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Taking This Week Off

Sorry, folks. I’m leaving tomorrow night for Vietnam, where I’ll be on business for about two and a half weeks. This is my first trip to Asia, and I’m looking forward to it (though not looking forward to the twenty-four hours it’ll take me to get there). Incidentally, does anyone have recommendations for what to do/see in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City?

Either way, with this trip coming up and nothing packed, I’ve decided to take a break from blogging this week to instead spend some time with The Professor before I leave. So my apologies for no post this week (barring Saturday’s off-schedule post about the Readercon Harassment Debacle), but I’ll have something for you from the tropics next week!

‘Til then, I leave you in the welcoming hands paws of MacDuff, the Fuzzy Thane of Fife:


Readercon Harassment Debacle

If you haven’t been following the Readercon Harassment Debacle, you can read all about it:

After the Readercon Board’s failure to adhere to their own published harassment policy, I sent them the following e-mail. I am appalled by their hypocrisy, and would have wished better of the convention that first introduced me to genre cons. If you agree with my conclusions, I urge you to show your support by reaching out to the Readercon Board at

Dear Readercon Board of Directors,

I am a lifelong speculative fiction reader whose first introduction to genre conventions was Readercon 22. I write a weekly science fiction/fantasy blog, and am deeply passionate about books, literature, and critical analysis, so it should come as no surprise to you that I felt at home at your convention. Last year, and again this year, I found an environment full of intelligent, passionate people eager to dive into the same topics that so fascinate me. After my experiences last year, I sang Readercon’s praises to anyone who would listen and was delighted to see half of my Viable Paradise workshop class come to this year’s Readercon. But despite my appreciation for the excellent convention you organize, I am appalled by the hypocrisy inherent in your selective implementation of your “zero-tolerance” harassment policy.

In your handling of Rene Walling’s admitted harassment of Genevieve Valentine, there are three clear facts:

1. You published an official policy of “zero-tolerance” for harassment, provided this policy in writing, and displayed it prominently to everyone attending Readercon. This policy explicitly stated that the consequence of harassment was the permanent suspension of the harasser.

2. Rene Walling physically and verbally harassed and intimidated Genevieve Valentine. Per your own official statement, this is not in dispute.

3. Per your official statement, the Board decided – based on Walling’s avowals of contrition – to only suspend the guilty party for two years, which decision is in obvious contravention of the Board’s own official policy.

Taken together, these three facts are shameful. Yes, the right to enforce policies lies in the Board’s sole discretion, which means that you have the right to apply whatever sanctions you choose in this situation. But you have a fiduciary duty to safeguard as best you can the safety of your convention’s attendees, and your original policy was laudable both for its clarity and for its fulfillment of that duty. But by deviating from your own policy, you have failed in that duty and have undermined the relationship of trust you have painstakingly built with your attendees.

Quite frankly, you screwed up and now have no good options: if you rescind your decision and permanently ban Walling (as you should have done in the first place), it will not undo your breach of trust. If you do nothing and merely publish a revised policy (presumably one that is no longer “zero-tolerance” or so admirably unambiguous) you will further erode already-damaged trust. From your perspective, neither is a good option and both will harm Readercon.

Nevertheless, you should take the first option.

First, you should publicly admit to your mistake and correct it. Yes, it will be painful. Yes, there will be loss of face. But that acknowledgment is the first step in rebuilding the trust you have already destroyed.

Second, you should articulate a transparent process for the implementation of your harassment policy in the future. The Readercon Board in its current configuration is clearly not the right body to implement your harassment policy. You have shown that you are abjectly unable to do the job. My recommendation would be to appoint an independent “safety czar” with full executive privileges for a three year term. This safety czar would be an ombudsman (ombuds-person?) for Readercon attendees, their mission to apply the convention’s harassment policy, and their decisions final and completely independent of the Readercon Board. This second step would only be of value if the Board found an individual of great integrity who would have the trust of the Readercon community – otherwise, this step would be valueless.

If you do not take these two steps, or significant steps materially similar, I expect that you will see Readercon attendance shrink, and its wonderful community skew in ways inimical to the diverse discussions that Readercon promotes. Restoring trust will not happen overnight: it will take years, and it will be difficult. But it should be done anyway.

If you are serious about making Readercon a safe environment for all attendees, then you should act that way. If you do, then I for one may return in the future. Otherwise, I will skip Readercon in favor of other events that do take attendee safety seriously.

Chris Modzelewski


Wrong and Wrong: Reviewers, Cliques, and Bullying

NOTE: Sorry again for the delay! But here’s the now edited post I had wanted to publish yesterday. I’d love to know what everyone thinks!

