As no stranger to awards controversies, my first answer to that question is generally, “whatever the eligible voters vote for,” but if science fiction awards are supposed to be barometers of the science-fiction community, it is worth asking what qualities define worthy science fictions. Also, from a more personal perspective, who am I likely to cast a ballot for?
For me, personally, it is important to me that science fiction present a perspective that cannot be conveyed or fleshed out in the absence of the science fiction element. For fantasy stories, too, I would rather the fantasy element not just be a MacGuffin or a special effect. I’d like it to take the plot and the characters in new directions.
For example, many stories (and films and novels) have some sort of competition that allows the characters to prove their mettle, come of age, rediscover their self-confidence, and so on. Karate Kid, Star Wars and Harry Potter come to mind as examples. We could ask, for instance, if we discover something different from Daniel’s mastery of Karate than we do from Harry Potter’s success at Quidditch and Anakin’s pod-racing skill. Are they the same conflict in different trappings, or do they each provide a unique kind of catharsis or understanding of the characters? For instance, I felt that Mr. Miyagi’s WWII experience helped to personalize his mentorship of Daniel and lend the story a deeper meaning beyond the competition.
If a science fiction story uses a particular technology, I ask myself if they use that technology in a new way. For example, many stories in recent years feature artificial intelligences who achieve sentience or self-awareness. Whether an AI likes fan fiction, cat pictures or to destroy all humans or any particular motivation, is this AI a unique individual? Do its particular experience and development set it apart?
World-building helps, in my opinion. If the characters can express their desires within a fleshed out worldview, it provides ways for that uniqueness to surface. Yet the world-building shouldn’t be arbitrary. Suppose, for instance, that the character is looking for a magic sword or alien artifact, it isn’t enough (for me) that there are pages and pages devoted to the artifact’s provenance and its place in the world. Instead, it’s more a question of whether the character’s attachment to the artifact has cultural meaning. For example, the spice in Dune is not valuable just because it is rare or valuable in a generic way. It has political, ecological and religious significance to different characters.
Naturally, world-building doesn’t have to be fictional. “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience” used VR tech as a vehicle to provide insight into a genuine human experience. World-building in the real world can be challenging, either because it requires research or because it provokes deep personal emotion, but when done with wisdom and subtlety it pays off.
Once unique characters are set loose in a fleshed out world, an award-worthy story should resolve in a unique way. I have a cup (a gift from my girlfriend) that says “Some Things You Just Can’t Punch.” It was inspired most directly by superhero shows on Netflix but also from a long dissatisfaction with stories that raise thought-provoking questions and set up new any unique conflicts only to have the characters wrap up the story with a fistfight.
Lastly, I consider social impact, and diversity can be a part of that, particularly if the story gives voice to a perspective on the world that has been under-represented. That being said, I can’t help thinking that a story without original characters, a distinctive plot and a coherent theme will have a harder time conveying a deep social message.
In my writing, I try to do the following in order to bring out the most of my stories’ potential:
- Start each story with a new conflict or a new way of experiencing the world.
- Keep asking my characters what they want and why, going beyond the obvious answer. I try to tie the characters motivation to the novel aspects of the story.
- If the story devolves into a fistfight or showdown, I rewrite it until the conflict arises organically from the elements outlined above and that the resolution is determined by something more than the winner of a contest. If there is a zero-sum outcome, I try to make sure that the resolution doesn’t hinge on the outcome, and that the story would be just as meaningful regardless of who wins or loses. That is one reason why I like “lady or the tiger” endings. They force the reader to contemplate both outcomes and not read too much into winners and losers.
These tips haven’t won me any awards just yet, but they have led me in some interesting directions in my fiction so far and led me to appreciate many unique and interesting stories along the away.
I will consider these themes more as I read this year’s Hugo finalists over the course of the summer.
I hope you discover the stories that inspire and engage you as well, whether they’re your own or someone else’s. Happy reading and happy writing!