Continuing with the series on writing I started on Science Fiction, I’m going to write about why I enjoy writing fantasy even if I’m not as excited to read it sometimes. I may do a companion piece about how I pick what I pick next. To be decided!
While fantasy wasn’t my preferred genre growing up, I eventually found fantasy works I enjoyed. I’ve written before why I was turned off initially by fantasy (the epic length aspect was a big hurdle for me) but I haven’t gone into why writing in the genre is appealing to me, even if it’s not my favorite to read. I’ll start with some basics.
A lot of fantasy, at least my reading of it, boils down to wanting to include medieval elements without also being restricted by the realities of that time. Some harsh truths keep period writing off the table for me. There are the simple things you can’t ignore if you’re writing a period piece – addressing the lack of most basic needs, let alone creature comforts, for one. A lot of people lived in very distressing states. Simple problems were deadly back then. Just take the example of finding potable water to drink; this all by itself is something I don’t want to have to think about when writing. But there are also expansive and complex societal issues you must contend with when writing in these settings if accuracy is your goal.
If it isn’t already obvious from my writing, I tend to enjoy writing female protagonists more than male. The most obvious guess one might have about why this is how I prefer to write is that I am female, so writing from that viewpoint is easier for me. And that is true to an extent. I am female. But I also want to have more women front and center in fiction because I like to read that kind of fiction.
It’s hard to realistically write those types of characters in a setting where they would constantly be hampered by societal norms. Women weren’t soldiers, knights, or leaders aside from some notable exceptions. By and large, they were relegated to being obedient wives and mothers. In historical fiction, you can either ignore those facets of the timeframe you’re setting your story in (thus setting yourself up for a thousand think pieces about how brave/subversive/unrealistic/inaccurate this is which only serves to divert attention away from the actual story you’re trying to tell), or you can include them and make the story about that struggle. Either way, it’s not something I’m interested in doing which is why I’ve never delved into writing historical fiction.
But, as many authors have shown, if you write in a fantasy world you can pick and choose which elements of a period you’d like to keep. You could go the route of George RR Martin – he has women in a lot of powerful positions in his stories, but he also writes about the struggles they’ve had to face to get where they are – and those struggles are not entirely divorced from reality. When Cersei talks about being the best of her siblings to rule but being married off to a man she didn’t know, you can see this play out. Pretty much everything with Daenerys is similarly a mixture of real issues with women in power at the time, and fantasy.
Or you can completely forget all of that, and make everyone equal, no matter their race or sex, but keep all your castles and princesses and princes. Fantasy provides a lot of flexibility for bending or erasing restrictive societal inequalities. It’s especially useful in modern times, because women make up the majority of book readers, and are much more likely to consume stories centered around protagonists that connect with them – other women. And that’s not even getting into the ability to write about people with diverse racial and cultural backgrounds without having to constantly address why this particular person of color can be a king in a world where people of color are enslaved, or at best, indentured.
As an aside, albeit an important aside, this is also why the current argument of why people of color, or women, shouldn’t be in modern depictions of works of fantasy on screen is hogwash. That is a patently ridiculous argument on its face. Authors are perfectly capable of writing historical fiction if realism was their goal. They chose fantasy. If a book has magical creatures, readers can’t justify the exclusion of groups of people based on “realism.” If you’re a person so dead set on worlds that look only like you, that’s a different kind of fantasy fiction, and you’re free to write it. But declaring what a deceased author would or would not have wanted is not your right as a reader. Only the author can say what they would have approved of. If by some miracle my books were ever made into cinema, and they put dogs in the roles? Have at it.
I’m going to circle back to this point at the end of this piece, as it’s an important one to make – especially with regards to speculative fiction and the restrictive way some folks want to talk about its portrayal in other medias. Mainly because these arguments run counter to why a lot of people write in the fantasy genre.
Fantasy writing also allows you to create a new world from whole cloth should you so desire. You don’t even have to have humans in it (dogs are good) – though that’s a trickier feat, and often even in those stories, the protagonists are basically humans on the inside. Consider something like Watership Down – a book I adore. The rabbits – while decidedly rabbit-like and with rabbit motivations, are given emotion that includes paranoia, premonition, and greed – the general is portrayed as a gluttonous, power-hungry monster. There are even rabbits that practice the deceit of other rabbits. It’s not a bad thing – but it does help an audience connect to a character that would otherwise not have much in common with the reader.
Fantasy writing is, in essence, worldbuilding without restriction. Anything goes. Most readers prefer you have rules in your world because that makes understanding it easier. Otherwise, the story is chaos and it’s harder to fit yourself into it as a reader. Chaos and confusion aren’t something easy to submerse yourself in, especially if it’s someone else’s version of that.
