The Story Is The Thing

– by Sarah Hoyt

Recently I’ve been reading a series of romances by Lisa Kleypas. It is hard to overstate how BADLY I disagree with her every opinion. This woman goes out of her way to include at least one favored minority in every book; she’s convinced that if every civilized person refused to fight there would be peace and one of her characters actually said that “violence never solved anything.” Okay, her character was in the Regency, so I couldn’t say “Ja, Ja whol, wunderbar” but even so I wanted to introduce him to a Heinlein character who would answer with “Go tell it to the city fathers of Carthage.”

So why in heavens name have I been reading her?

Because the preaching is discrete, subtle, and ignore-able. She doesn’t stop in the middle of the book to preach ad nauseum. And her wrongheadedness seems to be limited to macro issues. Her portrayal of eccentric and loveable characters and of the way these characters react to each other and the world reacts to them is spot on and therefore engaging. And she knows how to plot which is not always a given in romance. (Or anything else.)

Reading her characters is like talking to your old aunt whom you adore, but who is sure that the world would be a better place if we all wore tinfoil hats, and is sure we were colonized by aliens from alpha centauri. Even though you think she’s nuts, her beliefs are by and large harmless and you still enjoy her company the rest of the time. She’s not going to convince you, but you’ll have tea together and have fun and as long as her tinfoil hat is set at a rakish angle, all will be well with the world.

I can tolerate dissent of a more serious kind, in authors I love. Which is a good thing, because if I couldn’t I might have to part with some of my favorites in science fiction.

I started reading science fiction with either Clifford Simak or Heinlein.

No, I don’t remember which. I have a vague memory that I read Have Space Suit, Will Travel at eight or so. But if I did, I didn’t identify it as Science Fiction. That first, conscious science fiction book was Out Of Their Minds by Clifford Simak. (Have Space Suit would not have struck me as SF because the family was a lot like mine. You probably don’t want to ask. My son told me the other day that Athena is like a grown up Peewee. I told him no, it was a grown up me. He asked what the difference was.) I don’t remember my second SF book, but it was one of those turgid the US is a backwater compared to the USSR near-futures not uncommon (or sensible) in the seventies. The third was A Canticle For Leibowitz, still one of my favorite re-reads.

After that I was off. And because I was at the mercy of my brother, who was borrowing from a friend, I read practically anything with SF on the spine. Later on, on my own, I bought everything that said “SF” which accounts for my having read a lot of VERY BAD French romantic space opera, Pierre Barbet, and a French magazine called Panspermia. (I bought it because I thought it was devoted to the theories of Fred Hoyle. Let’s say it… er… er… er… um… wasn’t. There were illustrations. I wrapped it [plain brown wrapper] and gave it to my nine-years-older brother. He was grateful. Er. I think.)

But the two writers I kept coming to, again and again, were Heinlein and Clifford Simak. Both of them offend/ed in different ways.

I was never – I think – conventionally Portuguese (for one I found the iron clad ‘how to behave rules’ stifling.) But I was in many ways conventionally educated European (I can still pretend to be. Most of the time I don’t bother, though. Life is WAY too short.)

Some things Heinlein said offended me and scared me at first encounter, and I don’t remember when I came around to believe in them: the advantages of an armed society, for instance, or that taxation is not inherently right and proper. But I kept reading his stories because I loved them.

Most of what Simak said seemed right to me at the time, from his idyllic depiction of a world with falling population (yes, there is a post called Malthus Is Dead coming soon <G> Heinlein was wrong on THAT too) to his belief that the USSR and the US were basically covalent, to his belief that the future would be imposed top-down in a command economy. Oh, also the idea that only humans understood war or waged it.

All of these were conventional ideas that I thought were fine. Now most of them offend me. Some because they are ultimately evil – like the idea that a falling population is GOOD. That comes from the idea that resources are finite and that humans exist only to have resources divided among them – drains, not producers and not creators. However, at the end of that chain of thought lies eugenics, a decision of who deserves to live and a campaign against “useless eaters.” If you don’t think that’s evil, you’re not in my head. (For which you should possibly be grateful.) And now we know that primates and a lot of other mammals wage war. As for the equivalence between the US and the USSR – no. Just no. There are books you can read on what went on there. Oh, we’re not perfect. What nation is? But there is no comparison.

