Serious Fantasy Revisited

A few weeks ago I put up a post wondering whether people are inclined to treat science fiction more seriously than fantasy – that is, more likely to capably deal with “big” issues – to the point that it shades peoples’ perceptions of what is and isn’t fantasy. The very same day I posted that I came across another head-scratching example that I wanted to share.

Over at Tor, James Davis Nicoll posted an article about six books that “defy easy categorization” and straddle the sci-fi fantasy divide. I’ll admit that I wasn’t familiar with most of these (several went on my “to read” list). The one I was familiar with, however, left me shaking my head. That was Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

As Nicoll explains, Kindred is about a black woman from modern American (it was written in ??) who, inexplicably, is ripped back in time to before the Civil War where she is exposed, brutally and graphically, to the horrors of slavery. It’s a tough read, to be sure, but it’s brilliant. As for its classification, Nicoll writes:

But is it science fiction or fantasy? While I will grant that the physical mechanism is never explained, Dana is caught up in a stable time loop whose logic dictates much of what happens to her. . . .. Butler thought Kindred was fantasy, but it also seems perfectly reasonable to call it science fiction.

It really doesn’t, any more that it seems perfectly reasonable to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt on any factual dispute at this point. As Nicoll says, there’s no explanation or mechanism given for the main character’s time travel. It just happens. It’s certainly not the result of some kind of deep tech or scientific advancement. It’s more one of those Twilight Zone setups you just accept as existing, without wondering why. That, to me, is the defining feature of fantasy – here’s a world that’s different than ours, accept it (or don’t) and move on.

So why try and turn Kindred into science fiction? Could it be that it deals with deeply serious and traumatic topics that most people don’t associate with fantasy? I don’t buy the “it’s magic, but it’s magic that follow rules, therefore it’s sci-fi” logic. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (to pick an example) has a very regimented, logical, magic system (it sometimes feel like video game controls), but nobody would call it sci-fi, would they? Fun as those are, they don’t deal with the kind of issues that Kindred does, however.

I shared my original post with a group of sci-fi and fantasy writers on Facebook and got some interesting answers (and some amusing ones – to the question of “is sci-fi more ‘serious’ than fantasy,” one person just answered “yes”). The one that really caught me was this one:

Now, being a prog fan, I should have come up with this one myself. Nonetheless, I think bringing musical genres into this might help shed some light on the question. I think this is something that happens to new fans of all musical genres, but I’ve seen it repeatedly with prog fans (I may have even gone through it a bit myself): Fan of a particular bands discovers they’re generally classified as “progressive rock,” finds out that there’s more groups out there with similar characteristics, falls madly in love with “prog” as a thing and . . . starts to expand its boundaries exponentially. In other words, they go from “prog = good” to “good = prog” and try to define every band they like into their new favorite genre. No matter how great XTC are (and they are great!), they aren’t a progressive rock band – nor do they need to be categorized as such!

Is the same thing going on here? Are people who are normally drawn to sci-fi reading fantasy novels and feeling the need to reclassify them accordingly? I know sometimes there’s a rift between fans who only dig one or the other (I still remember the howls when the then-Sci-Fi Channel dares to show something that might actually be fantasy!), so maybe there’s some desire to cleave off the stuff at the margins and claim it one way or the other.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing. As I said in the original post, my beef is less about erecting boundaries around genres erasing grey areas and more the desire to see people treat fantasy (or crime fiction or romance or . . .) as just as able to raise serious issues as other genres. But maybe, in the end, it’s a lot of sound a fury and all that.

Is Sci-Fi More “Serious” Than Fantasy?

Fantasy has a reputation for taking itself pretty seriously. Outside of some outliers like Terry Pratchet’s Discworld books, the prevailing image of fantasy is that it’s about big deal themes of good against evil, fulfilling destinies, and such like that. The Lord of the Rings is not a “day in the life” story with no big stakes, after all. Indeed, in a lot of ways fantasy can seem – to use an epithet thrown at progressive rock all the time – “pretentious.” But for all that, when it comes to dealing with the big questions, the ones that probe the nature of reality and humanity, do people take science fiction more seriously than fantasy? Even to the point of letting that reflect how they categorize a story?

