Friday, May 14, 2010

Away From Paris

By Matthew Johnson

Hemingway once wrote that "away from Paris I could write about Paris, as in Paris I could write about Michigan." He needed the Atlantic Ocean between him and his old life in order to be able to write about it with detachment, a distance that was the same as the distance between memoir and fiction.

Distance is what lets science fiction and fantasy do things no other genre can do. The most obvious application of this is satire, which is what made Star Trek famous (and occasionally infamous) in its day: the distance provided by the genre allowed the producers to tackle issues that would have been taboo in a more “realistic” setting. The episode Errand of Mercy, for instance, provides an interesting commentary on Cold War concerns when omnipotent aliens impose a peace upon the Klingons and the Federation by force – reflecting a wish, which might have been impolitic to air on American TV in the 1960s, that the United States and the then-Soviet Union be made to settle their differences.

Satire, though, is only a small and very limited application of the distance provided by writing in the fantastic genres, and it’s instructive to note that many of that show’s most memorable episodes are not satires. (Moreover, the episodes that did not rely on satire have generally aged better.) Instead they, like many of the best works of SF and fantasy, make use of the kind of distance Hemingway was talking about: the distance necessary to write about the things that matter to us.

Take, for example, John M. Ford’s beautiful story “Walkaway Clause.” (Alas, this is available nowhere on the Web; if you want to read it – and you should – you need to find a copy of his collection From the End of the Twentieth Century.) The story is simple enough: a beautiful interstellar trader, who has settled down with the man who designs her starships, has her life turned upside down when her long-lost lover – a starship pilot in the Galactic Hero model, long presumed dead – returns from the other side of the universe, or the end of time, or possibly both, on a starship that has been rebuilt by a mysterious alien intelligence. A number of complications follow – most notably, she needs to spirit the ship away from her insurers, who intend to claim either the ship or her own company.

That’s not really what the story is about, though: it’s about the fear of losing your loved ones – in particular, the fear of losing them because you didn’t hold on hard enough. (Go read the story, you’ll see what I mean.) So why write it as science fiction? Why not write a story about, say, an ex-biker chick, now settled in the suburban life in Grosse Pointe, whose long-vanished boyfriend roars into town on his Harley? To begin with our experiences with bikers, whether real or fictional, will colour our view of that story; writing about starship pilots and galactic traders, on the other hand, makes the story more nearly universal. As well, in the biker story we would know immediately what it was about on an emotional level: writing it as SF, on the other hand, allows Ford to do bit of legerdemain, using the genre to make you hey-look-over-here­ at the space opera story while the real story socks you in the gut. The strength of the fantastic genres is that they let us sit in a café in Paris – or Barsoom, or Middle-Earth – and tell our stories about Michigan.
Matthew Johnson is a Canadian SF and fantasy writer whose works have appeared in places such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine. His novel Fall From Earth was released in 2009 by Bundoran Press. You can see more of his work at his blog. He lives in Ottawa with his wife Megan, his son Leo and two surprisingly patient cats.

Fall From Earth by Matthew Johnson.

 Shi Jin is a rebel, the latest in a long line of those who have challenged the Borderless Empire and failed. Dropped with a crew of convicts on an uninhabited planet, Shi Jin  – and mankind  – encounter alien life forms for the first time. She discovers that she is part of a much bigger that will force her to decide between her desire to defeat the Empire and the future of humanity.

 "Matthew Johnson...has revealed as fresh and original a new voice as any in our field, and a voice with impressive range."
--Rich Horton, Editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009

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