Speculative Fiction

Literature of Change

We have discussed What Speculative Fiction is, What makes it Progressive, and Why it is important that it is progressive,  but now it is vitally important to clarify some key points about the nature of Progressive Speculative Fiction.  There are two equally disastrous paths we can take from here.  As with everything in life, we have to find the middle path between the opposites:

  • The Light Side: Everything is great, and will only get better.  The future will be a universally happy place.  We are heading towards a utopia.
  • The Dark Side: Entropy rules the world and things are only getting worse.  The future will be a gloomy and sinister place.  We are heading towards a distopia.

Both are extremes, and neither can ever paint a valid world that has any grounding in reality.

Does Speculative Fiction have to be gloomy?

Damien G Walter at the Guardian wrote a fascinating article about the utopian and distopian sins of Science Fiction (read it here).  He asks the basic question that I would love to paraphrase: Does Speculative Fiction have to be gloomy?

From the recent releases, you might assume the answer is a yes, but it doesn't have to be.

Gloomy has its place in any story, but if that story only strikes one note throughout, then it become boring, and the audience looses interest.  We can see this trend with Lost and Heroes, but shows like Torchwood, Battlestar Galactica, and Sanctuary show that it s possible to strike a happy median.

Sometimes a story has to be bleak and gloomy throughout to make the point, like 1984 by George Orwell, but more often then not writers take the gloom to an unnecessary extreme.

The challenge for writers of science fiction today is not to repeat the same dire warnings we have all already heard, or to replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age, but to create visions of the future people can believe in (The Guardian).

Must SF fix the worlds problems?

Kathryn Cramer at Tor had an interesting take on Damien's post (read it here):

I view science fiction partly as a set of perceptual tools we take with us into the world. I don’t think SF can be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world’s problems, but I think it is SF’s task to help us understand them (Tor).

Whether or not the writer understands or believes it, all fiction is a perceptual filter that shows their readers/viewers the world from a certain point of view.  People are influenced by these perspectives to differing degrees.  The quality of the fiction plays a part in that, but so too does the structure and discipline of the reader/viewer's mind.

It is too much to ask any writer to solve the world's problems in their work, but they have to understand that they are responsible for show the cost and consequences of their character's actions.

For example, we like to believe that people are born good or evil, and that it is alright to be amoral from time to time.  This is why so many people reacted negatively to George Lucas' edits of the original Star Wars Trilogy and the addition of the prequel.  He clarified Han Solo's morality and showed how a good person can become evil.  In fact, it has been argued by C. S. Lewis and others that their truly is no such thing as evil.  There is only vile, horrible, and misguided attempt to do good.  If you look at most of the "monsters" in history, they are people who thought they were doing good even though they wrought horrors on the world.

It is the job of every writer to show that every action has an effect.

A Positive Science Fiction Platform?

Jason Staddard over at Strange and Happy put forth his Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform.  While it is well intentioned, I think it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction.  Let's go through the planks in the platform.

Positive science fiction starts with acknowledging that there are positive things happening, now (Strange and Happy).

Is this necessary? No.

Often an SF writer will start here, but others will start with the fear of the current situation or from the perspective that the current state of affairs in beyond saving, and impose a new solution to avert the mistakes the present state could lead too.

  • Star Trek starts with a world war and global catastrophe that nearly brought about another dark age.
  • Lestat saw the system of mandated belief an filial duty as corrupt and corrupting.  It wasn't until he became a vampire that he started looking for a better way.

That does not mean we should ignore this plank, but simply take it as advise rather than a rule.

Positive science fiction is about the possibility of positive change (Strange and Happy).

Absolutely.  In the Project: Shadow Manifesto, I call this simply "hope for the future."  Things can get better, but that doesn't mean they are destined to.  If there is no hope, there is nothing at stake for the characters and no tension in the story (What is Progressive SF?)

Positive science fiction has a protagonist or protagonists that can effect change (Strange and Happy).

