The Story Is The Thing

Recently I’ve been reading a series of romances by Lisa Kleypas. It is hard to overstate how BADLY I disagree with her every opinion. This woman goes out of her way to include at least one favored minority in every book; she’s convinced that if every civilized person refused to fight there would be peace and one of her characters actually said that “violence never solved anything.” Okay, her character was in the Regency, so I couldn’t say “Ja, Ja whol, wunderbar” but even so I wanted to introduce him to a Heinlein character who would answer with “Go tell it to the city fathers of Carthage.”

So why in heavens name have I been reading her?

Because the preaching is discrete, subtle, and ignore-able. She doesn’t stop in the middle of the book to preach ad nauseum. And her wrongheadedness seems to be limited to macro issues. Her portrayal of eccentric and loveable characters and of the way these characters react to each other and the world reacts to them is spot on and therefore engaging. And she knows how to plot which is not always a given in romance. (Or anything else.)

Reading her characters is like talking to your old aunt whom you adore, but who is sure that the world would be a better place if we all wore tinfoil hats, and is sure we were colonized by aliens from alpha centauri. Even though you think she’s nuts, her beliefs are by and large harmless and you still enjoy her company the rest of the time. She’s not going to convince you, but you’ll have tea together and have fun and as long as her tinfoil hat is set at a rakish angle, all will be well with the world.

I can tolerate dissent of a more serious kind, in authors I love. Which is a good thing, because if I couldn’t I might have to part with some of my favorites in science fiction.

I started reading science fiction with either Clifford Simak or Heinlein.

No, I don’t remember which. I have a vague memory that I read Have Space Suit, Will Travel at eight or so. But if I did, I didn’t identify it as Science Fiction. That first, conscious science fiction book was Out Of Their Minds by Clifford Simak. (Have Space Suit would not have struck me as SF because the family was a lot like mine. You probably don’t want to ask. My son told me the other day that Athena is like a grown up Peewee. I told him no, it was a grown up me. He asked what the difference was.) I don’t remember my second SF book, but it was one of those turgid the US is a backwater compared to the USSR near-futures not uncommon (or sensible) in the seventies. The third was A Canticle For Leibowitz, still one of my favorite re-reads.

After that I was off. And because I was at the mercy of my brother, who was borrowing from a friend, I read practically anything with SF on the spine. Later on, on my own, I bought everything that said “SF” which accounts for my having read a lot of VERY BAD French romantic space opera, Pierre Barbet, and a French magazine called Panspermia. (I bought it because I thought it was devoted to the theories of Fred Hoyle. Let’s say it… er… er… er… um… wasn’t. There were illustrations. I wrapped it [plain brown wrapper] and gave it to my nine-years-older brother. He was grateful. Er. I think.)

But the two writers I kept coming to, again and again, were Heinlein and Clifford Simak. Both of them offend/ed in different ways.

I was never – I think – conventionally Portuguese (for one I found the iron clad ‘how to behave rules’ stifling.) But I was in many ways conventionally educated European (I can still pretend to be. Most of the time I don’t bother, though. Life is WAY too short.)

Some things Heinlein said offended me and scared me at first encounter, and I don’t remember when I came around to believe in them: the advantages of an armed society, for instance, or that taxation is not inherently right and proper. But I kept reading his stories because I loved them.

Most of what Simak said seemed right to me at the time, from his idyllic depiction of a world with falling population (yes, there is a post called Malthus Is Dead coming soon <G> Heinlein was wrong on THAT too) to his belief that the USSR and the US were basically covalent, to his belief that the future would be imposed top-down in a command economy. Oh, also the idea that only humans understood war or waged it.

All of these were conventional ideas that I thought were fine. Now most of them offend me. Some because they are ultimately evil – like the idea that a falling population is GOOD. That comes from the idea that resources are finite and that humans exist only to have resources divided among them – drains, not producers and not creators. However, at the end of that chain of thought lies eugenics, a decision of who deserves to live and a campaign against “useless eaters.” If you don’t think that’s evil, you’re not in my head. (For which you should possibly be grateful.) And now we know that primates and a lot of other mammals wage war. As for the equivalence between the US and the USSR – no. Just no. There are books you can read on what went on there. Oh, we’re not perfect. What nation is? But there is no comparison.

However, I can still read Simak, in the same way that I continued reading Heinlein even when he offended me.


