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Colorful, dramatic, and large-scale: riffing on several sf/f topics

Epics in Space!

A while ago I was chatting with an acquaintance online, who had asked me what kinds of science fiction I liked. I tried not to ramble too much, so I listed off some sub-genres along with a comment that I like a lot of different things. Though the person I was chatting with described themself as a sci fi fan, they had never heard the term “space opera” before, and asked me if it was a kind of sci fi musical. So I had to explain that the opera in space opera was related more to the type of stories that a lay person might associate with opera, and how the term was a derivative of the term “soap opera.” The stories are colorful, dramatic, often having sweeping epic feel to the plot (think pirates, or wars, or the succession of thrones), and where most of the action happens in space.

Turns out that this guy’s idea of science fiction was a bit different than most, because when I asked his favorites, he listed Game of Thrones, the Sookie Stackhouse books, and the Darkover series—which I think of as fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Clearly, as with any label, there is going to be some dispute about whether a particular work of art fits into the category, and whether the category itself makes sense. And sometimes part of the issue is like the confusion of this guy: the term “space opera” is more closely related to the old Latin meaning of “opera” as a plural of “opus” than the modern meaning of a type of musical performance. So a modern English speaker misunderstands the term. A similar kind of confusions is probably why there don’t seem to be any books being labeled “planetary romance” lately. For full explanation of this, take a look at this post by Cora Buhlert: The Gradual Vanishing of the Planetary Romance.

The term “romance” in this case refers to a literary term from the 17th century, which can be defined as: “a fictitious narrative depicting a setting and adventures remote from everyday life.” Which is why, by the way, a lot of what we would think of as science fiction of the late 19th Century and very early 20th Century was sometimes labeled “scientific romance.” It had nothing to do with two people falling in love, but rather an adventure with either circumstances, setting, or characters that no one would describe as mundane.

If you haven’t read Buhlert’s blog post (which you should do, because it’s good), let me quickly explain that a planetary romance is generally a science fiction adventure story set on a single world. And more specifically, where the culture, geography, and/or history of the world play a prominent role in the story. There is more than a bit of overlap between planetary romance and space opera, which Buhlert details better than I could.

Ambitious Ambiguity

Thinking about labels always sends me down multiple rabbit holes. I have very strong feelings about the difference between science fiction and fantasy, yet I once freaked out a friend at my strong insistence that Babylon Five was techno-fantasy, not science fiction. My argument was that just because it is using science fiction tropes, settings, and accessories, the fundamental world-building (the origins of the Vorlons and the Shadows, and more importantly the ancient races all the way back to the First Ones) were mythological, not scientific. It’s one thing is a story was written at a time when we didn’t know the age of the universe, and we were still trying to figure out evolutions. It Straczynski had written Babylon Five in the 19th Century rather than the late 20th, then yes, his world building would have been right in line with current scientific thought.

Now, I made that argument at a time in my life when I was feeling a particularly pedantic and was doing a much poorer job of repressing my inner asshole. I don’t begrudge anyone calling it science fiction, and there has never been a science fiction tale written that got every last bit of science right. More than one person has proposed a definition of science fiction thusly: “in which imaginary science is posited, and the subsequent story follows the imaginary science consistently.” Which is one way to avoid the critiques about faster-than-light travel, which appears ever more unlikely as our understanding of physics improves, for instance. But once we let the label get that flexible, we have to ask ourselves: just how much differently can the science in your imaginary world be?

Is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series science fiction? In that story, the world is an enormous disc balanced on four elephants standing on the back of a turtle that is flying through interstellar space, with a tiny satellite sun orbiting the whole turtle-elephant-disc assembly (and planets such as our, orbiting much larger stars, are simply eggs that will one day hatch into baby turtles with elephants and discs upon them). Pratchett sets up rules about how magic flows from the central spire of the mountains at the center of the disc, and other things that he then tries to stay consistent as he tells his tales. So, could it be argued as an edge case science fiction tale? Well, we can certainly argue about it, but I want to go a little further out there.

Spoiler Alert: From here on, I will be talking about plot points of Good Omens. Proceed at your own risk.

I posit that the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is science fiction. It imagines that the entire universe (including the fossils that seem to be hundreds of millions of years old) was literally created a mere 6000 years ago, and that angels and demons are real, and that the creator has an ineffable plan for it all. It further imagines that at least some prophets really can see the future, and that the apocalypse described in the New Testament book of Revelations is a real thing that will happen once the anti-christ comes to power.

And everything that happens in the book tries to stay true to those assumptions. That being the case, one could argue that not only is it science fiction, but that is is a planetary romance. Why? Well:

  • It is set on only one world, Earth,
  • the central plot is driven by the fact that both the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale have become very fond of Earth, its the people and their cultural artifacts (food, fine wine, music),
  • and the forces that oppose them are the heaven vs hell apocalyptic stuff baked into the Earth at its creation

Planetary romance!

I recently wrote a review of the Good Omens mini-series, in which I confessed that I hadn’t read the book until earlier this year (and that I liked it so much that I read it again, then downloaded the BBC radio play version and listened to that). So I watched the mini-series the weekend it debuted, and this last week-end I rewatched the whole thing. There are lots of things I noticed the second time through that I missed the first, and I think it is definitely worth watching more than once!

Now, even though Neil Gaiman (who co-wrote with the late great Terry Pratchett the original novel published in 1990) wrote the script of the new series and served as the showrunner, I knew that there would be changes from the original. Some of those changes were necessary to update the story from 1990 (minor example: the home of the demon Crowley in the book is described in great detail, but the show’s version looks very different; the book’s version of the flat sounds very much like cutting-edge interior decorating of the late 1980s, while Crowley is always embracing the latest in cool, so his home decor will look very different in 2019, so the set designer changed it), others were to fill in gaps, or to even out emotional arcs that play differently on screen than on paper—those were all to be expected. Some of the differences fall into a different category.

Some of those differences jumped out at me during the re-watch, and I was trying to figure out how to put that type of change into words, when I found this blogpost on the Wisteria Lodge tumblr: Crowley & Aziraphale: Book vs. Miniseries. Before I jump into this, I want to steal a disclaimer from the Wisteria Lodge post:

(and just to be REALLY CLEAR, I love them both. But the differences are fascinating, since it’s the same author adapting his work after almost 30 years. And how often do you get to see *that*?)

How someone perceives the personalities of the characters in the series will vary from how they appear in the book if for no other reason than to see an actor embody the character, and infuse the character with their own understanding is going to be different than what any individual reader imagined while reading it, write? But as the author of the linked blog post points out (and you should go read the whole post yourself, it is really good!), the central characters of Crowley and Aziraphale are written differently.

The author of the blog post lays out differences in the characters they saw. For me, the thing I noticed was the series!Crowley became more cynical and more angry over the centuries. Tempting Eve to take the apple was just a bit of fun, and he never expected that god would throw the humans out of the idyllic garden and into the harsh world because of it. Meanwhile, book!Crowley’s level of cynicism doesn’t ever overwhelm his baseline facade of cool detachment.