Definitely.  This is the problem I have pointed to time and time again with SF media, and why I didn't like Battlestar Galactica for a long time.

This ties directly into hope.  If it is impossible for a character to affect change, then there is no tension.  The villain will win.

Positive science fiction isn’t afraid to look at challenging definitions of “positive (Strange and Happy).”

This is where the writer has an important question to answer.  "For whom is the change positive?"

Anakin Skywalker's fall to the dark side is necessary to bring balance to the force.  There are many ways to take this, but it is fundamental to Progressive Speculative Fiction.

Positive science fiction inspires people to act and influence positive change (Strange and Happy).

So long as it is not preachy, I agree.  If the story inspires the reader/viewer to make a possitive change within themselves, then the story succeeded.  There isn't enough time or space for me to list all of the stories that have influenced me positively.

Literature of Change

There is a common thread weaving through this discussion.  Jetse de Vries on his blog, In the Plane of the Ecliptic found the middle ground between gloom and naivite, the answer we have been looking for:

I disagree with the cliché that SF is the literature of ideas (they help, but they're not the core): to me, SF is the literature of change.

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of change: things change for the worse, or things change for the better (I realise life is much more complex than that: some things improve, other things worsen, and some things don't change very much. I'm looking, admittedly roughly, at the net result here) (In the Plane of the Ecliptic).

Even the simplist horror and fantasy deals with the nature of authority and friendship.  Change is the only constant in the universe, and Speculative Fiction is the literature of change.  Writers ask themselves, "What if this happened?"  The answer is usually, everything would change.

How writers explore the changes is the difference between and great and a mediocre story.

What is Progressive Speculative Fiction?

"Progressive Speculative Fiction is a story told in any medium which has a “What if” at its core and is filled with hope for the future and promotes a sense of community (Project: Shadow Manifesto)." Of all the things I wrote in the Project: Shadow Manifesto, that one sentence has proven to be the most controversial.  Writers have emailed me asking if their work is Progressive SF or not.  Let's approach the question slowly.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative Fiction is any fiction that has at its core a "What if?"  There are five main subgenres of Speculative Fiction:

  • Science Fiction
  • Scifi
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Alternative History

What sets these stories apart from the mainstream?

All fiction asks the question, "Suppose X happened to this character, what would happen?"  Speculative Fiction asks, "What if X were true about the universe, how would this character react?"  For example:

  • Harry Potter: "What if magic existed in the world and it could do anything but bring people back from the dead?"
  • Lord of the Rings: "What is the prehistory of Europe where a mystic struggle between the powers of light and darkness over the nature of the world to come?"
  • Dune: "What if it were possible to alter consciousness enough for people to see the interconnectedness of all things"
  • Cthulu Mythos: "What if there were beings in the universe as powerful and incomprehensible as we are to an ant?"

The question is the heart of the story.  You cannot have a ghost story unless you ask, "What if ghosts interfered with the lives of people?"

That is why it is called Speculative Fiction.  It speculates about a world that is different from ours in some way.

What makes Speculative Fiction Progressive?

Hope for the future and promotes a sense of community.  Some have taken this to mean that dark fiction cannot be Progressive.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Heroes and Battlestar Galactica

i has BSG S3!!!
Image by Mostly Lisa via Flickr

Heroes is not progressive, but Battlestar Galactica is.  Both of these stories are dark, and at times bleak.  Why is one Progressive and the other not?

There is no hope in Heroes.  Nothing inspires the characters forward.  They looked into Kierkegaard's void and could not take their eyes off of the fact that the world is free from purpose and meaning.  They embrace their meaninglessness, and robs the series of any lasting merit it could have.

Battlestar Galactica looked into the same void, and the characters chose to carve out their own meaning in the cosmos.  They have hope for the future, even if it is challenged often, and they are continually struggling to build a viable community.

