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Marissa Lingen

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A few personal notes and the genre/ignorance thing [Aug. 31st, 2005|08:05 am]
Marissa Lingen
It is one thing, I find, to have confidence that your friends are sensible people with some resources at their disposal (i.e. a car and gas money) for getting themselves and their dogs out of the New Orleans area. It is quite another to actually hear from them that they are safe in northern Alabama. I had been cheerfully explaining to the world at large that they were most likely fine, but I still let out a long, shaky breath.

I'm feeling better than I was Sunday or Monday, but this is still not up to the admittedly low standards of last week yet. One of my best aunties is firmly convinced that the solution is for me to drink more. "I said that, too!" said my mom. "She didn't mean 'stay hydrated,' Ma," I said. In fact, what my aunt said was, "You're lucky they have good red wine now. In my day all they had was that David Morgan stuff, and that was not at all nice." (Yes, she does mean Mogen David.) Failing red wine or port, she seems to think a nice dark beer would help me immensely. I'm already dizzy enough without any help right now, so we have not implemented this treatment. I hesitate to call another auntie, lest she up the recommended dosage to vodka tonics.

Ahhhh, relatives.

In Sunday's comments, dd_b hit on part of what I've been meaning to say about Michael Crichton for weeks now: "Don't assume your audience is ignorant of the source material you're working from." In fact, I would just say, "Don't rely on your audience's ignorance." And here's where the comparison to scalzi comes into play.

Scalzi has talked about writing gateway drugs SF (not to be confused with Gateway SF, but Scalzi is hard to confuse with Pohl no matter how hard you squint). He doesn't assume that his reader has run into the tropes and trappings before. He explains how they're getting into space, doesn't just make a single reference and hope the reader has already hit the four pages of exposition somewhere else. People who know how it goes can sing along on the choruses -- it's not painful exposition -- but it's there.

In Timeline -- which I started reading because my grandpa wanted me to, and I'm going to make him read Doomsday Book or at least To Say Nothing of the Dog -- Michael Crichton assumes that the reader has never heard of quantum computing. Assumes that he can just say that no one ever thought of it between Feynman and his brilliant character. Assumes that his reader doesn't live in a world where you can't swing a cat by the tail without thumping into someone who's babbling about quantum computing again. And the difference between not assuming your readers know and assuming they don't comes into sharp relief. Crichton spent at least the first 75 pages of that book (I didn't read further) holding our hands and patting us on the shoulder, saying, "There, there, dears, it's weird but it's not that weird. Don't trouble yourself. Be calm. Everything else is normal in every regard." Which made me want to fling the book across the room (only I was reading in the car, so that would have been a bad idea). Which made me put it down permanently. Which made me strongly suspect that, time travel or not, this was not SF. If genre is a big set of conversations, scalzi is showing the newcomer that the drinks are in the bathtub and explaining the joke X is telling about Y. Michael Crichton is standing outside with his hands over his ears, shouting, "Nothing to see here! No party whatsoever! And it certainly wouldn't be interesting if there was!"

No more Crichton for me.

I was thinking about assuming your readers don't know something when one of my actual friends on the friendslist mentioned a rejection he got, telling him his story was pointless and derivative of an author he'd never even heard of. Now, because of my faith in the f'list, I'm assuming that the editor in question simply didn't appreciate the genuine ways in which the story was unique and point-ful, and further that my friend has read a good deal in the genre and is not neglecting his research. So the following is not directed at him, just triggered by his comment.

I think it's entirely possible to read as derivative of something you've never heard of. I also think that for the reader, that state is indistinguishable from actually being derivative of whatever-it-is. I don't care if you've never read a word of Joe Haldeman -- I will still roll my eyes and mutter, "Forever War ripoff" if your book reads that way to me. It is not my job as the reader to avoid reading things if you, the writer, want to write similar things later. It is my job as the writer to make sure I've poked around when I'm starting a novel, asking people who know more or different corners of the genre than I do, "Hey, what's out there with Finnish myths in it? What's been done with early computing? Who's doing spy books?"

