by Charlie Martin — crossposted from Otherwhere Gazette
*Who spent the time this weekend putting in more coherent thought the things I’ve tried to express about Human Wave. For those in my workshop, you’ll get your critiques. Sorry. I’ve been ill this week and then there was a crisis precipitated by son packing while seventeen years old, that sent us to Denver a day ahead of plan. On the good side, son’s alliance of
themes teams (sorry. Not nearly enough caffeine today) won the regional robotics competition. — this bit by Sarah and not part of the article that follows.*
Every human institution eventually develops an Establishment: a collection of rules, stated and unstated, that define what is acceptable, and a group of people who act as the lawgivers, interpreting the rules, deciding what is acceptable and what is not, and enforcing their decisions with overt power and through covert coercion.
In the Arts, the lawgivers of the current Establishment are the revolutionaries who overthrew the previous Establishment, the Avant Garde become the Garde. The sign and watchwords of an Establishment are the words “thou shalt not,” and the first sign of revolt is a small voice that says, defiantly, “Sez who? You’re not my mom!”
We believe — and we think many others agree — that there is just such an Establishment in Science Fiction and Fantasy today. We are concerned, primarily and personally, with Science Fiction and Fantasy, or with Speculative Fiction, or with fiction that deals with imagined characters in imagined settings in imagined worlds that may or may not be noticeably unlike our own world — and by saying that, we reject the very notion of genre in fiction, except as a librarian’s convenience. There is, however, a notion of the genre of science fiction as a business in which the rules are more constraining and the Establishment far more established.
The Ludic Experience
As writers and as readers we value ludic reading, reading as play. Engrossed, enthralled, literally entranced, we read fiction for pleasure, for our own enjoyment, not for symbolism, status, or intellectual gratification.
We believe, above all, in that ludic experience: in the ability of well-written fiction to take us, in our minds, to other places. To experience other worlds and other lives. To go where none have gone before.
Up the Establishment
We experience Establishment SF as a depressing, dyspeptic, dystopian, and ultimately disagreeable subgenre in which conformity to certain imperatives, often shared with the mainstream of literary, New Yorker, Iowa Workshop genre of legacy fiction is expected — and enforced.
We believe these rules and this Establishment to be too limiting. As writers, we feel constrained by the imperatives of the Established Order. As readers, we feel disappointed, sometimes angry, and most damningly, all too often bored with the fiction that is acceptable under the Establishment’s rules. And we see, in the sales figures of the independent eBook publishing revolution, that we are not alone. We are a multitude. We are Legion.
Accordingly, we reject this reality, and substitute our own.
The emotional core of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is hidden in plain sight in a discussion of a Hebrew word from Genesis: timshel. Timshel, as translated by Steinbeck in the voice of Lee the Chinese cook, means “Thou mayest”.
“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel–’Thou mayest’– that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’….”
“Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
Timshel is “thou mayest.” You can choose: you have that power. And the power to choose is what makes us human.
It is thus, in the spirit of timshel, that we reclaim our birthright: as science fiction and fantasy writers; as writers; as human, sentient, beings. We stake our claims, not as commandments — for we do not believe that any person can rightfully command another — but by claiming our right to reject the commandments of the Establishment.
Timshel. Thou mayest write fiction that has no higher purpose than to entertain, to entrance, to free the reader from their current life in order to experience another. And we believe, in fact, that fiction can have no higher purpose.
Timshel. Thou mayest choose characters and their characteristics with no other consideration than story alone. Race, gender, sex, species, organic or inorganic or pure thought form, your characters are your creations. It is your right and your privilege, as writer, to create lesbian starship captains of color; but it is equally your right to create muscular male captains who play baseball as a hobby, if you care to.
Timshel. Thou mayest write of dark worlds or light. Thou mayest write happy endings or sad. Thou mayest write any damn thing you please, and expect it to be judged on its merit as story alone, not on its political inclinations. Or yours.
Timshel. Thou mayest write to convey an intellectual, moral, or ethical message, and in fact we feel that all fiction, by its nature, conveys some intellectual, moral, or ethical message. But your fiction will be judged, first of all, as fiction, not for its impeccable morals or the conformity of its political position with someone else’s standard. And you may find that your message is so objectionable that people no longer buy your fiction, forcing you into that least good of all possible worlds, the real job.
That’s the biz, sweetheart.
We reclaim our rights, and choose another way, not because we believe there is no good in the Establishment model for fiction, but because we see there is good outside it. We believe in fiction of the whole human — sentient — experience, and reject the notion that there are fictional topics that can’t be treated, ideas that may not be explored, thoughts that we are not permitted to think.
We accept as a necessary consequence that the reader may choose to read or not, depending on what that reader chooses and enjoys. And we hope that this will launch a counter-revolution, a new wave, above all a Human Wave of fiction, for its writers, and for its readers.