Can I talk you about our Lord Chthulhu…?
“Excuse me, Sir. Do you have a minute to talk to me about our Lord Cthulhu?” I’ve always been vaguely sorry for missionaries, never more than the couple working in Malawi who got sent a box (at considerable postage expense) of used, dried tea bags – in an apparent genuine gesture of support. Malawi, of course, is a tea producer (good tea, actually). But seriously even if you feel your life’s work is to make all chant “Ph’nglui Mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” the problem all ‘missionaries’ with a message for the ‘heathen’ is it’s not much good sticking to saying it in your misshapen temple of black porphyry hidden in some miasmous Louisiana swamp.
You have to actually reach the un-converted. As anyone who has ever tried the actual mission bit will tell you, standing in a park yelling it or even going door-knocking are marginally effective. Law (convert or be prosecuted) or conquest (convert or die) both have a history of some success. But neither are voluntary processes – worth keeping in mind as this is a writing blog – and if they don’t work out, there’s a better than average chance of a severe backlash, as Vlad Tepes displayed so well.
Social pressure works to some extent. “You weren’t in the swamp yesterday, sacrificing babies to our Lord Cthulhu, Dave. What will people think? You’re a Cthulhuophobe! You need to educate yourself!”… has some impact, IF Dave cares what ‘people’ think (those people have to be important to him. For some of us, that’s anyone. For most of us, that’s our monkey-sphere), or is afraid of them – they have to proximally powerful and/or be a large group – so they can be a powerful mob, even if weak, individually. Of course, if Dave is not afraid of them, and regards them as something not safe to wipe his butt on, in case he caught something… it doesn’t work.
The somewhat more effective method is to set out an attractive ‘stall’ and be the kind of people that seem to be happy, comfortable, successful (at least in the pursuit of personal satisfaction, but yes, doing well is a powerful argument), nice people, kindly and generous, and doing your ‘outreach’ by helping those in less fortunate circumstances – both psychological and physical. Persuading people that the message of Lord Cthulhu might help them enjoy these things is easier, if they see these things. IF they come to you, you’re a long way towards winning.
So: why in a writing blog am I talking about carrying the ‘message to the heathen’? Well, partly because as my friend Amanda Green pointed out: I write ‘message’ fiction. It’s a fair comment. And, yes, I endorsed and supported the Sad Puppies Movement – where my friend Brad Torgersen opposed endless ‘message’ fiction and called for a return to broad-appeal ‘adventure’ sf/fantasy.
The short version: I am long-sighted enough to look past my own short-term benefit. The longer version: I feel that there’s a place for ‘message’ in fiction. There’s just not a lot of demand from the wider public for boring sermons, particularly if they are not of your faith – or find your faith obnoxious. The converted might like them, but… unless the converted are a large enough group to keep publishing going, well, as things fall apart, so too will the money to pay for publishing sermons. Now: as I like reading sf/fantasy, even if I don’t agree with the author about many things – I’ll tolerate a bit of ‘message’ with a lot of story. When it goes the other way… (even if the message is something I agree with, personally) I can see this affecting not just those authors, but the reputation of the genre. SF/fantasy – particularly award winning sf had been hijacked from a broad church with authors as far apart as John Norman and Joanna Russ competing for eyeballs, to a narrow, modern US left-wing sect about as tolerant and pleasant as the Westboro Baptists. That seemed like a bad long-term choice for the survival of a genre I enjoy reading. Buying books is voluntary behavior, and the income that supports my profession is dependent of people volunteering for it.
Which brings us back to my ‘missionaries’. Look, IF your ‘message’ was one that enough converted loved reading a sermon about… you’re, personally, golden. People identify with it, with your characters, buy it. The ‘heathen’ hate it, but that’s Okay, IF your subsection of the market is big enough and there is not a lot of competition. You, personally, Jack, are all right. Which is cool, and the industry can survive and thrive if the ‘heathen’ in various subsections are big enough to carry authors who write there for their ‘faithful’.
Where it all starts to go wrong is when the Industry only has ONE sect, and many, many authors trying to scrape a living writing for it, and the sect is a shrinking one. Basically, they have to sell to the ‘heathen’ or die.
So far I’m seeing law, conquest and social pressure – none of which have worked as planned. Let’s face it, when you start to try and social pressure me into reading your sermon, which delights less than a couple of percent of the population – which does not include me, in fact actively hates my type of person, you’d have more luck selling me on a midnight black mass in your temple in the swamp – which is to say: less than none at all.