Hope for the Future

Hope is a necessary element of fiction that many post-modern writes/producers neglect.

  • Without hope, the characters have nothing to loose.
  • With nothing to loose, there is no tension.
  • Without tension, there is no reason to care about the characters.
  • If you don't care about the characters, there is nothing left but spectacle.

That is the primary problem with shows like Lost, Heroes, and Fringe.  All they have is spectacle and shock value.  They have no depth, and there is no reason for people to care about them.  People watch simply to see what crazy thing happens next.  They will be forgotten quickly.

Community

A side effect of the hopelessness and ennui that fills post-modern SF is the focus on the individual to the detriment of the community.  This factor alone was able to change my opinion of Battlestar Galactica.  I didn't used to like the show, but after I marathoned the boxsets, I could see and better still feel the communities that were trying to maintain themselves.

A sense of community is integral to Speculative Fiction because most if not all stories present a world that is different from our own, and without a sense of community it is hard if not impossible to understand the nature of the setting.  For example look at Legend of the Seeker:

  • The levels of mistrust amid Darken Rahl's soldiers
  • The submissive population of Brennidon
  • The reverence of the Confessors for each other and their outrage at sacrelige
  • The prevelence of hidden valleys and islands

All these and more add up to a better understanding of the world under Darken Rahl's control.  Through these communities and the relationships between Richard, Zedd, and Kahlan defines the setting.

Hope and community are part of what Progressive Speculative Fiction is, but they are also Why Progressive Speculative Fiction is important, which we will talk about in the next post in this series.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Project: Shadow Manifesto

Project: Shadow Logo To mark the 10 year anniversary of the Project: Shadow Manifesto, we thought it was time to overhaul it again, but this time to open up the project to all of the like-minded fans out there who are tired of the status quo, and who are hungry for something new. Brian and I drafted the original Project: Shadow Manifesto in 1999 as an outline we saw in professional publishing.  The original draft was heavy on problems, light on vision, and even lighter on solutions.  We took years investigating the limited options available at the time, built the original Project: Shadow, and I started writing.

In 2004, we revised the manifesto, and re-launched Project: Shadow.  The new draft focused on the solutions possible through new technologies.  The world/culture presented us with newer challenges.


We are fans.

We love our music, stories, characters, and settings. We know about what we love. We participate in what we love. We support what we love. What we love supports us.

At heart, a fan is not someone who enjoys a movie, a song, a band, a book, or a show.  A fan feels an intense connection with the object of their love.  Fans decorate their homes, offices, and desktops with items that announce their allegiance with their favorite bands, movies, shows, and books.

The problem with our popular culture is that it doesn’t blink at a sports fan wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with their favorite team, or even a replica jersey, but wear a Star Wars shirt or dress like a goth and they think they have the right to mock you.

What is the difference between a fan wearing a jersey to a game or fan bringing a light saber to a movie?  Or for that matter, what is the difference between a sports fan painting themselves up to go tailgating or a fan dressing as their favorite character at a convention?

Perception.  Pop Culture has classified sports fans as acceptable and speculative fiction fans as geeky.  I have to say, it is just as geeky to now all of the stats for everyone who has ever played for a particular sports franchise as it is to know the stats for every creature in the Monster Manual.  The only real difference is one fan accepts they are a geek, and the other pretends their geekiness is proof they are a jock.

The disapproval is the least of the problems facing today’s fan.

From Storytellers to Copyright

Problem: People are natural storytellers.  We hear a story, embellish it, and pass it on.

Solution: We tell each other stories, sing songs, write books, make videos, and create art to share these stories with each other.

Every story we tell is not original.  We like to tell the same stories over and over.  We borrow stories from any where and retell them in our own vernacular.  It is intrinsic to who and what we are to share stories with each other.

Problem: The only constant in the world is change.

Solution: We ask ourselves the question, "What if," and share the answer with each other.

Problem: Artists and Writers need to make a living singing their songs, writing their books, making their videos, and creating their art.