Similarly, book!Aziraphale isn’t all sweetness and light. Yes, he the softie who gave the flaming sword to Adam and Eve so that they could protect themself, but in the book he also has no compunction with using his powers to frighten away mobsters. And he’s also the one who suggests killing the 11-year-old anti-Christ. In the book it is Aziraphale who sincerely makes the argument that it is for the greater good. In the series, those arguments were given to the Archangel Gabriel. Series!Aziraphale has been trying to stick to the divine plan for the last 6,000 years, and remains convinced until rather late that heaven will listen to reason if only things are explained to them. While book!Aziraphale knows that that will never happen.

The novel was definitely about questioning authority and questioning the roles society assigns you and questioning the definitions of morality. There was also a lot of commentary about the nature of power structures, the nature of ignorance, and the power of denial. And all of that is still in the series, but the subtle shift, most evident in the slightly different characterizations of Aziraphale and Crowley, and how their arcs play out, shifts more of the emphasis onto not just questioning authority, but holding authority accountable. It’s not just questioning roles assigned to you, but asking why those roles never allow for vulnerability. And it doesn’t just question the definitions of morality, by the time the show is over it demonstrates that the traditional picture of the forces of heaven isn’t different in any important way from the forces of hell.

Love plays a much more overt role in the themes of the series than in the book. Adam’s love for the part of the country where he grew up, his love for his friends, his love of the idea of what his dog should be, and so forth all play a big role in averting the apocalypse. Then there is the mutual love and respect of Aziraphale and Crowley (and you can’t just call it friendship: Aziraphale threatens to never speak to him again if he doesn’t think of something, and Crowley stops time itself and then gives the 11-year-old anti-Christ the pep talk he needs to avert the apocalypse; that’s love). And of course, it’s Adam’s realization the importance of his earthly parents loving and caring for him, and how it trumps his Satanic heritage is the heart of the resolution.

Over all, I think while I still love the book immensely, the mini-series gives a more mature and nuanced take on the serious topics which are being tackled with all this silliness and cheek.

It’s okay to like things that make you happy: my review of Good Omens

Bubbles for the Powerpuff Girls exclaims, “I'm not dumb! I just like nice things that make me happy! At last I don't to to fight and be mean all the time like some people!”

(Click to embiggen)

First, I have a few confessions to make. Even though I have been a squeeing fanboy of Terry Pratchett’s books for decades, and a similarly enthusiastic fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing for a similar period of time, I hadn’t read the novel they collaborated on, Good Omens, before this year. This fact caused considerable consternation to my husband shortly after we moved in together nearly 21 years ago as we were combining our book collections. It wasn’t just because I was already such a big fan of both Pratchett and Gaiman, but also because the subject matter: the end of the world as described in the book of Revelation in the New Testament (with a lot of related and semi-related items of mythology)—topics that I had a great deal of interest in.

Why I hadn’t at that point takes a bit of explanation. The year the book was published was a tumultuous time in my personal life.1 Some of my friends who were reading the book recommended it, but all of my attention was focused on other priorities. Then there were other issues for the next few years.3

The upshot of all that is: when Michael expressed shock that I hadn’t read the book, I had to confess that I barely even knew it existed. For the next several years it sat in my queue of books I was going to read someday. But there are always a lot of books in that queue, and I was busy reading new books from my favorite authors and only slowly making a dent in that other pile.

Then Terry Pratchett announced that he had Alzheimer’s disease. And some time after learning about that, I made a decision to set four of the Discworld books that I hadn’t gotten to, yet, and Good Omens in a different category: books I will read if I find myself feeling particularly sad that no new books would be coming from Terry.4

Once Neil announced that Terry had asked him, as his dying request, to make an adaptation for Good Omens to be made into a movie or television show, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to leave the book in that special queue. So earlier this year, as the date for the release of the series approached—not to mention the teasers and trailers and interviews for the series that kept crossing my social media feeds—I finally read the book.

Twice.

Then I downloaded the BBC radio play adaptation that was made before Terry died and listened to that. So, yes, Michael and all the rest of my friends who were flabbergasted that I hadn’t read it were right: it’s a book that I immediately loved.

This last weekend I binge-watched the series, and I can honestly say I love it, too. With Neil writing the script and acting as show-runner5, the series is faithful to the book. A demon and an angel who, rather than being immortal enemies, have forged a friendship during their millenia on Earth, and have grown quite fond of the world and the clever things people keep inventing, set out to stop the apocalypse. Complicated by the fact that they have mislaid the anti-christ. Plus, they don’t have access to the one and only existing copy of the book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

Most of the cast of thousands of characters from the book made it to the screen (many quite brilliantly cast). And the things that Neil added to keep the emotional arcs running through each episode6 fit nicely and do their jobs.

It’s a fun show. And it still gives you the same kind very wry and wise observations about human nature that Neil and Terry employ subtly in their other works.

I admit, I wish that at least one old trope that underlay the relationships of two pairs of the supporting characters had not remained faithful to the book. I speak of that tired old canard: the competent, accomplished woman who falls for the forlorn, bumbling man who has little, if anything, to recommend him. When I read the book earlier this year, this bothered me most with Madame Tracy—I mean, really, what does she see in Shadwell?

For the other relationship, the version of Witch-hunter Private Pulsifer in the book is given a little more time to demonstrate that he isn’t completely useless. So it didn’t annoy me quite as much as the other relationship–in the book. Alas, much of that is omitted from the series.8

But the central relationships: demon and angel out to save the world (and each other), and the 11-year-old anti-christ who just wants to have fun with his friends (and not understanding his new powers) work splendidly. And don’t let the summary that it’s a comedic look at the apocalypse fool you–the story explores some heavy questions.

The series tell a hilariously engaging story about some serious subjects (what really is the difference between good and evil, do the ends ever justify the means, how many forms that platonic love can take, and so on) without ever tripping over itself. Most of the jokes land as well or better than they did in the book.

I really liked it.

And at the end, just as the first time I reached the end of the book, I felt that if a demon, an angel, and a determined eleven-year-old can save that world, maybe there is some hope for ours.


Footnotes:

1. I had reached a point where I was no longer fooling myself that I was bisexual–but I was also married to a woman2 and there were many reasons that confronting that conflict was being avoided by both of us. I was also experiencing some really weird and frankly frightening health issues.

2. Who remains one of my best friends all these years later.

3. The subsequent separation and divorce, plus the social and financial fallout from that continued for a few years. Then my partner (we called each other husbands, but Ray never lived long enough for us to be legally more than registered domestic partners) was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Again, all my attention was elsewhere.

4. I hadn’t dipped into that pile before this year, though I have re-read a lot of my favorites more frequently than I used to.

5. A job that he said, since he’s never really done it before, he approached thusly: any time there was a decision to be made, he asked himself which choice would have delighted Terry, if he were here to see the final product. And that’s the one he chose every time.

6. Often either things that they decided just to allude to in the original novel, or in some cases sub-plots and characters from the sequel that they planned and plotted but never wrote.7

7. Planned title: 668: The Neighbor of the Beast.

8. The parts I’m thinking of mostly involved him reading more of the archaically worded prophecies from Agnes Nutter’s books and helping Anathema figure out what they mean. Since that kind of scene is difficult to make interesting on screen, I understand why they were minimized.

