The Writing

18 January, 2011

and the geek shall inherit the earth

I got turned onto the Change series by SM Stirling recently. No really, by SM Stirling, not just he's the author. He came in and commented on this post at A Heathen's Day, and I was impressed --A, that an author would bother to come respond to a critique personally and B, that the defense was as eloquent as it was. And C, yes, it didn't hurt Stirling and I see wyrd and fate the same way, probably because we've read and interpreted the same sources the, yes, same way.

Anyhow. The series. Post-apocalypse, one day the tech just stops, nothing electrical, no combustibles, apparently laws of physics have changed...ready set go! Post-apocalypse is in vogue these days--some critics and scholars posit that it's because of 9/11 and Katrina and all the other immediate, devastating, world-ending disasters we see in the media--but unlike so many, this one involves neither zombie nor comet. Just people, which is scary enough.

What I find so damn endearing about the Stirling novels (and I can see the hardcore SF fans cringing...endearing? Is she serious?) is that I know the survivors. I know them. The Rennies. The re-enactors. The Wiccans. The DIYers. The too-much-Tolkien focus on pre-industrial skills. Hell. On some level I still am them. (Oh, English, I bend you to my will). I remember the hysteria around 2000, when everyone thought all our electronics would die, and I remember playing the 'what will we do if' game with my friends. It wasn't much of a stretch for us. We were, and are, RPGers, and for us that had also translated into amateur historians and SCAdians and whatever else. Archers. Swordsmen and women. Martial artists. Seamstresses and breadmakers and disaster-preparedness personnel, too. We think about things like clean water and farmland and stock fodder and antibiotics and minimal caloric requirements and what knife is more practical and useful. It's nice to imagine that, even if I died in some post-Change world, my socially suspect hobbies might prove useful.

The other thing I appreciate is the depth and solidity of the world-building. We got geography. We got history and engineering. We got (perhaps an excess) of detail about fringe religions and subcultures and medieval weapons and modern adaptations that would make sense and why and all this stuff. It's like one of those medieval tapestries, or a really elaborate illumination, where you spend half your time poking around the edges looking for ornaments and weird little critters on the margins. And we have a so-far fascinating look at how myths and legends happen around real people, and why they happen, and who creates them.

And this is where we segue into something much on my mind, lately--namely, the major draw of SFF&H for me, as opposed to the literary and real-world fiction. It really is about the world-building. Not for sheer originality, because I think originality is over-valued, but for the way in which the economies and cultures and whatnot fit together. The logic of the underlying structure. The skill of the adaptation of, say, feudalism or Roman-style republic or tribalism or whatever to specific geographic or technological circumstances. It's the hardest, most labor-intensive part of the genre for me as a writer; and the one that you just can't skimp on, if you want to be anything except cliché. But I also don't like this stuff handed to me, in block exposition; I want to see it in action, reflected in character attitudes and action, all the way down to the slang. I want to discover the world, and explore it, and not know everything about it maybe ever.

I am a crappy short-story writer of SFF in part because I get all caught up in the world-building. This bores some audiences. Oh, wasted dialog, some say. Oh, worthless banter! --which is really indication of speech pattern and character interaction and whatnot that you can't just assume matches your own. I don't know. I like that stuff. I thrive on it. It baffles me on some level that there are SFF fans who don't give a rat's ass about those things, and who don't want to know why and how things work. They just want Action! and Story Arc! and everything laid out (setting, point, etc) right up front. That takes all the fun out of the discovery. And then I wonder why the hell they're even reading SFF if they don't want to discover things, and then I just get bitter and depressed because I'm afraid that's more of the market than I want to believe.

 Maybe we've got zombies in SFF after all.