Ideas and the story
I’ve just seen the cover-roughs for SHAMAN OF KARRES, and it looks good. It was always going to be hard to impossible to follow in the direct footsteps of James H Schmitz with these books. I made an effort but I’m not pretending I succeeded. Still, the appeal of old-fashioned space opera seems to go very much wider than the fans of James Schmitz. We seem to have added a whole new generation of younger fans, who are now reading the original books. And the point is: if not me, then someone else. They might have done far better… or far worse. But, essentially, me is what the readers got.
They sell well enough. And they’re light, fun books with only a passing resemblance the science part of sf. Being me, I sometimes use that to explore ideas which aren’t particularly light. The currently fashionable literary establishment idea that ‘turgid’ = ‘thoughtful’ is simply wrong. ‘Turgid’ merely = ‘turgid.’ Besides, even if it is thoughtful, there is not much writing skill required to explain your ideas and concepts in a way that would be a good cure for insomnia. It’s harder to write a light frothy entertaining romance with absolutely no novel ideas in it: Because it’s not the ideas that actually require skill (having them may require intelligence – but putting them into easily followed clear words is an entirely different matter. That is a skill.) If you manage to blend complex ideas seamlessly into something easy and pleasurable to read… you’re a master-craftsman as well. You’ll probably have the literary establishment saying you’re an airplane read… and not realizing that’s compliment to your writing skill.
Easy-to-read with some ideas that may make you think (if you notice them – they are very much a secondary purpose to entertaining and light as writing goals) is what I strive for, particularly in these books. This one deals with a group of exceptionally unpleasant slavers (Slavery is part of the canon of the Karres Universe) who (read the book to find out how) make their victims into a very valuable commodity – a slave that utterly adores their owner, and will do anything to please them, and worse yet, pleasing their owner gives the slave a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure…
There’s easy no way of freeing that kind of slave.
We all talk about ‘freedom’, but just what it involves is complex and worth thinking about.
I am, in many ways, my cat’s slave ;-/ although she never bought me or enforced this. Well, other than a meow or two (or 17). My dog is my slave and will do absolutely anything to please me. Yet… I never made her my slave, and, other than a few puppy-smacks on the nose, and the occasional sharp “NO” when she’s about to do something that would put her in danger or trouble, or when she’s about to eat (or roll in) something very unwise (like dead penguin) it’s never been enforced. She loves to please me, to be with me, to sleep at my feet and to defend me to matter what — and being ‘freed’ would break her heart and kill her. These are choices (although, of course, dogs are sold and owned, but their loyalty is earned), and I try to give back that loyalty as much as possible.
But there really is no reason that science could not somehow harness the neurological drivers of this. There are known examples of changing behavior via completely artificial and imposed means (Toxoplasma gondii and the parasite that changes ant behavior (name escapes me right now).
So: that’s one of the ideas in this ‘light’ novel. Now it is quite probable that I am not the first to use this idea as part of a story (though I submit that it is a lot less common than 98% of the turgid tropes in turgid ‘thoughtful’ and generally wholly unoriginal sf hailed as ‘unique’ (like all the others)) just because it was new to me. In a way that’s what I wrote this piece about.
You know: writing novels, even sf, which was once a place crackling full of ideas-in-fiction, is not about ideas. They might be really, really cool, or brilliant or insightful, or have science follow them, or have devices named after them (Waldos). However, popularity is really about writing skill, and the craft of writing. About being accessible and entertaining to lot of people (even if the story is wholly unoriginal and contains not one thought you haven’t come across in 50 stories).
So: when (as is inevitable, trust me) someone comes to you, saying ‘they’ve heard you’re a writer, and they have this great idea…’ They want you to write it and give them 50% (or more), because it’s a brilliant that: 1)Neither you nor anyone else thought of it; 2)The idea (not the story) is going to make a fortune because it is so unique. I firmly suggest you tell them NOT to tell you, but to go and write it. Because… it is not the idea that sells (and, trust me, they’ll tell you anyway) and 98% it’ll be a movie trope, and about as original as bell-bottom trousers in 1970’s were.
If you happen to be that ‘idea’ person (even if yours are the 2% that are startling and original) just remember, it’s not the idea. It’s the writing.