Thursday, December 09, 2004

telling people what to write

The conceit, of course, is that ultimately people will write what they want to write. Writers select their themes, genres, subject matters, voice, language, manner, and all that. Some do it quietly, and simply write whatever it is they want to write. Others do it loudly, complete with a framework of thought or a philosophy that justifies it. Or with a manifesto, that in-fashion, out-of-fashion, recurring multiple point document that outlines the rules for writing in a specific manner.

These things are, by definition, limiting, and to an extent, that is the point. It does rankle thoughts along the lines of "write about anything and everything" or "don't tell me what or how to write", but at the very least authors who adhere to their manifestos are able to focus on precisely what they want to do. That is, if they consistenly create in the manner prescribed by the manifesto. Sometimes, acute focus produces great work (the risk is in not doing anything else to the detriment of the creative's overall growth) but any discussion of limitations needs to involve the concept of constraint, whether imposed internally by genre or externally by author (though the terms internal and external are necessarily vague).

Anyway, the thing that got me thinking recently is the Mundane Manifesto begat by George Ryman and his coterie vis-a-vis SF (for them, that stands for Science Fiction, not Speculative Fiction), stripping away the improbable tropes like time travel, faster than light travel, interstellar travel and communications, alien races, Quantum theory-spawed alternate universes, magic or the supernatural, and many more "Stupidities" (their term) in favor of the more likely tropes like virtual reality and nanotechnology. At first glance, it seems like something for Michael Crichton, Greg Bear and the other "hard scifi" authors to embrace (though they cite Gibson's Neuromancer and Orwell's 1984 as Mundane too). (Note: contrast this with the "New Weird".)

I would say that this manifesto is not something I'd ever subscribe to (i.e., it is crap), except that the Mundane folk recognize two things important to me:

A new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes and failings.

The awakening bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate the beauties of this Earth and its people and what will happen to them in time.

In a sense, though 99% of my sensibilities run contrary to the demands of creating SF stories that are grounded in Mundane science, I understand what they mean, and wrote "Hollow Girl: A Romance" along the same unconscious lines.

I believe that any story in any genre should be primarily about human beings. Period. Everything else, from intensely moving fantasy tropes to factual scientific underpinnings to banal social realist contemporary settings, is just...everything else. A good story should not be about an idea but about how people thought of or were affected by or fought for or lived for or died for or got fucked up by the idea.

The sense of wonder, so important to me, is not in the stage props of magical spells or interstellar teleportation or an acutely-described alternate earth. The wonderment is found in explorations of the human condition. People. Always about people.

If the Mundane Manifesto helps its proponents write incredible and moving stories that are humanocentric, then good for them. However, it does seem to me like another act that further divides and assists in the creation of ghettos with more than a whiff of affected arrogance.

Gardner Dozois thinks more than just that:

"Much of what the Mundanes--Christ! Could they have PICKED a more awful name? Why not just call it, "Boring SF?" and have done with it--have to say has a good deal of possible (possible) validity to it, and I'm sure they mean well, but limiting your palette and your choice of tools and what you're allowed to build with them is rarely a good idea in art, and although I'm sure some of the stuff they produce will be very good, it does sound like a lot of it will probably be pretty dull.

I sometimes wonder if the fact that so many British writers started producing colorful, Wide-Screen Space Opera again in the '80s and '90s wasn't a reaction to the previous generation of British writers who had denounced and rejected all of that silly space stuff...and I wonder if this "Mundane" movement isn't a reaction to Wide-Screen Space Opera writers such as Stephen Baxter and Peter Hamilton and Iain Banks; the pendulum swings one way, and then it swings the other.

Besides... it's dangerous, and somewhat presumptuous, to think that we can know what's GOING TO BE possible a hundred years from now. If you look at 2004 from 1904, there's dozens of things that nobody would have thought even remotely possible then that are a part of our society now, and I suspect that we here in 2004 would be just as surprised if we could really look ahead to 2104."

In "literary" fiction space we have the New Puritans, offered as comparison. Lev Grossman reviews the anthology that Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe put out a few years ago. Thorne and Blinchoe created the New Puritan manifesto for "literary" fiction, influenced by the Dogme95 films of Lars von Trier and Harmony Korine. Their points?

1. Strip their fiction down to the basics, and see if something exciting emerges
2. Shun poetry
3. Avoid all devices of voice
4. Eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing
5. Avoid any elaborate punctuation
6. Avoid all improbable or unknowable speculation about the past or the future

Why is it so important to some to define and exclude? Why not just write and explore and push and borrow and restore and create and play in the interstices, in the spaces between the blurry edges of the maps of fiction?

Writing fiction in a specific manner does not negate its essential nature nor does it make it more "real": it is still fiction, make-believe, made-up, a product of the imagination. All fiction, on the primal level, is equal, and the divisions among its genres are artificial: "literary", romance, western, fantasy, scifi, it's all fiction.

More next time.


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