Evolution is inevitable, regardless of what certain people may believe, whether it be socially, physically, or personally. Things change, grow, adapt and become something else over a gradual process. In the literary world this is most obvious in the themes that change over time and the way we view certain tropes of the bygone era. Speculative fiction writers in particular have an almost love-hate relationship with our roots – we love the classics that broke new ground but hate to think we might be grouped into the same niche they were. After all, sci-fi and fantasy once carried a terrible stigma of being the domain of basement dwelling losers who took it all far too seriously. Since the day sci-fi became a thing it has gradually done everything it can to be taken seriously as a genre and considered “literature” with the rest.
It wasn’t very long ago in the grand scheme of things that sci-fi was still considered a new, fringe category that barely counted as a genre. Compared to others that have existed for ages, the earliest known works that could be strictly considered “science fiction” date back only a couple centuries at most where as others can count their earliest entries back to the dawn of the written word. Sure, Beowulf wasn’t considered “fantasy” at the time it was written, but it’s hard to deny that’s really what it was. And because of this we can also point at almost the exact moment where Sci-Fi made this transition from being an oddity into a true genre – we call it the Golden Age.
The Golden Age was a time of big ideas and big figures, people like Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke dominated in these days and their work went on to define not only the genres but how we think about certain parts of civilization. Despite having a simplistic view on it, it’s hard to get through a conversation about robotics without someone bringing up Asimov’s three laws. And Arthur C Clarke, with “Clarke’s Law”, made us realize just how fantastic things we have today would appear to the past and how fantastic things from the future would appear to us. And as far as the genre went, it’s undeniable that the ideas they introduced to us have become a foundation of the genre as we know it today.
Learning how to write is built largely on the idea of formulas. You’ll find many students and early writers follow these formulas almost religiously and sometimes, despite their best efforts, they never quite escape them. Time and time again you’ll find stories out there which could best be described as “formulaic” and it’s never intended as a compliment. Unfortunately, breaking away from it can be challenging because rarely do lesson plans include a guide on how to break the mold they so carefully made for you.
One of the examples of this is the idea of how the cast should be constructed. With certain roles being absolutely necessary to the idea of a story to tell, such as a protagonist, it’s easy to understand why. You wouldn’t want to go telling a story that has no protagonist or main character of any sort, as there has to be someone for the audience to relate to. You also wouldn’t want that character to have no one to interact with, because then there’s nothing to provide some of the texture the story arc would so badly need. But often there’s a sense that all roles mentioned in a typical formula are 100% necessary outside of the protagonist even when that isn’t necessarily true.
Images of the future are often polarized along pretty extreme lines. Dystopias and utopias dominate the landscape in science fiction because they’re often thought to be the easiest to write and easiest to deliver a message. The world within a dystopia can be used to magnify today’s problems to be easier to see while the world within a utopia can often highlight issues we don’t see in our daily lives. But the truth is that they’re not nearly as easy to write as people often think and a lot of attempts fall short of the overall mark. Dystopias, in particular, are generally derived from each other and have become attached to tropes rather than genuine ideas. And utopias, as I’ve established not too long ago, are generally the improper labeling of a superficial analysis of what turns out to be post-scarcity societies.
I’ve thrown around “post-scarcity society” often in the last couple weeks without going too in depth on the subject. For some people it would be hard to really tell the differences between a utopia and a post-scarcity society, with the two of them essentially looking ideal from where we stand and showing few of the problems we could readily identify in our current culture. But the division between the two is rather clear: a post-scarcity society has solved many major problems while a utopia has ostensibly solved all problems. And the fact of the matter is, while we’ve never seen a utopia in the real world (and likely never will), we have, however briefly, gone beyond some form of scarcity. Hell, it briefly appeared to happen in the last century before a peanut farmer harshed everyone’s buzz.
But the idealized post-scarcity, the one that you want to see in your speculative fiction, can be a tricky thing to write because it often requires you to understand problems from a completely different perspective. Because writing a post-scarcity society believably requires you to recognize… Continue reading Problems In Post-Scarcity→
Presented a new project to work on in the coming weeks, I came to consider several things I’ve blogged about recently. When dealing with the future and ideas of where we’re going as a race we often find ourselves in a scared, frightened position. It makes sense, the future, especially an unknown future, can be terrifying even if all common sense and logic tells us that it should go another direction. We’re constantly afraid of the idea that the world itself may turn into a Mad Max-style wasteland, or that an arrogant politician may become the next Hitler, or that we may end up going to World War 3 over the actions of a single nation.
But in all of these cases we can look at the history of the world and the shape of what has come before to determine that it’s not always as bad as we feel. The world was once hotter than we’re making it and it managed to survive, so it would go to say that climate change is more a threat to us than to the planet itself. Hitler’s movement was born out of a fairly unique set of circumstances where the world’s economy and social climate were far worse than it is today (for now). And the World Wars were both started by a series of terrible decisions which resulted in the world’s power being separated across clearly divided lines. So, as bad as things may get, the conditions aren’t quite right for most of our greatest fears.
