Friday, July 16, 2010

Historic Fixation and Stagnation

(Let's give a big welcome to agent-extraordinaire Mike Kabongo. Mike, or O'Mike to those who know him from Baen's Bar, is the principal of the OnyxHawke Agency and represents both Dave and Chris. You can find out more about Mike and his agency here. -- Amanda)

One of the stumbling blocks of the science-fiction fantasy spectrum I’ve seen as a whole is knee jerk rejection of new material based purely on someone else having used similar materials before. It’s something I’ve heard, read and seen across more than a decade of interaction with both fans and professionals. This fixation is killing the genre.

Michael Z. Williamson was flogged from pillar to post in text for daring the sacrilege of naming a book in homage to Heinlein novel. Farnham’ s Freehold was an inspiration for Williamson’s Freehold, but to compare the two stories, or call Williamson’s a derivative[i] work is not only a diminution of Williamson’s Freehold, but also a mischaracterization of Heinlien's. Both are anti-war novels, both deal with major social issues but word count alone will tell you it’s not done the same way. The 1994 reprint of Farnham's Freehold was a lithe 304 pages, essentially a running back among novels. 2004 saw the paperback advent of Freehold at 688 pages, making it more of an offensive tackle. RAH’s world works around the then contemporary issue of rising black Muslims, MZW’s world deals with mega-corps, universal government and the issue of freedoms versus safety and individual rights versus societal dispositions, in a detailed showing vs RAH’s style which lay closer to telling.

Same ingredients, different results. Think about it for just a minute. Hollywood has a lot of faults, but one of the most compelling virtues of that part of the world is the willingness to take a concept, a character, or a well loved story and make it their own. One need only compare the different versions of Batman starring Adam West, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale to see how different one character can be when molded by different hands. Temporally, Keaton and Bale were closest in their portrayal of Gotham’s guardian, but the two just don’t imbue the role with the same air. West is in an entirely different area when playing Bruce Wayne, than either of his heirs, but all three when invoking the avatar of street justice are undeniably Batman. I like all three movies, I’ll watch all three in different moods.

Originality is a great thing, like gold or platinum, it’s also far rarer than either. A story of star crossed lovers isn’t exactly a jaw dropping departure from the norm. But if we’re going to discredit the authors of today and tomorrow for telling such a tale, we need to equally discredit Shakespeare and Bernstein for their tales of lovers caught in the cruel fingers of fate, since Homer clearly beat either to the punch by a good thousand years or more. It’ also remotely possible that someone between Homer and “the Great Bard”might have crafted a similar tale.

Imagine if you will, Lois Bujold, Dave Freer, Elizabeth Bear, Robin Hobb, John Scalzi, Elizabeth Moon, David Drake, China Meiville, and Cory Doctrow all coming together for a charity event. For the event each is going to write a novella starring a character named Sam, who is a little under-tall, who will be traveling with some friends and get into a big, big fight towards the end of the story. All the novellas will appear in one big anthology which will be distributed in the name of a Big Name Charity and get them oodles of time under the eyes of millions and millions. Among Sam’s friends will be at least one non human, and at least one human, someone in the group will have a heaping helping of ability to do things that none of the others in the group can. Just pause right here, think about the possibilities for a few minutes. Go ahead, get pausing I’ll wait.

Go ahead, kiddies, raise your hands if you think there just might be a few differences in execution amongst this group, even starting with the same base. Question one: Will all the Sams be the same gender? Question two: What variety of non human(s) will we see? Question three: What genres will we see from these writers? Freer and Bear have written across the whole spectrum of speculative fiction, Bujold and Drake have each written space opera and epic fantasy. What about language? Lois Bujold and China Meiville are both known for their language use. Tone? Robin Hobb’s books have been a touch darker than most of Freer’s work, and neither of them have the same resonance as Scalzi. As for socio-political schema, just try imagining David Drake and Elizabeth Bear portraying a political establishment the same way as each other, much less in the same manner as Cory Docorow, really. I do however suggest that you don’t try and convince any mental health professional of this who has read any of these authors. As for the way Sam is portrayed, both inside his/her own skull, and from the point of view of others, will they be a trickster, a slime ball, a military officer, truly bonkers, sympathetic, an anti-hero?