Dark barons and ultra-competent (conniving) wizards, or, more of why I love sf/f

My copy of the paperback of <em>The River of the Danciing Gods</em> by Jack L. Chalker.

My copy of the paperback of The River of the Danciing Gods by Jack L. Chalker.

Jack L. Chalker is probably most famous for the Well World Series, which consisted of ten novels written over the course of 17 years. And while it was through the first several novels of that series that I first began reading Jack L. Chalker, I didn’t become a squeeing fanboy of his work until I read a different series, beginning with The River of the Dancing Gods, either late in 1985 or early 1986. The book was published in ‘84, but I didn’t read it until a friend was going on and on about it, being surprised that I hadn’t read it, as it was the sort of thing he would expect me to love.

So I borrowed his copy of it and blew off homework one night to stay up all night reading the novel.

I really liked it.

The premise of all of the Dancing Gods books is that when god created the world as we know it, there was an unintentional echo. A parallel Earth, if you will, though it was a bit messed up. For whatever reason, the Creator let his messengers, the Angels, take control of this unintended echo universe, and they began trying to clean up its broken laws of physics and so forth. The Angels did this by writing down rules of how reality should work each time they encountered an anomaly. These rules eventually became a giant encyclopedia of rules, and mortals living in this parallel world who studied the rules could become wizards and perform magic. Unfortunately, at the same time, Demons were trying to subvert the Angels’ efforts, so the war between Heaven and Hell spread to a new battleground.

All this this is something that the reader learns during the middle of the book. This back story isn’t how things start. No, things start with a woman named Marge in our world, who has leapt from the car being driven by her abusive boyfriend, and finds herself walking along a long stretch of Texas highway. Then a truck driver named Joe stops to offer her a ride, but then there are both who confronted on an unfamiliar stretch of highway by a man who looks like Santa Claus dressed in a very elaborate Victorian suit. The man introduces himself as Throckmorton P. Ruddygore, wizard, and explains that in about 18 minutes Marge and Joe are going to die in a horrible accident. Unless they allow Ruddygore to transport them to his world, where they will become epic heroes and have the opportunity to thwart an Apocalypse.

Marge and Joe agree, and they are transported across the Sea of Dreams to the other world, were each of them begins a process of being transformed into a heroic archetype that can take on the evil which threatens the world.

The River of the Dancing Gods is a book that defies categories. Looked at from one angle, it is a portal fantasy (characters from our world go through a magical portal to a fantastical world), but from just a very slightly different angle it is a standard epic fantasy (story set in a world unlike our own where epic events that change that world forever occur). Except from a very slightly different perspective it is a parody of an epic fantasy. Or, if you tilt your head a little in a different direction, it looks like a deconstruction of each of those things.

Joe and Marge undergo a physical transformation when they cross into Ruddygore’s world. Then they spend some time being trained for their roles as Barbarian Warrior and Mysterious Sorceress respectively. And during the training is where we start to learn about all those rules written by the Angels. Most of the ones we learn are based on trope of epic fantasy and sword & sorcery stories (particularly of the pulp era), such as “All fair maidens must dress as scantily as the weather allows,” or “Magic swords for quests must be named” or “Barbarians must be tall, dark, and handsome, exotic in race but of no known nationality.”

The book is written comedically, but only occasionally crosses the line into parody. It is clear that Chalker loved high fantasy and sword & sorcery tales, but he also loved a good laugh. Most of the jokes in the story are aimed at the ridiculousness of those tropes, or finding ways to make the incongruities that come to mind when you examine those tropes carefully into twists in the story.

The quest of the story seems straightforward enough: a mysterious evil sorcerer called the Dark Baron has gathered an army of goblins and other monsters and so forth and is almost certainly aligned with the forces of Hell and is out to conquer the world. While the rules limit the number of full-fledged mages in the world to 12, and it seems certain that the Dark Baron is one of the other eleven mages, Ruddygore hasn’t been able to determine which one the Dark Baron is, which complicates things a bit.

I had enjoyed the book so much, I was frankly a little worried to re-read it years later. I didn’t want to find chockful of problematic material that was so cringe worthy I couldn’t enjoy it. Fortunately, it wasn’t bad on more recent re-read. Marge has a bit more autonomy than the usual Fair Maiden in sword & sorcery tales, and at some crucial points Joe manages to rise above the usual limits of a dude with a sword. But there are other ways in which the story fails to transcend the typical problems of the sub-genre or its period. It also shares one issue that most of Chalker’s books have: he has a strange fascination with physical transformation, sometimes slipping into body horror in what would otherwise be funny books, and other times completely glossing over the traumatic effects of such transformations. It isn’t exactly problematic here, but as I recall it gets weird in one of the later books.

Really, the biggest disappointment was realizing that the scene that made me laugh out loud so long and hard that my side literally ached and I had tears running down my face isn’t in this book at all. A little research in the sequels turned up the scene I recall, so it is there, just not in this book. Which I think is actually a good thing. Too many sequels don’t live up to the first part of a series. If the funniest bit is yet to come, that’s a good thing.

To sum up, the story of The River of the Dancing Gods was very funny, and engaging enough that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Chalker was clearly having a very good time writing the book, and I think the reader enjoys the ride exactly as much as the author did. Which is a trick some writers don’t pull off very well. Re-reading it, I see the book has influenced my writing in ways that I hadn’t quite realized. Of course, during my 20s I read a whole lot of Chalker’s work, so it shouldn’t surprise me that some of his themes and quirks have slipped into my own writing.

I am looking forward to re-reading more books in this series.

We have always been here, part 3

Look at this African-American girl gleefully reading comic books in the 1940s...

Look at this African-American girl gleefully reading comic books in the 1940s… (click to embiggen)

So, this third installment in a series about misperceptions of what diversity means and how it has occured in science fiction/fantasy has been sitting in the draft queue for a long time, in part because I needed to do some more research to shore it up. But now, thanks to Cora Buhlert, I can leverage this excellent review: The Golden Age Was More Diverse Than You Think of this year’s Retro Hugo ballot. The whole post (and her many links) are worth the read, but I’m going to steal quote an important bit:

Survivorship bias can be found doubly in the Retro Hugos, because not only do people (and the Retro Hugo nominator base is small compared to the current year Hugos) tend to nominate the famous stories, the ones that endured, they also tend to nominate and vote for writers (and editors and artists) whose names the recognise. This is why unremarkable debut stories by future stars tend to get nominated for the Retro Hugos, while better but lesser known works and authors tend to get overlooked…

But even taking the known problems with the Retro Hugos into consideration, the breadth and variety of stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot is astounding (pun fully intended), as is the fact that quite a few of them don’t really fit into the prevailing image image of what Golden Age science fiction was like. And this doesn’t just apply to left-field finalists such as Das Glasperlenspiel by Hermann Hesse in the novel category or Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Magic Bed-Knob by Mary Norton in the novella category, neither of whom I would have expected to make the Hugo ballot in 1944, if only because US science fiction fans wouldn’t have been familiar with them. No, there also is a lot of variety in the stories which originated in US science fiction magazines.

As I said, go read her entire post, it’s worth your time.

