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For the better part of the last two decades, it has been my considered opinion that the decline of fantasy and science fiction literature can be expressed by its increasing similarity to that universally-acknowledged fount of conformity: television. Go to the SF section of your favorite retail bookstore (or should I just give in and say “Barnes & Noble”?), and you will see without much effort that 90% of the selections can be broken down into a very few classes: military, Buffy-esque, steampunk, supernatural mystery. It’s like cable TV with four channels that anyone watches and a bunch of golf channels that only get a dribble of viewers. Or so it seems.

But until today, that was as far as my simile extended. No more is that the case! Not content with the idea that our literature was becoming more like TV, our friends at Microsoft have come up with a way to make the books themselves more like TV. I think this was what ruined the Romans.

In my day (he said his cranky pre-Millennial voice), the pictures you made from books were the pictures you made from the books. Part of the charm was that no two people saw the same character the same way. Your book was your own private world, and if you wanted to imagine that the hero/ine looked just like you, you could. If you wanted the villain to look like your boss, that was okay, too. A book was a collaboration between you and the author, and that lead to all kinds of differing interpretations that in turn lead to book groups, and convention panels, and English lit majors who can’t get jobs.

Now they not only want to make your favorite story into a TV series, they want to make your book into one. I’ll be the first to admit that TV is fun, addictive, and occasionally even original. But it requires no imagination. Even radio required you to make the pictures up in your head. Everybody knows that the scariest scenes are those you imagine yourself, and the sexiest fantasies are those you construct in your own mind. You’re not going to convince me that the best stories are not those you play out in your own head–and where do you think the training to do that comes from? Novelists don’t get their ideas from television. They learn narrative arcs and characterization and foreshadowing and world-building from other writers’ written words.

So if you want a generation of television writers, turn their books into television. If you want novelists and short story writers, turn the TV, and the HoloLens, off.

Note: I first learned about the HoloLens here. You could check it out.

#SFWApro

Yeah, it’s another Puppies entry. You know the drill.

So the Sad Puppies are an effort to bring more readers into the Hugo-voting fold, so says the party line. What they won’t admit (at least explicitly) is that it is also an effort to bring in more conservative-leaning voters. Which is fine, as far as it goes–without balance, the system goes awry and you risk losing out on good nominees. (I express no opinion as to whether this has already happened.)

But we are currently experiencing Sad Puppies 3, which means the movement only began in 2013. And that raises the question: Where were all the conservative-leaning fans before 2013?

I managed to snag Hugo voting totals for the past few years (prior to when the Puppies claim they started to matter, i.e., 2008 – 2013) and compare them with membership numbers. (Real numbers are hard to come by, but I did my best.) From 2008 – 2010, about 25% of eligible voters actually voted. From 2011 – 2013, it’s between 30% – 42%. The first thing we can take from this is that it is well below the percentage of people who did not bother to vote at all. So if there was an oppressed minority out there, it wasn’t bothered enough by its situation to get up and do anything about it.

“But what about demographic patterns?” you ask. “A lot of people can’t get to Worldcon.” Yes, that’s true, except you don’t have to attend to vote. But what if you did? Or what if Worldcon’s location affects who buys even a supporting membership? Let’s look.

Out of the six cons under consideration, one was in Montreal, one in Australia. We will ignore them, even though Montreal is practically an American event for travel purposes. The others were in Chicago, a large, Democratic city–and Denver, Reno, and San Antonio. None of these is considered a hippie town; all are within easy commute of all of the continental U.S. So how does Redshirts win the Hugo at a convention in Texas?

I’ll tell you how, The voting turnout at Lone Star Con was 42%. Redshirts only received votes from 37% of attendees. Roughly one out of three.

It’s weird. The left wing has organized a Hugo-voting cabal that controls the awards, a cabal that neither I nor any of the people I know who have been attending Worldcon since the 1970s has ever heard of. And yet this cabal can only command a majority of just over one-third of the electorate? Shouldn’t such a powerful group be able to muster a better turn-out?

Unless, of course, it doesn’t exist. Unless the Hugos don’t belong to a secret in-group that chooses the winners in cigar-smoky rooms. Unless the actual group controlling the Hugos is open, and well-known, and comprises all kinds of fans…

…you know, the people who bother to vote.

