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The Tyranny of the Real

If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch Patrick Rothfuss Explaining Why Literary Snobs Are Wrong. I’ll wait until you’re done.


Okay, so as somebody who happens to straddle both the academic/literary world and the fantasy/spec-fic world, I’ve run into a lot of the same sentiment that the girl who came to Rothfuss’s reading did. During my MFA program, I had a couple workshops where Fantasy or Science Fiction were outright rejected as viable submissions. In one such workshop, one professor (a lit-fic short story writer) used to ask us what books we’d read recently. Each of us would have a turn. When they got to me, I said Steel Beach by John Varley – a science fiction novel (and a hell of a fun read, by the way) – and the woman reacted as if I’d belched in her face or something. She pretended I hadn’t said anything and class moved on. That stung a bit, let me tell you. I hated that snob and her sneering assumption of what qualifies as literature. Still do.

Part of the divide between the worlds of so-called “Literary Fiction” and that of “Genre Fiction” (an artificial distinction, and I whole-heartedly agree with Rothfuss that everything is a genre) has to do with the concept of “realism”. What is “real” and what is “not real” is, for some reason, important to us in our stories. There are great swathes of people out there who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still believe that what is written in the Book of Genesis is factually true. These people don’t do this because they are crazy (or, well, not necessarily), but because the understanding of the “real” is of such incredible psychological importance to the human mind.

In Plato’s venerable Allegory of the Cave (which, for you spec-fic philistines, is basically the same thing as the Matrix, except without bullet-time or snazzy outfits), he depicts to us a world in which the people trapped in the cave…

…can see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave…and if they were to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them…[and so] the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

Plato here is describing what philosophers refer to as the “Veil of Perception,” which was explored more fully by thinkers like Descartes and Locke, but basically involves a central problem of human experience: what we see is necessarily filtered through our various senses and our senses are not always reliable. Since we cannot always trust our senses to reveal the truth to us, we are required, therefore, to either exist in a permanent state of doubt and skepticism or, conversely, to take certain things on faith as true so that we may operate in the world without anxiety. Of those two options, most of us tend to choose the second one. We prefer to think of the real as being actually real since to do otherwise would require an awful lot of work and not a little bit of discomfort.

Enter fiction! When we read a work of fiction, we are being lied to, completely and totally. None of the things being described happened, none of the people are real people, and none of the places are real places. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to engage with fiction. We have to accept these blatant lies on faith. We do this because we are able to gain from the experience – the story, even if false, resonates with our understanding of the world.

Now, in “Literary” Fiction (which is primarily focused on the real, concrete, and even contemporary world), suspension of disbelief is easy – it’s barely even noticeable. Even those stories that involve the fantastic are very tightly bound by certain realistic expectations. From such realist fiction, though, the realm of writing travels very, very far. Fantasy fiction is the furthest of the bunch, arguably – a world that is very much not our own, adhering to its own laws, governed by its own cultures and history, and so on and so forth. The suspension of belief at that end of the scale is fairly substantial – it asks you to accept the impossible as plausible in order to engage in the story. While I can readily accept that this isn’t for everyone, the supposition that doing this automatically disqualifies you from a serious literary discussion is fatuous nonsense. As Rothfuss rightly points out, many of the great works of literature are fantastic in nature. Were they to be published today, they’d get stuffed in the Scifi/Fantasy shelf right alongside Rothfuss’s stuff (and my own, though I hesitate to put myself in the same company as Rothfuss as yet).

If it spins or if it falls, is Jack's experience any lesser for it, really? Is ours?

If it spins or if it falls, is Jack’s experience any lesser for it, really? Is ours?

The big question, though, is why does realism even matter that much? If all fiction is lies, anyway, who cares what the lies are about?

