Picking out an SF Influence – Backwoods SF


Influences. We’ve all got them. Who looks at theirs? It’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time on but I suppose mine began with Space Westerns. Of course I didn’t call them that; not then. An aspect of Space Westerns that I’ve found interesting, I call Backwoods SF. I’m going to look at that and see where it leads.

What’s in a term

Backwoods: Not in the big city; wooded or partly cleared and far from a city; remote or culturally backward.
SF: Fiction with healthy doses of scientific speculation.
Big cities: where decisions are made and where the politicians who make them hang out. These are places where the rewards are compelling and what’s on offer is a cosmopolitan style of life, new technologies, new (and laxer) social mores. They are where it’s at. Yet cities are also at the sharp end. In a way they’re the kitchen of civilisation – if you can’t stand the heat you get out. Big city life is demanding and unforgiving. Trust is in short supply. Can-do writ large morphs into opportunism. It has more than its fair share of thieves and crooks. Let your guard down and you suffer. Those who dwell there know it’s the price they pay for living at the apex of civilisation. City Slickers, if they think on it, will consider those in smaller cities, towns, villages… as further down the slippery slope of success.
Stories to entertain that market will need big themes, something to lift the reader above the overpowering presence of masses of people. By its very nature, most Science Fiction gravitates to a city point of view. But not all. There’s a strand connecting to the realities of rural life. Backwoods SF is as far away from Space Opera as you can get.

Writers in this area

Clifford D Simak and Robert Heinlein spring to mind. Robert Heinlein needs no introduction. He works this strand well in novels such as Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky, Tunnel in the Sky and Starman Jones. Heinlein’s works are suffused with the self-determination and individualism that is often seen as American in character. His heroes rely on their own judgement and skills and have a healthy disregard for overbearing authority – jumped-up men in suits. This is not unfamiliar territory to those who read Westerns.

Tunnel in the Sky cover

Tunnel in the Sky

Rod Walker steps through a gate to do a survival course on an alien planet. The planet is a wilderness and he’s there for a week. But after the course ends, the gate doesn’t reopen. He’s marooned. There are others trapped there just like him. They work together to build a place to live. In this work, Heinlein shows the best and worst of human nature.

Clifford D Simak was an exemplar of Backwoods SF. His settings were often rural and his heroes, backwoodsmen. When his stories concluded, he often left mysteries hanging. His work was usually described as gentle and pastoral. Clifford said of his work:

Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not, I have struck a hopeful note… I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme—if we have a purpose. In general, I believe we do, and perhaps an important one.
In his hands fiction became something greater than homespun story-telling.

All the Traps of Earth cover

All the Traps of Earth

In All the Traps of Earth, Clifford twists and turns through each story so the reader can rarely guess where each will end. Many of these tales mix his sense of the homely rural and suburban against a backdrop of the alien and cosmically vast. The title pice shows a robot closing down the accounts of the Barrington family, to which he belongs. The problem is the last of the Barrington’s just died. That means he (the robot) will have to have his personality erased. These short stories remind me of PK Dick.

The rural / outdoor life; what is it? It’s not just city economics; labour + materials + process = result; there’s a whole lot more it than that. Those who live the outdoor life see something different; they see the pattern and flow of nature. This is brought out through the story. Character emphasis will be different, its development will be refocussed; regardless of whether it’s set in the outback of some place on Earth, or in the big back yard of another planet. This becomes the baseline. Contrast it with the unknown / alien; the two will be very different. These pre-built extremes are ready to generate conflict; the known matched off against the strange and unknowable. If you’re the writer, you’ve now some variables from which to draw the characters of both hero and alien. Your protagonist loves nature? Nature gets in the way of the alien. Your protagonist knows how to track a trail, the alien uses gadgets for that… and so on. From there you can start to flesh out your alien’s back story which will in turn determine further traits. A delight for the writer and hopefully, the reader.

UK Outback = up North

I always felt that Backwoods SF was an interesting notion to develop. However, here in the UK we don’t have no outback. It’s hard to be a long way from Big Cities in the UK – the nearest one to me, Manchester, is a mere 15 miles off. I live in Rossendale. Still; I empathise to being disconnected from the hustle and bustle of city life. I guess if I worked there (as I have in the past) that that would vanish, and the disconnect might well transfer to the place I live. We’re admonished: write what you know – it gives your work authenticity. I know small town life and it informs my narratives. So that’s what I plug into them.

Bundling these together can lead to interesting and intellectually satisfying results. For example: where does an alien on the run go? Does he / she go to ground? or go to the most important person they can find, perhaps pretending to be the ambassador of an advanced race? Could the alien become part of a technology transfer trading setup? Heading for the President or someone in authority sounds superficially attractive. This is actually a snag, if you’re on the run, as that’s the first place a pursuer would check on. Symbols of power mean a lot on technologically undeveloped worlds and it’s easy to work out who makes decisions. A lot depends on how thorough pursuers are likely to be, and how well versed they are in the craft of information gathering.

Alien as Refugee

This is what I did in Lucky (named for my alien heroine). Lucky rejects most of the above as too likely to get noticed and decides to go to ground. She second-guesses human intolerance and, rather than go to a big city, chooses to settle in a town. She finds a place where ‘one more’ makes little difference; where the chance of being outed as a true outsider is low. The country she chooses, the UK, has large scale, on-going immigration. She works on her back story: she is a refugee (just not from Earth). Knowing my locale, the rationale for why an alien might choose to hide there seems plausible.

Writing point: you know your neighbourhood. Write it. It gives a voice to your area. Done well, it sounds authentic. Or you can always research. If you’re a writer, you’re always researching – even when you’re not!

