For reasons that should be fairly obvious, I’ve been thinking lately about story construction and distinguishing characteristics of science fiction. I’d like to share some of the results of that thinking. Nothing really profound here, but those of you prone to psychological analysis of authors through their works (I’m sure that sooner or later somebody reading this will resemble that remark) may find it helpful.

I’m of the opinion that there are three elements that must be present in a science fiction short story. (The jury is still out on the question of how much this applies to other genres as well. It’s also still out on whether publishers agree with my opinion: we’ll settle that one when I get a story written and find out if it sells.) There’s a lot more that needs to go into a story to make it a story (characters spring to mind, just for starters), but without these elements, it’s not SF. For purposes of discussion, I’ll call them the “device”, the “motivator”, and the “resolution”.

The device is the central idea, the “what if” that is the reason the story exists. It doesn’t need to be an actual “what if”, but it has to be the question that puts the “speculation” in “speculative fiction”. For instance: “What if the stars only came out once in a thousand years?” “How can I build a mansion in the space of a one-room shack?” “What if tying buttered toast to a cat’s back generated a significant amount of energy, even if it’s not a perpetual motion device?”

The motivator is the problem that the protagonist must solve. The motivator derives from the device. “What are stars and how do we keep civilization from collapsing when they come out?” “Whoops, the house collapsed into the fourth dimension and I’m trapped inside.” “With the world’s butter supply tied up by the energy industry, what do I put on my english muffin?”

The resolution is the answer to the problem posed by the motivator. It too needs to derive from the device; otherwise you’re straying into deus ex machina territory. The Greek playwrights got away with it, and frankly, so do far too many modern authors. Yes, it can be done well, but I think if you go there you’re more likely to cbe heating your readers by giving them only two-thirds of a story. “Oh, that’s what a star is. Oops, there goes civilization.” “Jump out of a window and hitchhike back to LA. But this gives me a great idea for the next house I design!” (Clearly it doesn’t have to be a happy ending or a resolution that solves the problem, but it needs to bear some logical connection to the device.) Marmalade could work, but it’s probably going to be a “well, duh!” moment for our English and Canadian readers. Margarine is a bit better, since it’s a manufactured product that was probably produced using energy from the buttered-cat generators. Kind of boring, though. How about we go for the tragic ending, and have our protagonist, despondent over the lack of butter, commit suicide by spreading his muffin with some of the huge surplus of obsolete fuel oil?

Time Machine: 1977

Blame this post, aka “wallow in nostalgia,” on John Scalzi. As a time/space filler today, he asked his readers to document their favorite piece of media at age 12.

I had an instant answer to that: “Star Wars”. As I mentioned in the first post on this blog, I was part of the horde of obsessed Star Wars fanboys. And when I say “obsessed”, I mean seriously – to the point where I demanded visits to Burger King in order to get the series of Star Wars posters they had as giveaways. (Mine has never been a fast food oriented family, so going to Burger King was a significant deviation.) I’m pretty sure I’ve still got at least some of them, tucked away in one of the boxes of wall decorations that I don’t have wall space for.

But having answered the question, I started to think that there was probably more going on that year. Obsession or no, I couldn’t imagine I spent all of my free time on Star Wars. I started taking a walk around the Web looking at what else was going on in 1977, and there was a heck of a lot. Join me in a ramble through my memories please.

One of my ongoing media obsessions was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. For several years, I listened to it most nights, and recorded a number of shows on a cheap cassette recorder sitting next to my radio. CBSRMT ran from 1974 until 1982 – just shy of 1400 episodes. Shows varied wildly in subject and quality, but had such wide appeal that there is still a core of fans devoted to locating and digitizing the episodes. I didn’t follow the full run, having come to it late, but since my favorite episode, “The Forgetful Ghost” aired in January of 1978, it’s virtually certain that I was listening to the show in 1977.

The first part of the year was marked by a couple of space-related items. The prototype Space Shuttle (named “Enterprise” in homage to Star Trek) was unveiled in late 1976 and I followed the progress of testing eagerly. In March, the rings of Uranus were discovered. Finding out that Saturn’s rings were unique only in their size and complexity was a huge shock to the world (or at least that part of it that paid any attention to astronomy). Lots of beautiful pictures.

1977 was the Seattle Mariners’ first season. I probably didn’t go to as many games as my memory suggests, but I know I went to several. I suspect that some of those Burger King visits were on the way to or from ball games. I do know the Mariners took a lot of my attention through April and May (Star Wars was released at the end of May).

August brought the so-called “Wow! Signal”. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project monitors radio signals from space looking for intelligent transmissions. The Wow! signal met many of the criteria SETI was watching for, and the initial reports, at least in the popular press, was that it was a signal from aliens. The fact that it was of short duration and has never been seen again casts significant doubt on that belief, but at the time it was a big deal to the space-obsessed, especially coming as it did against the background of the ongoing Enterprise Shuttle tests and just before the launch of Voyager 1 on its way to study the outer reaches of the Solar System. The Voyager probes, by the way, carry a message to any aliens who might stumble across them in the form of special gold-plated copper phonograph records with nature sounds, speeches, and music.

A rather more popular record was the soundtrack from “Saturday Night Fever”, which was released in November. Popular culture “Religious Wars” didn’t begin with Mac vs PC, Emacs vs vi, or even Star Wars vs Star Trek; the rock vs disco struggle was probably the most vicious during my teenage years. Disco fans were thrilled with the SNF. Rock fans were horrified. I was largely neutral, as I listened to more Swing-era music than anything else at the time; massive overexposure of SNF and the Bee Gees however, inclined me towards the rock side of the battle lines.

If memory serves, the first LPs I owned were Christmas gifts in 1978: Jeff Wayne’s musical version of “War of the Worlds” and – wait for it – the “Star Wars” soundtrack.

1977 clearly shaped a large part of my life with major baseball, space, and science fiction influences. Thanks for the reminder, John!