Vulcan Jedi Time Lord: I entered this contest, and if I had known what they wanted, I would have given it to them.
City Druid: It shouldn’t be a matter of what they wanted—it should be a matter of quality, and of fulfilling the requirements.
VJTL: Yes, but they always have an agenda these days.
CD: I think you weren’t PC enough for iO9. Funny.
VJTL: Yeah, but it’s not just them. Everyone seems to have some sort of agenda, or they want you to write the same thing, or at least the same quality as everyone else.
CD: Right. It’s not about having better quality, or superlative quality, but about being of the same quality. That’s pretty sad.
VJTL: Yeah, I would tend to call that “death by mediocrity”.
CD: This is what comes of giving kids certificates for participation.
VJTL: I’m not so sure about that. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve seen Fandom and conventions and publishing houses and television shows taken over by cliques—high-school-esque cliques, with writing being done by fans, starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation, with was nothing but fanfic with no consideration for consistency. Now a lot of stuff seems to be written by fans of fans of fans writing fanfic of fanfic of fanfic, so that you end up with Fifty Shades of Gravy. You know, if there are fifty shades to your gravy, it’s gone bad and you should throw it out.
CD: You have a point. Even Miyazaki, of Studio Gibli, said that was the biggest problem with anime currently, that it’s got too many anime fans, Otaku, writing it. OK, he didn’t say Otaku, but he didn’t have to.
VJTL: Well that’s the thing: I’m a fan of science fiction, but that’s not all that I read, or watch, and it’s not absolutely everything that I write.
CD: In other words, it’s not all that you are.
VJTL: Right. And the thing is, it should be about quality, about good writing. And when it comes to science fiction, it should be about expanding our thought, considering the options and situations that are coming up, looking at the facts, not at a political agenda or, worse yet, looking around and copying what everybody else has already written. Bad science fantasy is now being hailed as great science fiction, as if it even qualified.
CD: I think one of the problems is that everyone’s gotten genre-happy. They want to break everything into smaller and smaller sub-genres, and they will defend their particular subgenre to the death. Those are supposed to be suggestions of direction, not stone walls dividing one part of literature OR fandom from another.
VJTL: Well, as a science fiction writer, I write science fiction, whether it’s Space Opera, Time Travel, Alternate History, Steampunk, all of the above or, most especially, none of the above. In-fighting in fandom only ever destroys things. It never creates anything good or new, and B.S. politics has destroyed more conventions that I care to think about. We need to unite against the common enemy: Mediocrity.
CD: And yet, mediocrity seems to be the order of the day. I suppose the easy thing would be to blame the internet, though it started before that was commonly available (though it was already more available to fandom.)
VJTL: No, I think the internet just shows you the trends faster, and if you’re just writing for the trends, then you’re just a hack and should be drowned for the good of humanity anyway.
CD: If you’re just writing for the trends, it’s not going to last anyway. You’ll sell for a few months and then be forgotten.
VJTL: True, but those guys can afford a nice house and a nice car, and get their way paid for conventions.
CD: At least until they’re forgotten, which doesn’t take that long.
VJTL: Oh, I’m sorry; who were we talking about?
CD: Yeah, that’s my point.
VJTL: Still, the core problem is that our society in general seems to have acquired this belief that an opinion has the same value and quality as a fact.
/CD: That explains high school science lately.
VJTL: I mean, when did the Texas school board get to decide what was science fiction?
CD: When it became harder science than what was in their curriculum?
VJTL: Oh, come on. That happened hundreds of years ago at this point. You know, this guy told me he didn’t evolve from monkeys, and I said, “I can see that.” He thanked me.
CD: <facepalm> Of course, Texas hasn’t been a state for hundreds of years.
VJTL: See, that’s where our science fiction story should start. A contest should be about the quality of the stories and the ideas, not about being all the same. Hell, even a collection of short stories should be about giving the reader the best entertainment you can.