We writers, we are all liars. We lie about different things and in different ways and to different degrees, but it’s all lies anyway. We lie because we’ve found that’s an easier way to get at the truth, ironically enough. To say this writer is telling lies that are too big to believe is splitting hairs – I don’t buy Holden Caufield, nor do I accept Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as realistic, but what of it? What we’re debating here is matters of taste, not truth. We are quibbling over style without bothering to have serious discussions about content. Something “not being real” is not a criticism, because none of us have any real way of distinguishing the real in the first place.

Read what speaks to you and be willing to listen to that which at first seems strange. That’s all you need to find true literature, no matter what genre it is.

Love and Magic

They call it 'fantasy' for a reason, folks.

They call it ‘fantasy’ for a reason, folks.

Most stories have a good love interest somewhere in there. The hero or heroine pines after this fella or that girl while in the midst of fighting the forces of evil or passing the bar or getting the band together for one last gig or whatever. We’re humans – we’re saps for a good romance. Fantasy fiction is no exception, either. I might even go so far as to say that the ‘love interest’ angle present in a lot of fantasy novels is, in some ways, more central to the plot than in many other genres. Maybe.

Well, if not more central, then certainly odder and potentially more problematic.

I’ve written previously about my difficulty with the female image in fantasy literature; this isn’t precisely about that. What I’m talking about is less the objectification of women and more about the romanticized idea of love. In fantasy novels, there is a certain male and a certain female character who are destined to fall in romantic love with one another and that is that. We all know who it is, too. Mad Martigan and Sorsha, Conan and Valeria, Rand Al’Thor and Elayne, Min, Aviendha and god-knows how many others in that series…

I could go on, but you know what I mean. Did any of us honestly think Luke was going to walk off with Leia? Nope. She was for Han the whole time. We could tell, you see, because they fought. Fighting means love, folks. If you don’t bicker, you don’t care. I know if I were locked in a rusty old space freighter for what was probably months with some woman I was always fighting with, we would almost certainly fall in love and make babies. Obviously. That’s how love works, right?

Fantasy and science fiction have a tendency to treat romance with idealized and ham-handed attention. They make it into something it’s not, they warp and define it to suit the story. Some of this can be blamed back on the old fairy tales of our youth – normalized gender relations rendered into gory and terrifying metaphors about witches and towers and wolves in the forest. Others can be blamed on the typical audience for fantasy and science fiction literature – young, single men. The idea of romance is tailored to suit their fantasies, as silly as that is. That these fantasies are wrong or even offensive to women (and men!) is only understood by those with a little age and experience behind them. In other words: when I was 14, much like all men, I had certain romanticized ideas of what falling in love would be like, and they were almost all entirely wrong. I blame the books I read for this, and the books I read were primarily of the fantasy and science fiction persuasion.

Some things I learned:

Terrifying Experiences Do Not Enhance Romance: Horror movies are one thing, but actual terrifying things do not make you want to cuddle. Or, if they do, it isn’t the kind of cuddling that involves making out and fondling each other in front of a roaring fire. It usually involves shivering while one or the other of you sobs and the other one tries to find some way to make the other feel better by cracking bad jokes. No sex is had. None at all.

Not All Women Admire Your Competitiveness: Remember that scene in the movie Red Sonja, where Arnold and Red Sonja fight each other all day until eventually discovering they loved one another? Well, that might be a thing if you’re going after Red Sonja, but in general being over-competitive jerk who wants to beat his girlfriend at Trivial Pursuit to the point where he’s grimacing at the game board and cursing at a die roll of ‘3’ is not sexy. They think you’re crazy. They are right.

Things never said: "I just killed twenty people with arrows. Want to make out?"

Things never said: “I just killed twenty people with arrows. Want to make out?”

Violence is Not a Turn On: No matter how much you think otherwise, gents, beating the crap out of somebody, no matter how much of a douche they are, is not likely to engender the affections of the opposite sex. Most girls will just be disgusted with the entire affair, since fighting (contrary to fantasy literature) is an unattractive thing to witness.

