I’m going to take a break this week from the sci-fi talk, because this is a topic that keeps being in the news and the whole thing keeps circling round and round in my head. The nice thing about being your own boss is that you can take a detour on planned work. So here goes.
I promise I won’t go on at length here – at least not compared to some of my other stuff – mainly because my feelings on this are straightforward. “Cancel culture” – I’m sure you’ve read or heard that phrase plenty and that you already have an opinion on it. I know I do. Everyone from JK Rowling to Ted Cruz has been complaining about it. If you had a dinner party with all the people who have gripes over “being cancelled” I imagine it would be an epically awkward affair. You don’t have to be a liberal or a conservative. The only thing you have to have done is voiced, in a rather public way, opinions that are somewhat unpopular, then you’re automatically invited to this self-pity party about cancel culture.
By and large, the other thing most people who gripe the loudest about being cancelled have in common is that they are people who have an outsized voice – meaning, they’re all people who command press in one way or another. Either they are people whose complaints will literally be reported on in all the major newspapers, or they are people who have large followings on a media platform (or, more likely, several).
If you’re like me, you don’t get your letters published in Harper’s, not even if you bribe them (trust me on this one). Thus the title of this piece. You can’t possibly be “cancelled” if you didn’t have a platform with which to speak to tens or even hundreds of thousands to at a time. The term is even closely related to big media – we think of television series when we hear the world cancelled; at least, we used to. I use the term celebrity broadly to describe anyone who has a large enough fanbase and following to make news, be it in the NYT or on some site dedicated to influencer gossip or even a posting dedicated to them on Buzzfeed. In any case, people like us will never make headlines of these types except by fluke. I’m also specifically referring to the opinions celebrities voice, rather than things they’ve been accused of doing. People “cancelling” James Franco because he’s been accused of sexual misconduct are not the same as people “cancelling” Bill Maher because he said something they don’t like. One is more about believing those who speak out about sexual violence, and the other is people not liking certain opinions. They are simply not the same thing. I will be generous here and say most of the celebrity voices who complain about cancel culture would be appalled to be lumped into the same category as those accused of sexual misconduct.
Let’s just dig into the main complaints celebrities have about being cancelled. Don’t worry; it won’t take long.
“Free speech doesn’t exist anymore! We’re being silenced! I’m being cancelled by the mob!”
First, it’s pointless for me to argue against the “being silenced” thing. It’s objectively false. If you honestly feel someone has been silenced whilst they are simultaneously making their statements on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the NYT, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, etc, etc, etc., then there is nothing I can say that will make you feel otherwise. The problem with people who believe you can be silenced when you can put out a press release that will be broadly reported on is that they have a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the term “silenced.” I can’t argue against a factually incorrect premise other than to state the facts. Which I’ve done. Next.
“Free speech” is an odd choice of words when there is so much money bound up in literally everything these people say. Their speech has never been free(1). We pay each and every time we listen to or read their words, either through cable TV costs if it’s on something like CNN, having to be advertised to, cough up subscription fees, having to be advertised to, being a patron, having to be advertised to… I think you get my point. And this brings me to my main issue with the complaint of cancel culture.
It’s not about free speech. It’s about the free market.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it.
I’m well aware that the money I make off my books is, in essence, me selling the brand of me. If I say something that pisses you off, you won’t buy “me” anymore. In fact, this post may piss you off. Okay! It may piss you off that I write a gay character in a book. Okay! It may piss you off that I don’t use ray guns. Okay! There are a million ways I could turn off potential readers. When you sell your words/thoughts/ideas, it’s something you’ll have to come to terms with. Either you do your best to make the most vanilla, “no one can read anything negative into this” kind of art, or you just accept that it’s impossible to make something that everyone will like all the time.
I also know that if I make something that buyers perceive as not having enough value to buy it, they won’t give me their money. It’s a fairly straightforward concept.
If GE were to make a refrigerator that leaked water everywhere, didn’t freeze things in the freezer, and smelled like old onions, people would stop buying GE. GE would be “cancelled”. Their rights haven’t been infringed. Mobs aren’t bullying them. It isn’t a cabal of unknown people trying to change the message. They put out a crappy product.
If you’re a celebrity that says something your fans don’t like, they won’t buy your product anymore. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. You made, in their eyes, a crappy product. Maybe they felt you as a product were misleading. Maybe they thought you were politically X, Y or Z, but your words solidly align with A, B or C. Maybe the quality of what you’ve said has changed. I too would be annoyed if I subscribed to the dark chocolate truffle of the month club and after two delicious years got celery. I didn’t buy celery. I bought dark chocolate. What’s this celery crap?! Subscription cancelled!
“But they were fired from a movie set! That’s not them selling them! That’s (insert studio here) censoring them! And they don’t censor (insert another celebrity you think talks too much about their opinions here). It’s an agenda!”
Nope. Still the free market.
Let’s say you work for an Apple store. You insist on using all natural sulfur to repel the evil spirits of the ghosts of iPods past and no one comes in to buy anything anymore because you smell like a volcano fart. That hurts the bottom line of Apple. The free market will prevail, and you’ll be fired. You can argue all you want about fairness at your exit interview, that your co-worker refuses to wear the color green because “it’s a mind control color” and they haven’t been fired yet. If the customers aren’t bothered by it, if they still spend money, the company won’t care either. Movie studios and the like are only bowing to those same free market forces.
Your words can hurt a business you work for if people associate the two. That’s really all there is to it. While I do think there are a few businesses that want to push some sort of agenda, for the most part they don’t want to tie that agenda up in the product they sell. Fox News or MSNBC isn’t as profitable, hour per hour, as Grey’s Anatomy or The Big Bang Theory. Too strong an agenda automatically cuts off a large portion of the paying public if they don’t agree with the agenda. Most celebrities are involved in projects marketed to a huge cross section of people that include a variety of political leanings in order to maximize profits. Selling to all Americans is always going to net you more money that selling only to right/left leaning Americans; just look at how afraid the gaming industry is to claim any of their games are in any way political.
If the things celebrities say make a corporation think they’ll lose money because it tilts the political focus of the project too much away from a sizeable chunk of their core audience, they won’t keep that celebrity around and risk the sales. That’s the free market. That’s how it works. Demand for that celebrity has dropped. The company will find a supply that’s in more demand. It’s always about the bottom line. That’s not cynicism – it’s capitalism. If you study capitalism, you will find the textbooks are generally mum on the topic of social justice. It’s irrelevant unless it’s important to the customers. It’s not about fairness, or free speech, or agendas. It’s about money.
There are times having strong opinions will, in fact, get you hired. If Apple opened up a store for volcano fart aficionados, our poor iPod ghost repelling employee would likely be hired again. But these companies never really climb out of the niche market. They aren’t GE, Apple, or Disney. Big companies aren’t interested in wooing niche audiences. That’s small potatoes to them, and not worth the effort. And maybe that’s really why celebrities are so pissed. Their thoughts aren’t mainstream. They’re outdated, or just uninteresting to the buying audience. And I’m sure that sucks for them.
So, to the celebrities who’ve been cancelled – I’m sorry you’ve been cancelled because you’re bellbottoms, and the world only wants to buy stretch pants. But that’s really all it is. You (the celebrities) hoped we’d keep buying you. But we (the consumers) aren’t interested anymore. That’s the free market and since we love our capitalism, that’s about as American as it gets.
(1) For those reading that literally, yes, I know the term “free speech” doesn’t refer to not having a monetary cost. It’s wordplay. The fact that I have to put this here is aggravating, but I’ve had enough people misread my words to “dunk” on my arguments, and I honestly can’t tell if the misreading is purposeful or not, so it has to be here.
n.b. You may have noticed I didn’t link to anything in this post. To add to my point about how “un-silenced” some of these supposedly cancelled people are, google them and see how fast you can find their complaints about being silenced. One of the best examples for me is “Harper’s Letter.” Google those two words. Not even in quotes. It’s like the top link. That generic search yields the letter complaining about how being cancelled hurts voices. In the top spot. And then in all the twenty spots beneath it. I’m a librarian and my job is to help people search for things when all they have are generic terms like this, “I remember it was a letter posted to the Times…. can you help?” It’s hard to describe how amazing it is that this is the top 20 results without knowing literally anything else than it was a letter published by Harper’s. Who’s voice, exactly, is being suppressed here?
This is the second in a series of musings on science fiction writing. Here’s the first.
As most of my readers know, I publish in a variety of genres. I was an avid reader growing up, and some of my favorite authors were multifaceted in the types of stories they would tell. The models I found the most inspiring in media were those forged by creators who could tell a compelling tale in a variety of settings, times and genres.
Ridley Scott may be best known for his work on Alien, especially since he continues to mine that world, but he also made many other movies I still love watching today, like Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven (his cut of this, not the theatrical). His characters are interesting and fleshed out. He has an “eye” I appreciate. And while he does gravitate more toward sci-fi stories, he is obviously excellent at directing a variety of stories.
Stephen King is best known for his supernatural horror, but I am drawn in particular to his more human-centered stories, where the horror comes in the way we treat each other. Stories like The Body, Misery, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption are among my favorite King tales – though my very favorite is probably his dystopian novel, The Long Walk.
