Thursday, 8 November 2012

Meet the New Wave - Same as the Old Wave

Following links on various blogs lead me here, which lead me here, and thence to here. (Now I am blogging about it here. The circle of life is, I think you'll find, a wheel of fortune.)

Half of the writer's complaint about modern SF is entirely valid: the absurd, bloody-minded obsession with The Trilogy or The Series. Tolkien probably changed modern literature more than any other single writer in the 20th century, and you can view those changes as being for good or for ill; but it is without dispute that he bequeathed to fantasy, and to a lesser extent SF, a certain awful legacy: we can't have proper stand-alone novels any more. They have to come in three volume packages, or worse. There is probably no single thing about fantasy/SF as a genre that annoys me more than this - if you can't tell me a good, satisfying story in 400 fucking pages you aren't trying hard enough.

The other half, I am puzzled by. It is best set out in this sentence:

There is a problem...with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction.

This connects to an earlier comment on the GRRM piece:

At the most basic level, if Martin can’t write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank (and I’m certainly prepared to believe he can’t) then he has no business writing anything. He is basically saying he has no eye, no ear, no empathy. And that is why it is speaks to the problem of commercial fantasy in general.

Which seems to say the same thing in a different way: modern SF (and fantasy) needs to, in some sense, speak to the real world. And while SF perhaps achieves this more than fantasy, it still suffers from an artistic problem: it is mired in genre and stylistically and narratively conservative:

[D]espite Osiris's fundamentally progressive approach, both publisher and writer have made equally fundamentally conservative choices. For Swift, that is to play it safe artistically: the two placeholder protagonists representing philosophies as much as people, the interleaving chapters getting shorter and faster as they go, the third person narrative that cares a bit about voice but more about story. It turns out that at the novel's heart is not a question about how we live our lives now but instead a conspiracy. There is always a bloody conspiracy. Whether it is fantasy's palace intrigue or SF's corporate secrets, there is always a piece of hidden knowledge that will unlock the world. But, of course, there isn't. With wearying inevitability, the novel climaxes with a set piece action scene (it is safe to say such scenes are not Swift's strong point). In this way, the novel's potential ends up dribbling away down the plug hole.

I should say first of all that I am not one of those people for whom the word 'conservative' is an automatic negative and 'progressive' an automatic positive (which seems to make me bizarrely counter-cultural and radical among my peers, but that's another issue). Nowhere is this truer in literature. As an undergraduate I had to read Dos Passos, Gaddis, Stein, and plenty of other "progressive" writers (both politically and stylistically) and found little or nothing there to love; my general feeling about literature which is self-consciously "progressive" is that it tends to be cold, arch, and unentertaining.

Be that as it may, stylistic evolution is important; without it we'd still be reading Cervantes. (Though I have to say, as somebody who reads a reasonable amount of SF I just don't recognise the genre the reviewer is describing: it seems to me to be much less stylistically conservative overall than any other, but perhaps I am reading the wrong books.) What concerns me more is this idea that genre fiction has to "address" or "speak to" issues - be they to do with post-20th Century resource scarcity or anything else.

No, before you get ahead of me: this isn't one of those paeans to escapism. It has its virtues, but that's a conversation for another day. This is something more fundamental, to do with the nature of fiction and authorship, and it is this: professional writers of fiction are, probably, with the exception of movie stars and musicians, the least appropriately qualified people in the world to speak with any authority whatsoever about important 'issues', and yet we are expected to not only indulge them in their phony philosophizing and half-educated musings, but pay them for the pleasure of it - for the wonder of being enlightened by their ill-formed and incorrect opinions. Why on earth they should arrogate for themselves such a role is beyond my comprehension - except for the obvious armchair psychology of noting that writers tend to be college educated and "intellectual", and that sort of person tends to think that not only do they know best; everybody else should hear about it. "Issues writers" are like impotent, frustrated people who post on forums on obscure websites - the only difference being that, because they happen to be good at telling marketable stories, we're expected to take their impotent, frustrated opinions seriously.

Bruce Sterling once wrote that science fiction writers are court jesters. They caper about making fools of themselves, while occasionally uttering veiled words of wisdom and speaking truth to authority behind the veneer of a joke. I would go along with that, although my assessment is perhaps unkinder: there is no truth for writers to speak, and their wisdom can only be of that homespun, general kind which your grandmother has more of in her little finger.

When I read fiction books I do so to be entertained - that's what I'm paying for. I am giving you money in exchange for amusing, exciting, horrifying, mind-blowing and/or beautiful lies arranged in a certain order with a beginning, middle and end. I can make up my own mind about resource scarcity, and have no need whatsoever to hear what Paolo Bacigalupi has to say about it. In fact he's close to the bottom of the list of People Whose Opinions On Resource Scarcity I Actually Care About, just above Justin Bieber and the guy who's always hanging around the local supermarket and urinating on himself. Which is to say nothing about his writing skills, which may be excellent; it is to say only that they have no bearing on anything when adults are talking.

Professional writers make shit up for a living. Let's leave the "issues" to the economists, scientists and practitioners who actually understand them. Simply put: Tell me a good story that makes me glad to be alive in the world, and fuck everything else. Dance, Paolo Bacigalupi. Dance!


  1. But if after all the economists, scientists and practictioners don't understand the 'issues' as well as they may claim or we assume, the writers might be able to help. And if the fiction does happen to address them, suspending belief as well as disbelief shouldn't be too hard. It may well add to the experience.

    1. Why might writers be able to help? As opposed to, say, a bin man or a toilet cleaner or an actor?

    2. Bin men, toilet cleaners and actors might be able to help too, and maybe far more than we think if we assume the job they do is a measure of their relevance or ability. Especially if that assumption means we've largely avoided listening to their insights so far.

    3. Precisely my point. There is nothing separating a given writer of fiction from a given bin man, in my view, except that one is probably better at writing and the other is probably more knowledgeable about waste removal.

    4. You seem to misunderstand mine. A bin man or other specialist is not as worthless as a writer beyond the given field, but as potentially valuable. Both have the capacity to see what we don't, to build on experiences beyond our own - which we may be unable to recognise for just that reason - and to convey the insight for our benefit. Dividing societies up into specific, almost hive-based roles may or may not be moving with the times, but evolutionary dead ends are presumably still not out of fashion.

    5. You seem to be making an argument that everybody should be a novelist, then. Or perhaps nobody.

    6. Neither. Why 'should'? Why one extreme or the other? For me there's a lack of nuance in the initial post and some of the replies to my comments and others' here, and I don't understand why.

    7. Partly it's because I like saying things for effect. Partly it's letting off a little steam. Partly it's because my position isn't really very nuanced: I'm extremely cynical about writers who think the world owes them a living to not only do what they enjoy but *appreciate* them for their unique and precious insights. Gimme a break.