This occurred to me after I’d finished up The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

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The setup is this – the title character is one of a few select people in the world who live their lives over and over again. When they die, they basically go back to the beginning and are reborn, but with the collected memories of their prior lives still intact. Thus these are some seriously “ahead of their time” children roaming around, as you might guess. The story follows Harry as he lives a bunch of his lives and tries to stop another of his kind that is seeking a revelation will destroy the world. It’s pretty good, and has some really excellent bits. I recommend it.

When I finished the book I do what I usually do and seek out reviews to see what others thought about it. To my surprise, I saw a lot of people file The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August under “science fiction,” which made little sense to me. Sure, there’s some discussion of quantum mechanics and parallel worlds (at i09, Charlie Jane Anders lists all this as reasons why “it’s a real science fiction book,” so what do I know?), but what makes the story go is the completely fantastic bit where these people live their lives over and over again. It’s never explained, much less with some kind of semi-plausible scientific reason. For all we know a genie thousands of years ago granted somebody’s wish and it got out of hand.

The mechanics don’t matter much because North uses them to deal with issues of free will, destiny, and the price of the pursuit of ultimate knowledge. These are the kinds of big issues that science fiction sometimes tackles, but that doesn’t mean that every story that does that is science fiction. Could it just be that people expect sci-fi to be more thoughtful about this stuff than fantasy?

Regular readers know one of my pet peeves is when people who write “Literature,” rather than just tell stories, write something that’s unambiguously fantasy or sci-fi but refuse to label it as such because of genre snobbery. This feels kind of the same way. Sure, fantasy is fine for satisfying tales of good vanquishing evil or ass-kicking vampire slayers, but if you want to ponder the big questions, well, it’s not for that. But why not?

Any story can plumb the depths of the big questions that have plagued humanity since we started walking upright. Genre doesn’t limit the stories you can tell, only change the way that they’re told. Embrace the idea that deep thoughts can come from anywhere in the library.

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Why Do I Love Bad (Fictional!) Lawyers?

Popular culture is full of lawyers. As both a lawyer and a writer, I apologize for that, but the legal profession is a pretty rich vein of drama (and even comedy) for writers. There’s crime and deceit, business dealings and family squabbles. The law touches every area of life (for good or for ill), so it’s a great way to examine life itself.

There are plenty of heroic lawyers in pop culture. Perry Mason’s having a kind of resurgence with the new, gritty, noir-flavored HBO series. Atticus Finch is a popular choice for crusader who launched a thousand earnest legal careers.* There are countless others, of course, lawyers who fight for the little guy (or gal) or justice or law in the abstract. They’re fine, of course, but when you always win, things can get kind of stale.

Which is why some of us – or maybe just speaking for myself here – have more of an affinity with the legal bad boys, the ones who work on the edges of professional ethics, for whatever reason. There’s a quite a rogue’s gallery and I pretty much love every one of them. They’re the patron saints of the legal profession, in my eyes.

Front of mind at this point can be none other than Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, of Breaking Bad and his own prequel spinoff, Better Call Saul (which is better than the original, I think):

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The “patron saint” thing is kind of a joke, but the fact that Saul is about a struggling criminal defense lawyer makes it instantly more relatable to me, even if I never find myself nearly dead in the desert hauling two duffle bags full of drug cartel money (let’s hope). He is a sleaze, no doubt, and it eventually gets him into serious trouble, but at least early on he’s willing to use that sleaze to help the underdog and generally fuck with “law and order.” While I can’t say I approve of Jimmy’s methods, I appreciate the attitude. It’s one that sustains long-time public defenders like me.

