Finding the There
Despite my intentions of writing today’s post in advance so all I’d need to do was proof and schedule it, life happened in the form of two major releases (one of them involving standing up a new server and getting it hooked up and tested out after discovering on Thursday that the existing server was too old to run the multitude of new features we’d spent the last 6 months building), trying to figure out how to shoe-horn (conservatively) three times more work than we can do into the time we’ve got available to do said work (hint: being more efficient won’t cut it. We’re past “to the bone”), and kitten shenanigans at home being a rather significant distraction since eating is now an exercise of “Get a bite in. Remove the kitten. Get a bite in. Remove the kitten.” Rinse and repeat until the food is gone or the kitten wins.
Anyway, so in the process of figuring out what to write, I got a wonderful email from Dave Truesdale, pointing me to a review and opinion piece he wrote 8 years back. Go read it. Dave has nicely analyzed all the reasons Big 5 science fiction (and to a lesser extent, fantasy) is dying and figured out the difference between pseudo-literary bullshit and real story as well.
What he’s described is the simple phenomenon of there being no “there” there that lies under damn near every establishment dahling I’ve ever read. The obsession with style and verbiage over – and to the exclusion of – plot and character development. The way they bludgeon the reader with their Message instead of trusting that a smart enough reader will be able to figure it out without the flashing neon signs and shouts of “Look at my Message! This is Important!”. The obsessively pessimistic if not outright nihilist view of the future.
Then I look at how these people view the likes of Pratchett, and I realize the reason their writing has no “there” underneath it is that they lack the capacity to see one – or recognize it if they have it. Pratchett focuses on story and character, and yet there’s one hell of a lot of “there” underneath the deceptively simple, workmanlike prose.
And this is why the Puppies happened – the Big 5 and their ilk became infested with shallow pretties that have no “there”. Purely coincidentally (I’m sure), actual sales dropped and print runs shrank right along with publisher profits – which only caused those same style-loving echo chambers to double down and produce more stylistic supposedly innovative works (non-binary-default gender! Different pronouns!) completely failing to care that the same things had already been done and done better. More than that, they’d been done with plot and character and even “there”.
Puppy supporters are more interested in plot and character than in style and prose. We’re more concerned that a story be satisfying in some way than that it meet our ideological biases (everyone has those – it’s one of those things that goes with being human). And so it goes.
To take an example, If You Were a Dinosaur is – to most Puppy supporters – not genre fiction. It’s a badly disguised revenge fantasy with a kludgy framing device that doesn’t pull off the “story within a story” thing (mostly because there’s no plot of any sort on either side of the frame). Now sure, in piece that short you can make something that’s totally idea work, but there’s no idea behind this either. You could substitute anything including a kickass warrior-type human into the “dinosaur” slot, and have essentially the same piece.
Most of those who’ve praised it have praised the prose and the style – and since the piece is deliberately written in a prose-poem style, that’s valid praise. It doesn’t make the piece SF or fantasy though. Nor does it mean there’s any kind of “there” underneath the quasi-poetic style (there isn’t, unless you count a kind of ersatz “rough drunks are evil and will spew out any kind of insult even ones that make no sense”).
So, yeah. Inept message fiction makes puppies sad. Sad Puppies 4 wants to make puppies happy by returning the Hugo to its roots as a readers choice award – all readers, not just the small cadre who favor style over substance. Those who wouldn’t know substance if it bit them on the butt are of course in opposition to this goal.