On the other hand, message fiction can be done well by using the ‘attractive stall’ method. Look, it’s much harder than just writing for your true believers. I’m not sure it can be done for the opposite extreme either: If an individual likes and identifies with the queersex-all-white-heterosexual-men-must-die Hugo nominee, they’re either not going to grasp the message in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, or they’ll hate it. But that’s an extreme – a tiny outlier in the human norm: the target, frankly, is the ordinary blokes in the middle. If you’re a genius – like CS Lewis or Madeleine L’Engel you can wrap your message well, dressing it in attractive, believable characters your reader (even if they care not at all for your message) want to like, and to care about.
So: I’m no CS Lewis, or Madelaine L’Engel. But I do write about issues. Issues I know, issues I care about. And of course those are colored by experiences and my own philosophy. At the moment I’m dealing with hidden post-traumatic stress in the current book. You’ve probably met or know a man with this. (It’s not only men, just mostly men. Because men get all these ‘advantages’ most women don’t – like dying or being injured on the job – or ending up in jail, at about an order of magnitude higher rate. So yes, there are women in there, but mostly, it is men.) I wrote about the men who crack in LUCKY NUMBER 7 (A RATS BATS AND VATS story). This time I’m writing about what we don’t see: the men who don’t quite crack. The men who live on the edge of that. It’s a thin edge, and I’m not pointing fingers at those who do or don’t. It’s not a ‘crime’ one way or the other. It’s just different, different people, different circumstances. And, dear God, it is hard. Harder than those who have not seen what they have seen, been where they have been, can ever know.
As a young medic I met them, knew them, shared some small part of what they went through. The guy with seventy percent body burns who had walked 6 miles to get help for his fellows. A man of great courage and determination – who held up so well… until his wife came in, saw his ruined face and screamed and ran away. Others – men and women, who taught me, the hard way, that it’s not what the world sees that shapes the quality of that beneath it. You only get to see that when the masks are gone and times extreme. It’s not just physical strength or intellect. I’ve met up with a couple of them since then, and I know what is beneath the smile, the handshakes, the hugs, the beers we’ve had togther, or in one case just a hard squeeze of my hand and turning away wordless, before I saw him cry. Yet, you have probably met one of these people – or are one of these people. The world has little idea how strong and yet how fragile they are – some of the best and finest men I have known. And yet… unknown. Which is why I write about it, which hurts and tears the hell out of me, but I think it well worth doing. But if you were to put it in SJW terms, you’d say I was ‘raising awareness.’
A book is seldom a ‘single issue’ thing for me – as I will explain. CHANGELING’S ISLAND – which Damian Walter informed the Guardian’s readers was just rubbish (a book he’s never read more than paragraph of –but hey, libel is just fine, when they do it), was a book, to put in SJW terms again, about one of the most marginalized, ignored and disrespected groups in the western world (particularly by SJWs, despite the problem being obvious in the statistics. I wasn’t writing about the usual suspects of SJW literature though (these kids are the scapegoats in that). I was writing about a rural, heterosexual boy, who loves the land and sea of his heritage, and –as so many of these boys do – carries a man’s portion in it. There’s a lot more to it of course, there always is. Adventure, drama, romance, magic. And choices and responsibilities.
Hell’s teeth. I don’t know if I do it even half-way well, I just know I sell Okay. I have none of the establishment and its web of patronage for my ‘messages’ – whereas theirs get as much push as they can. I have the opposite: many of them campaign overtly -Gerrold, Scalzi, Damian and Foz and Hinesy to name a few try and badmouth me and trivialize my work, my popularity and my ability, and thereby stop people reading my books, let alone allowing them to be judged on merit. Of course, as far as I’ve been able to establish, none of them have ever read my books. It wouldn’t matter anyway: their grasp on what they read is so colored by what they wish to believe, that if you stuck my name on a copy of Dune or LotR, they’d tell you it was trash. Fortunately, our audiences don’t cross much, and their credibility outside their converted is rather tepid.
I still make a living. Which means I’m outselling a lot of SJW sermons – even, having looked at some of the figures, some the Hugo winners, who got advances they will never earn out, and translation rights I will never see. So my method can’t be all wrong – it is pretty much based on the ‘set out a nice stall’ principle, and don’t demand they worship Cthulhu on page one paragraph one. In fact don’t demand anything at all. Oh and remember I’m trying to suspend disbelief, which means be credible. Which is why you’ll search my books in vain for the typical SJW checklist of ‘victims’ front and center. The key here is credibility – if you’re populating your character-list, and you’ve got 2 main characters and 6 supporters – by the time you’ve got the required ‘tokens’… Who represent micro-demographic groups… you’ve got no characters left to be 95% of the typical human demographic. That rings incredibly false from the get go. It’s like starting the suspension of disbelief race in hobbles. You’d have to be a hell of a horse to win from that – and thus as mostly you have to lose, you’re actually doing no-one an iota of good.