Because despite the flaws I saw, or thought I saw in their scaffolding, their macro world building, their close-in world building was fine. Who could not identify with the man who for the first time can talk with his dog, mind to mind? Who could not feel an all-too-human tenderness for the robot pope? And who would not like Kip and Peewee? Or the cat named Petronius?

On the micro level, the characters acted like people you could know and love, even if they didn’t think as you do. How many of us have friends who are a chorus of “yes people”?

Except perhaps editors. I’ve railed about this before. I don’t know when I realized I was reading the same story – or at least the same assumptions – in science fiction, over and over again. All of a sudden our field, the most oddball field of all, was bowing not only to “established science” (gone were all the thrilling stories about humans really coming from the stars or weirder places) but also to political correctness (no? Try selling a genuinely evil female pagan, in a Christian society. TRY it. To a non-Christian house. No, I’ve never written that, but my recent book with very Catholic mythus had issues selling at all. Even though Pagans had equal status.)

My brother told me that he recently asked about Portuguese translations of new science fiction and was told that “young people don’t read SF, they watch movies/series.” He and the publisher (in Portugal) were baffled by this, but I can tell you why. It’s because series like Stargate still can be completely irreverent with “established science”… and less politically correct. And the fact that movies/tv are less politically correct should give you pause.

This ties in with Dave’s post because for the longest time there have been things you can’t do or say in science fiction. And by and large they’re not the ones that the people in power in NYC think are “countercultural” or “daring” or “Speaking truth to power.” You see, the poor dears don’t realize that in this microcosmos they ARE the power.

They do realize that their tastes aren’t universal – perhaps not even majority – because Baen, the smallest of the main houses, with the smallest budget and discriminated against by bookstores for their content, has made a living of their TRULY countercultural (for SF culture) publishing for decades and created as many if not more bestsellers than the other guys. For that, NYC hates them and reviles them and distributors and bookstore managers discriminate against them.

I don’t know what they think they’re doing.

Editor after editor has told me his/her job is to educate public taste – but they’re missing something. Well, two somethings. First, no, their job is to sell books. (The fact they don’t get this explains a lot of the issues in the book business.) Second, you can’t educate people who won’t read you. And you can’t control, btw, who will read you but roll their eyes at your beliefs or read you and eventually come to agree with you. My relationship with Heinlein and Simak proves that. (And BTW, I still like Simak enough I wanted to call my second son Clifford. My husband said over his dead body, so that’s that.) Heck, I still like Left Hand Of Darkness, though I can honestly say that Ursula Le Guin and I have never agreed on a single thing (okay, maybe she also likes chocolate. I’ve never asked.)

But your – and the editor’s if you have one – main job is to get the books in the public’s hands, and to provide entertainment which will keep the public coming back for entertainment. The message is secondary and will never be delivered if you’re not read. Also, you can say “I won’t let people write/read this” (like clinging, spineless women) but you can’t make them stop existing. And you can’t make people stop wanting to read about them. The most you can do is cut yourself off from readers by boring them with the same fundamental assumptions over and over again, and no dissenting voices.

And look, bub, if your cause is THAT important, surely you can donate the filthy lucre you’ll make from people who don’t agree with you buying your books. SURELY that counts for something?

So… I am looking in some wonder and hope towards the self-publishing that might allow the public to finally find the SF they want to read, sf that’s evaluated for its ability to entertain, not its ability to preach. Perhaps there’s a great revival of sf ahead?

What I would like? I’d like to read about how humans really came from the stars (Oh, come on, any SF writer worth his salt can get around what is known with enough handwavium to make that happen.) I’d like to read about humans colonizing alien species and this being good for them. I’d like to read about truly evil aliens and GOOD humans. I’d like to read about disciplined, strong men who don’t need women to save them.

What would you like to read that’s not being provided by the current publishing establishment? What are the chances of its being written? What do you read that offends you but is still a good story?

*crossposted at Mad Genius Club*

16 thoughts on “The Story Is The Thing

  1. When I was about eight, librarian at the Gastonia public library saw me looking disappointed at the bad SF in the YA section, I don’t remember a single one (no Heinlein, definitely), and pointed me to the adult SF section and told me I could check out books from there. The first one I read was “Way Station.” They had a lot of mostly really bad Walker SF, but one of those was “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

  2. I started reading SFF in the early ’60s. Heinlein, of course, but also the delightful Mushroom Planet series by Eleanor Cameron. I actually got to watch the New Wave unfold in real time, which was a trip, lemme tell you. The subsequent ossification of the field is disheartening. I remember Harlan Ellison insisting that science fiction is the literature of ideas and that ideas were sacred — ALL ideas. Nowadays… not so much. ::sigh::

    In answer to your ultimate question: not much. My study walls are metaphorically pockmarked with the dings of thrown books. Some by Big Name Authors, too. But I no longer throw them away as I used to. Now, I just sell them at Half Price Books.


