Conan vs. Man-Bear-Pig
Warning: Hereafter, you will find more Hugo derp. If you’re tired of it, uninterested, or annoyed with terms like “fandom,” “Puppies” or “Literary Science Fiction” don’t bother reading past this warning. No, I mean it. Go. Get. Be gone.
I ran into a manifesto this evening; it got me hot and bothered. Ken Burnside, nominated as part of both Puppies slates, wrote “How The Hugos Crashed” and posted it to Facebook and G+. I ran into it and ended up reading about half of it. It is, broadly, his take on the awards ceremony, his expectations going into it, and his experience once there. There are a lot of personal impressions given, and it is pretty obvious that he didn’t feel welcomed.
As far as I’m concerned I feel thusly: “Man, that’s a shame for him” and “I’m sure glad I stayed home this year.” The first feeling comes from my apprehension and anxiety when attending conventions. I know how difficult it is to show up to a place you know will be jam-packed with strangers. All of them talking to one another for a whole weekend. I never know if I’m interrupting someone or bothering them, although I genuinely want to be part of the party.
Every time I attend a convention my social anxiety levels shoot through the top of my skull. I usually need to spend the first couple of hours roaming back and forth between my hotel room and the convention floor, just to stay near sanity. Maybe this isn’t exactly what Burnside says he feels in his manifesto, but that’s what I read between his lines. Yeah, it can be difficult to talk to new people, even when you share something in common with them as being a writer. I’d wager that it exponentially harder when you sign a publication deal with Castalia House and/or willing “sign up for the Sad Puppies slate.”
The second feeling is just me patting myself on the back for avoiding that sensation, a personal creeping dread. I spent most of last week looking at pictures and reading accounts of all the keen times many of you had, and to be completely honest, I felt jealous. But, Burnside’s reminder was enough for me to remember that the drive to Spokane would have been an internal wrestling match between my anxiety and my excitement. Given my current state of being, I’m not certain which one would have prevailed. It’s likely that I would have shown up to the awards a complete wreck, so in the end I’m glad I saved the money and worked on my next story.
That said, I’m mature enough to know that few of you go out of your way to make me feel that way, excluded or unwelcome. I know other authors are just as busy as I am, and most of you dive into the spirit of the convention without bothering to stick a toe in the water. If you’re not friendly to me I try not to take it personally; maybe you’ve been waiting half a year to talk to someone else, and perhaps you don’t know me from the crowd. So meh, your loss. I’ll be at the bar, and we can catch up later.
While I was thinking about the above, I encountered this passage. Okay, I tripped over this loaded statement and may have spewed hot tea out a nostril or two as a result. Say what?
For a large part of SF readers (as opposed to organized fans), the Heroic Engineer Story IS SF “the way it should be.” The Martian by Andy Weir, soon to be a major motion picture starring Ben Affleck, is the Platonic ideal of the Heroic Engineer Story.
On the surface, I would tend to agree with this statement. I greatly enjoy this kind of story. While not my favorite, I enjoyed Andy Weir’s “The Martian.” Some problem happens, protagonists suffer, but eventually through ingenuity and grit our heroes prevail. A great deal of what I read and what I write qualifies. Some of my favorites — Old Man’s War, Science in the Capital, The Martian Trilogy, even the many members of the Vorkosigan Saga — all have protagonists who look under the hood. My television and movie watching is dominated by shows where a protagonist struggles to make stuff work. My favorite Star Treks episodes all come from the Enterprise series, where nothing works as it should (and Trip has to sort it out). I love it when people call me “MattGuyver.” You know Mal is solid, but Kaylee is, dollars to donuts, the person pulling something heroic off.
Then comes Burnside’s primary thesis. Whoa there, hold your horses.
[T]he standard trope of the Heroic Engineer Story is that the reason the Engineer is Heroic is because he (and it’s almost always a ‘he’) is sidestepping his emotions (including fear) to Solve The Problem.
For the SF readers who are the target of the Heroic Engineer Story, there’s an intellectual thrill akin to reading a murder mystery in seeing how the problem is solved, and a comforting escapism from emotional nuance.
And here is where I take umbrage. Burnside would like us to believe that “Literary Science Fiction” (his term not mine) in which characters deal with their emotions must somehow remain mutually exclusive to the Heroic Engineer Story. He posits that “Literary fiction, left to its own devices, turns into tone poems about competitive navel gazing.” While the good stuff is good because it’s “comforting escapism from emotional nuance.”