George R.R. Martin, best known for the Game of Thrones series (or – as readers know it – A Song of Ice and Fire), also dabbles in more than just fantasy. I first encountered Martin’s writing when I was twelve and stumbled on a copy of Fevre Dream, a vampire tale set on a riverboat in the 1800s. Even with Game of Thrones occupying such a huge portion of his fandom and popularity, because Fevre Dream was such impactful reading for me, it’s how I first think of him.
I tend to like variety in my media consumption. I listen to most genres of music and enjoy stuff from pretty much every corner. I like action movies, sci-fi movies, documentaries, introspective movies, rom-coms, comedies, drama – you get the picture (pun intended). And when I read, I like to read in a lot of genres. Authors who can write well in a variety of genres have always been, colloquially speaking, #LifeGoals for me.
But it’s not just that I admire the skill of creators who can do this. It’s also freeing to me to work in a similar way. I don’t want to be stuck writing only horror, or fantasy, or science fiction. If I come up with a cool story that’s set in the modern, mundane world, I like the freedom of being able to write that without feeling compelled to stick to a genre I’ve been labeled with.
It’s also why my science fiction tends to be all over the place. Much of my work isn’t published, as I’ve never really polished it up. But I have a book sitting somewhere that is pretty solidly science fiction, but also vampires. I’ve done cyberpunk and space opera. Virus sci-fi, AI sci-fi, near future sci-fi, far future sci-fi. In short, I like to explore: both in ideas and in life. So my sci-fi won’t be all one type. It’s just not my style.
I’m actually not as much of a fantasy reader as I am a science fiction reader, though that has changed over the years. As I got more into YA fiction in my 20s, I gravitated to YA authors who wrote fantasy and discovered stories that appealed to me, like Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (sometimes called the Abhorsen series), or Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials (which has elements of steampunk as well). When I was younger, the idea of jumping into books in epic series was not appealing – it doesn’t appeal very much now, either. I’m an impatient reader, and watcher really, and if a story doesn’t truly grip me I tend to find the ending online and spoil it for myself to see if I want to keep reading it. YA fantasy held the appeal that most series, at that time anyway, tended to be shorter.
I believe that’s probably what kept me from reading too much fantasy in the early 90s when I really began to branch out into more adult fiction, as opposed to tween fiction, like Chrisopher Pike, or Judy Blume; both are fun authors, but I ran out of stuff to read pretty quickly. Back then, fantasy was epitomized by Robert Jordan, at least from my perspective. Friends I knew who read and recommended fantasy always pulled these doorstops off their shelves and foisted them onto me. It was intimidating to me, to say the least, because the idea of having to read alllll that to find out what finally happened was an agonizing thought.
Now I’m older, and I can get into those kinds of books, but it still takes some goading and some crackling writing. I’m not a slow burn reader. Thus, my writing tends to be how I like to read. It’s quick and pacey. A frequent complaint about my books is that they’re too short. I’ll counter complain that books have become too long. 😉
My books almost always fall neatly within 80,000-100,000 words, which I’ve read is quite typical for most novels, aside from epic fantasies. In fact, I’ve been told more than once that if I ever wanted to submit my work to a traditional publisher, it should fall in that range or it’s less likely to be picked up. Obviously, that’s not a problem for me. I like to think people complain my books are too short because they enjoyed reading them so much, they didn’t stop to check the time the whole way through. 😉 It’s easier on me that way. But there may be some truth to that.
Most fiction actually does fall in that range. I know this both from searching online (I linked to three results there, but run a google search on typical novel length and you’ll see what I mean), and because I worked for many years at a public library. Diana Gabaldon was the exception, not the rule, and when her books were all checked in, we had no choice but to “weed” most of the copies once they were no longer in demand enough to stay off the shelves. They simply wouldn’t fit on our shelves, so off to the book sale they went! But the vast majority of books fit neatly into a spine 1.5 inches to 2 inches wide. It’s just not that uncommon for bestsellers to be in the 80-100K range. In the last sentence, I’ve linked to some bestsellers word counts – some famous ones I remember, and some from a list of the 40 bestselling titles in 2020 – if you’d like a little proof in your pudding. 😊
That isn’t to say I couldn’t find books that were much longer in that list of bestsellers, but as I’ve said – it’s been a trend for things to get way, way longer of late. The epic is in. At least for now. Here’s an interesting breakdown of bestsellers and their average word counts in various genres on Kindleprenuer. What’s interesting about these numbers, and it matches with the trends, is that key authors tend to move the bar. The author mentions The Stand as being the longest horror book. There’s another side effect to the way Stephen King writes. All his books, save a few, a very lengthy for the horror genre. He’s the leader in the genre, so writers who want to be successful like him, or whose work is heavily influenced by him, will also write longer works. This pushes the average up. Martin and Gabaldon have seen a ton of success, even though they write enormous books, paving the way for others who typically were told their books are too long, to try their hand at books that go on forever.
What’s interesting is that the publishing industry still doesn’t like lengthy books from first-time authors. You’ll see some testimonials from people who work in the publishing industry who talk about stuff that goes in the “slush” pile – some are linked above. Often, books over 120,000 words go to that pile automatically. People will say, but what about so and so, who writes books that are hugely long? Have you ever looked up the word count of Carrie? 64,000 words. First books tend to be shorter, even by authors who later write super-long books. You have to get your foot in the door. Carrie was a wild success. King immediately started writing longer books, which you can see in the page counts of his bibliography.
But all those issues don’t really apply to me. For me, the freedom of being able to write how I want to is more desirable than the possibility of either an advance or more publicity by trying to land that elusive book deal. It’s just not worth the effort if the end result is I’d be hampered by so many rules. Even authors as strong as Stephen King need to bend to the will of the publisher. If you haven’t ever read up on the creation of Richard Bachman, it’s an interesting case in point. King wanted to write more. But publishers have ideas about what an author is and how they should write. So King created Bachman so he could write more. I’ve never tried to traditionally publish, so I’ve never had to worry about following trends like longer book length, or even keeping things under a certain word count. So I write the way I like to read – shorter (90K words), pacey books.
Because it’s my preference to write books that conclude at around 90,000 words, my science fiction doesn’t really have space for me to go into a ton of detail about, well, science. I prefer to have the reader figure stuff out from context. It’s my style, and it’s also how I like to read. Artemis, which I’ve mentioned before, is actually pretty short, coming in at roughly 78,000 words. Shorter than any of my novels, and about twice as large as some of my novellas. But I still had trouble getting into it, because so much of the page space is dedicated to explaining how the science works.
Andy Weir does an impressive amount of research for his books. They are objectively hard science fiction. There’s almost nothing in his books that isn’t currently in the works, scientifically speaking. It’s not hard to imagine the events of The Martian actually occurring in twenty years or so. Same with Artemis. Should those kinds of explorations be what we as a society want to invest in, the technology is there to work with. It’s just very expensive, and requires a large amount of support and investment to do, but it’s certainly far more plausible than, say, Star Trek, which assumes in fifty years or so, we’ll be traveling at “warp” speeds, or faster than light. This isn’t something we’ve even begun to crack, and there’s a lot of theory that would indicate it’s impossible to actually do. Laws of physics constraining anything with mass from going that fast is one thing, but to get to those speeds, they also always have to invent “inertial dampeners” which is… not a thing. But that’s fine! Sometimes you have to employ a little “science fiction magic” to actually explore the themes you want to explore. What would it be like to be a part of an intergalactic federation? Well, first you have to have aliens, so you just kind of hand wave that part away to get to the good stuff. Even science fiction that fans purport to be “harder” sci-fi does this.
To use The Expanse again as an example – and to be clear here, I enjoy The Expanse a whole lot – they don’t really go too much into the science of how their space travel is as fast as it is. But they want to talk about colonialization and space and want to speculate on what would happen with competing political factions. To do that, they need to get significant colonies out there – 1.5 million on Eros for example, so we’re really talking significant colonization. To get to Mars right now takes roughly nine months depending on a number of factors (planets move, ship size, etc.). In the series, it’s done in a couple of days. To get to the belt they talk about in the series, It would take much longer. There’s even a station on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter. And that’s really out there. If you had to create a colonization story with those kinds of limitations it would be a pretty dull affair most of the time. “Day one. On our way to colonize Ganymede. We ate dehydrated food and tried to stay sane.” “Day 1,574. Still on our way. Maybe a little less sane. Seth’s feet stink.” It’s a story that might make for some interesting drama, but not the sort of epic political strife The Expanse is going for. So they use a little sci-fi magic and invent a technology that makes the storytelling easier. If you look at the tech of the “Epstein Drive” it’s a lot of nice science buzz words: fusion drives, magnetic coil exhaust acceleration – it certain sounds science-y, but there’s not a lot of actual hard science going on under the hood other than broad concepts (there are some who have tried to write actual science breakdowns of this stuff, but honestly it’s way less fun to think about how one gets to a Jupiter moon station than being on the Jupiter moon station is to think about). Same goes with the magic juice they always use that’s supposed to protect humans from sustained 10G’s+ of force. Maybe that would work once, or a few times. But you’ll pickle your body from the inside out if you “juice” as much as these folks would have to in order to make these trips, not to mention all the medical nonsense about the chairs – you can’t just inject people wherever and these chairs would each have to be fitted to each person to work that way, among so many other issues. They use a little science to make the magic seem less magical – anti clotting agents so you don’t stroke out, etc. But it’s not really medically feasible to do this to the human body on a regular basis. But that doesn’t matter.