I suppose what it comes down to is execution. Not what is done, but how well. I and many, many others love Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, but that doesn’t mean I’m never ever going to love another young, effusive, military mad, pseudo-aristocrat with health problems. A good lampooning of “classic literature”as is done in Rats, Bats, and Vats, is never, ever to be discounted and I will undoubtedly adore anything that can make me laugh at the absurdity of holding up the mental meandering of pre-electric prudes as the model upon which society should be built. The starscape of vampires and how they are done is enormous, some sparkle in sunlight and make me gag at their mere mention, others like Saberhagen’s and Thurman’s are simply various people in bodies with different needs.

Do I want to see someone glue a sheet of plastic wrap over the serial numbers on Slow Train to Arcturus and send it to me with little more than the names and times changed from the original? Of course not, no more than I’ want to read a copy of Urban Shaman that was relocated to New York because the city was ‘ore accessible’ or a retelling of Hobb’s Liveship Traders books to be more positive and discourage promiscuity. I want to see a writer telling their story, not a writer telling the story they think (rightly) is demanded by the publishing powers that be. Unfortunately, what I think is so much alcohol through the kidneys. I don’t control the publishing houses, only the Shadow has any idea who’s in charge of the book chains, and those are the people who keep demanding “more of the same only different” regardless of actual quality because they will at least know how to market something they’ve already seen a dozen time with only the authors name changed.

What we’ve seen over the last several years is an abandonment of some of the more fun aspects of the SF/F continuum. Namely the exploration of what might happen in favor of some gewgaw of a plot point or world type or social stance that gets run into the round, through the crust, into the magma and out the other side. I have a positive love of (well executed) urban fantasy, but I’ kill to have two new space opera series appear on the book shelves this year that I could fall in love with and read (and reread) for the next fifteen years. At one time our genre set its compass on exploring all the implications of a certain change, the good, the bad, the prudish, the puerile, the inane, the insane and sublime. I’d love to see an epic fantasy world with horizons as broad as in Feist’s Magician, and science fiction novel that challenged the precepts of the age in way like unto Ender’s Game. Do I expect publishing to change today, tomorrow or next year for the broader, the bolder, and better bastions it once held? I suppose not, but then I’ve always preferred to view life from a base of facts and fun from great speculative fiction.

A special thanks to exobrain of the day Kate Paulk for helping find the right words when I only (sorta) knew what I meant.

[i] In the lingua franca of the genres most strident historiphiles a classless attack on the “riginal”work. [a slur, sometimes even politely intoned]


C Kelsey said...

Fantastic post O'Mike. Yes, yes, and yes again! One of the things that seems weird to me is the concept of "rules" in a specific genre. They're not rules, they're expectations, and it's okay to smash through them with a wrecking ball... as long as you execute properly. Ah execution... Sometimes I think execution is trying to execute me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike.

You sound as frustrated as the rest of us. How do we write the same thing only different? Maybe we should grab a long running TV series and SF it. "Gunsmoke" or "Bonanza" come to mind.

But do we substitute Dragons and Elves or Spaceships and Aliens? What's selling these days SF or Fantasy? Or are we still on vampires?

Anonymous said...

Chris, I hear you and agree -- SF is a genre that prides itself on "breaking all the rules," yet at the same time it seems like there's this massive unwritten rulebook detailing all the proper rules for breaking the rules. And the worst part is that you don't find out if you've broken the rule in a proper, legal manner until you've actually gone and done it.

Anonymous said...

Mike, on the subject of Freehold, those who cried "sacrilege" about it must have been driven practically apoplectic by the level of commercial success it achieved ;-)

Of course, that probably made their cries even more strident...

C Kelsey said...

I got Freehold from the Baen free library. It's yet another example of how that library has introduced me to an author whose books I now get immediately upon release.

MGC side note here -- I just got back from Barnes and Noble in Nashua, New Hampshire. I was looking for something entirely different (and I found it), but what I found first (and purchased) was "The King's Bastard". That's the first of Rowena's books I've seen here.

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Hey all,

Glad I could get someones attention on this.


I'm slightly more frustrated than the worst of my days thumping whole conferences on the Bar. I've just gotten better at hiding it.

Drop me an email, we can do some BSing and ranting in person.

I'd be willing to bet money the success of Freehold contributed to the death of at least one person.

Peace bhooze & books,
O'Mike - Agent of Evil, and Authors

C Kelsey said...

O'Mike. I'm always up for a BS session. :P What's your email addy?

C Kelsey said...


Alternate question. Do you want me to email you through your website?

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

Website works

Stephen Simmons said...

Excellent post, Mike. You do an excellent job of giving voice to the schizophrenia inherent in the mind-set that seems to rule the industry at present: "Try to write something completely new ... but do your best to make it just like this."

