[NOTE: In many ways, this month’s essay is about human nature and a phenomenon which is becoming quite common. Because of its implications for our industry, I felt it worthy of discussion. I admit wholeheartedly that I struggle with it like anyone else. The purpose is not to assess blame, point fingers or accuse. Because it’s likely to be controversial, my one request is that people please read it entirely before attempting to engage with comments. AISFP has tasked me with taking on topics to stimulate discussion and build community. And I believe that process is aided by discussions of issues such as this. It is with that motive alone that I write these essays. We welcome discussion. I only hope it can be fruitful and thoughtful, unlike so many which break out on the web. Thanks for taking time to read and engage. We look forward to your thoughts. BTS]
They say “speculative fiction” is the fiction of ideas. Ever heard that? It’s repeated so often, it’s practically cliché. One of the reasons I like science fiction is because of the ideas I discover through reading it. It also stimulates ideas in my own head which I enjoy exploring through writing myself. My writing is very much informed by the world I encounter around me. I continue to be grateful whenever I get to travel, because of the opportunities I get to meet people who view the world through different eyes. My extensive international travel has been particularly useful in widening the box in which I live. But the more I read and get to know the speculative fiction community, the more I’ve discovered a closed mindedness that seems to be the antithesis of the cliché. If speculative fiction is really the fiction of ideas, how come so many who write it are so stubbornly attached to their own ideas and resistant to anyone else’s? Do we have a fear of ideas? Is that truly healthy for what our genre needs and wants to be? Are we really so threatened by others’ beliefs or can we learn to engage with them and grow together?
As my friend and fellow SFWA writer Matthew Sanborn Smith said on my Facebook wall once when I was lamenting this: “What’s crazy is that a lot of our writer friends are science fiction and fantasy writers and yet we all have trouble putting our imaginations to work on real world problems, differences, or, at the very least, being open minded about other points of view.” People unfollow because you don’t share their politics or religion. They lambast you or label you “bigot,” “persecutor,” “denier,” “stupid,” etc. Often without knowing anything specific. You fit in a general category associated with a belief they regard as offensive and you get stereotyped with everyone else. This is done without dialogue or knowledge of your personal actions to back the accusations up. What if you aren’t so narrowly defined? What if you’ve never discriminated or done any of the harms they are assuming? Who cares! You’re guilty by associating with any group with a member who has those offensive ideas. You just need to be open minded and smarter, that’s all. And all the while the perpetrators of this response maintain that they are open minded and enlightened and others should be more like them. Huh?
If I took this attitude, I’d not read a lot of science fiction or fantasy. For example, should a Christian or a Democrat object to reading and avoid any books written by Atheists, Agnostics or Republicans? That might limit their options in unfortunate ways. I personally refuse to be that closed minded. I value the exposure I have to different points of view because it informs my writing and makes me think. It opens me to broader understandings of the world, and it challenges me to look at things often through a different lens. I have come by my beliefs honestly, through years of study, thought, prayer, and examination of the world and myself. I have unpacked them in masters classes, college classes, on foreign trips, and in classes as both teacher and student. I have unpacked them in reading and writing and dialoguing with others. I have turned my back on them for a while to try on new ones, and some I’ve gone back to, others I’ve left behind. And I continue to do so. I’m a better person for it. I don’t have to agree with you on everything you believe or say to respect you or enjoy your work. Why is this so difficult for other people? Having friends of varying viewpoints is something I value highly. I have changed my mind and grown as a person from talking with them. I have been challenged time and again. And I have been forced to consider my positions carefully and really dig into who I am, what I believe and why. Is this a bad thing?
I truly believe science fiction and fantasy would not be the genres they are today if people had been as closed minded historically as so many seem to be today. Perhaps it’s the media exposure or the fact that pundits work so hard with their invective to divide us or label us and encourage anger. I don’t know. But I don’t think it bodes well for the future of our genres if people continue to have this attitude. Sure, there have always been close minded people and there always will be. But there were also far more who seemed open to continually engaging in intellectual dialogue and exploring the possibilities. At present, I could name dozens of writers who attack like pit bulls anyone who dares to voice a contrary opinion to theirs. (Names are not the point but rather the questions it raises for a fiction of ideas.) Some of you know what I’m talking about. Why is it so threatening that other people think for themselves or don’t? To me, it makes little difference . If everyone was exactly like me, how boring my library would be! I’d probably have stopped reading and found another hobby a long time ago. I’d certainly have nothing worth saying or writing about. I do have a group of people with whom I can dialogue honestly and explore our different perspectives and ideas but that circle is much smaller than it once was.
I hope this is a trend which can be reversed in times to come. We discover more about ourselves when we allow different perspectives to penetrate our shell and examine them closely. It doesn’t change who we are unless we want it to. And it doesn’t mean we have to agree with or endorse them. Part of the joy of writing for many authors used to be getting inside the heads of people very unlike themselves. It’s an escape from our own realities, yes, but it’s also a broadening of self. But how can you write good, honest, believable stories about people unlike you if you refuse to allow yourself to be exposed to different points of view? With the drop in popularity of science fiction, I wonder sometimes if this is symptomatic. Maybe we aren’t writing about enough variety to keep people coming back. Maybe the ideas are blending together too much. Are people so locked into their points of view that readers have lost interest? One advantage of much fantasy is it’s often rooted in a past where older ideas still reign and must be confronted at least with new ideas the writer brings to life through his or her characters.
I don’t have the answers, but I do work hard to continue exploring ideas and interacting with people different from my own and myself. You can’t help but be a better writer and person by doing so, in my experience. Certainly the kid from small town Kansas who went off to college and work in large cities for decades, travelled to Africa, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, and other places, returned to Kansas now in his forties a very different person. And along the way, he started selling his writing after years of rejection. Part of that is craft, but I also believe a big part of it is having more depth to write about. And depth comes from broad knowledge and understandings of peoples, the world, and various points of view so that you can use them in your work in a way that strikes readers as real.
I certainly hope writers continue to explore the world as much as they can. I hope they ask themselves about the benefits and dangers of ideas and challenge themselves to examine them carefully while doing their best to keep open minds. Our bookshelves will be better for it. And so will the writer’s lives. Above all, science fiction can’t survive and thrive without those new and continually evolving ideas. In the end, it’s really a question of what do we want our genres to be and how do we help them to get there? But it also involves asking how they came to be what they are now in the first place and how do we preserve it? I don’t think we can find the answers in one place or one set of ideas. And I don’t think we can find them on our own but together. Are we willing to enjoy the risks and rewards that togetherness can bring? I hope so.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.