So: for instance, CHANGELINGS ISLAND –which has two main characters and six supporters – and is based on the Island I live on, where I volunteer for the Ambulance Service, meaning I know even more of the people than most, and most people know everyone. I know the island demographics (and yes, a selling group have been these people and their web of friends and contacts – it HAD to be real enough for them.). I know, pretty much, the race and at least the public sexual orientation of the huge majority of people. It’s not a big deal, we had two elected gay councilors and at least a couple of Aboriginal ones. You don’t get that if everyone hates you and you need to keep it a secret. There is, I’m sure, some level of discrimination, but I know the numbers and, for the size of the main character group, to make it real, there isn’t space for every minority. Putting them in – especially as 4 characters out of 8 belong to one family (and therefore one race – about 20-25% of the population) stretches credibility. In effect I have 5 character types and about 20% representation, for a group that is about that proportion, and about 80% for a group that is that proportion, and as they have no plot driven role in the story, no place for the 2% or 0.1% minorities. If this story was about them, that would be different. But it is not. Adding a checklist of ‘favored minorities’ in is just about tokenism, if their status as that adds nothing to the story. And that is how you lose readers, and fail to ‘preach to the heathen’. And yes, I heartily recommend anyone wanting lots of evidence of homophobia from Dave to read SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS. I’m sure you could find transphobia to accuse me of, even. (It’s a joke, but as the SWJ contingent have low reading comprehension and not much wit, they’d probably find an alien species that naturally changes sex, ‘transphobic’.)
I also know some of the islanders with the unmasked intimacy that you only get when you are in a situation when all pretense goes out the window. My dive partners – in a situation where absolute trust and absolute reliability are all that keeps us a alive – it’s not a job for fainting violets, are of a couple of guys of different racial backgrounds (so as you see I’m obviously a racist, because you always absolutely trust and are trusted by people who think you hate them. /s (sarc tag inserted seeing as it was forcibly borne on me that not all – or any — of sf fandom supply of SJWs understand sarcasm. Or Monty Python. ). I used that to write people – not skin colors with stereotypes no-one believes, but people. And I wrote the people to be as real, as fragile, as conflicted and complex as I could. Even if they’re NOT the actual people, I tried to make them real enough to believe in – which means there is no space for tokens doing the token politically correct behavior.
The hero is –for plot reasons – of both Aboriginal and fay blood. Which means his grandmother (one of the other principle supporting characters) is too. But first and foremost I work on getting you to see them as PEOPLE. It’s about traits that you would see in any many a boy or many a grandmother. Onto that easily believed and easily liked framework, I build. Their identity is important, and I still think the floundering scene I wrote captures the essence of what it means to be one of the hunting people, and what the hunt and kill means to such people. It’s something I feel and understand – but for Joe Urban-dweller it’s probably as alien as Mars. So I use the framework of thing that can relate to, to try and get him to accept this window. (yeah, very un-PC I know. But men hunt, and have for millennia. The hunt and kill and bringing home of food are holy things in primitive cultures. To me too.)
And because I am dealing with one family – both the heroes and villains – while their race is unimportant to WHY the villains do what they do, we escape the other perpetually unbelievable trap of modern message fiction – that one sex (or various Xirs), and races and cultures are good and can do NO evil, and while heterosexual males of one race and culture are evil. Trust me: it’s a lot easier to believe some people who happen to be quite like you in many other ways can be good guys even if they’re XYZ, than ALL XYZs are always good guys. Because they’re XYZ. Don’t do it, if you want to be read by the ‘heathen.’
It’s common ground that wins. You cannot force people to like your group, or to accept them, or think they’re normal. But you can make them realize you are individuals, and that those individuals are not that alien, and therefore labeling by group, rather than as individuals can make you wrong about an individual. CHANGELING’S ISLAND is about a place, a people and a culture that is which 99.5% or more of readers will never experience, and, at one level, have little in common with. What I tried to show was just how much they did have in common, at a deeper level. That, in a nutshell, is my schtick.
But you can do all of this, and still fail… if there is no story.
And that is why story should always come first.