Sometimes You’re Just Friends: Look, guys, you are not the main character in your own epic saga of fantastic adventure. All the women will not be falling for you. Even if they’re nice and they seem to like you, that doesn’t mean you are just one date request away from deep and abiding love. Sometimes they just like you because they like you, not because they want to be with you. Sorry, them’s the brakes, kids.

The Opposite Thing From That Last: If a girl treats you badly and makes fun of you and abuses you physically and says she hates you, guess what? SHE HATES YOU. It is almost certainly not a game and, if it is, I’d suggest looking elsewhere since this girl seems to have severe self-esteem issues if she feels the need to abuse those she likes. In either event, the whole ‘love you until you stop saying no’ concept is both bonkers and borderline creepy. Cut it out. In the real world, people tell you who they are.

Now, the caveat here is that all people are different and all relationships operate differently, so I suppose it’s arrogant of me to say all of the things I said above – ‘your mileage may vary’, as they say. That said, I think it’s fair to assume that basing our expectations of our love lives based off of works where people ride dragons and throw fireballs from their hands is, speaking generously, completely ridiculous.

To give the genre credit, many of the most recent crop of fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and so on) do a pretty good job of interfering with the standard tropes, and romance has become a much more complicated affair in those worlds of late. Still and although, it is often the job of the fantasy reader, hard as it may sound, to separate the fantasies we choose to believe and the ones we don’t when taking our magical journeys into dreamland and beyond.

What’s in a Genre?

If you’ve never seen it, there’s this illustrated Map of Science Fiction by Ward Shelley  floating around the internet. It’s a fascinating examination of how the spec-fic genres have developed over the years, when and where major sub-genres have originated, and how all of it ties back to basic ancient principles of wonder, terror, and curiosity. Take some time and examine it.

I’ve been thinking a bit about genre of late, in that I’ve always considered myself someone who can write across multiple genres, but has chosen to confine myself to the broad umbrella of science fiction and fantasy. I still think this is true, but I’ve noticed that most of my recent sales have been fantasy stories and that, as a general rule, I find writing fantasy a bit easier than writing science fiction. I don’t think this is because science fiction is inherently harder to write than fantasy (I really don’t think any genre, from so-called ‘literary’ or upscale fiction all the way down to bodice rippers, are really much ‘easier’ to do well than any other), so I’m starting to wonder if perhaps my aptitude lies more in the direction of the fantastic.

My personal quandaries aside, this thread of conversation ultimately leads me to the following question: What is Fantasy’s literary contribution?

I am a firm believer that all genres of writing have something significant to contribute to the canon of literature. Everything from Westerns to Thrillers to Historical Fiction has their shining works that sum up all that a genre can do to illuminate the human condition. They are entertaining first and foremost, of course (all literature should be, ultimately), but they also have a certain special quality that allows them to explore things in a way other genres cannot. Science Fiction’s contribution, of course, is obvious – it postulates our potential future and the risks and benefits thereof. It looks forwards and outwards while most other genres look backwards and inwards. The importance of works like 1984, Brave New World, 20,000 League Under the Sea, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Neuromancer is practically self-evident.

Our Laboratory, the Castle Black

Our Laboratory, the Castle Black

What about Fantasy, though? It doesn’t look forward, really, but rather sideways. It doesn’t imagine possible futures, it imagines alternate presents or pasts. Worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth and Westeros are clearly fictional, fantastic, unreal. What can we learn from looking at a place that never was and never will be? I remember writing a fantasy story for a writing workshop in my undergraduate years and, in conference, the professor asked me ‘why don’t you just set it in the real world? Why fairies and magic?’ She considered such writing to be beneath my talents and a waste of my time – she said so in as many words. I struggled then to answer her clearly; I hadn’t fully considered it. I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since then, and not because I’ve ever really considered writing upscale fiction (I frankly don’t own enough turtlenecks or tweed blazers for that), but rather because I think it’s important for any artist (though I use the term reluctantly, preferring storyteller) to have an honest conversation with themselves about the literary merit of their work. It’s okay if what you’re writing isn’t some kind of literary masterpiece, but I think it’s important that you know, one way or another, if it does and whether or not is can.