I’m playing devil’s advocate a little bit here to make a point that even in a “hard sci-fi,” “heavily researched” book, there’s a lot of science magic doing heavy work. People who read fiction typically aren’t going to get the same kind of enjoyment out of actual hard science. The series does an impressive job with layering in a lot more realistic details than something like Star Trek – magnetic gravity books instead of gravity being turned on and off, the way the belters have developed in low G environments, the lack of inertial dampeners is doing a lot here – but it’s still just fiction at the end of the day.
It’s not about the accuracy of the facts or science. You literally could read a non-fiction science book if that’s how you’re entertained – you don’t need to get through 600 pages of people talking about water rights to get that fix. Science fiction is about the storytelling and whether or not you give enough to your audience to suspend their disbelief in the setting you’ve chosen. Obviously the writers of The Expanse have done that.
For my part, I tend to shy away from those kinds of explanations in my science fiction books – going into details about how the ship’s engines work, for instance, or any of the technical aspects of life. For one, I’m not living in a world where this stuff is currently possible; I can only speculate on what might be possible. And if I try to explain the science of what I’m writing about in detail, what will become apparent rather quickly is that I’m not a theoretical physicist. I’m not a biologist, a chemist, or anything like those things. I have some formal education, but not enough to make me an expert – just enough to make me dangerous, as they say.
For another, I don’t find it natural. I’ll give you an example of what I mean here. Let’s go back to the 1800s. Let’s say I’m an author in the 1800s writing a novel set in the now. All the characters are from the now, even if the reader and writer are from the 1800s. I write a character who goes into the kitchen of her house to get something to eat out of the fridge. She takes it to the microwave, heats it up, and eats it, while looking at her phone reading the day’s news. In my opinion, it’s unrealistic for my character to think while doing this, “I go to the fridge, a futuristic device that uses a chemical reaction to create cold air, making it so all my food is kept at a constant temperature. I then heat it in a device that uses something called microwaves, it agitates the water molecules causing them to increase in temperature. Don’t even get me started on how this phone thing works. Oh, all right, I guess I have to explain it now. So a phone uses a variety of technologies…”
It’s always a delicate balance that authors must achieve to explain their world building. I really don’t like going into lecture mode in my books to explain something. This comes back to what I prefer to read. I don’t like it when the narrator needs to take a pause in the story to explain some complicated in-world thing. I start to get bored. Remember, I’m an impatient reader. I want to get on with the story.
So I keep my science stuff broadly theoretically based on what I can speculate would be possible using what knowledge I have of science.
I try not to get too crazy when I speculate in science fiction. I won’t be putting “inertial dampeners” into any of my books. With what little science I do know about, I recognize how crazy such a concept is. You can’t just erase inertia with… what? A lot of cooking grease? I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept and I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how this is supposed to work. But! I will create something like a micro-sun as an energy device.
Suns, or really, stars, are still little understood by scientists; even the basics of how exactly so much energy can exist. Theoretically, they know how they work. But they are still studying exactly why and how they do what they do. The amount of energy a star puts off is insane. It’s quantifiable, but in numbers so big you start to have to talk about millions and millions of nuclear explosions. Each second. It’s like trying to describe to someone what a million people actually looks like. People often see large protests and inflate the numbers, because our brains just can’t really visualize what an actual million people standing together looks like. So talking about a sun’s energy has a similar effect. We know it’s big, but the concept of just how big is hard to get our heads around.
In my Mission’s End series, I predict that at some point we’ll be able to make artificial stars on a small enough scale they can become a long-lasting power source. But that’s it. I don’t go into how – the science of such a thing would be beyond me even if it was a real thing – but I do understand that a long journey into space would require a lot of fuel. So I needed a fuel source that made some theoretical sense to me. I know we’ve come a long way in manipulating atoms; why not eventually be able to manipulate them enough to create a micro-sun and contain it?
Phasers, plasma weapons, etc., all come with complicated issues if I’m going to include them. But propelled metal has been around as a weapon for a long time. And it works so well, why would you bother to invent something more complicated and finicky if you didn’t need it? Bullets work. So there are bullets in my books, not energy beams. I know people often expect futuristic weaponry in sci-fi – it’s a signpost you’re reading sci-fi. I get it. But Mission’s End takes place in space. I figured that was enough of a signpost that you were reading sci-fi that I didn’t need to add ray guns.
The same is true of a lot of the technology I use. It works for the purpose of the story, so I don’t bother re-inventing it. In this way, my books are more “hard” than soft since I tend to stick to known scientific principles. My ships don’t travel super fast. It’s taking hundreds of years to get to their location. I have “founders” who are in stasis, but there’s a trick to that I haven’t revealed yet. To give you a clue to my thinking, how do you keep a body from aging over hundreds of years? Wood frogs use natural antifreeze to stay alive while frozen, but their lifespan is not any longer than other frogs at 3 years. Actually, it’s pretty short compared to things like toads which can live ten years.
Where I do delve more into the fantastical is where my educational background is the strongest, in political science theory. I like the idea of playing with different types of rule in extreme situations. The space setting in the Mission’s End series allows me to play around with two separate types of speculation at once – science and politics.
This is where my educational background might help you understand why I write about the things I do. While I do have some formal education in science, I only allow it to inform my inductive leaps of logic, rather than constrain my ideas. I spent a year and a half in what was called the “Biology pre-professional” major, or more colloquially called, pre-med. Pre-med isn’t really a major, as any major can take the MCAT; you just won’t pass without the foundational knowledge a degree like biology pre-professional gives you.
I got out of the STEM field because while I found it interesting on the surface, what really intrigued me was the theoretical, and memorizing carbon chains was not something I found particularly enthralling. When you’re an undergrad in one of the science majors, you don’t get to pick and choose which classes you take. There are lots of requirements for those majors. I couldn’t only take evolutionary biology and genetics – I also had to take organic chemistry. I couldn’t only take physics – I also had to take Calculus. After the organic chemistry class, I’d had enough of the memorization. It wasn’t going to be for me. Also, science textbooks are the worst. Drier than Death Valley. Who writes them (oh, yes – I remember: people like the mechanical engineer friend I mentioned in the previous piece on this topic, whom I helped in college. Brilliant engineer; writer, not so much)? Neil DeGrasse Tyson gets a lot of crap about being annoying (and he can be: his pedantry knows no bounds) – but there’s a reason he’s so popular even though he’s talking about things most people aren’t experts on; he’s a better writer than most scientists – often amusing, and able to take a complex idea and simplify it in a way that’s entertaining.
Some might think writing science fiction is harder than writing fantasy – and maybe that’s where some of the attitude comes from about one genre being superior to the other. Having written both, I’ll say they each come with their own challenges. While researching science can be a chore – in The 13 I researched guns to pick the weapons I chose for the military branch to wield because I’m not a gun expert – it’s also a lot easier to write in a world people will mostly understand from the get go, which means I can avoid those narrative dumps of information I talked about not liking earlier.
I don’t need to explain how mundane technology works: most people will have encountered greenhouses, frozen embryos, and touchscreens. And I can also build on a lot of foundational work sci-fi authors from before me built. I can make a spaceship, and don’t have to explain exactly what a spaceship is. I can have shuttles and genetically engineered geniuses because people have written those types of tropes into their fictions for years. The basics of those tropes are understood, and that fits my writing style – preferring the contextual method of introducing readers to concepts.
When you write fantasy, however, there is a lot more prep you have to do. You can’t just look up how a gordonna behaves; you need to create it. And you need to create all the rules your universe plays by – if you’re a careful writer, I should say. Most readers don’t like it when there are too many inconsistencies in these rules. You need to create the politics, the society, the flora and fauna – often fantasy writers lean heavily on real world counterparts, but anything fantastical they create needs to have an entry in a mental encyclopedia of how the world works. It’s a lot to hold in your head as you write. You can just look up how a body would behave in zero G, but in fantasy you have to figure out how flying in your world would effect a person if that’s something you don’t want to hand wave away.
My sophomore year in college, I took a ton of different classes. I knew I wasn’t enjoying the major I was in, and that meant my grades would really start to suffer soon. I didn’t want to tank my GPA by continuing to try to do something I didn’t have the heart to do – and for me, it did take heart. Some people I knew were quite gifted and hardly had to work to remember everything they threw at us. I also wanted to hardly work, but I could not do that in the STEM fields. In essence, I was too lazy to do it and not interested enough to get over that. So I took intros to psychology, economics, political science and sociology, in addition to (ugh) organic chemistry that semester. I was giving myself one more semester, just in case I changed my mind before I changed my major. I ended up dropping organic chemistry. I still have nightmares of carbon chains, so it was probably for the best.
The class that really stuck with me was political science. I can’t really lie, it’s more than a little because I was able to still be lazy in it and get an A. The other programs of study required me to read the textbook, and I was less interested in them anyway. When a psychology professor gets in front of a lecture hall and tells you that he can sit with you for an hour and know more about you than you know about yourself, you have one of two reactions from my experience talking to other students in that class: Psychology is a bunch of BS, or, that’s a cool superpower and I want it. Economics was neat, and I like numbers because they are black and white, but it didn’t move me. Sociology I did end up taking a bit more of, but not enough for a major. Political science, however, enthralled me. Which is probably actually why it was easy. I saw enough students drop Constitutional Law to know it wasn’t as easy to everyone as it felt to me. I think you need to like it to do well. And I liked it. I especially loved comparative politics – it was the first time I’d learned so much about how other democracies worked. I really enjoyed learning how policy was made, how laws were interpreted, and how all these things affected the growth of society in big and small ways.
