Tag Archive | writing

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.”

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Don’t stick a fork in the reader, or, getting the ending right

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

We talk about beginnings and opening lines in fiction frequently. I’ve written about it many times myself1, as well as participating in panels at conventions on the topic. We spend less time talking about endings. One reason why is because it’s a more complicated topic, because for the ending to work all of the stuff in the middle of the story needs to come together in a satisfying way, and ideally the ending will tie back to the opening. So it’s easier to give advice about moving character arcs along, making them work with the external conflict, and so forth, and assume that the ending will take care of itself if we get all the rest right. I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately in part because I’ve been seeing the topic talked about a lot on various social media—but also because over the course of the last week I’ve watched season finales of three shows that I’ve been following for years2.

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.


Footnotes:

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.

I hate the term “fan service,” or, don’t forget you’re writing to an audience

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”—Kurt Vonnegut

(click to embiggen)

I was reading a review of a work of art that I had already observed, but the review was by an author that I usually like, so I was interested in their take on it. Now while the review was mostly phrased as a positive, it also included the observation that the work of art was mostly fan service, and that stringing together a series of entertaining moments was not the way to accomplish substantive writing.

Bull.

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, that doesn’t mean that the opinion is valid. I mean, technically, if one’s definition of substantive writing absolutely excludes the possibility that anyone would find said writing enjoyable, I guess it is a valid observation. But I don’t think that such a definition is a reasonable one.

One of the reasons I hate the term “fan service” is because the implication is that merely because a moment in a story (whether that story is a novel, short story, movie, or television episode) makes the audience cheer that means it is objectively a bad thing. Now the counter-argument is usually stated that they aren’t saying a story shouldn’t be enjoyable, but rather that the author shouldn’t put something in merely because the audience wants it.

To which I say, “Bold of you to insist you can always discern the writer’s motive.”

On one level, the fan service critique sounds like simply another way of stating an oft-repeated piece of writing advice: “Of course you have to write to an audience, but never forget you are writing for yourself.” That’s a good piece of advice so long as you understand what it means is that you shouldn’t compromise your story to appeal to an audience. And by compromise we mean, don’t make the story unsatisfying/unbelievable to you. Because then you aren’t writing your story.

Sometimes what people who use the term “fan service” really mean is that it is something they think the wrong sort of person would want. It’s a weird form of gatekeeping. “This plot development appeals to the sort of person I don’t want to consort with, and I don’t want to consort with them so much, that I don’t want to be perceived as liking the same sort of things as they do.”

While others who use the term seem to honestly believe that if something is enjoyable that it isn’t worthwhile. Because only difficult-to-understand art is substantive? Though there is a lot of snobbery in this attitude, so it may just be another form of gatekeeping.

Other times, the person using the term means the event was something they didn’t care for. And that is a valid reason to dislike a particular story, but that doesn’t mean the story is objectively bad. Whether you like the plot point or not is literally a subjective thing. And you know what else is subjective? The definition of “substantive” when applied to any work of art. Because substantive just means “important” or “meaningful” and what is important and meaningful is going to vary from person to person.

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

I like this Vonnegut quote because it embraces the idea of subjectivity. Readers are selfish, he observes, but he doesn’t say that is a bad thing—because in this context it isn’t. Just as a person who is on a date with someone that they find incompatible (whether they simply have no common interests, or are off-putting, or creepy, or acting like an asshole) has the right to walk away, so too the reader has the right to set the book aside and never finish it.

It’s simply the flip side of the principle that not every story is for everybody. While a particular person may be incompatible with you, they may be absolutely perfect for someone else. The same goes for stories. Something that I can’t stand might be one of your favorites, and vice versa.

Putting things in your story that makes some of the readers cheer ought to be one of your goals as a writer. You shouldn’t be afraid of it. The key is whether or not that same thing is something you think belongs in the story.

The ultimate goal is to write a tale that makes some readers keep turning the page, again and again, anxious to find out how it ends. That means at least occasionally including moments that cause that reader satisfaction.

That isn’t fan service.

That is simply good storytelling.

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.

Life is short and other musings about writing, reading, and variety in sf/f

“Life is short. Write that novel. Paint that painting. Try new recipes. Learn black magic. Go into the forest at night. Summon a demon. Earn that demon's trust. Become best friends with it. Brag to everyone else about your new cool demon best friend. Knit that sweater.”

