Imagination and unease: a few thoughts

Why the unease with imagination? I can understand how saturated the market is with fantasy archetypes: elves, dragons, vampires, what have you. It’s being aggravated by Hollywood and TV series cropping up like weeds all over the place. Quality control is a thing of the past, and high production values guarantee a minimum number of viewers. But how do we break out of this muck and see the fantastic for what it really is?

It is more than a tool for subversion, of course. If that was what it was, then it would be as polemical as any other form of reactionary literature. The fantastic image contains within itself volumes of meaning, to be used as the author wants. The truly gifted author, however, will always leave several parts of the fantastic territory he chooses to work with unmapped and unclaimed. She will let these regions — some brand new, some fallow — grow wild, and build an identity for themselves.

The thing that has always interested me about speculative fiction is how grown up men and women write about what is usually considered to fall within a child, or adolescent’s range of interest. Is it because these writers realize that what is relegated to being a child’s is actually an entire hive of truths that people would rather not think about? Is it because they realize that Reality is about as stable as the status quo?

What often passes for sophisticated within the realms of the fantastic is often lazy. You are not being sophisticated and clever if you identify Shakespearean shades in what is a cookie cutter medieval world with the magic and dragons played down, with lots of psychological realism and breasts. Sure, the writing is mature, and a definite step up over 90% of what popular literature used to read like in the 80s. Everything’s gritty. But so what?

To truly be imaginative requires the author to synthesize a wide range of influences, and not necessarily from what passes for the common body of fantastika. Synthesis is the name of the game, a chimerical mash up of seemingly disparate images and ideas, finding its identity in a fertile and intelligent Imagination.


Women and Science Fiction

I don’t know the next thing about beginning an article that talks about women, leave alone how women write, or how they write science fiction. Do women write differently? I have no idea. Unless I answer this question, I cannot get around to answering whether they write science fiction differently.

Let’s take for starters the following belief: women favor individual experience over collective experience when it comes to writing. Women prefer characterization over outright scientific, or sociological speculation. Women would much rather take us through what a single person faces over the period of a story than what a single person thinks is wrong with the establishment, or a method, or a technique, and what that person goes on to do or say about it in a story.

I might be very wrong in suggesting that that is an actual belief. Again, I’m at a loss, because I don’t know whether generalization is bad, or good. I don’t know whether there is any truth to stereotypes. From personal experience, I will say that I have seen women veer both ways, but admittedly, more so in the direction favoring outright emotion over rigorous extrapolation.

But then again, I have known too few women, and too many of those few came from similar financial and social backgrounds.

When it comes to science fiction, you can either choose to blur the distinction between experience and the conceit, or not. If you blur it too much, some people would cease calling it science fiction, because structurally it chooses to betray the genre’s strength, that is, an explicit working through of an argument. Most of the women writers I have come across seek to do the former.

Let’s create an example. Here’s the skeleton of a possible science fiction story.

1. Alien A crash lands on Earth.

2. Alien A decides to befriend woman.

3. Since Alien A befriends a white Caucasian woman, Alien A has decided to shape shift into white Caucasian Man, someone whom the woman presumably might find attractive.

4. Alien A spends a long time with her at a local carnival, trying out the rides and candy floss and popcorn.

5. Alien A sees the woman having a good time, and is pleased to elicit a response in her. He decides he is having a good time too.

6. Alien A sees woman home, and since he has no idea of what a good night kiss means, he doesn’t bother. Neither does the woman.

7. Alien A walks down road on cold winter night, hoping to see her again.

8. Woman heads to bed, but as she does, she changes into a different form, that of Alien B. Unbeknownst to her, she has hung out with a member of her own species. Unbeknownst to Alien A, he has done the same.

So, this could be a typical ‘Golden Age’ SF plot. How would Male Writer Stereotype (we’ll call him Maws) handle this story?

Well, he would handle the story in much the same way that it’s laid out up there. He would take us through the motions, and have the Big Reveal hit us like a brick in the end. Presumably with a reveal of how the alien looks (gills, tentacles, webbed hands, tails, etc.)

How would Female Writer Stereotype (we’ll call her Faws) deal with this plot?

Well, she might approach it either from the perspective of the man or the woman, but get this: she might not be too interested in how alien the Aliens really are. The way she might begin the story could be read as any other story that deals with how someone alien to White Caucasian Culture tries to date a White Caucasian Woman. Him looking like a White Caucasian Male could simultaneously be real (within the confines of the story), but also a metaphor for a foreigner trying very hard to act like a local.

In approaching the story from such an angle, she would be steering the science fiction conceit of something that isn’t human adapting to human life towards something different entirely: instead of speculating upon what makes us human, she would transform the time-worn plot of the culture-clash into something new, namely, how a conflict of cultures gain a fresh resonance when seen through the angle of gender politics. She might also provide enough hints for the reader to assume that both people are Aliens, and not resort to a surprise ending.

What this achieves is essentially transfusing what could otherwise be considered ‘literary’ with a strength that is very much science fiction’s, only having shed the 12 year old’s fascination for how the alien might actually look. Whether he has blue skin, or gills, or tentacles.

Therefore, what this would achieve is twofold. One, the pleasure to be had is not in the twist ending, it is in the actual interactions between ‘man’ and ‘woman’. And two, if she is passionate about science fiction, and has pulled the story off successfully, it can also be read as a story about someone who is not human trying to be human.

But this begs the question: what is wrong with a literary fascination for the imaginative and the colorful? Is such detail escapism?

I will try to answer that question in a second blog post.

For actual stories with similar treatments, check out: Standing Room Only, by Karen Joy Fowler; Lambing Season, by Molly Gloss; Seven American Nights, by Gene Wolfe; Passengers, by Robert Silverberg; Frankenstein’s Daughter, by Maureen McHugh; Sur, by Ursula LeGuin; Beam Me Home, by James Tiptree Jr.