 

Note: This is about the Sad Puppies/Hugo flap, but I hope it’s more than that. You can skip it if you want to.

I am what some call a Social Justice Warrior (“SJW”). Not that I crusade for liberal causes; other than voting and contributing to a few, I don’t get much involved. But the Sad Puppies and their allies would call me an SJW for that alone, or because I believe awards should go to stories that are more than just popular, or for a hundred other reasons. Fine. Call me what you want. It just shows how short-sighted such labels are, because in the end, I read the same stuff you do.

The Puppies put Jim Butcher on the Hugo ballot. I love Jim Butcher’s books. Larry Correia would have been on the ballot if he hadn’t taken himself off. I enjoy his books a lot. Most of the other Puppy offerings I am unfamiliar with, but my point is made. They want books that have spaceships on the cover to be about space exploration and high heroics. Well, guess what? So do I. You want proof? Read “The Invisible City.” It’s about a guy who ends up in a (mostly) invisible city. Truth in advertising. End of plug.

But I also believe that the influx of new authors who are not white males is a good thing. The only thing wrong with saying, “F/SF is a wide field with room for all kinds of authors and stories,” is that it implies we’re still writing and reading in a ghetto. We should be saying, “Literature is a wide field with room for all kinds of authors and stories.” Instead of fighting amongst ourselves, why aren’t we fighting to break out, into the “Fiction” section of Barnes & Noble, instead of being stuck off to the side like we’re not good enough?

The problem with the “Puppy” point of view (and those fighting so hard to preserve the status quo) is that we are fighting over the last doughnut in the apartment when we live over a bakery. The Hugos are voted on by a few thousand people at best. There are billions of readers out there, most of whom couldn’t name an SF book that hadn’t been made into a movie if you offered them a suitcase full of cash.

Given the undeniably wide spectrum of SF and fantasy we write, why get into a brawl over limited resources when there’s a world out there for the taking? I mean, c’mon, if anybody knows how to conquer a planet, it’s us.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” the sub-committee chair asked the committee chair. “Everybody knows you have to be really careful what you ask for.”

“Relax,” the chair assured her. “We’re not asking for much—and it’s harmless. We’re not even asking anything for ourselves.”

He threw the final ingredient into the carefully-drawn pentagram and stepped back at a flash of light. Inside the pentagram stood a hound, very young, but with a glint in its eye that bespoke a supernatural intelligence.

“How may I serve you?” it asked in a quavery hound tone.

“We—we want—we want to put on the most successful Worldcon ever,” said the chair. “We want lots of press coverage, and hundreds of new members—people who’ve never attended a Worldcon before, all voting for the Hugos.”

“That’s all?” the hound from beyond asked. “No riches? No fame? No political ambitions?”

“Nope. Just a lot of new Worldcon members voting for the Hugos. That’s it.”

“Then you shall have what you have asked for,” the hound promised. And it vanished.

“See?” the chair asked. “I told you. Nothing to it. We’re going to have the most famous, best-attended Worldcon in history. What could go wrong?”

And somewhere out in the Void, the puppy hound howled—sadly.

“Paying the Tab,” which originally appeared in 2011 in Daily Science Fiction, has been podcast at Meduspod.com. This is the third story I’ve had podcast, the second to appear at Meduspod. It’s always thrilling, in an anxious sort of way, to hear someone else interpret your words. It’s almost as though you didn’t write them at all. What would be like to see an actor do it on screen? How weird would that be?

When last we had words with our Intrepid Hero (yes, me), we had discussed the humanization of larger-than-life characters, among them, Godzilla. In a completely serendipitous turn of events, a few days later I noticed that the latest screen version of my beloved Uber-dinosaur was playing on cable. Since I had not seen that particular epic, I resolved to spend a portion of my evening watching it. You’d think I’d’ve learned my lesson in 1998 (which disaster I actually saw in a theater), but you’d be wrong.

Now, this is only one blogger’s opinion, but I have seen a great many Godzilla movies in my time; I even have a couple on DVD (that I picked up cheap). I will watch almost any of them at any time (Godzilla’s Revenge and Son of Godzilla being notable exceptions). My impression: I have added this version to the list of Will Not Watch Again.