Life is short… (click to embiggen)

So, I started Camp NaNoWriMo yesterday. I and a few friends have a cabin (which is basically a private chat group for up to 12 people who have set up projects). Camp NaNoWriMo is similar to the full fledged National Novel Writing Month, but it’s meant to be a bit more low-key and flexible. You get to set your own word count goal, for one. Lots of people use Camp NaNo to edit or revise a large project (such as whatever they wrote during a previous NaNoWriMo). It’s fun. I like having the private chat and having a structure for posting progress, getting and giving encouragement to friends, and so on.

Our cabin isn’t full, so if something like this appeals to you, set up a project and send me a message with your user name so I can send you an invitation to our cabin.

My particular project is an editing one, and I’m counting words as I go through scenes in the larger project. When I finish the edits on a scene, I copy it into a seperate Scrivener document to keep track of my word count. I was a little suprised at how much I got done on the first day, since it was a day at work where I don’t really get a chance to take a full lunch to spend writing, and I was feeling more than a bit out of it when I got home from work.

In other news, the 2019 Hugo and Campbell Awards Finalists have been announced. I was quite pleased to see that in every category at least one thing I nominated made it to the final ballot. The flip side of that is that there are also a lot of things with which I’m not familiar that made it onto the ballot, so I get to read a lot of new stuff soon!

I was really happy to see that Archive of Our Own—a massive fan fiction repository—is nominated in the Related Works category. It’s a little weird, because there are thousands of contributors (including me, though I have such a teeny tiny bit of stuff posted I don’t really count). Clearly if it wins, thy won’t be handing one of the big rocket trophies to every contributor. There are a couple of things in that category that I haven’t read, so I don’t yet know if AO3 is going to be my first choice for Related Work, yet.

As I said, I’m once again looking forward to reading stuff that has been nominated for the Hugos. As happy as I am to see things I nominated make the list, I also love seeing new things that I haven’t read, yet. Because, as I mentioned as part of another point last week, no one’s favorites list can encompass all of science fiction/fantasy. And that isn’t just because a whole lot of it is being published today (although with self-publishing being so much easier, and the internet making things more discoverable, there is an incredibly wide variety to choose from).

But a lot of people operate under the illusion that in times past a single fan could, indeed, read everything in the genre that had been published that year. It only seems that way if you assume that only the authors and stories you have heard of years later are who and what were being published at that time. A great example of this misapprehension is one of the flaws in a recent blog post by whacko Brian Niemeier (that I won’t link to directly, but since Camestros Felapton does a nice analysis of some of the flaws, I’ll link to his post: Did fandom cause the collapse of civilisation or vice versa? Let’s Assume Neither 🙂).

Niemeier makes the claim that “back in the day” everyone read Edgar Rice Burroughs and everyone listened to The Shadow radio show. Now, it’s true that Burroughs’ Tarzan books sold so well that he was able to form a film company and produce his own adaptations of his books, something that would be unthinkable for an author to do today. But it’s simply not true that everyone read the Tarzan books, if for no other reason that regular readers of novels and the like have always been a minority of the population. James Branch Cabell, a contemporary of Burroughs, sold more copies of his books during the nineteen-teens and -twenties than Burroughs did, yet he is largely forgotten today. There were scores of magazines publishing sci fi, fantasy, horror, and related fantastical fiction, publishing thousands of stories during that time most of which written by hundreds of authors many of whom we’ve never heard of.

While there is a huge amount of fantastic fiction to love now, there was a huge amount then, too. And I think that’s great! Because not everyone likes the same things, and the more variety there is, the more likely that there is something wonderful to discover and read for the first time, right? Similarly, the fact that many people like many things, mean that something you or I create is likely to find a receptive audience.

I am quite certain that if someone wrote a story about a conjurer who becomes best pals with a demon and they take up knitting together, someone out there will want to read it.

And those are good things.

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”

Embracing many realities, or why sf/f is about more than just ideas

Cover of the January 1959 edition of Astounding Science Fiction

I don’t know what these guys are supposed to be arguing about over this nativity scene, but clearly the alien is amused.