  3. I’ve said many times that if I only watched or read stuff whose politics doesn’t offend me I’d have no almost no media to consume at all. But I do prefer stuff that doesn’t get in your face and beat you about the head with it. As a counter-example, consider “Little Brother”, quite possibly the worst book I read that year, which existed solely to rail against the evils of the Bush administration, and it somehow got many award nominations. But compare and contrast Ian Banks’ Culture novels. They’re well-written and enjoyable, even though I’m fairly certain that there’s not a single thing that I’d agree with him politically, because the story and writing in them is just so good.

    As for e-publishing serving the market, the problem here is discoverability. Baen on the cover gives me a pretty good indication I’m going to enjoy it and not be offended. But who’s going to do that filtering for the e-masses?

  4. Skip,

    I don’t know. If I can establish enough of a name (maybe through Baen since I intend to continue writing for them) then I can pull other people in and you can go “Oh, Sarah recommends them so…” I think we’ll see a lot of that. Toni has mumbled something about expanding — maybe — to other genres. It was JUST a mumble, so I wouldn’t assume anything, but it heartened me greatly. There will still books Baen won’t take, though, and at least some of those I’ll go solo with. I like covering ALL bases.

  5. “Toni has mumbled something about expanding — maybe — to other genres”

    Could you mumble back the next time you see her that maybe these other genres should have a different style of cover art? She publishes my favorite fantasy author, P.C. Hodgell, but the covers are disconcerting, all gaudy colors and female flesh spilling over bodices.

    As for what I want to see? Not particularly themes, I just want SF/F to get away from the ever-present “eyeball kick” wherein the author’s only goal is to offend bourgeois sensibilities. Where’s the wonder? Where’s the immensity of the universe? Of human imagination? It’s all spiraled inward, to a world where nothing is larger than our bodily functions.

    Excuse me. I need to take a slug of Metamusil and shake a stick at the kids on my lawn.

  6. Kali,

    well… I don’t really have cover consultation rights for my own stuff, much less other people’s. As for shaking stick at the kids, don’t bother. They’re not reading the new stuff anyway.

    Honestly, my complaint is that most of it is PREDICTABLE…

  7. I’ve been reading a lot of “fluff” lately. Janet Evanovich, Kristine Grayson. I enjoy them, but I tend to walk away wondering why I can’t have that much fun with a bit more meat to it. Maybe even some veggies. Not that I don’t like the desert, not that I won’t keep reading, but it seems like it could be so much more!

  8. I’m looking at the last prime # before sixty and have been reading SF for most of that time … although there was a period when I read NO fiction of any sort because it was clear that the authors’ characters did EXACTLY as the authors’ bade them. And then there was the John Irving novel, received as a gift, where my only disappointment was that not ALL the characters died … and didn’t die much sooner … like, P2.

    What I’m looking for are characters. Likable characters. Believable characters. Characters I can recognize as real people and not automatons enacting the author’s polemics. I don’t even particularly care if the book is formulaic or not especially well-written, just give me somebody to care about.

  9. Your initial observation, that a certain author “…goes out of her way to include at least one favored minority in every book …”, has also been made about the Magical British Empire series. (I’m sure you’ve seen the reader reviews on Amazon.) I haven’t seen your own reply to or refutation of that point, but I may find it somewhere on your web sites, all of which I enjoy and am reading through.

    You central point in this post, that the “message” doesn’t matter as much as the reader’s response does, is certainly legitimate, if by “message” you mean “what the author thinks he/she is saying”. What does matter, it seems to me, is what the *reader* hears the author saying. From my perspective, what Heinlein thought he was saying wasn’t always what Heinlein said (to me). As another example, what Ann Rice thought she was saying in her vampire novels was a joke, but what she actually said (to me) was quite meaningful. From my point of view, that’s what makes fiction entertaining.

    Concerning both the message and the reader response to your books, let me add my own very positive response. I buy all your novels and I love the short stories I’ve seen. I look forward especially to the space operas (or even more serious science fiction, if any is coming?) and the diner stories.