Of more long standing in the pantheon is the one, the only “law talking guy,” Lionel Hutz:

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Voiced by the wonderful Phil Hartman on The Simpson, Hutz is just a master class in legal incompetence. He marvels at how useful law books can be. He changes the terms of his retainer by marking up his own business cards. He shudders at the otherwise happy thought of a world without lawyers. He requests “bad court thingies.” And, most notably, he’s always looking out for himself:

Deep in the heart of every lawyer lurks the certainty that, if nothing else, they’re better than Hutz.

He’s not the only cartoon lawyer with a hold on my heart. How can I not love Harvey Birdman?

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Harvey’s less an idol for his legal acumen that he is for his ability to keep a calm head on his . . . wings, while everything else falls apart around him. It’s an important skill for an attorney, especially a criminal defense lawyer. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have an eagle for an assistant?

But if we’re going old school, there’s one sleazy lawyer that was lodged in my brain long before I was anywhere near a law school – Steve Dallas:

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Looking back I’m a little appalled at my love for Bloom County’s legal scholar. He’s a loud mouthed, rude, misogynistic, frat boy – precisely the kind of person I’d loathe if I met him (or saw him online) today. I mean, he did have cool cars, so that counts for something. And he was, come to think of it, the only professional in Bloom County (among the regular cast, at least). He had credentials and never let anybody else forget it. Like Harvey, he also recognized the value of good help:

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When it comes to all these guys (and they are all guys – I’ve noticed) I’m reminded of that idea, from Tolstoy, that all happy families are the same, but dysfunctional ones are unique in their dysfunction. I think that’s true for fictional lawyers, too. Good-hearted crusaders are important and uplifting, but they’re not always much fun. Bring on the bad boys!

* Years ago I went to a legal writing seminar where, for the session on issue spotting, we used the facts of To Kill a Mockingbird. A mere 45 minutes later he was facing a lengthy ineffective assistance of counsel charge.

Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.

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Weekly Read: Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror 

This is an interesting book (more interesting than compelling, sadly, given its detached, journalistic style) to think about in these times. I actually read it a couple of months ago, but it’s crept back to relevance over the past couple of weeks. How could it not, given that it tells the story of the United States’ first concerted effort to deal with racial terrorism, which also gave rise to an unprecedented expansion of police power and tactics?

It’s the story of Hiram C. Whitley, who from 1869 to 1875 was the chief of the Secret Service. At that time, the Secret Service’s primary job was dealing with counterfeiters (it’s Presidential protection role didn’t come until ??) – which it still does, by the way (one of my great Fourth Circuit victories involved a counterfeiting case). When Whitely took over he broadened the Service’s mandate (via bureaucratic slight-of-hand and without Congressional authorization) into a broader criminal investigative unit with its sights trained the Ku Klux Klan.

Not that Whitley was particularly a crusader for human rights. Before the Civil War he did some work as a slave hunter and he essentially bought his first child. During the war he led a Union regiment in New Orleans with such brutality that his men nearly mutinied. He was a shameless self promoter who wasn’t above working outside the law when he thought it was justified. He tortured prisoners. He arrested men and executed searches without warrants. He was even involved in a Watergate-style burglary and scandal later in his career.

His most lasting contribution, however, is introducing the concept of the undercover work to American law enforcement. The idea that you had to use bad people – or at least good people pretending to be bad – to catch other bad people was scandalous. In fact, the book recounts how in one counterfeiting trial, where the case was built on undercover work, the judge actually gave the jury a cautionary instruction about how unreliable undercover officers were! If only we could get an instruction like that now.

If anything, Whitley seems like the archetype of a character we’ve become familiar with over the years from all kinds of police fiction – the cop who can’t follow the rules, but it still celebrated in the end because he gets the bad guys (a trope that’s getting some fresh looks these days). You can’t argue that Whitley’s targets were evil – not just the Klan by political machines in New York City were targets – but, as this review points out, none of those resulted in convictions, partly due to Whitley’s overreaching. One of my chief criticisms of the book is that author Charles Lane doesn’t really examine what Whitley’s legacy was or how he was an exemplar of lots of cops that came after him.