And that’s basically what I’m doing in Mission’s End. Well, in each book, I should say. There is a larger story at play in the overall series (don’t worry, no spoilers here! ;), but each book is an exploration of a type of rule and how someone within that type of rule might feel. I’m not trying to look at extreme militarization from the outside and comment on it. I’m trying to be on the inside and imagine what it would be like to live on that ship and actually think it was an ideal way to run a society. Would people chaff? If so, in what ways? Who would be left out? Who would suffer? How would the leaders justify these things?
I’m of the belief there is no perfect type of rule because people aren’t perfect. We’ll mess up whatever we start, no matter the good intentions. Not because people on a whole are bad, but because there are enough bad actors who make their way to the top. I’m with Socrates; I don’t think anyone who wants to lead is a going to end up being a good leader. You have to pick someone who is reluctant to do the job. I feel this reluctance comes from the idea that they know power is dangerous and the job of doing the right thing is hard, not easy. Those who are reluctant to take power are less likely to bend the rules to suit themselves and those they care about. Those who seek power are suspect. But there are way too many problems with that – beginning with forcing people to rule would probably just mean they leave the country to get away from being forced to do something they don’t want to. So we’re stuck with working with imperfection and making it as good as we can. And that’s pretty hard to do. And also fascinating to me. So I write about it. A lot.
But I’m also pretty fascinated with the human condition. And that gets me to the other themes in my work – all of my work, not just the sci-fi. In particular, I explore this in my novella, the Dream Merchant. But we’ll go more into that in next week’s post, where I talk about how I research my science in more depth, and when I decide to make a speculative leap of science. I know these posts have been a bit meandering (keeping in line with my thought process), but hopefully they’ve at least been interesting, and – best-case scenario – they’ve offered some insight into my thought process as well. 😊
Until next week!
Science Fiction. Just like with any genre, it comes in many flavors. Some of the more common terms you may have heard include: hard science fiction, soft science fiction, steampunk, space opera, science fantasy, cyberpunk. There are also plenty of other genres that often have a lot in common with science fiction which, for this post, I’ll call crossover categories: things like post-apocalyptic fiction or dystopias that can often be labeled as science fiction.
This is the first post in a series of posts on science fiction. I’m hoping by sharing my thoughts here, you’ll gain some insight into what I think can reasonably be called science fiction (and my feelings on the debate around “hard science fiction being the superior science fiction”), why I write the science fiction the way I do, how I research the probability of scientific advancements that I might include in my books and when I decide to take a theoretical leap of faith to create a new technology.
In this first post, I’m going to discuss my feelings on the genre as a whole, and the gatekeeping behavior I see being deployed on the internet by some science fiction fans. I want this post to be first because I feel there is a negative undercurrent to the ideas expressed by some fans that certain things can’t be science fiction because they aren’t accurate enough and are therefore lesser somehow.
To begin, I should define what I mean when I say science fiction so we’re all on the same page. For determining a genre, I go back to what I learned in my writing classes at school, because it’s the simplest way to categorize for me, especially since there are so many intellectual pieces on what defines science fiction that are more difficult to pin down. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia entry for what Science Fiction means, and they discuss several there if you are interested, but for our purposes here, I’ll just assume you know science stuff when you see it, and this is more of a practical approach to defining the genre.
If you can tell the story without any of the science-y bits, and it loses nothing, then the science-y bits are window dressing. The book isn’t science fiction. But if there are some fundamental elements to the story that can’t be told without the science-y bits, then it’s science fiction. What do I mean here? Well, similar to how a romance can’t really be regency unless the characters live within a ruleset of that era (for instance, women are equal to men and that’s “normal” in the story, as in, no one remarks on how odd it is that women can do what they please without societal repercussions) then it’s just a romance with fancy dresses, not a regency. I honestly feel that this is why a lot of romance writers write in the sub-genre of fantasy – they can set the style in the medieval period, without conforming to the societal rules of the medieval period. It’s a fun genre mashup without the constraints of the source material, and I understand why it has appeal. But I digress. If your science fiction story is a coming of age story of a teenager on a spaceship, but it all takes place in “space high” and there really is no plot element that requires it be in space, then it’s just a YA novel set in space, not really science fiction. The science element has to have some role other than being there for most readers to consider it science fiction.
Other than that, however, there are some readers that disagree on how to categorize science fiction, and they tend to denigrate one type while elevating another. In particular, there is what I like to call a snooty strain of reader that puts everything that isn’t “hard science fiction” into the “science fantasy” area. Everybody has their tastes. I totally understand why you’d want to read Artemis, and not Star Wars. The issue I take with the complaints I see on a lot of science fiction reviews is the idea that books that don’t adhere to some imaginary, strict code of science are garbage science fiction, less worthy of reading because they aren’t “hard” science fiction.
It’s pretty easy to find reddit threads, or reviews for books, that make the argument that some science fiction isn’t worthy of the label. I’m not going to link them here, because I don’t really want to add more fuel to this fire one way or the other, but if you look up terms like “Hard sci fi vs soft sci fi” or “Is Star wars sci fi” you’ll find lots of stuff. And if you’ve spent any time reading through reviews of science fiction, you’ve inevitably run across more than a few that say the book is bad because the science in it is implausible. I even recently read a post where someone said with absolute authority that science fiction couldn’t be speculative fiction because it’s rooted in fact – an idea I simply couldn’t wrap my head around.
First, I question the veracity of the knowledge behind some of these arguments. The vast majority of readers aren’t educated scientists. I know this is true because most people aren’t scientists. Graduates in the STEM fields made up 18% of degrees in 2015-2016. So how many people have degrees, you may ask? Roughly a third of Americans have an undergraduate degree. If you do the math, that means around 6% of the population in America has some sort of educational background in science. While some of the people complaining about accuracy in science fiction are probably scientists of one kind or another, I’d be willing to wager most of them do not have formal education on the matter.
I don’t doubt they have some knowledge they’re basing their complaints on, but without a deep understanding of scientific theories, which most people won’t have, it’s difficult for me to put any stock in a statement like, Star Trek is less scientific than The Expanse. An awful lot of Star Trek’s speculative science has proved out over the years, with things like instant transportation just beginning to be understood as we learn more about quantum mechanics. We’ll have to wait and see on The Expanse and its physics-altering AI proto-molecule as to whether or not that’s a thing that can ever be accomplished.
The difference between something like The Expanse and Star Trek is, because Star Trek takes big, speculative swings, there are so many more examples of what they predicted than something more in the “hard” camp, like The Expanse, will ever be able to achieve. The Expanse’s major speculative inventions are faster-than-we-currently-have space travel and the AI protomolecule which does most of the work in the series as far as super advanced technology goes. The protomolecule makes all the inventions that are truly speculative, not the humans, and it does so in incomprehensible, unexplained ways. Yet the series is still considered “hard sci fi” because most of the technology in it is stuff we are already working on to one extent or another – the “mundane science” as some put it.
Hard sci fi is rooted in the “what we know now” whereas soft sci fi is more “what might we be able to accomplish in the future?” Both types of science fiction are equally science-y, one is just easier for people with a basic understanding of science to suspend their disbelief for because it’s rooted in the science of today, and the other requires either a strong understanding of highly theoretical underlying scientific ideas to buy into it, or a willingness to allow the imagination room for what some might consider inconceivable. Both are perfectly fine types of science fiction – it’s all about your comfort level with science and speculation in that field. There are certainly aspects of Star Trek I find too outlandish to think possible – hundreds of bi-pedal, humanoid aliens who can apparently consume and get nourishment from carbon-based foods and breathe oxygen? Really? Does no one on this show know the odds that mammals were the dominant species here, let alone humans? And they can mate? Does “species” mean something different in the future? – yet I adore that series. But I’m fine with suspending my disbelief and can find enjoyment in that series despite its (imo) scientific absurdities because it’s fun, and in the end, it often tells a good story, which is important no matter what kind of book or media you are reading or consuming. Similarly, I enjoy The Expanse even though I’m not a huge fan of hard science fiction (I find too much time spent on narrating the specific difficulties of space travel to be dull. I know how long and tedious space flight is, how low gravity and high Gs effect human bodies, how intricate biomes work, etc., etc. Please stop explaining science like I’m reading a textbook and take me back to the political intrigue thankyouverymuch) because the story and characters are interesting and exciting. And in both cases, I can absolutely see why people would like the things I specifically do not like. But this is a difference in taste, not in quality, which is why I take issue with that kind of statement.
Another issue I take with these types of complaints is that even if you are a physicist, that does not make you an expert on biology or chemistry or medicine. You are an expert on physics. I’ve worked in higher education for a long time. It’s not uncommon to run into faculty that believe because they’ve done the hard work of getting that PhD, they are more of an expert on anything and everything than anyone without a PhD. I want to be clear – most of the professors I’ve worked with are not like this. But you can find the ones that are easily enough. I still recall sitting in my chemistry professor’s office worrying that I was only getting a C in the class and how my grades were stacking up compared to people I knew on campus. “Oh, you’re doing fine. This is a hard class. Those other disciplines, we don’t think much of them. It’s easy to get an A in them.”
Fortunately, this kind of thinking wasn’t cemented in my head. Shortly after I graduated, I had the opportunity to help a mechanical engineer with his two-page paper for a technical writing class. He had spent all week working on it and the professor still told him it was an F paper. This was a guy who designed and fabricated a drill bit the size of my arm that was 6% more efficient than any other drill bit that size. And he was banging his head over a two-page paper and thought what I was doing was magic when I fixed it for him.
