Odd Man Out: The Starship Sofa Online Workshop

Starship Sofa (the phenomenal, out-of-nowhere, Hugo-award-winning brainchild of Tony Smith) is hosting an on-line event on March 31.  It’s being promoted as “a workshop for aspiring science fiction writers”, and at least two of the speakers bear this out: Ann Vandermeer will be talking about “Unlocking Your Creativity”, and Nancy Kress will describe techniques for “Creating and Maintaining Tension”. Both authors have loads of cred; both are talking about subjects vital to the writing process.

Then there’s me.

I’m going to be talking about “Why Science Fiction is Too Important to be Left to the Scientists”. Tony seemed quite enthusiastic when I spitballed the idea.  I’m not quite sure why.  It’s not really a how-to talk at all; it’s more of an argument that, public perception notwithstanding, formal scientific expertise might actually be a bad thing when it comes to writing science fiction. The only reason I suggested it was because I originally misunderstood the nature of the workshop; and by the time I realized my mistake, Tony was irrevocably sold on the title.  So it stands: not a How To talk at all. More of a How Not To, actually. Which, now that I think of it, might be Tony’s point.

Anyway.  At Tony’s request I’ve whipped up a three-minute promo to provide a glimpse into where I’m going with this. It’s now been posted and, and, well, I kind of look like a goof in it. (I think this is what they call “Truth in Advertising”.) It does give a good sense of what I’ll be talking about, though. So check it out. If you like what you see, go register.

If you don’t, there’s always Kress and Vandermeer.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday March 09 2012at 10:03 am , filed under public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

34 Responses to “Odd Man Out: The Starship Sofa Online Workshop”

  1. “…real Science gets in the way…”

    For me*, that’s the argument in a nutshell.

    *I never got my PhD, but then I’m not a writer either.

  2. Looking forward to it Peter.

  3. Hm. You don’t look like a goof, just direct. Your prose can sometimes be harsh and/or profane, but when you see the words spoken, it comes off self-effacing, energetic, smart, blunt, and kind of charming.

    Mostly: If I didn’t know who you were, I’d be interested in hearing this man talk more?

  4. Hearing this much of your argument, and knowing the number of academics I know . . . YES.
    SF calls for reach. Science calls for caution.

  5. How not to is often as important as how to, and people that know how to communicate that are worth their weight in gold.

    I assume writing will run into the same barriers as reading about science or discussing it. Everything is still more or less fine as long as you are far enough removed from a subject to be willing to ballpark it. As soon as one gets into territory where actually knowledge goes beyond some nice and simplistic models things will get clunky and rough, unless industrial level disbelief suspenders are applied. And that is a bit tricky when trying to be consistent.

  6. I smiled the second the logo zoomed into view. I mean that in a good way.

    Definitely interested, as someone who’s not a scientist, yet enjoys reading and absorbing it.

    I have in the past had thoughts about becoming a biologist before, but I’ve heard a lot about the drawbacks to it. Not to mention the many years of college, and other difficulties nowadays. I’m not surprised by some of your comments on it.

    As long as I can continue learning as much as possible on my own through reading, observing, etc., I will be fine without the title of scientist.

  7. I think it is *how to* in that it is telling them what *not* to do.

    And if *that* doesn’t exemplify Wattsian SF…


  8. (Meaning what society should not do with its new toys, obviously.)

  9. You present a solid argument. I was drop-kicked into a science class for artists over the summer. While I loved it, it was consistent with every other lecture/experiment/document format presented from adolescence: write your observations and only your observations. Instructed to be direct, concise and accurately-measured, it made for tedious study materials.

  10. Somewhere there is a precise and cogent summary formula which expresses in the least possible terms the relationship between the enthusiasm of uneducated natural talent and the forced expressions of those soul-crushed products of graduate school.

    Sadly, I lack the math to express it (or read such an expression), as I flunked out in my sophomore year.

    Well, they did CLEP me up to English 395 and actually begged me to pursue Technical Writing, but when the math dean told me I’d need 7 years mostly of remedial math to graduate with a General Studies degree, I decided that I’d rather bag groceries or sysadmin UNIX boxes, whichever was doing more hiring at the time. Then the WWW came along…

    @ Peter: awesome presentation on the youtube. I was thinking “this I cannot miss” and then I discovered it’s in the UK, farther than I can fly just to hear some of the best writers in the world try to teach me their craft. Hopefully you can post a transcript at some later date.

