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On Writing Techno-thrillers - Can Readers Suspend Belief?
Science Fiction or Science Faction
Here I’m not going to discuss literary fiction - such as written by Ian McKeown or V S Naipaul; I’m discussing
thrillers, specifically techno-thrillers. Now, you might think immediately of Tom Clancy, or maybe Craig Thomas,
but Patricia Cornwell is also, to me, a techno-thriller writer. When I read Cornwell, I believe pretty much
everything - she was a medical examiner and knows bodies inside out. Clancy or Thomas though?
Certainly their work is plausible, even when
Thomas invented a new Russian plane, in Firefox, it
was fairly credible to me.
If we look at the work of someone like Colin Dexter (who wrote the Morse series of detective stories), each tale is
well written and credible, but the context - which makes Oxford the murder capital of England - is perhaps a
stretch too far. Nevertheless each story is holistic and credible in its own right. It’s not in the techno-thriller
genre, but you get the point, I hope.
To what degree do you suspend belief when you read these works, and as a writer, what would you expect of your
readers? My academic background is physics and oceanography, and I did find some of Clancy’s writing hard to
swallow when I read it first, but I still enjoyed it. When he is developing his franchise with other authors in his
later books, the stories, to me, become less credible.
Now, there are techno-thriller writers, very successful ones, whose work I cannot read. Some of it is down to
style, and some to content. I cannot suspend belief, even when the storyline is all action and racing along.
When techno-thrillers are set well into the future, they become science fiction. To me, science fiction invents new
technologies - for example a black hole interstellar drive for a spaceship. I argue that in between
techno-thrillers and science fiction, there is a genre which we could call science-faction. This projects existing
technology (or tech that is just being developed), into the near future. It is on the edge of credibility.
This is where I would pitch some of Arthur C Clarke’s work. With his prediction of earth-orbiting satellites he was
just ahead of the curve.
So, when I wrote ‘Gate of Tears’ - and I classify my work as science faction - I looked a little ahead into the
future, projecting existing technologies (together with trends, politics and international events). I didn’t want
my readers to say - “that’s incredible” (literally) and maybe have their enjoyment curtailed. To that extent I like
to include a bibliography of research resources just in case readers are interested to look further into my
I do love science fiction though, and as I get older, more of it seems to become credible. I have seen Clarke’s
satellite prediction come to fruition during my lifetime, and there are aspects of William Gibson’s work - e.g.
‘jacking into the web’ with a direct connection from a chip implant in the brain to the internet which I believe
are not more than one generation away. Science fiction in itself has a spectrum - from extreme technical content,
through all action adventure, to societal science fiction, concerned with how alternative societies on alternative
worlds might be structured and behave. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is an example of this.
Whichever one you go with, there is plenty of room for creative writers, and plenty of material for readers -
whether they can suspend belief or not.
In a way, I guess it’s just a question of timescale - as we progress technically, science fiction becomes science
faction becomes reality. It may also be a matter of the reader’s perception, based on their individual levels of
scientific knowledge. Now that a writer cannot address!
September 14, 2011
James Marinero writes techno-thrillers - science faction as he describes it here. There's more about his work at
www.jamesmarinero.com Here's the link to the home site of his
techno-thriller 'Gate of Tears' .
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