Where is Science Fiction Going?

Silence on Second Street - High ResolutionThe awesome folks at Extra Credits recently put up an interesting video on where science fiction is currently at, including a brief history of broad genre trends. And I mean really brief – this whole video is less than six minutes long, and worth your time if you like considering such things.


I don’t really agree with the homogenous view of sci-fi the video implies, or its conclusion that we’re missing out on something by not having a single, over-arching style that dominates the genre. To me, a diverse and fractured genre is an interesting, creative one, as long as people don’t waste too much time arguing the merits of the different styles. Not having a dominant form of sci-fi means we’re less likely to fall into the trap of taking tropes for granted.

That said, it’s interesting to speculate about what’s going to emerge as the big trends of the next ten years of sf. Will transhumanism be queen, as we explore the idea of moving beyond the limits of our bodies? Will it be about building entirely new realities as virtual reality becomes more widespread and we see its implications? Given the snide comments about certain politicians in the UK, US and USSR, are we in for another wave of dystopianism?

Honestly, I think that anything I pick will be wrong. That’s the thing about big, imagination-capturing trends – they’re not the ones we expect, but the exciting ones we don’t see coming. So fingers crossed for fictional futures I’ve never even thought of.

The magic circle – stories and immersion

Immersion is vital to enjoying a story on its own terms. That sense of surrendering to the imaginary world, living within its confines, accepting its rules, buying into what’s at stake. And one concept that’s crucial to this is the magic circle.

The magic of immersion

The magic circle is the idea of a special space, a set of circumstances that supports an audience in setting aside the real world and immersing themselves in a story. It’s the pool of light around a campfire, the darkness of the cinema, the moment when the curtains are pulled back revealing the stage. Here’s the folks at Extra Credits explaining it in more detail:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZ-EY9gTsgU&w=560&h=315]
The magic of writing

Readers may have their own space to help with their immersion, whether it’s curled up on a corner of the sofa, sitting with headphones on in a crowded tube train, or lying in bed with just the light a small lamp.

But as writers we have no control over that space. We have to create the magic circle through the words that we set down on the page. Any time we break the flow of the story, that we remind readers that they’re reading a story rather than living it, we break the circle. And the loss of immersion that creates can lead to dissatisfied readers.

But its not just about avoiding breaking the circle – it’s about building it in the first place. We have to create a virtual space that draws the reader in, that replaces their thoughts with story thoughts, their emotions with story emotions. We have to make a circle so compelling that they won’t drift out of it and back to the ordinary world.

Too clever by half

I think this is part of why I’ve not been immersed in some of the books I’ve read recently, ones that relied on particular intellectual conceits. Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery is a prime example of this, being as it was a stitching together of fragmented history. But Samuel R. Delaney’s The Einstein Intersection also suffered from it. For readers already immersed in the mythology Delaney was using, the work tapped right into their thoughts, making it all the more immersive. They filled in gaps and connections that Delaney didn’t make, and the fact that they were doing some of the work for themselves added to the immersion. This wasn’t somebody trying to lure them into the circle – it was them stepping forwards to create their own.

But I had to step back to make those connections, and that disrupted my immersion in the story just as surely as the fragments from Delaney’s journal did. This wasn’t my sort of circle, and I wasn’t immersed.

Yes, but…

My thoughts on this are still half formed. After all, I found some of Pratchett’s early work compelling despite the flow-breaking footnotes, and I love the intellectual playfulness of Tom Stoppard’s plays even when they break out of the traditional circle. How does such fourth wall breaking work fit into the model of the magic circle? Is it making a different sort of circle, or embracing audiences in another way?

Odds are I’ll be coming back to this one in a week or two. In the meantime I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on the subject – just leave a comment below.

Applying psychology to character creation

Despite spending two years studying psychology at A-level, and occasionally dipping into books and articles since, I tend to forget the theory of psychology when creating and depicting characters. I’m sometimes inspired by particularly vivid images from the subject, like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, but I haven’t applied the structures and frameworks it provides.

Fortunately, I have the smart people at Extra Credits to remind me about this stuff. They recently did an episode on using the Myers Briggs personality model for character creation. The video’s only seven minutes long, and worth a look:



Aside from providing a tool I can use in character creation, this reminded me of the other tools I already had. Knowledge about social psychology I can use when depicting crowds, cities and events. Developmental psychology that can give me insight into the background of my characters. Simplified behavioural models from management courses that can provide quick archetypes for bit-part characters.

They say write what you know, but what you know isn’t just what you’ve lived and done, it’s what you’ve read, seen, heard and learned. And if you’ve read any psychology, then that’s a way to make your characters a lot richer.

It seems obvious now I write it, but I simply hadn’t done it until now.

Have any of you lot used academic psychology in your writing? Was it useful? Are there other fields you’ve studied that you’ve found particularly useful, and think others should read up on? Let me know, leave a comment below.