Many of us belong to or identify with what Sarah Hoyt has described as the “human wave” school of science fiction and fantasy. I’d like to highlight a couple of her bullet points describing it.
4 – Your writing shouldn’t be all about the message. You can, of course, have a message. But the message should not be the be-all end-all of the novel. If it is, perhaps you should be writing pamphlets.
5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining.
I can’t help agreeing with her in general terms . . . but the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, have given me pause. You see, there’s been an awful lot of ‘message’ and ‘grey goo’ in the responses to those attacks (at least, the ones I’ve seen). In particular, there’s a big problem with those who see things in terms of black and white, but exclude shades of grey (and I don’t mean fifty of them, either).
I tried to sum up the problem in a blog post after the Paris attacks. I’d like to quote from it at some length to illustrate my point – and yes, I’m speaking from all-too-extensive experience. Frankly, I wish I wasn’t. That sort of experience I could well have done without.
To me, the worst [thing about violent conflict] is what it does to the human psyche. You become dehumanized. Your enemies are no longer people – they’re objects, things, targets. You aren’t shooting at John, whose mother is ill, and who’s missing his girlfriend terribly, and who wants to marry her as soon as he can get home to do so. You’re shooting at that enemy over there, the one who’ll surely ‘do unto you’ unless you ‘do unto him’ first. He’s not a human being. He’s a ‘gook’. He’s ‘the enemy’. He’s a thing rather than a person. It’s easier to shoot a thing than it is a person. So, right now, our boys are ‘in the sandbox’ shooting ‘ragheads’. Their boys – those in Paris yesterday – were ‘in the land of the infidels’. Those in this country on 9/11/2001 were ‘in the land of the Great Satan’. They were – and still are – killing ‘kaffirs’, unbelievers . . . not human beings.
. . .
I’ve written before about how blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few is disingenuous and inexcusable. I still believe that . . . but events have overtaken rationality. People are going to start relating to ‘Muslims’ rather than to ‘human beings’, just as the extremists label all non-Muslims as ‘kaffirs’ or ‘kufars’ – unbelievers – rather than as human beings. For the average man in a European street, a Muslim will no longer be a ‘person’. He’s simply a Muslim, a label, a ‘thing’. He’s no longer French, or American, or British, no matter what his passport says. He’s an ‘other’. He’s ‘one of them’ . . . and because of that, he’s no longer ‘one of us’. He’s automatically defined – no, let’s rather say (because it’s easier to blame him) that he’s defined himself – as a potential threat, merely by the religion he espouses. He may have been born into it, and raised in a family and society and culture so saturated with it as to make it literally impossible, inconceivable, for him to be anything else . . . but that doesn’t matter. It’s his choice to be Muslim, therefore he must take the consequences. We’re going to treat him with the same suspicion and exaggerated caution that we would a live, possibly armed hand-grenade. He’s asked for it, so we’re going to give it to him.
That’s the bitter fruit that extremism always produces. It’s done so throughout history. There are innumerable examples of how enemies have become ‘things’. It’s Crusaders versus Saracens, Cavaliers versus Roundheads, Yankees versus Rebels, doughboys versus Krauts . . . us versus them, for varying values of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
I meant every word I wrote, and I stand by them still . . . but it aroused a certain amount of discontent among my readers. I’ll let one response speak for all of those opposed to my views. I won’t quote it here – the language is somewhat intemperate – but you’re welcome to read it for yourselves.
This sort of reaction has forced me to re-examine my own motivation and way of expressing myself. Am I writing to be true to myself in all respects, or am I writing to/for the widest possible market? If the former, I can continue to express my opinions through my plots, characters and dialog. If the latter, I need to be careful to ‘sanitize’ those elements of my writing, taking out any personal views that might be controversial so as not to offend the readers whom I need to buy my books if I’m to make a living as a writer.
That question arose earlier, when I called for a boycott of Tor Books over scurrilous allegations circulated by a senior member of their staff. That gained me a certain amount of support from pro-‘Puppy’ circles, but also a certain amount of notoriety from more politically correct writers and their readers. Frankly, I wish Tor had had the sense to do the right thing and act to rectify the situation. Because they wouldn’t or couldn’t do so, the problem has become ‘just another brick in the wall’ dividing the science fiction and fantasy community, instead of an opportunity to begin breaking down that wall and reaching toward at least a modicum of mutual understanding.
Speaking as a retired pastor, you’ll understand that my inclination is to work to the best of my ability towards reconciliation rather than further conflict . . . provided that reconciliation is based upon truth and reality. If the truth is ‘shaded’ or even abandoned in the interests of political correctness and/or the prevailing narrative, fuggeddabahtit! (as my New York friends would say).
That brings us to the nub of this article. Who are you writing for? Are you writing primarily for those who view life, the universe and everything as you do – “preaching to the choir”, in other words? Or are you writing for as wide an audience as possible, hopefully seeking to broaden their horizons with new concepts, but being careful not to offend their sensibilities?
I made my decision long ago. I’m writing about humanity as I see and have experienced it, and my books reflect that lived reality. I think there are enough people who are empathetic towards those experiences that I’ll be able to make a living selling my books to them; and so far, that’s proved to be the case. I may well be giving up the possibility of greater sales to a wider audience by not pandering to wider tastes, but if I were to do that, I think I’d be unfaithful to myself. However, there are other authors who’ve built very successful careers by deliberately steering clear of controversial opinions and writing for the broader market. If that’s worked for them, none of us have the right to accuse them of any sort of intellectual cowardice or mental reservation.
I guess I’m struggling to express myself in this article, and I apologize for any vagueness that you may have noted. What I’m trying to get at is simply this. Whatever our individual choices, how do we reconcile them with not ‘preaching to the choir’ via ‘message fiction’, yet at the same time not being guilty of ‘grey goo’ in our writing? The two aspects appear to be mutually contradictory, at least to some extent.
Over to you, dear readers. Let’s hear from you in Comments.