My seventh grade math teacher noticed that everyday during lunch break I would sit off to the side reading, and also that each day I had a different book. It just so happened that his class was my first class after lunch, and one day early in the term, as I walked into the room, he asked me what the book I was reading that day was about. I tried to sum up the plot as the other kids were coming in and taking their seats. He nodded, said it sounded interesting, and then we started class. The next day he asked the question again. It continued, each day he would either ask me what the book I was reading that day was about, or if I’d liked the way the previous day’s book had ended. This particular teacher had known me my whole life. He and his wife had been classmates of my parents. There was a picture in Mom’s photo album of him and Dad chatting while Mom and his wife were cooing over me as a baby. As I recall, his wife was the one holding me. So I didn’t think of him as just a teacher—he was an old family friend. So I just took the questions as sincere interest.

These conversations always happened as the other kids were filing into the classroom, taking their seats, getting out their books, and so on. And usually they all just ignored what I and the teacher were talking about. Until one day when one young woman walked up to us and declared in a rather loud voice. “My mom says that people who read all the time are freaks who don’t understand the real world because they spend all their time in those imaginary places!”

It seemed as if the entire room went silent and that everyone was looking at us.

I started to stammer out something, but the teacher said, “It’s not nice to call someone a freak.” And then he told us to both take our seats.

She was hardly the first person to criticize my reading habits. Adults had often felt the need to weigh in and tell my parents that they shouldn’t let me read science fiction and fantasy, especially. Many thought all the fantasy was satanic, and the science fiction was equally suspect because scientists believe in evolution. There were also many who just thought that how much time I spend reading was the problem, regardless of the subject matter. There are a variety of reasons why non-readers distrust books. It’s not just the evangelical fundamentalists, who tend to classify everything in the world into the two categories of pro-Jesus and pro-Satan who misunderstand what the realm of sf/f is about.

A few weeks back I wrote about the older professional sf author who dismissed the three recent award-winning novels (which he admits he has never read) of a black woman because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Besides being a dick-ish comment, it’s a bog standard gatekeeping argument.

Gatekeeping is an insidious system of exclusion intent on denigrating, dismissing, and erasing anyone who doesn’t conform to the cishet white male (often English-speaking) yardstick. This particular argument has two prongs: the first is the implication that a person is ignorant of the past of the genre, the second is the notion that a great science fiction story must introduce a new idea in order to be great. Science fiction has been defined as the literature of ideas, after all.

I have several objections to this entire line of reasoning.

First, almost none of the works that are usually authoritatively held forth as “great” science fiction actually introduced a new idea. For example, The Stars My Destination was a novel by Alfred Bester published in 1956 and frequently named in various polls as the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Here’s the thing: The Stars My Destination is basically a re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo (published more than 100 years earlier). Oh, yes, there are interplanetary space ships and human colonies on the asteroids and various planets of the solar system (standard sf ideas for at least two decades at that point), and the main character (who in this case is definitely not a hero) developed the spontaneous ability to teleport simply by thinking about it. Even then, the notion of teleportation had been used in science fiction and fantasy stories since the 1870s (that’s right, when Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States).

None of the ideas in The Stars My Destination were new, so why do so many science fiction fans and pros consider it a great sf novel? This gets us to my next objection: because a novel isn’t just about a single idea. A novel is a complete story with multiple characters and sub-plots. It’s about the synthesis of narrative, characterization, world-building, actions, reactions, and consequences. It’s the way Bester took many elements the reader was already familiar with, combined them, contrasted them, and wove a compelling tale out of them.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas in the sense that ideas are things we examine and re-examine. We toy with them, dissect them, expand them, redefine them, deconstruct (which is different than dissection) them, reassemble them, combine them with other ideas, and so forth. And it isn’t a competition (even though we have awards and sometimes argue about the relative merits of different works), it’s a conversation. Subsequent tales that use ideas others have used before should be understood in the context of the give-and-take of a conversation. One story looked at one aspect of the idea, other stories imagine different aspects, or ask us to reconsider the assumptions of the previous viewpoints.

It isn’t about settling on one and only one notion of reality. It is about possibilities. It should not be about narrowing the possibilities, but rather expanding the mind.

If wanting more possibilities makes me a freak, then I’ll proudly take the label.

Don’t stop writing!

The phrase "You should be writing" over a picture of author Neil Gaiman

(click to embiggen)

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is nearly over. I hit the NaNo standard goal of 50,000 word over the weekend, though I still have a ways to go before I hit my personal goal of 66,000 (attempting to break my previous record of 65,591). This year’s project has involved writing some scenes multiple times from several perspectives—the most egregious one having now seven different versions, which is fairly amazing since it really consists of just two characters. Another scene that was written five times at least involves four active characters and one passive observer, which makes the multiple versions make a bit more sense.

