Monday, October 29, 2012

Things That Piss Me Off About Fiction

This is just a quick list of the things that get under my skin about fiction these days. For those wondering where I've been, I'm up to my eyeballs in work (they cut back my hours, but holy fuck if I couldn't tell given they've got me pulling several 9 hour days a week now), and I'm working on three separate project: The Second Blue Pimpernel novel; a transhuman novel called Terra Firma, which concerns itself with politics, journalism, and the ethics of terraforming Venus; and a perennial favorite of mine, White Rabbit, Black Swan, I book I can't describe without you thinking I'm on some kind of narcotic.

All of my fiction tends towards a progressive bend, with change presented as something good and desirable, with the future as being something that we should try and achieve. In The Blue Pimpernel, the protagonist and her friends are working hard to try and create a future where the Party, and the ultra powerful criminal families, are not a feature. They believe this will be a better future than the one that they're currently living in. The second novel deals with the failure of Neoliberal economic policies.

Terra Firma is one of the weirdest books I've ever written; set on Venus, the novel looks at the conflict between "progress" - that is, corporate, capitalist, and imperialist exploitation - and progress - the development of society as it progresses forward towards a happier state, assisted by technology and with everyone working together to achieve a common goal. Voyageur, the aerostat that the novel is set on, is not a utopia but it's a lot more functional and a lot happier than just about any other setting in science fiction. It takes a look at how corrupted powers that be can and will exploit democracy for their own gains, and how it's the responsibility of the people to make sure that they guard against this exploitation, and the responsibility of a free and open media to report it.

White Rabbit, Black Swan is me venting. It takes I all the problems I have with American culture, blends it together with liberal doses of Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland, and pop culture, a lot of humor, and lets it set over night before stirring vigorously with multiverse theory, quantum theory, and a huge helping of Juvenalian Satire disguised as Horatian, and adds just a dash of "what the fuck are you smoking" for flavor. My targets range from Megachurchs to the Rapture to the American Political Process and the Alternative Medicine crowd and back again.

The one thing I always try to do keep my eye on the future. I embrace the future because I see no hope in the past. The past is a dead zone; that happened, let's leave it behind, and let's move on. I must be rare among writers in thinking that, however.

I read that last essay a few days ago and I've been meaning to comment on it, and it's been put on my totem pole of things to do, but right now, I just need a little room to vent. With that in mind, here's some of the issues that I have with modern fiction, and the notion that these various things are somehow "escapist":

Strong Dominate the Weak: this one is very common in video games and RPGs but it also appears in fictions (for instance, EE Doc's heroes blow up entire worlds because they're full of EEEEEEVIL people, without any due process, any legal defense whatsoever, or any social safeguards). They have power, they're saving the world, you're just a back drop. This isn't escapism. This is the world I live in, with the exception of the fact that I'm the cardboard backdrop and the fuckers with all the power are destroying it, not saving it.

Let me put this very plainly. Monarchies are not legitimate forms of government. I don't care how benevolent the queen is - she has no right being in any position of authority, at all, and deserves no respect for it. I will spit at your king. I will call your king as bastard child, and I will question the sexual predilections of their parents. I will have no respect for your ruler. Fuck your king. Dictatorships are not legitimate forms of government, I don't care how benevolent the dictator is. Heroes have no reason to be demigods, they have no reason to be more powerful than the average schmuck on the street. Nobody elected them to their position of authority. I have a very narrow definition of legitimate government forms; adhocracies, democracies, anarchies, and a handful of others are the only ones that I am willing to entertain as being legitimate government forms. Any others are simply immoral.

And guess what we don't see any of in popular culture? The best way to describe modern fiction is Feudal, and you know who gets fucked in feudalism? You do, cardboard cut out. Do you know what kind of society we're heading towards, right now? A corporate feudalist structure. Why the fuck did you ever get it in your head that escapism means being thrust in the same world that I'm already living in, with me at the top of the oligarchic pyramid rather than the bottom? This is the sort of thinking that's used to justify Libertarianism, Objectivism, and the continued existence of the other neoliberal failures: some day, you'll be at the top, and you'll be there looking down at society, they whisper. Until then, fuck everyone else - you're the hero. The strong dominate the weak. It's the natural order of things.