  11. I may plunk down my hard-earned coin to hear your talk, Peter.

    I was always of the mind that real scientists made the best SF writers. Hell, they live and breathe this stuff, so *of course* they’re going to succesfully extrapolate a far-flung future where robot servants obey our every whim (only to rise up and use our skin for bio-fuel) and FTL drives are as ubiquitous as the E train to Brooklyn.

    There’s always that little nagging thing about story, plot, characters and conflict, but I assumed they’d pick that up along the way.

    I’m wondering just how far you plan on extending your reach. That is to say, hard-core scientists may not write the best SF, but I’m assuming that *some* basic science knowledge is still required.

    My question is; just how much is enough before an aspiring non-scientist SF writer is irrevocably bruised by the leaden hand of academia? Is what I learned in High School enough? Should I maintain a subscription to Popular Science or more hard-core industry publications like New Scientist? Where should the Scientist end and the dreamer begin?

    Maybe I’m being too literal. Maybe there is no line and the two are woven together like a braided pretzel stick. Sometimes, the salty edge of science stings your tongue while the next bite brings the sweet sourdough of the dreamer’s fantasy. Somewhere along the line, you dunk the whole thing into that honey mustard that’s always a little too tangy. Ok, this analogy officially sucks now.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll speak to one or two of these points.

  12. @ken, RE: pretzels

    Great, I just had supper and now I’m hungry again.

  13. @Peter, please strike my exceptionally clue-free response from earlier regarding not wanting to take a plane to an online seminar. 😉 I have registered, and it’s a sweet price — less than U$30.00 — for the talent standing up to lecture.

    To repost:

    Somewhere there is a precise and cogent summary formula which expresses in the least possible terms the relationship between the enthusiasm of uneducated natural talent and the forced expressions of those soul-crushed products of graduate school.

    Sadly, I lack the math to express it (or read such an expression), as I flunked out in my sophomore year. I can, however, use google, a thesaurus, and MedLine is now available even if I don’t quite know WTF they’re talking about…

    Well, Uni’s English department did CLEP me up to English 395 and actually begged me to pursue Technical Writing, but when the math dean told me I’d need 7 years mostly of remedial math to graduate with a General Studies degree, I decided that I’d rather bag groceries or sysadmin UNIX boxes, whichever was doing more hiring at the time. Then the WWW came along… and UseNet. Ah, UseNet…

  14. I confess I haven’t thought about it much. While I like scientists who write SF that makes sense more than poseurs like that twat Gibson.

    He said only one clever thing in his whole life, and for that, I’m thankful, but seriously.. guy is as overrated as the Iphone.

    (come the fuck on, writing about computers and VR on a fucking typewriter?! GRRR)

    I can’t read any book of his for more than five pages, before the trendy stupid tone makes me throw it away in disgust.

    Never thought school crushes souls. I know I hated undergraduate studies, but mostly because of my utter inability to do what I had to do, that is, study boring stuff.

    Every exam month was hell for me.. because of my procrastinator’s habits. In the end, I completed three semesters with better than average marks.. but I know I could do better.

    I mean, I’m supposedly 97th percentile, My former classmates graduated from Oxford, MIT, Charles University…. and they didn’t seem any smarter in grammar school.

    Worst of all were subjects where I was utterly convinced what we were being taught was crap. I just could not get myself to study them more than cursorily.

    I don’t know.. maybe I’ve ADD or something. Even calculus, which I kind of liked, I could not study by myself for more than four-five hours a day.

    Fortunately, the school was so easy(engineering math is nothing) that I managed a B from multivariable calculus one just 15 hours of preparation.

    Physics was fun too.. but barely above grammar school level… that was a breeze.

    Scripting was more than fun, I mean, if you finish an exam, with no preparation, faster than almost everyone else… 😀

    Serious subjects where lots of study was needed, like materials science I barely passed. Anyway.. fuck it. If I ever need to study up on it, I’ll download the free MIT materials and study them myself.

    Now I’m fucking glad I never finished university. Why?
    I have a decent plan on how to escape corporate slavery and have fun. Could work out, could not.

    But had I graduated, I’d have joined up some multinational, spent years there obeying people who would have made me think about remote forest glades, rolls of carpet and bags of lime. And I would probably not even be allowed to carry my gun to work either. (despite state law being more important than employer regulations)

    I’m afraid that sort of life would not make me very happy.