Among the claims that is constantly put forward from some quarters are that:

  • until very recently, virtually all sf/f was written by straight white men,
  • until very recently, the vast majority of readers of sf/f were straight white men and boys,
  • for most of fandom’s history, the vast majority of people organizing clubs and conventions were straight white men (young and old),
  • even now, the vast majority of “real fans” are straight white men and boys,

…therefore any sf/f that features protagonists other than straight white men, and talks about any issues not of interest to straight white men, isn’t real science fiction or fantasy, but it is so-called message fiction.

But the truth is that all four of those claims are false. And that isn’t a matter of opinion. Go look at the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. More than a single token woman author. And even more intriguing, a rather large number of protagonists and major characters in the works are women and people of color.

In a previous blog post, I linked to some of 1930s, 40s, and 50s sf/f fan publications, showing that some of the most prominent founders of U.S. science fiction fan clubs during the Golden Age were queer men and women (who also became active in the gay/lesbian rights movement).

Go to the staff meeting of any medium-to-large sized fan-led sf/f convention today, and take a look at just how many of the people in that room are not male. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a disproportionate number who are queer. And that has been the case for at least three decades that I know of (I didn’t attend my first convention until the late 1970s, and didn’t start paying attention to how they were run until the late 80s, so I can’t offer personal testimony beyond that).

Look around any big convention at how many girls and women are doing cosplay, or staffing booths in the dealer’s dens, or are panelists. It’s harder to find how many are queer, but next time you’re at a convention, look for some panels whose titles mention queer topics, then go stick your head in the door of a couple and see how full the rooms are.

Listen, I’m an old literally white-bearded white guy. I grew up reading Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov in the 1960s. But I’m also gay. And I was also just as fervently a fan of Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton, and Madeleine L’Engle back then. But more importantly, one reason I was a fan from such an early age was because my mother was one of the biggest fans of Robert Heinlein and similar sci fi of the 50s and 60s you will ever meet. I am a second generation fan, but it wasn’t my dad who was reading sci fi (he preferred spy novels and westerns), it was my mom.

I’ve written before in a different context how my mom’s old, worn copy of Dune (which she told me I had to wait until I was older before I could read it) often tantalized me on the book shelf when I was a kid. A couple of things I should add to that story: she bought the Ace paperback brand new when it first came out in 1965, and it was looking very worn around 1969 when she decided to move it to a less tempting location. It looked that way after only 4 years because she re-read it frequently.

I know that’s only one anecdotal sample, but I also remember that when we went on our regular visits to used book stores when I was a kid, my mom was never the only woman browsing the sci fi/fantasy shelves.

People of all genders read, create, watch, and love sci fi and fantasy (and comic books and horror and thrillers and weird fiction and all the other sub-genres). People of all sexual orientations read, create, watch, and love sf/f. People of all races read, create, watch, and love sf/f. People of color, queer people, women, and nonbinary people all exist, and together, they outnumber straight white men in world population (and also U.S. population, if you’re one of those people who think that the phrase “Third World Country” is objective terminology). If you’re trying to exclude people of color, queer people, women, and non-binary people, you are the one focusing on a niche market.

If you are a writer excluding any or all of those categories of people from your cast of characters, whether you mean to or not, you are serving a misogynist, racist, homophobic agenda. And that’s definitely not a non-political stance. Those stories are not non-political fun.

Science fiction was arguably created by a young woman/teen-age girl (Mary Shelley), for goodness’ sake!

But what is it? Or, why we worry about sf/f, sub-genres, and fictional rules

“I'm not a science fiction writer. I've only written one book that's science fiction, and that's Fahrenheit 451.. All the others are fantasy.” —Ray Bradbury

(click to embiggen)

I was reading (and participating) in the comments on Camestros Felapton’s excellent review of one of the Hugo nominated stories, and found myself thinking a lot about how and why we humans like to classify everything in general, and stories/movies/et cetera in particular.

For instance, what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? When I was much younger, I would have answered that fantasy was “just making any old thing up” while science fiction required an understanding of and adherence to science! (and was therefore superior). But as Thor observed that all words are made up, so too all stories are made up. The usual definition isn’t far from what younger me said (minus the hypocritical and judgmental bit): Science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that may be scientifically possible at the time written, while fantasy deals with supernatural and magical occurrences that have no basis in science.

Of course, that phrase “may be possible” includes a lot of hand-waving. Faster-than-light travel seems less and less likely to be possible as our understanding of physics has grown, yet everyone is quite happy to classify space opera as clearly part of science fiction.

It has been persuasively argued that what dictates that one novel is shelved in the science fiction section, while another is shelved with fantasy, and yet another shelved in horror all comes down to marketing. Not because marketers are trying to advance some sort of agenda, but because a lot of readers like having books offered in familiar categories. Unfortunately, the marketers (and associated persons in the publishing industry), being human, can make those distinctions on rather dubious criteria. One of my favorite authors, who writes books that cross over many genres (and has won at least one major fantasy award for a work of horror), often finds her books being reviewed as “Young Adult” simply because she’s a woman and the books tend to explore sf/f themes.

Of course, that opens up another can of worms. Who decided that “Young Adult” was a genre? It’s an age category, like Middle Grade and Early Reader, right?

It’s useful, sometimes, to talk about a specific work of fiction in reference to similar works of fiction. The aforementioned comment thread I was involved in included a discussion about why portal fantasies seem to be resurging lately, which is why I starting thinking about what portal fantasies are. I know several works that everyone agrees are portal fantasies. When I suggested that the Saturday morning live action children’s show Land of the Lost from the 1970s (I don’t want to talk about the more recent movie) might be a portal fantasy, someone else pronounced it portal science fiction.

The conventional definition of a portal fantasy is a story in which people from our mundane world enter into a different, fantastical world, through a portal of some kind. In Land of the Lost, the family on a rafting trip go through some kind of hole in space or time and land in a world where there are dinosaurs, some primates that might be precursors of genus homo, and humanoid reptileans. Sounds pretty fantastical to me! I mean the dinosaurs and primates may have overlapped a bit in Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, but none of those primates were the size of chimpanzees, nor had brains anywhere near the size of the critters in the show. So it isn’t a time warp they went through to an earlier part of Earth’s history.

So is it a portal fantasy with some sci fi trappings? Or are the sci fi elements enough to call it something other than a fantasy?

Let’s set that aside for a moment and talk about magic systems. Because one of the things that often distinguishes science fiction from pure fantasy is the presence of magic. But some fantasies involve very strictly defined magic, with laws that seem to be as rigid as physics, and logical ways one can deduce what is and isn’t possible to do with magic from those laws. Yet, how is that different than the fictional science that underpins many science fiction stories? The author is just positing a different set of discoveries of natural law.

