Check out this story idea I had today:
A young Alabama farmer in 1857 accidentally receives a letter from a beautiful Senator’s daughter who is secretly helping slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In the letter, the daughter pleads for help from an aging preacher who was once friends with the Senator, so the farmer sets out to find the preacher. Soon, slave owners are after both of them, and the farmer is eventually drawn into the Civil War, where his excellence in gun battle turns him into a top soldier.
Sound familiar? It should, since it’s based on the opening scenes of arguably the most popular and influential film of all time. Except in Star Wars, the preacher is a Jedi, and instead of firearms Luke flies an X-Wing and eventually masters the light saber.
If the first movie developed a rabid following, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog would never show up to ridicule the fans waiting in line to see a film premiere. But when the movie is “Attack of the Clones,” boy, does he have fun taking the piss out of them.
The original Star Wars obviously appealed to moviegoers of all kinds, not just sci-fi/fantasy fans. Why? Because it told an excellent story. What difference does it make if the story takes place in outer space or in the farmland of Alabama? A good story is a good story, right?
But unfortunately there aren’t that many good stories out there, which is surprising, since there are so many writers. So how to sell more books and movies? By creating categories and genres. If you identify an audience that enjoys stories told in a certain setting, whether it be mysteries, romance, sci-fi, history–that audience will accept lower-quality stories as long as they are told in their preferred genre.
One time I heard a small-press horror author say this: “When I write horror, it’s genre fiction, but when Stephen King writes it, it’s literature. Why is that?”
Well, buddy, I’ll tell you why: because Stephen King is a far better writer than you. His stories transcend genre. In fact, in my opinion, they aren’t genre at all. Genre stories depend heavily on their conventions to make the story successful. Dennis Lehane wrote some very good genre novels, and then he wrote Mystic River, a modern classic that doesn’t rely on convention.
The point of all this is that when I wrote The God Particle, part of what I wanted to do was convince people that science is interesting. If you know just a little about physics, about cosmology, about biology, you realize the universe is a fucking miracle. Every person on Earth is made up of matter that once existed in the heart of some long-dead star. Somehow a bunch of stupid hydrogen atoms have become carbon and are now organized as my body, writing this blog. Fucking amazing, no?
Why don’t more people care about this? Isn’t it more interesting than a bunch of idiots trying to vote themselves off an island?
When I tell people what my novels are about, they say, “Oh, so you write science fiction.” Well, it depends on your definition. Did you enjoy Jurassic Park? Terminator 2? E.T.? Those movies involve science, bogus or not. But when it comes to reading books that contain scientific elements, people seem to have a different opinion of them. Why is it different? If I tell a decent story where the main character is a physicist, I will still encounter people who say “I don’t read that sort of thing.” Why? You watch it on film. What makes a book any different?
The effect of science is everywhere. You’re able to read this blog because of the work of scientists. You live longer because of them. Your French fries taste better because of them.
If you’d like to read some fantastic literature that contains sci-fi/fantasy elements, try these:
The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
The Talisman – Stephen King/Peter Straub
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
The Sparrow – Maria Doria Russell
1984 – George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank