In one of those posts he reviews a story that isn’t technically a sf/f story, though it is about the making of a sf/f film and is written by Ray Bradbury. And there was a fascinating conversation that occurred in the comments about edge cases, and the notion of sf-adjacent things. In the post he made a list of topics that sf-fans are sufficiently enthusiastic about that stories (even non-fiction ones) with that element might be considered part of the sf category:
- Space travel
- Robots and Artificial Intelligence
I don’t, by the way, disagree with him at all in his definition of things that can be considered sf-adjacent. The list is great, as far as it goes. I would rephrase it a bit:
- Manned space travel/astronomical phenomenon
- Rockets and satellites and unmanned spacecraft
- Robots and Artificial Intelligence (modern readers)
- Dinosaurs and extinct mega-fauna
It could be argued that I’m just being pedantically specific with a couple of these. But, stay with me: I very seldom met a fellow dinosaur enthusiast who wasn’t also equally excited to talk about Mammoths, Smilodons, giant Sloths, Dire Wolves, giant Tortoises, and other extinct non-dinosaurs of the Pleistocene. A news blog I follow used to have a contributor who regularly posted stories about new fossil finds, paleontology, and such, with the tag “dinosaur news” and there would always be at least one comment from someone whenever the extinct animal in quest wasn’t actually a dinosaur. And they were usually of the “well actually” type of comment. So she started including a note to the effect that she knew this thing wasn’t a dinosaur, but that people who were interested in such paleontological news stories often found them with “dinosaur” as a search term.
And this gets to why I expanded the first two bullets to be more explicit: there is a significantly large fraction of science fiction fans who are almost pathologically pedantic. Such a person might insist that the term “space travel” should only refer to people moving through outer space, for instance. Of course, another person might object to rockets being a separate category. And anyone might ask why manned space travel is separate from rockets and satellites. To me, space travel is about the experience of traveling in space, while rockets is about the technological and engineering problems of the vehicles and such themselves. Similarly, things that we learn about distant objects in the universe through telescopes and other sensors are a different topic than the sensors themselves and how they are made.
I added the “modern reader” qualifier to the third bullet because I think for sf/f fans who were alive in the 50s and 60s and actively reading sf/f published at that time (so, maybe people born before 1948-ish) that the third category would have been “Robots and computers” which could be argued subsumed AI, but any computer topic seemed futuristic at the time, whereas just plain computers have been humdrum for a while. Further, I suspect that the Robots and AI section will morph again when the young children of today become active consumers of sf/f, because a lot of us have AIs on our pockets, now. And many of us have robots in our homes. Robots and AI are swiftly becoming mundane phenomena. I’m not sure what it will morph into, but it will morph.
In the essay in question, Cam clearly says that his list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. And since he wrote the list while in the middle of tracking down, reading, and reviewing stories published between 1952 and 1971, it makes sense that those are the topics that would first come to mind. I think a more exhaustive list could easily include topics from medical and biological sciences, for instance.
Not all science fiction fans are nerdily into engineering and hard science. Many of us are just as interested in the so-called soft sciences (dinosaurs!). For a lot of fans, the appeal is less about how technology works, and more about how technology changes us and society. Most people don’t know how smart phones work, for instance, but everyone has opinions about how our social habits and expectations have changed now that nearly everyone has a magic hunk of glass in their pockets that allows them to communicate with the world. And it’s not just luddites. During one of the panels at Locus Awards Weekend, a panelist commented that you have to keep telephones out of certain kinds of stories. Mary Robinette Kowal (current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) agreed: “Right, they are just too dangerous to plots. Pfft! Letting people talk to each other?”
Speculating about what other inventions might change our behavior (collective and otherwise) is a component of sf which is just as importance as how those inventions work. And one of the ways we think about that is to look at how historical inventions and discoveries changed society. You don’t have to know who an automated loom works to be interested in how the cheap manufacture of textiles changed how we live and even how we think about clothes, for instance.
So there are probably fans who would ask why Mechanization isn’t on the list. I might point out that a mechanized loom is a type of robot, so maybe mechanization belonged on the list a few generations ago? Or am I just spinning out of control with all these fuzzy boudnaries?
