On the other hand, if on the first page of a book I read "jump-ship", "holoscreen", "phaser", "air-lock" all I see in my head is vague grey shapes. How big is the jump ship? What colour are the uniforms? Where in space are we? What time period? What will the phaser do to someone and what the bally dickens is a holoscreen?
As most of you know, I've started reading sci-fi recently: some Lois McMaster Bujold, Orson Scott Card and so on. It's very exciting as there's a whole new genre for me to explore. I've always been fond of sci-fi television shows and movies such as Doctor Who, Sliders, Earth 2, Battlestar Galactica and most recently V (V is so freaking awesome. More please!); the Aliens films, Event Horizon, Contact, Moon and so on. I expected that making the switch from sci-fi visual media to books would be easy as pie, but not so. I'm rather lost. The problem seems to be that authors assume that the person reading their book has read hundreds of sci-fi books before picking up theirs and they only need to drop one or two descriptive words so the reader can retrieve right sort of sci-fi setting in their mind. Um, not this little black duck. But not only that--I'm used to dealing with settings of a few hundred or thousand miles square like those in fantasy novels, not multi-planet systems and deep space. The size of things and their relation to one another is critical to my understanding and enjoyment. If the MCs travel from Vertlop to Pillon 5 by jump ship, I'd like to know, for example:
- Where the two planets are in relation to one another; the distance between them; their size; their atmosphere/population/composition/social organisation etc.
- What a jump ship looks like/how big it is/how it works/the sounds and sights that the crew will hear/how long it will take
- Where the crew sits/what they're doing while on board/what their uniforms look like and so on and so on.
I think I find myself lost when reading sci-fi compared to fantasy because so much of a sci-fi setting is man-made and extra-terrestrial (ie. not of Earth). Fantasy, on the other hand, is often set in Earth-like places with historical structures, ie. the castle in a psuedo-medieval setting. Add some magic and robes and other trimmings and we're done. But battle rooms and space stations and holoscreens, they either don't exist or very few people have seen them up close. No one has been past an asteroid belt, or seen the dark side of the moon (actually someone has seen this!), or skimmed the rings of Saturn in a space ship. All these are very interesting things and places and I would love to be taken there in a book, but I need to know what they look like. If I don't, I can't imagine it and the book just flops.
I imagine my current experience would be similar to a teenager's: they won't have read hundreds of sci-fi books either; Ender's Game, for example, might be the first book of its type that they pick up. (I don't have many gripes about setting in Ender's Game, by the way, but it would have been nice to know what the human's space station was orbiting, what colour the flash suits were and a little about the bugger system. But this stuff wasn't critical to understanding; it would just have been interesting to know.) The only assumption a young adult author writing sci-fi should make about their audience, then, is that this is probably the first, or one of the first, books of its type that a given reader is picking up. Therefore, setting is critical. I've read one sci-fi book that didn't even bother to tell the reader if, in this universe, Earth exists, how far away it is and what time period it's currently at. Maybe I'm a high-maintenance reader but I think this information is important.
Consider if Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn series, had assumed that all her readers were familiar with The Chrysalids by John Wyndham and Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien, two key post-nuclear apocalypse books for young adults, and had also lived through the Cold War--as she had. She wouldn't need to talk in detail about the wide-scale destruction of nuclear war, the mutations caused and the threat of the rediscovery of the war machines. Obernewtyn was written at the tail end of the Cold War, but one of the reasons it's still so popular today (and when I was a teenager) is because you don't have to know anything about the threat of nuclear war to understand the book. Carmody includes everything you need to know in her descriptions of the setting.
Last week I read Alien Secrets by Annette Curtis Klause, a middle-grade novel from 1993.
Puck, expelled from boarding school on Earth, is on her way to stay with her parents on the planet Shoon. On board the spaceship she befriends Hush, a native Shoowa who is also returning home in shame. He is desperately seeking a stolen treasure that was entrusted to him, a symbol of freedom for his people.
Puck and Hush must find the precious Soo before they reach Shoon. But who can they trust? And how will they save their own skins as they hurtle through space on a ship haunted by terrifying ghosts?
This shall suffice as my review: it wasn't a very good book, but kudos for the cute cats and the setting. Klause gets her characters onto a space station from which their jump ship is launched (Card points out in How to Write Sci-fiction and Fantasy that this is a fuel-effective way to launch as the ship is already in space and just needs a wee push to get it going); then they fly along for a while before making the jump into hyperspace. The jumps themselves are critical to the story and Klause gives quite a lovely description of the mechanism:
"And this is the place where our jumps are co-ordinated," the captain said. "The nerve center for hyperspace navigation."
They were in front of a raised dais that held a heavily padded chair fronted by a wall of instruments that gently curved toward the seat. The arms of the chair were studded with controls.
"The hyperspace navigator negotiates the jump from here," the captain explained. "It's a delicate operation that requires vast skill and intense concentration. During the jump a force field is generated to protect the navigator from distraction ..."
"Where does he see hyperspace?" Puck asked ...
Then there's some more description and explanation, and later in the book a description of what it's like for a jump pilot in hyperspace. I could "see" everything and didn't get confused once. (Though I did get rather bored and I don't recommend this book.)
I think that making assumptions about audience is something young adult authors in particular should be careful about, whether you're writing sci-fi or fantasy or even contemporary realism. By mere fact of their age, readers will not have read as broadly as an adult. By no means should concepts be dumbed down or eliminated; but it's important to consider how they are presented.