So you can have dragons, fire-breathing lambs, or cotton candy clouds. You can even have dragons that ride fire-breathing lambs through cotton candy clouds. Anything goes. It can be a bit intimidating to start a fantasy novel. The more real-world rules and conventions your break away from, the more you’ll have to explain to your reader. It’s why I often shy away from reading these types of books.
The downside to fantasy writing is the difficulty in getting across this new world to your readers in an elegant way. Narrative dumping is fairly common in the fantasy genre. It takes a lot of skill to weave in worldbuilding, and the further you get away from reality, the more weaving you need to do. I love Dune. I consider it science fiction/fantasy. I know this is probably a controversial thing to say. I don’t think it should be, but as I’ve discussed at length in my pieces on science fiction writing, for a lot of people calling something they enjoy fantasy is akin to an insult. I don’t think it’s an insult to call something fantasy, but I understand where that feeling comes from. I just disagree with it. Back to Dune being science fiction/fantasy – many people would argue vociferously with me about this, but mind reading, magic spices that allow people to fold space and to tell the future and “the voice” falls well outside the realm of science fiction in my opinion. I know some people will argue why these things could also be science, but those people are not usually scientists so I find their claims and their understanding of science to be dubious at best. But! There is a ton of stuff in Dune that falls squarely in the science fiction category. Herbert’s deeply intricate worldbuilding when it comes to the various societies and peoples is extensive and very anthropological. People in Dune seem crazy and out of this world, but the reasoning behind that is very sound and was especially groundbreaking at the time Dune was published.
The crux of why the people in Dune are like they are is because long ago machines became too powerful – think rampant AI – and threatened to destroy humanity. So AI was outlawed to protect humanity. To achieve the things they needed to achieve, extreme genetic modification and control developed. Thus mentats. And Bene Gesserit and so on.
This fact leads to a great deal of strange societal behaviors. And Herbert wasn’t that great at weaving those things in. Every time I put Dune on (I adore the audiobook with Scott Brick and others) I am shocked at how much dialog is in it. When I read it – before audiobooks were a thing – I don’t recall noticing it. But when it’s read to me, it’s really hard not to notice it. There are hours and hours of people talking to each other with no break for any movement. This is because they are laboriously describing the world. The reader is a fly on the wall while two people inextricably explain to each other how the world works. I make it sound more cumbersome than it is, but when you’ve read or heard it more than two dozen times, it becomes truly hard to ignore.
I picked Dune as an example not because I think it fits more as a fantasy than a science fiction piece – it has fantastical elements but the vast majority of the work is science fiction – but because I know it so well and it’s a good example of the narrative dump. I’ve read a lot of fantasy over the years and I recognize this narrative dump when I see it, I just can’t recall specific examples as well as I can with Dune.
All that said, I still find the creation of a world very freeing as a writer. The challenge of writing these details into the work aside, it allows you to have things like daemons that are a second part of you, or steampunk instead of real-world technology. You can create some pretty magical places to explore with fantasy, and even the smallest things can be interesting enough to examine. This brings me to another reason I enjoy writing in the fantasy genre.
Two houses vying for power in a medieval setting. They set their armies after each other, scheme, and fight. This is fine. I’ve seen period pieces and, for me, what mostly keeps me watching (I don’t read this stuff as I don’t have the patience) is that they are interesting because of the characters in them, not the setting. I’m not a fan of period pieces on their own. I watched The Tudors because Henry VIII is a fascinating character. His wives are equally fascinating. The excellent actors help bring all of it to life.
Now, if you add magic to any of that, suddenly things get crazy. The armies have dragons, the scheming is slyer and often involves dark spells and such, and the fights are flashier. It’s the same stuff as the period piece, just turned up to 11. I know there is sometimes the complaint that fantasy always reduces stuff to whoever can cast the biggest spell. All fights may boil down to whoever can say the killing spell faster. There’s also a complaint that authors will just invent ways for their protagonists to win, and for the villains to become more villain-y. It’s a phenomenon known as power creep and it’s rampant in superhero fantasy.
A good example of this is Superman. When he started, he couldn’t even fly. He was described as being “super durable” – not invulnerable. Heat vision wasn’t a thing. He could hear better, see better, was stronger, could leap far, etc. You didn’t even really need a supervillain to fight him off. A sizeable gang of fairly strong and resourceful people would be a task for him to defeat. Today, he’s basically a god. Unaging, invulnerable, undying (even when he does die, he doesn’t. Not really. He like, hibernates. Very deeply) – he became so tough to write compelling battles for, writers had to come up with ways to make it work. Kryptonite is the McGuffin here that often brings Supes down enough pegs to make any battle interesting and fraught with tension. Over the years he’s had his power adjusted to keep things interesting, but it always creeps back up until it becomes silly again.
