Part Three: Common Workshop Story Types
The Jar of Tang. A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly
surprise about its setting, For instance, the story takes place in a desert
of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise!
our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink. (Attr. Stephen
When done with serious intent rather than as a passing
conceit, this type of story can be dignified by the term
"Concealed Environment." (Attr. Christopher Priest)
The "Poor Me" Story. Autobiographical piece in which the male
viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can't get laid. (Attr. Kate
The Grubby Apartment Story. Similar to the "poor me" story,
this autobiographical effort features a miserably quasi-bohemian writer, living
in urban angst in a grubby apartment. The story commonly stars the author's
friends in thin disguises -- friends who may also be the author's workshop companions,
to their considerable alarm.
The Shaggy God Story. A piece which mechanically adopts a Biblical or
other mythological tale and provides flat science-fictional "explanations"
for the theological events. (Attr. Michael Moorcock)
Adam and Eve Story. Nauseatingly common subset of the Shaggy God Story
in which a terrible apocalypse, spaceship crash, etc., leaves two survivors,
man and woman, who turn out to be Adam and Eve, parents of the human race!!
Dennis Hopper Syndrome. A story based on some arcane bit of science
or folklore, which noodles around producing random weirdness. Then a loony character-actor
(usually best played by Dennis Hopper) barges into the story and baldly tells
the protagonist what's going on by explaining the underlying mystery in a long
bug-eyed rant. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)
The Tabloid Weird. Story produced by a confusion of SF and Fantasy tropes
-- or rather, by a confusion of basic world-views. Tabloid Weird is usually
produced by the author's own inability to distinguish between a rational, Newtonian-Einsteinian,
cause-and-effect universe and an irrational, supernatural, fantastic universe.
Either the FBI is hunting the escaped mutant from the genetics lab, or the drill-bit
has bored straight into Hell -- but not both at once in the very same piece
of fiction. Even fantasy worlds need an internal consistency of sorts, so that
a Sasquatch Deal-with-the-Devil story is also "Tabloid Weird." Sasquatch
crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don't mix well, even for
comic effect. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)
Deus ex Machina or "God in the Box." Story featuring a miraculous
solution to the story's conflict, which comes out of nowhere and renders the
plot struggles irelevant. H G Wells warned against SF's love for the deus ex
machina when he coined the famous dictum that "If anything is possible,
then nothing is interesting." Science fiction, which specializes in making
the impossible seem plausible, is always deeply intrigued by godlike powers
in the handy pocket size. Artificial Intelligence, virtual realities and nanotechnology
are three contemporary SF MacGuffins that are cheap portable sources of limitless
Just-Like Fallacy. SF story which thinly adapts the trappings of a standard
pulp adventure setting. The spaceship is "just like" an Atlantic steamer,
down to the Scottish engineer in the hold. A colony planet is "just like"
Arizona except for two moons in the sky. Space Westerns and futuristic hard-boiled
detective stories have been especially common versions.
Re-Inventing the Wheel. A novice author goes to enormous lengths to
create a science-fictional situation already tiresomely familiar to the experienced
reader. Reinventing the Wheel was traditionally typical of mainstream writers
venturing into SF. It is now often seen in writers who lack experience in genre
history because they were attracted to written SF via SF movies, SF television
series, SF role-playing games, SF comics or SF computer gaming.
The Cozy Catastrophe. Story in which horrific events are overwhelming
the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group
of tidy, middle- class, white Anglo-Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy
catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites
at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.
(Attr. Brian Aldiss)
The Motherhood Statement. SF story which posits some profoundly unsettling
threat to the human condition, explores the implications briefly, then hastily
retreats to affirm the conventional social and humanistic pieties, ie apple
pie and motherhood. Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly effective
SF was to deliberately "burn the motherhood statement." (Attr. Greg
The Vingean Singularity. In a Vingean Singularity, an ultra-powerful
technological advent has shattered the human condition so totally and thoroughly
that it is impossible for merely human beings to even imagine the consequences.
(Attr. Vernor Vinge)
The Kitchen-Sink Story. A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any
and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it. (Attr.
The Whistling Dog. A story related in such an elaborate, arcane, or
convoluted manner that it impresses by its sheer narrative ingenuity, but which,
as a story, is basically not worth the candle. Like the whistling dog, it's
astonishing that the thing can whistle -- but it doesn't actually whistle very
well. (Attr. Harlan Ellison)
The Rembrandt Comic Book. A story in which incredible craftsmanship
has been lavished on a theme or idea which is basically trivial or subliterary,
and which simply cannot bear the weight of such deadly-serious artistic portent.
The Slipstream Story. Non-SF story which is so ontologically distorted
or related in such a bizarrely non-realist fashion that it cannot pass muster
as commercial mainstream fiction and therefore seeks shelter in the SF or fantasy
genre. Postmodern critique and technique are particularly fruitful in creating
The Steam-Grommet Factory. Didactic SF story which consists entirely
of a guided tour of a large and elaborate gimmick. A common technique of SF
utopias and dystopias. (Attr. Gardner Dozois)