Internet Drama is ugly as hell, and I usually try to keep well clear of it. It’s always a train wreck, with at least one party and often more in the wrong. Typically, it is a storm in a teacup and over just as quickly. I don’t comment, I don’t wade in with The One True and Correct Opinion (ludicrous as that concept might be). I lurk, and I observe the train smash off the rails like some kind of digital rubber-necker. But the recent GoodReads Bullying Bru-haha has had me giving it quite a bit of thought, and I find that I can no longer resist weighing in.

Here’s what I think: on the one hand, the creators of the Stop the GR Bullies web site have crossed an important line and broken the social compact between readers, reviewers, critics, and writers. Their methods are deeply flawed, unethical, and morally bankrupt. And their underlying cause – to protect authors against “bullying” reviews – arises out of the most dangerous mix of ignorance and good intentions.

On the other hand, I think many in the reviewer community are just as ignorant. The idea that the reviewer label and the Internet’s capacity for anonymity absolves a writer of responsibility for their behavior is laughable, and to me at least, offensively stupid. We reap what we sow, and if we’re douchebags to people, our moral high ground becomes a little shaky when people are douchebags to us.

NOTE: For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume you are familiar with the Stop the GoodReads Bullies web site and related controversy. If not then I suggest you check out the discussions in the blogsophere. Foz Meadows’s, John Scalzi’s, Stacia Kane’s, and SB Sarah’s are particularly recommended.

Reviews Are a Natural Consequence of Published Work

Any art – whether written, painted, sculpted, spoken, sung, etc. – is a social act. It is made by one or more individuals, perceived by one or more members of the audience, and the resulting exchange is by its very nature social. With more art than any one individual could consume in a lifetime, reviewers (who I differentiate from critics) fulfill an important function: to aid the audience in identifying and selecting the works of art they want to consume.

Reviewers need not be paid. We need not, in fact, have a platform. When a friend asks us what we thought of a movie, we fulfill that reviewer function when we answer. Reviews are the natural consequence of consuming art, and this is the first fact which I believe many of the Stop the GR Bullies supporters fail to recognize: when we publish a book – whether self pubbed, indie pubbed, small press, or Big 6 – we do so because we want people to read it, and consequently to form an opinion of it.

Of course, we all want our art to be liked. We want it to win awards, fly off the shelves, and give us the cash to buy a small island. But when we make our art public, we are telling the world that we are prepared for whatever response it might produce in our readers. Those responses might sting. In fact, they might hurt like hell. But the moment we release our art into the world, we grant our audience the right to form and express opinions about it. If we’re not ready to hear those opinions – good, bad, or ugly – then we shouldn’t publish our work. When we publish, we become public personas, and must live with that fact.

Reviews Are Not for Writers

The corrollary to the above is that reviewers are not there to help writers sell more books. Many of us are happy when that happens, but quite frankly most of us don’t really care: the responsibility we take on (usually without compensation) is to provide an assessment of the art we consume. That assessment isn’t for the book’s author.

I tend to write very analytical, in-depth reviews. I try to dissect the books I review and see what makes them function as stories, as narratives. I do so to learn about craft, to strengthen my own writing, and when I publish my reviews, I hope that my findings will help other writers strengthen their writing as well. But the author of a reviewed book doesn’t figure into the equation at all. Sure, I’m glad when I hear/read that an author whose work I’d reviewed appreciated my analysis. But that’s not why I do it.

Reviewers can and do interact with authors and publishers in many ways. We receive complementary review copies, we do interviews, giveaways, etc. But none of this interaction represents a contract between the reviewer and the writer. For reviewers who take their reviews seriously, a free review copy doesn’t buy our integrity. And that is something that authors – especially, in my experience, indie/self-pubbed authors new to the travails of being a public figure – should understand.

There is a reason why the big six publishing houses don’t care about bad reviews. Remember the old saw that any publicity is good publicity? Publicity – good or bad – drives book sales. I’ve heard big six publicists even say that their data suggests that negative reviews drive more sales than positive reviews. People who feel stung by critical reviews, who were offended by a reviewer’s invective, should remember that.

Whether a reviewer gives a star rating, writes a single sentence, or posts a two thousand word essay doesn’t change the fact that the book’s author is not the reviewer’s intended audience. If that’s not the case, then the reviewer isn’t really writing reviews: they are trying to engage in a dialog with the author, which is a different form of discourse entirely, subject to a different etiquette and to different norms of behavior.

The only people to whom the reviewer is responsibile are their readers. If that sounds like something one might say about authors, well…there’s a good reason for that.