 EDIT: The Internet ate this second half for some reason. Here’s me writing it *again*.

If your writing or your story can, shouldn’t it?

Oddly enough, to explain what fantasy does is probably best explained by science. In a scientific experiment, it is common to attempt to eliminate any exterior factors that will compromise the results. So, for instance, if you want to know if a material is toxic to plants, you try to eliminate all other environmental factors to really determine if it is or not. To do otherwise gives you a less definitive result. Fantasy operates much the same way. If your goal is to experiment upon society or politics or the human heart or what-have-you, then setting the story in the real world creates a degree of interference. Our own experiences get muddled up inside of them, our own opinions about our own world (and the confirmation bias that accompanies them) make it hard to view the story from an objective standpoint. Fantasy is ideal, however, for exploring such issues in a kind of sterile environment – a world apart from our own, yet with symbolic resonance with our own experience. It is in this sense, then, that both science fiction and fantasy are known as speculative. Now, this doesn’t mean that this is the only way to explore the human condition (obviously not), but it is a powerful way, and a way that is important. Again, not every fantasy story can or does do this, but I would suggest that the best of the genre does and must.

The Great Prologue Debate

So, in shopping my latest fantasy novel, The Oldest Trick, around, I keep running into the following controversy:

How important or not important is a prologue in a fantasy novel and should you even have one?

The obvious answer is ‘depends on the book’ or ‘depends on the prologue’. Let’s make the debate a little more complicated, though, as this will be closer to my own problem. Say the prologue (or, even generically, ‘a’ prologue) is needed to provide background to the fantasy world that will assist the reader in understanding the context of the novel’s events BUT introducing the main character in the first chapter of the novel would probably make for a better hook. What do you do then? I’ve narrowed it down to a couple choices.

  1. Cut out the prologue and shop the novel to make the prologue unnecessary.
  2. Make the prologue as good a hook as the first chapter.

Of these two choices, I’ve been focusing on #2, but I fear I’m not quite doing it to my satisfaction. I’m considering different tacks, different options, and so on. I don’t really want to sit here and have what I’m doing workshopped, specifically, but I do want to think about how prologues go and how to do them well. So, let’s to it. To my mind, there are three kinds of prologues, more or less.

This prologue routinely gives me chills.

This prologue routinely gives me chills.

Type One: A Long, Long Time Ago

This prologue throws the reader into the ancient past to witness some cataclysmic event or climactic battle. If done well, it stokes the audience’s thirst for finding out how *that* ancient time connects to the contemporary story. If done poorly, it leaves the readers confused and frustrated, since they didn’t understand what happened and, before they got a chance to figure it out, they were teleported centuries or millennia into the future with no way of ever figuring it out for sure.

Examples: The Fellowship of the Ring (movie, not book), The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling, etc.

Uh-oh! Jimmy Bond's in Trouble!

Uh-oh! Jimmy Bond’s in Trouble!

Type Two: Something Wicked This Way Comes

The next type you usually see is when, instead of meeting the hero first, you meet the villain. You see him plotting his evil plots and doing his dirty deeds and you think to yourself ‘man, that guy is bad news!’ Of course, you are excited to see how he interacts with the hero and how. In the best case scenario, this prologue is just so stunning and shocking that you can’t help but keep reading to see how it works out. In the worst case, you are faced with a villain whom you have no investment in since you have no idea who he is or why you should care.

Examples: Most James Bond movies, Excession by Iain M Banks, Star Wars: A New Hope, A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, and so on

Type Three: Secondary Sources

This method involves introducing the reader to some secondary source or journal entry that discusses the events of the novel from some kind of distance-it may even be a storyteller or some kind or elaborate narrative frame. These are done for the purpose of creating a kind of historical and realistic weight to the book’s world. If done well, they make the world come alive before the reader has even met anyone in the book. They also have the advantage of being rather short. If done poorly, the reader’s eyes glaze over and they simply skip it and, therefore, miss out on the information that may very well be important to their comprehension of the following plot.

