Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Truesdale Affair's Real Affront

[First, apologies for long silence - real life. I will get back to the couple of projects I had going shortly]

Image result for sword woman howard

So, by now most of those who follow SF with any interest at all in the Hugos and Worldcon have probably heard the sordid tale of Dave Truesdale's ejection from Worldcon in reaction to how he opened his panel on the state of short fiction in SFF.

I'm not going to belabour that point, which is being quite adequately argued about in other places. What I want to talk about is the panel itself.

Seagull Rising has commentary on it, along with a link to the panel recording [1] - I disagree with a lot I see written on that blog, and it’s clear that the author and I are unlikely to end up at the same rallies, but we seem to agree on this panel, and the main point there that really strikes me is this one:

There was no discussion about big new ideas. No one mentioned of[sic] exciting new voices. No one talked about interesting new developments in short fiction (hello, Cirsova!). No one mentioned a story by name, even as an example. No one mentioned exciting new characters or writers.

Panels are rarely very exciting, so boring and banal isn't all that surprising.[2] What's surprising here is that this matches my own listen to the panel recording: it actually doesn't sound like anyone there (including Truesdale) is really all that interested in short fiction. I don't get it.

Short fiction is ideal for science fiction and for certain kinds of fantasy[1]. It has the potential to be enormously exciting not only from a reader's point of view but from a literary one. And these nitwits couldn't even muster the enthusiasm to mention a few specific examples of what they think is exciting about the field?

In a whole freaking hour?

The whole panel should have been ejected, not just Truesdale. Their soul crushing lack of enthusiasm is an offense to genre.

I honestly think that one of the biggest mistakes made in modern SF and some attempts at fantasy is to write things that are too long.

SF shines - no, it burns like a thousand suns! - when it's short.  

This doesn’t necessarily mean short stories, but honestly 600 page tomes rarely do it for me. It's hard to keep reader interest over that kind of span and still be a solid SF story.

As a somewhat contentious example, let’s think about Robert A Heinlein. He’s criticized on several fronts (sometimes justifiably) but when you look at the span of his work you can see that where he truly seems to shine is in his short juveniles – and a few of the shorter adult books he wrote in about the same period and in similar formats. Say what you like about his characters and his themes, and of course you can even criticize his language[3], but the fact is that the stories are tight, fast-paced, and engaging. You get to engage with the protagonists early, and when they “work” for you they will pull you along.

Now, the reason I choose RAH as my example rather than some of the other excellent shorter-form authors of the era – people like Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, H. Beam Piper, James Tiptree Jr., Ray Bradbury, is that he offers me the opportunity to show what I’m talking about:

It does depend on what you’re talking about and how you’re writing it, but it’s hard to write truly engaging SF in longer formats. It takes very, very careful structure of ideas and interlocking storylines to maintain engagement and avoid those nasty moments when suspension of disbelief fails and the reader is ejected from the story.

A well-written short grabs you and pulls you through too quickly for suspension of disbelief to be a problem, and the techniques of short-story writing are such that you can engage with the protagonists almost immediately. The protagonists themselves compel you to keep going, draw the story ahead at a powerful pace that is undeniable.

In comparison, even when excellently written, I find (more often than not) that as much as I enjoy a well-crafted longer story if it’s not structured in a kind of episodic pulse, with each element having the bite of a shorter, self-contained work, my enjoyment is likely to be more abstract – intellectual. I don’t engage as deeply with the protagonists, and the ideas dominate. The story doesn’t compel me the way it can with a short. That’s not to say the short form is better[4] but that it has sharper hooks, when done well. It provides a more intimate relationship with the protagonist, more scope for floating the science part of the fiction as well since there’s less space for missteps that reveal the smoke and mirrors that most speculative technology in SF relies on to be believable.

Long form is a perfectly arranged formal buffet table complete with an ice sculpture centerpiece.

Short form is one dish that you can really dig into – yeah, it might have fewer ingredients to it, but you really get to experience them on a more visceral level.[5]

Which brings me back to RAH:

You see, the works that made him a big name back in the 50s and 60s were short – relatively speaking. Short stories, sure, but also novels that simply don’t have the page count to be published today. With the shorter formats he worked with, there was an opportunity to get close to the protagonists and get your hands sticky with the stuff of the worlds he was spinning without being forced to see it from a perspective that revealed it was just a stage set.

As soon as he was a big enough name that people couldn’t/didn’t really question what he put on the page – when he could do whatever he wanted and had no limit on how long he could do it for? That’s when things start to go south. People have legitimate criticisms of or disagreements with certain aspects of his work from his early era (the way he handles race and gender for example, his politics in general) and I think there are some interesting discussions that can be had around that, but I don’t think there’s much to dispute about his earlier work actually being tighter writing (technically) than in later years, largely because of the structural demands of the form.