For me, intelligence isn’t a black or white issue. You aren’t smart because you know how to titrate. You aren’t dumb because you don’t. Intelligence is a spectrum – there are many flavors. That mechanical engineer had high marks for his type of intelligence, but low marks in other areas. A chef has high marks on intelligence for creating food that tastes amazing but might not be able to fix a car. The brain is involved in all these activities, so I refuse to accept that being able to do “handiwork” isn’t a type of intelligence. It seems too reductive to me to decide that only STEM folks are geniuses, but the person who can design a dress that looks like it defies gravity is not.
Every skill requires brainwork. Warren Buffet has said on a number of occasions he was lucky to be born where and how he was, because his skills would have been worthless otherwise. To which Bill Gates quipped, if Buffett were born in an earlier era, he would have been something’s lunch. It’s an idea they call the “lottery of birth.” What is considered intelligent today, was not in time’s past. Knowing how best to hunt in ancient times would have been the most valuable and powerful type of intelligence then. Now we joke and call those people cavemen. But in truth, cavemen would have whooped all our butts a few thousand years ago.
Finally, aside from all those flaws with the argument that only “hard science fiction” is science fiction and everything else is fantasy, I need to go to the root of my problem with this type of complaint.
One of the things that always bothered me the most in my upbringing was this attitude that there was entertainment that made you stupid. Entertainment is entertainment. It’s not going to drain away your education. I’ve always preferred the term “pleasure reading” as opposed to “guilty pleasure” because I don’t think people should feel guilty for reading certain genres. I feel like it’s similar to berating someone who likes vanilla over chocolate, or swings over merry-go-rounds. What does it matter if they like something you don’t? Having fun is subjective.
I heard a phrase recently at a seminar, “Don’t yuck someone’s yum.” I like this. I like the simplicity of the statement and the meaning behind it. When we’re talking about taste, it’s odd to me that certain people’s first instinct when someone near them expresses delight over something, is to say, “No, that thing sucks.” I’ve started wondering, what is the point of this type of opinion? I can’t see anything other than the intention to inflict negativity onto someone for liking something you don’t. That is pointlessly mean, and that’s not something I think we need more of. “No thanks, I’m more of a sour foodie than a spicy foodie,” is a much more informative and polite way to say you don’t like spicy food. Now the person knows what you like and might make suggestions more to your taste. And you don’t make them feel like it’s an insult to like something. I think we all could use to think about the intentions of what we say before we say things. Is our intention good? Or are we just being mean because we get a little thrill from it? I can tell you from much experience, the joy of a mutual appreciation of a thing is much longer lasting and powerful than the brief thrill of insulting someone’s preferences.
TL:DR Science fiction comes in many flavors. No one kind is more valid than any other kind. Sure, Star Wars has elements of medieval fantasy on spaceships, but I’m sure most adults who enjoy it have heard your arguments before and don’t care if it’s really “science fantasy,” and you don’t need to lob that term at people as if it’s an insult (and to make sure I don’t have folks writing to me saying, “I’m just clarifying my tastes to others by saying I only like hard science fiction, not insulting them” – you know it’s not you who I am addressing, then). It’s science fiction because the technology they have is essential to the story. The aliens are essential to the story. The sociological differences explored between species are essential to the story. And all of that is science-based speculation. Yes, the force is probably magic – despite the weird midichlorians retcon (which I feel is one of the best examples of the pressure of this type of argument altering a story in a bad way). And if somebody does try to gatekeep and tell you your favorite stories aren’t science fiction, but fantasy, just say, “Okay!” and move on. Like what you want to like. Don’t let other’s judgement of your favorite kind of science fiction ruin your enjoyment of it.
Further reading: Here is a great article where several authors discuss the ideas of hard science fiction versus soft at length. They bring up several excellent points I only allude to, in particular the idea that the social sciences are not sciences (elitist nonsense).
For my next post, I’ll go more specifically into my background and how it informs my science fiction writing. Until next week!
Hello, intrepid explorers!
It’s been a while, I know. I don’t want to make too many excuses, as I’m sure you’ve heard them all from many quarters over the last year. But I will make a brief explanation of my hiatus. A couple years ago I needed to find employment that would secure my health insurance for reasons I won’t go into very much. I didn’t want to be stuck in a place where my previous cancer kept me from being insured because it was an “existing condition.” Such is life. What I thought would only last a short time was extended as my household financial stability was tenuous as the pandemic began shutting down everything. So I kept the job, thinking I’d just start writing in my free time after work. Unfortunately, I don’t have whatever it is Taylor Swift has (lots of money probably helps! Even so, 2 albums last year!) and everything that was happening in the world was not fertile ground for my mind. I couldn’t focus enough to productively write about adventures, thrills and horrors while worrying about the vulnerable members of my family catching this thing. Virginia Woolf wrote that a writer needed a room of one’s own to practice their craft. She was speaking both literally and figuratively, at least in my reading of the piece. You need a physical space where you can concentrate fully, but you also need a mental space where you can sink into the realm of imagination without stray, anxious thoughts intruding and stepping all over your stories. Even if you write to get that stuff out, which I sometimes do, you still need to be focused to do that well. At least I feel that’s the case.
So here we are, a couple years after Voro was published, and ready to begin fresh. I have been cleaning up The 11, as I feel that really is overdue for publishing, even though I have a couple new fantasy books completed and ready for editing – that four book series I was working on before all this started, for instance. This post will be brief, but I have a longer one discussing what the different kinds of science fiction are and why I write mine the way I do. I wanted this to come out first and sit on the front page of my site for a few days though. It’s my way of saying, I’m still here, and ready to get back to what I feel I do best. Writing.
Talk to you very soon!
In the last post, I talked about how often we encounter sex in books, and why that might be. I promised I’d be back with more sex, and that’s a promise I’m keeping. See, sometimes I am reliable. 😉
One of the interesting things about sex scenes, besides the fact that they’re sex scenes, is that authors all have their own way of going about writing them. To know why they are written the way they are (and why I choose to write mine the way I do) you need to first determine why the scene is in the book. Sex scenes are like any other detail in a book; they should serve a purpose. Sometimes they are written only to titillate — sometimes as a natural progression of a relationship. What is the difference between a sex scene meant to arouse and one meant to show the culmination of a relationship? How can you tell the difference between erotica and romance?
You’ll often see people commenting in reviews that a book is or isn’t erotica or romance. There’s a lot of crossover here. I was a librarian for many years, so I’m basing my judgement on years of reader’s advisory to make my genre calls — it’s the most familiar to me and was the most reliable way for me to find the right book when someone asked for a recommendation. To illustrate the difference between the genres, I’ll use an example from a series that went from plot driven, noir, urban fantasy, mystery storytelling in the early volumes to urban fantasy romance to finally land firmly in erotica.
When I first started reading the Anita Blake series by Laurel K Hamilton, the books were pretty standard urban fantasy fare. Each book set up a murder mystery, then, in a fairly noir fashion, there was a lot of detecting and danger. Romance was an underlying theme in the early books, particularly with Anita’s push/pull with the lead vampire and werewolf of the series, but it took time to consummate — I’m not even sure if anyone has sex “on screen” in the first two books. But in the first two books, the romance was not the driving factor of the plot, the murder mysteries were. This is the primary difference between genres.
When you’re determining categories of books, it’s important to understand the underlying differences between genres. A person who enjoys science fiction isn’t necessarily going to enjoy a romance with science fiction elements. You might have even run into this confusion when someone you know recommended something to you that you ended up, to their surprise, not liking — “But you like fantasy! This has dragons!” One of the key components to determining genre is the plot. Is the plot dependent on the genre elements in the book?
If a book is about a man and a woman meeting, and the plot revolves around whether or not they get together — it doesn’t matter if they’re on a space ship or in a wizard’s school — it’s a romance. If the genre elements could be swapped out, and the story would essentially be unchanged, then romance is the main category you put the book in, with the sub-genre — science fiction/fantasy/horror — being secondary. But if the plot revolves around whether or not the man and woman in question make peace with alien life, then the genre is science fiction, even if during the course of the book the two of them get together. The mere presence of a relationship does not make a book a romance. The mere presence of a space ship does not make a book science fiction. The plot is what changes the genre.
Back to our example of Anita Blake. After three books, things started to heat up in Anita’s life, and the balance between mystery and romance became weighted heavily toward the romance end of things. The plot more consistently revolves around who Anita loves, with the mystery taking a back seat to the relationship issues. Because this is a series that shifted (pun perhaps intended), it’s harder to say 100% if it becomes romance or urban fantasy at this point. Anita is still working with the police, but the cases get less and less page space, and the relationships more and more.
Most readers note Obsidian Butterfly as being the point at which the books undergo a drastic shift in tone. Personally, I feel like the author was already edging us closer to erotica with each entry. Obsidian Butterfly seems like the start of this departure from urban fantasy mystery, I think, because the book on a whole is an outlier; it takes place in another city entirely and most of the recurring characters aren’t in it. It’s so different, that when we jump back into Anita’s life after this book, the lack of sexual tension in Obsidian Butterfly makes the contrast all the more obvious.
