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Sunday, October 12, 2008

F&SF - the genres for the anal-retentive

So, I was reading about an interview conducted by Terry Goodkind (writer of the Sword of Truth series), and in the course of this interview, he says this...

Throughout the series, my goal has been to steer the covers away from
traditional fantasy covers because I'm not writing fantasy. I'm
accidentally published by a fantasy publisher so I get thrown in with
that genre, but my books are no more fantasy than a detective novel is
a "gun book." What makes me nuts about the fantasy genre is that,
unlike any other genre, people become obsessed and focused on
irrelevant things. For example, in a detective novel, if a detective
has a Snub Nose 38, no one asks him questions like "Can we know more
about the Snub Nose 38?" or "Have you ever thought of doing some kind
of special story just about the Snub Nose 38?" It's a distraction.

Now, it is no secret that Terry Goodkind is an objectivist, at it shines through every single page of his books. As a Christian, I can take about half of the stuff he's talking about - after all, I'm not a Randian, but I am conservative - but amongst the other things I can't take is that drivel quoted above. Terry, you ass, whether you like it or not, you are a writer in the F&SF genres. And here's why.

You notice other genres don't have people obsessed and focused on irrelevant things as in the fantasy genre? You dimwitted knucklehead, what about Science Fiction (SF)? Or do you consider them one and the same? You dyslexic amoeba, you wanna know why this is the case? Let's enlighten you...

F&SF are parts of a larger genre known as 'speculative fiction'. Yes, you can argue about it if you like, but most people intuitively 'get it' about what spec-fic is. The other fiction genres (not in speculative fiction) all have one thing in common - they use our current space/time continuum as the backdrop to their stories, and assume the same (or broadly similar) historical events up to the moment of the fiction's start. That means to say, using the example as given above, if you really wanted to know about a snub-nosed .38 Special, you could actually look it up. Now that I come to think about it, in the USA, it's entirely possible that you have an Uncle Andy who was once a PI, and you can ask him about it. Long story short, the piece of fiction does not have to deal with so-called 'irrelevant' details because they are details assumed in knowledge of the reader - or easily accessible to the reader.

In speculative fiction, especially the F&SF parts of it, the only information you can assume the reader knows about your world is human nature (perhaps, and only if you're dealing with humans in the first place). That, and what you decide to reveal. Now, how you do these reveals, obviously, is up to you. Most SF place these reveals as part of the storyline (take Stargate: SG1, for instance, where Col O'Neill is forever never understanding what Carter and Jackson are explaining, so they have to slow down and dumb it down for his benefit - and ours); others in footnotes, endnotes and God-notes aka 'authorial asides' (George Lucas does this somewhat with his prologue bits in Star Wars). Still others weave it into the whole story in bits and pieces, so that after you've read the whole thing, you get the idea.

Now, many authors will say that it's really the storyline that matters. It's the character development and the plot that are the drivers for the story, and not the 'details'. But have they, and you, ever considered that this is only true if the 'details' don't jar the readers out of their suspension of disbelief? The alternative is what I call Japanimation syndrome - 'Anything Goes!' But the only reason they get away with it is because anime is often so over the top it's expected, and written off. I mean, where else in the worlds of fiction would it be so hard to get plane tickets from Japan to China, so that you can dunk yourself in some hot springs? And yet that is the entire premise of Ranma 1/2. Or to become so hideously overpowered that even after you die, you can come back to life every so often and kick the ass of anybody? Dragonball ring a bell? And then there's the card game whose rules always favour the storyline progression, or Yu-Gi-Oh! could not have been so lucky. If you wanna go that route, then do a Discworld-type story - but even then, you know.

Incidentally, this is not true for 'shared universe' stories. If you're writing a Dragonlance series, or a Forgotten Realms novel, you can dispense with all of the details, but only because Wizards of the Coast has done the hard work for you. Why do you think that Tolkien's considered the father of epic fantasy? Because he fleshed out his world so completely, you can translate the Bible into Sindarin or Quenya.

Hence, Terry, F&SF are genres where you supply the details. And because the people who read F&SF are the kind of people who like details (hence the title of this post), you'd better make sure the details are as correct, as detailed, and as logical as necessary. And if you think you've got a problem, you haven't met my sister yet. Working in the microbiological sciences field, she constantly nit-picks CSI for its magical PCR machines that can do stuff in that time-compressed manner TV is so good at.

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