    8. "Approved" writers may be less valuable than bin men, if all they do is lazily parrot received wisdom from 'experts'. Writers who push the envelope a bit may have something interesting to say, though there is usually a socially approved direction for that push. Eg public-school 'Progressives' are ok with China Mieville's Communism; whereas if a writer is going to deal approvingly in conservative tropes they had better have established their Progressive credentials first.

      More on-topic, Science Fiction traditionally is about 'what if' - "what if there were no resource scarcity?" for instance. But there's usually a socially approved answer there too. Too much playing with the idea may be get you labelled 'conservative' or 'reactionary'.

  2. I think you're overstating your case. When I read Octavia Butler, yes, I want to be entertained. But I also want her to pull me into a thought experiment about issues like:

    What does it mean to be "human", and why is being "human" important to us?

    What exactly is it about rape that we fear?

    Why do we regard pregnancy as benign?

    Would we still be human if we had no language? If not, what would we be?

    Do we have different moral responsibilities to other beings who share genetic material with us than those who don't?

    If I have a rare and powerful ability to help alleviate others' suffering, am I free to live my own life without using that ability? Are others morally permitted to ask me or force me to use that ability?

    Is there a positive value in the continuing existence of a given species? Why? What about the value in the creation of a new species?

    Yes, we could get some input on these issues from a bioethicist, moral philosopher, geneticist, psychologist, etc. One of the roles of the writer/artist, however, is to present us with stories that engage us with these issues in a concrete way that academics are not usually equipped to do.

    When the critic quoted above talks about addressing "the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life", i.e. resource scarcity, I don't think it's a call for SF writers to model the future and make statistical predictions about resource depletion and future history. Rather, it sounds to me like a call for writers to apply themselves to writing stories that make readers think about things like:

    What would life be like if we lost the Internet? Fossil fuels? How about modern dentistry? Indoor plumbing?

    In a world of finite non-renewable resources, what are our moral obligations with respect to using them up?

    Are our modern social attitudes a function of the technical infrastructure in which we live, or would they persist even after that infrastructure collapsed?

    Do humans always live their lives depending on unforeseen good luck in the future to save them from a course that, based on present projections, looks suicidal?

    1. I understand perfectly that that is the argument. I just don't accept those are questions a novelist should be "addressing" with any authority. Most of them are thought-experiments which are great conversations to have down the pub, or perhaps in an undergraduate philosophy seminar, and perfect for essayists or non-fiction authors to write about. I don't know what novelists bring to the table other than that they happen to be eloquent with the written word.

    2. I don't know what novelists bring to the table other than that they happen to be eloquent with the written word.

      Um, yeah, that's it.

    3. If that's the only thing they're bringing to the table then I think it's pretty obvious they're no more worth listening to than anybody else, and quite a lot less worth listening to than those who actually know something and have the proverbial "skin in the game".

    4. @ noisms - They only have the authority we give them. You can hold it back, suspend that belief and read the novel warts and all in the context of its time, but as something richer in certain respects for being an attempt to address the given question(s) too.

      I'd also say that a novelist can and often does have far more than just eloquence with the written word, as Zak suggests lower down, and that some may have surprisingly little eloquence.

  3. I have to agree with Picador.

    A good SF writer asks these questions in the very fabric of his or her story. If a Transhumanist SF writer is writing a story about a man who has seen everything and done everything as far as he knows and when given the chance, transfers his consciousness into some robot exploring deep space, he is trying to entertain you with a cool story AND ask, "So, transfering our minds into robots...Neat? Bad Idea? Even possible? What will it mean to be a person, old or immortal? What do you think?"

    While the writer may have an answer to the question they are asking, an answer they feel strongly enough about to make it the key to the story, I don't necessarily need an answer. I like that the question was asked though.

    Is this really any different from Heinlein or Dick's works? Who were they to question the nature of life, what does it mean to be human, etc.? They were writers. They can ask.

    1. I think both of them were/are overrated, but be that as it may, I think there is a difference between certain types of authors, here. I truly believe that there are writers who write stories - great stories - without considering any issue other than that they've thought up some interesting characters, setting, and plot. Questions such as yours may arise as a result, but entirely by accident.

      Then there are writers who consciously try to address issues with their work. They are almost universally weak and uninteresting in my view.

  4. "Professional writers make shit up for a living. Let's leave the "issues" to the economists, scientists and practitioners who actually understand them."

    This an appeal to authority fallacy. Economists, scientists and practitioners often don't understand the issues any better and often less well than people outside of their fields. The false confidence and overweening arrogance of self proclaimed experts is how they get us in trouble. Their policies, inventions and methods like mortgage backed securities, DDT, the "War Agains Terrorism" and reality television create big problems for everyone. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been writing about this for decades. The fact is, in domains with "long tail distributions" no one is an expert and the best we can do is minimize negative exposures to these domains. Where I think SF writers can and have often provided at least some help in this area is imagining what horrible unintended consequences can occur when we let the so called experts make all the decisions. I'm not saying that SF writers "should" do this but a dystopian society rife with problems caused by technology can be an entertaining place to set a story. The recent book, _Ready Player One_ is a good example of this. Things are definitely crappy for everyone but the high ranking corporate stooges in that book but the story never came off as preachy about it.

    1. I think you're talking about "fat tail" distributions, actually. Taleb's position is all about the impossibility of making predictions in such domains, and he says a lot about experts for effect, but I doubt he would argue that you shouldn't go to a doctor if you are ill, that you shouldn't go to a mechanic if your car is not working, that you shouldn't go to a tailor if you want a really nice suit, that you shouldn't listen to an economist to understand supply curves, that you shouldn't go to a solicitor for legal advice, etc. Our societies are full of experts who know a heck of a lot about whatever issue they are expert in.

      That's not an "appeal to authority fallacy" - it's an empirically observable truth that there are any number of experts in the world who can speak with authority about a given a field to a far greater degree than the lay person. And given the option of listening to what such a person has to say about issue X, as opposed to a jumped up SF writer who has spent his whole life day dreaming, I'll choose the former.

    2. Correct, fat tail. He does in fact argue that you should avoid doctors when at all possible with the possible exception of surgeons. He considers economists the biggest group of shysters in history. His arguments about experts are not for effect. He has written and spoken about what he calls the "expert problem." extensively.

      The problem of a car or a suit is different than a problem in economics or resource shortages. One is linear the other is non-linear. In non-linear domains and when one is making predictions, the predictions of experts are no more valuable than the predictions of a trash man. The trash man understand that his predictions are based on very little that is certain. The economist bases his predictions on very little that is certain while believing his prophecies to have a high degree of predictive value.

