September 6th, 2006

ozarque figure

Writing science fiction poetry; probability...

I had a terrible time with this post; I thought I'd be able to do it in fifteen minutes or so, and it ended up taking me almost two hours, and it still isn't good enough ..... That said, here it is nonetheless; I can't make it any better.

I had been thinking, because of the interesting discussions here of several science fiction poems ["Unintended Consequences, Heaven Knows," at ; an almost-final draft of "What We Can See Now, Looking in the Glass," at; and "Too Human By Half," at ] that it might be a good idea to try my hand at writing an entire book of those poems. I had the idea .... vague and embryonic and amorphous .... that a book of perhaps fifty sf poems that were self-contained narratives like those would be a project worth doing. Hard to do, you perceive, but worth doing.

And then along came the responses to "The Star-Spangled Ballot" [at] and I now have serious doubts about the project, which you can perhaps help me thrash out here.

Those of you who've been participating in the discussions of these poems-in-progress of mine will know by now that I have absolutely no objection to criticism of the lines of the poems, the wording of the poems, or the techniques I'm using in the poems. I value your criticisms, and I am always willing to discuss why I've made a particular decision -- either to keep some part of a poem as I had it originally, or to make the change(s) you've suggested.

But I'm having a hard time with the idea that the premise of an sf poem must be probable. For example, I don't see the premise that Terrans will be colonizing the planets of our solar system any time soon as probable, but sf poems with that premise are everywhere. And I sure as blazes don't see the premise that there could be a presidential election and not one single person would go vote as probable -- but I don't understand why an sf poem based on that premise should have to be probable. The "what if" posed is "What if they gave a presidential election and nobody came?"; the poem is intended to respond to that question, in a single self-contained brief narrative. It isn't intended to be probable; it's just intended to portray what might happen, in some fictional universe of the infinite multitude of possible fictional universes.

It seems to me that this issue is part of the Ancient SF Struggle over "hard" science fiction versus "soft" science fiction (and now "hard" sf fantasy versus "soft" sf fantasy). I don't pretend to write hard sf, or hard sf fantasy, although I try to keep the linguistic science in my narratives as rigorous as possible within the fictional circumstances that are my boundaries. And if sf (and sf fantasy) poetry has to be divided into "hard" and "soft" subtypes, my poems are only going to fall into the "hard" group by accident.

Maybe I set off the reaction by proposing that the poem was "alternate history"? I had that problem when Native Tongue came out; I got letters from people complaining bitterly that "your plot is so improbable" and "that could never happen in the United States," and I kept reminding them that the book was a work of fiction. I think that what set that off was the fact that NT was a sort of alternate future history. Perhaps if I'd called it "hard fantasy" I wouldn't have gotten all those complaints? I don't know.

Anyhow.... I'd be grateful if you'd help me think this through.