However, I can still read Simak, in the same way that I continued reading Heinlein even when he offended me.


Because despite the flaws I saw, or thought I saw in their scaffolding, their macro world building, their close-in world building was fine. Who could not identify with the man who for the first time can talk with his dog, mind to mind? Who could not feel an all-too-human tenderness for the robot pope? And who would not like Kip and Peewee? Or the cat named Petronius?

On the micro level, the characters acted like people you could know and love, even if they didn’t think as you do. How many of us have friends who are a chorus of “yes people”?

Except perhaps editors. I’ve railed about this before. I don’t know when I realized I was reading the same story – or at least the same assumptions – in science fiction, over and over again. All of a sudden our field, the most oddball field of all, was bowing not only to “established science” (gone were all the thrilling stories about humans really coming from the stars or weirder places) but also to political correctness (no? Try selling a genuinely evil female pagan, in a Christian society. TRY it. To a non-Christian house. No, I’ve never written that, but my recent book with very Catholic mythus had issues selling at all. Even though Pagans had equal status.)

My brother told me that he recently asked about Portuguese translations of new science fiction and was told that “young people don’t read SF, they watch movies/series.” He and the publisher (in Portugal) were baffled by this, but I can tell you why. It’s because series like Stargate still can be completely irreverent with “established science”… and less politically correct. And the fact that movies/tv are less politically correct should give you pause.

This ties in with Dave’s post because for the longest time there have been things you can’t do or say in science fiction. And by and large they’re not the ones that the people in power in NYC think are “countercultural” or “daring” or “Speaking truth to power.” You see, the poor dears don’t realize that in this microcosmos they ARE the power.

They do realize that their tastes aren’t universal – perhaps not even majority – because Baen, the smallest of the main houses, with the smallest budget and discriminated against by bookstores for their content, has made a living of their TRULY countercultural (for SF culture) publishing for decades and created as many if not more bestsellers than the other guys. For that, NYC hates them and reviles them and distributors and bookstore managers discriminate against them.

I don’t know what they think they’re doing.

Editor after editor has told me his/her job is to educate public taste – but they’re missing something. Well, two somethings. First, no, their job is to sell books. (The fact they don’t get this explains a lot of the issues in the book business.) Second, you can’t educate people who won’t read you. And you can’t control, btw, who will read you but roll their eyes at your beliefs or read you and eventually come to agree with you. My relationship with Heinlein and Simak proves that. (And BTW, I still like Simak enough I wanted to call my second son Clifford. My husband said over his dead body, so that’s that.) Heck, I still like Left Hand Of Darkness, though I can honestly say that Ursula Le Guin and I have never agreed on a single thing (okay, maybe she also likes chocolate. I’ve never asked.)

But your – and the editor’s if you have one – main job is to get the books in the public’s hands, and to provide entertainment which will keep the public coming back for entertainment. The message is secondary and will never be delivered if you’re not read. Also, you can say “I won’t let people write/read this” (like clinging, spineless women) but you can’t make them stop existing. And you can’t make people stop wanting to read about them. The most you can do is cut yourself off from readers by boring them with the same fundamental assumptions over and over again, and no dissenting voices.

And look, bub, if your cause is THAT important, surely you can donate the filthy lucre you’ll make from people who don’t agree with you buying your books. SURELY that counts for something?

So… I am looking in some wonder and hope towards the self-publishing that might allow the public to finally find the SF they want to read, sf that’s evaluated for its ability to entertain, not its ability to preach. Perhaps there’s a great revival of sf ahead?

What I would like? I’d like to read about how humans really came from the stars (Oh, come on, any SF writer worth his salt can get around what is known with enough handwavium to make that happen.) I’d like to read about humans colonizing alien species and this being good for them. I’d like to read about truly evil aliens and GOOD humans. I’d like to read about disciplined, strong men who don’t need women to save them.