It’s a valid complaint about magic and fantasy in general. It’s an easy out to just say, and now the hero has this power! And they can defeat the ultimate baddie threatening the world! For a lot of readers, this just isn’t very interesting. This is why it’s worth reiterating that fantasy writing needing to be done so carefully. If you build out your world’s rules and stick by them, power-up (or down) McGuffins and their like shouldn’t make an appearance. It requires more effort to make the battles interesting, but in my mind, it’s worth it. You get battles more like the ones in The Sword in the Stone, where the combatants each end up using their wits until one is defeated. When done well, magic can make a story exciting and fun without hand of god-ing every problem away.
Finally, there’s one last reason I like to write in fantasy, and this touches on the point I made earlier about societal restrictions in period pieces.
This reason is a particularly personal one for me. While it’s true, you can do this in any fiction, ignoring politics, discrimination, societal ills, etc. is easiest in fantasy. Science fiction is based on the real world. As such, it’s often used as a mirror to reflect the things you find most unpleasant about society and politics. Fantasy allows you to have whatever kind of protagonist you want, doing whatever you want, without having to address these things. It allows you to tell a narrative that is pure escapism. Sometimes, as a writer, that’s what you want to do.
This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to write about those things in fantasy. It’s just to say that it’s easy to sidestep those issues entirely. For example, no one can tell you that “women can’t do that” when you’re writing about something in a world with fantastical elements already.
It may seem like a no-brainer now to consider these things gender-neutral, but in the 80s, when I was a kid, I was told often how I wasn’t allowed to like Transformers or He-Man. I still recall a conversation I had about Ghostbusters when I was in summer camp one year, likely because of how intensely bad it made me feel. I was in a van with a group of kids, mostly boys, on the way to a lake where we’d be swimming for the day. I was one of two girls in the small summer camp group. Ghostbusters 2 had come out earlier in the year, and the boys were talking about who could pretend to be who. There was the Egon, the Venkman, the Winston, all the parts were being argued over and discussed.
I wasn’t pretty enough to be Dana, I was told, before I’d even weighed in on whether or not I wanted to play (I did) or who I wanted to be (Slimer. I loved the cartoon). The boy who declared he “was Venkman” didn’t like me and made that pretty clear. He was the oldest boy at the camp, the same age as I was, and he ended up scrapping most of the other boy’s choices, assigning roles rather than letting them choose. He decided another boy was encroaching on his Venkman turf, and loudly declared that that boy would be Egon, and he had to date me because I would be Janine. It was leveled as a punishment, as Janine had the “bug-eyes” and was meant to be unattractive (Yes, I grew up in a world where Annie Potts circa 1989 was considered unattractive somehow). I suppose we both wore glasses, which probably didn’t help.
I was pretty angry all my agency had been stripped from me – I had not been asked who I wanted to be, but assigned a character. I liked the Janine character in the movie, especially the second one. She was funny. But it didn’t matter – if I was going to pick a girl to be in that movie, it would have been Dana, because I liked Sigourney Weaver, especially in Aliens, and wanted to be the badass, not the secretary. The boy had declared the character I could pretend to be primarily based on my lack of perceived attractiveness, my sex, and my glasses. Probably. I had an ace up my sleeve, though, or so I thought. I had seen the movie in the theater, so of course, I haughtily corrected this boy and said Egon was no longer Janine’s boyfriend (ah, simpler times) – Lewis was. I can’t tell you exactly why he cared so much, but the boy in question wasn’t having it. He hadn’t seen the movie and thought I was lying. To be fair to him, there’s no indication from the first movie that Janine would have any interest in Lewis so he probably did think I was lying. In any case, the first Ghostbusters was the movie they were roleplaying, and Janine was with Egon.
The discussion about who I could be was over. He turned to the other girl, who was thoroughly uninterested in any of the talk and reading a book. Dana’s role was foisted upon her; she was someone who hadn’t seen either movie and wanted no part of the playtime. But she was the one burgeoning hormones were telling those boys they had to be paired with, not me, so she was assigned Dana. I complained. A lot. I knew I was being punished for a variety of stupid reasons. So I rebelled in the only way I could think to at the time. Since no one had claimed or been assigned him, I asked to be Lewis, since he was at least part Ghostbuster in the second movie and, again, the cartoon.