The reader -- the editor and the agent are just specialized versions of the reader in this regard -- will have gotten there first. You can guarantee (especially in this genre) that someone will know about what you're trying to talk about. If you read what's out there, you know how to avoid looking derivative. That may mean that you turn backflips in your synopsis and your first few chapters to show that you know someone else has dealt with this theme but you're doing it differently. It may mean that you have to toss out something you really liked because it was just too similar in a book full of similarities. It may mean that you make a small, clear homage where you're playing with themes someone else has used more famously. But you can't assume the reader won't know, so you have to know, too. Because we don't work in a field that relies on ignorance, and thank God for that.

[User Picture]From: oracne
2005-08-31 01:25 pm (UTC)
It is quite another to actually hear from them that they are safe in northern Alabama.

Sing it, Amen.
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[User Picture]From: songwind
2005-08-31 01:31 pm (UTC)
Crichton has migrated into my "used to be good" pile, really. Andromeda Strain and even Jurassic Park were better than the more recent stuff by him that I've read.

I read all of Timeline, and I noticed his vague handwaving about the tech, but the characters were interesting at least. :)

Failing red wine or port, she seems to think a nice dark beer would help me immensely.
La, I am reminded of Dr. Maturin and his prescription of Porter for Sophia. :)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-08-31 05:44 pm (UTC)
Like my auntie and Dr. Maturin, lydy has brought it up more than once. The difference is that Lydy seems to be joking.

And really -- well, hmm. How far into that series are you? Spoilers assiduously avoided and all that.
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From: ellameena
2005-08-31 01:33 pm (UTC)
There's a fine line between being derivitive and building on what has come before, as well. And mostly that line is in the reader's head. I'm having a heck of a time with my current work in progress, because my readers keep complaining it's too much like The Matrix. In fact, it's *nothing* like The Matrix, but certain words set them off. Like the word "agent." It's a valid computational term, and one that I sort of need to use. But using it makes my readers think I'm ripping off a popular movie. One way I'm trying to get around this is by moving my scenes around so that the parts that look radically different from The Matrix come right up at the beginning, so that I can point at them and say, "Look, reader, this is a completely different story than you thought. Can you cut me a little slack now to fill you in on the backstory?"

The other thing is that people *love* The Matrix. It's one of my favorite movies. Audiences eat this stuff up. They *want* more of it, but they don't want it to look imitative. Bottom line--as writers, we *need* to recycle material, and rip it off, even. But our readers have tolerances we need to respect. Write something too radically different from what has come before, and no one can comprehend it. Write something too similar, and you're too transparently "stealing." The problem with John Grisham is that he's not part of the conversation, and neither are his readers. It's too bad he's reinventing the wheel, but I guess people will still read his stuff.

By the way, my story deals with quantum computing. What level of detail do you think is appropriate for SF readers? I also need to cover digital evolution. Those two subjects alone could fill up ten thousand words, and I'd still need to write my story. Before I started this story, I didn't know much about quantum computing. I think as a reader I would need some kind of justification as to why it's so much faster and specialer than regular computing--but not a lot. Say, a recap, maybe.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-08-31 05:51 pm (UTC)
I think explaining quantum computing is entirely reasonable and a good idea. I think that assuming your readers definitely don't know anything about quantum computing so you can tell them any old thing you feel like is a very bad idea. But I wouldn't expect that you would do the latter anyway.

And that's exactly what I meant: you can't undo the popularity of the Matrix movies. So as the writer you have to find some way to show the reader that you're doing something else. And you're doing that instead of just pouting about stupid people who watch movies. Go you.
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[User Picture]From: copperwise
2005-08-31 02:02 pm (UTC)
Assuming your audience is entirely ignorant of the subject matter leads to infodumping. To me, the best writers work all the necessary information into the details, a little here, a little there, so that even if I'm ignorant I learn as I go and the big picture develops in my mind. It's often quite a nice surprise to find a situation on page 100 that makes perfect sense because of the dribs and drabs of information that have been coming along the whole time.

