I confess when listening to Leonard Cohen’s “The Traitor” I love the lines “The dreamers ride against the men of action; oh, watch the men of action falling back.”
I also will confess that I identify with “the dreamers” in those lines, though I’m not sure that’s true anymore. But as a teen I was very much a dreamer, with my head in books or in the clouds. Many of the things I dreamed were air-fantasies and impossible and I didn’t even know it. Many others would be tragedies, not the utopia I imagined.
And in a way I was a “woman of action” in the sense that I walked everywhere in all weathers and I’ve always had a constitutional (not that constitution) tendency to roll up my sleeves and DO when doing is needed. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see myself as a “dreamer” of “impossible dreams.”
Part of this was my identifying most with dad, who is actually a man of action, but who is also a reader and someone with his head in the clouds half the time.
But even though I identify(ed) with the dreamers, I loved books with hyper-competent heroes. (Yes, including female ones. The opening of Friday is riveting because someone is following her and she doesn’t drop and cry for help, but takes care of it. Efficiently.)
I loved authors who could do what I knew d*mn well I couldn’t: get dropped head first into a situation and control it and come out on top. Some of my favorites, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Prince and the Pauper, Robin Hood, and of course The World of Tiers and Operation Chaos, Puppet Masters and The Door Into Summer hing exactly on that hyper competent hero doing what he must do.
I love these not because I am like them, but because I’m not. Because it’s fascinating to watch someone with everything under control. And it helps me, too, not panic when the excrement hits the rotating object (so many times this year) to think “Okay, there’s another way to handle this, now.)
I’m not saying I don’t love hopelessly neurotic characters as well, though the only one I can think of, early morning and sans caffeine is the main character of Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones, (she has reasons to be neurotic) or for a more “dreamer” the main character of Way Station by Simak. (My husband wouldn’t allow me to name a son Enoch.)
But yesterday as I was falling asleep, I realized why the science fiction establishment keeps saying we only want big bad male action heroes. You see, they’re hopelessly in love with characters who when the going gets tough curl into the fetal position and scream for mommy. They think this makes the characters sensitive or special. They think in fact that dysfunction and the inability to work in the world as it is is a mark of specialness, from intelligence to insight.
I think this is because most people who are attracted to science fiction are “odd” — we stick out. We tend to think non-standard thoughts. We work at odd angles. That’s fine, every primate population has its “goats”, it’s “outliers.” It’s how social species work.
Many if not most of us were bullied or mistreated by our peers as kids. Most of us, when interacting outside the community, still get the “you’re weird” look.
Some of us — I’d guess about half — figure out that’s the way we are, that’s the way life is going to be, and we derive strength from it and learn to work in this strange world of ours. (I swear half the reason that book sold was the title.) Others … curl up and cry and demand accommodations, and say the world should accommodate them. It’s all so unfair.
Most of the establishment right now is the half that want accommodations, for themselves or others they imagine weak and in need. I think most of this comes from a decent pity and concern for your fellow humans, and from wanting to help them. Unfortunately it’s also misguided, as they tend to identify the people needing help by Marxist class and race markers, which actually have bloody nothing to do with who can cope and who can’t. In fact, the ones less likely to cope are the ones raised in too-easy circumstances, regardless of their skin color or wealth. Because humans are a scavenging animal, reverses and challenges harden and improve the individual. (Of course, it is also possible to have too many of these and break.)
The thing is and what makes no sense is that even those of us who write men (and women) of action don’t write what the other side accuses us of writing: privileged, flawless creatures who stride on the scene and set everything right.
Were there some books like that? Sure, to an extent. A lot of World War II wrote World War II veterans. I was reminded of this when reading The Book Of Ptath recently. I hadn’t read it in decades, and when I read it I remember the type was familiar, (though I couldn’t tell you the other similar heroes I read.) I don’t know if Van Vogt was a veteran, and, right now, am too lazy to look up his bio. But his character has an overlay of a personality that fought in WWII and which has a “can do” attitude towards the world in general.
