Shaping the world
I think sort of pear shaped, hanging from heaven (a la Colombus) and maybe a little over-ripe is the image that takes my fancy. Possibly with a few emerging maggots… truly, they will turn into gauzy winged creatures soon. Ah, you can tell I write fantasy. In a somewhat different metaphorical mold, it’s hard to be a writer without being aware of the idea that we writers shape the world, rather like play-dough, or clay. I prefer the play-dough image myself, as we’re a bunch of clumsy brats, not master-potters.
The thing with this concept is that it’s both true and largely false. Books, the ideas in them do change and influence people. And people do change the societies we live in, and, rather more often, their own lives. The false part is where people like Harlan Ellison with his ‘afflicting the comfortable’ and editors who prate about their duty being to publish book that will educate the masses and words to that effect (translated, feed you swill until you become a pig, but a lesser pig, knowing your place) assume that: 1)people will eat swill 2)that the result of eating swill will be to make them into docile pigs (instead of a piggy-problem) 3)The writers and editors are actually in control of the swill and the direction readers will take from it.
Well, I think most of us – well possibly not the graduates of East Coast Colleges with degrees in English Literature and vaunting ambition in publishing – but us lesser mortals (it’s a point of view thing) know, instinctively, that it doesn’t work like that. Authors, of course, are shaped by their society, and publishing tends to follow trends not set them. Occasionally an author does break that, at least in part, but the publishing industry frowns on it. If they and their acolytes call it ‘ground breaking, unique, visionary etc., etc.’ (which they do, ad nauseum) the one thing you can absolutely certain of is that it’s yet another regurgitation of the party line. What happens is that books sometimes get through to people, sometimes a lot people, sometimes just the right one at the right time, and start them thinking. And that can change the world. But that’s not actually the direction that swill is supposed to take you. That’s supposed to do your thinking for you, and maintain the status quo, or at least the direction they see it as going. The strength I think of Golden Age books was that they awoke the imagination, got us thinking, and that they made some of us believe that we could ride to the stars, meet strange aliens, and kick their butts if need be. The eras that followed tended to do the opposite. There were always authors who broke out of that, and people who broke out of it despite the best (or worst) an author could do.
And that half the reason the world-shaping has been such a failure. The political wing that seized the levers of literature saw its power but didn’t understand the ‘thinking for yourself’ thing. They thought it was so they could think for us, and we’d listen and obey… and enjoy eating (and paying for) the swill. It’s been pointed out, repeatedly, that we readers (like my pig, Fairy, who lives in a sty at the bottom of my garden) like some things much more when they’re dressed well in story (Fairy the pig prefers gravy or milk, but it’s the same thing, really), and that’s why the sales of swill are dropping. Most of what we read for is entertainment. If you want thinking or being thought-for as major factors the entertainment better be very good (and even then like Fairy, we may nose aside the bits that they want us to get, and we really don’t like. Like carrots, in the case of my pig).
It is however true that in brilliant vision of hindsight I can see books that made me what I am – because of what I took out of them. Jack Vance’s Blue World
(which is about a Robinson Crusoe society living on water world, which has no land and no metals (they live on islands of floating seaweed) was my first sf novel. I think I was 8. It was a satire, and brilliant at that, but that flew over my little woolly monkey head. I just reveled in the triumph of human ingenuity and science over the environment, and killing the nasty kraken sea-creature alien life-form (Yes, a Margaret Atwood squid, but on an alien world, not space). Veddy veddy un-PC these days. The bad fellows who wanted nothing to do with this change-and-science-and-man-coming-out-on-top thing and thought deifying and giving appeasing sacrifices (and later human- but naughty human, like ones that liked science) would be the modern heroes, methinks. Nothing before or since stirred my imagination like that. I’ve been trying to imagine, and later write similar stir ever since.
So what book did for you? And why? (you want to be a writer – or help writers, you have to tell us why. That’s how we learn to shape play-dough, and later clay.)
has now sold 87 copies this month. The Forlorn 4. I have prepared a new blurb and Sarah is giving me a hand with a new cover (and title), and I’ll put both up soon (together, rather than one at a time).