Thursday, January 13, 2011

I think that might be a stereotype

I read today that it might be considered a mark against me if people know I'm a scientist, at least when it comes to fiction writing. The theory behind it is that scientists tend not to be very good storytellers. And I've been seeing a lot of backlash against the scientist writer of late.
I don't think being a scientist makes a person a bad storyteller.  But being a scientist doesn't make a person a good storyteller. It makes them a scientist, but even I'll admit there are some habits of scientist that don't translate well into novelist.

Habit 1: Jargon.
It turns out that all people really want to belong to a club. We all want to feel like we belong. Scientists are not immune to this, and so they've taken to dividing themselves from the other scientists. In their own little groups they make up codes and passwords that describe secret things of importance to their little group. They draft a whole new language of jargon. And they like *big* words. Why say water when you can say dihydrogen monoxide?  Salt becomes sodium chloride. Diamonds become hexagonaly close packed carbon. But the scary thing is Jargon is in all of us. Jargon lurks around us all, and must be fought at every turn, because jargon is just one of the many forms of the real evil: euphemisms. and if you don't believe euphemisms are evil, go listen to George Carlin's skit on euphemisms.

Habit 2: Isolation
It takes a long time to become a scientist. I've been a scientist for a long time now, but I still don't have my PhD. I've been working on getting that particular bit for over a decade (if you include the undergrad time). Things have changed a lot in that time. I've spent years where I was little better than a slave. I had to work for 20 hours a week teaching, 20 hours a week on research, and I was expected to carry a full class load. I stopped listening to radio and going to concerts. I don't really know what the hot bands are right now. I've got some guesses because itunes tells me. I stopped going to the movies. I didn't read a novel for almost three years (Why did I ever think that was mentally healthy?). I stopped watching TV. Almost all the scientists I know don't have TV. When would they watch?
So imagine if you rarely read popular fiction, occasionally read newspapers, didn't listen to a lot of radio and didn't watch TV. Yeah, you'd probably lose touch too. I'm currently in pop culture rehab, for those concerned.

Habit 3: Multitasking
Considering the time crunch everyone is under, it makes sense that people like to multitask. Who wants to do one time consuming task when they could get two in same task. And that's where a lot of early science fiction comes in. A lot of early writers of science fiction viewed the genre as a convenient way to learn a little science while getting a small shot of entertainment. So for a while there, scientist writers used science fiction to write somewhat entertaining textbooks. Yeah. Ouch.

What I find interesting is that all writers suffer from these habits. But I admit that even I don't like to read about the gory details of orbital mechanics, and I can do those calculations. I'm much more interested in the story. It's the good part.

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