Examples: Dune by Frank Herbert, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (sort of), etc.

There, those are the biggest ones, to my mind. They come in many variations, of course, but that’s the lion’s share in broad strokes, at least. Now, it is very possible to not need a prologue at all and many very good books skip them entirely. It is, however, a convention of the genre, so one must weigh the pros and cons. I know that in all the books I read as a teenager, I expected there to be a prologue. I even treated them as a kind of special challenge, and I was excited to see how they linked up and I never, ever skipped them (and I still don’t). As I’m writing these books now, however, I’m wondering whether they’re worth it.

What to you fine folks think? Worth it or not? Do you like prologues? What makes them good to you?

Happy Endings Only!

So, I just got a rejection letter for a story I submitted to Analog. This, in and of itself, is unexceptional (sadly) and part and parcel of this whole ‘trying to be a successful writer’ thing. What made it interesting to me, though, was the list of things they tag onto the bottom of their form letter. Ordinarily these lists are comprised of somewhat disingenuous reminders of what makes a bad story (i.e. a list of most common reasons why they reject things) and they are typically quite uninformative for someone who knows their way around plot, character, and the genre in general. This one, though, had a peculiar one that had me scratching my head. It went like this:

—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering. 

This, to me, basically says ‘we prefer happy endings and victory to tragedy and defeat. If the guy loses, at least make it awesome.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so.

Now, I’ve noticed the trend for science fiction stories to end on an upnote before. The one most consistent thing I’ve gleaned from reading the Writers of the Future anthology is that the vast, vast majority of scifi stories end in victory of some kind – occasionally bittersweet, but consistently upbeat in some fashion. This note on my rejection letter left me wondering ‘is this a thing?’

Yes, it is a Thing

If you haven't see this movie, I've ruined it for you. That's okay, though, since so has everybody else, ever.

I’ve spent a bit too much time this morning trying to think of science fiction titles with downbeat endings – tragedies, in other words. I generally think of scifi as a genre that lends itself to the grim and dark but, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see my error. Think for a second: how many downbeat scifi titles that end ‘negatively’ can you name? Here’s my list:

  • The Planet of the Apes
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • Frankenstein
  • The Sparrow
  • A Canticle For Lebowitz (sort of)

And…hmmmm…nothing much else. Even those are a stretch.

Granted, I’m definitely missing a few in that list, but if you go down the list of the darkest, most depressing scifi stories ever and you’ll still get the upbeat ending, nine times out of ten. Terminator? John Connor wins! Aliens? The Aliens are always defeated eventually. Zombie Apocapypses? 99% of the time the last band of survivors finds a cure, escapes from trouble, or what have you. Even Children of Men, one of the darkest, most dismal scifi universes ever, has the woman with the last child escape England and vanish into the mist – that, my friends, is hope.

What’s up with that?

What is Up With This

This book made the bestseller list, after all.

I suppose this trend isn’t unique to science fiction – most stories in any genre end happily somehow. They might be troubled victories, but the protagonist seldom loses, seldom sees his plans thwarted, seldom finds his efforts futile. I guess, on some level, we all like to think that the happy ending is out there for all of us, no matter how terrible things look. Alien brain slugs might be eating our neighbors, but we, dammit, are going to find a way to survive.

Part of this also might have something to do with science itself. Science is an inherently positive discipline in some ways, or at least it is perceived as such. We like to think of it as constantly striding forward, fixing problems, uncovering truths. Such a glorious and wonderous discipline cannot lead to tragedy! Why, that would mean we, humanity, were fundamentally wrong about something, and we can’t have that. Oh no no no! We dare not even think of such things!

