Chad Orzel has a neat article up at Forbes on science in science fiction. I'd be lying if I didn't admit I'm linking it because he has some kind words for A Darkling Sea.
A few days ago John Scalzi put up this blog post, commenting (in the usual tail-chasing fashion of the Internet) on someone else's Twitter comment about yet a third person's magazine article — all wrestling with the question of whether writers should or should not try to be apolitical. John says no. I disagree with him, and instead of giving him more free Web content, I'm putting my reply here.
I think the heart of the problem is that we are conflating two separate roles that writers play. As a man and a citizen, I have the right — and perhaps even the duty — to participate in the political life of my town, my state, and my country. That naturally includes the right to let others know what I think about issues of the day. As my friends and my poor wife can attest, I am seldom shy about doing so.
But my role as a writer is distinct from my role as a citizen. As a writer my political notions are of no greater weight than the opinions of a panhandler, a soldier, a farmer, a banker, or an actor. Maybe as a writer my thoughts about copyrights or the self-employment tax are of value, but otherwise I'm just another citizen.
The problem is that I'm a citizen with a bullhorn. I can use my fiction to promote my views. I have a better than average ability to come up with clever little stupid bumper-sticker slogans. As a writer, in other words, I can spread my opinions more effectively than an insurance adjuster or an engineer can. Other writers can do that, too — as can moviemakers, actors, possibly musicians and professors, as well.
Why is that a problem? Simple: I'm a moron. So are you. So are all writers. The ability to express my ideas in an appealing and catchy manner doesn't mean those ideas are correct. I'm a moron with a bullhorn. Just one moron with a bullhorn is unpleasant to be around; the last thing we need is a whole mob of them.
There's another reason for a writer to avoid politics while wearing his writer hat: it's bad for the work. There have been great "political" novels, but most of those are great because they tackle universal truths rather than parochial issues. George Orwell's 1984 was a brilliant polemic against Soviet Communism — but if it had been just a book about how big a bastard Stalin was, nobody would have bothered to read it after 1953. Because Orwell created a book which examines how people become complicit in their own oppression, and how tyrannies distort every aspect of human life, his novel will still be relevant in 2084.
But most of the time, a writer being "political" means that the action of a story must screech to a halt while a moron with a bullhorn wanders onto the page, gabbling incoherently amid feedback squeals. In particularly sad cases, the moron gradually takes over all the writer's work. Recall G.K. Chesterton's famous quote about H.G. Wells "selling his birthright for a pot of message."
So in the end, I'm agreeing with both Mr. Scalzi and the un-named original romance writer who inspired this whole chain of commentary. Writers — as citizens and adults — have the right to be as political as they wish, and make their opinions known to all. But as writers, they should be aware that it's a perilous undertaking. Be as much of a moron as you like, but don't switch on that bullhorn. You might start an avalanche.
The venerable Arisia convention gets underway at the Westin on Boston's waterfront tomorrow, and once again I will be a program participant. If you want to see me perform for your entertainment, here's where and when the monkey will dance:
Friday (January 16) at 5:30 p.m.: Do We Need Science Fiction? Panel discussion on whether SF really plays a role in the development of new technologies. James L. Cambias (moderator), Stephen Wilk, B. Diane Martin, Jeff Warner, and Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert.
Saturday (January 17) at 1:00 p.m.: Game Design From First Principles Panel on game design theory and methods, open to audience members with games they'd like help in developing. Joshua Newman (moderator), James L. Cambias, David Olsen, Jaime Garmendia, and Carolyn VanEseltine
Sunday (January 18) at 10:00 a.m.: Reading Don Sakers, James L. Cambias, and Suzanne Palmer. I'll be reading from my short story "Contractual Obligation" in the War Stories anthology.
Sunday at 2:30 p.m.: Story Autopsy Panel discussion in which we analyze what works and what doesn't in well-known published works. This time we're doing two recent award-winners — "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal, and "The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere" by John Chu.
It's been a while since my last posting, due to a combination of being busy and being sick (and not getting well as fast as I'd like because of the busy component). Fortunately, I can make other people do the work for me. This podcast explains some of where I've been for the past month.
At some point soon I'll provide my own impressions of the Hieroglyph project and the EVOKE session at ASU last month. For now I'm still catching up on stuff.
I have left the silent era and entered the world of podcasting. Rob Wolf interviewed me for his New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy podcast. You can go here to listen to me talk about A Darkling Sea, Aztecs, why roleplaying games are different from novels, Bone Wars, my obsession with getting stuff right, and my upcoming novel Corsair.