      Take Ben Bernanke's repeated statements about "the contagion is contained" when the mortgage derivatives started going south. The Fed has more phd economists than any institution on the planet. Plenty of bloggers down in the trenches were scratching their heads and wondering what the hell the dude was talking about. The non-experts were way ahead of the experts on the deal.

      My point is that we should not assign SF writers or "the experts" too much authority when thinking of these things. We should be cautious about what we believe and why we believe it. We should look at evidence not expert status.

      Does that mean SF shouldn't be about such things as resource scarcity, economic meltdowns, political systems etc? No I don't think we should be proscribing a particular set of subjects because SF writers aren't experts. We might miss a valuable incite or a cool story that could only take place in that background and that would be a shame.

    3. I know what Taleb says about economists - specifically, his criticisms are to do with econometrics and predictions about the economy in general, though. But to claim that economists know nothing about economics is plainly stupid. Economists know a lot about how an economy works, especially in the basics, and far more than a lay person does - certainly far more than a fiction writer does. An economist's predictions may not have any value in fat-tailed domains, but that is not the same as saying that there is no value in studying economics or becoming an expert in it. That is self-evidently false. I think it is particularly notable that Taleb himself is an expert in finance, trading, and statistics: it takes a level of expertise to discern when "science" is actually junk.

      If your argument is that we should not blindly follow the advice of experts I'm happy to concede. But that's not what my entry was about: I would like "issues" to be addressed carefully by people who know what they are talking about, not professional entertainers who, almost by definition, do not know what they are talking about.

    4. "I know what Taleb says about economists - specifically, his criticisms are to do with econometrics and predictions about the economy in general, though. But to claim that economists know nothing about economics is plainly stupid"

      Which is what I said.

      "I would like "issues" to be addressed carefully by people who know what they are talking about, not professional entertainers who, almost by definition, do not know what they are talking about."

      I agree with the first bit but not the second. Why should anyone be dissuaded from writing, speaking or performing about things they care about? The solution to ignorant speech is not less speech it is better speech by people who are not ignorant. If experts on issues are incapable of creating a compelling narrative about their issues then that is not the fault of entertainers. If one is persuaded by the narrative of a fool then who is the greater fool?

      Perhaps this is a cultural difference. In the US, we stubbornly hold that other than shouting "fire" in a crowded theater everyone has the right to say pretty much whatever they want, no matter how ignorant it may seem, who they are or what their credentials may be. I don't take to the notion that non-experts should just shut up and let the grown ups talk. Not at all.

      Should have Dickens not have written _Bleak House_ since he wasn't a lawyer? Should George Orwell have foregone 1984 because he wasn't a phd in political science or an expert in video surveillance? Perhaps Terry Pratchett should take advantage of his Swiss citizenship and end it all since he clearly is not a philosopher and therefore has nothing valuable to say about how people shouldn't treat other people like things.

    5. Eh? This isn't a free speech issue - nobody has a right to have their novels published! People can write about the things they care about until the cows come home for all I care. Just don't expect me to like it, or pay them for the privilege.

    6. PS Dickens was a law clerk and had also been a litigant in the Court of Chancery.

    7. Sure they have a right to have their novels published. Fiction is a type of speech. Whether or not someone is willing to put up the cash to make it happen is a different matter.

      Perhaps I have misunderstood.

      "Let's leave the "issues" to the economists, scientists and practitioners who actually understand them. Simply put: Tell me a good story that makes me glad to be alive in the world, and fuck everything else."

      Which has an underlying premise of "Writers have nothing interesting or new to add to the subject so they shut up and go write about faeries or elves or mighty thews and evil sorcerers or generation starships. They ought to leave the very likely event of water shortages and how that might have an impact on interpersonal relationships well enough alone." To which I say: How do you know that until its written, read and evaluated? Answer: You don't.

    8. No; they don't have a right to have their novels published. They can only have their novels published if somebody agrees to publish them. I play football - do I have a right to be a professional footballer? If so, I guess I'd better get on with the litigation, because I'm being denied that right, goddammit!

      How do you know that until its written, read and evaluated? Answer: You don't.

      No, I don't. More to the point: I don't care. And I think the idea that I need a writer to help me imagine the effect of water shortages on interpersonal relationships inherently ridiculous.

    9. "PS Dickens was a law clerk and had also been a litigant in the Court of Chancery."


      The point is that "issues" have been a place where beautiful fiction, film, theater and art of all sorts has been produced by people who were not experts on the subject they were making art about. That art has been both influential in a positive and entertaining way. There are literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of examples of this. How this is disputable is beyond me.

    10. No, I don't. More to the point: I don't care. And I think the idea that I need a writer to help me imagine the effect of water shortages on interpersonal relationships inherently ridiculous.

      I don't think that you don't need a writer to do this. You seem to be saying that writers should not do this. That is what I take issue with.

    11. It isn't disputable. It just struck me as amusing that you picked a classic example of where this categorically wasn't the case.

      In any case, you seem to be getting off track. I never said that people shouldn't write about things they aren't experts on. If that was the case there would be no fiction at all - just autobiography. My position is simply that I'm not interested in writers exploring "issues" - only in them giving me a good story. Are there cases in which they do both, and the good story manages to overcome the fact that the writer is trying to address an issue? Sometimes, yes. More often, not.

      And yes, I am saying that writers should not (at least consciously) do it. I doubt, somehow, that any writer reading this gives a shit.

    12. No; they don't have a right to have their novels published. They can only have their novels published if somebody agrees to publish them.

      That's a rather odd statement to me. A person has right to publish (that is print and issue according to my dictionary) a book with the most outlandish statements you want to make. Happens all the time. All it takes is a some money and a printing press. You don't need a publishing company to do this. I could do it at my local library for 10 cents a sheet. Maybe no one would buy my stapled together monstrosity but it is my right if I want to do it.

      Having a publisher print your book is a mutual contractual agreement. This is something different than having a right to publish.

    13. My position is simply that I'm not interested in writers exploring "issues" - only in them giving me a good story. Are there cases in which they do both, and the good story manages to overcome the fact that the writer is trying to address an issue? Sometimes, yes. More often, not.

      And yes, I am saying that writers should not (at least consciously) do it. I doubt, somehow, that any writer reading this gives a shit.

      I don't think we disagree entirely. The one bit I disagree with is this- You don't know what you can do until you attempt it and often you don't do the thing well until you try it a number of times. So how do we get beautiful works of art, that address issues in an appropriate and intelligent way without someone giving it a go? How do writers feel willing to try such a thing if readers aren't willing to pick the book up and read it?

