March 13th, 2009

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

My First Flycon Panel is on right's question 1

"They do it differently over there but I'm reading from here"

I'll be keeping up a basic set of Q&A here.

The moderator's first question was:

So I guess my first question is, when you open a new sf/f book, do
you have any sorts of filters that you knowingly put on? Are they
different depending on whether the book is science fiction or

If you aren't following over there but want to keep up, here's what I said:

My filters tend to revolve around the question, “is it a good book”. I have never knowingly entered a book with a prejudice against any character therein – except inasmuch as the characters can sometimes tick me off so monumentally that I not only toss THAT book but also use the character and the ticky-offiness of that character as a filter against the entire rest of the body of work of a particular writer. The character that particularly exemplifies this is Thomas Covenant – I gave up after the second book of the original series, picked up the third and struggled a little way through it because of an obstinate demand of my inner reader for some sort of closure, and then screamed hard and threw the books against the wall and never EVER picked up anything by Stephen Donaldson again. I’m told he’s a great writer. That’s as may be. I can’t get past his character.

I realise that this question is meant to take aim at the cultural baggage that you bring with you to a work of fiction – but I’m the wrong person to ask that question. I have lived in so many different places, been friends with so many different people, took part in so many different cultures, that I’ve very much learned not to approach anything with a set of preconceived ideas or if I do to expect them to be shattered into smithereens before I’m too far into anything. In fact, to go running off into quite the opposite direction, if this is the sort of filter you were after, I relish and anticipate and am fascinated by the things that are different and new and that I haven’t seen or experienced before. I have always been a bookworm and a teacher’s pet in the sense that I love –learning-, always have done, and reading a good work of fiction can be the most fundamental of learning experiences.

And yes, it does make a difference as to whether the work is SF (about things that could be possible but aren’t – at least not yet) or pure fantasy (about things that were never possible, but perhaps ought to be…) The criteria for that “good book” filter I mentioned above are different for those two definitions. The science in SF has to at least sound feasible, even if it is way beyond our ken right now. For instance,I know that FTL drives are currently (and possibly completely, now and in the future) beyond our ability to imagine let alone implement – but in a Universe built on the supposed fact of its existence has to hang together given that scientific fact is a FACT in that Universe. I don’t need technobabble, I just need a sense of emotional truth, but there are higher tech demands on that truth when it comes to a Science Fiction story. Fantasy depends on something far more visceral – possibly far more difficult to achieve – because in Fantasy you really have to end up believing in the utter literal reality of dragons. At least there is a theoretical basis for FTL – the speed of light and its limitations and lack thereof. A dragon is a creature fully born in the mind and imagination of its creator, and the reader has no basis for verisimilitude at all. And a fantasy that does not stand as strong and completely self-consistently believable in its context… is no more than a package of pretty pictures.
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Flycon panel - question (and answer) 2

Another question is, how does your own baggage, or the
bringing thereof, affect the way you read sf/f? and at what point does the
story become an effective way for dealing with RL things?

Here’s the thing – I don’t think you can help your own baggage. Likely it’s been packed for you by the generations that came before and you inherit vast swathes of stuff that may be heavy or old or outdated and it’s perfectly possible to pause by the roadside on your journey through life, put down your duffel bag, root around through it, and discard the things that you think you no longer need or want – but until you do that you’re stuck carrying the damned thing around. We grow as human beings and hopefully we learn as we grow, which is why it is possible to have an educated opinion (at some point in your life) about what is discard-able without damage. But what if something you don’t want to discard, some precious link to a time you remember fondly or to a person you remember with love, starts to become a problem?..

That’s where story and RL meet and intersect. It’s those I-can’t-help-it moments that come up from the bottom of the duffel bag when you least expect them. Some writer you have never known might come up with a story, or a paragraph, or a sentence, or a word, which brings up some moth-eaten, one-eyed, threadbare teddybear from the bottom of your bag and you bawl because you forgot you still carried that bear, half-forgot that it had ever really existed, and seeing it again out in the light of day is suddenly more than you can bear/

Guy Gavriel Kay is particularly good at pushing my emotional hot buttons – and other people’s too, as I found out when a member of the audience at one of his readings which I attended a few years ago stood up to tell him that she ran a rape counseiling service and that she sometimes gave the husbands and the boyfriends of the rape victims a passage of his to read – the rape of Jennifer by the Dark God of Fionavar. And the men gave back the passage in tears, and said “NOW I understand.” For me, the trigger sentence was “Tigana, may the memory of you be a blade in my soul” – to this day I don’t know how Guy Kay, from prosperous peaceful settled Canada, knew what it felt like to have your country, your identity, your past snatched away from you - but he does, and that sentence in Tigana encapsulates it for me. I cannot read it and not weep.