For fantasy[6], I think the situation is a bit more complex and there’s a stronger argument for longer work. Unlike SF where (if you wish) you can just bolt a few unobtainium gew-gaws onto what is essentially the real world there’s more involved in developing a coherent setting, and that can benefit from more elbow room. [Aside: I think this is what makes fantastic or weird fiction more akin to SF than fantasy - it bolts eldritch gew-gaws from inhuman civilizations from beyond time onto the real WORLD]

Again, though, it will depend a lot on what you hope to achieve – I find it hard to engage with the protagonists of longer fantasy as well, even when the overall story and the world are very engaging in their own rights, and sometimes that means the book suffers. I found some of the ideas and the larger plot cycles of the Eye of the World (as an example) to be really interesting, but largely found it hard to care much about individual characters. GRRM’s Song of Fire and Ice is similar – I find myself wondering what will happen next in what is more geopolitical terms than because I particularly care about a character’s last cliffhanger.  When I do care about a character, it’s because the arc in question is building a broader understanding of how this world works. Steven Erikson’s Malazan books are another excellent example – I’m interested in how this world works, in the broader structure and politics, but I am not compelled by the characters.

In comparison, consider Robert E Howard’s short novels and shorts – they try to grab the readers by the throat and shake them right out of the first chapter or paragraphs. Suspension of disbelief isn’t a problem because you’re never given a chance to question, and even though the characters are firmly in platonic archetype territory[7]they get their blood and gristle just from the sheer intimacy of the format.

Come  - does anyone really think Conan would let his foe drag on for more than a couple hundred pages? How about John Carter? Or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? Or coming back to REH Dark Agnes?

These stories run hard and fast and if they went on much longer than they do there'd be no way for the author – or the reader for that matter - to keep it up.

But there’s another reason the lack of excitement over short form is so frustrating as well: short is exactly where we should be looking for excitement and surprise not in the tales and characters themselves, but in the fact that this is where writers can really get to experiment – with technique, with “what if” ideas, with alternate realities, with different voices, it’s where they can feel their way into new territory and explore how best to tackle it. This where editors can gush over new voices by putting them alongside the ones they know the readership already trusts. It’s where they can encourage new ideas and new forms with interesting experiments like issues with a half dozen stories from that number of very different voices but all with the same basic task: write a story about X. It’s where an editor can take a chance with a brand new face and take the time to nurture them as they polish their craft in the first few efforts.

What’s most frustrating about this panel is that the participants are vague and hand-wavy about everything. There was a lot of talk about diversity of voices – and make no mistake, that diversity is a great thing, and short fiction in particular benefits from it – but precious little talk about specific examples of what is great and what is exciting right now in short fiction. It’s not like there aren’t any really interesting voices right now.

I mean, look Aliette de Bodard’s experiments with almost poetic richness in painting dreamlike images in her Obsidian and Blood sequence. Look at how Nnedi Okorafor weaves concepts from Nigerian myth and folk tale into stories about genetic engineering and AI.

Want more specific, more recent examples?

Look at the techniques Greg Bear deployed exploring quantum computing in The Machine Starts, or the edgy dimensions of Elizabeth Bear’s Skin in the Game[8]

There’s lots of potential here for experimentation, because unlike a novel – particularly a modern novel that will almost certainly be hundreds of pages long and part of a planned sequence if it gets published – it doesn’t matter so much if the experiment doesn’t quite work, or if it works but doesn’t tickle readers’ fancy. This is a scratch-pad where the people who actually do this can toss ideas out without committing maybe years of their lives on them to see if they float or sink – and then run with the best ones.

It’s also a way to build rich, fulfilling, extended worlds of fantasy without the risk of losing suspension that you get when you’re working with the novel format – look at how well Moore fleshes out her worlds for Northwest, or how Andre Norton does the same with her Time Traders. Niven’s Known Space is of course another example. In short, sharp episodes we get fragments of that broader world that build up into a larger whole.

So yes, short fiction is an exciting and compelling format, and not only do we need more excitement in discussing it but we need more of it:

This is the digital age, where any idiot (even me) can hang up a shingle and publish a short fiction rag. If readers come, then it worked. If they don’t – well, maybe the rag will stumble but in this era of science fiction reality it doesn’t need to mean the end of someone’s career.

Let the publications spring up like mushrooms, I say, and let the editors and the authors feel the way. By god, let’s have some wonder!


[1] And no, I'm not going to argue about whether it was right or wrong to record the panel either.

[2] Trust me. I’ve suffered through a few as well.

[3] Though that may be unfair considering the changing standards since then.

[4] Though I am personally a lover of it.

[5] Obviously short form can be used in more abstract ways as well – prose poem, tone pieces, etc. But even here, the approach simply wouldn’t work in a work that was too long.

[6] To make a purely arbitrary division – though one I’m pretty sure everyone will grok.

[7] Or maybe Freudian archetype would be more apt!

[8] Neither of which even got a mention as far as I can see in the run up to the Hugos, which is itself a travesty.

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