Solution: We establish systems of Copyright.

The Cultural Cycle

Before the era of Copyright, stories, heroes, melodies, and lyrics belonged to the people.  Stories were told, and retold.  Numerous visions of each story competed against each other.  The best were remembered, collected, retold, embellished, and built upon.  The rest were forgotten.

Who told the first story about Hercules? Or Jason? or Troy?  Who started the legends of King Arthur? or Beowulf?  The first tales and their countless reiterations have been lost, but the best, most iconic stories survived.

Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, only a few comedies have no obvious sources, and even they rely upon well established patterns and archetypes.

This is the Cultural Cycle that keeps important stories alive.  Each generation must retell the tales of the preceding generations in their own context to keep them relevant.  This cycle has been broken.

  • Problem: Companies lobby to prevent Intellectual Property from reentering the commons of the culture.
  • Problem: Companies control the instruments of culture, making it harder to engage culture creatively.
  • Solution: Fans retell these stories as not for profit tales, films, and  songs.
  • Solution: Fans organize themselves into clubs and conventions.

These solutions are are not enough.  Fanfiction and film relies on the good will of the copyright holders and the fact that the fans do not make money from their works to slip through the thinnest of loop hole in copyright.  As a result, pop culture is unaware of the cultural developments and retelling of these new stories.  The subculture may be enriched by them, but the culture as a whole is not.

The Creative Commons and the Cult of the Dollar

Problem: Publishers and producers focus more on the commercial and popular value of a work, and the creative energy of the work suffers.  Readers/viewers will not become fans, and fans will not continue to accept passionless works of Speculative Fiction.

Solution: Placing honesty over consumerism, we fans must stake out our own home to create and share the works we love.  We must stand between the darkness and the light:  This is the purpose of Project: Shadow.

Problem: The Companies and Rights holders lashed out against the fair use of their properties.

Problem: Some Rights Holders have lulled fandom into a false sense of security by not suing and even encouraging those who produce fanworks

Creative Commons is one of many proposed solutions to this problem.  Others have lobbied for copyright reform.  Neither of these is a solution to the problems.

Copyright reform is a doomed enterprise while corporate lobbyists have the power they do over the congress.  While it is a goal to work for, it is just not realistic in the short term.

Creative Commons is closer to a solution, but the adoption rate has not been sufficient to even start chipping away at the problem.

The reason Creative Commons is an uphill battle is that it is a major evolution in the way rights holders handle permissions to use their work, and exists without an intermediary form.  Existing rights holders have not adopted it because they are unwilling to give up all the rights entailed under Creative Commons.

I approached the Creative Commons Foundation with a proposal for a Fan Works License:

Some of the rights holders I have talked to are reluctant to use the CC because they are concerned they are giving up too many rights to their works.  A Fan Works License would allow rights holders to clearly state what they will allow others to do with their characters, content, and settings.

It would be a bit more complicated than a standard CC, stating whether others may make original text, video, music, or art projects based on their works.  It would also allow them to set the content rating they would allow fan works to have.  This could be aligned with the MPAA ratings or the ESRB ratings system or an original system.  The reason for this is so a young adult novelist could set a max rating of PG-13, allowing others to know what standards they would apply to determine whether a fan work is legitimate or not.

The other terms would be the same as in the standard CC.

You may not think something like this is necessary, but the current state of fan works is hazy.  While few have been sued in the last couple years, at any time, rights holders could decide to start suing again.  By creating a license that covers works with the same characters and settings rather than a particular book or movie, I believe we could get more rights holders to use the license to allow for the creation of fan works, which is a step on the road to open up works to the commons.

They responded with a simple, “CC probably isn't going to be expanding the license offerings, and in fact, over the past few years CC has been reducing the number of licenses.”

I do not believe that a fanwork or Creative Commons license is the ultimate solution, but as a possible stepping stone toward an open culture.

