This is a rant that grows out of the whole anti/pro steampunk kerfuffle that the f&sf genresphere has been aflutter with of late, in which many on the two sides are flinging great gobs of words at each other like punctuation-laden poo. It’s not pretty and in many cases it seems to be a mix of sour grapes and tribalism, and it looks just like every other variation of this argument we’ve had for the last fifty years. The only real difference being what sub-genre/genre/literary sensibility we’re arguing about.
One of the things that we as a genre community seem to be most vulnerable to is the idea that our personal favorite type of writing is the only type of writing that other people should love and pay attention to, and that anyone who disagrees that our pet subgenre is the one true form of worthwhile writing is a poo-poo head. This tends to be expressed in one of two ways:
1) I want more of my stuff, and why isn’t everyone writing and publishing that? “Waaaaah!” *POUT* It is often accompanied by the stomping of rhetorical feet and tearing of hair. It mostly looks like highly articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.
2) How can anyone believe that XXXXX is worthy of their attention and dollars? XXXXX is immoral and anti-intellectual or just plain bad. The people who read/write it are dupes/exploiters or simply uncultured. If people really understood the underlying dynamic of XXXXX they’d realize their mistake and come over and read YYYYY which is the one true way. It mostly looks like even more articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.
People, get a freaking grip! Not everyone likes what you like, and that’s okay. In fact it’s wonderful and healthy and necessary for the survival of a culture. Diversity of thought and idea and taste is one of the single most important parts of our ongoing survival as a species. It’s what drives us to try that funny looking new fruit, or accept that those who don’t look and think like us are people too, or to take a long walk over the hill and find out there’s also cool stuff over there.
The tendency of people to act as though stuff they don’t like is awful and bad for the culture if not downright immoral is one of the human tribal reactions that I find least attractive. It’s genre fundamentalism and it’s ugly and petty and basically unhealthy, both for the culture and for the head of bile it builds up within the person in question.
Does this mean I’m immune to the impulse? Of course not. There are sub-genres I think are stupid or hateful or bad for people. When my stuff doesn’t sell as well as somebody else’s stuff I get a little jealous and pouty. Hey, I’m human. However, I really do try to throttle it down, because it’s bad for me and indulging the impulse is bad for the culture. And I sure as hell don’t throw a public tantrum about it.
If you were a geek in school (and if you’re reading this, the odds are pretty good) you remember what it was like to have the cool kids looking down on you for loving Star Trek or Dr. Who or reading those funny Lord of the Rings books. This impulse to say my genre/subgenre good = your genre/subgenre bad is the exact same shit. Do you really want to be doing that?
My dear friends Michael and Lynne Thomas are kickstarting a new magazine called Uncanny. I think it’s going to be a pretty spiffy addition to the science fiction and fantasy world, which is why I’ve kicked in at the sustaining level. They currently have three Hugo awards on the mantel as well as number of additional and/or pending nominations. They’ve discovered some wonderful new writers in their years in the industry, as well as publishing a lot of old warhorses like me.
You could do much worse with your entertainment/art dollars than to throw some their way. At $25 you get a one year subscription that includes a hell of an initial table of contents including folks like Amal El-Mohtar, Sofia Samatar, Charlie Jane Anders, Liz Argall, Rachel Swirsky, Maria Dahvana Headley, Mary Robinette Kowal, Neil Gaiman, Scott Lynch, Catherynne M. Valente, Paul Cornell, Ken Liu, Kat Howard, Hao Jingfang, and E. Lily Yu in addition to whatever new writers they discover as they go along. I’m not currently in the queue and don’t have any plans to submit anything—in part because I’m not doing short fiction or poetry these days—so my interest is purely in seeing friends succeed with a cool new project that will broaden and deepen the field.
What is it with grousing about the term Sci-Fi?* This morning Jay Lake links to Andrew Wheeler doing a fabulous snarky take-down of the latest SF Signal Mind Meld which is all about changing one aspect of the science fiction publishing world. I haven’t read the whole piece, but in it someone once again wants to get rid of the term Sci-Fi. This is a pet peeve of mine–the stressing out about Sci-Fi, not the term itself.
For some rather large subset of the folks inside the science fiction and fantasy genre world the term is considered pure poison and terribly derogatory. In the rest of the world it’s at worst a neutral catchy phrase to talk about the genre and more often a term of admiration, as in “I’m a Sci-Fi fan.”
Frankly, I like the term. It’s short. It’s catchy. It’s immediately understandable, unlike SF where everyone outside the genre assumes you’re talking about San Francisco, or SFF or F&SF where no one outside the genre knows what you’re talking about. It has no major constituency for it being derogatory outside the field—I live in academia and when Lit-Fic folks and anti Sci-Fi academics talk about our field they don’t say Sci-Fi, they drawl “Oh, you write…sciiieence fiiction, how…interesting,” or “oh, a genre writer.” Sci-Fi doesn’t clunk like “speculative fiction” or even “spec fic.”
Even if I didn’t like it, I’d still use it. It’s effective communication just like “Big Bang,” another term that was originally intentionally dismissive. Even more than that though, by owning the term and making it a badge of pride, it robs it of what little power it might have left to hurt.
In short: Sci-Fi! Say it loud and say it proud:
Sci-Fi. I’m a Sci-Fi fan. Some of what I write is Sci-Fi.** I love Sci-Fi.***
*Usually pronounced with a rhyming “I” sound when I encounter it, as in C-Sci or Comp-Sci.
**The majority of course is fantasy, which has even bigger terminology problems.
***And, no I’m not a late joiner of the genre. I’ve been active at conventions for 30+ years—I started when I was 15. I’m also a third generation fan–my mother and grandmother were part of the letter-writing campaign to save the original Star Trek and the letter they got back from the show’s creators along with a black and white publicity photo are treasured possessions in my family.