      I was a creative writing major in college and was required to read literary fiction for my classes in that area. Most of what was thought of as brilliant by our instructors was horrible. The instructors looked right down their noses at genre fiction. What struck me about that whole bit of snobbery is that by dismissing out of hand a whole areas of fiction, they missed out on a lot of great work. The vast majority of fiction of any genre really isn't that good, no matter the subject. I just think it is short sighted to dismiss fiction based on "issues" because it is likely to be poorly done considering most fiction is poorly done no matter the theme.

    14. I think you're mistaken about what a right is. People have a right not to be arbitrarily prevented from publishing written materials, yes. That's not at all the same thing as a right to publish - for philosophical and legal reasons we don't need to go into.

      On your second point - no, we don't disagree entirely. But I acknowledge my position is fairly extreme: I have almost never read a novel which made me think "I wish the author had made more of an effort to address issue X", and I have likewise barely ever read a novel which made me think "I'm glad the author addressed issue Y". Much more often, I think "The fact that the author is trying to an address issue Z makes this a weaker novel than if he'd just focused on character and plot".

      There are one or two exceptions I can think of: Huckleberry Finn and Gulliver's Travels. I'm happy to accept there are a handful of outliers, but I think they rather prove the rule - Gulliver's Travels is more of an allegory than a novel, and Huckleberry Finn is likewise more of a fable than a novel.

    15. Not sure how rights to publish play out in the UK but this is what the Cornell school of law has to say about it in the US.

      "Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general."

    16. This is a pretty ridiculous side-track: I made it perfectly clear I was talking about there being no right to have one's fiction be published (i.e. by a publisher), not whether or not somebody can be prevented from self-publishing.

      But to follow through on it regardless, there simply is no "right to publish", despite what might be said in common parlance. There are rights guaranteeing freedom of expression, but they are essentially negative freedoms, not positive ones: you have a right to express yourself freely, but that is not quite the same thing as a right to self-publish a novel. If you lack the money or expertise to do that, you can't then seek redress from the government; there is no justiciable rights violation in your failure to achieve self-publication - unless of course you have been deliberately prevented from doing so by the state (which would be a violation of your freedom of expression).

    17. Yea, no shit. That's rather obvious, which is what I said several comments ago when I wrote, "Having a publisher print your book is a mutual contractual agreement. This is something different than having a right to publish."

    18. If it's rather obvious, why did you then say that? It's a pretty bad faith interpretation of my comments to assume I was referring to anything other than there being no right to have one's work published - i.e. by a publisher. In other words, people can write whatever they want, but don't expect people to want to publish it, or buy it for that matter. Freedom of speech is a non-issue here, which is why this side track is ridiculous to begin with.

  5. DO books need to address issues?

    Do they need to address _something_ ?
    Yeah, probably in some way.

    Do most bad writers fail to have anything in their head to address?

    Does being good at art disqualify you from having really smart informed opinions?
    I'm betting you can guess what I am gonna say here.

    Do some of the skills and aptitudes having to do with putting together a fiction turn out to be surprisingly useful in analyzing real world events allowing creative types to frequently make accurate predictions that technocrats fail to?

    Do I wanna tell you what those are, in my experience?
    Not sure, you seem pretty hostile to the whole idea.

  6. I'll point the most obvious one and one you can see is signally lacking OVER and OVER and OVER and OVER in many people when you read conversations on the internet about games or anything else:

    For nearly every artist (and especially novelists), their job requires _imagining in detail what it is like to be someone other than themselves_ . Much of the "bones" of a good novel requires this and much of what makes a shit hack novel shitty and hacky is a failure to do this. And much of what makes even a poorly-written sentence-by-sentence novel do well (like GRRMartin's books) is the ability of different kinds of people to recognize themselves in the characters.

    Nearly every week I find myself talking to someone online going "Well if you were so-and-so and so concerned with such-and-such then you might..." and the person I'm talking to goes "You know, I never thought of it that way". Well maybe that's because it isn't your job every day.

    Most people have to know about their own experience and possibly that of their boss, their kid and people they're trying to sleep with. Many many artists have to cast a wider net just to achieve basic competency in their job (writing dialogue, etc).

    The rarity and utility of this skill may be partially masked to people here because they (being GMs) have it, to some degree, too. But even within a game, for each GM there are at least 5 non-GMs.

    1. Sure, I'll grant you they have that skill, and that it is useful. But having that skill is not the same thing as being knowledgeable - worse, it often masks a lack of knowledge. It's easy, if you are good at dissembling, to give yourself the appearance of having great authority when in fact you don't.

      Famous actors who speak about "issues" do this all the time. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, George Clooney, etc., have no expert knowledge on anything other than acting - which is a similar skill to what you are talking about here - and yet that very skill itself allows them to give themselves the appearance of authority where there is none.

      If you want to make the argument that writers have a useful job to do in forcing people to use their brains a bit more and practice putting themselves in other peoples' shoes, I would agree with you, because I think that is one of the important functions of fiction - from an instrumental perspective. That is something entirely different from "addressing issues", though.

    2. Larry Niven, when describing his ARM short stories said that writing SF is more difficult than righting vanilla fiction, and writing mysteries is likewise more difficult, and so doing what he did: mystery SF was more difficult still. So, actors bad at ideas: yes, being good at two things is difficult. That's why SF often has a reputation for bad writing. It's hard to be good at ideas and good at writing. Even so, sometimes a story is the best way to communicate something about ideas.

      I think sometimes needs fiction for an idea to become emotionally real, even (especially?) if it's a counter-intuitive idea. Or as Taleb says, despite narrative bias, you need a story to fight a story.

    3. Oh, and if you're a hairshirt puritan, it's not enough to write about ideas well, you have to write about "important" ideas, even if badly.

    4. I'm not talking about skill at dissembling, I'm talking about ability to think yourself into a different place--you could call it imaginative empathy.

      You're also conflating actors (who genuinely often lack knowledge) with novelists (if you check out biographies you'll notice the good ones invariably sit around all day reading history or science or journalism or otherwise trying to collect facts)

      For a perfect example of imaginative empathy and knowledge working hand in hand take a look at David Foster Wallace's article on John McCain.

      Again: I think the fact that we are among GMs masks the fact that this skill is a _skill_ and useful in making decisions.

    5. Don't you think the ability to think yourself into a different place is linked to the skill of dissembling? I do. But be that as it may, I agree that writers have imaginative empathy, and it's useful. Again, it's a big part of why fiction exists. I'm not sure what the connection with "issues" is, though.