That’s why the book had come back to mind in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the related protests. As a society we’ve been conditioned to give cops the benefit of the doubt (there’s even a “good faith” exception the exclusionary rule for Fourth Amendment violations), mostly on the expectation that if they cross the line they’ve got a damned good reason. But lines are drawn for a reason and not everybody the cops cross the line to get are “bad guys” and, even if they are, they deserve the due process of the law, too.

I won’t say we can draw a direct line from Whitley’s abuses to Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck 150 years later, but there are definitely echoes there. If Whitely really was “Freedom’s Detective,” it’s worth wondering what kind of freedom it was and whether, too often, it’s been the freedom to behave badly in the name of doing good.

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Which Details Matter?

World building is typically something we think is the concern of sci-fi and fantasy writers. If you’re going to tell a story set in a world that is either not ours or significantly different from it, you need to define those differences. But the truth is that all writers should be concerned with world building. Writers of all kinds of fiction need to flesh out the world in which their characters exist. Even if it’s the real world, it’s likely a part of it that the reader isn’t familiar with. Even non-fiction writers need to do the same – to build a place for their story to take place in order for it to make sense.

Of course, not everything about the world you’re working in is important for a reader to know. Finding the right level of detail can be hard, since you might send signals to readers that you never intend and actually mess up the world building you’re trying to do.

If you’ve read Gods of the Empire you know that Lady Belwyn has a music room. In an early draft I mentioned in one scene, as Hagan entered the room, that she was playing a “Colebeck etude.” I could have just said “etude” or even just named the instrument she was playing, but I thought throwing a composer’s name in would make it feel more like something from a lived-in world. Plus, it let me give a shoutout to the progressive rock world and name check Julian Colebeck, longtime keyboard player with Steve Hackett. To my knowledge, he’s never written an etude.

“But wait,” you’re saying. “I’ve read Gods of the Empire and I don’t remember anything about Colebeck in it.” You’re right, because I wound up taking it out. To a person, everyone in my writers group seized on the fact that there was a new name thrown at them when they read that scene. They wondered if this Colebeck person was important to the story. Would he come up again? Is this something important to remember for later down the road? Since the answer to all of those questions was “no,” I just decided to take it out. It’s at the point of the book where readers are still finding their feet on Oiwa and in the Unari Empire, so it was more important to remove a distraction.

My mistake, I think, was in introducing a variable that’s completely unknown without definition. If I was writing something in the real world – say, a sequel to Moore Hollow – and I had a similar character, I might have her playing a piece by Mozart or Liszt or Stravinsky. That would provide a nice little detail, but only because those names aren’t variables – they’re real composers who exist in this world. So long as the name is familiar enough for a reader to nod at it, that’s all you need. If you know those three names you can figure out what it’s saying about the character that she plays Stravinsky instead of Mozart.

But sometimes you need a reference to be just as fictional as your characters, even if your story takes place in the real world. In my opinion, it’s more distracting to try and avoid this than it is to take a sentence or two and define your fictional reference. This jumped out at me listening to The Getaway, an Audible Original by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.

Giveaway

It’s about a woman, a press secretary in the wake of a losing campaign, who goes on a yoga retreat where bad things happen. She does so partly because of how this retreat was praised by an unnamed actress she follows on social media.

The first time this person came up the main character just called her “an actress she follows,” which I thought was weird. It’s important enough to mention that this influencer’s praise was part of the reason to go on the retreat, but she doesn’t have a name? All right, it’s a throw away. But the second time it came up it really annoyed me. And the third. And the fourth. This really does seem to be an important detail – nay, it’s critical to the fairly dubious setup! (needless to say I’m not recommending The Getaway) – yet the story doesn’t define it. It could be as simple as a name and that she’s the star of some TV series or movie. No need for more than that, but just something to suggest that this actress is a real person in this world.

As always, it’s a question of balance and where to draw the line. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to building your world, except maybe one: Does this detail serve the story? Does it deepen the reader’s understanding of the world or the characters? Okay, so that’s two questions, but you get the point.

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Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.