I vaguely remember reading a lot of those, and they are yep white males (mostly white. I have a vague idea not all) who had won a difficult war and were men of action not daunted by anything.
My guess is most of those books were written in the 40s and 50s, but even then they weren’t universal. Theodore Sturgeon tended to write more nuanced, thoughtful characters, as did Heinlein (yes, I know, but they haven’t read the books, have they?) and so did a lot of others.
I, myself, and h*ll very much Larry Correia, not to mention John Ringo and others write people who act out of a deeper trauma. Yes, they’re men (and women) of action in the sense they try to fix what’s broken in the world and try to take care of themselves and those they feel responsible for. BUT often the reason they feel responsible and what makes them rise above average is a deep trauma, a deep flaw or some crack within themselves from which flows both insecurity and the ability to get things done. (I think these characters are far more authentic, anyway.)
So why do these books offend the mavens of the establishment so much?
Having dipped into their offerings, my guess would be because they think the only AUTHENTIC response to being broken is to curl up and stay broken.
Now that is the only valid response to being broken beyond all boundaries, but people like that, though they exist, of course, and excite our compassion, of course, don’t make very good characters.
“And then they were all killed by a flaming meteor” is a lousy ending but it’s vastly preferable to a series of books about people dithering and hesitating and suffering reverses and humiliations from which they can’t escape.
And yet, people read them. I mean, there is no doubt of that. I don’t know how big an audience this has, and I don’t know how many of them are influenced by the “great literature” shill, but some amount of people do read it.
It wasn’t until yesterday when one of the commenters insisted if books didn’t show people like you you felt “erased” that I realized what might be the driver there.
Some people ONLY want to read about people like them. I don’t understand the attraction, but then I am someone who crossed the ocean to live in another culture, so I’m attracted to knew experiences and different situations and tend to assume most SF/F readers are. But perhaps some just want the validation of knowing no one, not even characters, can hack the world, and therefore the only reasonable thing to do is to be neurotic and ineffective. I don’t know. Even when I feel neurotic and ineffective, I don’t want to remain so (like now) and I certainly don’t want o live in other people’s heads when they’re being neurotic and ineffectual.
But maybe it is the attraction of the similar and the “I’m not guilty of doing nothing.” Perhaps. In which case there are a lot of broken people out there, and it’s a little scary, because most of them are white, upper-middle-class and have no reason to be that broken.
Anyway, so when they’re complaining about us wanting “White men doing manly things” when our characters are either not white or not men (or various variations of white men, definitely not straight or non-handicapped, for instance) what they’re doing is reflecting inherent racism in their world view. Because what they actually mean is “Your characters are too competent.” And in their heads, that means white and male. Which is the ONLY thing that explains why they call competent female characters “men with boobs.”
Anyway, that was my sudden flash of understanding. And while I don’t care if they want to read about neurotic people being neurotic, and I don’t care if those books are on offer (not my circus, not my monkeys), I neither consider them the highest form of literary expression, nor want them to be the ONLY books on offer. I don’t think they fit with the tastes of the vast majority of the human race, nor that — frankly — they’re a healthy attitude.
Let them have their books, of course, if they enjoy them, but don’t let them dictate that these are the only “good” books. And don’t let them close the market to others.
“The dreamers ride against the men of action; oh, watch the men of action falling back” is a great thing for a teen. Teens don’t have the experience to solve things and identify with similarly paralyzed characters.
But if I wrote the scene now, the dreamers would have enough resources within themselves to REALLY make the men of action fall back and, thereby, become men of action themselves. (And women, duh. It goes without saying, but I know some people need it said. In this the human experience is not that bifurcated.)
Because that is the path to maturity and more importantly that is the path to a functioning society. Neurotics are interesting, but they have to learn to act in the world before their stories are interesting. Otherwise they’re just neurotic and rather pitiful.
And now I’m going to go pack boxes. Because– Because when this is done I get to write.