Some thoughts on SFF and reality checks
I have to apologise for the naivete of this post. I'm stumbling my way through thinking about these things.
I used to joke that I wrote SF because I didn’t know enough about reality to write in it. It wasn’t wholly a joke. Eighteen years into my professional writing life, I still don’t know much about the 'real' world. My life experience is limited and my education is somewhat sketchy, so some writers have much wider life experience than I do, and many have studied more. Still, I suspect that writers glean a good percentage of our working material by recycling it to some extent or another out of stories—books and movies. By ‘recycling’ I don’t mean literally nicking things and using them (although this happens) but rather, that we digest a mix of story and real life and then it emerges in a different form in our own work.
So what is the reality of what we have digested? Especially, of what we have digested from second-hand sources?
I constantly complain about fight scenes in books (and obviously movies too) on this basis. Most of them are unselfconsciously ridiculous. My sister, a nursing professor, complains about medical scenes. The phenomenon could extend in many directions depending on what it is that you know more-than-most about. Certainly in reading the recent discussions on colonialism, globalisation, and the failure of world literature to include genuine non-Western viewpoints, I’ve been thinking a lot about the particulars of the SFF genre and my own work in this context. I’ve been thinking about a kind of self-perpetuating bullshit cycle that seems to turn up.
I’m not speaking specifically about colonialism here, which is deserving of its own space. This more of a tangential thought about the genre: I wonder if fantasy literature, which by its definition allows us to bypass reality checks, is particularly vulnerable to allowing us to delude ourselves and therefore get away with stuff that is distortionary and prejudicial in whatever manner. Because it’s not ‘real.’ And anything is fair game. We wouldn’t expect to publish a political thriller without knowing the ins and outs of government and world affairs and lots of other fact-checkable nuts and bolts, but if we write that thriller in dressed-up fantasy terms, there’s a lot of fudge-space there. I’ve used it myself. I think there could be something extra-pernicious about our genre in this department. Maybe that's not an insight to anybody but me?
Granted, it’s hard to get a reality-check on something that doesn’t exist—a theoretical projection or a proposed future, for example. But even when I’m going out there as far as I know how to do I must necessarily refer to what I do know. I reach for some example of what I already know and try to bend or stretch it, or juxtapose it with another object so as to create an interaction that may generate something genuinely original. I suppose in way that’s a definitional problem of writing SFF—no matter how I may try to set up a philosophical experiment, it always has to have some grounding in the concrete world. I try to notice my real-life reference points. I try to make some honest attempt to face up to the pitfalls of the way I’m using them, although the pitfalls aren’t always obvious to me at the time.
But what about the idea of inventing because actually learning the facts is too hard? SFF writers are in a particularly privileged position in terms of being able to do this. What about saying, ‘I don’t know shit about how X works so I’ll just borrow a pinch of this and a dash of that and throw in some stuff that I saw this other writer do, and it’ll all be OK in the mix’?
That might not be actively harmful. Or it might. What if the stuff you borrow and (inevitably) distort is actually a portion of someone’s reality? I mean, it seems obvious to say that’s uncool, but the uncoolness seems somehow unexamined, glossed-over, when in our genre it should probably be an area of mainstream writerly concern--there's no shortage of discussion on how to write an effective query letter, after all, but cultural appropriation doesn't get enough coverage at entry-level even though writers are effectively gods of our made-from-whole-cloth worlds.
The marketing machine demands fodder, of course, so it skews toward the derivative anyway. Within the dominant culture, this skew can be very annoying. But when you start to think about what is happening globally when Blockbuster X comes rolling into town, it seems what we can end up with is this big armoured tank of derivative untrue nonsense rolling in and crushing the original cultural ecosystem, wrecking it and replacing it with the machine’s own paradigm. Never mind what writers inside that culture produce; it's now irrelevant as far as the machine is concerned.
If it’s not my culture that’s being destroyed by globalisation, I can be upset about this overwriting and the losses it entails, on a theoretical level. I can try to empathise with the people being silenced, and I can feel badly about it when I choose to think about it. But I don’t have to think about it if I don’t want to. And I can’t actually know or imagine how it feels to be in the path of that oncoming machine, how incredibly toxic the whole business is. As a whitebread USian I’m riding more or less on top of a wave of destruction.
I need to really think about it and decide what my level of complicity with that armoured tank, or that wave, actually is. To what extent am I OK with letting this destruction occur rather than stating up front that I prefer the complexities and disagreements and dangers of a world in which my culture might not end up in total absolute power over all things? Because that is what it comes down to, right? Actually giving others some space and not just coopting everything. I don't know why that should be so hard, but apparently the capitalist model does what it does, and too bad if people don't like it on an individual level--I don't know how to stop it, personally.
I want to say, oh nonono, this isn’t of my making, it’s not under my control, I don’t want it at all not even one tiny bit. But I suspect that subconsciously some part of me must be a little relieved to be safely inside that tank. I’m not proud of it, but I really need to look at that cowardice and make some changes in my head.
Fumbling, rambling. Thinking.