I described my younger self’s definition of sci fi as hypocritical because I’ve found myself, for the last decade or so, far more interested in writing fantasy. I have a couple of sci fi tales still rattling around in my collection of works in progress, but fantasy has been where I keep finding myself. And while most of my fantasy stories involve magic, I’m not one of the authors who thinks it is necessary to work out very precisely how the magic works in my universes. I have rules of my own, and I write my stories within them, but I don’t think it particularly interesting to have one of my characters (no matter how much the Mathemagician, for instance, may love giving lectures) deliver an info dump about the limitations of magic in his world. When it is important to the plot, I work it in, so that the reader understands what is happening and what’s at stake, but otherwise, I leave it to things like: dragons can fly and breathe fire, sorcerers can hurl fireballs and ride flying carpets/magic brooms, priests can smite their enemies and their blessings can cure wounds, and all of these things have costs commiserate with the extent to which reality is being bent.

And I admit one reason I don’t like going into any more detail than that is because ever since my early days of roleplaying (late 1970s, before Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition existed), the people I liked playing with least were the ones who got into long tetchy arguments about the rules before and after every single dice roll. Your mileage may vary, so if you want to write down all the laws of magic for your stories, go right ahead.

But, the fact that most fantasy stories do have rules of how the magic/supernatural stuff works, and most fantasy authors try to follow those rules and keep them consistent, I still have trouble seeing how some people can so blithely draw a strict distinction between science fiction and fantasy. XKCD had a great cartoon not that long ago around the fact that you can describe the tiny nuclear power cells in the two Voyager spacecraft as “orbs of power!” Because they are balls of a very rare metal which, once assembled, simply radiate energy for many, many, many years. Not only that, if you touch them (without proper protection), you can die! It sure sounds like a cursed magical item, such as an Infinity Stone, doesn’t it?

To circle back to the Land of the Lost–the humanoid reptiles had some very sophisticated science fictional equipment, but it was all powered by mysterious little crystals. Put the right colored crystal in the right spot and voila! A portal opens and a healing beam of energy comes down or something. Again, is that science or magic? Because, seriously, crystals?

These sorts of questions are why the late, great Jack Chalker was fond of saying, “All science fiction is fantasy, but not all fantasy is science fiction. And some science fiction becomes fantasy as our understanding of science changes over time.”

Who is the actual monster? Or, more of why I love sf/f

The Modern Prometheus Preface Mary Shelley subtitled her novel "The Modern Prometheus." According to the Greeks, Prometheus, a Titan who preceded the Olympian Gods, created Man from clay. Zeus demanded food offerings from Man, but Prometheus taught them how to trick Zeus into accepting the less useful parts of a butchered animal so that Man could keep the best parts for themselves. Once Zeus learned of the deception he decreed that Man was not to be allowed fire. Prometheus crept into the underworld, stole fire from Hephaestus, and gave it to Man. Again, Zeus discovered the transgression and chained Prometheus to a rock, where an eagle would devour his liver every day (it would grow back every night). He remained there for 30,000 years.

[Swiped from an educational slideshow about Mary Shelley’s most famous novel: https://www.slideshare.net/mrsallen/frankenstein-the-modern-prometheus )

I’ve written about Frankenstein as a pair of classic movies, as an award-winning parody, as the basis of a whacky sixties comedy, and I’ve mentioned it many times while talking about the history of science fiction, but I’ve never written a post just about the original novel published in 1818. I’m obviously long overdue, and since something I saw on line earlier this week almost made me type a twitter storm of irritated commentary, I figure that now is as good a time as any to remedy the situation.

The full title of the novel is Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and Mary Shelley famously wrote the short “ghost story” that would eventually become the novel in 1816 while she and the man who would later become her husband were at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, spending a lot of time with Lord Byron. The novel was published in 1818 in a limited run as a tthree-volumn set without the author’s name. After a successful run of a play based on the novel, a second edition, listing Mary as the author, was published in 1823. Finally, in 1831 a heavily revised edition was published, and for the first time made available at a “popular edition” price.

Most people think they know the story of Frankenstein, but few have actually read the book. And as a fairly typical novel of its time, the very slow burn of the story, not to mention the surfeit of complex sentences and frequently mini-monologues of all the characters can make it a difficult read for modern readers. Even the structure of the novel is different than typical modern books.

The novel is told in the first person, but from three different viewpoints. It begins from the viewpoint of the captain of a sea vessel that has been trapped in the Arctic ice, who finds a half-dead man similarly marooned. The man identifies himself as Victor Frankenstein, and then tells the captain how he came to transform a body assembled from corpses into a living being, then horrified at how hideous is looked (not anything it actually did), that he rejected it, drove it away, fervently hoping it was die in the forest since it had no skills, couldn’t talk, et cetera, and then tried to go back to his life. The middle of the book is from the creature’s point of view (though still filtered, because the creature eventually found Victor and told him the story, which Victor is now telling to the captain who is writing all of this down for us).

The creature did not die. He took shelter new the cottage of a family that lived in the woods, and by watching them learned to speak, eventually learned to read, and came to hope that he might not die alone in the world. The grandfather of the family was blind, and the creature struck up a friendship with him, carefully only coming around when the old man was alone (since every person who had laid eyes on the creature up to that point had been so horrified by his appearances as to scream and chase him away). Alas, the rest of the family catches him once, and they have the usual reaction, sending the creature fleeing deeper into the woods. The creature finds Victor, explains all of this, and then asks Victor to create a second person like himself, to be his companion and mate. Victor agrees.

The next part is back to Victor’s point of view, and Victor begins assembling body parts in secret again, but he suddenly becomes afraid of what will happen if the creature and his mate can actually reproduce. I emphasize at this point that here at more than two thirds of the way through the novel the creature hasn’t harmed anyone, hasn’t threatened anyone, has not behaved in any way other than as frightened child. But Victor suddenly decides that he can’t let the creature have a companion, he destroys the body parts, tells the creature he will not help him after all. The creature loses it, and eventually decides the best way to get his revenge on Victor is to start killing people Victor loves. Victor tries and fails to kill the creature, and they wind up chasing each other across northern Europe and into the Arctic.

Finally, we return to the viewpoint of the sea captain, as Victor gives a last monologue and dies. The creature find the ship, has a conversation with the captain in which he agrees that he has done terrible things, and explains that his intention had been to lure Victor to a spot where the creature could kill him, and then not just kill himself, but set himself on fire in a place where no one would be able to study his body and figure out how Victor did it.

And that’s where it ends.

Like any work of art, everyone interprets the story differently. A little over a year ago there was a bit of a kerfluffle when one newspaper ran a story about how modern readers feel sympathy for the creature with a headline that referred to such students as “snowflakes.” There seemed to be an assumption that having sympathy for the creature—seeing him as misunderstood and a victim—was some sort of modern politically correct reaction.

There’s a big problem with that: the original novel actually does portray the creature as a victim and as being misunderstood. And that’s not interpretation, it is literally what happens in the story. Not to say the story makes him a blameless victim, and certainly how the creature takes his revenge by killing innocent people beloved by Victor is an evil act.

But it is an act of revenge. And the book frames it that way.

Lots of people assume that the theme of the book is that there are some things which mortals are not meant to know, and that if mere humans try to play god horrible things will happen. But that isn’t really Victor’s sin. We get a hint of that in the title itself: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was not a mortal who stole from the gods, Prometheus was one of the gods (yes technically a Titan, but that was just the name in Greek mythology for the first generation of gods). And what Prometheus was ultimately punished for was giving humans the gift of fire, then not making sure they would use it responsibly.