Before Obsidian Butterfly, Anita’s sexual encounters had already increased dramatically from the first three books. After Obsidian Butterfly, these books are no longer simply urban fantasy or romance; they are erotica — the sex scenes are not only extremely graphic, they are the focus of the book. They take up pages and pages, Anita focuses on them to the exclusion of whatever story is going on in the background, and they often drive the plot. The sex is the reason for the book, not the story. That means the book is erotica. When sex is the whole reason for the plot, that’s how you tell the difference between romance and erotica.
I stopped reading the series after it turned completely to erotica. Not because the sex in and of itself was off-putting, but the way Hamilton wrote it was — which leads me to my next point. Why do I write sex scenes the way I do?
Much like with anything we enjoy in life, we have preferences. Favorite foods, flavors, colors, book genres, movie types — whatever it is, we usually have things we prefer. We also usually have things we don’t prefer. Maybe we hate green beans. Maybe the presence of a particular actor will put us off a movie we’d normally like. Maybe a dress is fabulous, but that color! Ugh! Erotica and sex scenes are no different. People have preferences and turn offs. Hamilton wrote a lot about the pleasure of pain as she started to delve into her erotica. Pain is not pleasurable to me in the slightest. I don’t find anything remotely sexy about it. But plenty do (and more power to them), thus Hamilton has a generous market and continues to thrive as a writer. This works, because when people read erotica, they are looking for their particular preference. If you write erotica, you know that and don’t have to be concerned about whether or not you’ll turn someone off with a particular description. You know the audience is there for what you’re writing.
I don’t write graphic sex scenes. As I said before, it’s not because I object to them. The problem I have with writing extensive, graphic scenes in my books is I’m not writing a sex driven plot-line. I’m writing a different kind of story. In my writing, I remove — what I like to call — distracting elements. My style of writing is character driven stories with a fast, driving momentum. I want to pull the reader along — I want them to turn the page and keep going to see what happens next. If I take too much time to discuss at length, say, what’s for dinner, I feel the momentum start to lag. It’s a style choice, nothing more. Some authors love to luxuriate the reader with details. Some readers love this leisurely pace in their books. I write the same way I like to read. I’m not sure if this is true of all authors, but it’s true for me. I prefer books that move along and don’t dwell on details of little importance to the plot.
My editor and I have a saying, “And an apple sat on the table, unnoticed by anyone.” It’s shorthand for us to talk about things in my writing that have little point other than an interesting aside. I don’t want these distractions, or “apples,” there for the reader to wonder about only to be disappointed later when the detail amounts to nothing. If I give details, they are important to either the plot, the character development, or to allow the reader to feel the setting and mood of the story. I discard all the distractions as much as I can.
For me, detailed sex is a distraction. It’s a bit different from an apple on the table, but the reasoning is the same. All the editing I’m doing is in service of the story. If I can keep the reader’s focus on that story, then I’ve done it right. If I take the time to detail out a sex scene, it may work just fine for some people. The problem arises when it isn’t fine. I’ve written Paul and Jane to be a great couple. You’ve followed them through an adventure. You love them as a couple. You want them to fall in love. The moment comes when they kiss. And now they’re about to have the culmination of that relationship! Oh boy! This will be wonderful! And then I detail an intimate act that makes you go, “Ick!”
All that work to get you into the moment is wiped away by one scene. What I wrote that I thought was super sexy, you thought was downright gross. Now I’ve lost you, when there was no need to. As I said in the last posting, people aren’t reading books for the sex scenes unless it’s erotica. As an author, if you haven’t managed to already, you aren’t going to sell a couple as being in love if you include a highly detailed sex scene. You also don’t ruin the coupling if you fade to black just as the deed is being done. However, what you do achieve by fading to black is the perfect sex scene.
Let’s say roast chicken is your favorite food. If someone tells you they are going to serve you roast chicken, you start to imagine it. If they sit you down to wait, you start to taste it. If they start cooking it, the smells remind you of the last time you had it, and how great it was. When they put it in front of you, and you see how perfectly it’s been cooked, you know, without even taking that first bite, it’s going to be delicious. You can taste the flavors in your mouth without even eating it, you’ve thought about it so much by that point. If you bite into that chicken and get fish flavors instead, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, it probably ruined the whole experience for you, even if that fish was expertly prepared and as delicious as any fish ever cooked. You like chicken; you wanted chicken; you thought about chicken; you imagined chicken; but then you got fish. You don’t care if it’s awesome fish.
Detailing sex in books is like this. You’re setting the table and cooking up the meal in such a way the reader already has a picture in their mind of what it’s going to be like. And there is no picture that is more perfect for a reader than the one they think up — that is their idea of a perfect sex scene. Fading to black allows them to keep that picture in their head of what happened. It allows them to hold on to the perfect culmination of this relationship, and move on with the story without dwelling on anything that might accidentally make them think “Ick!” You don’t stall them, you don’t leave them with a bad taste in their mouth. They will continue to enjoy the story after that point.
I don’t write explicit sex scenes because I don’t see the upside to it as a storyteller. I might draw some people further in to the story if I get it just right, but I also might turn some people away. For something so trivial, it isn’t worth the risk. It’s the act itself that is important to my characters and their growth as a couple, not what they put where and when. By allowing the reader to fill in the details, I’ve created a bespoke sex scene for every possible desire.
If I were asked by a fellow author advice about sex scenes, I’d tell them everything I told you, with one addition – “All that said, if you really think it’s important, put it in your book.” I don’t think there’s never a place for it. Detailed sex scenes can also do a lot for a story. They can show how painfully awkward that first time is with someone. They can show how connected two people are. They can show heat in a way fading to black isn’t particularly strong on. However, there is an art to it, and I’ll say that I’ve read an awful lot of bad sex scenes. In fact, there’s more than one award for bad sex in writing. I think I’m okay not testing my ability to write these scenes to avoid the book version of a Razzie.
That’s really all I have to say about sex in books — at least I think so. 😉 Next posting I’ll be talking about the ease with which independent authors can edit their works post publishing — as compared to the traditional market — and my feelings on these ever changing “director’s cuts” and how they impact the experience for readers. Thanks for reading!
Here’s an entry guaranteed to get me that sweet, sweet link juice. (That’s a thing, right?) Sex. It’s in the majority of books I’ve read that were written post 1980 where the intended audience is adults. It’s either implied/fade to black sex or as anatomically correct as a surgical dummy. Sex scenes aren’t ubiquitous, but their absence is rare enough among bestsellers that when the deed doesn’t happen, it’s remarked upon – Dan Brown being a bestseller I recall reading specifically about in this regard. Unless you’re reading Christian Fiction, sex is more likely than not to show up in your books.
Why is sex in so many books? Certainly not to sell the books, unless we’re talking about erotica. I don’t think anyone ever picked up a copy of Gone Girl because of the sex scenes, and the lack of sex scenes didn’t stop Dan Brown from dominating the bestseller lists for so long. So why are they in there so often?
I can’t speak to why individual authors include them, but I can make a guess as to why they happen in so many books. Most fictional stories break down to being about people. They can have themes — like what happens when you have a society that is ruled by an oppressive authoritarian government (1984 by George Orwell) — but ultimately, even in heavily thematic books like Orwell’s, the author needs to tell a more personal story in order to bring the reader into their world — one about people.
A story is full of people. To make the people more realistic, they have to have realistic motivations and actions.
One of the strongest drives in humankind is the drive to procreate; it’s often listed as one of the base needs of all creatures and Maslow specifically called it out in his hierarchy of human needs. It’s so important, it’s at the base of the pyramid. But what does that even mean? Maslow came up with this list of human needs as a means to explain motivation — why do we do the things we do? This is an important idea to keep in mind when asking the question, ‘Why so much sex?’ We might only think of sex in writing as the explicit act, but in truth, the motivating factor of sex crops up in stories you might not have thought about before.
Even fairy tales, where heroes and villains are as black and white as it gets and the story is relatively simple, the evil is usually represented as a dark version of one of Maslow’s defined needs. Fairy tales are, after all, a way to teach a lesson — usually about overcoming the less savory aspects of our desires and motivations. That means that, yes, sex is a motivating factor in quite a few fairy tales. It’s there, it’s just implied sex rather than explicit.
When a child reads Snow White, all they need is the basic premise of bad guy/good guy. The evil queen is jealous, so schemes against Snow White. The story for them is saying jealousy is bad and kindness is good. To a child, they might be jealous because another kid has a toy they want — a covetous emotion more than jealousy. But the evil queen in Snow White is most certainly jealous of Snow White’s beauty; that is explicitly stated several times in the story. So, let’s dive into that and how it relates to Maslow and sex.
What is jealousy? In the case of Snow White, the evil queen’s jealousy comes from a desire to be the most beautiful. Why do people wish to be beautiful? It’s because they want the most choice in romantic partners — in theory1, the more attractive you are, the better your potential mate will be — which brings us back to the base need of sex driving the Queen’s motivations. That’s a deep reading of a fairly simple tale, but it’s a theme that comes up again and again in these old stories.
As our minds mature, we prefer more complication in our stories than “evil bad, hero good.” When a movie is made based on this same basic story of Snow White, but aimed at a more mature audience, it comes out like Snow White and the Huntsman, where the evil queen gets a backstory full of trauma that leads her to the kind of person she is. Villains like Cersei Lannister are given redeeming qualities to make them more human — she loves her children and would do anything to protect them. All these aspects create more fleshed out characters, in other words, complexity.