What would you like to read that’s not being provided by the current publishing establishment? What are the chances of its being written? What do you read that offends you but is still a good story?

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

21 thoughts on “The Story Is The Thing

  1. Bravo, businesses, yes even ones that are artistic endeavors should be in the business of making money. As Steve Jobs and CO prove this doesn’t mean you can’t make disciples along the way, but the filthy stinking lucre that you do not want is king.

    (If you do not want it badly enough I can name a few charities or give you my paypal address.)

  2. Editor after editor has told me his/her job is to educate public taste – but they’re missing something.

    This sounds a lot like religious publishers, except without the honesty of being upfront about your ideology.

    1. That’s because they ARE religious publishers. The religion is pseudo-Marxist twaddle.

    2. That is part of it. When one believes political beliefs confer moral virtue it’s hard to tell where politics ends and religion begins. The other part of it is that they live in hothouses of sameness and therefore stigmatize the “other” — i.e., anyone with different opinions, while worrying obsessively about physical, external diversity. It’s one of the many things wrong with publishing right now. Most of us don’t live in their world. … nor — and they’d have trouble believing this — would we WANT to.

    3. But then the next time that an anthology or Best Of list comes out with only a slim selection(if any) of women writers, hear the howls from all around that publishers aren’t doing the right thing by promoting quality women writers(Although I admit I hear those howls less from here than I do from other venues).

      1. Brendan — are those anthologies in Australia? Because last time I checked — though it’s been a while — most best of ARE women. Ditto for most anthologies.
        Unless the anthos are HARD SF

      2. Sarah, I was thinking of the kerfuffle over the Before they were giants” anthology and the storm that rose when a fantasy magazine editor used jocular language when calling for contributions to an All Women’s issue.

        Then there were people complaining about the lack of female winners in last year’s Hugos.

  3. I was just talking with a friend the other day and we were wondering where all the books about our contemporaries (18-25 yr olds) are. Since my first novel started off fitting in this age range and my friend’s work typically fits, we wondered why publishers haven’t tapped into the Harry Potter generation of readers (that’s us). 90% of our friends read and read widely, so why aren’t they getting to read about people their own age?
    My answer was that most of my friends prefer to read “literary” fiction in an attempt to look intellectual and sophisticated (yay liberal arts students). But I also think publishers are stuck in the mindset that because we’re in college or just out of it, we don’t read or we can just settle for reading about protagonists at least a few years older than us. The only place I see 18-25 year old MCs is in Regencies and even the young misses of the drawing rooms are starting to get older and more mature.

    1. Welcome to the world of the Boomers. And yes, I wish I was just joking.

      Those in charge, as well as being so stiflingly conformist they’ve choked off just about everything that doesn’t fit their beliefs, are all about the same age – Baby Boomers, early to middle. As soon as they got into power, they set about blocking anything from anyone younger than they are.

      Dave, Sarah, Amanda and I are all about the same generation (I think Rowena is too) – currently mid 40s to mid 50s. We’ve been systematically derided and – to put it nicely – screwed over. The 30-somethings are kids of the Boomers, mostly, and they’re oh-so-wonderful if you ask the people in power – but watch what happens if one of them dares to step outside the norms. Your generation, like mine, gets screwed and then blamed for not living up to the standards of those who screwed you.

      So protagonists have mostly followed the Boomers, with a secondary bulge for boomer kids – which is why you’re getting so many protagonists who late 20s to thirty-something.

      Just to be really cheerful here, there are a LOT of Boomers who would take the whole world to hell with them rather than give anyone else a chance to prove that maybe, just maybe, the Boomers got it wrong. Many of them run publishing houses. Draw thine own conclusions.

      1. Taylor,

        I’d like to say Kate is wrong or overblowing it. Unfortunately not so long ago some of those editors were also saying IN PRINT that you couldn’t really publish anyone under forty. (This was while I was in my thirties.) Weirdly, ten years later, they were bypassing me in favor of the young kids.

        Part of this might be generational prejudice. They never liked our kind, we didn’t er… follow their example. Not saying all boomers are like that, but a lot of them are, and by the time I was eighteen they were yelling we were “sellouts.” (eh!)