The Reviewer as Public Figure

Most reviewers, I think, would agree with me when I say that the act of publishing a book automatically makes the author into a public figure, subject to the public opinions of consumers and media alike. But I think many reviewers, in particular those whose rhetorical style tends towards invective, forget that the exact same principle applies to their own reviews.

A review is itself a piece of media which if we post to a public place (GoodReads, blog, newspaper, etc.) exposes us to the same public discourse as the artist whose work we criticize. The Internet affords us great anonymity – hell, I make use of it on this blog. We may choose to keep our real names off of our reviews for a myriad of personal and professional reasons. But just because we can be to some degree anonymous does not change the public nature of our reviews.

Most reviewers, I think, are prepared for people’s disagreement. Many of you have often disagreed with my assessments or comments, corrected me when I got facts wrong, etc. and I love when you do. That is part of the dialog in which reviewers engage, and that dialog can and should sometimes get contentious. And yet, the tone of that dialog – anonymous or not – gets set by the initial review.

Imagine for a moment that you are at an art gallery with a friend. There’s a little wine, tiny cubes of cheese, and the artist herself is there beside the gallery owner, chatting with a collector. You quietly ask your friend what they think of a painting. And they start loudly spewing vitriol about the artist and the work, venting their spleen of all the noxious contents therein. Everyone in the gallery can hear, and everyone naturally turns to stare. Would you be embarrassed? Of course you would. Because your friend broke the unwritten social norms of that environment. In the real world, your friend might get kicked out of the gallery, possibly arrested for harassment and making a public nuisance of himself.

Online, a reviewer can fill their review with the same kind of vitriol, snark, and malice and suffer no direct consequences. I myself tend not to write reviews like that, and I usually don’t read them (genuinely funny snark is perhaps the most difficult rhetorical style to pull off, and I rarely see it done well). Sensationalist rhetoric is designed to elicit a response, to get a rise out of the audience, and that response can take many forms.

Thankfully, most people ignore that kind of rhetoric. They adhere to the principle of not feeding the trolls, and that is by far, in my opinion the wisest course of action. It isn’t cowardice to ignore assholes: it’s just common sense. But sometimes, people will react to aggressive rhetoric, and offer tit for tat.

And sometimes, they might confuse a highly critical review with aggressive rhetoric. The two are usually separated by a thick line, in my opinion, but misinterpretation is a hallmark of personal interactions. And reacting to perceived slight, particularly a slight designed to produce an emotional response, is a human tendency.

When reviewers are labelled as bullies or worse, too many of us raise the fig leaf of our reviewer status, as if there were some sort of secret club that lets us be assholes without consequence. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Every review we write falls somewhere on a continuum that ranges from the thoughtful and well-argued to the agggressive and offensively shallow. Sometimes, it is difficult for authors and readers to tell where along that continuum it falls. But it is incumbent upon us as reviewers to be understanding of that fact, the same way that we ask authors to understand that we might not have liked their book.

If we make hateful statements about others online, we have to be prepared for others to say the same about us. That’s the natural consequence of having a public-facing persona, anonymous or not. Sorry, reviewers, but that knife cuts both ways.

The Existence of Reviewer Cliques

The Stop the GR Bullies site claims that there are groups of “bully reviewers” who go around hounding authors. The reviewers so accused bluster their innocence and call such attacks ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s because those reviewers have apparently never really studied social networking theory or paid attention to the way online communities work.

Just like a high school, online communities form networks of like-minded individuals. Small or large, these informal associations have different types of members, including influencers, leaders, followers, etc. And they tend to engage in similar in-group activities, be it reviewing, commenting on each others’ blogs, chatting on Twitter, etc. It is easiest to see these groups and understand their extent from the outside, just like in high school.

This is a natural, unavoidable consequence of human socialization. It is also not unethical, malicious, or aggressive. But when authors feel persecuted by a tight-knit cabal of reviewers, they are in part justified: from their position outside of the group, that is exactly how it can seem. To shrug off such claims as author paranoia suggests an appalling lack of empathy or self-awareness on the part of the reviewers: our intention might not be to persecute or hound the author, but the effect from the author’s perspective is just the same.

When it comes to their innocence, I think reviewers protest too much, and claims that no such cliques exist are at best naive, and at worst disingenous.

Where Stop the GR Bullies Crossed the Line

All of this being said, I do not support the Stop the GR Bullies campaign. And that is because they crossed several important lines. Most significantly, they breached and encouraged others to breach the anonymity of people who – for their own reasons – had wanted to remain anonymous. And that breaks the accepted norms of online interaction.