When you start to make a character more complex, you also start to include a variety of scenarios to explore them as a person. Often times, one of those scenarios is to put them in these situations with someone either strongly compatible with them, personality-wise, or strongly incompatible (characters who hold no particular interest to your protagonist are rarely interesting to write, and probably less interesting to read). Once you have two characters in a story who are strongly compatible, you will inevitably have sparks — that is the natural course of two people who have good chemistry meeting up.
Since sex is one of the core driving forces of motivations, it’s absence in a book where there are two characters of compatible sexual orientations becomes noted upon. Dan Brown doesn’t write sex scenes, but there’s enough tension in those books it would not feel out of place if something did occur. In fact, the absence of it feels more purposeful to some than the inclusion would.
I don’t think readers and critics noting the lack of sex is because readers are sex crazed and want sex shoehorned in everything. On the contrary, I think it’s because they really got into the character of Robert Langdon. They put themselves in his shoes. And that character is clearly into whichever female character he’s paired with. He’s in tense situations, they help each other out, the woman is always described as being quite attractive — the fact that they never knock boots is notable. We, as readers, cannot see ourselves in a situation where a single person, who is obviously into us, never makes a move or vice versa. It’s unrealistic. We would make that move with the dashing hottie. If said move didn’t work, then things get awkward, and that also makes for interesting fiction as it causes a new kind of tension.
Two characters who wander along in a story as friends only can work; I’m not saying it can’t. But even if it does, there’s probably a boatload of ‘ship stories out there finishing the job for the author who didn’t put it in there. Pretty sure Fanfiction.net could change their name to Shipping.net and a majority of the people who post and read there wouldn’t mind. I think that shows just how much of an uphill battle a writer is fighting if they try to forgo putting sex into their books.
There’s a frustration that builds with a reader when you put two people together who never consummate that relationship in a sexual way. I honestly don’t think it’s because the readers desperately want to read a sex scene — though I do admit those readers exist. I think most readers are frustrated for a deeper, more emotional reason. Sex is the shortcut way for a writer to say, “Hey, these two are in love and this is the culmination of that.” We all recognize that’s not the case in real life, but in writing, you only have so much time with your reader. Sometimes, shortcuts like these are a necessary payoff for a hundred pages of will they/won’t they. Readers appreciate it when you reward the characters they’ve fallen in love with. Sex is a shortcut to saying these characters have achieved happiness. Even if the world is falling apart around them, at least they found each other.
And if none of that convinces you why sex is in so many books, maybe the simplest answer is the truest: Sex is in books, because readers and writers are human, and humans have sex. Simple as that.
This ended up being a little bit longer than I planned. I wanted to get into how I write my sex scenes specifically, why I choose to write them the way I do. Turns out, I’m a pontificator. That’s what you get for reading a blog by an author. The next entry will be all about my sex scenes in particular – specifically my penchant for writing fade to black sex scenes.
A few weeks ago someone wrote me to compliment me on my book, Whom the Gods Love. They enjoyed most of it, but one particular scene struck them as odd. If you’ve read the series, you might already have guessed which scene this is. In a story rich with allusions to various mythologies and folktales, there’s a creature that seems out of place, something created for what might look at first glance to be a low-brow laugh — the aswang.
Before I go into what exactly an aswang is, I want to briefly touch on how I choose to borrow elements from history. Some authors enjoy re-writing historical events with a twist or in a new setting. George R.R. Martin, for instance, has said the War of the Roses was partial inspiration for his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Some authors use stories written hundreds of years ago and modernize them, like Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer winning novel, A Thousand Acres, which is a modernized re-telling of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Whenever I write of fantastical things, I often go back to my love of folklore and mythology. I enjoy using those stories to pepper my worlds with the familiar, and I enjoy playing with the idea of what we remember those stories to be about. For instance, in Whom the Gods Love the fairies are closer to the malicious version of that creature than to the cuter version we see in fanciful garden ornamentation. I’ve taken the malicious nature to the extreme in that series — the fairies are despicable creatures.
When I use these elements in my stories, I take a liberal definition of the creatures when they are well known. Most people have read fairy stories so have some idea of what they are. I don’t want to simply cut and paste fairy descriptions to people; I prefer to twist the tale in some way to upend expectations. However, when I’m using a story that might not be so familiar to my readers, I adhere more closely to the stories I’ve read. Sun, in Enchanted Legacy, remains a trickster character and even has several of the powers common in Monkey King tales, like duplicating themselves with hairs from their body. Similarly, the aswang closely resemble the horrors they are in Filipino tales about them.
Aswang are as familiar to Filipino people as vampires or werewolves would be to westerners. It’s their version of the boogie monster – a creature so terrifying it’s stories have carried on for hundreds of years. There are many variations of aswang, much like there are many variations of vampires. Some vampires can turn into mist, garlic is dangerous to some, some can control your mind, etc. While the Wikipedia article I’ve linked does not mention the use of phallic symbols to ward Aswang away, other sources frequently mention this method of keeping the aswang at bay. Thus, in my story, I included that tidbit. Lest you think the story of the aswang is meant to titillate (I’ll admit, in Whom the Gods Love it’s played up for a laugh) in the Filipino culture such is not the case. If the percentage of Catholics in that country doesn’t convince you of that (80%), then perhaps the habit of what the aswang does will — one of the common prey of aswang are pregnant women — specifically, fetuses.
A great deal of folklore comes from times when people didn’t quite understand science. Sometimes folklore was accurately related to real remedies we still use today — the leaves of a willow tree to alleviate pain, for instance, became aspirin. Superstitions surrounding fertility in ancient cultures often resulted in the use of phallic symbols for fairly obvious reasons — you use those to make babies, so a symbol celebrating the baby making seems appropriate when successfully having a baby in those times was extremely difficult. In the case of the aswang, they are used in a manner to ward off miscarriages, a distressing and common event where the cautionary behaviors to prevent it from occurring remained mysterious. Even today we continue to discover new causes of miscarriages as science advances, such as chromosomal abnormalities. In the days when these types of stories were being spoken around a fire, things like folic acid and other prenatal vitamins wouldn’t be worked out for hundreds of years.
As a species, we tend to like tangible answers to our problems. Creating a monster that steals the unborn is a problem we can mentally tackle. Science we haven’t discovered yet, less so. So the aswang was born, and the warding to keep it away invented, giving hopeful parents some comfort that they were doing what they could to keep their baby safe. And thinking on it, since stress isn’t great for mothers to be, it probably worked in some small capacity at relieving at least that problem.
I tell you all this, because I’d like people to know the choices I make for my stories are thought through. I didn’t just put the aswang into my book because I was amused by the idea of a phallus keeping monsters away, though that is amusing to me. I put it in there because I worked with a Filipino woman for a few years while in undergrad. When I was in grad school, I worked on a large project gathering myths, legends, folktales and fairy tales from around the world. My friend and co-worker wanted to make sure I included Filipino tales in the project. She provided me with a lot of resources, and I was delighted to learn new stories as much as she was delighted I included them in my research.
I find the differences in stories from far flung regions fascinating, but not nearly as fascinating as I find the similarities. These are the stories we carried with us, before we had paper, before we had written language, before we had any kind of technology, aside from biological technology (spoken word) to carry them on. We thought they were important enough to keep telling. I’m happy to do my part to keep telling them and I hope you enjoy finding them in my stories. Feel free to ask me where something comes from if you suspect it has an origin older than my book. I love talking about them.
Next entry I’ll discuss sex scenes and why I choose to write them the way I do. Now that discussion will be titillating. 😉
P.S. It isn’t just tales I’m careful about including, but words as well. I’ve had a couple readers ask me about the title for Voro, and where it comes from. It’s Latin, and tangentially referenced in the book. The word is tattooed on Casey’s back — more than once.
What is Voro about? I’ve written about the book here, here, here and here. It’s a character driven horror story, so similar in style to something like Cujo, where the story follows a couple of main characters who must face a monster – though, there’s no rabid dog in Voro. 😉
A lot of great horror comes from fear. Sometimes it’s fear of the unknown, but oftentimes authors will delve into the more mundane fears — phobias. Spiders, heights and even birds have been used by horror greats to spin fearful tales. Most of those are covered by one man, Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a master of taking a phobia and turning it into a nightmare for everyone. Looking back at the movie Birds, we might giggle because the effects are silly, but the movie was terrifying for audiences of the day. Stephen King, who I’ve mentioned multiple times as I’m a big fan, uses phobias to great effect in his book IT. The creature in IT feeds on fear, and shows the protagonists in the film visions of the things they are most afraid of. The kids must face down their fears to overcome the creature. While some of their fears are born from real and harmful trauma, others fears that are used in the book are less rational. For instance, the very fact that the creature uses the guise of a clown is meant to be terrifying for some.
While I’m not afraid of clowns, I can certainly see where the fear stems from. Clown make-up is so disorienting, it can even screw up face identification software. It’s designed to give the impression of a permanent emotional state of the wearer – happiness, sadness, etc. Humans instinctually use facial cues to understand one another. Clown make-up takes away that vital visual communication. It’s a mask — another thing people have strong phobias about — and makes us uneasy. Besides not being able to tell how the person wearing the clown make-up feels when they’re speaking, it also takes away our ability to identify the individual. We can’t know who they are as easily. Clowns are in disguise, which is a kind of lie. For a lot of people, it’s a fun lie. For some, the lie makes them so uneasy they become fearful.