Victor’s sin, then, is that he gave life to a creature, and then abandoned it, rather than caring for it. As the creatures creator, he had a responsibility to teach it how to get along in the world, to know right from wrong, and so on. He didn’t do that. And he drove the creature away not because of anything the creature did, but simply because of the creature’s hideous appearance.

The middle narrative, when the creature tries to teach himself how to be a good person, is the next big clue as to the real them. The creature naturally craves love and the comfort of companionship, and he tries to learn how to be a member of society. He befriends the blind man and earns his trust. It is only when once again people see him and assume because of his looks that he must be a dangerous, evil thing, that he abandons his plan to try to become part of the human community.

Then there is this admission from Victor himself, in the final deathbed monologue:

“In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty”

Victor goes on, unfortunately, in that monologue to insist that he was right to abandon the creature, but his rationalization only works by assuming that somehow he knew how the creature would react to yet another betrayal.

Finally, we have the creature’s final plan: he had already destroyed the remaining records of Victor’s experiments (those that Victor hadn’t destroyed himself), then set out to kill both Victor and himself so that no one could have create another creature like himself. Before Victor died, he had admitted to the captain that the creature had been leaving clues to make sure that Victor was still pursuing him. The creature had thought it out: Victor was the only one who knew how he had reanimated dead flesh, but it was possible that another could study the creature’s corpse and figure it out, so the creature needed to kill Victor, and then he needed to destroy himself. He planned to set himself on fire somewhere on the arctic ice precisely because any remains would eventually wind up lost in the sea.

In other words, he was cleaning up Victor’s mess.

There are plenty of quotes one can pull from Victor’s and the creature’s monologues to support the usual interpretation that this was all about an arrogant scientist treading into areas best left alone. But those are all perspectives of characters within the narrative. Just because a character says something, that doesn’t mean it is what the author believes—it’s something the author thinks the character must believe in order for their actions to make sense.

I’ve said many times that an author’s values and beliefs manifest not necessarily in the words of the characters, but in the consequences of the actions of characters, and how the way the narrative portrays them shows you whether the author thinks those consequences are deserved. It’s very clear from that perspective that yes, both Victor and his creation have done deplorable, immoral things. But it is also clear which of them realizes it and takes personal responsibility for it.

Victor blames the creature for everything, including his own actions, up to his dying breath. The creature blames both Victor and himself for the various atrocities, and in taking the blame, pronounces (and then carries out) his own death sentence.

Which means that ultimately, it isn’t the creature who is the monster.

Filling up the gaps, or, why An Archive Of Our Own deserves that Hugo nomination

The actual quote, according to Lewis' Letters to Children (in aanswer to a letter from a child named Denise) was: “I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I've left you plenty of hints—especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!”

The actual quote, according to Lewis’ Letters to Children (in aanswer to a letter from a child named Denise) was: “I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I’ve left you plenty of hints—especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!”

The Hugo Awards Ballot was released a bit ago (and I linked to at least one post about it at the time), and one of the more interesting items to make it to the ballot was the fanfiction web site, Archive Of Our Own (known to many of us as AO3) in the Best Related Work category. This nomination is, of course, not without some controversy. Best Related Work is usually awarded to works of non-fiction, such as biographies of authors and editors from the field, or collections of non-fiction essays and/or reviews, and so forth, but the definition of the category allows for other things, which bothers some people. This is hardly the first time that something which isn’t clearly a non-fiction book or collection or non-fiction essays has been nominated, and it won’t be the last.

The first objection many people have is that it doesn’t qualify. I think this blog post says it best: Archive of Our Own is a work and its related and I’m really happy that it’s a Hugo finalist.

Cam expanded the official definition of the category into a bullet list and then answered most of the issues. I’m just going to blatantly steal most of it here, then proceed:

  1. Related to the field or fandom. Lots of SF/F in there and by its nature what gets written is out of fanishness. Check.
  2. Either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text. The contents of the archive are fiction but what is being nominated is the thing as an entity. Consider the difference between lots of science fiction novels and a library of science fiction novels. It’s the library that’s being nominated, which includes its contents but which is not the same as its contents. Check.
  3. Not eligible in any other category. Obviously. Check.
  4. Which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year. I think this is the only weak point in an eligibility argument…

On the last part of the category definition, the archive itself, as a platform, has some significant expansions to the search and filter options. There are a number of other feature improvement during the 2018 calendar year, including: support for several new character sets (which means the works originally written in languages the previously couldn’t be uploaded and read can—it isn’t just emojis!), importing several other fandom archives that were in danger of being lost due to various issues through the Open Doors Project (which isn’t just about importing the contents, but also the relational data and ownership controls), and a change log.

If the argument is that the platform itself and the way it enables fannish activity is what has been nominated, then I think those clearly qualify as significant changes in how the platform worked before.

A related controversy to the questions of whether it is really eligible under the current definition is whether the category definition itself is the problem. One form this argument has taken is that a win for AO3 will open up the floodgates of other weird things being nominated and soon non-fiction books and the like will never be honored again.

Bull!

That’s a slippery slope argument, and there are many reasons logicians consider the slippery slope assertion a logical fallacy. And I’m not wasting any more pixels on a logical fallacy.

An actually debatable aspect to this argument is whether or not non-fiction book-length works deserve specific category of their own, while a separate and more explicitly Miscellaneous category could exist beside it. I think the answer at this time is that we just don’t know if it would make sense to split this into two categories.

One reason I lean against splitting them is that, as it is now, the down ballot categories get the attention of fewer nominators and voters as it is, and I think that added another category isn’t going to help that situation. Whether there are enough items that aren’t non-fiction books at this time to give us more than 6 candidates a year is simply not clear.

Another reason I lean against it is that no matter how categories are defined, there going to be works that don’t clearly belong in them. Books, stories, dramatic works, et al, are works of art. And art is supposed to be creative. Humans are tool-making animals that constantly improve existing tools and invent new ones. There are going to be emerging forms of artistic expression that don’t clearly fit into an existing category. For that reason I’m very comfortable with having at least one of the categories have a flexible enough definition to allow for those unexpected things.

I mean, seriously, if sci fi fandom can’t accommodate novel means of expression, then what is the point of its existence?

And a third reason I lean against splitting the category is that well, some years there aren’t that many excellent non-fiction works of book length concerning sf/f or the fandom published. At least not IMHO. If, when the nominating data is released after the awards ceremony, it turns out that some book-length non-fiction just barely missed making the ballot, that might indicate that we need to rethink the categories. Which is why I said we can’t know, just yet.

Let’s move on to the next controversy: what exactly has been nominated here? Most everyone is going with the argument that it is the platform and the manner in which it promotes and facilitates the creation, collection, and discovery of fanfiction and related information. And I totally understand that interpretation and that is certainly what many of the people who were arguing in favor of nominating it said.

But I want to point you to item number two in Cam’s list above. I really like his analogy of thinking of this as a library that has been nominated. The library as a whole is more than just the sum of its parts, but it also includes those parts. And further, without those parts, it is meaningless. A library with no books at all is just a building with shelves, right?

Well, sort of.