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.

My progress as of last night.

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.

That voice whispering that no one wants to read your story? It lies…

“First drafts don't have to be perfect. They just have to be written.”

Click to embiggen

While I’m working on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I’m going to try to get at least a few blog posts about writing. And during NaNoWriMo a particularly apt topic is that of first drafts, why a bad but finished first draft is better than a blank page, and so forth. There is one particular aspect of this topic that I probably haven’t written about enough. To get to that aspect requires me to lay a bit of ground work, so grab your favorite beverage, tuck in, and let me share some background.

I first encountered Neil Gaiman’s writing back in the late 80s and early 90s while he was writing The Sandman for DC Comics. Sandman was not a superhero comic, it was the story of the incarnation/personification of Dreams, and over the course of the series Gaiman told tales crossing many genres: myth, mystery, horror, and a lot of things that are difficult to classify. It won a bunch of awards. One issue won a World Fantasy Award for short story–a thing which shocked some people so much they changed the rules so that no graphic novel or graphic story could ever be nominated in a World Fantasy Award writing category again.

Anyway, over the years after I would encounter some of Gaiman’s short stories and novels. Some I liked, some I didn’t. But the ones I liked were always so good that I would always at least give a new story a try.

When I first saw reviews of his 2001 novel, American Gods it sounded like something that would be right up my alley. A combination of fantasy and Americana that looks at the question, if ancient mythological creatures were all real, where are they now and what are they doing? Admittedly themes Gaiman had already explored in Sandman, but it’s an area of fantasy of which am an enamored. So I expected to love the novel.

I didn’t.

It would not be fair to say I hated the novel simply because I have never been able to make myself finish it. I got bogged down maybe a quarter of the way through. Since I’m often reading multiple books at any given time, I set it aside with a bookmark in place and grabbed another book on one of my shelves with a bookmark and read it. Months later I happened across American Gods on one of my shelves, and I picked it up read some more. And I still wasn’t feeling it.

A few years later I headed into the computer room at our old house intending to copy some files from my desktop computer to take back to my laptop and my comfy chair in the living room and get some writing done. We used to have a small stereo in the computer room that one or the other of us could plug our iPods into. When my husband was playing video games on his computer, he often listened to audiobooks on the stereo. He was in the middle of one such book when I entered the computer room that day.

And during the few minutes it took me to find the files I needed and copy them, I found myself sucked into the book he was listening to. I sat there for more than a half hour listening. I only stopped because my husband paused his game for a bathroom break, and also paused the book. I asked him if, as I suspected, the book he had been listening to was Anansi Boys. It is sort of a sequel to American Gods, though Gaiman said he thought of the second book first. Anyway, it shares one important character, and essentially happens in the same world.

I asked my husband if we had a hardcopy of the book. He said he thought his copy was on the shelf next to his side of the bed. So I went, found the book, and spent the rest of the night reading Anansi Boys from the beginning, instead of writing. I quite enjoyed the book.

So not long after, I figured that maybe, now that I had finished the sort-of-sequel and really liked it, I should give American Gods another chance. After all, I had disliked and not finished the first three or four Discworld books people had tried to get me to read years before. Then a friend convinced me to read Wyrd Sisters and, well, it wasn’t long before I owned a copy of every single Discworld book there was.

I still found it impossible to become interested in American Gods or its main characters.

There are many people whose opinions I respect who really like American Gods. There are many people whose opinions I respect who don’t like it—I can think of at least one friend who hates it with a passion. I don’t hate it, I just can’t get into it. On the other hand, there is the related book I love, and a number of other things by the same author I love.

The lesson to be learned here is: not every story is for every reader.

If someone reads your story and doesn’t seem to be interested—even if they come out and say they hate it—that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. All we can know from that data point is that that particular story is not for that person.

So don’t let the fact that anyone has ever reacted poorly to something you wrote stop you from writing something else. Don’t listen to that voice that says that no one will be interested in this story. Or that says you shouldn’t try. And so on.

There is someone out there who needs the story you are trying to tell. I am confident of that. But they will never know they need it until they find it. And they will never find it if you don’t write it.

So, go! Write! Tell that story! Now!

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