Progressive Speculative Fiction

  • Problem: Modern and Post-modern fiction is antithetical to hope, imagination, and community
  • Problem: Success is easier through snark, hate, and discrimination.
  • Solution: We will promote, support and create Progressive Speculative Fiction.

What is Progressive Speculative Fiction?

Progressive Speculative Fiction is a story told in any medium which has a "What if" at its core and is filled with hope for the future and promotes a sense of community.

How can disaster fiction be progressive?

Watch a Godzilla movie or either The Day the Earth Stood Stills.  If there is nothing worth saving, then there is no tragedy.  The heroes must at least try to save someone or something worth saving.

How can horror be progressive?

Watch nearly any horror film made prior to 1990 or for the best example read The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker or anything by Anne Rice.  If life is not worth living or there is nothing worth defending, where is the horror.  If life is worthless, then death is merely a release from a nightmare.  There is nothing scary about it.  If there is no free will, nothing is lost by imprisonment or possession.  If sanity is not worth preserving, why bother.

What works are Progressive Speculative Fiction?

There are too many to mention all of them, but to offer a spectrum:

Just to name a few.

Mythos

  • Problem: The word "Myth" has become a marketing term.

Homogenized works are released more often by the industry every year.  Focus groups and market analysis have replaced quality work, but since the cultural cycle is broken, industry has no alternative.  It is safer to release works like the ones that sold last year than it is to seek out new talent/ideas that would be more of a risk.

They know what the fans want.  We want myths, stories that speak to us on a deep level while entertaining us.  Myths are hard to make.  It is easy to add in a wizard or a starship and call it mythology.  Fans see through it, but the masses are looking for little more than sex, violence, and humor.  Speculative Fiction has been watered down to little more than:

  • imitation space opera
  • knock-off cyberpunk
  • repackaging of the rings
  • martial arts boom-boom
  • torture porn

They, then, wrap it in a shiny box, slap the word myth, saga, legend, or reboot on it, and wait for the masses to spend their money on it... and they usually do.

We do not need another company driven by profit margins, or another author whose self-important propaganda obscures the art.

We need writers and artists that love what they are doing.

We need fans who are not afraid to speak their minds.

We need places in our towns/cities and online where we can meet and share the few gems that we find from the industry and from the independent artist, writers, and filmmakers who are still following their bliss rather than the dollar.

That is why we are here.  Project:  Shadow and dashPunk will provide a platform for writers, artists, filmmakers and fans to “follow their bliss.”  We are dedicated to finding and promoting the best Speculative Fiction out there: the little/well known writers, filmmakers, artists and works, fostering their talents, and helping them to not only follow their hearts, but to share that vision with others.

But we cannot do it alone!

Fandom Strikes Back

  • Solution:  We must seek out and support the writers, artists, and producers that encourage and support fan works.
  • Solution:  We must get writers, artists, and producers on the record about their position regarding fan works.
  • Solution: We must live according to our values of hope, imagination, and community.
  • Solution: We must build a community around hope, imagination, and community, and reject the rote cynicism that defines the faux-fandom that loves to tear things down rather than build things up.
  • Solution: We must spread the stories, videos, songs, and art that speak to us.

Together, We can make dashPunk and Project: Shadow more than an idea or a website, but a vibrant community of fans who share the things we love with each other.

Together, we can make it easier to find and share the things we love and find new things to love.

Together, we can build a community of fans who support and engage one another for our mutual benefit.

Alone, none of us can stand up to the corporate powers who control the music, video, text, and art that we love, but together, our voice will be heard.

Fandom is a vibrant culture with its own music (filk), events (conventions), games, and myths.  Until now, we have gathered periodically, or in disparate groups. 

Now is the time to bring the great multitude of fan bases together.

Now is your time!  Copy this Manifesto.  Print it, post it, email it, share it!  Tell a friend, and most importantly Make your voice heard.