      Perhaps, to toot my own horn a little, it's because I have a level of knowledge in a subject which I guess entitles me to call myself a very minor expert, and *whenever* I hear people talking about that subject they invariably make complete fools of themselves. I'm not talking about being slightly wrong about it. They just don't even have enough of a clue about it to say anything meaningful regarding it whatsoever. They open their mouths and spout what is, effectively, gibberish.

      And I'm not talking about people who dropped out of high school. I am talking about very educated people - often people who have PhDs in other fields. Journalists in particular are astonishingly ignorant about my field, which makes me suspect they are probably pretty ignorant about most fields.

      So I don't have a lot of time for the argument that since writers sit around all day collecting facts, they have a great deal that's important to say. Many people do that, but it's not enough.

      I think your point about GMs may be partially right, though. Again, I'm not disagreeing that "imaginative empathy" is important, and something that people have to work on to develop.

    6. "I agree that writers have imaginative empathy, and it's useful. Again, it's a big part of why fiction exists. I'm not sure what the connection with "issues" is, though."

      All issues are, in the end about the effect of various crap on people and being able to imagine the affected people AND the kind of people who make the decisions is useful.

      If you can effectively imagine the incentives for the person who makes the napalm and the person who drops the napalm and the person who has the napalm dropped on them you are way ahead of someone who only knows that none of those people are THEM and the napalm is nowhere near them and makes their decisions based solely on their own proximity to said napalm.

      "since writers sit around all day collecting facts, they have a great deal that's important to say. Many people do that, but it's not enough."

      I did not say it was _sufficient+ , but you brought up the issue of knowledge and said they possess none. Actually, habitually, writers are what they call "high information voters". Experts? No. But unlike most people (including experts) they love expertise in fields they don't know anything about and will actually seek it out all the time just for kicks.

      But let's put this in stark terms: If I was going to write a novel about your field, the first thing I would do is _ask you_ and I would get to write the cost of the phone call off because doing that would be part of my job. Recognizing you don't know shit about a wide variety of fields is a daily problem for artists--you go "Fuck, a trombone? How do you even draw that?" Whereas many people smugly get to assume (because life never asks more of them) that what sliver of expertise they have is all they need to make a decision.

      And, yes, many artists acquire a shitty Wikipedia level knowledge on a lot of fields. And then what do the good ones do? They then take that shitty level of knowledge to actual experts.

      Will I know as much as you about your field? No. Will I be able to bring something useful to the table that the "scientists and practitioners" can't? Yes.

      The expert soldier makes decisions like an expert soldier, The expert engineer thinks like an expert engineer, the expert diplomat thinks like an expert diplomat. LEt;s say they disagree (which they inevitably do). You need someone withe more than just expertise in a field.

      You know what cops and crooks in Baltimore said when they saw The Wire? They didn't say "Wow David Simon, you don't know shit about shit, but you sure do spin a good yarn!" No. They said: "Yes, that, exactly."

    7. _
      I get it, you are a smart person with professional-level expertise and don't like having to read China Mieville's every goddamned idea about every goddamn thing. I get that.

      But I'm an artist and I conspicuously notice that artists can be _totally fucking right consistently over a long period of time_ and nobody gives a shit and we all get called crazy because the many skills artists need to develop to survive in a world where there is absolutely no instruction manual on how to do our job right are discounted over and over and over and not even counted as "skills".

      Are we smarter than people about THEIR job? No.

      Doe OUR job offer unique opportunities to see things other people don't? Yes.

      A relatively simple exercise is to track good artists and good journalists (journalists whole job is to find out facts) predictions on things. Let's ignore the fact that a very large number of artists (especially novelists) ARE or were journalists and just focus on how often they agree? Pretty fucking often.

      How often do the best scientists and best artists agree on issues? Pretty fucking often. In fact, if you look at interviews over the years, the Oppenheimers and Amises of the world pretty much agree right down the line.

      Why? Because an artist has no framework and fundamentally has to accept that they don't know shit and need to call a scientist (or a garbageman or a lawyer or a chainmail maker or a historian or an economist or whatever) , whereas many other peoples' life experience has not taught them that lesson.

      Then the artist grabs that person and asks them weird questions nobody else has ever asked them and make that person go "Huh, good question, nobody's ever asked me that" (this has happened to me more times than I can count) then you give them a hypothetical that never comes up and they go "Whoa, that has never come up but, hmmmm, if it didddd...." and then, as an artist, you know you're doing your job.

      Most people: They got out of school for a thing, they did that thing, they got paid, they got a house. They think they know everything because they DO know everything they need to know to survive in their job.

    8. What an odd perception of the world. (Though I guess it's not odd in that it toes a pretty standard line of "people like me are wicked awesome, unlike all those other jerks").

      Also, I wonder how one would possibly track predictions "on things" made by "good artists."

    9. Please do me the favor of assuming my arguments are my arguments and not a smokescreen for some pop psychology cliche.

      If anything I am representing the popular (because true) party line "Most people don't actually know what my job involves"

      As for the rest:

      Most major novelists of the 20th century have anthologies of essays and think pieces on a variety of subjects.

      None of the ones I've read come across as particularly inaccurate or ill-informed compared to those written by people closer to the issues. And sometimes a good deal closer.

      Just off the top of my head: every novelist I've read on the recent election called it and called it correctly. Most cited the same sources the scientists (Nate Silver and other pollsters with good track records) did.

      It's science: make a prediction, see if it's true. If it's true, you get credibility, if it isn't, you don't.

    10. Zak, to change subject a little, don't you think there is an important distinction between visual artists and fiction writers?

      Fiction writers are by definition not documentarians - their creations are made-up (lies, if you want to put it bluntly).

      Visual artists do of course "create", but they also usually, at least to some degree, reproduce reality. There is no way to create literature that is actually representative of fact, but there is surely a way to create visual art which is representative of fact: at its most obvious, in the form of photographs, and then on a spectrum from there.

    11. There's less difference than you'd think.

      I am able to have very coherent conversations about observation, research, imagining other people, etc. with novelists, comedians and filmmakers and when I read or hear them talk many of the underlying problems and issues are the same.

      You can only write dialogue for people who aren't like you to the degree you can imagine them, you can only make non-cardboard characters if you can imagine things that are important to them, you can only prevent a book from becoming predictable by having characters who _don't_ act according to simple algorithms.

      Believability, recognizability and "ringing true" are all things you need a certain skill to do. And that skill enables you to recognize certain brands of bullshit. And that's what useful expertise is: the ability to recognize certain brands of bullshit.

      Consider: Ayn Rand couldn't write well because she couldn't _think_ well.

      Orwell could write well because he _could_ think well.

      Nabokov: "I am no poet, I am only a very conscientious recorder".

      I have to know real anatomy to draw a centaur and make you "believe" it. GRRMartin has to know some drunk at some bar somewhere to write Tyrion Lannister and make you "believe" him.

