“This, milord, is my family’s ax. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation… but is this not the nine-hundred-year-old ax of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good ax, y’know.”
—from The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett
The 1970s was one of the most turbulent eras America has ever faced. I remember the protests, the Vietnam War, the gas shortages, the women’s liberation movement, the civil rights movement, the push back from the establishment–the chaos and fear. All of it was being fought over. Everything seemed unsettled. I remember how frightened the adults were, and I remember how frightened the kids were in return. Now that I think about it, maybe the reason I’ve always loved SF and Fantasy is because I’m a child of that era. From the beginning for me, the joy of SF–the adventure–was associated with the danger of facing issues no normal adult was willing to discuss, let alone face. Maybe that’s why I believe that SF is at its best when addressing difficult topics. We all need a place where it’s safe to explore the possibilities–no matter how dangerous or unsettling, and fiction is that best safe place. That’s why so much of what’s happening in SF right now, this push for inclusiveness, is so important. It’s also why I’m so invested in what’s happening. It isn’t entirely because I’m a female. It’s because I love SF so very much. I want it to survive and thrive. I want it to continue to be a viable genre.
I want SF to be that nine-hundred-year-old ax, handed down to future generations, damn it.
That said, I feel as a writer of SF that I have certain responsibilities when I address difficult subjects. First and foremost–don’t do more harm. That means I need to be as informed as I can. That means research. It also means exploring the subject from many different points of view, as many as I can manage, and being open to where those points of view might lead even if it’s uncomfortable. It means listening and understanding and having empathy and perspective. It means thinking outside myself, my experiences, my milieu. Second, don’t dictate to the reader their experience. That means allowing the reader to fill in the blanks for themselves because it’s important to have some humility. I’m only one flawed human being, after all. I don’t have all the answers, and I never will, but I can ask the questions and provide a space to explore them. Mistakes will be made along the way, and that’s okay too. Own those suckers. They do you no good if you deny them because you can’t learn from mistakes you don’t claim. Always remember you’re learning like everyone else and strive not to make the same mistake again.
For example, I tend to use tropes, and one of my favorite things to do is to take a SF trope and turn it upside down or sideways because I enjoy getting a different perspective. The trouble with using tropes in this way is that sometimes people don’t get past the trope recognition stage. Add a strong emotional reaction on top of it, and it can be even more difficult. But that’s part of being a writer. Sometimes the reader isn’t going to understand, and I have to be all right with that. Also? It’s possible I made a mistake. See above.
Readers have certain responsibilities too. Reading fiction is an interactive experience. You’re meant to fill in certain details for yourself. It’s what makes your experience of a book your own. It’s intended to be that way. But it’s also important to remember that your experience, the information with which you fill in those blanks may not match anyone else’s. You may never know what the author was really thinking when they wrote something. It’s all right to guess. Such things add depth. It’s all right to have a strong reaction too. But what if you like a story, and it turns out to be problematic? Stories are written by human beings and human beings aren’t perfect. It’s going to happen. It has happened, and continues to happen. The important thing to remember is that, while the work in question may be flawed, it’s okay to enjoy it. However, don’t make excuses. Be strong enough to admit it’s problematic. If you can’t, at the very least have the strength of character to allow that other points of view are valid because they are. You don’t have to agree with a different perspective in order to acknowledge its validity. Allow for the possibility. Make room for it to be explored. That’s what SF is about, after all–exploring the possibility.
Many, many thanks to Joe for letting me guest blog today. If you haven’t checked into his books, well… what are you doing here?