Their defense – that they merely aggregate information that GoodReads reviewers have posted on other sites – is flimsy at best. Maintaining anonymity on the Internet – where behavioral profiles and third party cookies are the norm – is extremely difficult, even when one is technically profficient. With a little dilligent searching, one can peel back the layers of anonymity. But doing so when a review’s by-line is anonymized or pseudonomous is a breach of the reviewer’s privacy. Furthermore, publicizing that information and encouraging other aggrieved parties to reach out is an incitement to persecution.

I might not agree with a reviewer. I might vehemently disagree with what they say and how they say it. But if they choose to participate in online public discourse anonymously, I must respect their wishes. As the threatening phone calls one reviewer has received prove, breaching that anonymity puts people in danger. And there is no review, however vile, that gives anyone the right to endanger anyone else.

The Stop the GR Bullies site is flawed on many levels (its apparent misogyny being another big red flag for me), but this is its deepest and most important flaw. And, honestly, it is a flaw which overshadows the points the site’s creators may be attempting to articulate. It clouds their issue, and ultimately defeats them.

And that is sad. Because I would love to see a discussion of reviewing methods and reviewing styles, and to participate in an active and reasoned dialog on what rhetorical approaches work best for reviews. But something tells me I’m not going to get that on the Internet. And certainly not in the GoodReads Forums, or interacting with the Stop the GR Bullies crowd.

Which is why I wish both sides in this “debate” would just start acting like responsible professionals. They’ve already lost one member of their audience, and audiences aren’t stupid.

Sorry! Will be back tomorrow

Sorry, folks. I know I owe you a blog post for this week, but I just finished up a seven hour drive home from Maine (where the Professor and I had a lovely long weekend). Midway through editing tonight’s blog post, I (thankfully) realized that my brain was too highway-fried to finish. Therefore, tonight I’ll just be posting this apology, and then at some point tomorrow I’ll actually edit and post what I had originally intended to post today.

To make up for the delay, I offer that universal of online restoratives…kittens!

The Uses and Value of Realism in Speculative Fiction

I’ve just gotten back, having spent a wonderful long weekend at Readercon, where it was great to see old friends and meet new ones. Alas, my brain is too full of valuable insights to really do a single comprehensive con write-up. Instead, I’m going to write about something that came out of one of the many panels I attended: how realism can be valuable to speculative fiction.

Judging solely by the panel title and description, this was an issue that I expected one panel in particular to explore. Alas, I found that it bogged down in a discussion of the value of fictional memoirs versus true memoirs, and thus didn’t really explore the question I had hoped it would. But with a long drive home from Boston on Sunday evening, I had a lot of time to think about it myself. And I’m curious to know what everyone else thinks of these ideas.

The Aesthetic Purpose of Fiction

To be effective, fiction must communicate or reveal something true. That truth is a slippery concept, precisely because fiction by definition is so patently false. In this case, that truth is not necessarily factual (such-and-such happened), but is rather more nebulous and insightful (such-and-such could have happened). The particular action in those sentences may itself be event-oriented (such as a sequence of actions), or it can be character-oriented and thus speak to the inner experience of either specific individuals or to a more general community. In either case, effective fiction must communicate or reveal some truth about the human experience, either as lived, imagined, or perceived by its readers.

We use resonance to gauge a fiction’s truthiness, which is why the experience and appreciation of fiction is so subjective. Our response to the truth in a particular work of fiction is informed by our past life experiences, our previous reading, and by our neurophysiology (which itself has roots in our genetics). Your mileage may vary, and our tastes and appreciation may differ.

But if the aesthetic purpose of fiction is to communicate or reveal some deeper truth, then how do we accomplish that? What are the techniques that we use to produce resonance in the reader? Answering that question gets us to the heart of the aesthetic debates that over the years have given rise to so many aesthetic “movements”.

Realism Is Not Real

Where I think the Readercon panel got side-tracked lies in a – perhaps subtle – realization about the concept of realism: realism need not be factually true. It must instead give the appearance of utter plausibility. As a philosophical movement with its roots in the 19th century, realism lauded the portrayal of the plausible and valorized the inclusion of extensive detail and minutia to heighten the verisimilitude of the text. In other words: realism need not be real, but it needs to give a convincing portrayal of reality.

The realist movement was itself a response to the more fantastical romantic era, and rejected the latter’s heavy-handed symbolism and implausible adventures. When we think of classically realist works, the kind that get thrust upon us in school, there are no works of speculative fiction on the list. Instead, we get the likes of Eliot, or Dostoyevsky, or Balzac: authors who specialize in the portrayal of the mundane and quotidian.

With this historical baggage, it is understandable why a term like “realism” might be a dirty word to some who write in genre: after all, many of us (myself included) trace a direct line of descent from the romantics to contemporary speculative fiction, and the realists were at the opposite end of the scale to our illustrious artistic ancestors.

