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Tell It Like It Is: Guest Blog from Ben Bova

October 4, 2011

The Clarion Blog is proud to feature a guest blog from Ben Bova.  In the last four decades, among his other accomplishments Mr. Bova has served as the multiple-award-winning editor of Analog magazine, President of SFWA, and author of over a hundred books of fiction and nonfiction.

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TELL IT LIKE IT IS

Ben Bova

Tell it like it is.

Or, more appropriately for science fiction, tell it like it’s going to be.

Science fiction deals with worlds that do not yet exist. Perhaps they never will, except in the lines of the stories we write.

The writer’s task, then, is to make these worlds seem real, and – more important – to make the characters living in such worlds true and believable.

In my own work, I have set stories at different planets of our solar system; Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, and our own beckoning Moon. I’ve also done stories set among the myriad minor worlds of the Asteroid Belt. My readers have dubbed this series of novels “Bova’s Grand Tour of the Solar System.”

It started nearly thirty years ago, when I decided to write a very realistic novel about the first humans to explore the planet Mars. I studied every scrap of information I could find about Mars, and about the plans engineers had conceived to get a team of human explorers to that red planet and back safely to Earth.

But the astronomical information and technical specifications weren’t enough. I needed to know who would go to Mars, and why.

I moved for a while to New Mexico, where the rugged landscape of the Navaho lands reminded me powerfully of the images sent back by spacecraft of the surface of Mars. The high desert region of the American southwest is raw, dry, harshly desolate. Yet, compared to the frozen desert of Mars, it’s virtually a Garden of Eden.

During my time in New Mexico I began to learn a little about the Native Americans who live in that bleak land, particularly the Navaho. And it dawned on me that the protagonist of my novel was part Native American: the son of a Navaho father and a mother descended from the Mayflower. The red world of Mars and the blue world of Earth represented the conflict within the soul of my protagonist, Jamie Waterman.

I was having all sorts of difficulties writing the novel until I realized that Jamie Waterman is the story’s protagonist, and the novel is his story, much more than it is mine.

From that moment of realization onward, the novel practically wrote itself.

The old adage is “You’ve got to know the territory.” Yes, true. But you’ve also got to know who lives in that territory, and why they are there.

I’ve spent years researching all that is known about the planets of our solar system. Thanks to a lifetime of working with scientists and engineers at the cutting edge of exploration, I’ve been able to write about these worlds as they actually are: each of them is fascinatingly different from the others, unique worlds that present special challenges to the writer who is determined to “tell it like it is.”

Then I go a step or two farther. I need to tell it like it’s going to be. I need to show the readers what it would be like to trek across the barren airless surface of the Moon, or to write your name in the iron-red sands of Mars with a child’s bar magnet or to stare in awed stupefaction at the mountain-large leviathans that live in Jupiter’s planet-girdling ocean.

I try to go beyond the known, to extrapolate from existing knowledge and build a fully realized, believable alien world. This sometimes drives my copyeditors into frenzied queries: “Is this known fact?” they scribble. “What is your authority for saying this?”

I’m tempted to reply, “Dieu et mon droit.”

Most of all, though, I want to explore why human beings would go to those worlds, why men and women would spend years traveling through space to a destination that is utterly unlike the world of our birth, why they would strive to build habitats in these alien surroundings, establish new human communities far from Earth.

For no matter how fascinating the story’s background may be, it is merely background. Stories are about characters, men and women who love and hate, who bleed and suffer, who strive against colossal odds to survive, to endure, even to triumph.

In science fiction, the characters do not always have to be human beings. They might be extraterrestrial creatures, or intelligent robots, or sentient bedbugs. But they must behave like human beings. They must have emotions and conflicts and desires that a human reader can recognize and sympathize with. Otherwise they will not engage the reader’s interest.

The first question I ask myself when I’m starting to consider a new Grand Tour novel is: Who would go to this world? That immediately brings up another question: Why would they go?

Jamie Waterman struggled against long odds to get to Mars because he needed to find out for himself who he is. The Mars expedition brought his true nature to the fore.

Dan Randolph built a powerful interplanetary corporation because he could not have the one woman he truly loved.

Pancho Lane grew from a daredevil astronaut to chief executive of a major corporation to protect her younger sister, who was frozen in a cryonic crypt, waiting for the day when her fatal cancer could be cured.

People ask me when I’m going to write a novel that’s set beyond Saturn. The scientist who’s running the program that’s sent a spacecraft out to distant Pluto asked me if I planned to write a novel set at Pluto.

I could only reply, “Maybe.” Maybe when we learn enough about that forlorn minor planet to allow me to write about it convincingly. Certainly, if and when I figure who would go there, and why.

Until then, there are lots of other places to write about, lots of other characters to draw, lots of other stories to tell.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 5:05 pm

    Great advice, Ben. Thanks! Dan and Pancho’s stories are among my favourite in the sci fi landscape, and I get what you say about the American southwest. New Mexico sounds very similar to Arizona. My husband is a travel photographer and he captured this image of Arizona that just screams Mars:

    http://www.billshapter.com/galleries/03-north/arizona/0401303.html

  2. October 5, 2011 10:49 pm

    Hi Ben, I just finished Mars and was blown away! I love your style and intrepid story telling. I’ll be picking up Mars 2 and 3 now, and perhaps some of your other books. Can’t believe it took me so long to find out about your writing. Thanks a lot, you have entertained me for many hours already, with many, many more to come.

  3. Suzanne Goeren permalink
    January 8, 2012 8:59 pm

    I, too, am surprised and excited to read your books. I look forward to many more hours getting involved in your storytelling. Thanks so much, Suzanne

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  1. SF Tidbits for for 10/5/11 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
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