Violence that means something

I read Adam Callaway’s article on violence in sf/f yesterday. (Word of caution: for whatever reason, that site slowed my computer waaayyyy dooowwwnn every time I loaded it). The article was about how very few fantasy/sci fi stories solve problems with cleverness rather than violence. In addition, few sf/f stories explore the real life consequences of violence. Violence is used as a tool to get things done, and it rarely has far reaching side effects.

The oxymoronic phrase “realism in fantasy” is often used to justify copious amounts of violence in a work. Okay. As much of a problem as I have with that phrase, I’ll indulge it. Use violence to make a work seem “more real.” For this to remain true, the violence needs to be visceral, but tempered by reaction and emotion. If violence occurs, it should be explored.

It’s an interesting idea. I remember when I was reading the Hunger Games trilogy, I was impressed with how Suzanne Collins explored how the violence wasn’t just a passing thing that Katniss quickly got over. This was reflected in everything from the immediate consequences–at one point, she was too close to an explosion, so it burst her eardrums and gave her vertigo–to the far reaching ones, like PTSD. This treatment of violence was refreshing in a genre that usually has protagonists grimace and grit their teeth and move on.

I’m not opposed to violence in fiction. I write a lot of violence, and I don’t have a taste for stories that shy away from violence when the plot needs it (‘when the plot needs it’ is key there–I’m equally put off by stories that are violent for the sake of violence). Still, it can be really tiring to read story after story where the protagonist is battered around from start to finish until finally they manage to batter back and win the day.

I recently read Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 and Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds. Both very good books with strong female protagonists. Both also very violent. I didn’t think that the violence was unnecessary in either of these stories, but not long after I finished them, I downloaded the sample of Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls and after a few pages thought “Dear god, I can’t go through this AGAIN.” (Side note: I was mainly interested in The Shining Girls because I mistakenly thought it was about  female serial killers. SOMEONE WRITE THIS PLEASE.) The thought of reading yet another book about an antagonist pursuing a series of violent attacks until someone gets him in the end was just exhausting. I will read The Shining Girls at some point (and for all I know, I might have been completely wrong about what it’s about), but I need to recover first.

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is obviously the most well known violent series going on right now. It’s brutal, and it leads to a sort of arms-race in the book where the truly terrible characters have to do even worse things to distinguish themselves from just the run-of-the-mill terrible characters. I remember one scene in one of the books (trying to avoid spoilers) where a woman who had previously been introduced was later mentioned off-handedly as having been locked in a tower until she starved to death, and her corpse was found without fingers because she had eaten them all for sustenance. In a world where it’s not particularly outré to behead someone and stick it on a spike, you have to go out of your way to be noticeably sadistic. Does that make for a good story? It makes for a memorable one, certainly. But it runs the risk of giving the readers violence fatigue. By the end of A Dance with Dragons, I was bitterly thinking that GRRM was going to have to introduce a few more likable characters because they were running a little thin on the ground.

The Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant (Feed, Deadline, and Blackout) uses violence sparingly and effectively. Zombie stories can be tediously violent, but violence is most powerful when it’s used thriftily. Unlike GRRM, who needs to keep escalating to make us feel the same sort of horror, Grant uses a few small tragedies to give the story its most compelling scenes. The tragedies in the first book have aftershocks all the way through to the third.

Not every story needs to end with the main character curled in the fetal position, having flashbacks (although if you want to go that route, here is a lovely series on traumatizing your protagonist). Still, if your story does have violence, it should touch the characters personally.

I guess the point that’s been buried under all these examples is that violence in itself isn’t a bad thing to have in a book, but it shouldn’t be there just to be there. It–like every other part of a novel, really–should be there because it serves an intrinsic purpose.

In other news:

Chuck Wendig and Delilah Dawson both have posts on how and why to diversify the books you read.

SFWA woes

Man, SFWA’s been having some problems recently. Seems like every couple days, some new scandal pops up. To their credit, the administration has been dealing with the issues very promptly and professionally.

For anyone who hasn’t been keeping up on the news, this is what’s been happening:

* In SFWA Bulletin #200, (discussed here), Mike Resnick and Barry Malzburg discuss the physical assets of various “lady authors” and “lady editors”. Also, on the cover is a woman in a chainmail bikini. The chainmail bikini thing is nothing new, but is just icing on the cake.

* SFWA #201 (discussed here), C.J. Henderson writes about Barbie, saying “She has always been a role model for young girls, and has remained popular with millions of them throughout their entire lives, because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”

* SFWA #202 (relevant excerpts here), Resnick and Malzburg defend themselves, and in their apology they still use the terms “lady editors” and “lady writers,” proving they missed the point. They also complain about their anonymous attackers, who were nowhere near anonymous.

Many people talked about leaving SFWA due to this whole thing. Understandable, but I think the reaction of the administration showed that no one thought this behavior was acceptable, and it was quickly addressed. Whether there will be permanent change remains to be seen.

But wait! There’s more!