“Bah, rubbish!” I say. To prove my point let us harken to the tales of Conan the Barbarian. The stoic monolith of a Man, the patron saint of Heroism, and genre fiction story written to The Target Audience.
In the many collected stories of Robert E. Howard, his protagonist invariably follows the formula described by Burnside. “Put character into a puzzle box, have Act I be about how [he] realize[s] how screwed [he is], have Act II be about making things worse, while getting the key needed to escape the puzzle box at the end of Act III.” (This is not my sentence, please don’t blame me.) And before anyone jumps down my throat, I realize Conan is a fantasy, but if pressed I can come up with many examples set in the future where high-technology is accessible.
The introduction to The Coming of Conan begins:
“Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
While I wouldn’t call that a “piece of symphonic music on a descriptive or rhapsodic theme“ the sentence has an unquestionable beauty. Read it aloud. I bet your ear enjoyed it. And lo, does this vivid introduction speak of depression and bliss? Aren’t those emotional states?
Conan never sidesteps his emotions. In fact, these things drive him to action are can be the cause of his failures. Because he feels, perhaps more than those around him, he is capable of more.
The same can be said of many of Puppy vaunted SF authors and their protagonists. Take this moment of self-reflection from Robert Heinline’s Rico in “Starship Troopers” for example.
“I could hear Colonel Dubois in my mind: ‘Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.’
“I still didn’t know whether I yearned to place my one-and-only body ‘between my loved home and the war’s desolation’ — I still got the shakes every drop and that ‘desolation’ could be pretty desolate.“
Folks, Heinlein gave you pride and humility coupled with self-doubt and a sense-of-place. He’s the one talking to you about duty, honor and an emotional commitment to your community. This is why we like his characters, this is what we can relate to when we read about Rico. Rico isn’t some alien simply fighting because a hive mind compels him into battle. He’s a human being who, in telling us his tale, bridges an emotional divide that separates us from one another.
I doubt very much that Heinlein ever contemplated writing a “comforting escapism from emotional nuance.” Sure, his action scenes are well developed and involving, but you could cut them from the book and still have a story worth reading.
My problem with this common Puppy meme isn’t just that it’s wrong. And it’s not that these bullheaded beefcake/gun-worshipers keep repeating this dichotomy — “beep boop, good SFF can’t be beautiful” — like a Borg mantra. And it’s not even its intrinsic sexist self-justification (girls can’t be popular heroes because that’s not popular). Rather, it is that they’re using this wholly false claim to turn SFF fandom on its head. They posit the existence of a benevolent tyranny.
Stop telling me what I should and shouldn’t like. You haven’t bothered to study the topic. As is evidenced by the nominations this year, you guys aren’t bothering to do the work. Your intent doesn’t come into it; if your hamhanded attempts to control other people’s tastes aren’t welcomed then you should console yourselves in the certain knowledge that at least you’ve discovered what you like.
Popular fiction becomes popular not because of your political leanings. If you want to write conservative Christian clap-trap or neo-Libertarian mythology divorced from any literary aesthetic, that’s your choice. Sure, you’ll find some readers, but not the very many readers you would touch should you bother to look at the world and notice where the rest of us are headed, how we feel, or where our sense of justice resides.
Popular fiction is excellent precisely because it brings readers into the story. This is impossible to do if you don’t offer readers a human context with which they’re at least somewhat familiar. The fact is that people have emotions. John McClane isn’t a compelling hero because he robotically annihilates the bad guys. We feel his pain when he steps barefooted into a room covered in broken glass and many of us can relate to his emotional struggle as he tries to rescue a wife who is ready to serve him divorce papers. He looks under the hood, yet McClane still feels love and hate, frustration and remorse. He’s conflicted and flawed and “yippee ki-yay motherfucker” he has emotions with which we can relate.
Sometimes we have to swallow our fear or deal with our anxieties, but those are emotional struggles all the same. Not bothering to write about these feelings is a lost opportunity and certainly isn’t going to get your manuscript picked up by anyone other than Castalia House. So very few of us can ignore joy or grief that when we find characters who do we meet them with skepticism. They are as unbelievable as the story of “Conan vs. Man-Bear-Pig: An untold tale for an excellent reason.”