January 22nd, 2006

ozarque figure

Writing science fiction; eldering; part 1

I had an off-LJ e-mail from Elizabeth Barrette in response to the posted opening paragraphs from "Death and Taxes" (and my novel about a future nursing home on my "What To Do Next?" list), saying:

"I agree that elders are essential to a healthy society. But as soon as you say 'elders' or 'old people' or 'nursing home,' a lot of readers are going to click their mouse or turn the page. Those topics and terms come with, hm, some kind of connotation like +BORING or +DEPRESSING or +NOTMYPROBLEM. I'm afraid that if people make that sort of connection at the beginning of a story, you'll lose them before you ever catch them -- they won't even give you or the story a fair chance. They'll drop it like a hot rock... [and] One potential problem I see with this opening is that as soon as you start talking about stuffing a corpse into a refrigerator -- however respectfully and regretfully -- it brings up associations of horror stories and horror movies. This is a whole 'nother way to lose readers of the type who don't read or like horror. They'll get to 'putting Vanessa's body in the refrigerator' and say 'Yuck! I hate horror,' and skip to the next story. ... I suspect your eldering stories, more often than your other stories, are likely to run into things that readers will find offputting and that can't be discarded without wrecking the story."

Elizabeth suggests that one solution is to focus on stories about grandparents rather than old people, because grandmothers/grandfathers bring warmer and fuzzier baggage; for example, she doesn't think that my "A Quorum of Grandmothers" (at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/QuorumOfGrandmothers.html ) provokes the same immediate negative reaction in the reader. She may be right about that; if so, my guess is that it's because the story is told through the eyes of two little boys who perceive grandmothers and greatgrandmothers as powerful and awe-inspiring, and because the story provides a demonstration of the accuracy of their perceptions. I don't think that it's because they're perceived as warm and fuzzy.... but I may be wrong; it's hard for writers to judge their own stuff accurately. I do know that every children's-sf editor who saw that story rejected it precisely because it was told through the eyes of the boys, and the grandmothers "didn't do anything." That's one of the more baffling editorial reactions I've encountered over the years .... much like the editors who objected that they found my Peacetalk 101 "too violent." I try to learn from editorial judgments, but both of those assessments left me wondering whether I really am a native speaker/writer of English.

I know that it's possible to write successful science fiction about grandmothers and greatgrandmothers; my favorite example is the greatgrandmother in C.J. Cherryh's "Foreigner" series. But like the examples in my "Quorum" short story, Cherryh's greatgrandmother character is strong and powerful and awe-inspiring; when she speaks, people jump to attention. I was particularly impressed in the recent volume Explorer, when Cherryh included many scenes in which the greatgrandmother's age clearly and overtly led to physical limitations of various kinds, and Cherryh made no attempt to minimize those limitations. However, I am well aware that it's one thing to write about a greatgrandmother who goes everywhere attended by a platoon of devoted servants and has vast wealth. And it's one thing to write about old women like the ones I put in Native Tongue, who had whole platoons of younger women and little girls looking after them, plus a live-in nurse on duty. It's a very different thing to write about typical old women in a future United States, who are unlikely -- unless things change drastically -- to share those characteristics.

I think that science fiction is one of the only mechanisms our culture has for exploring possible solutions to future problems. The sf writer says "Suppose we did this...." and then goes on to describe this in a narrative that lets us perceive what it would really be like, lets us get a look at how people would behave and what people would say and what sorts of things would happen if we indeed did this. When there are half a dozen sf novels out there proposing different solutions to the same problem, it lets us look at all of them and compare them and think about their likely consequences. It's not as immersive as a videogame or role-playing game would be, but in some ways it's even more powerful, because there are no artificial limits imposed on the reader's imagination.

We are going to have to deal with the problem of this multitude of oncoming elders; unless (as I've said before) we lose them by the millions to a bird flu pandemic or something similar, we're not going to be able to avoid it. It seems to me that we can't afford to ignore the input that science fiction could provide. There's no consensus of instant negative reaction to sf novels that tackle the inevitable problems of future weather or future energy shortages or future wars; I think we have to get past the immediate negative reaction to sf novels that tackle the inevitable problem of future overabundance of elders. Somehow.

Two quick closing notes.... First, I think there's a useful model in the "genres" context in the way that the field of country music handles elders -- both the fictional ones in the songs, and the nonfictional ones in the real world. Second, I agree with Elizabeth Barrette that the opening of "Death and Taxes" looks like horror fiction. My responsibility is to make the opening sufficiently interesting to keep the reader with me for just a few more paragraphs, after which it will be very clear that it's not horror fiction (in the genre sense) at all. If I can't hold the reader that long, I'm not doing my job.