Thursday, July 16, 2009

In which the finger of scorn is raised

[Important Note: Please check the next post for details about John's upcoming signing. Thanks!]

Yes, since I tend not to do scorn without defiance, it is that finger, and here's why.

The last week or so, we've hit a clear thread of discontent with the status quo, dislike of awkward euphemisms forced on us by people who don't know what they're talking about (or mostly don't know), and generally a lot of gloom, doom and despair. When you look at the optimism of the Golden Age and at what followed, this really isn't that surprising, but still...

The mess is in our laps and on our floors and seething away in that dark unacknowledged corner in the spare room: you know the one, where all the junk you're not sure you want to throw away but don't have a clue what to do with accumulates. Worse, it breeds.

We've all seen what happens when good intentions meet naivete, especially if combined with enough of the folding stuff to have an impact on the rest of the world. It's called the Law of Unintended Consequences, and with the possible exception of the Law of Gravity, it's the only rule that's never been broken. Ever. The end result is kind of like what's left after that great big oversized dog with the tail that leaves welts has finished slobbering, wagging tail, and tracking mud everywhere. There's shattered traditions, broken cultures and just plain grotty stuff everywhere. So you put the dog out, mend what you can, toss and maybe replace what you can't mend, and hope no-one's going to notice the stains on the carpet no amount of cleaning could get rid of.

Right now, the industry seems to be standing and staring at the mess with a kind of transfixed horror in between bouts of ineffective hand-wringing and hiding the wreckage (and the dog) while hoping it will all magically go away. Think of the elderly aunt you'd swear never did a day's work in her life, expected you to do everything for her and then blamed you for not doing it right. Oh, and pulled a guilt trip on you if you should dare to complain.

I think the time has come for a change of pace. We're not little kids who have to do what the adults say, not anymore. We can give old Auntie and her fits of the vapors the finger and tell her if she's not going to do anything she can sit down and shut up while you work. It's time to clean up the mess.

It's never going to be the same: we all know that. But I do think we can, to mangle my metaphorical allegoricals, do the phoenix thing and rise from the ashes of the industry's previous incarnation. There might be some smudgy feathers, and the early stages are going to be kind of wobbly, but I think it's not only time to try, it's time to say "Bugger it! I'm going to make this work somehow," dig in, and get it bloody well done and done right (For those who are wondering, this is the Australian work ethic - do it right the first time, then go have a beer).

We need to get our optimism back - as individuals, and as societies. Let's face it, most of us don't need to be told how horrible things can be. We've all been there often enough that we don't go seeking it out as a leisure activity. If we want sermons, we go to church. If we want lectures, we go to college.

This of course raises some big questions. We don't need to go into a frenzy of cleanup without really knowing what we want - all that gets us is a rather less dire mess with nothing fixed or properly cleaned up.

So, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to answer these questions:

What do we, as readers, want books to do for us? Do we want earnest slice of life, nancing elves, rollicking space opera, gritty dystopia, or some psychotic combination of all of the above? (Hi Dave! You and Pratchett are probably the only authors I know who could make that work!)

How can we, as authors and lovers of science fiction and fantasy, get from here to there?

And perhaps most of all, are you prepared for old Auntie's fits of the vapors when we defy the old bit... er, dear... - and are you ready to give her the finger and tell her to get out of the way?

19 comments:

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I want space opera. I want nancing elves. What I don't want: slice of life. What I don't want: the same book over and over again with different covers. What I don't want: "feminist empowerment porn" -- if indiscriminate sex, real or written, empowered women we'd have been empowered LONG ago. (No, I'm not going to argue this. You want to have sex/write sex, fine, but don't call it empowerment and don't pretend you're winning one for the team. Your choice, your decision. Just don't expect me to thank you. I'm busy minding my own sex life/writing which I don't ask anyone to be thankful for. That's what adults do.) What I don't want: discount "high literature."

Look, I have a degree in the stuff -- lite'ature -- because it came aggregate to languages. A friend recently sent me over a book that is "literature" though disguised (cleverly) as mystery. It is indeed Literature. Magnificently done. Casting light on all human condition. Makes you think it over and read again to get true meaning. Flips on you as you do.

Books like that, intentional or not, come around very rarely. Say one in a thousand. They're hard to do and even harder to do well. And they're hard to READ -- they are not bubble gum. They leave you feeling discomfited WITHOUT invoking dystopia at all or even without a sad ending.

They're rare and that's good. Most of us don't want to work that hard everytime we read.

Trying to immitate them only gives us dystopic depressing stuff that is not any more substantial than happy bubble gum.

Give me happy bubble gum any day. I can consume mass quantities, though I won't always remember the author.

matapam said...

