Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] Slamming the doors on your spaceship

I have this whole theory about the non-normative nature of the science fiction genre and its transformational narratives. Luckily for you, I'm not going to talk about that in this blog post. Not much, at any rate. (Ask me some other time.) A somewhat more plain-English way of articulating one of the key concepts behind that theory is to say that most of us read science fiction to experience something meaningfully different than what we find in our everyday lives.

One of the signature fillips in the original Star Trek was the doors on the starship Enterprise. It's hard to remember this now, but when Star Trek went on the air in 1966, those automatic doors we're all so used to at every grocery store and whatnot basically didn't exist. The bridge doors sliding open and shut with a "schmuck" sound behind Shatner's every entrance were very, very strange. Different. A simple signifier of a bold, new world. (We saw an attempt to recapture that sensibility in Deep Space Nine with those weird rolling cogwheel doors.)


In a similar vein, a very common narrative trope in science fiction is that future spaceship operations will have their roots in naval tradition. So, for example, almost all spaceship or starship crews seem to follow naval or merchant marine ranks. Ships have "hatches" instead of "doors", "decks" instead of "floors", which is often reflected in science fiction usage. Less often but still common are usages such as "overhead" for "ceiling", "bulkhead" for "wall" and "passageway" for "hallway" or "corridor". This is both part of how we've been trained to think about spaceships in our narratives, and part of making things in the narrative feel just a little different, an echo of the frisson we got from the original Star Trek's bridge design.

Lately I've been doing a fair amount of workshop critique reading for various events, and as happens anytime one reads a number of manuscripts, certain coincidental trends emerge. In this case, it's writers setting stories on space stations or spaceships where the interior fittings are described with common architectural terminology. This bothers me vaguely based on my lifelong training as a genre reader, as well as the sensibilities I've evolved as a genre writer these past two decades and more.

I really can argue this both ways quite readily. Part of the challenge of making the unfamiliar feel real in fiction is leaving in enough bits of naturalistic reality that the reader can follow along with the adjustments in reality that the story offers. (Oddly, [info]the_child and I were discussing precisely this point a day or two ago in a slightly different context.) This is the source of that piece of genre writerly folk wisdom that says you get to do one impossible thing for free in your story. If you change everything at once, the story becomes incomprehensible.

In other words, having people on spaceships live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings keeps the reader from being distracted by wondering what the hell an "overhead" is, when that's not the point of the story. At the same time, people who live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings may as well be hanging around in my house. It doesn't feel different.

And different is what science fiction is all about.

Still, I can forgive this in pursuit of the story. Every writer has their own vision of how the narrative should flow. Every writer's vision evolves.

But I really, truly draw the line at slamming the doors on your spaceship. That whole concept is so predicated on contemporary Western interior design, and echoes strongly of teen tantrums and relationship spats. It makes all the sense in the world in a romance novel taking place in a naturalistic contemporary setting for the protagonist to slam a door. That's an emotional signifier and a familiar action. But damn it, I want my spaceship doors to go "schmuck", or dilate, or hiss gently into the walls, or dematerialize, or at the least clang ponderously. I don't want them to be slammed.

There's a fine line between the familiar and the banal. For good science fiction to work, you really need to keep on the right side of it. Otherwise you're missing the whole point of the genre, methinks.

Do the doors slam on your spaceship?

Tags: child, conventions, process, writing
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