I found myself resonating strongly with something you mentioned near the end. I have always thought that the point of SF, particularly near-future SF, was to postulate a particular change (or small group of changes) and then try to project the resulting ripples outward. In doing so, the story should track as many of the results and ramifications of those changes as the Characters might reasonably perceive. That's what I aim for in my writing; I can't say for sure I manage to hit it.

I started writing because my kids outgrew sitting still and being told stories, but the stories still demand to be told. I've since quickly come to the cold realization that unless I am phenomenally lucky in the market's response, writing will never replace the income from my day job. This is simply a fact of the current shape of the industry, no matter how good my work is and no matter how prolific I might be in producing it. Armed with that knowledge, the only course of action that makes any sense at all to me is to ignore the fool's errand of chasing the whims of the market, and simply write the stories that are demanding to get out of my head. I'll write them to the very best of my ability, and see if the market wants them or not.

And in the meantime, I'll keep working on honing the skills for my day job ...

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Excellent post, Mike. I was just reading elsewhere about how various recurring tropes aren't necessarily bad just because they are recurring. Execution is everything. Conversely, you can take just about any great story, and reduce it down to its base elements to make it sound like something overdone and derivative-- which is in essence stripping away its execution and anything that makes it special.

"I’d kill to have two new space opera series appear on the book shelves this year that I could fall in love with and read (and reread) for the next fifteen years."

If you find it, let me know.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Awwww Chris, now I know someone who has bought my book!

Thank you!!!!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

HI Mike,

Enjoyed your post. I love it when people get passionate about their favourite thing.

And I love it when I find a book that sweeps me away. So, like you, I'm looking for the books that I can come back to and reread.

Mike said...

Over here

at Writing Excuses, among other things, there was a short discussion of the need for new writers to just WRITE. Write lots, and don't try to fix it up, just keep going. You need the practice.

A while agon here on the Mad Genius Club, there was some discussion of fan fiction, that this was a great way for new writers to do some early work.

And I've had the occasional thought that writers, like artists, really need to start out with simple imitation. In Zen in The Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury, who is often considered quite a creative guy with a good handle on language, mentions somewhat off-handedly that he spent considerable time copying other writers.

And then you put the spotlight on the peculiar split personality that SF & F in particular have towards the question of originality. Merely a hint that something might be similar to another work often results in knee-jerk rejection. But, on the other hand, daring to actually write something original also gets rejected. We want the same, but different! Although if it is too obviously the same, well, that's no good.

It kind of seems as if we need to recognize the "training ground" use of copying, emulation, and fan fiction -- doing variations and knock-offs -- as a way to get the basics really deeply imbedded, while still recognizing the need to mix, match, and stretch the boundaries.

How should new writers learn their craft? Is writing something like the writers they read really so bad?

Anonymous said...


I bought your book too - from Galaxy in Sydney.

Unfortunately I haven't started it yet. I'm going to Aussiecon 4 and I still have 4 1/2 novels to read before the end of the month. But I am looking forwards to starting it.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Thank you for buying my book.

You must have bought it in the week that 'The King's Bastard' made number 9 on Galaxy's Best Seller list! LOL

Dave Freer said...

Iffen Ah don' laff... Mike: The industry surely doesn't know what it wants and conflates what editors want and readers want. Which... isn't true. An editor reading an endless stream of re-writes of Harry Potter, thinks readers won't enjoy another similar book. On the other hand they find themselves camp-following what other more senior editors are buying, at least in type, because really different is unknown and potentially disasterous. Ergo more sparkly vampires, indistinguishble generic fantasy... stuff most of the readers are bored with. It's a love-hate relationship - or rather jaded boredom-fear relationship. In the end it's really not about what the editor loves (although unless they do, you can't get in the door to start the journey). It's really about what readers love. The cure obviously lies in better tools for editors to give them reader feedback - but until the incoming data is better quality, and those recieving it understand a CPUE* equivalent is necessary for understanding what readers want... I don't know where the industry is going or what they'll buy. I don't think it does either.
*CPUE = catch per unit effort - a way of comparing the fish catch by different size vessels fishing with different gear. Or working out how Harry Potter would have done with a 5000 copy shipping, no re-order, and plain cover...

Mike said...

...I'll cry? Yeah, and add in the lag times between writing, submission, selection, printing, and editing and you're really talking about a business that seems doomed to booms and busts.

Kate said...

What Mike said. In buckets. And what Dave said.