So, one of my students asked me about Point Of View (POV) shifts, multiple POVs, and multiple protagonists.
This is an interesting question for a number of reasons, not least because the way it is handled varies wildly from genre to genre and over time. For example, young adult is (or has been—these things shift with startling speed) mostly all right with mid-text snippets out of the POV of the scene’s main character. Modern F&SF frowns on shifting POV while in-scene, rather a lot, though, of course, there are exceptions.
Caveats: Note the “in-scene” there, it’s important, I’m not talking about multiple points of view alternating scene to scene or chapter to chapter. Also, as with every rule of publishing, sufficiently outstanding writing trumps all.
I personally have trouble with in-scene POV shifts. In my experience, jumps outside of a scene’s established POV tend to be weaker writing. This is for two reasons.
One, out of POV snippets are more likely than regular prose to tell instead of show, an inherently weaker form. Show, Don’t Tell when applied as an iron clad rule is a bad idea, because there are simply times when the writer has to tell or has to do both (Eleanor has commented on that here), but as a guideline it’s trying to get at an important point–actively engage the reader whenever possible.
Two, in-scene POV shifts usually signal that the writer has encountered some situation that he or she hasn’t figured out how to approach from within the established format of the ongoing narrative, thus forcing the writer to cheat, again inherently a weaker solution than maintaining the form established for the narrative.
The corollary to all this is that staying in POV usually results in stronger writing. Not always, of course, but usually.
That said, good writing trumps all. If you’re going to do in-scene POV shifting, make sure that you give your reader the tools to make sense of it. The few times I’ve seen it done well, the writer has always given the reader something to hold onto as they change POVs, a banister (term borrowed from Barth Anderson who got it from somewhere else). So, you might do something like this:
Main narrative voice. Out of POV bits.
Main narrative voice.
Main narrative voice.
Out of POV bits.
Main narrative voice.
The things is to give the reader that banister–some simple way of knowing that this bit is different from that bit over there.
POV part 2, Multiple POVs and Multiple Protagonists
First thing these are NOT the same thing.
Second thing, multiple POVs is bog standard as a tool for writing fiction and perfectly acceptable to pretty much the entire writing world. It only becomes an issue (not a problem necessarily, but definitely an issue) when you start to get into a bunch of in-scene POV switching. There it will often both confuse the reader and weaken their emotional investment in the scene’s primary character.
Third thing, reader investment. That’s really what it’s all about. You, the writer really want your reader to have an investment in the story. You want them to feel a sense of possession–that this is their story too. That’s the root of having your reader really care about what you write. There are two primary types of reader investment, emotional and intellectual. The emotional one is significantly more powerful in keeping the reader involved. Intellectual investment is important and can substitute for emotional investment to a degree, but it’s not as visceral a commitment, nor generally as deep.
And reader investment is where multiple protagonist stories start to run into issues.
One of the first things that a reader does at a conscious or unconscious level is to ask Whose story is this? If the answer is simple: This is X’s story, then the reader brain moves on to the next tier of questions. If the answer is more complex: This is the story of a bunch of people and how they interact, or this is the story of a planet, or this is the story of a movement the reader brain has to do more work. Some readers prefer this. Some writers manage it so skillfully that the reader brain doesn’t worry about it too much. But no matter how you slice it, the reader’s brain is doing less work with a story that belongs to one character.
Likewise, it is much easier for the reader to emotionally invest in one central core character, particularly if other POV characters come into conflict with that core character. We are a tribal species and we tend to take sides. If we know whose side we’re on going into a conflict, we’re more comfortable. It’s easier to have a best buddy in the story or a single person that the reader can project themselves into.
Can more protagonists be included successfully? Absolutely? Can you have a story about a planet? A conflict? A movement? Again, absolutely. But it will be harder to get solid reader investment in the story and therefor harder to do successfully. Like everything in writing it’s a balance. Is the added degree of difficulty in engaging the reader worth whatever it is the multiple protagonists buy you in terms of the story you want to tell?
(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in two parts on November 12th and 14th 2007, and original comments may be found there as well as in this response post by Sean Michael Murphy where we discuss the subject at some length. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)
So, I stumbled on this iteration of the sci-fi/skiify/SF/Science Fiction discussion, via Frank Wu who links to Lucy Snyder.
This one fascinates me. I personally use sci-fi, SF, science fiction, and speculative fiction pretty interchangeably, and I’ve never understood the conniptions some folks have about the term sci-fi. This is despite the facts that I’m a third generation fan, that I’ve been going to conventions for 25 years, and that I write and publish in the field.
I really don’t get it. Yes, some people use the term to denigrate the field. However, for those who think science fiction is a waste of time, it’s not about terminology it’s about content. They’re going to dump on science fiction no matter what you call it. In my experience they also use the term science fiction to denigrate the field. If you talk to them about SF, they assume you mean San Francisco until you explain it to them, then they dump on SF. Likewise speculative fiction.
This whole debate seems to me to be a sterling way to let the people who hate the field define the way you should talk about it, and to turn the term sci-fi into something that people who are on the pro science fiction side of the fence use to bash each other over the head with. In short: getting worked up over sci-fi seems terribly counterproductive.
2013 Update: Adding in my comments from the original post in response to Lyda noting that Sci-Fi registers as a media fandom thing for her or a non-reader thing.
I don’t get the non-readers thing. I’ve used the term sci-fi all my life and I am not a media person and never have been. I don’t watch television at all and haven’t in more than a decade and I rarely watch movies. I come from a family culture of reading first and media as a distant and barely visible second. I picked up “sci-fi” exclusively from literary sources.
Actually, thinking about it, it rings as an academic/literary term for me, c-sci, poli-sci, sci-fi.