  10. John,
    Sigh. I’ve seen the reviews on Amazon, though I’m forbidden from going near them these days. The Magical British Empire was an attempt at writing the sort of interesting travellogue/exploration book that I grew up with (one of my favorite reading genres was the accountings of REAL explorers) with fantasy added.

    What I found though, once I went into it, was that I couldn’t make most of the “Others” the villains, or most of the villains minority, at least if I wanted to have it published (though you’ll note in both the second and third book I did do so, because the series was sold. Perhaps it is why those last two books annoy me far less. Villains should be who they should be, and race/gender not a consideration. Non-whites are human too, and no human is perfect.) I have a conflicted reaction to that series, because so many people see in it what I never meant. Part of what I was trying to point out was that EVERY human “tribe” (in the larger sense) is not only capable of but prone to racism and the sins of “colonialism” given the opportunity. Apparently this is not what most people get from it… Fine. As a result, I don’t recommend it to people who ask me which of my books they should read. I suppose when I revamp my site, I’ll explain what was going through my mind… Not that I care what people think, but if they’re going to be offended…

    My point was not that readers get a different thing from the “message” than the author intended (reading Heinlein’s biography about his early SF, I realized I often got well-nigh the opposite of what he intended) but that writers who insist on controlling the message to the point of taking long breaks from the story to expound it, should really use Western union to send their message. And that editors who require this level of “message” are killing the field.

    I don’t think Kleypas had “minorities” forced on her by the setting, regency England not being known for it, and in one series the only minority she could find was Roma. HOWEVER Kleypas is an interesting study, because I normally will throw Regencies in which every “good” character is twentieth-century levels of enlightened so hard that it leaves dents. But she makes the totality of her characters and their issues believable, so I merely snort at her more egregious “enlightened bits.”

    The most startling “truth” in Rice’s novels — to me — was a bit puzzling as I don’t think she has kids (Does she?) It was the inability to “hear” vampire-children, and vice-versa. I often thought of this while raising my kids. I’m usually pretty good at evaluating what people are thinking and how they’re reacting, but I was utterly “deaf” when it came to my kids (and my parents.) Her “history” OTOH — oh, wally, wally wally… 😛
    Space operas are coming. More serious SF — I don’t know. No plans for it at the moment, but things tend to ambush me. More shifter stories are coming as well.

    1. “Not that I care what people think, but if they’re going to be offended…”

      I have long believed it the duty of the gentleman (insert “lady” or “Civilized person” as is your wont) to avoid giving unintentional offense. Some people deserve to be offended, but one must always take care to ensure they are offended deliberately and for proper cause.

  11. RES

    That is the problem. Very few people realize what a “conformity mill” the fully functioning publishing establishment could be. Not that I should complain — I CHOSE to play and betted on still getting stuff through more or less all right. What bugs me is “offending unintentionally.” I’m fairly sure that DST offends people, too, from the cover to choice quotes. BUT it does not make me cringe when it does.

    1. “I have long believed it the duty of the gentleman (insert “lady” or “Civilized person” as is your wont) to avoid giving unintentional offense.”

      Now that’s an impossible standard to live up to, considering that what gives people offense changes day by day. There would have to be some sort of central registry of cultural offensiveness, updated in real time, that we could check before embarking on any conversation.

      1. Eh, emphasis on the “avoid” – and there is a countervailing responsibility for folks to eschew taking offense where none was intended. And for those determined to be offended, then all affronts ARE deliberate, so screw ’em. There is a type of person who uses the “I’m Offended” ploy as a tactic — call it passive/aggressive, if you like — and those people so offend me that no insult to them can be gratuitous.

  12. “The most startling “truth” in Rice’s novels — to me — was a bit puzzling as I don’t think she has kids (Does she?)”

    I believe she has at least one, a son who is apparently gay and serves as the model for the protagonist in Blackwood Farm, one of her later vamp novels. The “gay” part I gather from the reviews of Blackwood Farm and from the fact that his (the son’s) own novels are said to be homo-erotic. If any of these characterizations are true, it seems that she tried to “hear” her son pretty carefully for Blackwood Farm. How successful she was, I’m not qualified to say.

    Regarding the “messages” inherent in the series, my impression is that there are some, and that they resonate with many readers, but that they have nothing to do with the author’s intentions, as I understand them. Without them, though, the series would be pretty much without redeeming value, from my perspective.

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