil white readers (and, yes, the snark is on with that, as in full sarcasm mode is on) if we don’t have more women writing in the field. Honestly, my only real concern was that my readers would pick up the book thinking it was something it wasn’t simply because of the name — or pen name — used. I hadn’t published any science fiction before. Everything up until now had been urban fantasy, romantic suspense and paranormal romance. That is a far cry from military science fiction. So I chose a new pen name, one that could be seen as being male or female. I didn’t try to hide that it is a pen name. I’ve been open about that from the beginning.
(Since this piece originally appeared, I have become even more open about the pen name, linking the novels to my own name on Amazon as well as to “Sam Schall”. Even so, there have been more than one review complaining about a man writing a female leading character.)
I guess the whole point is this — if you want to write something, write it. Think about what the concerns are and how you are going to handle them but don’t let worry about them keep you from doing it. It may take more research than some of your other work. It may mean taking some lumps. It also means you are stretching your abilities as a writer and that is a good thing. Just remember that you aren’t going to be able to make everyone happy. But, as long as you are making more happy than not, you’ve done your job. At least that’s the way I look at it.