  7. Which seems to say the same thing in a different way: modern SF (and fantasy) needs to, in some sense, speak to the real world.

    No. I make two seperate points and, in so far as there is a connection, it is solely aesthetic (rather than political, as you suggest).

    Osiris and The Windup Girl are set in the nearish future. They are directly connected to the world and, more than that, directly comment on the world as it exists now. That isn't the only type of SF I want to read but it is one of them.

    A Song Of Fire And Ice is set on a secondary world and, as such, its connection to our world is indirect (although by no means non-existence). More over, Martin doesn't (as far as I can tell from limited exposure) have any interest in commenting directly on the world as it exists. Again, that isn't the only type of fantasy I want to read but it is one of them.

    I just don't recognise the genre the reviewer is describing: it seems to me to be much less stylistically conservative overall than any other, but perhaps I am reading the wrong books.

    It sounds like you are reading the right books and I'd like to know what they are.

    1. I understand you weren't making that connection explicitly, but it seemed to me it was implicit: your criticism of GRRM seems to revolve around his unwillingness to speak to reality, and in fact his willful avoidance of it. Perhaps I was misinterpreting that.

      It sounds like you are reading the right books and I'd like to know what they are.

      It's my impression that "literary fiction", as a genre, has become quite stylistically stale in recent decades, almost as if the experiments of the modernists (and post-modernists) led to dead-ends and a general retreat back to fairly conventional story-telling. The authors who receive the most critical acclaim and success in the field nowadays - Zadie Smith, Johnathan Franzen, Ian McEwan - are all writing books which, stylistically and formally, could have been written any time in the last 100 years.

      On the other hand, off the top of my head I can think of quite a number of SF writers who to my mind play with style and form in really interesting ways: William Gibson, certainly in his short stories; China Mieville, especially in Iron Council; M. John Harrison, in anything he's ever written; even Dan Simmons, who I don't particularly like. The bulk of the genre is not that way, sure, but other genres - literary fiction included - aren't either, and probably to a lesser extent.

      But maybe I am reading the wrong books - and I mean that in the sense that perhaps I'm just not familiar with some huge swathe of stylistic and aesthetic innovation going on in the literary field.

    2. But isn't what's becoming popular telling us more about the people buying it than about the quality of things written? With literacy being a standard in the modern world, one can't assume everything written is a novelty. On the contrary, excellent literature always was somewhat elite (just like the knowledge of experts in your argument...) and worked it's way into the mainstream, very, very rarely the other way around.

    3. This might be of interest, too:

      It's one answer to the question "Are SF writers "slacking off" or is science fiction still the genre of "big ideas"? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?"

    4. your criticism of GRRM seems to revolve around his unwillingness to speak to reality, and in fact his willful avoidance of it.

      I don't think GRRM needs to speak to reality in the same way as Swift and Bacigalupi; there are plenty of other fantasy writers who do and I want all genres to be pluralistic. My problem is that he dismisses the very possibility of writing about our world and elevates this to a virtue. I don't neccessarily want him to write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank but I want him to appreciate the possibility. What I'm complaining about is not a lack of political intent but, ironically, a lack of imagination - a lack of imagination that I think is to the detriment of a lot of fantasy writers.

      It's my impression that "literary fiction", as a genre, has become quite stylistically stale in recent decades

      I'm not really after stylistic innovation, just style. The title of my post was slightly tongue in check but, insofar as I do want to see a New New Wave, it is because science fiction needs a boot up the arse rather than because of the inherent superority of this type of experimental fiction. What I am basically after is personality, writers who are "distinctively their own, stylistically and conceptually” to quote from my post. That is the lack I see in science fiction but not in literary fiction. For example, Smith, Franzen and McEwan could have been written any time in the last 50 years (I can't grant you 100!) but they would still look radical if transposed to contemporary SF.

      On the other hand, off the top of my head I can think of quite a number of SF writers who to my mind play with style and form in really interesting ways:

      I'm not convinced by Simmons but I agree with the other three and have read pretty much everything they've written for this reason. But three isn't a very big number and they strike me very much as outliers. I guess we'll have to disagree about the relative ratio of such writers within different genres, however, as we a reduced to nothing but our subjective impressions of the field.

    5. I agree with that critique of GRRM, sure. (He doesn't really write movingly or beautifully about anything, actually - he's a very bland writer - but I do think he is a genius of a plotter.)

      As for just wanting're right, we are reduced to impressionistic statements, but there aren't only 3! I can think of more, if you like. Adam Roberts is a great stylist. Phillip K Dick might not be to everybody's taste, but his style was extremely distinctive. Then there's Le Guin. Asimov. Harlan Ellison. Bradbury. Sterling. I don't think that much of his fiction, but Ian McDonald is a very stylish writer. I could go on. I'm not nearly as depressed on that front as you appear to be - if all we're after is style and personality. I agree there's a lot of dross, but 90% of everything is shit, after all, and a big proportion of the 10% are better than anything going on in literary fiction.

      (For what it's worth I'm far more concerned about fantasy - I can't remember the last time I read a fantasy novel that was actually well written. Maybe M. John Harrison again. Although I suppose it depends whether you count China Mieville as a fantasy writer or not.)

    6. @JD: Charles Stross usually has interesting things to say. I think he's writing about something slightly different - about plausible visions of the future rather than "issues". Of course, that is a major part of what SF has always been about - the core characteristic, if you will.

      I think he's on the money about the problem, which is that we seem less and less sure about what the future will look like, and it's coming at us very fast. It's hard to keep pace with technological change as it is, let alone imagine what their implications will be.

  8. I too cannot stand The Trilogy. Why is it so difficult to deliver a satisfying story in one book or -- increasingly -- film? I want to be able to sit down and read a fantasy or science fiction story and not have to worry about trudging through umpteen volumes of sod all happening as the writer collects his advance or dies two books before the end.

    As for the other matter, I wouldn't say a writer is any better qualified to explore certain issues than a bin man, but if I popped out to the doorstep on Monday morning for a chat about this and that, the bins up the road aren't going to get collected.

    1. "I too cannot stand The Trilogy. Why is it so difficult to deliver a satisfying story in one book or -- increasingly -- film?"

      Or even a slim-ish book, or a short-ish film? It seems to me that there has been fiction-bloat in the past 30 years.

  9. Can we all at least agree that there is room for a full spectrum of fiction types, including those that may exist simply for escapism as well as those that have something substantive to offer us while entertaining us?

    Oh, and yes, the stand-alone novel seems to be all but dead. There are exceptions, such as the works of David Gemmell, and some others…

  10. I'm wondering if maybe you are making a mistake in connecting the setting/theme of a book with "what the author says about a subject". Or more to the point, with "what other people SAY the author says about a subject."