We all have different tastes, so we need a spread of book types. We need a spread of authors to keep up to my reading speed. ::Sigh:: Just tried a new author. Will finish the fourth book in two days shortly. Was there something I supposed to be doing?

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Me, I like something a little closer to the middle: meat and potatoes. Or, more precisely, some chicken-fried steak with a big pile of mashed potatoes, all slathered with a tasty gravy (though, if it's earlier in the morning, make it a biscuits 'n gravy with some eggs over easy and a large side of bacon).

Comfort food! Now that's what I'm talking about. Much more filling than the bubblegum (unless you swallow your gum. Show of hands: how many got yelled at for doing that? Okay, how many still did it anyway? Thought so), but still mighty tasty. Of course, there's a group of self-appointed "experten" who look down on comfort food and want to dictate what you can or cannot consume because they know what's good for you.

They're the worst form of Nanny statist: "You heard me young Robert! You finish every bit of that Atwood, and don't let me catch you sneaking bites of that Weber! That crap isn't Good For You."

Mind you, Nanny is a shallow, bitter, vindictive shell who thinks that comfort food is "of the devil" and wants to Save Us All from ourselves whether we like it or not (plus she smells like ass most of the time...). And we sure the hell ain't gonna let her tell us what we can and can't consume, are we?

Ori Pomerantz said...

Here here.

If I wanted to be sad, I'd read the news. If I wanted to be really sad, I'd read history. If your book doesn't make me happy, I don't want to read it.

Do you want to teach a lesson? I don't mind that. I like learning. But for the sake of my time and your bank account, do it right:

1. Give me a reason to care first.

2. Have something interesting to say. Preferably something I don't already know.

3. Say it in an interesting way.

4. Give me a reason to think you know what you're talking about.

I know many people don't like his books, but I think Tom Kratman does a superb job of explaining the military.

Do you want to preach a sermon? You already failed on points #2 (I probably know what you're preaching) and #4 (I know my life better than you do, honest). Unless you can do #1 and #3 extremely well, you might as well write on your blog.

There are more books out there than I have time to read. There are more good books out there than I have time to read. If a publisher does not exhibit capitalistic humility (selling what I want to buy, rather than what they want to sell), why should I bother?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

John asked, what we as writers can do to help fix the world's problems.

At 16 my eldest son suffered severe clinical depression. He is only just coming out of it now, after 7 years. There were times when I cleaned up his bedroom (when I could get him out of it) and found bloody tissues from when he cut himself. So I'm getting on my soap box now.

The world's problems do feel overwhelming for adults, let alone for teenagers who don't have the perspective of having survived the threat the USSR and the US launching a nuclear war.

No wonder so many young people are depressed. They feel they have inherited a world full of problems they did not create and they are unable to make a difference when faced with the greed of big business and the slackness of politicians.

No wonder fantasy is so popular. In a traditional fantasy book, a young disempowered person discovers the strength within them to change the world for the better by defeating Evil.

But what can we do as writers to 'save the world'? The one thing writers/artists/musicians/film makers can do is create memes.

If creative people are in touch with what's worrying Mr/Ms Average, they can speak for the silent (not so silent with the internet) majority. Their ideas can go viral, via U-tube, music, books etc.

Ori and RJ, I absolutely agree, no lectures. Humour is a powerful way to reach people. Funny U-tube videos get hundreds of thousands of hits.

Make what you write entertaining, give the reader a protagonist they care about, write a ripping read and, in the subtext, deal with universal concerns.

We need a break from doom and gloom. We need fun to recharge our batteries. We also need to give young people something to inspire them.

I don't even know if I should put up this post. Am I being too heavy?

KylieQ said...

I just want a good read. I get so little time to read these days that I don't have time to waste on a bad book (okay, I made an exception for Journey to the Centre of the Earth but that's only because I'm on holidays at the moment).

Entertain me. Let me suspend disbelief. Don't preach at me or lecture me. Give me a world I don't want to leave with a kick-ass hero that I want to be.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Space opera with nancing elves! AND happy bubble gum!

On "feminist empowerment porn" - Ew. Sex with anything that holds up long enough doesn't empower anything except possibly the sex toy industry. And then only if you supply the batteries.

Real Literature is rich stuff. The - very few - examples I've read have all been beautifully written, extremely well plotted, with characters who feel real and get under my skin, and end in ways that leave me re-evaluating how I think. Very few people have even one of those in them, and you don't want them all the time. They're too powerful for that.

The slice of life florid pap that gets passed off as Litrachoor is like a plastic kiddy "gemstone" beside the real thing.

So, how do we contrive to get more space opera, nancing elves and bubblegum books?

Kate said...

Matapam,

I know where you are there. There was a time when leaving a bookstore empty handed was unthinkable because there was so much I wanted. Now it's a rare day when I leave a bookstore with a book.