I’ve heard it said that fantasy is the sugar coating on the bitter pill of reality – that, when they are coated with the “sugar” of the fantasy, the bitter insides are more easily swallowed, assimilated, internalised and fundamentally made a part of the reader’s own mindscape and values. True fantasy is not all fluff and fairy wings. True fantasy is the raw truth of our own world, enacted in a place removed from our own in time and space and context, made “safer” for us by virtue of the fact that it does not affect us directly or physically, but nevertheless giving us a chance to look it in the eye and confront its demons and – in the best of all possible worlds – learn enough about ourselves and our ways to be able to exorcise the worst of the demons from inside our souls.
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Flycon panel - question (and answer) 3

Question 3 -- Well, how about the one in the panel description? How
do you negotiate between fiction and commentary, especially when a story
seems to be commenting on something that you can relate to on a personal

I can tell “commentary”. I can recognise “soapbox”. And nothing turns me off faster.

You – the author you – are welcome to your own personal opinions. They may or may not be the opinions of your characters (in fact, if you’re really good, odds are that they AREN’T). But whatever opinion is on the table, you will please refrain from proselytizing me on the subject. I don’t particularly care to listen to the Jehovah’s Witnesses earnestly preaching salvation-or-damnation on my doorstep. Why would you suppose I would put up with it in the pages of a book?

Of course, all of that falls away if the book is overtly dealing with a kind of situation where a character is faced with providing a justification for their own motivations. Some “deep background” might be relevant here. But the key is to keep it to the character’s own POV and not to turn the occasion into an opportunity for turning the reader from the Great Unwashed into one of the Chosen…
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Flycon panel - question (and answer) 4

Question 4: If a book comments on something important to you
personally, how does it affect the ways in which you discuss it with
others, especially with those who say, it’s just a story!

NOTHING is “just a story”. Or, rather, EVERYTHING is.

History is just somebody’s story. Usually there’s been some sort of battle – of wits, or of real blood and iron – and the story you’re reading is the version that the victors have promulgated. But it’s still just a story. The losers have their stories too. Sometimes it’s instructive to go looking for them.

And also, what happens when your understanding of a particular sf/f
world is drastically different to the understanding of others? (for
example, Harry Potter -- charming school stories with good, evil and magic?
or corrupting our young people? or perpetuating a sexist, racist, and
classist paradigm?) -- and does it matter when the book (story, whatever)
was written?

But whoever said that you or ANYBODY else are going to be reading the same book, ever, even when every word in it is identical between your two copies? I’ve had readers come up to me asking sincere questions about issues I swear I never deliberately introduced into my own books. I’ve also had readers, frustratingly, miss what I thought were perfectly obvious issues which I DID put in, but which had somehow, in the alchemy of story, become invisible to them.

Yes, in a way it matters when the book was written because accepted attitudes varied so much between locations and eras. The N*** word used by Mark Twain in the Huckleberry Finn books may be deeply offensive to the modern reader but at the time and the place that the book is set that word was THERE, and adulterating a book like that to pander to modern sensibilities removes a layer of verisimilitude from the book. I am particularly vexed when I read books set in Roman or similar times where characters spout thoroughly modern opinions because the author figured that might make them more sympathetic to the modern reader. There is a limit to how far you can take that and beyond that limit you are unravelling the fabric of your own world faster than you can weave it and no reader will be able to suspend enough disbelief to participate in it fully.

It is flat impossible to write for every possible interpretation of a given set of words – you would have to have the mind and the breadth of vision of a God to be able to understand everything about everybody, to know the contects of every single person’s duffle bag as they slog along the road of life. You write a story – and after it’s out of your hands it’s between the story and the readers. They may have issues with the story. While “issues” are often something that you can take on board and fix in your head and do better (or try to) in your next story – it’s also true that you could not posssibly have known about every issue from every reader. You owe the reader the best story that you could write. What they discover in it… is more often than not something that you never thought that you had said. As a writer, this is something that you have to live with.