But there are other fears of the future where we don’t have that historical frame of reference to calm ourselves. We have no idea what would happen if tomorrow an asteroid were found to be headed right for us. We have no logical frame of reference for what happens if we discovered aliens exist and are trying to make contact. No one’s entirely sure of the full ramifications of the continued development of artificial intelligence. And these all raise interesting questions with few (if any) concrete answers. In fact, some potential answers are so outside of our normal frames of reference that we have a hard time really picturing them.
Coming out of the tail-end of what we’ll call a “pollen bender”, I’m wide wake in time to see the sun rise and sit in relative silence with my thoughts. And, thanks to the wonders of medication, those thoughts are pleasant for now. Sure, I can hear a lawnmower running at 6:30 in the morning and I know I’ll be cursing that sun before it reaches the other horizon, but at least for right now I’m in an okay place. I might have breakfast today, I may make coffee, I’ll get together a schedule and try my best to make that schedule happen.
Or I’ll pass out again once the meds fully kick in (which is totally what happened today).
But, assuming I have long enough to make it happen, what exactly belongs on that schedule? Creative types who haven’t “made it” are faced with that question often. Every day we’re silently asked by the world at large whether today is a day you should go running head long at that wall. Our brain says that the skull is becoming fragile and that the wall hurts when we run into it, but our hearts say that one more good headbutt and we just might make it through. It’s brick but we’re persistent and we’ve heard other people who managed to headbutt through that wall just fine so it’s clearly a smart decision, right?
Getting to that “made it” point is known to be incredibly hard, downright brutal at times. We sacrifice our days to goals that the world tells us are unobtainable, then we’re told by that same world that if we don’t charge skull first into the metaphorical brick that we’re not really dedicated to it anyway. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and the schedule’s still not totally filled out. So you’re left feeling around blindly, trying to determine what’s really worth your time, and finding some regrets along the way. Because, until you see the results, everything is a… Continue reading Monday Musing: Priorities→
Recently I wrote about the potential drawbacks of immortality and, funny enough, I haven’t stopped thinking about mortality since. We’re the only animals on this planet that understand we’re here for a finite time. From the day we first learn what death is, we know on some level that it’ll eventually be our turn. When we’re young, it doesn’t quite occur to us day to day, but we still feel it on some level. And when we’re older – well some of us can’t stop thinking about it. The fear of death, in one way or another, shapes our very lives as we decide how we want to spend what little time we have here.
And a result of this, as I mentioned last week, is that the very idea of religion is often an attempt at finding a way out. Mythology has often dealt with the ideas of the natural world and explaining what’s around us. We have gods of thunder to explain why lightning streaks across the sky and the world rumbles like the clash of a mighty hammer. We tell stories of how all the world’s ills came from a box opened in a moment of curiosity or eating the wrong fruit. It’s in our nature to personify the forces of the world around us. But your religion, if you’re honest with yourself, is almost always about your mortality – a fact I forgot to mention when writing on how to go about treating the faith of fictional characters.
Many would say that your religion is what you believe in, but there are systems of belief out there which are fairly anti-religious. Others would say that a belief in a god of some sort is required, but there are forms of Buddhism with no gods to speak of. And, of course, some would say the rites and rituals are what make a religion and that you’re otherwise just spiritual – but once again I don’t quite agree. I’ve personally interacted with people who aren’t Wiccan but will still practice some of their rituals. To them, it’s simply a mythology, even if it’s a religion for someone else. And we’ve all known people who hold a religion but don’t stick to the traditions. In fact, many think that someone who does try to stick to all of their traditions zealously is not of sound mind.
So, while these religions may have all of those beliefs and rituals, the one thing holding them above simple mythology is that people believe in their version of the afterlife. And the funny thing is, because it’s so important to these belief systems, that afterlife says a lot about the people that believe in it. Continue reading Monday Musing: What Our Afterlives Say About Us→
One of the great staples of speculative fiction is the idea of the idyllic utopia where all the world’s ills just cease to exist. These utopias are inevitably short lived in the hands of writers because we need to make a conflict of some sort. Perhaps a sudden alien invasion brings it crashing to an end. Maybe new threats or issues become known and catch the untested society off guard. Often it turns out that the utopia is in fact a dystopia in disguise. But, on a few rare occasions the utopian society will survive on through the events in question and just continue to be perfect despite the odds.
Usually when this happens it’s actually the old favorite shorthand of “utopia” actually meaning “post-scarcity”. Writers and audiences generally have trouble identifying the differences because at first glance they’re pretty much the same. A post-scarcity society is one where problems of resources are resolved and civilization is impacted in profoundly beneficial ways as a result. There are so many facets to that to go over, one for another day to be sure, but it doesn’t quite make something automatically utopian. However, when we see a “utopia” survive against all odds it generally happens to be a very orderly post-scarcity society. This isn’t because writers don’t know the difference, it’s just that true utopias are pretty damn hard to write about in an interesting fashion.