Download

  • [download#1#size#nohits]
  • [download#2#size#nohits]
  • [download#3#size#nohits]
  • [download#4#size#nohits]

Creative Commons License Project: Shadow Manifesto by Project: Shadow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at dashpunk.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://dashpunk.com/about/.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Fantasy and RPG's Who's Killing Who

In his blog, Mark Chadbourn asked the question, Are RPGs Killing Fantasy? In response, Jonathan McCalmont reversed the question and asked Is Fantasy killing the RPG? Lets take these one at a time. Are RPGs Killing Fantasy? Chadbourn's argument is that the ubiquity of Fantasy RPGs are robbing the magic from the Fantasy Genre:

This huge industry has turned all the tropes of fantasy into crashing cliches. Elves, dwarves, and dragons are as familiar as your next-door neighbour. We all know how magic works, as clearly as the laws of physics - it’s defined in a thousand rule books (Mark Chadbourn).

Now, I have to agree with Chadbourn on a certain level, but I always blamed publishers for making all fantasy into a version of Tolkien, but he is right.

I have always been a fan of Fantasy, but lately, I have been having a hard time finding anything written before 1950 that I want to read. It is frightening how mass marketing can turn a brilliant idea into a cliche practically over night. As a writer, it is even harder. I am trying to outline a fantasy story now, and nearly every idea that I come up with feels like something I have seen a thousand time.

Why does it feel so cliched? Because I am a fan of RPGs, and I not only seen it, but have experienced it through some form of game play. Is this the fault of the RPGs, or me for playing them. Again, I have to blame the publishers.

Business is not in it for originality, but seeks out anything it can create with a cookie cutter model. O, fantasy, slap a dragon and an elf in it, and there you go. A dragon and a spell does not a fantasy make.

Ok, lets look at the McCalmont's question for a moment: Is Fantasy killing the RPG?

As a reader I think he's [Chadbourn] hopelessly optimistic and, as a gamer, I think that he has the problem backwards, I think that the values and tropes of fantasy have come to infect the RPG so thoroughly that it is robbing it of its ability to innovate and progress as a medium (Jonathan McCalmont).

McCalmont argues that the Epic Fantasy market is not saturated, but is just hostile to innovation. Furthermore, he complains that Fantasy has infected all roleplaying including what he calls SF which I assume means Science Fiction not Speculative Fiction.

I have to disagree with McCalmont's argument. Fantasy is not the contagion, it has been reduced to a simple marketing ploy. It has a wizard, and, well, you like fantasy, so buy it! The problem is that people fall for it, and spend their money on it.

The marketing departments that now run the world have reduced all genre's into nothing more that a set of trite cliches.

  • Science Fiction, add a space ship your done.
  • Fantasy, add the word magic.
  • Western, put a guy on a horse.
  • Romance, make sure it is a love triangle with a good guy and a bad guy.

Any story that does not fit into the cliche is seen as unmarketable. The problem is not with the familiarity with the elements of fantasy as Chadbourn says, and it is not a dislike of innovation by fantasy fans as McCalmont argues. The real problem is that publishers/producers want to know what stories yours is like, and if you cannot name one, then the story is generally not produced/published. At the very least, the innovative tale will not be well marketed.

Fantasy fans are so hungry for innovative fiction, they seek out foreign authors and reprints as far back as they can find them. The trouble is with the mainstream publishers/producers who prefer to go with safe ideas than risk failure through innovation. The problem is compounded by the mainstream audience that buys into it.

There will always be innovation on the fringes, but the mainstream will never care about it. We should not delude ourselves and think that any original idea will break through into the mainstream before it has created an underground splash and inspired enough copycats to make the mainstream publisher/producers feel safe with it.

Innovative fantasy is always there for anyone who sets out to find it, but be warned, the journey is perilous, wrought with pitfalls and false leads, but in the end, it is worth the effort.

(from my Amazon Connect blog)