    These are not the same thing. Just because Windup Girl uses global warming and genetic modification as thematic and setting elements, doesn't mean that the book is about making a statement against those things. It could be interpreted that way - especially by people who are inclined to think that global warming is a major issue and that genetic manipulation is a huge problem (I agree with the first and disagree with the second, personally).

    SF and Fantasy have always been about Might-be and could-be and wouldn't it be neat if's. But what you're saying seems to be that fantasy and SF shouldn't use real themes. And that's just not true. It's like saying that you don't like to read Heinlein because he was "pro-spaceships", and you don't want your SF to be about ramming the author's ideas down your throat. You'll make up your own ideas about spaceships, thank you very much.

    Additionally, I feel you are under-valuing the benefit of a well-researched, well-written book by someone outside a given field. While I do like to read non-fiction, I often find that books written by experts in a field are often a)too crowded with specialist terminology to be accessible or b) not clearly written.

    A book like "Last Chance to See", for example, is both entertaining and educational - it is clearly about something, and Douglas Adams isn't a biologist, but it has definite value for all of that.

    Lastly, you may also be dismissing the potential expertise of writers too easily as well. Steven Erikson has a background in archaeology, which definitely shows through in his novels, where everything in the setting is infused with layers of history and culture - far more effectively than anything GRRM does. Likewise, Tolkien's representation of Mordor, and of battle in general, is informed by his experiences in WW1.

    It's worth actually checking the credentials of an author before writing them off as "college educated and intellectual" - that just seems lazy.

    1. I think you're perhaps mistaking my dislike for "issues fiction" as dislike for authors writing about things they are interested in. These are two rather different phenomena.

  11. I often find fiction frustrating because each fictional world is subtly twisted in the direction of its author's beliefs. Spending the time and effort to discover and categorize these twists is, yeah, largely what reading and, well, interacting with other minds is concerned with. There's no getting around it, whether you're reading a book or not.

    Books take a long time to read, though, so they have a lot of time to get into your head. I can't tell you how many subtly wrong notions of reality - the reality of people, emotions, and how the world works - I picked up from books I read as a teenager that caused me grief later on. I thought I could trust Literature. After I got out of college I came to believe that a lot of what is currently taught as 'literature' is 50 year old white men masturbating in print form about all their useless (to me) hang-ups. I read way too many of these books before I realized I didn't want to spend any more time mucking through the diseased headspaces of unqualified fuck-up armchair philosophers.

    Sometimes I drop in to see what's going on in contemporary writing today, and too often I just run into the new model of these guys - the 20 or 30 year old version, each obsessed with his own version of the iconic tattooed 'bad ass' punk dream girl. Seriously, does this not describe at least a third of what male authors have produced in the 2000's? In 'serious' fiction and non-.

    I don't know that pretending to be other people is what most authors do. Most people don't have anything important to say, and in my anecdotal experience, I've learned more of what I would consider 'universal truth' from my almost inarticulate grandparents than from my shelf of Lit 101 leftovers.

    Short version: 30 seconds of the Dalai Lama on Youtube > multi-volume Ian McEwan collection.

    1. I agree almost entirely. It is in the interests of writers to play up the mystique of fiction (one of my favourite examples of this is when writers start talking about characters "taking on a life of their own", as if they are actually engaged in some semi-magical process), but much of it is just emptying the contents of one's brain onto the page in an practised way.

  12. This is an interesting post and an even more interesting discussion. I hope the light grilling you've taken doesn't dissuade you from future provocations.

    1. Thanks. Not a bit of it. This is a very light grilling indeed by previous standards!

  13. Maybe people don't really dislike preaching in writing.

    Maybe they don't notice it when they like the writing.

    Or maybe they don't notice the preaching when they agree with it.

    Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and George Orwell all wrote 'preachy writing' (that is, they have a political point and they want you to understand and agree). But they all have a high reputation.

    1. I'd agree with that assessment. I think if you share the writer's position, you tend to think "He's just raising really interesting questions in a neutral way, and not providing any definitive answers", whereas if you disagree with him, you tend to think "This guy is a preachy asshole".

    2. "Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and George Orwell all wrote 'preachy writing' (that is, they have a political point and they want you to understand and agree). But they all have a high reputation."

      I must really like preachy writing; I like all those authors! I guess for me preachiness must be a good thing. Obviously I cannot agree with the diverse opinions of all those writers at the same time, but I can enter into their worldview while reading their work.

      Le Guin might be an exception in your list - when I hear her preaching outside of her fiction, I strongly disagree and find it repulsive, but I am not really at all aware of her preaching within her novels; I enjoy them as well-written novels, the way noisms says we should. If I think a writer with Le Guin's POV would beat me over the head in her writing, I would avoid that writer. If Le Guin is preaching in her fiction she must have a light touch, I guess.

      CS Lewis by contrast lies at the other extreme of your list and comes across as a very heavy handed preacher, and this occasionally intrudes on my enjoyment of his work since I don't share his POV either, but not to the extent that I don't enjoy reading either his juvenile (Narnia) or some of his adult (Perelandra) fiction.

      Tolkien, Lovecraft and Howard are all somewhere in between those two; I'm aware of their various political POV but it tends to enrich their works rather than leave me feeling clobbered.

    3. noisms:
      "This guy is a preachy asshole"

      I guess I'm willing to cut authors a lot of slack. John Norman (Gor) is the only one I've ever really felt that way!

  14. I agree with you that writers try to make writing sound more mystical and glamorous than it really is. Or perhaps every profession does this but writers are better at it.

  15. At the most basic level, if Martin can’t write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank (and I’m certainly prepared to believe he can’t) then he has no business writing anything.

    If you believed that, why would you read or review fantasy?

    1. Er, because Martin isn't the only fantasy writer.

  16. "Let's leave the "issues" to the economists, scientists and practitioners who actually understand them."

    I don't think they understand the 'issues' either; if they did their predictions would be more accurate than random chance. Reading a large number of different perspectives can be useful, though - sometimes it's possible to gather enough information to work out that popular view X is very unlikely to be the case, although if X is received wisdom you will be a social pariah for awhile if you say so in public. I also tend to find that an expert being right about X doesn't seem to have much correlation with whether the same expert is right about Y. People have a tendency to extrapolate their views into areas where they no longer make sense. An example from recent decades - Cold Warriors who were right about the socio-political situation in Communist dominated central Europe (bunker regimes, desire and capacity for Western Liberal Democracy) later extrapolated that to the Arab world, with disastrous results.