        But more importantly it harkens to that type of business miscalculation that publishing is KNOWN for. They thought about ten years ago that the twenty something is where it was at, and started trying to appeal to them. Kids in highschool and college were getting contracts on the basis of their age because “they’ll appeal to the young.” The problem is that was also when computer games hit big and were a novelty. Also, it was before Harry Potter brought a lot of kids back to reading AND to fantastical lit. What this means is that the sales were disappointing (Also because they were buying people on the basis of their age, not how good the work was.) Now, they’ve become convinced college kids don’t read. (Rolls eyes.)

        And I know how totally frustrating it is. I’m seeing Regency heroines in their mid thirties. Good heavens, in that time, most of them would be friends with the MOTHERS of debutants.

  4. Could I post a request to the esteemed Mad Geniuses that this topic be put on the shelf for a month or two(or three or four)?

    As much as I appreciate you guys bringing up the idea that Publishers have their heads so far up their rear ends that they have turned inside out and that it is a big mistake when books are seen more as art than something you just want to read(Serious Kij, you think the uncut pages on your books adds something to the experience?), but this is all starting to feel a little stale.

    I really appreciate it when you take a adverse position to the often quite vocal writerly community (YA or not YA is a great case in point) so keep up the good work and I will
    continue to look forward to your travails, gripes and good advice.

    1. Brendan,
      The point I was trying to make is that Editors have LONG demanded that one follow certain tropes or ideas to be published, so that there would seem to be no readership for the alternate pov, but that these truths are not self-evident when you go to the reading public itself, and the times, they are achanging. If you feel animosity to publishing houses is unwarranted, you’re not attempting to make a living in this field right now. We need to figure out ways of adapting to the new realities and critique of how we got here is part of that.

      Given the times and the lateness of the publishing hour (and the near-metaphorical “lateness” — as in death — of the field) you cannot ask writers who are more than hobbyists not to return to the topic. I can also tell you that whether here or on my blog, this is the topic that gets the most hits and the greatest number of emails debating various points.

      I completely understand if you’re not at that point in your career where the topic is relevant. (Being abroad also makes it slightly less relevant, but only slightly. As Rowena has pointed out several times, we are your future, in that respect.) Feel free not to read/comment on such topics.

  5. I loved Clifford Simak’s characters. I loved his rural settings, and I really, really like some of concepts (the werewolf principle, way station). There were several Mack Reynolds (an American Socialist published mostly in the 50’s) stories I felt similarly brilliant (Space Pioneer) and James White (An Irish Pacificist) I loved too… Oddly all of these were published by a publishing establishement who were in general conservative and opposed to their ideas. Did I end up adopting their philosophy? No. Although they did add to my idea bank, make me broader in my outlook. The idea that for example keeping readers away from ‘bad influences’ because they’re so weak-minded, poor little dears, that they would authomatically become Adolf Hitler clones if they read say a piece of right wing Military sf both denigrates the intellect of the readers (they’ll be my camp followers as long I can keep them pure!) and wildly exaggurates the skill and appeal of writers they’re so afraid of. I have read Das Kapital. If anything it convinced me that Marx had a few screws loose. I never got hold of Mein Kampf – but I doubt it would have lead me to believe anything either. This is an irrational, totalitarian fear.

    1. absolutely correct, Dave. And yes, some of the Simak ideas are just… lovely. I loved Werewolf principle, which was one of hte greatest influences on DST. I also loved Our Children’s Children with the tunel BACKWARDS, into our time. I think a lot of his things could stand new treatments, but yes, people published him ANYWAY

    2. . Did I end up adopting their philosophy? No. Although they did add to my idea bank, make me broader in my outlook. The idea that for example keeping readers away from ‘bad influences’ because they’re so weak-minded, poor little dears, that they would authomatically become Adolf Hitler clones if they read say a piece of right wing Military sf both denigrates the intellect of the readers (they’ll be my camp followers as long I can keep them pure!) and wildly exaggurates the skill and appeal of writers they’re so afraid of.

      Good point. I concede.

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