Is this a Bad Thing?

I am a big believer in the power of tragedy, myself. My natural predilection is for my stories to have at least partially tragic endings. It has taken a surprising amount of effort on my part to pull myself away from that habit, and I am stuck asking myself sometimes why I’m trying so hard.

A good tragedy isn’t depressing, it’s somehow fulfilling. It’s like a meal – it sticks to your ribs, makes you think about it for months afterwards. They can hurt your heart, but it’s a good kind of hurt; it’s the kind that makes you realize you’ve grown somehow. You’ve understood something that a victorious ending might not have illuminated. You’ve grown.

Now, I’m not saying every single thing I read or write should end sadly – far from it –  but I am suggesting that, if this is a stipulation of the genre, we ought to bend it a bit, if not break it outright. Not every tale of our future selves ends well; we should be courageous and willing enough to explore that.

Tales of Sneering Jackassery

First, you ought to read this brief piece of Joel Stein being a jackass. Heard this sentiment before? I bet you have.

Let me get one thing straight: I am not a YA author or fan, in particular. The science fiction and fantasy I write, I write for adults and, perhaps, mature teenagers. Weirdly enough, I usually don’t sympathize with the principal characters in YA fiction. I don’t recall a particular time where I was uncomfortable with myself or who I was (though I do recall plenty of people who had a problem with who I was who made things unpleasant, but I never considered that anything other than an external problem and I never adapted myself to them). I have always known, basically, where I wanted to go and more or less what I wanted to do. I had the misfortune of watching someone very, very close to me die very, very painfully throughout my entire teenage years, and this taught me a lot about what mattered. Other people’s opinions or the ridiculous insecurities of adolescence didn’t make the list.

"I say, gents, have you read the latest from Samuel Richardson? I hear it takes the poor woman 200 pages to waste away from illness! Ripping good yarn, what?"

Nevertheless, I appreciate what YA fiction can and has done, and not just for young adults. It distills very complicated, very adult problems into slick, fast-paced stories and, furthermore, gives your average teenager a voice in that problem. This is not only important for kids, but it makes a good lens for we adults to peer through from time to time. It makes us step back from ourselves, to try and remember a time when we weren’t so calcified into our lives. It makes us hope and believe in possibility in a way many of us don’t anymore. It kills cynicism in a way only the young truly can.

Furthermore, the sentiments of arrogant literati like Stein also encompass something else: the clear and emphatic disdain for that they choose not to deem ‘literature’ but, instead, cast off as ‘mere genre fiction’. This is the bit that really gets me.

Look, you’re entitled to your taste. You don’t like one genre or the other, fine. But two rules:

  1. Just Because You Don’t Like It, Doesn’t Mean You Can Rip On It: I say this without irony: grow up. Are you actually incapable of appreciating something because it doesn’t appeal to you directly? Are you one of those immature jackholes who can’t admit a man is physically attractive because you’re afraid you might be considered gay? Is the reason you don’t and will not read YA fiction actually because you feel it adds nothing to the literary discussion, or is it, rather, because you are so pathetically insecure that the thought of another person witnessing you reading something intended for another age group give you the willies? Seriously, man, if the rest of us have to read Infinite Jest, you can man up and read some YA fiction just to see what the hype is about.
  2. Admit that Everything’s a Genre: That literary fiction you so adore? Guess what –  it’s genre fiction. It has its set of tropes, standards, acceptable styles, target audience demographics, and the rest of it. Their readers focus on style and metaphor over plot and pacing. They forgive the occasional self-indulgent tangent or purple prose passage. Writers are pushing buttons in that genre the same as in every other one, so let’s get down off your high ‘literary’ horse and admit, once and for all, that literature is something much, much broader than what you perfer to define it as. Watchmen is literature. The Giver is literature. Neuromancer is literature.