    I hope hyperinflation happens before then, $30 bucks provides me with nourishment for my non-artificial* parts for more than two weeks… and while I like cephalopod ramblings, I’m a thrifty person.

    *skeletal muscle, most organs except heart, left lung, eyes and inner ears

    My skeleton is titanium and bone-mimetic composite, joints are are all artificial and skull is mostly titanium with some mimetic stuff to hide that. Spine is original though, but now with extra ceramic armoring.

    Don’t recommend this body layout, recovery from having your skeleton replaced took two fucking years of not being able to move much. Really, really annyoing.

    Anyway, at least there was the immersive VR to pass most of the time. I can only recommend visiting alternate Earths. Most of them suck far less than this one.

  15. ..here’s a nice video of the Squid looking pleased with itself about having failed at both writing and science..


    At least, why does he look so damned smug when he describes himself as a marginal hybrid of scientist and writer?

  16. The upside, Peter: you are going to need a moderator one day soon. Comes with expanded territory.

  17. After further reflection: it’s not that simple.

    I’m currently preparing a presentation for conference & finding much in storytelling required for putting together a good presentation. So storytelling skills are not automatically excluded from a research career.

  18. @ Lanius: Ah, don’t be so hard on Dr Watts’s youtube presence. (Or is that “professor” W? Not sure how Canadians do that sort of thing.) I think he comes across as authentic or at least he’s saying what he feels, without going all Sam Kinison, or at least not quite so loudly.

    @ ken: For some things, if you’re trying to write SF and you’re not a scientist, keep in mind that if you’re still a bit curious and ready to learn something, the vast resources of the internet started out being by, for, and about science and scientists… and while perhaps the majority of internet users are following Ashton Kutcher on Twitter, the academic core is still there and still a place where you can start. From there, google and wikipedia, medline and the patent-office sites all can give you some pretty deep background. Additionally, places such as Nature can provide a lot of information, but more importantly, they will give the inquiring mind a whole lot of new stuff to google.

    Even for the layman such as myself, a subscription to the print edition of Nature is invaluable. The papers published for peer-review tend to make my brain hurt in a way that’s probably symptomatic of neural plasticity and new connections forming, and it’s a pain I recommend to everyone. Yet for those who have a low pain tolerance, Nature (and perhaps other comparable publications) publishes each issue with a section that’s sort of an executive-summary, just an overview but they like to link various disciplines without too much detail, the sort of thing that should raise up the sense of wonder as to how it all fits together.

    Then they have a section in the issue that’s in greater detail and probably requires a more professional level of knowledge, but not one that’s of interest (or comprehensible) only to the specialist in that particular field. Then, of course, the papers submitted by hardcore researchers for peer review.

    Quite frequently these are entirely incomprehensible to mere mortals or people with less than 20 years of college in that particular discipline, but now and then someone will commit to print some phrase along the lines of “quark topness and color conservation amid spin-flip-mediated chronon-chronon interactions demonstrate that foobarian elements are well-represented in the abstract modes of quantum computing as constrained to the whatsahoosian model”. You read that sort of thing and then head straight for google. About three days later you’ve run out of coffee and reached all of the ends of the internet and collapse into a feverish sleep not unlike that enjoyed in the terminal stages of malaria, and when you wake up, you write the first piece in a 20-volume epic of a future where nobody gives a crap about how FTL isn’t possible, because global causality violation isn’t an issue when you can Jump instantaneously between points in entirely different yet exceptionally parallel universes so similar as to be effectively indistinguishable. Einstein doesn’t have to spin in his grave for new worlds to be colonized around stars we can’t even see from our earth. You can do what really interests most readers, weave plot and characterization if that’s something you can do. Just enough science so that you know that cars drive down the highways, that’s all most readers need, something to help them suspend their disbelief. You don’t have to offer epic reams about gearing in those cars on the highways or about compression ratios and the pros-and-cons of throttle-body injection versus high-pressure-rail distributed port injection. (Some people do live for that stuff, though.)