A library is also a system for collection, collating, relating, and distributing books. And that is not an insignificant thing. Which is why a lot of people are pushing the nomination of the platform. But a library is also a system for stimulating imaginations. In that way, a good library is, itself, a work of art.

A library is also a system for education, and more than just as a repository of information. Sufficient exposure to books has the effect of inspiring some people to write books of their own, and so a library is also a system for creating writers, and ultimately, a system for creating more books. Again, the library can’t do that if it doesn’t contain the books that inspire.

AO3 fulfills that phenomenon, too. There are many professional writers working today who started out writing fan fic. And I don’t just mean younger writers reading fanfic online. The internet didn’t exist when I was six years old, and I hadn’t yet discovered the existence of mimeographed-then-sent-through-snail-mail fanzines, yet. But I was writing my own versions of stories I loved at that age. Sometimes my motivation was to tell more stories because I had reached the end. Other times I was unhappy with how a story had turned out, so I decided to write my own version.

All of that is how I got into writing. It’s why I started faithfully reading The Writer and Writer’s Digest in the local libraries. It’s why I started mailing my (at the time very derivative) stories to magazines when I was 12 or 13 years old. It’s why I kept working at it until I started actually getting published (even if it was almost always in very small circulation ‘zines).

The creation and consumption of fan fiction is, in itself, a fannish activity. The conversation, both implied and overt, that happen between the fans and creators of fanfic constitute commentary on the original works that inspired the fan fiction, as well as the phenomena of how people receive and react to narratives and other works of art. Creating fan fiction, for some, is a training ground for going on to create original fiction.

And sometimes, when either the original works have gone into public domain, or when a clever writer changes things just enough that they don’t infringe on trademarks, fan fiction wins Hugo Awards.

So, a platform that facilitates the creation and discovery of hundreds of thousands of works of fan fiction certainly deserves to be in the running for a Hugo itself. And everyone who contributes to it, not just the administrators and programmers, should be proud.

Narrow horizons and frozen minds — or sf/f shouldn’t be an old boys’ club

“Kids these days will never know the joys of oil lamps and chamber pots”The tired cliche that there are certain “classics” of sf/f that one must have read in order to be a real fan has reared its ugly head. The current iteration is an assertion that writers of sf/f (aspiring or otherwise) who have not read the classics are not able to write good sf/f. And specifically the “classics” one is supposedly required to read and love in order to be a good writer of science fiction and fantasy are the usual suspects: Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, and so on.

Poppycock!

Now, it is true that I read Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. I have written on this blog about how some of their work helped me in my formative years. I have also written on this blog about problematic aspects of both their writing and some of their personal life choices. I’ve also written before about how some of their writing hasn’t aged very well. Heck, when I was in my teens in the 1970s reading some of their older work, I was finding myself rolling my eyes over things that seemed either embarrassingly wrong or more than a little sexist and/or racist.

Unfortunately a lot of books from the middle of the last century that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well years later.

But that’s not my only problem with this notion. Because people have been bandying around those specific names as “must-reads” for decades. A lot of excellent science fiction was written back then by other people. And a whole lot of good science fiction has been written since the heyday of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. A lot has changed in the genre. Sure, Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” was profound and mind-boggling when it was published in 1954 (63 years ago), but when I read it for the first time in 1973, even 13-year-old me saw the ending before it arrived. It was bit disappointing, to be honest. Because the story had been so influential that the once mind-boggling idea had been incorporated, expanded, deconstructed, and re-imagined several times in that 19-year span.

And it’s continued to be re-used in sci fi since. Heck, the entire story was boiled down to a two-sentence (and hilarious) joke in a 1992 episode of BBC’s Red Dwarf!

Which is not me saying that something which has been done before can never be repeated. Looking at old ideas in new ways is an essential part of sf/f. It’s just that the value of revisiting the same “classics” over and over is questionable, at best.

I would feel a little less like this was white guys insisting that everyone has to read their favorite old white guys if some of this “must read” lists included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published in 1816, as well as anything by Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, or Andre Norton.

The usual argument is that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark created the genre—and you can’t understand what it is now without reading them. Except, they didn’t create it. If you want to understand the origins you need to go back at least another hundred years to Shelley’s Frankenstein, for one, and stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for instance) in the 1830s.

Sure, I think a writer needs to have read a lot and broadly to feed their craft. But when I say broadly, I mean really broadly. Read things outside your favorites, absolutely! Not everything you read needs to be a masterpiece, by anyone’s definition. You can learn from bad examples as well as good. Playfulness is an important part of the creative process, so reading light entertaining tales is just as important to feeding your artistic soul as reading deep, meaningful, serious stories.

Science fiction is supposed to be about not just looking at the horizon, but going past it. Not just using your mind, but expanding it.

And you know what doesn’t stretch anyone’s horizon or expand anyone’s mind? Everyone reading the exact same thing.

If the only input anyone has are the same list of books from the same authors, decade after decade, then every creator will just be regurgitating the same stuff that every other creator has.

There is value in studying what has been done before in your chosen field of writing, but it isn’t the only way to learn to create good stories in the genre. Just as one can learn to drive a modern car without first mastering the horse and buggy, you can learn to write without memorizing a specific set of books from a very narrow set of writers who were working 60+ years ago. If you want to study earlier generations of writers, remember that there is a vast volume of science fiction and fantasy works beyond anyone’s chosen list of classics or favorites. Find lists that don’t include the same few “must reads” and sample the less often recommended works, if you’re going to do that.

Similarly, there can be value for some readers in understanding the roots of some of the things being created today, but it isn’t necessary. You don’t have to go back in time to watch traveling vaudeville shows in order to understand and fully appreciate modern movies, right? You can understand and fully appreciate modern stories without reading the old stuff, first.

Look out at that horizon, and take aim for what’s beyond!

Sometimes Extinction Arrives on Wheels — more of why I love sf/f

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Some months back I wrote about the first story written by Connie Willis that I remember reading. And while that story is awesome and I still find new insights every time I read it decades later, the first of her stories that made me go, “Dang! This author is GREAT!” Was from a few months later that same year: “The Last of the Winnebagos.”

The story is about a photojournalist who is supposed to be on his way to cover a political event, but he stops to take pictures of the so-called Last of the Winnebagos. The tale is set in a dystopia near-future where, among other changes, the entire species of dog was wiped out by a plague. During the death spiral of the dogs extinction, laws against animal cruelty and the like have ratcheted up, and the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has become not just a major political force, but for all intents and purposes a national secret police force. Even accidentally killing an animal can result in serious prison time and other steep penalties.

There are other changes that have taken place unrelated to the dog plague. Energy sources are rationed, for instance. At the time of the story there are only three states left in the country that have not banned RVs and similar gas-guzzlers. Even in those states where they are still allowed, just vehicles are banned from federal freeways. So the elderly couple who drive around in one of the last RVs, regularly park somewhere public, put up a sign, and for a small fee give people a tour of this relic of a bygone era.

While taking pictures and interviewing the couple, the photojournalist takes particular interest in the photos they have of their last pet, who succumbed to the plague, like so many others. During this portion of the story, we learn of that the journalist has an ongoing side project to take photos of people talking about their beloved dogs, trying to catch the moment when, as he says, “their face reveals the beloved pet.”