I really don’t know how many times I need to say these things before they stick. You are all aware that some of the most pivotal and powerful stories of our history started out as simple adventure tales, right? Can’t you perhaps admit that The Hunger Games may be tapping into something important? Granted, I haven’t read it (and am not especially motivated to), but it isn’t because I think it’s bad or lacking (though it very well may be). It’s because I’ve got other things ahead of it in line, simple as. I’ll get to it when I get to it, but I’m not about to hold it against anyone who’s reading it now, no matter how old they are.

Let the Bodies Hit the Floor…

Violence is ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy. The number of specfic tales that don’t include some kind of violence are few and far between. Indeed, the most attention and interest surrounding tales of the future or alternate worlds circle around the methods by which the people of that time or place fight one another. I think it’s worth asking the question why.

In the first place, we have to consider the audience. The majority of the audience in scifi and fantasy is male; men are more violent than women (if crime statistics are any indication) and have been raised in an environment where violence is romanticized. To say, however, that this is all there is to it is naive and, dare I say it, a bit sexist. Women may not commit violent crime as often, but to take up the mantra of ‘if women ran the world there would be no war’ is disingenuous towards men. I can point you towards plenty of female rulers who waged as many wars as their male counterparts (Elizabeth I, for instance, supported institutionalized piracy against the Spanish culminating in a massive naval battle; Catherine the Great didn’t conquer most of what is now modern Russia with smiles and handshakes alone). Certainly, men have been socialized for centuries to be the primary purveyors and consumers of violence, but women, I feel, have aided and abetted the process, if passively. The male/female controversy isn’t, however, my primary point here.

Albert Camus once wrote:

“The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. “

There is truth in this statement. The world is full of people we disagree with, often violently. We think them fools, monsters, or, most charitably, misled simpletons who ‘just don’t understand’. In our heart of hearts–our deepest, most animal self–we wish we could MAKE THEM LISTEN. Herein lies war and violence. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could bash in that jerk’s face and make him obey than take the long route round? That route involves compromise, engagement, patience, and humility. Why bother? We’re right, aren’t we? When we have cast down our enemy and toppled their proud works into the dust, we are the victor; we are admired, we are the future author of history. “Americans,” said George Patton, “hate a loser.” I don’t think Americans are necessarily alone in this.

Even more simply than this is the fact that we have desires–physical, emotional, material, etc.–and resources to supply these desires are seldom so abundant that we can have them without conflict. Wars are been fought over money, food, land, and political influence. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships; any given episode of Jerry Springer has shown us two people fighting over affection, heredity, ownership–desire, all by other names. Lao Tzu, in the Tao te Ching, advises us to practice ‘not wanting’ as a path to both spiritual and political peace and enlightenment. Simple enough, but easier said than done.

To come back to science fiction and fantasy, we must consider that the human condition is one defined by conflict. If the speculative genres exist to explore the human condition in a kind of fictional laboratory separated or made distinct from our own society, then conflict–violence–is going to be part of that discussion. I tried writing a story in college once for a writing workshop wherein the main character simply wanders off into the woods and comes to a personal epiphany with some local wood sprites. The story was fantasy in a fantastic world; my professor (one of those specfic haters) asked me ‘why not put it in the real world? Why bother with fantasy?” I rankled at the question then, but I’ve come to look at it differently now. If all I was doing in that story was exploring a young man’s understanding of his educational opportunities, then fantasy was too blunt an instrument. I was tapping in a thumb tack with a sledgehammer–no, fantasy is a bigger, heavier genre than simple literary fiction. It is for exploring those massive issues which litfic need not or does not. These large issues are things that lead us to the mighty cataclysms of our species–war, violence, murder, chaos, anarchy, deep evil, and gleaming good. If specfic errs on the side of violence, it is merely because it is doing what it should and can do better than other genres.

Of course, spaceships exploding and armies of goblins also sell books. Mustn’t forget that, either.

Delicious Disorientation

Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”

If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ‘I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in.  Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful.  You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.

This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).

Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer.  When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.

The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.

Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.