And yet, we actually rely on their techniques to tell our fantastical stories.

Superficially, Realism is the Lens Through Which We Relate to the Fantastic

Speculative fiction relies upon the fantastic, the unreal, to tell its stories. We use dragons and faster than light space travel to entertain and actualize the metaphors we employ to communicate our deeper truths. Our job is to make the implausible and the imaginary real to our readers. And we use the expository techniques of realism to achieve this. If we were to take our imagined constructs, unpack their underlying metaphors, and explicitly discuss them in our stories, they would cease to be stories: they would become philosophical tracts (and those don’t tend to be as popular with readers, alas).

Rather than write such tracts, we carefully describe our dragons or spaceships (or dragons on spaceships) using realistic terms. We need that degree of realism to relate to the text, to understand it, and to internalize it at any number of levels. On the purely descriptive level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical looks so that we can imagine the story’s action. On the deeper philosophical level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical works so that we can better internalize the story’s subtext. I might not need to know a dragon’s place in a secondary world’s ecology, but if the author hasn’t at least considered it, then the verisimilitude of the text will be damaged, and I will find the story less engaging (perhaps fatally).

These are the techniques which realism applies, and they are an incredibly useful tool that authors of the fantastic can gain deep insight from. Want a model for portraying an oppressive urban environment where the individual is subsumed by the city? Check out some Dostoyevsky. His descriptive methods – perhaps modified somewhat for contemporary stylistic sensibilities – can be applied to any secondary world or primary world urban fantasy, and work wonders. While I haven’t seen China Miéville reference Dostoyevsky specifically, I would be greatly surprised if the latter did not influence the former’s Bas Lag novels.

Similar lessons can be learned from more contemporary authors, who while likely eschewing the realist label, tend to write mimetic, mainstream literary fiction. I have, for example, often heard that the difference between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction is that the former prioritizes characters, while the latter prioritizes plot. And while I am sympathetic to this statement, I see no earthly reason why speculative fiction cannot do a better job with character by adopting the techniques of mainstream literary fiction.

But a more difficult question, perhaps, goes below the superficial level of verisimilitude in our prose: does the philosophical aesthetic of realism have value for those of us writing in the speculative vein?

Daily Life Aboard a Spaceship: Real Realism in Speculative Fiction

The realists’ true contribution to art, I believe, isn’t their prose techniques or expository methods. Instead, I think their true innovation lies in their focus on the quotidian aspects of daily life. This especially relates to the classic realists with which I am most familiar: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Crane, etc.

By focusing on the mundane (I use that term advisedly, more to come in a second!) aspects of daily life, the realists were able to address a different underlying truth than their romantic predecessors. These were not, as in so much of the romantics’ work, aspirational truths. Instead, they were observational ones about the lives of regular, otherwise unremarkable, people. This is a truth that has tremendous value, and it is a truth which quite frankly I often find lacking in a genre which tends towards larger-than-life heroes.

I think this lack of quotidian speculative fiction has its roots in two issues: none of us has ever lived aboard an interstellar starship, or had to defend a village from dragon attack (…or had to defend a space ship from an advancing fleet of space dragons). As a consequence, we must imagine the fantastical environment in which a character’s daily life unfolds before we can imagine that daily life. This produces at least two levels at which we must imagine, and thus two levels of remove from our own experiences. It is difficult (though I suspect not impossible) to make a story engaging enough for the reader to do that work.

I also suspect that there is philosophical opposition to this aesthetic amongst speculative fiction readers. Many (myself included) like our fiction to be fun and exciting. Many don’t consider Middlemarch or Anna Karenina a fun read. Much as I might disagree, I can acknowledge the point: we often read speculative fiction to distract ourselves from quotidian life, so why should we subject ourselves to more of the same in our fiction?

The Future of the Quotidian Fantastic?

A topic that came up now and again at Readercon was the Mundane SF movement, which strives for greater realism in science fiction. But much as I am sympathetic to the values of the Mundane SF movement, I suspect that by focusing on the realism of the science fictional elements themselves, its stories often miss the bigger, more important picture: the deeper truths that lie below the surface of our daily existence. That was realism’s true innovation, and its lasting contribution to literature. Across the aisle in fantasy, I find that the magical realism movement (which itself often gets categorized as “literary fiction”) does a better job of this.

I believe that quotidian speculative fiction has its place in the genre. And that is precisely because it speaks to different truths than most speculative fiction: it speaks to the little heroisms of daily life, and to the practical challenges that arise from our human and social natures. These are not greater truths, nor are they more important, or even more relevant than those which speculative fiction most commonly explores. But they are categorically different, and so require different techniques to realize. And models for those techniques, I think, can best be found in realist fiction, and its mainstream literary descendents.