CD: And even if there’s a theme, they shouldn’t all be the same. Seriously, though, for writing to be published, or for it to win a contest, it should be exceptional. Not just good. Not just OK. Not just the same as everything else. Exceptional. Exceptional in quality of writing, and exceptional in ideas. It should make the reader sit up and think. I’ve read a lot of books, and the recent ones are really running low on that. At this point, I’d settle for exceptional copy-editing.
VJTL: Look, I’m not going to say that my writing is exceptionally good, but I will say that most of the things I’ve seen that have been published in the last two decades would have caused me to fill up my recycle bin, empty it, have a nice, stiff drink, and start over. At the very least, I give my stuff more thought, and I’m not going to wallow in some dilemma that everyone else has wallowed in without offering a solution, or at least looking for one.
CD: Well, that is what science fiction is supposed to be about: finding solutions to problems. You present a problem, you lay out all the ramifications of the problem, then you start looking for solutions to the problem, you weigh the pros and cons of all your potential solutions, and finally you implement the most useable solution. I mean, ultimately, science fiction is a way to work through society’s problems. It may not always offer the best solutions, but it offers options.
VJTL: Yeah, the fans aren’t even listening to that part any more, even when it’s offered. I mean, the greats have gone ahead and offered solutions to some of our current problems, and the attitude seems to be, “Yeah, yeah. This is fatal in the long run, but what’s going to make me a buck today? I don’t care if it kills me tomorrow.”
CD: Well, that’s certainly society in general. And, yes, fandom seems to be catching that, too.
VJTL: I’ve heard people say, “Oh, it’s just entertainment. You can’t learn from it.” Well, obviously they can’t, but that’s not what it’s about.
CD: If you’re not learning something, what’s the point?
VJTL: Well, they seem to think it’s all for funsies.
CD: Learning something IS for funsies. As I said, if you’re not learning what’s the point?
VJTL: Well, to learn you have to be smart enough to be able to learn. Science fiction, at one point, was for intellectuals. It was for scientists and engineers and people who knew how to think.
CD: And now?
VJTL: And now even the colleges don’t teach people how to think. I mean, sure, I’ve known how to do it for so long that I have no memory of not being able to, but the faculties of reason have to be learned in and of themselves. Despite the technology, many people these days have a world-view that more properly belonged in the Middle Ages. I mean, I know people running around claiming to be fans who brag proudly about the fact that they don’t read.
CD: At least some of them are sad that they don’t read.
VJTL: Yeah, but there are others that don’t see that there’s anything wrong with this. They don’t see that they can’t properly be fans if they don’t at least want to be reading.
CD: So, what’s the solution? Science fiction is about finding solutions, and this situation clearly needs one.
VJTL: Well, if the writers, the fans, and the publishers don’t demand something better, if there is no market pressure to repair this situation, then these genres will simply die out, because while they can live for a while this way, eventually even the people who are most strongly demanding it be this way will get tired of it.
CD: So, as with all other things, vote with your dollars. And your demands.
VJTL: As with the music industry, when the record companies took it over and insisted that boy bands were more lucrative and more consistent than The Stones, the Beatles, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Hendrix, and instead decided that we should listen to Justin Bieber, new genres burst forth. When all the music in America had become incredibly bland in the 1950s, jazz and blues gave birth to Rock and Roll.
CD: So you’re saying we’re going to get new genres of literature.
VJTL: Sure. It’s already happening. I mean, right now we’re getting these little subgenres that aren’t necessarily any better, they’re just people going, “Ooh, I can do this and it will be a little different, and I’ll have my own niche.” But out of this we will get some, just like in the 1980s while the Punk movement was giving music a much-needed shot in the arm, Sting, the Police, Genesis, Devo, Huey Lewis and others were busy giving CPR to Rock and Roll. J.K. Rowling is the greatest thing to happen to Fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m sorry, but some of the things that have been best sellers in that genre in the past two decades were written by people who couldn’t even make proper sentences. The next Wells, Heinlein or Sheckley is overdue.