“There are no girl ghostbusters.”
It seems stupid to be upset about such things, but when you’re eleven, a lot of stupid things can upset you in profound ways. These types of conversations are exactly why I was so furious when the all-women reboot was announced for Ghostbusters and a bunch of internet nerds came out in droves to talk about how terrible it was – before it was even released. I knew those boys who treated me so poorly in that van on that summer day would be the same types of boys who were now declaring fictional characters couldn’t be women, either. It seemed especially unfair because Ghostbusters is fantasy. These types of rules don’t have to be in fantasy, and forcing them there felt needlessly restrictive. The movie wasn’t about gender roles and what women were allowed to do in society. It was about bustin’ some ghosts. Ghost bustin’ doesn’t have anything to do with gender and it would have impacted the story in zero ways – much like in the reboot. They’re girls. The story is still about bustin’ ghosts. Whether you like the movie or not, the core story hasn’t changed due to women being the ones doing the bustin’.
So I enjoy writing in fantasy because I just don’t have to care about that stuff. My women can wield swords and no one in the world I created says, “Girls aren’t as strong as men and therefore couldn’t do that,” or whatever other nonsense someone wants to say. I find it particularly ironic that these people think the very existence of folks of color, or women, brings politics or political correctness into a piece of fiction. Not having them in there brings politics into the work. The decision to exclude them is the politics, not the reality. Women and people of color exist. Making an active choice not to include them is a political and societal choice. Including them is the neutral position. And in fiction, and especially in fantasy writing, it’s an easy choice to make.
This is going to be a relatively short post. I’ve been getting some emails from a few folks, and I think everyone deserves to know what’s going on. I did, after all, leave you off with only two books in what will likely be a seven-book series, so I owe the readers this much at least.
Some of you know this because I’ve reached out directly and answered emails, but in mid-2019 I needed to find employment. 2019 also happens to be the last time I published a book – so if you’re wondering what happened, a new job is partly to blame for the lack of content. The main reason I needed employment was to maintain health insurance, and that meant I couldn’t write full time anymore. I had every intention of writing after I came home each day and on the weekend. Unfortunately, the type of job I took drained me of my mental capacity to do so. There are a couple of reasons for this, and I’m only going to detail these reasons because I believe a lot of aspiring writers feel bad about their lack of production. They get a few pages done every now and then but don’t seem to manage any more than that. I’ve read the hardest hurdle to overcome when writing a book is actually getting it written – it’s not finding an agent, it’s not getting it published, the thing that trips up most people who aspire to write is getting that first book finished. I don’t know how true this is, but I have had a number of people tell me at my day job when they discover I’m a writer that they are also aspiring writers, and they are still working on that first book. So anecdotally, this rings true. My details as to why I haven’t been writing are meant to assuage all the aspiring writers out there – don’t feel bad. It’s a lot of work and maybe right now isn’t the time for that.
I haven’t been able to finish more writing work and that’s due to two things about the job I took – one is personal, and the other is job-related.
On the personal side, I am an extreme introvert. I’m very good at masking this. I’ve worked in public settings most of my working life. If you go into librarianship there are ways you can work in a more isolated environment, but one of the things I’ve always liked best about librarianship was helping people find things. This tends to put you on the front lines answering a ton of questions. When I was a public librarian, I was a lot younger, so I had more energy in general. When I think of getting older in the abstract, things like less energy are a natural prediction to make. But the mental capacity I have to recharge after interacting with so many is not something I expected to diminish. But here we are. The job I took was at an enormously busy library. There were 1.5 million visitors a year, and it is a 24-hour library. It’s a lot, even for an extrovert. Of course, Covid put a dent in that, but then the stressors just shifted. As things picked back up and the Covid mitigations eased, we were back to square one where I spent my days interacting with dozens of strangers every hour. I would come home mentally exhausted and sit like a lump on my couch for a couple hours, often taking a nap. I just didn’t have the energy to do this.
The job related issue was that I was in charge of mentoring and training 10 graduate assistants each year. When you are a manager of folks who work evening hours and may need help answering a question at any time, it’s hard to find uninterrupted blocks of time to dive into writing. My supervisor said the job I had really was like a 24/7 job. You are quasi on call all evening long, and in the age of collaborative tools like Teams and Slack, you are extremely reachable. I’m a person who has a crippling sense of responsibility for others under my care. The GAs I mentored were under my care, so it was not something I could ignore when their questions came to me at 11pm at night on a Friday.
These are just my reasons for not being able to write. But everyone has different stressors or distractions. It’s tough. I envy those who can deal with all the stuff of a day job and still put in the hours to get writing done. They have a superpower I do not. I wish I did.