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What Makes A Compelling Main Character?

Last week I started a book. The two main characters were from a different race and were essentially vampires, although they weren’t called that. It was kind of a romance, kind of coming of age, but it involved a lot of sex and murder, without any hint of conscience or consequence. Nor was there any other character trying to put a stop to it.

I didn’t finish the book.

I decided to bail because I couldn’t get into either of the main characters at all. It wasn’t that they were bad or did evil things – I don’t need the protagonist of every book to be a flawless hero (read The Water Road if you don’t believe me). But there has to be something there and it made me start to think about what we expect, as readers, from our main characters.

Stories are all about characters. Regardless of how inventive the world building or how labyrinthine the plot, if the people who are living in that world and doing those things don’t connect with readers than it’s kind of a wasted exercise.

Do main characters have to be good heroes who strive to do right and seem like really fun/nice people to be around? That’s certainly one way to go. Having your main character be someone who’s easy to root for makes it easy for readers to be swept away in their story. Those kinds of characters tend to be kind of dull, though, since they’re always doing the right things for the right reasons. Still, people generally want good to triumph over evil, so it’s one approach to take.

A more subtle approach would be to have a main character who has flaws and sometimes makes bad decisions, but who’s heart is basically in the right place. This is where most main characters fall, I think. Since I referenced The Water Road before I’d say that’s where Antrey belongs. She does a horrible thing, but spends the rest of the trilogy trying to make up for it and learn from it.

But what about bad guys? Anti-heroes? Can’t people identify with main characters who are generally doing wrong? Of course! It’s a much trickier situation.

One of my favorite main characters I’ve come across recently (and who I’ve mentioned recently) is Johannes Cabal, necromancer and start of the series that bears his name. Nobody would accuse Cabal of being a good guy – in fact, a lot of his troubles come from the fact that he’s fundamentally involved in wicked shit (when your first book involves making a second deal with the devil, you’re working overtime). Why do I like him? For one thing, he’s funny. He gives very few fucks about the people he comes across. That, I think, is key to having a main character who’s a bad guy – if they’re fun to watch do what they do, even if it’s evil, it’s easier to be on their side, so to speak. Also, deep down in Cabal’s core, he’s trying to do a good thing – cure the human race of the disease of death. It’s a laudable goal, even if the only way to get there is to slog through darkness.

Another way you can make a main character who does bad thing someone to root for is make their antagonist even worse. The wife and I stumbled across Freaks this weekend on Netflix. Neither a remake of the Tod Browning classic or an adaptation of the Marillion tune, it’s about a little girl with powers and a father trying to protect her. Not “evil,” particularly, but since the kid has no idea of her powers or personal boundaries she does some seriously bad things. That said, the government agency charged with hunting these people down was even worse. It’s easy to wish for a bad, but perhaps redeemable, character against someone who just wants to exterminate them.

I suppose the bottom line for any main character (or any character, really) is that readers have to be interested in them. Maybe not love them, but at least be curious about them and where they’re going. It’s easy to buy in with heroes and people trying to do good. But even people wandering around doing evil have to be interesting. If they’re not, why waste your time reading about them?

BondCat

On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

Hollywood

Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

CabalDetective

I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

Plus ca change . . .

There has always been controversial art. The reasons change – whether it’s the frank depiction of sex, or violence, or challenges to religious or political orthodoxy – but the fact that words or images piss people off is as old as time. We tend to think there’s more of it going around these days because social media tends to amplify controversies when they emerge. Just because the cacophony is louder doesn’t mean it’s any kind of major change in society.

This was driven home to me by a recent article in The Atlantic. Though the current title is “The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” the title that shows on the browser tab, which more accurately captures the theme of the piece, is “Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today?” Bucking the usual rule of headline questions, the answer, from the story itself, appears to be yes.

Some background first. The literary controversy of the year so far has been American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins. With a major push from its publisher, and a spot on Oprah’s list, it was poised to be the breakout title of the year.