    For scientists-as-writers, it might be that they’d tend to get a bit lost — and lose some readership — in the technical details. To extend the allegory, most folks are more interested in where the highway goes, who’s riding on it, with whom and towards what end, how they got there and what’s going to happen when they get where they’re going. “Sweat from his forehead, a tiny errant drop of it, nearly made it into his eye. He wiped it away before it could blind him. At these speeds, a moment of blurred vision could bring fiery death. He was running flat out in the second-fastest car on these roads, and the fastest car on those roads was a mile ahead and increasing the distance between them. His future wife was in that car, not driving, but wearing handcuffs in the back seat, no doubt with a defiant snarl and probably screaming like a banshee at the driver, with nearly wordless howls of hellish hate. With enough distance between the cars, the abductor could take any exit, or continue on. He who followed could not then see, would never know, and if he exited while the abductor continued, he’d never see his love again. If he continued after the abductor exited, it would be the same thing: the wrong move. He couldn’t outrun the abductor. He would have to out-think her.”

    Substitute FTL for cars. A scientist might feel a need to explain how FTL isn’t really FTL and why “real FTL” isn’t possible but this variation is. A non-scientist might just write a bitchin’ chase story. A different kind of scientist might write some awesome psychological drama but with weak handling of technical issues. It’s all in the wrist, as they say, when you flip that sort of coin.

  19. {whimper} dear moderator can you please close my broken [a href]? *cringe*

  20. [Deleted: Imposter post]

  21. @thomas: fixed.

    Previous post was from Lanius, not from me. Which kinda passes the point of no return in terms of second chances…

    @Soon Lee: Agreed. But then, if it was that simple, I wouldn’t be able to spin a half-hour talk out of it…

  22. Hmmm… well, at least Lanius didn’t do much damage when testing that impersonation trick. I’ll try to poke 01 for his opinion about this, seems he’s hibernating or something 🙂

  23. It’s not just science that can “ruin” your chances at good fiction style. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy (I do both continental and analytic philosophy, if that means anything to you) and after trying my hand at a bit of fiction, I was just appalled. I think I’ve had a couple of good ideas for scifi novels and stories, but I think in terms of arguments and rigorous phenomenological description. I can *talk* about narrative, and I have the tools to construct a very tight narrative and a coherent “world,” but I just don’t have the skills to execute the actual story. And I do think they were stunted or shifted aside by the obsessive philosophical focus on a kind of conceptual precision and accuracy.

  24. Eric, I think I get it even though I’m not a philosopher: continental is for a light breakfast, then you go for the big dump. And maybe I get your point too … 🙂

  25. @ Eric: Precision is good, but so is concision. This is my own great fault. I know it and try to work on it, but it really depends on what I am writing, and where. Unlike our gracious host I haven’t ever had anything published other than by putting it on my own website and I don’t think any of it gets read much. My suspicion is that it’s too long-winded, not that it’s terrible story-telling (I could be wrong about that, for sure) or that any SF science basis flies in the face of the facts as we know them.

    The funny thing is this: when I do have something read, and I find out that someone read it because they send me mail, what they like is the horrific element. I could write something about vampires (my take on it isn’t terribly different from Peter Watts’s take on it, at least it’s not Anne Rice or “Twilight” supernatural stuff) and people care less about what they are and how they came to be, they care about whether or not they’re creepy or fearsome. They care about how people interact with them, how they interact with each other, all of those elements we call “conflict”. Of course, the bias (or non-bias) here is that most of those readers weren’t looking for SF, they were looking for horror.

    I like Peter Watts stories, I like Charlie Stross stories, and I even like Stephen King for the non-supernaturalistic parts of the Stand or for Cell which I thought was totally under-rated by both reviewers and the public. Yet I find that although Charlie Stross writes awesome SF, I far prefer his “Atrocity Archive” cycle, not just for the inspirational Lovecraftian touches, but more for the deeply familiarized exposition on the soul-crushing ennui and unending near-pointlessness of being a government worker in an utterly essential agency that’s run like a three-year-old’s idea of functionality. He nails that stuff, bang on. Peter Watts manages to capture at least a little of that, when you look at his characters and their situations and some of it is so absurd (in the sense of who the hell down in HR/staffing thought this would be a good idea and where can I get some of the drugs they must have been on) one can’t quite know whether to laugh or to cry, or to identify even more deeply with the characters because you yourself have been in a situation of comparable absurdity, if not necessarily of comparable technology.

    Scientist or non-scientist, I think there’s fertile fields for creativity in describing the human condition in a setting where it helps to be a scientist or at least to not be a complete idiot. A very good example might be in a short story in the Venus Equilateral cycle from George O. Smith, that story being QRM Interplanetary. (Note, the brief summary from Wikipedia doesn’t do this justice. This is one of the original great comedies-of-errors about Pointy-Haired Bosses.)

