Recently, two separate posts have gotten under my skin and forced me to re-examine the book I’m trying to write. (I’m trying, I promise. Really. It’s just that everything I do looks wrong, and this is part of the reason why.)
The first is Jetse de Vries Christmas present to the genre: Should SF Die? Jetse distills his point here:
My viewpoint is that SF is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that lack of relevance can be attributed to developments and trends already mentioned in the points above [SF is morally and ethically bankrupt; SF is monolithically angophilic; SF is commercially dead; SF has ditched science and become fantasy] and SF’s unwillingness to really engage with the here-and-now. That doesn’t mean that SF needs to die (actually, a slow marginalisation into an increasingly neglected and despised niche-cum-ghetto is probably a fate worse than death), but it does mean that SF needs to change, and that it needs to become much more inclusive of the alien (and I mean alien in ‘humans-can-be-aliens-to-each-other’ sense) and proactive, meaning it should not just shout ‘FIRE! FIRE!’ (and do almost nothing but), but both man the fire trucks *and* think of ways to prevent more fires.
The second is Jennifer Kesler’s Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is simple to do: listen to the film or television program you’re watching very carefully. Are there two female characters? Are they talking to each other? About something other than a man? If not, the program fails the Bechdel Test. The Test is a reality check for media and media-in-progress (for example, one’s novel). In reality, women talk to each other all the time about Things That Are Not Men. And sometimes, though it may astonish the writers of “aspirational” fictions of all stripes, they frequently talk about Things That Are Not Shoes, Clothes, Makeup, Babies, Handbags, Cramps, Pillowfights, or Practise Kisses. Those things may include (but are not limited to): if they should visit Beirut or Seattle this summer, why Beatles Rock Band is so great, or the required exercises on a dive test.* As Ms. Kesler writes about her experience in film school:
I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.
As someone in the process of writing a science fiction novel with a female at the centre of it (multiple females, in fact, with female enemies providing the most formidable challenges), these issues are paramount to me. And in the back of my brain there lives a mental LiveJournal blogger who constantly comments to me that my writing is not inclusive enough, not feminist enough, not sensitive enough, not representative enough of the real world. “FAIL,” she tells me, when my older female villain is more sexually aggressive than her inverse ingenue. “OMG CLICHÉ MUCH?”
Rationally, I know that perfection is unattainable, and that anything I produce is really only part of a much larger and much longer conversation (and likely a very small part, at that). But conversations can be steered. They can be shaped. They can be opened to a wider variety of interlocutors. It’s not my job to do all things for all people (no matter how much I might want to or how deluded I might occasionally be to think that I can), but I can make space. I can steer, however briefly. At times like this, I’m reminded of Dickens: “‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'” Living in the world (and then representing it in the guise of fiction) requires that one be observant, and not overlook the comprehensive ocean in favour of a few small drops of shiny black nanopolymer. Cory Doctorow brought this up recently in his essay on “radical presentism”:
Science fiction writers who claim to be writing the future are more apt to be hamstrung by their timidity than by the pace of events. An old saw in science fiction is that a sci-fi writer can take the automobile and the movie theater and predict the drive-in. But the drive-in is dead, and the echoes of its social consequences are fading to negligibility; on the other hand, the fact that the automobile was responsible for the first form of widely carried photo ID and is thus the progenitor of the entire surveillance state went unremarked-upon by “predictive” sci-fi. Some of my favorite contemporary speculative fiction is instead nakedly allegorical in its approach to the future—or the past, as the case may be.
“Hamstrung by timidity” describes a lot of how I’ve been feeling lately. I’ve had an overwhelming sense that I’m doing things wrong, that the words just aren’t good enough, and that they never will be. They’re very plain, those words, even ugly at times, but they have to do because they’re all I have. I realize I’m going wrong with the issues others have mentioned: ethics, the future, gender, representation. I know I won’t get them right. I know I’ll write the thing that my later self will inevitably make fun of. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us, even cracked plates are good for something:
Sometimes, though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the icebox under leftovers…
Fitzgerald was speaking about himself, there. He wrote the piece in 1936, when he was forty, just four years before his fatal heart attack in Hollywood. I was probably nineteen when someone read it aloud for me, but it’s stuck with me ever since as a perfect metaphor for what most if not all humans really are, and what their contributions can look like when viewed in isolation. The trick is that they’re not in isolation, they’re part of Dickens’ comprehensive ocean. The cracked plates of the world, jagged and fragile and of little use, form something far more solid when forced together. In all likelihood, you’re only one piece of that affirming solidity, one little shard off one tiny plate. But then again, no one else is likely to be any less broken. That’s the nice thing.
*Yes, I nicked these from real conversations. Yes, the women around me lead far more interesting lives than I do.