Information Density and Selecting Planks for Story Scaffolding

Information density, or the “I had to do a lot of research, and now you, dear reader, must suffer for it” tendency, is one of the perennial challenges of good fiction, and over the past several days Alec Austin and Marie Brennan have posted some interesting thoughts on the subject (also, check out the ensuing discussions in their comments sections). Since I love history and tend to write alternate history or heavily historically-inspired stories, this is something I’m usually really sensitive to, both as a reader and as a writer. But the lens through which I view this problem tends to be one of narrative purpose.

What is the story about?

Fiction at its heart is a representational art form, which means that the words we write are not the objects/events we write about: they are facsimiles, symbols which evoke a sense of mimesis in our reader. When we sit down to write a story, we must consciously choose which details (historical or otherwise) to include, and how to portray those details. Alec and Marie refer to this as “simplification” and “flattening,” and while I recognize the value in such terms, they are the diametric opposite to my own way of thinking. Rather than “simplification”, I prefer to think in terms of “selection”. The end point may be the same, but the mental path I take to get there is a little different.

Here’s a writing exercise to illustrate my point: try to completely describe everything in your immediate environs over a five second period. Actually, don’t: to do it right, you’d be there ’til the heat death of the universe.

It is a physical impossibility to capture every aspect of even a limited scope in symbolic representation (and that’s without getting into the details only observable by electron microscope). When we write, we choose the salient details, those that are relevant to our artistic purposes. We might use motifs, or facts, or events, or emotions and more besides. But we choose what we portray, and leave the rest of our imagined reality in the empty spaces between our words. We rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks. Our job is to use our words to give the reader enough of a scaffolding on which they can hang their imaginings. And the process by which we do so relies on choosing the right words, the right details, to erect that scaffold.

The complex messiness of history, sociology, economics, anthropology, biology are the planks through which we assemble that scaffold. But not every plank is interchangeable: depending on the nature of our story, depending on our artistic purpose, depending on our narrative structure, different planks are needed in different points.

To riff off of Marie’s excellent example of the English Civil War (the history of which she knows infinitely better than I do), the economic pressures on the Crown are at best only marginally relevant if I am writing a fairy tale set during Charles I’s England. A little child who enters the woods and encounters a witch would be unaware of those economic pressures, and they would be irrelevant to the narrative’s overall trajectory. To switch to the European mainland for a moment, it is hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel pausing to explain the economics of the 17th century Black Forest farming communities. It is equally hard to imagine the narrator of Hansel and Gretel doing so because those economics are irrelevant to the story’s goals.

This isn’t a “simplification” or a “flattening” of the detail any more than is the omission of unrelated events halfway across the globe: it is simply the selection of salient information. When we write, our job is to select the salient, relevant pieces of information that the reader needs to perceive in order to achieve our narrative goals.

Illustrative Information versus Explicative Information

However, even if the story is not “about” the economics of 16th/17th century monarchy, the inclusion of such details may add to the sub-textual content of our narrative: to its verisimilitude, or to its tone, or to its broader themes. To run with my Hansel and Gretel example, I can imagine a modified version of the story where the economics of the Black Forest are relevant (the upwardly mobile step-mother desperate to ensure her own children’s future in times of famine, say) to the story’s narrative purpose. If the history, if the detail, is relevant to my story’s overt or sub-textual purposes, then the question is no longer whether to include it or not, but instead morphs into how to do so.

In my reading, I’ve found two different strategies for this, which I think of as the illustrative versus the explicative approach. And interestingly, I find classic fairy tales to provide excellent examples of both strategies. Both are equally valid, and can be equally effective, but they work in different ways. To some extent, these strategies can be thought of as “showing” versus “telling”, but I think that grossly over-simplifies them.

Consider my hypothetical modified Hansel and Gretel example, where I have determined that I must somehow communicate a modicum of the economic context to my reader. I can choose to do so in an illustrative fashion, by depicting the consequences of those economics. I have a vast number of ways to illustrate those economics, but the two easiest are to either (please forgive the quick-drafted examples):

A: allude to them in the step-mother’s dialog

“But Hansel; but Gretel,” said their new mother, “you wouldn’t want your new baby brother and sister to starve, would you? Please, fetch some berries from the wood.”

B: imply them through my prose description of their farm/farming community.

With the pox so recent, and the winter so cold and hard, most of the neighboring farms sat fallow: untended, untilled, unloved. Hansel and Gretel’s farm, though scarcely large enough for the three of them in the lean months, was one of the few that bloomed that year. Still, however tight their belts, Father always found an apple for the widow next door, and for her baby boy and toddling little girl as well. With their own mother in Heaven, God rest her soul, the whole village knew it would not be long before Hansel and Gretel had a new mother, and with her a baby brother and hungry little sister.