CD: “Best sellers” do not necessarily mean “best”. They just really mean that more people wanted something to pretend to read on the beach. It’s why I have historically avoided best sellers like the plague, no matter the genre. I would love to be the next Sheckley, or Simak. I don’t know that I have the chops to do it, but I would love to try. Unfortunately, our culture does not value art or science, and does not want to admit that a writer can be either an artist or a scientist. How many of our future Wellses or Heinleins are stymied merely by having to pay bills? As for not being able to create a complete sentence, where are they supposed to learn? I mean, the best way is by reading, but that does not teach one the rules, and with much of modern writing it does not actually teach one to write a complete sentence. Are we doomed by a shoddy legacy?
VJTL: Yes. But that’s not all there is. As long as the past masters are still read we have a chance. I grew up on Pirsig, L’amour, Gilman, before I even heard of science fiction. As a child, my mother read to me the complete works of Shakespear and then, while they were reading Dick and Jane at school, at home I was reading Kahlil Gibran and The World According to Garp. When I discovered science fiction, I cut my teeth on Clarke and Asimov, fell in love with Wells and expanded my viewpoint with Sheckley and Simak. If I didn’t read Poe, Shelley, Lovecraft, Tolkien, and Tom Robbins, I would not be half the writer I am. Greats like Niven, Spinrad, Delaney unfortunately will not last forever. And while we have people like Steve Perry, Steven Barnes, Christopher Stasheff, and others, it’s just not enough. Writing has become too much of a mob scene and the proliferation of writers and the drop in quality is choking the business like a garden full of weeds. Now excuse me while I jump down off this soap-box and do a load of laundry real quick.
CD: I read the classics. I grew up, as a fairly young kid, reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henrik Ibsen, Harold Pinter, George Bernard Shaw, Sir James George Frasier, Edward Albee, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, O’Henry, my relative Samuel Clemens the steamboat pilot, and even the occasional modern writer like Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. They made me, to a very real extent, who I am today as a person and as a writer. Of course, they had editors, and they had actual courses in English grammar in school (in the case of the ones that wrote in English, anyway). I fear that fewer people are reading these authors, and I am fairly certain that English grammar is no longer taught to any effective degree, at least before the post-graduate level. I am frequently horrified at the level of editing that is not taking place in printed or virtual articles and books. Now, I’m aware that language evolves, and I’ve seen a bit of it in my lifetime in the form of slang that moves from rare to common to a part of the language (take a chill-pill, OK?), but I fear that we’re looking at a re-randomizing of spelling and grammar after a huge and concerted effort by Messrs. Webster and Fowler to standardize these things.
VJTL: Yeah, Clemons was the Terry Pratchett of his day, and I’ve read a fair amount of these sorts of things myself, but I can say with a certainty that English grammar was not taught to any effective degree in any class that I was in in school, but I’ve had rants about the quality of school that I ended up going to on numerous occasions. As a small child, my mother read me the Deer Slayer, and of course I’m not talking about the modern Vietnam War era movie, but rather the book that the aforementioned Mark Twain blasted as utter crap. As a small kid, it was a lively enough adventure story, but the holes in not only the writing but its connection to reality were somewhat obvious even then. As an adult, I would not consider this to be writing worthy of my time but, then again, White Fang by Jack London really isn’t any better. Nonetheless, these used to be exceptions. As a reader, I demand better quality than that. However, even they teach proper sentence construction. It’s bad enough that movies have stopped having continuity editors and most books no longer go through an editor, but if you can’t make a proper sentence, then I don’t think you really have any business calling yourself a writer. I admit that I can’t spell due to brain damage, but my computer can, and I have my friends check my writing to make sure that there aren’t any glaring mistakes. Hans Christian Andersen never learned how to read and write and had to dictate his stories because he was dyslexic, but he made proper sentences. Despite my difficulties, I continue to read, but I have talked to a number of people who are handicapped in no way, have plenty of time, want to be writers, and just don’t bother to read. I’m not quite sure why someone who has no interest in reading would want to write, but there you have it. I think we’re all going to have to do our part if there’s going to be a future worth reading in. Put simply, I think the cure is reading.
CD: That, I can do.