The elections for the President of SFWA were held this spring. John Scalzi was stepping down, and one of the people running was a douchebag named Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day). VD’s personal beliefs are pretty foul. You can read all about them here but mainly they can be summed up by this one line he wrote in an article against women’s rights: “I very much like women and wish them well, which is precisely why I consider women’s rights to be a disease that should be eradicated.” He also spoke about removing the right of female members to vote. That might have been a joke, but with him, it’s pretty hard to tell.

Luckily he didn’t win the election, although he did get 10% of the votes, which was… troubling. N.J. Jemisin referenced this in her Guest of Honor speech at Continuum.

Now, to put this in context: the membership of SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates — one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole. In this election he lost by a landslide… but he still earned ten percent of the vote. SFWA is small; only about 500 people voted in total, so we’re talking less than 50 people. But scale up again. Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.

Today, VD responded to her speech with a vile, racist blog post. Not out of character for him, but he had it posted on the SFWA tweet stream. (SFWA members who include a particular hashtag in their blog posts will have their blog automatically posted to the twitter account). Since the post wasn’t SFWA related, it’s clear he only did it to be an ass. You can see some screenshots of his post here. In short, it was a racist tirade against “ignorant half-savage[s]” like her. A lot of people want to kick VD out of SFWA, and for good reason. It’s within the SFWA bylaws, and lord knows he’s not contributing anything useful to the organization.

I don’t think SFWA is an especially sexist or racist organization; this is just a public manifestation of an endemic problem. I feel like I’ve been seeing it all over the place recently (furious male gamers’ reactions to the idea of putting more female protagonists in games; racist and sexist rants about casting a black and/or female actor as the Doctor/James Bond/Spiderman/etc; I could go on). These things are cropping up with tiring regularity.

As a response to some of this, Chuck Wendig has a series of posts on sexism. Matt Wallace posted yesterday about how he used to be a sexist bag of dicks until he got better. Good posts, and hopefully they’ll inspire some people to be more active when they see this sort of thing.

The more I write this post, the more links I remember that I want to include. Before this post gets too much longer, I’ll bring this to a close. John Scalzi announced today, for no particular reason, that he’s going to match donations for the Carl Brandon Society, whose mission is to “increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.” I think I might toss a few bucks their way, and I hope others are inspired to do the same.

Book Dissection: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

I finished reading NOS4A2 by Joe Hill yesterday. I’d bought it after following him on Twitter, and I only followed him on Twitter because someone else had been retweeting him. That shows the power of Twitter, I guess–I hadn’t even heard of him before that.

It’s a powerful book. It’s something about the ruthless way he has of describing people, and the grim yet vivid settings. What I’m interested in doing is deconstructing the book to see what exactly it is that Hill does right. Because he does do this book right; it’s strong in all the right places, and the pacing is fantastic.

Non-spoilery recap:

Victoria McQueen has a knack for finding things. All she has to do is get on her bike and ride across the Shorter Way Bridge: a bridge that shows up wherever she needs it to, and takes her wherever she wants to go. But she’s not the only one with this kind of ability, and it’s not long before she runs into Charlie Manx, a man who uses his own powers to “rescue” children from their families and take them to Christmasland, where every morning is Christmas morning and every night is Christmas Eve, and Manx can drain away their innocence and humanity to make himself live forever.

In a different writer’s hands, this might have been about 12-year-old Vic’s battle against the evil Manx. But it’s not really about that. Instead, we see how her encounter with Manx and her own odd powers changes the course of her life. What the story really seems to be about is that everything has consequences, and those shortcuts that allow someone to avoid consequences–Vic finding things deemed lost, Manx being able to make himself younger–are the ones that have the greatest cost.

How the sausage is made:

I’ve been interested in figuring out how authors make unpredictable plots. There are thousands of examples of predictable plots repeated weekly on television screens and movie theaters. In many cases, that’s a result of the short format. There’s only so much you can do in a two hour movie, or in a 45 minute tv show where the characters need to end up in much the same place they started. Novels have more room to work with, but a lot of them take predictable paths anyway. So when I see a novel that does it pretty well, I want to figure out how it happened.

In Hill’s case, he lets the story get bigger than it originally appeared. Sure, Vic and Manx meet up, as you’d expect. But that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the jumping off point for the real plot, which takes years to unreel. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense: in a story about consequences, you can’t just end with the confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. You have to see what that confrontation leads to. That’s where the story departs from predictability.

I guess a (possibly simplistic) takeaway from this is that in order to make a plot less predictable, make it about theme, not formula. I’ve seen places where I believe this backfired–China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station springs to mind. That was a book about borders and finding that undefined place where one thing changes into something else, and while I thought it was a gorgeous book (and he’s one of my favorite authors), the ending seemed to rely too much on keeping with the theme than on narrative coherence. Still, it’s a good starting point for plotting. NOS4A2 marries a good theme to a solid plot, and the combination makes for a satisfying story.