I've never done a podcast before; it was a lot of fun. My voice didn't sound nearly as odd as I had feared it would, and Mr. Wolf very kindly edited out some of my more egregious digressions. I look forward to doing it again some time.
. . . as Mandrake the Magician used to say.
Kinetic fantasy author Max Gladstone wrote an interesting post about "Magic Systems and the Wizardsroman" on his own blog. He's interested in the connections between story and How Magic Works (that is, how the fictional magic operates within a fantasy story), and it started me thinking about the same subject.
Gladstone very cogently pointed out that different stories use different styles of magic, but I'd like to go a little deeper under the hood and look at why that should be the case. Why don't all fantasies just crib from real-life occultists like Aleister Crowley and his imitators, or the practices of historical witches as described in the Malleus Maleficarum? Or, if those are too boring, just change the names of spells from the Dungeons and Dragons rules. Instead, each author spends a huge amount of effort inventing a new magical mechanic, like the metal-based sorcery Brandon Sanderson created in his Mistborn series. Or invests time and study to learn about an obscure real-world magic tradition, the way Niven and Barnes did for Dream Park.
Here's the secret: fantasy stories aren't about magic, they're about people. Which means the magic in a fantasy story has to affect the characters and their interactions. If the magic is an innate ability (as in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels) then that automatically creates a tension between those who can and those who can't do magic. Even among Rowling's wizards, the central conflict is over their attitude toward the unpowered "Muggles."
Conversely, if anyone can learn magic, then the focus of the story is what it costs to learn it (as in H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, where the use of supernatural power invariably corrupts and dehumanizes the users), or on the social controls needed to regulate magic (as in Charles Stross's "Laundry" series and most other "occult cop" fiction).
Done right, the specifics of magic become part of the theme of the story. In Rowling's books, magic requires both innate talent and extensive training — the ideal set-up for a story about special wizard kids at school. If magic wasn't an inborn talent, poor Harry would never get called to Hogwarts, and if it didn't require training he wouldn't need to spend seven books studying there.
Circling back to Mr. Gladstone's essay, I'd like to venture the opinion that the rules of magic matter to the reader only to the extent that they matter to the characters. If doing magic requires elaborate ritual and precise actions, then the author should spell out what needs doing and why (or at least suggest it). Conversely, a story of people doing magic through sheer force of will or wild free-form inspiration will necessarily have a more chaotic feel. Like the characters, the reader can't quite be sure when magic is happening or who's doing it.
What about historical magic? That's the sort of thing I enjoy: name-checks of dudes like Apollonius of Tyana, John Dee, and the Comte de Saint-Germain; recognizable magical workings and paraphenalia, and a sense that even the nicest wizards may be damning themselves in their pursuit of supernatural power. How does that fit into a fantasy story?
Well, "tourism" is a worthwhile element of any fantastic fiction. A science fiction novel with a weird enough setting can coast on that for a considerable distance, and a well-done fantasy can keep the reader entertained with glimpses of real-life magical beliefs in their proper historical context. Or an author with knowledge of a mystical tradition unfamiliar to most readers can get a lot of mileage out of showing off that knowledge. Obviously the key here is that all these things must be done in an entertaining manner, which of course is easier said than done.
Historical magic also lets the author come to grips with real-world issues — and perhaps debunk popular misconceptions. One can even examine hard philosophical or theological questions: is it even possible to be a "good wizard" in an explicitly Christian context? What happens to a genuinely good person who trafficks with genuinely evil spirits? How to reconcile different faiths?
To sum up, then, the magic in a fantasy story has to serve the needs of the story. One can either custom-design it to fit the story one wishes to tell, or seek out the story possibilities in a pre-existing set of magical beliefs. The same applies to roleplaying games: the magic rules should fit the kind of game you're trying to design. If you want fast-moving action, then spells should be showy and easy to cast; if you want subtle intrigue then they should be complex and hard to detect.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some fantasy story ideas I need to jot down.
The Book Event at Towne Book Center in Collegeville, Pennsylvania is set for this Saturday, April 5, at 3 p.m. Originally scheduled for early February, this Event had to get moved because of heavy snow. But now that the weather has improved from Utterly Horrid to Merely Unpleasant, the Event is back on! Come see me, Brian Staveley, and Ramona Wheeler talk about our books, sign copies, and read selections for the entertainment of good Pennsylvanians.
Also: another review of Darkling Sea, from Right Fans. (Spoiler: they liked it.)