- Idealization of the Past: The past was not something we want to go back to. In a lot of ways, this idealization of the past is a picture of White, heterosexual, male Christianist privilege: because to them, the past is some sort of awesome thing. It was back when they had authority, before the Enlightenment and before these things called "equal rights" and this thing called "egalitarianism". When was the last time you saw the past portrayed as something hideous and ugly.... because that's what it was. One of my favorite lines from Terra Firma comes from Asim Robert: "The past is the rough draft for the future, and it's a damn ugly rough draft."

I find idealization of the past to be disturbing. While nostalgia in and of itself is not fascist, it certainly plays into fascist tendencies and makes people - especially those who, because they're forced to share their privileges here in the present and will be forced to share them all in the future - believe they got a better deal, and they work to try and turn back the clock. When was the last time you saw a past without indoor plumbing? Or a past without toothpaste and dental care? Fiction has a twisted and skewed version of the past, whitewashing how truly ugly it is while crying out for the glorified, beautiful past they just created to return; a past that never existed.

I don't want to escape into the past. Escaping into the past is escaping into a time of lesser enlightenment. A time when there wasn't as much equality, and a time when technology was primitive, medical care was none existent, and when you were lucky if you lived to see 40 because of poor nutrition, healthcare, and hygiene. That's not escapism. And I'm tired of seeing this bullshit idealized past. I get it all the damn time from the Right-wing, who are constantly pining for a Leave it to Beaver-esque 1950s where those uppity blacks knew their place and only delivered milk, where those nasty, dirty gays were out of sight and out of mind, and where dad was in total control of his house hold, and he'd come home after a hard day's work and smoke his pipe while all the little boys said "oh gee" and had slingshots. How is that any different from any other idolization of the past? It's not. That's not escapism. That's a sad fucking joke. (*glares daggers at Steampunk*)

- Rejection of Science: Most writers are lazy fucks who know jack-all about science and won't learn anything about it, because they know it'll clash with whatever two-bit plot they had cooking. Science, and the scientific method, gave us the knowledge that keeps you alive beyond your 40th birthday, you ungrateful git. Rejecting that makes you a creationist, an anti-vaxxer, or worse. And yet, far too often, modern fiction rejects science. I can't recall the last time I heard an excuse for magic as being "science doesn't know what it is" - no fucking shit. That's why science will learn, you dumbass Literature major. "Science refuses to accept it" - just like science refuses to accept creationism, right? "Science ruins it, and when it's studied, it creates performance anxiety" - which is a cheap way out, because it preforms just fine under other observations, for instance, when their friends are around. Or when you're using the power to con millions of people on live television, like just about every psychic ever.

We're right back to how this is not escapism. I cited an example above of how this attitude literally permeates the real world. This post-modern acceptance of science as "another way to see the world" and the rejection of an objective reality (even if we can't know that objective reality, but we can get pretty damn close through consensus experimentation). Why would I want to play escapism in a world where I hear the same shit from the same stupid people, but it turns out that they're right? You couldn't spit in my face any harder.

I have a serious, serious love/hate relationship with magic and psionic powers in fiction. I've used them, when I felt they were applicable with the world or the concept, but I won't shoehorn them in a setting just to have them; this is why I feel urban fantasy is so fucking ridiculous. It gets to wear the facade of modernism while at the same time, rejecting everything that made it possible. The masquerade is one of the most offensive things I've ever seen - how many people is this suggesting are idiots or stupid? It echoes conspiracy theories, and it sacrifices common sense for the purposes of narrative convenience. It gets even worse when real world tragedies are justified cheapened using a fictional masquerade.

I can accept magic if it's in what is clearly a different universe. But if you're going to have magic/psionics, be prepared to explain to me why you have any kind of technology at all, especially if it's very common place (one fills the role of the other. That's why you have magic in Fantasy - because the past didn't have the technology that we have today, but you still need some way to keep your heroes alive, thus, magic is devised a cheap replacement for technology. Most instances of Psi are even worse, because for some reason, it already exists side-by-side with technology). You better also be prepared to think about the implications of what it means for your world; where does it come from, who can use it, and why? If only aristocrats are capable of using it because they're special, then you've got yourself a shitty world. If the only people who can use are powerful ultrahuman demigods, take it away: it's garbage.

- Talk to me like I'm an Idiot: I'm very intelligent. I've had enough people tell me that I feel confident in making that statement. It's nothing special about me; I just want to make sure I'm doing it right when I write, and writing something is a proven way to help you remember it (so perhaps I should say I have a good memory, instead). My approach is to do my research. I will research the ever loving hell out of a topic, and while I'm not terribly good, I've sometimes been known to do my own math for a setting to stiffen it up a lot more. I am willing to go way above and beyond what is necessary.

