HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION: Lesson 7: “Aristotle was a Hack”

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Welcome to our ongoing series of tips on how to write Science Fiction. I’m not a professional writer, and it’s doubtful that I have anything of any merit to teach you, but I am arrogant enough to try. Anything I say here should be taken as the braying of a jackass, and not as authoritative advice. I’m just saying what’s worked for me.

Feel free to ask questions or make comments below. If something requires expansion or explanation, or just rambling wise-ass comments, I’ll be happy to do it.

LESSON # 7: Aristotle was a Hack.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) is considered by many to be the epitome of classical Greek philosophers. A student of Plato, teacher of Alexander the Great, he lectured and wrote pretty much endlessly on any topic that crossed his facile mind. He was venerated as a genius in his own time, much like Shecky Greene, and many of his random off-the-cuff bon mots ended up shaping society, thought, art, and even religion millennia after he kacked. Medieval doofuses adored him, many of the more confusing aspects of the Renaissance revolved around trying to reconcile the neato keeno things science was discovering with the universally-accepted things that Aristotle would rattle off while buying groceries from the Hoggly Woggly, or arguing over how much of the much of the dinner tab was his, because, dammit man, he only had the salad! Meanwhile, Antipater ate a freakin’ horse, I mean, just look at the guy! Seriously. Anyway, from his day to our own, Aristotle has universally been recognized as an almost sacred personification of truth and wisdom, despite the fact that he is frequently full of crap.

It wasn’t until the time of Newton (1643 - 1724) that people finally started admitting this. He promoted slavery, he thought that inventions preceded ideas (IE: The concept of pictures only existed after the invention of the movie), he’s kind of renowned for straw man arguments that everyone just kind of goes along with (“Modal logic”), he claimed science involved observation, but his observations were so amazingly halfassed as to be completely useless: The guy claimed that women had twice as many teeth as men, but it never occurred to him to count (And unlike most of his peers, he actually dug chicks, so he had the opportunity), and he insisted that the brain was simply a radiator to cool the body, while all thinking took place in the heart. (Nowadays, scientifically speaking, we know that thought takes place in the ass) It’s like he was a that drunken, mumbling, three-toothed guy in the park who just rambles for days on end, and yet people believed him for some reason. And he got away with this, and kept corrupting people with his stupendous idiocy for Twenty-One Hundred Years! If for no other reason, the Protestant Reformation was justified simply because it let us put that kind of crap behind us.

Now, the aspect of this that concerns us - beyond the fact that it’s just kind of fun to throw stones at venerated halfwits - is in his theories on art. He came up with some storytelling rules (I imagine this happening after he was so drunk he couldn’t follow the plot of an episode of The Love Boat) that could not, should not, would not be violated:

1) A play may only have one location.
2) Plays should take place in real time.
2A) If it is not possible to have a real-time play, the events depicted should never take place over more than one day
3) No subplots, side stories, conversations, subtext, or references are allowed: Everything must only relate to the main plot.
4) As little exciting stuff as possible should take place on stage. A fight, or a death is allowable, as is some smooching and the occasional crane lowering people on to the stage, but really, plays aren’t supposed to be about excitement.
5) Tell, don’t show: All the big exciting stuff should happen off stage, and be related in exposition by the characters on stage.

Now, if we were to follow the Aristotelian Unities for, say, Star Wars, it would look something like this:


YODA: “Don’t go, Luke, bad things will happen.”
LUKE: “But I must.” [Exit stage left]
[Thirty seconds pass]
LUKE [Enters stage right]: “Well, that sucked!”
YODA: “Told ya. Now I must die for no adequately explained reason”
BEN [Lowered on crane]: “Good night, everybody, don’t forget to tip your waitresses! They’re topheavy, they go right over! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! I kid, I kid, I kid because I love. But seriously, Thessalonican audiences are the best audiences, we love you guys!”

Then Georgeopolis Lucopioles would come out and tell how he was hard at work on a sequel that would be ready in three years, and promise “It will involve even more talking and randomly pointing at things!”

To be fair, Aristotle was talking about plays, but over time this got expanded to literature as well. You want to know why Shakespeare is a hero in my book? It wasn’t that he wrote plays (Though he was good at that, maybe even better than Bill McGonagall), but because he was the first person to just ignore this crap and tell a good story.

All of which is my laborious (But kinda’ funny) way of establishing my point:

There ain’t no rules.

Yeah, sure, there’s lots of authorities telling you what proper form is, how you should do things, how you shouldn’t do things, and there’s lots of official dogma they can site to support their position, and sometimes, sometimes, sometimes they’re even right. But when they are, it’s a matter of coincidence, rather than an immutable law of nature. When I wrote “The Truth about Lions and Lambs,” I went out of my way to include several things that my protagonist specifically didn’t notice, but which I wanted the audience to know as a form of foreshadowing that something weird was afoot. My proofreader took massive exception to this. He and I went around and around and around, saying that you couldn’t do that, and ultimately his arguments all went back to Aristotle (Whereas my reasoning for doing so had more to do with Chekov). Of course movies do this sort of thing all the time, but he insisted I was wrong and should take it out. Would that make the story less creepy? Well, yeah, but it would also make it more artistically correct.

Screw artistic correctness! Art is a brick thrown through the window of your heart, to paraphrase Kafka. If I’m writing an emotional story, I want to make an emotional impact, and if I’m willing to hold off that for fear of offending the weird veneration pretentious people have for some old dead dude who couldn’t tell a story to save his ass, then clearly I’m not much of an author, am I? There are no hard and fast rules, and the story dictates it’s own needs. If we follow the prescribed way of doing things, then all plays and films and TV shows would look like “Waiting for Godot.” If we allow the closed-minded rules of the stodgy 17th century neoclassical movement to shape our stories, then we’re not making the fullest use of our stories.

I’m not saying these things aren’t useful tools at times - I happen to like “Waiting for Godot,” and “Twelve Angry Men” is pretty good, too - but they are tools, so don’t let them straight jacket you. Twain used colloquial speech in his stories, Calvino wrote “If on a Winter’s Night” in second person, mostly. Bradbury had a highly impressionistic style of storytelling, Kafka deliberately defied any logical resolution to his tales, Dick used Science Fiction as a way to explore his evolving religious visions, Nietzsche used stories to get across complex and disturbing philosophy in an elegant, understandable fashion, there are a million billion jillion ways you can tell a story, and there is only one guiding principle, and it is this:

If people can understand you, you did it right.

Conversely, if people can’t understand you, you did it wrong, so go back and fix it. But if you got across the idea you wanted to get across in a memorable and entertaining fashion, you did it right. You get extra points for doing it elegantly, but seriously: screw the rules. Rules are for maiden aunts and prim grammar teachers looking to justify their own employment. Screw the rules, tell your story. Can people understand you? Yes?

Congratulations, my friend, you're a writer.