And your David Morgan drinking aunt completely cracked me up for an entirely private joke type reason: at my last job I worked with a David Morgan, who was a strict teetotalling converted Muslim.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-08-31 07:44 pm (UTC)
I think infodumps are overly, um, dumped on. I like incluing -- don't get me wrong. And I like dribbling information out to the reader slowly sometimes, because I'm a horrible mean bitchy writer. But I also think there is a time and place to just say, "Here's where we are and what we're doing." Bad incluing is much, much worse than a nice, concise infodump.
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[User Picture]From: gaaldine
2005-08-31 03:14 pm (UTC)
Have I told you the story of my teaching Michael Crichton? It was for my "journaling" course. I had the students read tons of journals, blogs, travel journals, etc. While I was investigating more modern travel narrative or journal sources to use, I discovered that Crichton had a book on his travels, simply called Travels. I decided it would make an interesting comparison, and a good way to demonstrate to doubting freshmen that people today -- and people they've heard of today -- do indeed still keep such things as a travel journal. As a result of a photocopying error, the selections I gave them to read omitted much of his misogyny, but there were still moments of not-so-great writing and a very notable dubious moral situation. I was therefore completely at a loss when first.) my students determined that this was the best thing they had read the entire semester and the whole academic year/their college career and second.) when they completely couldn't see the dubious morality. In Travels he speaks of visiting Thailand, and of going with a friend and an acquaintance to a brothel. The latter individual really wanted to impress Crichton and his friend, so he kept suggesting more and more extreme possibilities, culminating in their going out and searching for children -- very young girls -- at this brothel. This made Crichton and his friend uncomfortable, and so they -- after much delaying and many displays of bravado -- eventually extricated themselves in a way that allowed them to "save face," seeming uninterested just then rather than afraid of/bothered by the fact that young girls would be involved. So, they sat outside, smoked cigarettes, etc., while waiting for their friend/acquaintance to do whatever he was doing with the children in the brothel. They never once tried to dissuade their friend, or directly admitted any discomfort with the situation, or criticized it in any way -- and Crichton doesn't even offer any criticism of it in Travels. It is presented as just another one of the many wonderful -- "wonder" often being key -- experiences he has had in his life and in his various travels. And my students didn't see any moral questions arising from this situation, or have any concerns or questions regarding Crichton's or his friend's or acquaintance's actions. Crichton was free of any responsibility in their minds, and if I'm remembering properly, there was also a sense of "that is just how things are done in other countries" present in the classroom. I would have even been okay with some sort of discussion of there being nothing Crichton could have done to dissuade the acquaintance in that situation, or at least he didn't "partake" of the girls himself. But they didn't even offer that -- they just simply didn't see what the problem, or potential problem, was. It was one of my most horrifying teaching experiences.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2005-08-31 03:32 pm (UTC)
Ack. That sounds genuinely awful. Did you ever manage to get any of them to see what you were driving at, or did they just sit there staring at you in confusion?
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[User Picture]From: mmerriam
2005-08-31 03:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks for having faith!

The first time I heard mention of this writer who I am apparently derivative of was at CONvergence, and I remember think, "hmm, I need to go read that." Unfortunately I still haven't. I do try to stay up to date on what's current in my field, and do my research, but I find myself falling farther and farther behind in reading current works simply because of time. I was once able to snarf down an average sized novel in a day or two of solid reading, four is I was being leisurely, but now it's much harder. Most new SF&F cannot be found in audio or large print format, unless the author is one of the "big names," most of whom I don't like much anyway. Reading standard print get tiring rather quickly.

In the editor being's defense, he did say the writing was good, so at least I got a crumb tossed my way.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2005-08-31 05:51 pm (UTC)
Much of the best SF isn't primarily noteworthy for *new* stuff anyway; the best example being pretty much the entire works of Robert A. Heinlein. Seems to me he's the consumate *realizer* of good ideas, and he often combines them in new ways, and thinks them through more thoroughly. But he doesn't come up with particularly striking amounts of completely new stuff.

It may well be that, if you were aware of the other work yours is similar to, you could make modest changes to become 'another take on x' instead of 'derivative of x'.
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[User Picture]From: seagrit
2005-08-31 03:46 pm (UTC)
It occurs to me that this is a rather large difference between our two occupations. You don't rely on ignorance, and you expect that people reading your stories have some minimum amount of background knowledge. I have come to expect (and account for) ignorance all over the place.