So how am I to feel when others don't even meet me half way? You talk down to me, you use cheap plot cards like magic and psionics to avoid having to explore the implications of what you build, you invoke conspiracies that are so transparently absurd that anyone can see through them with a little critical thinking. I'm sorry, I can't turn my brain off like the vast majority of people seem to be able to. Maybe I'm too afraid that if I turn it off, I'll never be able to turn it back on. I don't know. But far too often I feel like the author/writer was far too caught up in the intoxication of their own (rehashed) plot that they didn't bother to even learn the basics about something. If you're not even going to take the time to research the basics, and you do something "just because it's always been that way in science fiction" (i.e., space dog fighting, noise in space), then why the hell should I take you seriously? Because I'm not.

You're not engaging my mind. You're not offering me new things I didn't know before - not that it's hard to do, because I always learn new things, and I love to learn new things - you're treating me like I'm another intellectually stunted, beer-drinking couch potato. Shove off. I don't want it. I'm far too smart for your program/movie/book/game/whatever.

- Ambition, Technology, and Immortality are EEEEEVIL: Quick, think: when was the last time you saw a positive portrayal of immortality, or someone attempting to become immortal? I can, but that's because I deal with immortal characters on a regular basis. Can you? Take a look at the venerable lich: immortality achieved at cost. They're one of the creatures that are most synonymous with immortality in gaming. A rotted, undead corpse that's almost uniformly evil. Why? Because they tried to defy death, which the writers have decided is a natural and, therefore, desirable thing.

I bet you can name the number of books/movies/games/TV shows that have shown technology and ambition in a positive light on one hand. The Frankenstein warning is certainly common enough, but what about ones that portray all of the positives of them? I don't remember, either. This is that Romantic bullshit shining through; Pop culture has embraced it wholeheartedly. Technology is fine where we've got it, let's not go any further. Let's stay right here (or worse, let's go back in time).

This isn't escapism. This is bullshit.

- Anti-Democracy: Democracy, and other open government styles like an adhocracy and anarchy are all products of the Enlightenment. The whole idea that people can rule themselves effectively is something that, up to that point, was unheard of. These things are all highly unpopular in modern fiction. Why is that, I wonder? Take a look at all of the works that portray democracy as a failing system, without any kind of effort made to save it (Star Wars springs to mind immediately)? I live in a world where people have stopped caring about their democracy; where they can't afford to be politically active, where they can't afford to be engaged citizens. Where a rather large segment of the population spend their days longing for a "manly manny (White) man" to come along and lead them.

You throw me into a world without democracy, and we're right back to you forcing me to live in this world again. I thought the whole purpose of escapism was to get away from this world?

- No Rights, therefore, rejection of equality: Rights are an abstract concept granted to people by a greater society. Rights come from society, they do not come from God. They do not come from the King. Rights have to be created by people in the society for people in the society, to ensure that everyone is equally treated and lives in a state close to egalitarianism. This one is extremely common in fantasy, and it just ties into the whole "idealization of the past" bullshit, and the idea that the strong rule the weak. When the weak have Rights; inalienable rights, then the strong cannot walk over them. Your hero cannot destroy that planet, because those people have rights enshrined in the galactic constitution and your ass will go to jail for it. It doesn't matter how great or powerful your mind powers are, hero. It doesn't matter how strong your magic is. That does not trump the rights of those weaker than you, putting everyone on the same playing field regardless of innate strength.

By rejecting democracy, and embracing the idea that we need strong, manly (white) men to rule, you explicitly spit in the face of the whole concept of civil rights.

Remind me again why a world without civil rights is escapism? I'm sure there are plenty of people out there, be they gay, Black, Asian, Latin@, atheist, or otherwise, who will vehemently disagree with you over how "escapism" means going back to a time when nobody but the powerful had rights.

- A Rejection of Modernism: And all of the above flow into one thing - most modern fiction rejects Modernism, it paints are modern world as something "boring", and seeks to move off to idealized times that never existed, in universes where strong rule over the weak, where rights and equality do not exist, where ambition, technology, and immortality is evil, and where you wave your hand because you don't want people seeing too deeply into the message that you're preaching. This rejection of modernism is the primary reason why I usually stay very close to the hard end of science fiction and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I live here, but I want to take what I have here and make it better by putting it forward, not thrusting it back into the past, where our social problems today are highlighted.

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