However, things have changed. I’m still employed, but at a new location at the university and as a writer. Huzzah! Now my day job has the same vibe as my evening gig, and since much of my time is remote, I interact with far fewer people. When I do go into the office, our small team is all I see. No more dozens every hour. This has meant I finish my day and have a great deal more energy. Thus why you’ve seen two posts this week. I’m still getting into the groove in my new job, but I think in a couple week’s time I’ll have a schedule for myself that will allow for me to get things rolling again.
Now to get to the roadmap. I try not to set timelines. I think timelines can undermine the writing process – force me to write when I’m not feeling it, or to rush something that needs more work. But I do want to make a goal and set a quasi roadmap just to help keep me on track. Even if I don’t end up hitting these goals, I should be able to make progress towards them. My goal is to have The 11 ready for publishing by January. My roadmap is to have something ready for beta readers every 8 months or so. It’s ambitious, but I will do my best. The hope is that I can do both things – keep my health insurance through my day job, and keep writing for all those who like reading my work. I guess I’ll find out soon if that’s a task I’m up for.
Sometimes I feel really guilty about not getting this next Mission’s End book out in a timely manner. Then I see articles like this one from the Atlantic detailing one of the discoveries of the newly launched Webb telescope. After I tell myself a little joke about how Anakin would hate this planet with a vengeance matched only by his hatred of… sand people, I realize how these kinds of discoveries affect me. Maybe you’ve seen those dehydrated flower teas, the kind you drop in hot water and slowly a bloom forms; hot water fills the shrunken cells of the plant and briefly gives it life again. That’s how my brain feels when I read stuff like this. The knowledge is a warm soup that brings my thoughts to life for a while.
I am now imagining what a person, or being, on a planet like this might think of water vapor. Perhaps to them, it is as mystifying as sand vapor. After all, on a planet with this much pressure and heat, could water even create clouds? I remember when I was in 6th grade there was a contest to be a part of a two-week science camp. All the 6th-grade kids in all the schools where I lived were asked to speculate about what knowledge space travel might bring to us. We had to write an essay on a sheet of paper with the prompt. I still vaguely remember what I wrote because at that time I had just learned about absolute zero. So I wrote that we may find new viruses that we didn’t know could exist because we only know what absolute zero does here. Maybe, somewhere out there, there were things that could live, cells that could move, in absolute zero.
I won the contest and was sent to the two-week-long science camp. I saw things during that time that even if I described them to you, you might not believe me. It’s not that what I experienced was so cutting edge or mysterious, more that the group that created this contest felt that 10 and 11-year-olds should be exposed to some of the things we were exposed to. Every day we did something different, and some of the things were what you would expect. We made paper from wood pulp. We dissected a lamb’s brain. But some of the other things, the field trips we took, exposed me to science I would not be allowed to see again until I was in college. We went to two separate hospitals and met with doctors and surgeons. I still vividly remember the surgeon who had saved up buckets of organs to show us. I saw a lung that had been removed from a patient because it had a large cancerous spot. He let us touch the cancer. It was actually black, something I’d always thought was just a dramatization, and through the glove, it felt hard, like a piece of rubber had somehow fused with the flesh. He showed us a placenta, and it was huge. I never realized more than a baby took up space inside a pregnant woman’s belly. I had always just thought it was the baby. When he showed us that the placenta still could bleed by cutting it, a couple of the other students had to leave the room. I was mesmerized. The human body is amazing, and I’ve carried that with me all my life. I hope the students who left weren’t put off science, and maybe some readers might think the surgeon had gone too far. But most of us in the room thought it was awesome. I bet some of us even went on to become surgeons ourselves.
Which brings me back to clouds made of sand. I’m glad Webb is out there finding new things. And I’m glad I’m reading about it. It might be selfish of me to lust after these tidbits of scientific discovery just to stir my thoughts from their slumber, but with everything going on in the world, it allows me to imagine a place where beings made of dense substances drink Sandarita’s (a sand margarita of course!) with stone umbrellas alongside the diamond lakes. And I am, for a time, transported to a world where sandstone pebbles fall from the sky instead of rain made of water, and maybe the beings open their mouths to catch them. And that puts me in the mood to write again, a mood that has proven elusive in recent years. So if my tardiness in publishing allows for greater inspiration in the stories I tell because I get the chance to see these amazing discoveries and incorporate those ideas, then maybe, just maybe, it was worth the wait.
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 certainly 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 have this kind of inner monologue while doing something mundane in their setting:
“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.