That's one of the things that I noticed almost immediately when I stopped writing programs for CS classes, and started writing them for people, that if there's even a slight chance that someone using my report or form or screen will enter something wrong, I need to code around it, or not allow it. I needed to start adding things like enforcing capital letters (or converting input to capitals) when they are required, checking to make sure they entered a number in the correct range, or making sure the date is in the right format. Even if the person using my program isn't scared of computers, they could have problems with typos or expect the program to work differently that it does.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2005-08-31 04:02 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry to say that, taken as a broad generalization, I agree with seagrit. Within a narrow peer group (that is to say, within whatever geekdom we happen to be discussing at the moment) I assume that people have the Background Knowledge, and that they don't need everything spelled out for them, and that in fact spelling it out for them will only annoy and bore them. But outside whatever that geekdom is, I assume that people know nothing about the topic and I am usually correct to do so. In short I rely on ignorance.

You're right, Crichton is not an SF writer. He is attempting to bring SF themes to the mainstream audience - actually, no, I will be cruder and meaner than that: He is attempting to bring SF themes to the Danielle Steele and John Grisham crowd. It's a very different audience.

Now, mind you, I ain't defending Crichton. His various -isms have already been well-noted, and frankly I just don't think he writes very well. Unfortunately he doesn't HAVE to. Just as Dan Brown is Iain Pears without the brain or the writing ability, Crichton is for people who don't know they can get the same themes (particularly the "oh, technology beyond a certain level of complexity will eventually fail catastrophically when paired with human stupidity and greed and destroy us all!" classic) done MUCH better by a long list of vastly more talented people. But that's his niche, y'know? And I'm sorry to say that I don't think Crichton's intended audience will read the better books even if they are led by the nose, just like I don't honestly think I'm going to get an Angels and Demons fan to go read An Instance of the Fingerpost (I'll be doing well if I can get them to read The Name of the Rose).
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From: jsgbits
2005-08-31 03:52 pm (UTC)
Yes yes, there's a difference between writing infodumps and showing the reader a particular piece of information to help fill in the world and the rest of the story. The key is balance--just enough information for a reader with knowledge to go ::nodnod:: and a reader without a clue to go ::nod okay, I'm along for this ride::

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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-31 10:35 pm (UTC)

A way with info dumps...

My personal preference when info dumping (reading or writing) is to either make it part of the discovery or part of a conversation. It seems to work in more naturally and people sometimes don't even realizing that you are dumping info on them. -- chris@tchansen.org
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[User Picture]From: nycshelly
2005-08-31 03:54 pm (UTC)
Wrote a long comment, realized I'd made a booboo (I call such things middle-aged moments), copied what I wanted to keep, went to recomment and found I'd lost the whole thing. Argh. Wish we could just edit comments.

The gist of my point is that I enjoyed Timeline and Jurassic Park for that matter. I don't usually notice derivative or genre. They're just labels. I suspend disbelief easily and it takes a lot to throw me out of a book so much that it rarely happens to me. I think every book at some level is derivative and if it's still well written and an editor thinks it will be of interest to sufficient book buyers, they'll likely publish it.

Because what's derivative to one reader will be fresh to another and will be simply entertaining to a third who might enjoy sticking with similar and comfortable. Or be like me, somewhere in the middle, simply not caring. I just want to be entertained. If the characters and writing appeal to me, I'm hooked.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-08-31 07:53 pm (UTC)
I still think it's a bad idea for a writer to rely on the reader's ignorance for the hook. Writers can write interesting characters and good prose and still be doing something new with their ideas. (Frankly, if I'd thought Timeline had interesting characters and good prose, the whole thing would have bothered me much less.) It sounds to me like you're saying that writers can get away with doing a shoddy job. Sure, sometimes they can. But I certainly don't advocate it.
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[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2005-08-31 04:17 pm (UTC)
Gateway SF strikes me as all well and good in principle, though it's not something I personally am liable to seek out at this point; my problem is when people use it as an excuse for clunky great infodumps, or more insidiously for dropping in characters from other disciplines, or other cultures, or cute kids, as a reader stand-in to whom there is an excuse to stop and explain things.