In each case, I would concretely depict the consequences of the economics, so as to show their effect on characters and setting. I would allude to or imply the broader economics, and I could do so with greater or lesser narrative economy which would in turn be determined by the story’s narrative structure.

Whether I do it in dialog, or in prose, or in both, and whether it happens in one sentence or six paragraphs depends on the point-of-view it is told from, and the narrative voice in which the story is written. The illustrative technique, however, communicates the relevant economic context through implication derived from action.

An explicative approach, where the background is explicitly explained to the reader, would be equally valid. It might be as simply done as the classic “once upon a time” fairy tale opening, where the relevant facts are stated and accepted as given. This might be accomplished through a distant or even omniscient narrator (check out Olaf Stapledon or Mervyn Peake for awe-inspiring examples of this), or the explanation might be heavily inflected by a narrator’s subjective point of view (think Raymond Chandler).

Of the two approaches, I think the explicative is the more difficult to pull off for modern readers. The illustrative approach relies on character and narrative voice to pull the reader along, leaving the intellectual dimension as subtext. As a result, it is more accessible and “less dry” for most readers.

The explicative approach, by contrast, relies on the intellectual dimension and voice to make its content interesting and compelling. Alec mentions Kim Stanley Robinson’s infodumps, and for me they are an excellent example of relying on the intellectual dimension to carry the reader through the relevant background. They are very hard to pull off, and arguably only effective for a limited audience, precisely because this explicitly intellectual approach is “dry” by modern standards of fictional narrative. Explicative approaches that rely on voice, such as Raymond Chandler or Damon Runyon, tend to be more accessible because the narrator’s voice itself connotes character.

Historical Fantasy and Narrative Structures

Given this framework, I think one can communicate just about any level of complex background, economic, social, or otherwise. But it does affect the complexity of the underlying narrative structure. It may lead to more perspective characters, or to a different narrative voice. And those, in turn, may further limit the audience or otherwise decrease the story’s accessibility.

But that’s a fact of life: every word we write limits our audience to some extent. Which is why selecting the right word is all that matters.

A Recipe for Revolution in Speculative Fiction

Every year, when the US’ independence day rolls around on July 4th, my thoughts naturally turn to revolution. And no, that’s not because I think we are due for a rebellion, or that we even need one. As a narrative device, though, revolutions are hard to beat – particularly in speculative fiction. Yet, as so much of the current harvest of lackluster dystopian YA suggests, they are also hard to pull off. So what makes a fictional revolution effective? Why do we feel for Enjolras in Hugo’s Les Miserables, for Florian in Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, or Jack Sperry in Morrow’s City of Truth?

Revolution as the Aristotelian Crucible of Significant Action

Revolution is a perfect tool for unifying characterization, plot, the story’s underlying political/philosophical themes, and expressing all three through the same significant action.

At the general, thirty thousand foot level, revolution explicitly pits two opposing ideologies against each other. Baldly stating thematic logic halts any story’s forward momentum (*cough* Atlas Shrugged *cough* ). But by representing that thematic logic through the concrete and significant actions of characters in the story, we can transmute logos into ethos and pathos…which together form the engine that drives the story. Consider Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which explicitly pits the Loonies’ libertarian ideals against the more collectivist values of Earth. While it can be argued that Heinlein is politically heavy-handed in the text, his political themes do not obstruct the story’s momentum.

Closer to the story itself, revolution enables us to test the characters we care about. In Hugo’s Les Miserables, for example, Marius Pontmercy faces an impossible choice between two “right” options: whether to follow the woman he loves, or to join his friends on the barricades. Revolution forces characters to consciously choose the values they will fight for. Suzanne Collins forces similar choices on Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay, where the heroine must decide who she believes, who she values, and who she brings into her life. When characters face such choices, they concretely evidence their agency. And a revolution forces such choices on its participants.

At an emotional level, revolution has the capacity to put ethos in direct conflict with pathos, and thus to heighten the tension derived from the characters’ agency. The choices that Marius Pontmercy and (to a more diffused degree) Katniss Everdeen face are poignant because they dramatize the conflict between their values/beliefs, and their personal desires. By the time each revolution comes about, we as the reader are fully invested in the character: we want them to have their cake and eat it, too. But when the author puts the characters’ ethical values in conflict with their personal desires, we end up on the edge of our seats, biting our nails to see how our beloved characters will choose. This imbues the resolution – whatever that resolution might be – with a significant degree of catharsis.