In today’s era it’s fairly well established that everyone understands the importance of a suspension of disbelief. Long ago it was a bit less likely that someone would be compelled to stop reading or watching a story in the middle because of their lack of belief. The reason for it is fairly simple: most fiction at one time was thought to reflect the real world and how it works. Even the most fantastic of stories from those eras was, in part, believed to be representative of the world as it was. The earliest plays to feature gods and monsters were telling stories from the religions of the era. Works like Dante’s Inferno were, at the very least, thought to be a theory into what the afterlife might actually have been. And Shakespeare, while pushing some boundaries and making up some shit as he went (particularly words), was generally writing about events that everyone believed could happen – witches included.
So it often gets overlooked that suspension of disbelief, in its current form, is really a fairly new concept in the grand scheme. Sure, there was always a need for the audience to believe irrational behaviors, but the scenarios were generally plausible. This really applied to almost everything, no matter how silly or believable it may sound to us in the modern day. Two families bitterly feuding with each other and tearing young lovers apart? Happens all the time. Zeus getting frisky with a village girl in the shape of a bull? According to the things people used to believe…apparently that happened all the time too. So what we have as “suspension of disbelief” today is not necessarily what they used to have in the days of yore.
And this is a problem for writers and even audiences because that means, at times, it’s hard to gauge just when suspension of disbelief is going to become an issue. It’s especially true in speculative fiction genres that push some limits because we often find that audiences will reject something even after they’ve accepted something far less mundane. We’ve all encountered a situation where someone will believe that a character can fly, but then seemingly become irrationally upset with how believable another element of the story happens to be. As you’ve likely heard before, “you believe that man has superpowers, but this is where you draw the line?”
As far as suspension of disbelief is concerned, you would think that the more ridiculous premise would be the part rejected, not the more mundane aspects. For a long time I couldn’t quite reconcile these concepts myself. But recently something clicked for me that hadn’t in the past as I came to realize that there was something other than suspension of disbelief at play here. Because it’s ostensibly part of the idea of “suspension of disbelief”, it often gets overlooked as being something of a distinct phenomenon. It’s the root cause of those weird moments where someone will believe in a talking dragon but not in a character’s actions.
As spring time rolls around and certain holidays come to pass, a few questions inevitably start popping up. Our modern holidays, inspired long ago by more ancient traditions, don’t make a lot of sense to us in our modern frames of reference. For instance, the Easter Bunny references a spring hare that traveled with some old European deities. Coloring eggs for Easter is part of an old Norse tradition representing the dawn. And, as for St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a whole lot we don’t fully understand about these little bastards.
The Leprechaun as we know them today have been changed repeatedly over the course of centuries. Beginning as part of Irish folklore, they’ve since become entwined with Irish stereotypes and traditions that have long since lost meaning. With even the origin of their name not being entirely clear, with some sources citing “little people” and others saying it was referring to their jobs as shoe cobblers, it makes sense they didn’t stay firm in all that time. Even the color they wear and the way they behave has been altered to suit contemporary mindsets over the ages. By this point, they’re essentially an inkblot test of how you feel about the Irish – for better or worse.
But one thing that hasn’t really changed much about Leprechauns over the ages is the fact that they are magical, lucky, and generally holders of great wealth. Some stories say this is due to their workaholic nature, acting in a miserly fashion and hoarding every coin they could possibly get. Others say that it’s due to their magical nature and ability to do things no human could. And some even say they found the treasures lost or buried by people and simply kept them. But all variations of this story generally have one unifying detail: If you can capture the little shits, they have to bargain their way free – potentially even giving you the location to their treasure (which is one of the few things they’re bound to tell the truth on).
As of this writing, we’re all of one day away from St. Valentine’s Day. A day of lovers, romance, and bitter singles – many wonder just how the day came to be associated with such warm or contemptuous feelings. Saints are generally chaste and unrelated to such things, so the idea of one being associated with young lovers is a bit hard to grasp. This is particularly true because the Catholic Church tells you to be ashamed of most emotions in one way or another and even defines a couple of them as cardinal sins. The only emotion the Church doesn’t seem to look down on at some point is guilt, which is probably why they so mercifully give you a shot of wine on Sundays. Of course, whenever such contradictions happen to come up it’s a good time to check for some sort of pagan holiday behind it all. Surprise, found one.
A quick google search for the origins of Valentine’s Day will no doubt produce dozens of articles talking about the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility celebration held on February 15th. And this makes sense, the most common of Catholic celebrations started as a pagan tradition of some sort. Like Christmas, Halloween, and Easter, Valentines is said by many to be lifted from the traditions of the pagans. And, of course, you can’t spell Romance without Roman – the people who literally originated the “romance languages” and gave us the very words we need to express our deepest desires.