The thing that really irks me about the Michael Crichton genre is that the cool dinosaurs/alien artifacts/whatever being a) axiomatically A Threat and b) all blown up in a series of explosions at the end. Except occasionally one escapes in order for there to be a sequel. No long-term consequences.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-08-31 08:03 pm (UTC)
Yes, the whole outlook of the Crichton stuff is disturbing.

I have something that could be considered a reader stand-in character in one of my books, but things hardly ever stop for her to figure them out, poor dear.
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[User Picture]From: greatestofnates
2005-08-31 05:35 pm (UTC)
What about people that read a derivative work before the whatever-it-is derived from? I sheepishly admit to reading some Shadowrun gaming novels. Later I read some stuff by Gibson. Pretty much everything in Neuromancer was lifted into Shadowrun (except the writing style).

ps. hope things are going better for you (soon).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-08-31 08:05 pm (UTC)
PS first: thanks, Yore.

Anyway, I read an article -- I think it was an interview with Jane Yolen -- where some kid wrote to her that she'd read Wizard's Hall and thought Yolen had "copied off of" Harry Potter until her teacher told her to look at the copyright date. Sad for her!
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[User Picture]From: tsennyipa
2005-08-31 06:16 pm (UTC)

Look at the copyright date...

You are right that at this moment you can't swing a cat without running into a quantum computing researcher (well, okay, that's a *bit* of an exaggeration). But when Crichton *wrote* the book, quantum computing was *really* bleeding edge, and in that context it's not completely unreasonable that he wrote about it the way he did, although frankly I found the tech pretty implausible anyway.

I have to say that I enjoyed the book. For better or for worse, you can get Crichton's books in the airport, which at many airports is not true of, say, John Scalzi's books, more's the pity. So when you're desperate for something to read, it does the job. Unfortunately, the long tail hasn't hit the airport bookstore yet.

As for the moral issue, that's really yucky. OTOH, the honesty is refreshing. By writing what he did, you now have something you can point at and debate, which seems like very valuable grist for the philosophy class mill. You might check out Pico Iyer as well - he writes about similar things, but with a little more introspection.
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[User Picture]From: scalzi
2005-08-31 06:27 pm (UTC)

Re: Look at the copyright date...

"For better or for worse, you can get Crichton's books in the airport, which at many airports is not true of, say, John Scalzi's books, more's the pity."

Yes. More's the pity, indeed.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-08-31 08:01 pm (UTC)
When I talk to people who haven't been to Minneapolis, I ask, "Have you read War for the Oaks?" And when they say yes (because in my social circles, they almost always say yes), I say, "That's my city. That's where I live. N years later, but still: it's really like that." And they go, "Ohhhhh."

Anyway, I think the premise thing is true if by unfamiliar readers you mean unfamiliar but not hostile readers. There is no way I could describe someone else's fantasy novel to interest my grandmother. She just doesn't like fantasy, period and full stop, and that's okay. No book is for every person. (She's interested in mine in roughly the same way as she was interested in my fingerpaintings: "Oh, sweetie, you did that yourself?" But other people don't get the same leeway.)
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[User Picture]From: scott_lynch
2005-08-31 08:34 pm (UTC)
The trouble with Crichton is that he writes pop science thrillers to a formula that is pretty much anti-science fiction. Science fiction is often (all of this is IMHO) incorrectly described as a literature obsessed with the mechanisms of change-- the doodads, devices, and maguffins-- when it is more properly described as a literature of the consequences of technological change. I often use the term "literature of consequences" as my catch-all description of what I think science fiction is or should be (although squid in space with ray guns are a close second, natch).

Crichton tends to keep his focus squarely on the mechanism, and after he's fiddled with it a bit, he doesn't extrapolate anything from it.

Sphere, The Andromeda Strain, Swarm... they all have the same basic plot. Something Big and Dangerous and World-Changing is postulated. A small group of people deals with it directly, keeping it under wraps. At the end of the book, a deus ex bullshit comes along and negates the threat. Nothing actually changes.

