My latest short story is harsh. I mean, it’s brutal. No feelings were spared when I wrote it, and I used it to take genre fiction to task.
Let me be clear: I don’t hate fantasy. I don’t hate science fiction. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. But in recent years, with the swelling of support for all things geek chic, the demand for these two genres has increased. The result has been praise for works that really don’t merit such, let alone warrant publication.
Let’s talk about what I continue to see in reading SF/F, and when critiquing and editing fantasy and science fiction:
- Happy Chosen Ones — Sure, it’s nice to have a special protagonist. But in creating The Chosen One, few writers care to bother with the problems that arise from the special life’s obvious conflict of interest with the protagonist’s old life.
Suddenly discovering that you can read minds, or that you can stop time, or that you can cast genuine magical spells should cause you more problems than it solves. Simply integrating the new life into the old doesn’t work; conflict should arise. In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero refuses both the call to adventure and the summons home. Upon returning, the Hero discovers that others fear him because his journeys have transformed him. Even if the Hero doesn’t reveal his new powers, he remains a source of wonder and trepidation because his demeanor has changed–the farm boy is secretly a sorcerer, but everyone can sense his special nature.
This alienation with his community can’t be taken for granted and should be foreshadowed by the Hero’s reluctance–or even resistance–to his new calling. Superpowers and special destinies aren’t great things; they’re burdens. The transformation of the normal into the extraordinary gives the Hero a unique perspective on how great normal actually is, while allowing him to also see what problems normality actually brings. His powers aren’t a solution but a tool to create a solution, and that tool brings with it a host of new problems.
Nobody should be happy about new problems. Ever.
- Wizard Schools — OK, it was grand when JK Rowling did it. It was fine for Weiss and Hickman, too. But now it’s done to death. Also, it makes no damned sense without sufficient setup and caveat.
When Rowling did it, the purpose of Hogwarts was to train young wizards and witches to harness their magical powers and avoid the sort of mishaps Harry encountered on Dudley’s birthday in The Philosopher’s Stone. That is, in Harry Potter’s world, magical powers actually come with risk attached and so require special education to manage properly.
Magic is an occult art, a secret study that stands outside the norms of society. Far from belonging in humanist schools, magic is a hermetic pursuit. Individual instruction along the master-apprentice model, which has long been the norm in fantasy, works better than the idea of the Wizard School.
- Infinite Wealth — Where do these robots come from? Who builds them? Ditto the spaceships. Ditto the space stations. Ditto the cost of galaxy-wide war. Even in a moneyless society akin to Star Trek‘s, economic concerns persist–or they should.
- Bully Protags — If the protagonist is a douche, I’ll probably stop reading.
- Politics Over Story (POS) — This one should be self-explanatory. If a writer wants to inject politics into a story, they shouldn’t let it get in the way of the story. If I want to read political or economic thought, I’ll buy the appropriate books from the nonfiction aisle, thanks.
- Fake Drugs / False Vices — Everyone wants to write like PK Dick sans all of those genuine bona fides obtained by experience. Writing about drug use requires a knowledge of drugs and those who abuse them. Too many junkies sound like the images of junkies fabricated by recovering addicts. The trek from user to abuser to addict to recovering addict changes a person at every step, and simply listening to people who’ve gone through the process completely misses the immediate worldview of the user on the brink of addiction.
If a writer wants to write authentically about drug abuse without abusing drugs, talking to clinicians, recovering addicts, and specialists isn’t enough. Those people see recovery as the end goal, and so do not see the same end in abuse as does the addict. Writers who focus only on recovery-oriented addictions miss the scenarios and thought patterns that actually lead to addiction.
Ditto for issues like hoarding, gambling, etc.
- Recycled Plots from More Successful Works — Like Wizard School above, so many old ideas get dredged up. Originality counts and pushes art forward. Reheated Doctor Who doesn’t impress anyone.
- Mary Sue Mega Bitch / Gary Stu Liberty Pimp — Special examples of POS fused with Bully Protags, Mary Sues and Gary Stus always fail. Couple those characters with political agendas and the result is a recipe for a shit sandwich only a fecalpheliac will enjoy.
Fantasy and science fiction require greater authenticity to produce suspension of disbelief. Rehashing old tropes doesn’t grant the quality of genuineness that made those tropes successful in the first place.
We’re heading for a crisis in SF/F writing, I’m afraid. Writers in these genres will either have to step up their game or face what happened to horror in the 1980s.