And the greatest advantage that revolution confers is that the same concrete action – the act of rebelling, the battles, etc. – can dramatize conflict at all of these levels simultaneously. It provides great narrative economy, and enables significant emotional density in the text. But the effect can also fall flat, particularly when the background to the revolution is flubbed.

Recipe for Revolution: It Must Simmer and Mix

Because of revolution’s myriad dramatic advantages, it is a tool that authors reach for quite often. Especially with the popularity of dystopian YA, it seems like every other book I pick up features a determined heroine forced to lead/spearhead/personify a revolution. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily bad. But to be effective, the world-building has to make such a revolution plausible.

The roots of every revolution go back generations, and it is never a clear-cut case of right versus wrong. Whether it is the American Revolution, any of the myriad French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution of 1918, or the more-recent Arab Spring, revolutions take time to simmer. When faced with hardship, most would-be revolutionaries will grit their teeth and bear it until their oppression finally becomes unbearable. There are good evolutionary and sociological reasons for this, but if we forget this fact in our world-building then we risk undermining the inevitability of our plot device.

Consider the background to the recent Egyptian revolution: the division of Egyptian society between privileged elites and the poor masses, the scarcely-checked powers of the police, the restrictions on free speech and concomitant limitation of political rights, and the de facto hereditary nature of rule were issues that Egyptians have wrestled with going back at least to Egypt’s time in the Ottoman Empire. And yet, revolutions throughout Egypt’s history have been rare, typically spaced out by one or two generations. A similar pattern is observable across every nation that has rebelled (at least as far as I can see, but I’m not a historian so I might be missing some counter-examples). What matters from a narrative standpoint is that revolutions do not foment at the drop of a hat. The demographic and social structures must be in place for a spark to fall on dry tinder. This level of world-building does not need to complicate or weigh down the story. Instead, it can be used to add a degree of verisimilitude that deepens the reader’s engagement with the characters and their problems.

Similarly, historical revolutions are never as clear-cut as future independence day celebrations like to make out. Each side in a revolution features individuals of laudable moral character, fighting for what they believe in. This can be narrative gold, precisely because it paints in stark relief the choices that our characters must make. But ignoring the messiness of true revolution is a tremendous narrative risk: by making a revolution entirely one-sided, we eviscerate its ability to express deeper political/philosophical themes and risk its ability to generate dramatic tension. This, I think, is the hardest trick in building a fictional revolution because of the degree to which it ties into point of view. It is difficult (though not impossible) to humanize the “oppressive regime” when the only eyes through which we perceive it are those of a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary.

The Counter-argument: Revolution as MacGuffin

There is, however, a counter-argument to what I just said: Star Wars (the original trilogy, not the poorly written fan-fic prequels that followed). In A New Hope, the Empire’s oppression is implied and expressed with great economy. The audience does not see the Empire’s heavy boot: we are told that it exists, and because our characters take it for granted, we do as well. No attempts are made to humanize the Empire, to justify the Emperor’s policies, or to present the stormtroopers as anything other than faceless, gun-toting oppressors. So if Star Wars ignores my advice above, why does it (the original trilogy, again) still work? Because the revolution is not used as a unifying device.

The revolution and the Rebel Alliance’s victory over the Empire are not the climax and natural conclusion to the story. It is not used to unify the disparate character arcs, or to represent the thematic discourse of the story. The real climax and the story’s real narrative arc centers on the more personal concerns of Luke Skywalker on the one hand, and Leia Organa/Han Solo on the other. The revolution is merely a colorful backdrop to their personal stories, and it is treated as broadly incidental. The rebellion is to Star Wars as the Civil War is to Gone with the Wind: setting.

The original trilogy works because the actors earned our engagement, and because their characters’ personal stories are compelling enough to take and maintain our focus. The revolution is neither needed for their stories, nor is it used to dramatize any aspect of the conflict. It is, to some extent, the thematic and structural equivalent of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.

A Revolution Every Day

Revolution can be a powerful tool for unifying the strands of our storytelling, but like any such tool it requires solid work to establish its foundations. Without laying the groundwork for a revolution, it will fail. And if it is intended as a unifying element in the story, then it must maintain its plausibility and depth in order to achieve the desired unifying effect. In such cases, sacrificing the revolution’s depth will similarly sacrifice the story’s depth. If, however, the revolution is just a Cool Event that Happens independent of the story’s underlying thematic tension, then attempting to shoe-horn depth into it (as those aforementioned prequels do) will derail the train of story.

But enough about fictional revolutions for now. For those of you in the US, I hope that you have a wonderful 4th of July, that you stay cool despite the massive heatwaves (and power outages) sweeping the nation, and that you enjoy some great BBQ and awesome fireworks. Happy Independence Day, everybody!

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