    1. There's a subtle cognitive bias at work with all of this, though. People tend to look at disastrous events and say, "Stupid experts! They always fuck everything up!" with the benefit of hindsight, without pondering what might have happened had circumstances been different.

      We don't know the counter-factuals. Not to sound too Panglossian about it, but who's to say with less expert input into events, or with a different set of experts, they wouldn't have turned out even worse?

    2. Predictions:
      The Iraq invasion was one that struck me because at the time, before the invasion. I believed what the advocates were saying. When Douglas Hurd said it was a terrible idea because Iraq wasn't Germany I remember saying "That's so racist!" I was an idiot. I've been a lot more sceptical since.

      Iraq was a case where there was a 'respectable' left-wing view against the invasion, so I can say I was wrong they were right and that's ok. But having learned scepticism I've spent plenty of time looking at other received wisdom. It looks to me that on the weight of the evidence, man-made global warming is very unlikely to be true, but there is no 'respectable' constituency saying that, and it will be a long time before the dominant view changes, even though it has had no predictive value.

    3. Regarding global warming, I just view it as being analagous to insurance. You don't buy insurance because you expect to be burgled or your house to burn down. You buy it just in case. It makes sense to reduce the use of fossil fuels too, for that same reason.

      As for Iraq, I think the jury is still out on that, to be honest. That's one of those situations in which we don't know the counter factual. No, Sadddam did not have WOMD at that time. Did he have a history of developing them? Yes. Might he have done so 9 years down the line? Yes. Would he have used them to destabilise the region? Almost certainly. Is the Middle East better or worse off than it would have been without the invasion? Impossible to say.

    4. I would disagree with you on both the wisdom of reducing fossil fuel use, and the possible wisdom of invading Iraq. :) The negative externalities of not using fossil fuels, and of invading Iraq, are/were both very great, and I see no plausible scenario where they'd be outweighed by positives.

      Anyway, to get back on-topic: I think it's probably a good thing that novelists do address Big Issues, though not because they're likely to Get It Right; rather it's because they can help us to think about the Big Issues in useful ways. They can be a good writer like George Orwell, or a bad writer like Ayn Rand (? I've not read her novels, only non-fiction), either way they can give a useful perspective, whether we agree with them or vehemently disagree. The very weakness of Rand's pro-capitalist argument, or the implausibility of Star Trek the Next Generation's socialist utopia both gives useful food for thought, and useful insight into the ways other people think.

    5. But how can you know what the downsides would have been of not invading Iraq? We don't know how the world would look now, because there is no alternative scenario to examine. It's extremely difficult to say whether it was a mistake or not, because we simply don't know what would have happened if a different decision had been made. As for fossil fuels - we're going to have to still go on using them, sure. But to maintain energy security our energy supplies will have to be diversified; that's insurance.

      Personally I'm not a huge Orwell fan in terms of his fiction. 1984 and Animal Farm are more allegory than novel (1984 is really a sort of philosophical treatise) - they are both extremely important and worth reading, but I wouldn't say they are great novels. I haven't read Ayn Rand either; I think she's an American thing.

      My feeling is that good "issues" writers don't address issues deliberately. They write good, character-based stories with interesting ideas and plots, and because of that, perhaps incidentally, the reader thinks about associated issues. But that isn't because of any conscious decision on the part of the writer.

  17. I confess to being a little surprised at the underlying message of this post (surprised largely because I'm such a fan of your blog and appreciator of your insight that I'd naively started to assume we thought alike on everything!) Writers, like musicians, are (generally) not experts in scientific/legal/philosophical/ethical fields, it's true - but I'm pretty wary of any standpoint which says that because they aren't experts, what they have to say is categorically not valuable. It seems like quite an elitist ethos you're underwriting, whether that's what you intended or not - putting forward the notion that those with the most qualifications are de facto those most qualified to tell others what to think and how to act. For the hard sciences, or any discipline dealing with quantitative data, this is surely true in almost every case - but for philosophy and ethics, say, I'd wholeheartedly reject such an idea. Some people have wisdom to share - wisdom grown by experience and engagement with the world - and the value of what one has to offer one's fellows doesn't directly correlate to the letters after one's name. I'm not saying this to deny that the experts are experts, or that they have nothing to teach us - I'm an academic theologian, the paradigmatic example of overqualified unemployability - but simply to question the arbitrary dismissal of a whole subset of society as unqualified to speak truth.

    All of which begs the question - why are fantasy and science fiction among the least likely genres to communicate deep, philosophical, and/or sacred concepts? Personally, I think a large part of it is that - at a surface level - these genres are explicitly removed from the common human experience. We don't live on space ships; we live on earth. We don't inhabit a world of magic and demihumans; we inhabit a mundane world of humans and the marketplace. And yet, I think this understanding of the genre is a misconception: the fanatstical elements of fantasy & SF are, ultimately, raw material to work with. If this raw material is taken seriously, it can speak truths and wisdoms as deep as any prize-winning piece of literature.

    The problem is that too many genre authors are influenced by the mainstream public opinion of their work - it's true, if you're told your work is frivolous 100 times eventually you might start to feel a little frivolous. But this is to be resisted - a story set in Middle Earth has no less potential for exploring the world and the human condition than one set in colonial-era Baghdad, and the fact that the latter story is 1000x more likely to win a handful of prestigious awards doesn't change that one bit. The problem there is with the preconceptions of others, not the genre itself; and if fantasy & SF authors remember this, they can take light to darkness.

    Take, for one example off the top of my head, Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" - it features a man with visions of the past, a demon, a witch, a vampire, a human-sized anthropomorphic cat who dual-wields pistols, a fallen angel, a succubus, the angel of death, and an evil wizard (who, we ultimately realise, is the Lord of Hell himself). Sounds like a kick-ass dungeon romp, right? And yet it's widely held to be one of the greatest novels of the modern era, generating reams of scholarship (primarily focusing on its status as a damning satire of the dehumanizing, corrupt, and failing Soviet bureaucratic machine), as well as being translated into many languages and also into every conceivable genre. The raw material Bulgakov chose to work with was undeniably kickass, pure adventure material, and would look great airbrushed onto the side of a van - but he treated it seriously, drawing not only on his talent for writing but on his experience of the world around him (he'd been an army doctor and a morphine addict before turning to the pen), and spoke deep and damning truths to power.

    1. I don't think writers are "unqualified to speak truth". It's more that I don't believe it is the job of fiction to "speak truth" - that's the kind of thing that fiction writers say when they try to justify their own existence. For some reason "telling stories" isn't good enough, although I am perfectly happy with it as a proposition. Entertaining people and making them feel glad to be alive, which is what good fiction does, is among the noblest things a person can do.

    2. I totally agree! I just don't see why it has to be an either/or, which seems to be what you're implying.