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot. Suffice it to say that there are secrets revealed—such as why the photojournalist is more interested in the elderly couple and their photos of like on the road with their beloved, long-lost pet than the paid gig. And we learn a few more interesting twists about the dystopic America the characters inhabit.

That’s a big part of why this story hooked me. The dystopia that Willis imagines in this story is quite different than any I had seen before. Yet utterly believable. People will vote for very strange things and get behind politicians proposing quite ridiculous things if they get riled up enough. A truth that has been demonstrated very painfully the last few years.

Even though the story involves the journalist driving over great distances a few times, interacting with the “secret police” as well as ordinary citizens, the tale always feels intimate. We’re exploring something very personal and painful in this story. In addition to seeing some novel ideas (for the time) of how certain technologies would change.

It was a good story. A thought-provoking story. A story that explored both personal grief, and communal regret. As well as looking of multiple (and very plausible) types of extinction.

Fighting toward the light at the end of the tunnel—or why hope is important in sf/f

What’s wrong with hope? (click to embiggen)

One of the things I loved about tumblr (before the SESTA/FOSTA madness), was the wide variety of cool things that would come across my dashboard because someone had reblogged something reblogged by someone who had reblogged from someone else. At some point in the last year, this blog post by Alexandra Rowland crossed my timeline. I thought it was cool, and I liked it and reblogged it myself, and I didn’t think about it again until last week when everyone was posting links to an article on the same subject on Vox (and in many cases arguing against the premise). The original post was simple:

The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.

Rowland goes on to describe hopepunk in more detail. In later posts, when lots of people argued about the term she chose (often suggesting noblebright as the preferred term), she explained how a hopepunk world is different than a noblebright one. Noblebright is where every hero is noble and pure and they conquer evil because they are noble and pure and once evil is conquered everything goes back to being noble and pure. A hopepunk world isn’t a rose-colored fairytale place, instead:

The world is the world. It’s really good sometimes and it’s really bad sometimes, and it’s sort of humdrum a lot of the time. People are petty and mean and, y’know, PEOPLE. There are things that need to be fixed, and battles to be fought, and people to be protected, and we’ve gotta do all those things ourselves because we can’t sit around waiting for some knight in shining armor to ride past and deal with it for us. We’re just ordinary people trying to do our best because we give a shit about the world. Why? Because we’re some of the assholes that live there.

I’m not completely sure when the term grimdark was first coined, but I know the attitude was around (and works of fiction based on it were getting praised and winning awards) in the late 1980s. Grimdark is sometimes described as a reaction to idealistic heroic fiction, meant to portray how nasty, brutish, violent, and dark the real world is. It has also been defined somewhat more accurately as a type of fiction that prefers darkness for darkness sake, replacing aspiration with nihilism and the assertion that true ethical behavior is either futile or impossible.

I think a much more accurate description of the majority of grimdark is torture porn and rape porn pretending to be a deconstruction of unrealistic tropes. Damien Walter noted in an article for the Guardian a few years ago that it is driven by a “commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers.”

Usually in grimdark stories the driving narrative force is to do the most brutal, shocking, nasty thing the author can to characters that they have made likable—with a lot of misogynist skewing. Rape of women and children is particularly prevalent in these stories, usually justified by the claim that that is realistic for pre-industrial societies, ignoring the fact that in war zones throughout history men were almost as likely to be the victims of rape by the enemy as women. I also have trouble with the “realistic” defense particularly in the epic fantasy settings because those authors never show people dying of cholera or dysentery—which in the real historical settings were at least a thousand times more likely to be the cause of a person’s death than torture or rape.

Grimdark appeals most strongly to white (usually straight) young men from middle class backgrounds—the sort of people who are least likely to have experienced much in the way of grimness in the real world. They are the kinds of guys who will insist that they are oppressed now because women, people of color, and queer folks have some civil rights protections. In short, they are the kind of people that:

They’re nice white middle class boys and the closest they’ve ever come to the ghetto is when they accidentally got off at the tube in Brixton once, took one look around and ran crying back into the tube.

I’ll tell you where that quote came from in a minute. First, I want to finish explaining why I believe it is mostly white, straight, middle class young men who find this appealing. It’s precisely because their exposure to grim realities is almost always secondhand. The notion that the person held up as a hero isn’t really a paragon of virtue is something they didn’t experience firsthand as a child. They didn’t routinely have someone they admired and loved call them an abomination, for instance. Queer kids, on the other hand, experienced that again and again growing up. Women learn early in life that the best they can expect from society and family if they get sexually harassed or assaulted is that they will be blamed for not somehow avoiding the situation. People of color learn that their lives are considered disposable by much of society, and so on.

Brutality, nastiness, and cruelty aren’t surprising revelations, to us. They are things we learn to expect (and endure with a smile if we don’t want to get grief from those around us). So we don’t get the same puerile thrill from its portrayal as others do.

I started working on this post last weekend after reading some of the follow-ups to the Vox story that I included in the Friday Five. And then I discovered that Cora Buhlert had already said much of what I thought about the issue (and had a lot more references than I to quote) in a blog post that I failed to read last week while I was being sick and not reading much of anything: The Hopepunk Debate. The block quote above came from there, where she was quoting a much older posting she had done elsewhere. You should go read her post, because it’s full of all sorts of interesting citations and observations.

When grimdark first started popping up, it seemed to many like an interesting and novel way to look at our perceptions of culture. It was the scrappy newcomer to the pop culture landscape—in 1987. In the 30-some years since, it has become one of the dominant paradigms of storytelling. The most popular fantasy series on television anywhere right now, Game of Thrones, is grimdark. It’s no longer surprising when likable characters are maimed and tortured and murdered in brutal ways in popular shows and books. It’s become boringly predictable.

Except that’s not quite true. Brutality has always been banal.

This gets to why I think Rowland is right to use the suffix -punk in her description of this reaction to grimdark. Grimdark has become the norm in too much of speculative fiction. Believing that hope is a thing worth kindling is, in such an environment, an act of rebellion.

We can argue about what kind of works qualify as hopepunk. For instance, I think that The Empire Strikes Back could be considered hopepunk. Luke’s insecurities and imperfections drive his part of the plot. Lando isn’t a nice guy (charming, yes, but not nice). Han is imperfect in different ways than Lando or Luke. Lots of things don’t go right for the heroes, but they don’t give up.

I’ve said many times that science fiction is the literature of hope. Even in most dystopian fiction, I have said, there is a glimmer of hope. I fully understand that that is something I believe, and isn’t necessarily an empirical fact. I believe the best sf/f can be realistic, it can be dark, it can portray the imperfect and even nasty nature of the world, while still offering that glimmer of hope.

And the truth is that that world is more realistic. That is an empirical fact. If the worst possible outcome was always more likely than others, our planet would be a barren, lifeless rock. Yes, we all die eventually, as far as we know all living creatures do. But the world is full of life because more often than not, living things survive, they endure, and they pass the gift of life along. Not understanding that requires turning an awfully big blind eye on the world. It’s a boring and inaccurate assessment of the world around us.

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

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