Characterization, Coffee, and Literature

This month’s been all about characterization, building up the profiles, lives, loves and personalities of Descent: Diaspora’s main players. Now, any smart novelist (and I’m not looking at myself here) would pull the characters from the first installment across, give them a little spruce up to reflect what’s happened, and then sail off into the writing sunset and just get on with it. But not this little black duck, oh no.

After killing off most of them in Descent: Death, the ones who are left are now twisted well away from where they were, so it’s closer to a rebuild for them rather than a tweak. Added to which I need to add in four more at different points in the story timeline, so there’s an issue around how the society I have condemned them to changes over the years, and how to reflect that in them. Which is, apart from a protracted process involving long periods staring into space thinking and mumbling, quite enjoyable and not a little engaging.

On the down side coffee consumption has gone up again in the Soledad household. Many authors on twitter say that they hit the beans hard when they are in the process of writing, whether at home or in their commandeered table at Starbucks / Coffee Club, but I find I don’t touch the stuff when I’m actually writing the story; for me, it’s all the work before word 1 that needs the caffeine hit. Maybe it means all the work (for me) is in the research, and nothing in writing, or maybe my brain just slips into a stupor as I write (which could explain the horrendous state of my handwriting). So I find that I have an hour or two now, each night, after I hang up the research hat where I need to detox.

Lately that’s meant delving into some 1970’s / 1980’s short sci-fi collections. Although a dangerous habit (it’s never as good looking back as you remember it to be) one theme popping through the editorials made me think. Invariably there was a sentiment that, as one Interzone editor put it, science fiction was maturing beyond mere entertainment to literature.

“Literature? What’s that?” I thought; surely that’s what fiction is, but oh no, strictly speaking literature means written works of superior or lasting artistic merit. So pre 1970 there were no lasting, or superior, artistic works of science fiction?

Really? Does anyone out there think that H.G. Wells or Jules Verne did not write literature? Or (to summon up the living around 1950) neither did Arthur Clarke and Bob Heinlein? Ok, four examples only but there are many, many more littering my bookshelves (and DVD shelf if we can be honest about it) that would reinforce my point

Perhaps that’s not quite what was meant; after all, even in the most mundane and trite activities there are pockets of brilliance that stand out, stand the test of time (whatever that is), and become lasting works of superior artistic merit. Perhaps they meant science fiction as a genre, that somehow it had shifted from pulp magazines and ‘mere’ entertainment to something more lasting; and that literature has an intrinsic value far above mere entertainment.

Maybe it has; but I can see novels across the whole spectrum, from cheap crank ’em out in a day space wars books that are devoured and forgotten, to razor sharp prose that takes years to refine, maybe as long to read, and perhaps longer to forget. And that raised the final question for me; why does it have to? I’ve heard many commentators talk about the ‘role of fiction’, the need to hold a mirror to society and make a point, make a statement or critique and leave readers scratching their heads and preconceptions in the wake of a withering piece of prose.

I can’t buy it. Honestly, if all science fiction novels were soapbox sermons about the ills of this (or any other) society, religion, person or concept I’d have never kept reading past second grade. Most people read fiction for entertainment’s sake, to shuck off the everyday and disappear into another world, another life. Some do look for social commentary as their prime reason, and each to their own, but that to me is a wearying (and ulcer generating) path.

So as far as worth goes, forget it. Entertainment or literature, both are equally worthy and authors on either side of ‘the divide’ should not look down their noses at the other. Who’s to say what has more merit, sparking a fire in a kid to keep reading all her life to bring her joy and peace, or turning on a light-bulb in another’s mind on the evils of racism? Argue all you like, there’s no clear winner.

People, being people, will, if given the chance, dig into any work of fiction until they find support for whatever preconception they carry. Science fiction readers are no different, take a trawl on the net and see what people have made of Stranger in a Strange Land or The Weapon Shops of Isher over the decades. Anything you, or I, write will, one day, be used by someone somewhere in an ‘aha!’ moment to justify their own biases – no matter what you have written. Just pray you don’t meet them unprepared at a book signing!