Sorry this is late. I’m now on that stage of rewrite/revision in Through Fire where I don’t fully sleep. Or rather, I sleep to half dreams of wandering around the novel seeing what needs to change. I sleep, but I don’t stop working.
This is actually all good, since the changes I figured out tonight solidify character and strengthen the story, taking away some of the “random happens” bit I didn’t like about the end.
But it means I sleep later, because I keep waking in the middle of the night and going “oh, that.” And “Yeah, that would work better.”
So lately I’ve been thinking – partly through an exchange of emails with a friend – about story and message.
She interpreted my post on “everybody wants to change the world” as calling for just entertainment in stories.
It was and it wasn’t that. It would be the height of hypocrisy for the author of the Darkship series to say there shouldn’t be messages in stories.
But part of it is that I doubt the effectiveness of overt messages in stories. I don’t scruple to say I was raised by Heinlein, nor that I wasn’t the only one. The man might have had no biological kids, but he has sons and daughters all over the world, including me.
But then we have to look at how he raised me. Remember I came at Heinlein through (mostly) the later books because most of the Juveniles (Door Into Summer and Have Spacesuit Will Travel excepted) were either not translated to Portuguese or no longer available when I came along.
And yet, what I took from his books was not the obvious messages: “Though art God” or the bedhopping or multiple marriages as the natural way to live. (Oh, for a while, but that was the spirit of the times, too, being the late seventies.) What I took from the books were not so much the messages as “the way to be.”
By creating characters that were tough, questioning, strong, and, most of all, useful, he made me want to be that way. I took as my model (being touched in the upper works) the broken caryatid, not just for characters but for what a human being should be, lifting whatever the burden without complaining.
Now, it takes a certain type of personality to teach at that level. I’ve seen it in some teachers, too, who, regardless of whether they teach you history or English, really give you a model you aspire to being.
The left, being daft, thinks this has to do with the character/teacher looking like you. They think only black people can model to black children. This is part of their insanity with “there must be so many characters of tan per book.” And also with promoting incompetent teachers to positions of power, because they have a certain ancestry or skin color.
But it doesn’t work that way. It’s more subtle. It’s more about being who you are in such a strong and convincing way and making the characteristics you have or approve of so admirable that people want to follow them.
Which is what Heinlein did.
I’m not going to say his other messages failed completely. Red Planet when I got my hands on it, in my late twenties, convinced me of the wrongness of gun control. And If This Goes On still gets me to shiver a little at the idea of populist theocracy.
What I’m saying, though, is that the most effective messages weren’t openly delivered and might not have been consciously delivered.
He changed an entire generation and not just in pushing them towards science and space (which I’m sure was deliberate) but in making them men and women who rationally examine the world and don’t blindly trust government.
Which incidentally is why the feminists, being dependent on people “group thinking” and behaving like widgets hate him and try to steer people away from him. They’re not even sure what causes that effect, but they know they don’t like it.
Now, did he know he was delivering that message? Probably. He was a man of strong principles and ideas of what was morality and what moral behavior meant.
But those weren’t the main theme/messages of his books, and they weren’t openly delivered.
And they’d never – and this is important – have made it to my (or other Heinlein’s Children’s subconscious) if they’d been the whole of the package.
Yeah, I know he gave mini lectures in the middle of his books, but they were done in voice for the character, and they made sense in the book. And they didn’t take over the book to the point of making the characters puppets.
Instead, the mini-lectures, usually wrapped around some practical event or occasion, were an integral part of the character’s personality and learning.
So, they were absorbed because we already liked the characters.
Now, instead, if you subordinate everything to the message and just yell at me from the beginning that this is so, and I should accept it, and break your entire universe to carry water for that macro-message, you’ll never succeed, because people don’t work that way. Particularly if you’re insulting some of them for characteristics they can’t do anything about – like being male, or white for instance – and telling them they’re guilty of crimes they never committed. The book will get closed, unread, and your message will not make it anywhere.
So, your overt attempts to change the world will fail.
It’s like the problem of intercontinental ballistic missiles. I understand even if Iran should build the bomb, it will be pretty hard (though not impossible) to hit us because their delivery methods are not anywhere near there (unless they buy from Russia.)
You can have the bomb but not the missile itself that will deliver the bomb.
So, while I find the bombs of the left weak sauce, being not so much speaking truth to power as power speaking at you in the same voice it has spoken (to me and most of the generations after mine, even in the US) since kindergarten, so that they are at best a wet firecracker, if you don’t deliver them in the compelling medium of a novel, through characters so admirable people want to imitate them, you’re not going to do anything. The bomb is going to explode amid your circle and get you the amen chorus, and that’s it.
But perfect that delivery, and even the incidental payload, the things that road along and you didn’t know, might make a big difference in the life of many people you don’t even know.
So, do we all write to change the world? I don’t know. I suspect not explicitly. Oh, sure, we all put some overt message in our stories: the ones at the center of our being, sometimes.
But mostly I think writers – people who think in narrative – write to make sense of the world. (It’s not the first time I absorb/deal with a major life shock through a series of stories, and I know my husband dealt with his brother’s death through a year of short stories.)
Reality is chaotic and often events seem not to have a cause. We write to unite the raveled threads of cause and effect so they make sense to us.
And we write science fiction to warn or enjoy about how those causes and effects, projected to the future, can change the course of history. This is important, because it makes people more than puppets of events – it gives them the rational power to think through things (at least properly done) and might influence current events (like turning me against gun control.)
But it is the sense we make of the world, the compelling logic of our story that will change things: not the sandwich board, not the soap box, and certainly not running around the world trying to shut down everyone who disagrees with us and ensure the field is an echo of our ideas.
We could do all that, and, without a compelling vision, a compelling logic and an absorbing story it would be for nothing.
People get preached at all the time, from church to commercials. They’ve developed high levels of anti-message immunity.
Which is why messages must come with stories and it must make them follow both the logic and the feelings of the author.
To change the culture and the world.