Because now I’m wondering, if sf-fandom had existed in the early 19th century, before Sir Richard Owen first coined the word “dinosaur,” what might the list have looked like?
Maybe that’s a question for another day
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
First, an ending doesn’t have to be a happy ending to be satisfying to the reader. Tragedies have been around for a long, long time. But most readers do want a character they can root for throughout the story, and if the character fails in the end, the reader still wants to feel that they were right to root for that character. Maybe the protagonist’s death allows others to escape a terrible fate. Maybe the cause was worth the sacrifice and the way the protagonist failed leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope that someone else will succeed where they failed. Maybe all the reader needs is to know that the protagonist believe their sacrifice was worth it—making an effort against the forces of darkness is better than not trying at all.
Even happy endings have to feel earned. The reader isn’t going to be satisfied if it doesn’t feel as if the struggle was real.
And surprise endings? Surprise endings can’t feel as if they came from nowhere. You can surprise the reader at the end, sure, but a second after the surprise is revealed, the reader should go, “Dang! I should have seen that coming!” The surprise has to make sense within the narrative frame and the character arc(s) you’ve already led the reader through.
I’ve written about that particular phenomenon once before, specifically in the context of murder mysteries and similar stories, so I’m just going to quote myself:
For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.
Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.
Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.
And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the puzzle.
Getting the ending right isn’t easy. And if you get it wrong, the reader doesn’t just dislike the ending, they feel as if all the time they have spent on the story was a waste. And remember, it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. This doesn’t mean that you have to give the reader the ending they want—it means your ending has to make sense, it has to pay off any questions or themes you teased the reader with before, and it has to feel earned. It has to be the best ending you could deliver, not a prank you pulled on the reader to show how clever you are.
It isn’t easy, but nothing worthwile is.
1. The Night Was Sultry, part 1—adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 2 — more adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 3 — finding the emotional hook, The Night Was Sultry, part 4 — fitting the opening to the tale, The Night Was Sultry, part 5 — closing the circle, openings and endings, and Begin at the beginning, not before for instance.
2. Specifically Lucifer, Arrow, and The Flash. Which I feel I need to mention, because I know that one reason so many others are talking about this topic is because of the final season of Game of Thrones which is not a show I have ever watched—so none of this is intentionally about that topic.
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.
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.
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!
When I heard McGuire say that as a child she loved stories where the child protagonists went to a magical world where they became heroes and warrior-princesses and the like, but was always so angry that they then had to go back home, I was nodding emphatically in agreement. I wanted to get lost in the misty woods and find myself caught in a war between goblins and elves. Or go around a bend on a lake shore and find myself face to face with a giant beetle who greeted me and told me we had to run because danger was coming and so forth.
Except I didn’t want to have to come home again after the first adventure was over. The other world was so much better than the real world. I recall one time when I asked a teacher I trusted why the stories always ended there, she wasn’t very understanding. “Wouldn’t you rather be home with your mom and dad and all your friends?”
She didn’t know what to say when I asked, “What friends?” I didn’t add that if I could run away and never see my father again I would be the happiest boy in the world. This isn’t to say that I never had friends as a child. But being the kind of kid who was always quickly labeled a sissy (or worse words) and a weirdo whenever new kids met me, combined with the number of times we moved because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry (ten elementary schools across four states), I never had a lot of friends. This particular conversation happened less than two months after we had moved yet again, and I hadn’t yet really found a friend at the new place.
Another time that I told someone how much I wished I could live in one of those magical worlds, the person tried to convince me that the things which seemed like an adventure would not be fun. “Real monsters aren’t just scary, they actually hurt you.”
I had learned through multiple experiences that if I told such adults that I already lived with exactly the kind of monster who actually hurt you that I would be disbelieved at best. Because the kinds of adults who will see a ten-year-old with stitches and multiple contusions on his face and one arm in a sling, look that kid in the eyes, then lecture him that if he was just more well-behaved his father wouldn’t do these things to him not only don’t know what monsters are—they enable monsters.
That reality is precisely why portal fantasies appealed so strongly to me as a kid. And why the endings were always so frustrating.
Let’s pause a moment to go over some terminology. 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. Classic examples are falling down a rabbit hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or through the enchanted wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or carried off by a tornado in The Wizard of Oz, or being injured and losing consciousness to wake up elsewhere as in the Thomas Covenant books.