If I sound kind of flaky, sorry. I'm running out of me after staying up until ridiculous hours with new reading material. (Heyer, book addict shipment from the Freers).

Kate said...

Robert,

Good grief, you're making me hungry! After the work cookoff with over a dozen different desserts to sample and vote on, that shouldn't be possible!

You're right about the old battleaxe telling us what we should read. The thing is, while she can't make us read what we don't want to read, she can and has taken away all our comfort books. How do we get them back and get past the old biddy to get our grubby paws on that greatest of treasures - new comfort books?

Kate said...

Ori,

Good set of points. Now, how do we get past the bottleneck that keeps most of the good stuff that is out there from getting into people's hands?

The savvy will find their ways, but meanwhile we've got generations of kids growing up with the notion that books are boring and dreary. How can we set off those happy explosions of "Oh, wow, this is COOL!" in their heads if we can't get the book crack where they're likely to see it?

Kate said...

Rowena,

You've hit a valid point there. Personally I think we and the ones after us got robbed: I was raised on some pretty basic principles - clean up your own messes, help others where you can, and freedom means you take responsibility for yourself in everything you do.

Where did that go? How did it become a good thing to let someone else - worse, a slack or dopey politician - make your decisions for you?

And yes, memes are part of the answer. Fun, happy memes. If you want to see more about it, check out Virus of the Mind by Richard Brody. It's a very accessible book about memes and how they work.

We can design memes that should catch and get them out there to get viral... But are we prepared for the backlash from the sour old biddy who's holding us back on the pretext that it's "good for us"?

Kate said...

Kylie Q,

Absolutely. If I want to be made miserable, I'll read the bloody news sites. If a book pisses me off, it's out the window. Figuratively, at any rate.

Great world, great character, great story, and fun, and you've got me. This is why I sacrifice bytes to Terry Pratchett (I had to give up on goats. Blood and carpet, you know.)

Chris McMahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris McMahon said...

I'd like some SF that has stronger characterisation. I always feel disconnected from the typical SF characters. I want the emotional perspective, the experience of a real society, but at the same time the same rigour in the science.

I feel like SF has just disappeared too far over the horizon. What about some more near-future SF(next 200-500 years), within a reasonable cooee of what is recognisable now as a possible technology i.e. no FTL, no stargates, no transporter beams.

The Golden Age has left us wanted to go too far too fast -- and made us forget that the real excitement is in the challenge.

That might sound boring. But I find it quite exciting because its a future that can be accessible.

Kate said...

Chris,

Real people in a believable near-future that isn't some horrific dystopian disaster zone and they're building space habitats? HELL yeah!

Dave's Slow Train is a perfect example - it's solidly scientific, it's a great romp, and the characters are a delight. More of those would be wonderful.

Chris McMahon said...

Yep, absolutely. Slow Train was right in the zone.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Kate: The savvy will find their ways, but meanwhile we've got generations of kids growing up with the notion that books are boring and dreary. How can we set off those happy explosions of "Oh, wow, this is COOL!" in their heads if we can't get the book crack where they're likely to see it?

Ori: Whole marketing departments are fighting over their attention spans, with budgets in the tens of millions. How do you get some of that attention span for a limited budget?

1. Be available. The Baen Free Library is a great thing. One that would have Young Adult works would be even better.

2. Word of mouth. Write so well that kids will tell their friends you're doing a great job. With Facebook, MySpace, and blogs, they have the ability to spread the word very effectively if they think it's worth spreading.

3. Make it easy to spread the word about you. This means having a Facebook fan page, so they can see what you're working on.

#2 is probably the biggest issue. You can't market to these kids, they're overwhelmed with marketing messages. You have to have somebody they trust tell them you're cool.

Dave Freer said...

If there is one thing I detest it has to be slices of life - no end no beginning and the POV is a non-involved observer... So, No Kate. I won't :-)
I firmly believe that - with occassional exceptions (war of the worlds?) most readers still want
books that leave them feeling good at the end. it's as simple as that. to do that you need to be able to ID with the character and be carried (and lifted) by the story. A happy ending isn't an absolute prerequiste. But an uplifting one is. And yes, Rowena is right. I am quietly sowing meme seeds, hoping they'll grow.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Hey Dave, I think they call it "slice of life" because, if you read too much of it, you start reaching for the razor blades *VBEG*

For me, a slice of life is just a scene -- not a story. Basically, it's showing the character under "normal" conditions as a way to illustrate how abnormal things got in the course of the story -- to show just how far out of the comfort zone the character got booted. But, alone by itself? No way.

In fact, if you have no beginning, no end, and a non-involved POV, how can it even be considered a story to begin with?