That was the question an acquaintance asked me recently. I was mildly annoyed at the question, but I realized that to many people, fiction is simply entertainment. And to many of them, entertainment comes to them easy so it must be easy to create as well.
You see, I write fiction, in a variety of genres, all of them among the “speculative” genres of fiction. I currently have five novels nearing completion, and several other long-term projects on the back burner. No this is not a shameless plug (although I won’t object if you want to know more). This is about the responsibilities of a writer, from my perspective.
Not many people know that Gordon Dickson linked the helix shape and genetics long before DNA was discovered and photographed. Some of our current medical technology closely mimics the ideas of Phillip K. Dick. Ursula K. Leguin and CJ Cherryh both proposed principles of governance that our leaders still haven’t acknowledged.
Can change be brought about through what is often dismissed as juvenile?
Is it possible to build a society and government where tolerance of all religions is required by law, as in the books of Mercedes Lackey? Is it possible that Robert Heinlein was right when he said a leader that was not targeted for assassination was not doing his or her job?
In the case of my own fiction, is it possible to build an “aristocracy of altruism”?
I am used to getting patted on the head when I talk about writing fiction. I try not to feel superior to the people who underestimate the power of new and strange ideas.
Is there an inherent value in stories about superheroes? Does reading Superman give a young child anything except dreams of flying through the skies and lifting heavy objects? Are there people in this world whose principles of service to others were shaped by tale of the Man of Steel? (or, more frightening, Lex Luthor?)
While I know a few young men (and some women, and some not-so-young) who dream of being Jedis and Siths, how many people went into politics because of the example of Senator Organa, Leia’s adopted father?
One of the earliest books of science fiction I ever read was from the Danny Dunn series by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams. A young boy who daydreams of going to the moon in a spaceship… does. After being punished by his teacher for believing that travel to the moon was possible, mind you.
The idea that my daydreams could come true, when I had not had much faith in it before, was powerful. It scared me, it excited me, it gave me hope.
Wherever Danny Dunn is today, I would like to tell him what he did for me.
This was written almost 30 years before Robert Heinlein proposed the “World as Myth” – where every alternate universe is reflected as the myths and fiction stories in our own. A corollary to this is somewhat terrifying and electrifying: our world is made from the stories of another universe (wave to the readers, dear).
But “World as Myth” has… complications. Sometimes I work too hard to make everything nicer for my characters. After all, somewhere, it really is happening to them. I have a lot of empathy for them. I invest a lot in their lives, loves, troubles, tribulations, and growth.
What Heinlein did went beyond writing. It was meta-writing. In fiction. He changed fiction for the people writing fiction, within a fictional setting. Try calculating that one!
I’d be surprised if a number of people, terrified by the sudden responsibility, did not quit writing altogether. It was tempting for me to run away from that onus.
It was no longer enough to say “my characters are real to me.” Because, theoretically, they were now real, someplace, living, loving, and dying.
Killing a character, or allowing them to die, has real consequences now.
Somewhere Doctor Shane Vassad grieves for his daughter Sekhmet. ‘Poly Nuke’ screams for Huck, as Phade cries over the body of Grindski and Violet says good-bye, for the last time, to her son Myth. Spoor has reacted to his abuse by becoming something less than human, and Cheshire wants revenge for her boyfriend.
I spend days working out my grief, guilt, and shame when my characters die, or something traumatic happens to them. They are no longer fictional. They are, somewhere, real people.
But today, somewhere/somewhen, Pax, Max, and Pyr are exchanging vows of “marriage” in front of their friends and loved ones, a simple acknowledgement of who they already are and who they choose to be. Ziian has broken through Rinaldo’s barriers, so that they can (finally!) have a relationship. The guys of the DaVinci Rangers are throwing a party. Talks-to-Turtles, along with the rest of the people of his homeworld, is celebrating the end of the war. The crew and passengers of the Athame have arrived at Pentaklus, and Kaba has left the drugs and porn smuggling behind to begin her new life as an animal breeder. Rafaela is nursing her newborn twins, as she is held by her husband. Ben has cast his first spell, as his adopted father and his adopted uncles watch with broad grins.
I also get to share in their joys and victories. I get to help them evolve into better people, into something more than they were. I bring friends and lovers into their lives.
