When you’re writing serious fiction in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, it’s vital to keep an edge of importance in your tone, even if you’re writing comedy. A key element of both genres is a sense of reverence, and of marvelling at the profound.
Deep Fiction, Only With Magic And Spaceships
A British author who had a smashing success, far beyond what he expected for one of his works (he had several, of varying levels of greatness), later in his life said that he wished he had said something meaningful within the breakaway work. He had made it fluffy, and almost absurdly inconsequential. Once the work did well, he wished he had put more thought into its lasting message.
He Could Have Influenced Society
Shakespeare did this all the time; he snuck nuggets of what he thought and believed about pretty much anything and everything into every corner of his plays, and anyone who really wants to have a fight with me about authorial intent can go jump in a lake.
A Dropt Love Letter
JULIA. And yet I would I had ore-look’d the Letter;
It were a shame to call her backe againe,
And pray her to a fault, for which I chid her.
What ‘foole is she, that knowes I am a Maid,
And would not force the letter to my view?
Since Maides, in modesty, say no, to that,
Which they would haue the profferer construe, I.
Fie, fie: how way-ward is this foolish loue;
That (like a testie Babe) will scratch the Nurse,
And presently, all humbled kisse the Rod?
How churlishly, I chid Lucetta hence,
When willingly, I would haue had her here?
How angerly I taught my brow to frowne,
When inward ioy enforc’d my heart to smile?
My pennance is, to call Lucetta backe
And aske remission, for my folly past.
What hoe: Lucetta.
The Silliest Of Plays
Two Gentlemen of Verona is a frothy, rubbery thing; it flops around and bends willy-nilly, but the underlying narrative structure is strong. For example, there’s that scene at the end when Valentine, in a fit of brotherly affection, attempts to gift his girlfriend Silvia to Protheus; this looks ridiculous on stage if it’s performed wrong, because Protheus just finished up trying to assault her. When you examine the light-hearted nature of the tone, the act becomes a sardonic commentary upon the frantic follies of youth and inexperience. You know, like a Simpsons episode.
But Then, Shakespeare Grasped The Importance Of Profundity
There are many scenes in Shakepseare’s plays where a heroine blusters breathlessly through a seeming-contradictory litany of “yes, I like him, but no! I don’t!” speeches. Since we just looked at Romeo and Juliet the other day, I will call up the spectre of that perfect woman, Portia, as an example of another variation on the above speech, delivered by Julia, this time rendered in the profound and poetic tone adopted by the Bard shortly after he wrote Two Gentlemen.
Portia’s Blathering (While Blushing)
PORTIA. I pray you tarrie, pause a day or two
Before you hazard, for in choosing wrong
I loose your companie; therefore forbeare a while,
There’s something tels me (but it is not loue)
I would not loose you, and you know your selfe,
Hate counsailes not in such a quallitie;
But least you should not vnderstand me well,
And yet a maiden hath no tongue, but thought,
I would detaine you here some month or two
Before you venture for me. I could teach you
How to choose right, but then I am forsworne,
So will I neuer be, so may you misse me,
But if you doe, youle make me wish a sinne,
That I had beene forsworne: Beshrow your eyes,
They haue ore-lookt me and deuided me,
One halfe of me is yours, the other halfe yours,
Mine owne I would say: but of mine then yours,
And so all yours; O these naughtie times
Puts bars betweene the owners and their rights.
And so though yours, not yours (proue it so)
Let Fortune goe to hell for it, not I.
I speake too long, but ’tis to peize the time,
To ich it, and to draw it out in length,
To stay you from election.
And Now, For Fiction
How, you may wonder, can I apply the difference between light-minded cynicism and profound poetics to my science fiction novel? Observe:
Light-Minded Writing (Acerbic Commentary):
Juhi, her snot-dried upper lip stiff with daring, took up the bowl of jingling change and skipped lightly away; behind her, the greasy barkeeper yelled in an alien tongue that sounded like fighting cats.
“Pxxthe! Cght rfopwe!” he masticated. A sprinkling of ruffians in the eatery looked at him, bored and uninterested. “I’ll pay you if you catch that whore!” he screamed in a different language, for he had command of several manners of speech.
Two heavily made-up tarts who carried vicious weapons perked up at these words and shuffled promptly out the door, their artificial hips swinging behind them. The painted ladies caught Juhi at the edge of a neon alleyway.
“Give it back,” the taller lady vociferated, one of her eyelashes bouncing loose.
“I’ll give you so much more money! Just let me go!” Juhi pleaded, her narrow chest rising and falling.
The shorter lady grabbed the bowl of out of Juhi’s hands with her painted and glued nails, and kicked at her with a ludicrously-tall plastic heel.
“How much money is there in that bowl?” the taller female asked the other one.
“Twelve whole bits and change,” the shorter one sneered, her purplish cheeks lopsided.
“I can show you where he keeps all his business funds, and help you steal it all!” Juhi cried in obvious despair.
“Get lost, wdrxth,” the tall woman said, using the word for dead dog, and she wobbled towards the bar with her friend.
Profound Prose (Reflective, Respectful Commentary):
Juhi waited until the greasy man turned his back; she lifted the tip-bowl and tore away. Behind her, the over-short barkeeper heard the jingle. He turned and cried out in an alien tongue.
“Pxxthe! Cght rfopwe!” he cried, his throat tearing over the awkward sounds of his native tongue. Several patrons of the eatery looked around at him, blank incomprehension in their eyes. “I’ll pay you if you catch that thief!” he shrieked in a more common tongue.
At these words, two rough-looking women with spears in their hands and wicked guns strapped to their wide hips sprang up and crossed towards the door. They split up on the street, and cornered Juhi at the edge of a neon alleyway.
“Give it back,” the taller woman demanded. Her face was coated with exquisite makeup, and her false lashes caught the wind and fluttered up.
“I’ll split it with you if you let me go,” Juhi said, painting hard. She inched along the wall, and the tall woman planted a platinum, steel-toed high heel against the building to block her way.
The shorter woman caught the money deftly out of Juhi’s grasp, her manicured nails clicking against the metal bowl.
“How much?” the taller female asked her companion.
“Twelve and change,” the shorter one replied.
“He keeps a vault in the back, and I know the code,” Juhi said, her face pinching with desperation.
“Get lost, you wdrxth,” the tall woman said, taking her leg down. The short woman jumped slightly forward; Juhi scrambled down the street with a cry, and the two ladies watched her run and then turned back towards the bar.
And so we see, when we approach genre fiction with an eye to sobriety, profundity, and elegance of tone, our work is elevated from a sour mockery of characters (which often comes across as bad writing) to a poetic ode to the faults in our humanity.