My reasons are many and varied, encompassing plot, art direction, casting, and screenplay, but these are not the point of my essay today. That is, while as I said last time some human context is necessary for the audience to relate to a story essentially about super-beings, it is possible to overdo even the human element when it eclipses the super-beings for whom the movie is named. This movie isn’t even all about the people whom Godzilla’s existence affects–it’s about all the people who are affected by the monsters Godzilla is there to fight–and we don’t even get to see the fight.

Yes, we should care what happens to the bomb disposal expert, his heroic nurse wife, his never-understood-but-right-all-along scientist father, the ever-changing and interchangeable parade of small children, and the Japanese scientist who believes in Godzilla even though nobody explains why. (We don’t, but that’s part of my list of reasons cited above.) The problem is, we should also care about what happens to the titular character–and we hardly see him, let alone have a chance to care about him. Compare this to King Kong: yes, the ape is a monster, and yes, he goes on a rampage, and yes it’s kind of hard to relate to a fifty-foot tall gorilla–but we do anyway. Can you honestly watch Kong gently set Fay Wray (I’m a classicist) down out of harm’s way before he takes those final bullets and falls off the Empire State Building, and not wipe away a tear? It wasn’t “beauty killed the beast,” it was the exigencies of the plot–and yet we feel more for the monster than we do for the faceless pilots he swats from the sky. Why? Because that movie balanced the characters–human and ape–and made us care about both of them.

Then there’s Godzilla. It spends so much time on so many people (part of the problem) that we have no sense of relation to the monster. He doesn’t come on till it’s about half-way through, and then he’s almost always covered by water, or clouds, or smoke, or darkness. He barely smashes anything, and by the time he unleashes his fire breath (so sadly missing in 1998), you want to cheer because now you’re seeing Godzilla–but you ask, what took him so long?

If the filmmakers had been attempting to take the big lizard back to his roots, that would have been one thing. The original was, as we all know, a commentary on the nuclear age, and that monster came across anything but heroic, or even anti-heroic. But Godzilla has evolved, and the fact that he was facing off against other monsters shows that it was the latter-day G the movie was aiming for. And missed by a mile.

What do we take away from this from a writing point of view? That while a story about larger-than-life heroes needs relatable, developed characters, the hero should stand out. A larger-than-life hero should be pretty easy to see. If, for example, you call your movie Godzilla, that’s who your audience expects to see. Maybe they shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when given a poster and a trailer and more than 50 years of history, they should be able to guess who they’re going to see–because that’s who they’re coming to see.

#SFWApro

Heroes. We all write about them. They’re kind of necessary: They propel the story, readers identify with them, they are the way we write stories that provide some kind of cathartic resolution to implacable problems. (For both our readers and ourselves.) Heroes: can’t live with ’em, can’t write without ’em.

Wait–“can’t live with ’em”? Yeah, because heroes are larger than life. It wasn’t because Superman lives such a dangerous life that he couldn’t marry Lois–she got into as many scrapes as he did–it was because he would never have any time for her. And as hard as heroes are to live with, they’re just as hard to write.

To be interesting, to be believable, a hero has to be flawed. All of us are. Somebody like Superman or Doc Savage, we can admire them, live vicariously through them, but we can’t relate to them. That’s why they have associates, assistants, friends. Watson is our way in to Holmes’s world. Even Godzilla movies have some kind of human story going on alongside the mayhem.

That’s one way to humanize a hero, although it’s not direct. The direct way is to make him more like the rest of us, scrape away some of his superhumanity. Batman has a tragedy in his past. While we can’t relate to putting on a mask and a cape and swooping in on armed bad guys, we can understand loss. But if you go too far, you risk making your hero–not a hero. How far can you go before your hero is no longer heroic? Where is the line between hero and villain?

It’s interesting that if you actually go way beyond that line, you reach anti-hero territory. Superman kills Zod, and the public screams. (I, for one, won’t watch that movie.) If Batman machine-gunned the Joker and his entire gang, his readership would vanish. (Okay, probably not completely. There are people out there who will read anything.) But let John McClane commit a mass killing, his movie gets three sequels. You skip over “villain” altogether.

So we go from hero through villain and end up at (quasi-) hero. With such a broad spectrum available, where do you fit in the “he’s just like us” part? It isn’t easy. But if you want a relatable character, you have to find a way.

Ironically, if you try to humanize a villain, you do it exactly the same way. And then things get really interesting.

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