S’ythe has been united with his a’amorziklai, his “lifemate-in-spirit”. Spellblade and his teammates have repelled the invaders. Dreth and Tosk have each found their birth-families. Brennan and the crew of the Oberon have finally brokered a peace treaty, saving the human race from genocide. Ziyanne and Kliarra are riding to the rescue of an orphanage under attack. Nick Fairechild and his family have vanquished a misogynistic, psychotic mage.
I have to find ways for them to get out of their troubles, solutions for (virtually) every problem. I am their mother and father, the god they never pray to, and the devil they despise.
I doubt Mack will ever thank me for the problems I have given him. Ennis will never forgive me for the abuse he endured as a child. Violet and Myth probably would have preferred more time together. Aera Procyon is sick of not finding a lifemate. Pagan is tired of being alone, in all but spirit. Tosk would rather not go through the constant pain of being a shape-shifter. Shady would probably choose to not be melancholy all the time, or to put up with the exhaustion of his particular genius, and Grunt would have liked to have parents who cared about him.
But, I have been told, science fiction and fantasy are so trivial. They are escapist flights of fancy. Because of a few elements of the story, those stories are considered inconsequential in the art of narrating people’s live.
The presence of nanotechnology does not minimize the issues in Dev::Project. The unholy mating of clockwork, steam engines, and alchemy doesn’t really change the social problems in The Clockwork Hart. The continuing war between Heaven and Hell doesn’t negate the issues confronting the guys in the Myth and Nightmare series. Just because it’s 70 years in the future, Three Dog Pack still deals with issues of poverty and “illegal” immigration. There are still valuable lessons to learn in Lifeforce, even if magic “isn’t real”.
As Tells-Tales-in-the-Shade tells Talks-to-Turtles, “There are more possibilities in the world around you than you can guess, and the Great Spirit has yet to run out of them.”
In paganism, there is word we use as greeting and good-bye, or simply as a statement of understanding.
“Namaste.” “The divine in me greets/sees/recognizes the divine in you.”
When I sit down to write, a part of me says “Namaste” to everyone I write to life. Namaste, Alan; welcome to the afterlife. Namaste, Grindski; thank you for your sacrifice. Namaste, Captain Abawa; may your burdens be lighter. Namaste, Dafyd Siream; enjoy your new life.
And I am not just responsible for mortals. I am responsible for other entities too.
Namaste, Lucifer, Nox, Loki, Mnemosyne, Kernunnos. Guard these worlds well.
But does it matter than I, and a number of writers who believe as I do, have changed?
Does anyone else combat police brutality, harassment, and profiling “in real life”, as the DaVinci Rangers do in The Clockwork Hart? Does it matter that the religious intolerance of the Hegemony happens in our world, not just in the pages of Arcane Exodus? Who cares about the violations of civil rights and basic human decency, like in Terra Firma: Solid Ground? Is education of children who are different something we should value, or do we leave it to Zakolaeus, Loretta, Graydon, and Cerise, in Wizard’s Call?
I was once a political activist, starting on that path at the age of 17. As much as I detest politics and “business as usual”, as much as I would like to “opt out”, it’s not something I can put aside easily, anymore than I can stop crying over a character who is in pain. Both are equally a part of me.
I have a responsibility to work toward a better day, because there are a lot of people, most unknowing, who depend on me to do so.
And some of them live in this world.
I have more than this world to change. I have more worlds than I care to count, counting on me. And I have more worlds clamoring to be born.
I am not sure if Heinlein ever considered some other implications of his theory. If our world is, like he proposed, a story being written by some unknown author (let’s call him Yahweh, for fun), then som serious questions become relevant.
Is Yahweh writing on a deadline? Is he writing “on spec” (one of the least attractive and most abusive forms of publishing)? Does he care about his characters and their situations? Does he remember their names after he mails off the manuscript? Who is his agent? Is he valued by his editor, or does she just think he’s a pretentious bastard? How late are his royalty checks?
Because the answers to these questions could explain how Yahweh feels about his characters. I would also wonder if perhaps there were some volumes to this story that got rejected by the publisher, because that would definitely explain a lot of things.
In the play “Five Characters in Search of a Play,” five people are left stranded, without life or progress, because a playwright decides not to finish their stories.
If nothing else, my children will have their stories told.