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*