Fears help make us who we are. For instance, I’m low-key afraid of dogs — probably why I use Cujo as an example of monster horror as opposed to something like Friday the 13th. The fact that I’m afraid of dogs can tell you something about my past. When I was young, I watched Cujo and was terrified. It wasn’t that alone, however. When my brother was seven, he was bit in the face by a dog. He had a hundred stitches and a very large, prominent scar for many years. Even then, my fear of dogs hadn’t manifested. But it was starting. It wasn’t until I was a teenager riding my bike when the true fear set in. I was with my friends and we were riding bikes around the neighborhood after dark. Someone’s dog was loose, and when we rode by, it tore after us. I was in the back of the pack of riders, and I could hear that dog snarling just behind my tire for almost two blocks. I pedaled as fast as I could, my heart racing, terrified the dog would grab my ankle and bring me down. It was dark, and the only noise was the sound of our bikes and that snarl.
I had dogs all my life growing up. I loved them all. But in that moment, fear turned me into someone hesitant to even touch a dog. It stayed with me even as I grew up. Even with all the evidence from my childhood that dogs were lovely animals, that one instance kept me from getting one as a pet for many years.
About six years ago I finally decided I wanted to try to face this fear. It’s actually why I ended up with a pug. Someone once asked me why I picked a pug. I told them I wanted a dog as helpless as I was. That’s mostly true. I wanted a dog I wasn’t going to be afraid of. I’d read up on dogs for a long time before I picked. I wanted a chill dog that wouldn’t bark too much — barking is one of my triggers — and one that was known for being friendly. I also wanted a small dog. Not too small — I’d been snapped at by a Pekingese when I was a kid —but small enough it’s face wouldn’t scare me. That’s why I picked Posy.
Over the years, having her around has eased my phobia quite a lot. I even pet the pit bulls next door to me from time to time, a big deal for me since those kinds of dogs are known to be more aggressive. I’m re-learning that not all dogs are bad dogs, and biters and snarlers are rarer than waggers. Barking is still a pretty big dog thing, but the sound doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. I’m glad I decided to face my fears, because Posy is a delight and my life is richer for having her around.
I still don’t think I’ll ever read or watch Cujo, though. 🙂
Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll come back next week.
I don’t typically write stories from one character’s perspective, choosing instead to dip in and out of character’s heads when the story demands it. When I started Voro, I began writing it straight away from Casey’s point of view. It wasn’t even a question in my mind as to who was going to tell the story. It’s a far more personal story for Casey, so he should be the one to tell it.
But things aren’t as straightforward as that. As you read through the story, you’ll note that it isn’t just Casey’s story — it’s Max’s story, too. While Max isn’t presented as the main character — certainly not from a narrative standpoint — she’s just as important as Casey to this story. This particular story couldn’t exist without Max, and obviously not without Casey, either.
So why did I choose to see things from Casey’s POV rather than Max’s? Most of my stories, while third person omniscient (as I wrote about in a previous post), still center around a strong female lead. In Voro, the female lead is relegated to a supporting character. This was mainly because of Casey’s position within the world — he’s the one with the knowledge about the monster. By focusing on Casey, I could have someone who knew everything about the creature slowly trickle out revelations as he tracked them down. Concurrently, his motivation for pursuing the creatures is more personal. If we were to see things through Max’s eyes, she’d see little but a killer. Casey sees something quite a bit different. I felt this perspective was stronger from a narrative sense, and makes the eventual reveal more powerful.
I also liked the idea of telling the story from Casey’s POV for the relationship development aspect of the story. Casey is a very troubled person, who has had minimal success in the past connecting with people. Max, on the other hand, is a relatively well-adjusted woman, albeit with some trauma in her past — though that’s clearly something she’s been able to move beyond. Casey is still working on his trauma and how it affects his relationships with others. I thought it would be interesting to reside, for a time, inside the head of someone so stunted emotionally. He’s not a young man — at nearly 35, he should be someone who has had numerous long-term relationships to inform his personality. But due to circumstances, he hasn’t had even short-term relationships. He’s clumsy, like a teenager, in his approach to relationships, but still has the experience to understand that he’s clumsy. Teenagers, while awkward, have little comparison to judge their awkwardness against to know just how awkward they are. Additionally, the people they typically get in relationships with are on equal footing. Casey is at a strange junction where the person he starts to connect with is more confident, so he is even more unsure of his own mind than he might’ve been had this happened when he was nineteen.
I liked the idea of exploring this type of character. When I think up a story, it isn’t just the scenario that pulls me in — Dragons. In space. — it’s also the characters. In fact, my focus is often on these characters and how they’ll confront the story they’re in — how does Samantha deal with dragons? In space? For me, that’s as important as the story itself. People are at the core of everything I write. How they feel and what their backgrounds are is as important to me as why there happen to be dragons. In space. So in the case of Voro, I wanted to see how the horror of the story was solved, but I also wanted to see how Casey navigated his own struggles, big and small. I’ve explored characters like Max before — confident women who know their mind and are extremely capable. But Casey was a character I hadn’t spent much time inside the head of. He made the most sense to be the main POV for both narrative and personal exploration reasons.
Thanks for reading these postings about my writing process. I hope they’ve been interesting and that they gave a little deeper insight into Voro. I won’t be writing any more about Voro — I don’t want to analyze it to death and diminish some of the magic of the world-building for readers. But I will post next week about the series that’s currently going through edits — the four part epic fantasy series I hope to start releasing this fall and conclude releasing by no later than January. And I’ll touch on my projected schedule for the Mission’s End series as well. Thanks, again, for reading!
Readers of my work probably know by now my love for lore — I spent many of my grad school days studying legends, folk tales, fairy tales and myths. If there really are only a handful of stories, then they were all told before people were writing things down. Some of the greatest stories ever told were passed down from generation to generation. The fact that they still survive today is a testament to their power to connect to the reader/listener.
I’m not the first author to mine these ancient tales, and I certainly won’t be the last. Authors as wide ranging as Shakespeare, Stephen King and Charlaine Harris have used ancient stories to populate their works with depth and history. There’s a reason Harris only needs to mention “vampire” in the opening chapter of her Sookie Stackhouse series to give the reader a general idea of what the atmosphere of the story is going to be. Those stories have existed in our cultures for hundreds of years. When King does the same in Salem’s Lot, the reader understands the basic horror of the story without it having to be elucidated. In Shakespeare, when fairies appear in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the viewers have the understanding that shenanigans are about to ensue, because all the stories they’ve read or been told inform them that that’s what fairies do — cause mischief. Taking these old tales out for a new spin is a way to create a history without having to write it. It’s also a way to upend expectations.
In Harris’ books, the vampires aren’t just blood sucking monsters — they have political aspirations and a deep social hierarchy that causes strife in ways unrelated to the horror of preying upon humans. King loves to twist around the tales he uses, subverting reader’s expectations and going in directions you weren’t expecting to keep you guessing. Is Jack going crazy in The Shining? Or is it the ghosts of the hotel? We, as readers, are familiar with malevolent ghosts from all the scary stories we’ve ever heard about them. But which of Jack’s actions in The Shining are more influenced by his alcoholism than by the fact that he’s gone stir crazy, or by the spirits of the Overlook? By blending the standard ghost story with psychological horror, King keeps us guessing at what is truly destroying Jack, all while providing a new twist on an old haunted house story. Most readers will have an idea of what happens in a haunted house, but with the added element of an unstable, recovering alcoholic, it makes the story fresh while familiar.
In Voro, I’ve incorporated a similar ancient story — though perhaps one less common than a ghost story. I won’t say which story — that’s part of the mystery after all — but similar to King, I’ve added other elements to the story to make it fresh. The familiarity of the monster I’ve chosen will be a shortcut to the horror – once you’ve discovered what it is, you’ll understand the motivations and how the creature operates. But the full extent of the horror isn’t revealed until closer to the end, where you’re left questioning what exactly it is this creature wants and how it chooses its victims.
In addition to the core of the story being based on an old legend, I’ve used a number of tropes and homages from various horror media I’ve consumed over the years. Scary stories are my second favorite, just behind trickster stories. If trickster tales illuminate and celebrate the resourceful side of human nature, scary stories shine a light on and critique the darker impulses of people – a reflection of the parts of society we generally deem to be bad or even evil. Voro is no exception in that it explores the idea of monsters, both inhuman and human – as to which is worse, that’s up to the reader to decide.
I open the book with a scene that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen even a smattering of horror movies – two teens necking in the woods. As you can guess, things don’t go well for these teens. This is a way for me to both introduce the monster of the book, as well as signal the book is firmly rooted in the horror traditions of cinema.
There are many other such scenes in the book throughout: the woods as a place of terror (nature vs man), premonitions (supernatural elements), dark settings (fear of the unknown), bullies (man vs man) and even more vaguely, the constant reminder that it’s the end of summer and fall looms on the horizon — the cycle of life and death.
More specifically, there are hints to some of the classic works of horror I’ve read or seen. Some will be easy to spot as they’ve become meme-worthy over the years. Others are more subtle, but I suspect my fellow horror aficionados will have no trouble spotting them when they occur; they could be anything from a scene to a line of dialog. This book is as much a new story for you as it is a kind of love letter to the horror I enjoyed growing up.
If you’re reading Voro, I hope you’ve been enjoying it. In my next post I’ll talk about why I chose the main character I did. Thanks for reading!
P.S. Surprise cat.