AmericanDirt

It’s about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico after a drug kingpin murders the rest of their family and, ultimately, their experiences as migrants heading to the United States. This article does a good job of highlight the resulting controversy, which ranged from questions of cultural appropriation (Cummins is neither Latina nor a migrant) to how writers of color are locked out of the publishing industry to the fact that, maybe, the book just isn’t that good at what it wants to be (this is an interesting takedown along those lines ).

The merits of the arguments about the book aren’t really important. What you need to know is that some people took issue with what was set to be a wildly popular book (there was a film deal before it was even published) and weren’t silent about it. Thanks to social media, blogs and what not their complaints reached a fairly wide audience.

Back to the Atlantic piece. The subject is The Confessions of Nat Turner and the “My Father” in the title is William Styron – the author of the article is his daughter, Alexandra. The Confessions of Nat Turner came out in 1967. Turner, of course, was the leader of a slave revolt in antebellum Virginia. The book is a fictional narrative of Turner as told to a prosecutor who will try Turner after the revolt. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it must be pretty good.

NatTurner

Nonetheless, it led to some controversy, driven largely by the fact that Styron wasn’t black, much less a slave. How could he write a narrative from the standpoint of one? If it’s a familiar objection, it’s worth looking at how familiar the arc of reaction to the book is to what happened with American Dirt.

First, there was a swell of praise from traditional sources:

Through much of 1967, he was at ease, enjoying the swell of prepublication buzz for Nat Turner. The Book-of-the-Month Club (the Oprah’s Book Club of its time) paid my father the highest price for a novel in the company’s history. The paperback, serial, and foreign rights sold in a frenzy. Hollywood came calling. That July, when riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, newspapers asked him to help white America understand what was happening. By October, when the first reviews appeared, Nat Turner was a juggernaut. ‘Magnificent,’ The New York Times declared. “A new peak in the literature of the South,’ Time wrote. ‘It will endure as one of the great novels by an American author in this century,’ the Los Angeles Times predicted. In November, my father was awarded an honorary degree by Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio.

At this point, as Styron’s daughter points out, with one exception “no black writers were invited to critique Nat Turner in any major national publication.” Slowly, however, those overlooked voices started rising:

The first signs of black dissent appeared by the new year. Articles in, among other publications, The New Leader, The Negro Digest, and Freedomways condemned the novel and the white media that endorsed it. Around the same time, an ugly spat erupted in The Nation between my father and the Marxist scholar of African-American history, Herbert Aptheker. (They both behaved like self-important assholes.) In February, The New York Times ran the first of several pieces exposing an angrier vein: ‘Styron’s Nat Turner, the house nigger,’ declared the professor Michael Thelwell, ‘is the spiritual ancestor of the contemporary middle-class Negro … [the] type with whom whites including Mr. Styron feel most comfortable.’ The writer William Strickland groused that the novel was ‘the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged.’ My father’s critics took issue with the book’s dialect and character development, with what he put in (a master who teaches Nat to read, motive for the rebellion separate from bondage) and what he left out (a black wife, unyielding conviction). But probably his greatest crime, as my father reflected 25 years later in an essay for American Heritage, was ‘apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?’ In June 1968, the backlash reached its zenith when Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book generated its own front-page notices, and kept the Nat Turner dispute alive well into the summer.

 

The backlash led to the film (to star James Earl Jones) to be shelved.
None of this is to say that the detractors of American Dirt or Nat Turner had the right of it. Maybe they do, but I’ve never read either book, so I don’t know. My point is that the experience of Nat Turner that Styron’s daughter lays out sounds almost exactly like what happened with American Dirt. Maybe the controversy didn’t burn so brightly, since it didn’t have social media to fan the flames, but it still burned pretty good.

Which is only to observe, as the song says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who writes a book (or makes a movie or paints a picture) risks blowback, whether the blowback is warranted or not. The arts are simultaneously vague and subject to so many interpretations, yet stir such deep passions. It will be a change when new books are written that don’t provoke any negative reaction. Human nature being what it is, I don’t see that happening any time soon.