    Yet I could easily support anyone suggesting that too much detail from a scientific type trying to provide the detail to other scientific types, could swamp an otherwise fine story. The “science” in Clifford D Simak’s exceptionally fine short-story “Good Night, Mr James” is pretty slim and next-to-none but it remains one of the classics of SF and I don’t think you could easily assign it to another genre. Or, to look at it another way, the imputations of exceptionally advanced science in Roger Zelazny’s “Lord of Light” are all over the place, but there is almost no detail at all; it’s all human condition and conflict and resolution. Then there’s some of the stuff I’ve had the audacity to mount to the WWW. One neighborhood kid of the very smart variety said after the obligatory google-stalking “I don’t like the science fiction much, too much explanation.” If anyone can write to win that particular audience I think everyone else might like it too.

  26. Any intention of discussing the technical pitfalls (related to the act of putting words on paper) that come from training in science? Such as the years spent expressing every damned thing you do in the passive voice (“Brains were sectioned on a freezing microtome, proteins of interest visualized through free-floating fluorescence immunohistochemistry, and cellular morphology traced in three dimensions at 100x using a confocal microscope and StereoInvestigator software….”)?

    Can’t speak for the crowd, but rooting out this kind of thing represents about 50% of my fiction-writing time. Even just identifying these bad writing habits gets harder as the years go by. And it’s not like I can just stop using passive voice altogether, though I imagine it’d spice up the grants a bit (“Next, stick the brain tissue on a freezing-cold metal platform and carve it into 30 micrometer-thick slices with the foot-long razor that’s mounted next to it. Watch the fingers. If you hit bone, you’ll dull the blade.”)

  27. (“Next, stick the brain tissue on a freezing-cold metal platform and carve it into 30 micrometer-thick slices with the foot-long razor that’s mounted next to it. Watch the fingers. If you hit bone, you’ll dull the blade.”)


    Oh yeah. The microtome version of “Do not look directly into laser with remaining eye.” XD Thanks for that.

  28. Probably totally off-topic, but looking at the clip posted by Lanius:


    Listening to Dr Watts and reading the subtitles (my French is terrible for conversation but I can get the gist of it in print), there’s a moment of rather subdued hilarity. Dr Watts says, about 6 seconds in, “biped, human, Canadian, former marine biologist”. All of this is fairly translated, and then after mentioning “former marine biologist”, he says “a convicted felon in the United States”, the hilarity ensues; the translation in subtitle is “citoyen Americain” or “American citizen”.

    Odd sense of humor, those Quebeckers. 😉

    My apologies for mentioning it, Dr Watts, one of these days those TSA guys and the State of New York will get their shit together so you can come visit here.

    BTW I have to agree with the proposition that the people most likely to advance science are not so much the happy campers, but more likely the obsessive people that might by society be considered weird and dysfunctional. What we call “driven”.

    NB to the humor lines: “Memo: Staff. Kindly refrain from using scant resources in the PCR lab to sequence your selves, family, and friends. We already know we’re all mutants. And it’s probably best for all of us that we don’t have any better idea of how we’re all related. Let’s just solve some crimes by dealing with that damned rape-kit backlog.”

    (Actually a problem here in the States, along with the bizarre fact that “Tide” laundry detergent has apparently become a staple coin of barter in the criminal underside of life here.)

  29. @ Hljóðlegur:

    Pleased to please. Cheers!

  30. @ Thomas:

    Actually, they’re French.

  31. Time for some tentacle worship:

  32. @ Peter Watts: Heh, considering how President GW Bush treated them in the run-up to the Iraq war (“cheese eating surrender monkeys” & “freedom fries”) I’m not too surprised that they translate “convicted felon” == “American citizen”. 😉

    Sorry, I just figured since they do have francophones in Canada that this was them, rather than the French. Principle of Prosidy etc.

  33. @ Peter Watts

    Hey Peter, 03 has been poking me about impersonation thingie and Wordstress in general, thus disrupting my postprandial hibernation patterns 🙂
    So…I wrote you an email with my thoughts about that, and more.

    Let me know if the issue is already resolved and if any help is needed.

  34. Oooh, this one is better. Almost like relevant, or something – too bad it gave itself away with that link at the end (so… unsubtle…tsk tsk tsk)

    I wonder, why Our Dear Host’s blog has begun attracting all this akismet-dodging “wildlife” ? And, more importantly, are the unkind guests OCR-endowed ?