Can we quit saving the universe all the time, please?
In an interesting bit of serendipity, I read a wonderful short story recently, “Freedom, Spiced and Drunk” by M.C.A. Hogarth, that provides a wonderful example of what I was planning to talk about today.
Today’s topic is: Not every sf/f story needs to be about saving the world/galaxy/universe.
I know this should be bloody obvious, but you’d not believe it from a quick perusal of Amazon or Goodreads. Look, I love the Hero’s Journey as much as any body, but it’s not the only plot out there! Can we please have some smaller scale stories, more like Ms. Hogarth’s that concentrate on an individual’s struggle with something other than an overwhelming military force or evil empire or corrupt government?! I’m really about to give up on my favorite genres because I’m getting so fucking sick of everything being about people saving the whole setting all the time! I’ve read Dragonlance; I’ve watched Star Wars; I know that story! Tell me something different!
Wow, I got a bit . . . strident . . . there. But, really, I’m getting pretty close to giving up on sf/f entirely for a while because I’m so fucking tired of everything being the same overall story. Or at least being pickier about what I’ll read. Look, fellow authors, for generations now we’ve had the lit fic crowd saying we’re all writing formulaic, plot driven stories. Why, why, why are so many of you determined to prove them right?!
My favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation weren’t those where the Enterprise was saving the day yet again. They were those that gave me a glimpse of an alien culture (especially Klingons because I have an extreme weakness for honorable warrior cultures). Let’s have a bit more of that and a bit less saving the day.
Look at Firefly, undeniably one of the best sf/f TV shows ever. The crew of Serenity aren’t trying to save the universe; they’re just trying to keep flying and deal with their own problems.
Sf/f should be the genres exploring any “What if?”, any “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”, an author can think of, but lately those elements seem downplayed in favor of author after author giving their version of one of the oldest stories ever. It makes no sense.
In a way, this ties into another issue I’ve been noticing with sf/f lately: the lack of “sense of wonder”. It’s like everyone is so worried about being realistic that they forget that part of the appeal of sf/f is that it’s not real. Give me implausible creatures, single-climate planets, magic that’s not science . . . all that stuff that I’m pretty sure is why we all fell in love with the genres in the first place.
At least, it’s why I did.
This got kind of rambly and unfocused, but I’ve had a pretty nasty cold screwing with my ability to think all week and this is my fourth or fifth attempt at this post, so I’m going to go ahead and post it as is. Maybe I’ll revisit the topic some time when I’m able to think more clearly.
I’ll leave you with a quote from George R. R. Martin, one of my favorite quotes ever from any author:
The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.
originally published in The Faces of Fantasy: Photographs by Pati Perret copyright © 1996 by Pati Perret