The only genuine work of science fiction I've ever read from him is Jurassic Park, wherein the genie stays out of the bottle at the end of the book. Packs of carnivorous dinosaurs escape from the island, make it to the mainland, and begin to flourish and reproduce. The consequences of the science in the story persist... and I think it's a really brilliant novel, to boot. I really cherish that book, and I wish it were his rule rather than his exception.

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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-31 08:54 pm (UTC)
I've never considered Crichton's books SF. I think of them as scientific thrillers. Doesn't matter that they might use SF settings or constructs. They're thrillers at heart, or so were the two I read, Jurassic Park and Timeline.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-09-01 12:21 am (UTC)

Scalzi vs. Crichton

I read both Old Man's War as well as Timeline, and generally liked them both. Crichton's most recent book, State of Fear, goes into WAY too much scientific detail, but I didn't think that Timeline was so bad in this respect.

I have to second the other reader's opinion: Crichton is not science fiction--his books are thrillers with speculative elements. I personally prefered Timeline to Old Man's War, but I generally don't read that much "hardcore" science fiction. I suppose it is a matter of preference.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-09-01 12:25 am (UTC)

Re: Scalzi vs. Crichton

It's not the quantity of Crichton's scientific detail that forms the most basic problem for me but the quality, o anonymous poster.
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[User Picture]From: madwriter
2005-09-01 01:23 am (UTC)
Crichton is at the top of my list of people I think of when I ponder of authors who have never read SF and then write a speculative novel they think is cool and original, but really only retreads themes that veteran SF readers are long familiar with.
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[User Picture]From: firebyrd
2005-09-01 02:42 am (UTC)
I swear, all of Michael Crichton's books can be summed up as: everything bad that happens comes from big business, science, or aliens. Sphere even has bits all three.

That said, I do still enjoy Jurassic Park and Disclosure was pretty interesting.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2005-09-01 12:27 pm (UTC)
And I like science and aliens, is the problem.
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[User Picture]From: seawasp
2005-09-01 02:18 pm (UTC)


... I consider Crichton an SF writer. He fulfills what is to me a sufficient, though not necessary, condition of SF writing: he uses a scientific idea or approach to drive the entire story. He says "Here's this scientific possibility. If it was realized in THIS way, then HERE is the story of what could happen."

I also consider him a BAD SF writer, because most of the time he demonstrates that he has only the most superficial understanding of the subject. I don't mind when the author is clearly an amateur and getting SOME things wrong; let's face it, I'll have to do that in many books if I have to address more than one science (and I do, in fact, have to do that precarious balancing act in Boundary. However, I DO care when it's clear that the writer thinks that throwing around two or three buzzwords is sufficient to convince me that he knows something, especially when he then goes ahead and proves that he knows nothing.

In this sense, Crichton is abominable as a writer. Several people here have praised Jurassic Park, but it's actually an example of his most reprehensible work: he throws a couple of "Chaos Theory" buzzwords in and then pretends that "Chaos Theory" forces the failure of Jurassic Park, rather than the fact that the Author Ex Machina had to almost literally bend over backwards to set up a situation in which it COULD fail.

Clive Cussler, by contrast, screws up his science at least as bad as Crichton... but he doesn't do so in a way that's CONTEMPTUOUS of his material. He is clearly just having a blast writing the story, and has no axes to grind. He also tries to be much more CONSISTENT than Crichton is; he may have some ludicrous "science" happening, but once he establishes it he follows it (within that book; one thing he -- and MANY other writers -- does that annoys me is that he fails to continue to extrapolate the consequences of events in a series of books). He also tends to keep his main character from having to DIRECTLY deal with the science, keeping us mostly from having to confront the idiocy. Crichton, alas, often has the proponent OF the idiocy be center stage and viewpoint.

SF can be a label, and often is used that way by publishers, but I think as a broad category there are some fairly good ways to define it. Not to EXCLUSIVELY define it -- that is, to make sure that there's no other category into which the work in question would fall -- but to inclusively define it.

Insofar as derivation, of course it's all derivative. I'm on record as saying that everything I write, including my published original work, amounts to nothing more or less than fanfic. It's just that sometimes we can file the serial numbers off better than in other cases.
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