What aliens do you do?

At some point, you, as author will want to move from unknown, presumed hostile aliens, to something a little more sophisticated – imagine your Nth alien saying its equivalent of “I am Dalek. I exterminate” – that gets kind of repetitive. Before we look at this further, there’s another aspect that deserves some attention; human reaction. Alienness gives the opportunity to stoke up fear of the unknown. If there’s one thing to provoke humanity to a killing frenzy it’s fear of the unknown. Run with that and you have something for your alien to second guess. That’s assuming your alien’s intellect takes precedence over its instincts; it could of course be a predator, come to hunt, or a feeder / breeder that hosts on anything alive (like Giger’s alien). This elicits a primal response. Is that your only aim?

Alien as Victim

A key alien character in A Guide to First Contact knows there is no means of returning home. She starts in the hands of authority and, without the opportunity to develop a good back story, her options are limited. Were she to escape, the pluses and minuses for big cities come into play. Big can mean easier to hide in; but also harder to stay out of  reach of those who would go out of their way to identify her and hound her, or profit from her. They would never let her alone. Recognising the inherent threat in humanity, she is forced to suffer in a secret laboratory. She becomes a victim. If you know no one, who can you turn to? I give my aliens difficult choices but they don’t all respond the same way. Some display the manners of cultured guests at a dinner party while others behave like opportunists (a trait we know so well).

This kind of talk suggests another look be taken at characterisation. As a writer, you’ve developed characters in contrast to alienness. But this then provokes you to round out your alien characters. Do you make them accessible? give them traits to which we can connect? Here, Zenna Henderson is worth noting because she pays particular reference to sympathetic alien portrayal. The two works I have of hers are The People: No Different Flesh, and Pilgrimage. As a rule I mix it up. A twist of inscrutability, some sympathetic traits plus, where appropriate, reference to the places you know.¹

Pilgrimage cover

Pilgrimage

Zenna Henderson wrote about alien exiles in the American midwest, who call themselves the People. They live in secret but come across as gentle and more akin to the spiritual side of humanity. Their flight from their doomed home world left them scattered across the US and Pilgrimage documents their stories as they try to find each other.

Lucky is mostly set in Codwich, a fictional town in the North of England. It felt appropriate to add some reference to its Celtic and Anglo-Saxon heritage. She asks a tramp about himself:

“You didn’t tell me your name,” Lucky called from the kitchen. She listened, but his only answer was quiet silence. Another sensitive area? She racked her brain for another tack, while she prepared the teapot. The kettle came to a boil and she dug out a tin with a still unopened pack of Rich Tea biscuits.
“I’m researching, you know.” he called.

“Sugar?”

“Please.”

Lucky added milk to the jug and brought in the tray, flushed with the success at having made a cup of tea for her first visitor. She looked at her small table, puzzled; he had emptied his pockets onto it. In the corner nearest him was a dirty handkerchief, tissue paper and a crumpled carrier bag. Covering the rest of the space were several plastic cards and heavily creased paper documents. His arms trembled but he swept them aside to make room for the tray.

“What are you researching?”

“Many things. Codwich, Coed y Ffin – tree bordered?” She knew how words morphed over time and recognised the Anglo-Saxon rendering of the original Cumbric term for the town. Few would. ²

Stretches of Guide are pastoral. Easing in a local reference was tricky. Sometimes, all that’s possible is a reference, meaningless to all but a few. Here, an amateur conspiracy investigator who’s tracking down a missing astronaut, retires for the day, baffled:

Maybe there really was redaction style webware out there.
So, her name was a no-go area. Did that apply to the other crew members? No way to tell, but based on Ms Singerton it was likely.
Something to chew over while watching soccer on Sky-Fox. The Clarets playing the Gunners. No wine, no firearms. Where did they dream up these names from? I would have flicked the channel but didn’t have the energy. ³

The Clarets is the nickname of my home town team who have been a Championship side since 2000; as of the time of writing – 18/11/14 – they look like making a return by the end of the season. Predicting they’ll be playing Arsenal in Premier League, March 23rd, 2019? Now that’s Science Fiction!

Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine
Clifford D Simak


Notes

¹ Aristotle’s Poetics

The rules to creativity were outlined in antiquity by Aristotle in a work that came to be known as the Poetics. I haven’t seen a satisfactory translation of this piece but if you cut through the philosophical trappings, you can see the granddaddy of works on writing; it dealt with issues that writers still deal with.
Section 4.3: poor characterisation makes poor tragedy
(although this section sees Aristotle talking of tragedy, this has much wider application)
Section 8.1: In all things: is this plausible? probable?
Section 11: things may be portrayed as they should be, even if they aren’t
My notes on Aristotle’s Poetics are here.

Author references

² Lucky p47Lucky is on the web as Lucky and other stories
Lulu: 21617090 (UK Crown Quarto)
ASIN: B00IMNXWK2
Resource

Lucky cover

Lucky

³ Guide p240Guide is on the web as A Guide to First Contact. The title is an ironic play on words.
Lulu: 21455011 (US A5)
Lulu: 21444383 (UK Crown Quarto)
Lulu: 21444388 (UK Case Wrap)
ASIN: B00EUI42U2
Resources

Guide cover

Guide

Web sites
WordPress
My Telegraph
Goodreads

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About Terence Park

Collections: vinyl records, comic books, paperbacks; I've plenty of them all. I also do spreadsheets.
This entry was posted in Opinion, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Picking out an SF Influence – Backwoods SF

  1. Terence Park says:

    Reblogged this on A Guide to First Contact and commented:

    This post helps explain some of the thinking that went into Guide, but also, it tells you what I didn’t put in / chose not to say.

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