05-26-18 – Blog Queen - Sarah Raplee

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Worlds Apart/Worlds Together

Worlds Apart/Worlds Together
George Guthridge

I am writing this from Thailand, my second home – it’s winter in Alaska, you know – and lately have been thinking about verisimilitude and about smurfs.
A long time before the little blue Smurfs hit television, Theodore Sturgeon – one of the greatest science fiction short story writers the field ever produced – defined a smurf this way (I am paraphrasing here, but I’m pretty sure it’s close to verbatim: “If you create an alien, but it looks like a rabbit, smells like a rabbit, and acts like a rabbit, then calling it a smurf won’t make it an alien.”
When I read romance paranormals and romance science fiction I come to those subgenres with the eye of someone who has been publishing science fiction since 1976 and horror since 1980.   And while I often admire the romance portion of the writing, I find that the science fiction and paranormal elements sometimes are lacking in verisimilitude or otherwise haven’t been thought out carefully.  
A secondary problem is that for the hero to be appealing in, say, a vampire or werewolf story, then there is a conundrum: to be sympathetic he often is set up to forgo human blood or human flesh.  He sticks to supping on animals.  Hmmm.  But that creates a fundamental problem: he isn’t a vampire or werewolf anymore.  He’s what we call . . . well, human.  
The situation is exacerbated when science fiction is involved.  If an alien looks like a human, smells like a human, and acts like a human, then calling him a Whaptiliz from Planet X isn’t going to make him alien.  And yet to make him alien isn’t going to make him very appealing as a hero you’d want to kiss.  (Of course, all of that is resolved if the hero is Captain Kirk or some similar figure, which is the route most writers take, but then the situation has taken a step back from being the heart of science fiction, which involves the clash between cultures.)
So what to do what to do what to do.
I will tell you what I did three decades ago.
I chickened out.
In science fiction I started out writing about other worlds.  They are extremely difficult to build well – and world-building in the science fiction genre must be more exact and scientifically accurate than that in science fiction romance.  After all, readers who focus on the romance are apt to overlook scientific or sociological inaccuracies.  SF readers don’t.  They’re an unforgiving lot.
I got tired of the world-building.  Editors said I was very good at it, but my interest lay in building characters and I was spending the bulk of my writing energy worrying about the world in which those characters resided.
Then one day the obvious hit me.  Why was I working so hard creating alien worlds when all sorts of “alien worlds” are right now on earth?  In fact, my wife is a registered alien – she is Thai – so that’s not all that far-fetched.  Of course, she feels I’m a real alien, but that’s another story.
In college I majored in English but minored in anthropology.   So I began setting my stories in this world, but in other cultures.  Doing so enabled me to engage in a lot of research, something I love.  My first attempt was a story set among the Gwi, a Bushman tribe.  I am proud to say that to create the verisimilitude I went to the length of finding a Gwi/Japanese dictionary (no Gwi/English dictionary existed at the time, and still might not, for all I know) and then had a friend translate the Japanese to English.  The story revolved around the Gwi belief that the moon is hollow and that you go there when you die.  It involved a real woman named U! – she was alive when I wrote the story (incidentally, the exclamation point indicates a glottal stop) – who discovers that the moon isn’t at all like what she previously thought.
The story immediately sold to one of the two top magazines in the field, was reprinted in half a dozen anthologies, and was a finalist for both of science fiction top honors . . . and I knew I was onto something.
Since then I have published stories set in Germany, Ethiopia, South Africa, British Columbia, Alaska, Russia, Namibia, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Mexico, Greenland, Las Vegas (about as other-worldly as you can get!), and Madagascar.  My fourth novel, which also was set in Madagascar, won the world horror award, and I am now writing two more Madagascar novels – a contemporary romance, and a fantasy romance.  Doing fiction set in other worlds that are this world enables me to explore the clash between cultures and at the same time concentrate on the clash between the hero and heroine.


Judith Ashley said...

Hi George, What an interesting post. I don't read horror, sci-fi or paranormal stories and I've no real interest in vampires or werewolves although I will admit being addicted to the initial Star Wars trilogy (it seemed more like a religious experience to me due to the underlying foundation of belief in The Force).

I do believe that this world as we know it has more than enough variations in peoples and cultures to populate untold stories.

I'm fascinated by how you analyze things before you write and it doesn't seem to impact your creativity. Thank you for sharing your process with us.

Diana Mcc. said...

(waving from the high desert in Central Oregon) George, Have you ever considered comedy writing? I laughed all the way through your post. Your insights are right on.

OMG! I am one of those paranormal readers who want my vampire hero to not drink human blood or bite the heroine with his fangs. You sure put that into perspective for me.:))

My husband and I watch a lot of discovery channel shows and some cultures, traditions and rituals seem as unbelievable as any SF I've ever read.


Happy New Year to you and your wife!

Sarah Raplee said...

Thanks for a great post! I learn so much from your posts and comments. We're very lucky to have you here at RTG.

I agree with Diana; your insights are hilarious and so true!

This post gave me fodder for thought about how Steampunk, an SF sub-genre, fits into Romance.

Have a wonderful New Year!

Nancy Crampton-Brophy said...

Interesting post. I think you nailed it when you said romance readers are more forgiving of lack of research. Although there is a contingency that finds it annoying if you screw up a profession, setting or other significant detail that detracts from the storyline. On the other hand too much research can be bad. A historical writer I know has a sign hanging in her office that says, "Only James Michener got to use all his research."

Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

I agree with the other commentors--definitely an interesting, thought-provoking post, as well as funny. Thanks so much for giving me a new perspective.