A portal fantasy is different than an immersive fantasy, where all of the action occurs within the fantastical world and there are no characters who come from the mundane world. Think of Lord of the Rings or The Last Unicorn or any of the Conan the Barbarian stories. It is also different from an intrusive fantasy, where magical/fantastic creatures somehow come into what otherwise appears to be our mundane world—sometimes the narrative assumption is that the magic has been there all along, but for whatever reason most of us are unaware of it and thus don’t believe in it. Think of Dracula or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or A Wrinkle In Time.
The particular appeal of the portal fantasy for a kid like me is that in the fantastic world, I would have options that aren’t available to me in the real world. I didn’t see how any of the monsters and evil overlords in the fantasy books were worse than things my father (and the whole structure of society that enabled child abuse) did to me. As a kid, I may not have really understand the concept which is summed up by the old adage, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” but there was one thing that the protagonists of the portal fantasies had that I didn’t have in the real world: agency. The kids transported to the magical kingdom may have been put in perilous situations, but they weren’t powerless.
It wasn’t just when I was a young child that other people critiqued my enjoyment (and enthusiastic recommendations) of portal fantasies. In my teens and later, an additional critique was added: “You just want a happy ending.” This was usually served with a heaping helping of cynicism about how happy endings don’t exist in the real world, and people who don’t understand that are defective in some way. All of that judgmental cynicism is also the foundation of critiques (that often comes from certain people who call themselves fans of sf/f) which dismiss many works of speculative and fantastic fiction as merely fan service.
I have two responses to this line of argument.
First, go back up and re-read the bit about having to survive beatings from my dad that led to hospital trips. I suspect I know far better than the people who make the happy ending argument just how bad the real world can be. And I survived that. And you better believe that part of the reason I survived it is because fantasy books helped me to imagine a life where the monsters could be conquered. That alone should justify the existence of so-called escapist literature.
For the second and more important response, let’s go back to the Wayward Children books and the author thereof. There are two things I’ve come to expect from a Seanan McGuire book:
- At some point in the story she will break my heart,
- By the time I get to the end, I will be holding my hands out (metaphorically) toward the author like a Dickensian urchin and will plead, “Please, may I have some more?”
And to be clear, I mean there are things that happen in the stories (not just this series) to the main characters that make me physically shed tears as I’m reading. Sometimes McGuire has left me sobbing uncontrollably with some developments that happen. Characters in her stories do not always get a happy ending. Many very unhappy things happen to them. So if all I wanted was happy stories where nothing bad ever happens, why do I keep reading her stuff (excitedly pre-ordering things when I can; and recommending the stories to others)?
Because I never get the feeling that she is doing it just to shock me. She never allows harm to happen lightly—even to the bad guys. Death never happens senselessly. By which I mean both that the bad things always makes sense within the world, but also because the bad things are integral to the plot. It always feels genuinely that she knows this pain and she understands it. These stories don’t sensationalize or revel in pain and suffering, they show pain because real people suffer things that hurt this much. In the real world, far too often the pain of many types of people is ignored, rationalized, and even celebrated.
I don’t want to celebrate pain. Celebrate the moments of happiness and love that characters seize despite misfortune? Yes, please!
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”
There are some who would say this isn’t in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and certainly not in line with advice I have often given people who are stuck: to just write the next word and keep moving. Since each time I have redone a scene I started from scratch, I think this counts as legitimate first draft activity. I’m not revising, see. And if someone thinks this is a form of cheating, well for years I was a member of the NaNoWriMo Rebels. The original rules specified that you not write a single word of the story before the stroke of midnight on October 31. So I was a rebel because I was usually trying to finish one of more works already in progress. So if my multiple tellings of the same (or substantially similar) scenes is cheating, I guess I’m a rebel again.On the other hand, there is a scene that is told twice which I intend to go into the book that way. The reader will first seen the end of a battle from the point of view of the main villain of the story, as he arrives when most of the fight is over and tries to figure out what’s happening. Then in the next chapter the reader will see the beginning of the battle from the point of view of one of the protagonists and learn quite a bit more. And I think it works quite well.
We’ll see what the readers think.