In the first post in this series, I defined a work of positive fiction as one that conveys a hopeful, optimistic, or other positive mood. In the second post, I argued that the positive image of humanity that supports this mood in science fiction is a realistic one. In this, the final post of the series (or the last one I’ve planned anyway), I will discuss why I think positive science fiction is especially appealing and why I think there should be more of it.
I struggled with how to present this case because there are several points that need to be made. Let me start out with this one, which may be a bit controversial. Speculative fiction is fundamentally a more intellectual genre than others. That may be something of a value call though so let me rephrase it. Speculative fiction, especially science fiction, causes us to step outside our current world and look back at it. In this way it is the most philosophical and scientific of fiction genres because it can question pretty much anything. Every belief, every assumption, every aspect of culture is open to scrutiny. Like other genres, speculative fiction begins with our real world but it isn’t set there. It wouldn’t be speculative if it was. Something must be different and I don’t mean just ray guns or flying cars. The addition of some high tech hardware or alien life does not make a work of fiction speculative by itself. I try to avoid the pejorative use of the term ‘sci-fi’ (sometimes pronounced skiffy) because I don’t necessarily agree that the distinction between sci-fi and SF is as clear as some seem to believe. But a novel with flying cars isn’t true science fiction if all other aspects of the setting are essentially the same as those where the reader lives. It may be ‘sci-fi’ but not SF or speculative fiction.
Science fiction posits a truly different world that would feel strange to us if we were dropped into it. It can have flying cars or ray guns or even ghosts, gremlins, or two-headed crocodile gods but these must have some plausible explanation, at least plausible enough for an intelligent reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. I hope this doesn’t sound elitist but some means of differentiation is needed.
Speculative fiction often begins by asking, “What if?” What if history unfolded differently? What if something happens tomorrow that challenges our current assumptions? What would we do? How would our world be changed? Many works of soft science fiction especially look at current human cultures and contrast them to what could be. They remind us that human society as it exists today is just one of an almost infinite number of conceivable possibilities, some of which may appear better and some worse.
This questioning of everything is the defining characteristic of speculative fiction and it is what sets it apart from other fiction genres. It is also what makes some people truly dislike it. This brings me to my next point.
People who read speculative fiction are especially bright. The intellectual challenge of being exposed to a different world where very little can be assumed excites them. They want to figure out what makes this fictional world different from their own and how it works. They are open minded and willing to entertain questions about their own beliefs and assumptions. They understand that they occupy a single point in space-time and that it is not a privileged position. Not everyone is comfortable with this. Some may not be capable of it. But speculative fiction readers thrive on such mind stretching questions.
In all speculative fiction something is different than it is in our world and science fiction stories show us how people are affected by those differences. In order to do this believingly, or entertainingly in the case of fiction that is humorous, satirical, or intentionally unbelievable (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the author needs an understanding of humanity and how it might react to such differences, which brings us back to that underlying question about the fundamental nature of mankind. The one thing fictional stories must retain is a realistic image of humanity otherwise readers will not be able to identify or empathize with the characters.
The types of people who are drawn to speculative fiction are capable of asking big questions and they are capable of seeing the big picture. I believe that are also likely to understand that a species such as our own cannot go from flint knives to spaceships without having something going for it. Humanity has demonstrated that it can accomplish great things and readers of speculative fiction especially are likely to appreciate this either consciously or subconsciously. If a fictional story is based upon the mistaken premise that humanity as a whole is stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish then the story will seem contrived to them. They may have a hard time understanding exactly why but it will feel wrong.
For intelligent and insightful readers such as these, positive science fiction can provide a tonic to cure the misconceptions about humanity and its future that the news and mainstream fiction can convey. It can remind us that humanity has progressed and is likely to continue to progress, it can help us put current events into a more historical perspective so they can be seen more accurately, and it can reaffirm a sense of hope and optimism for our future.
Consider what is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction in the middle of the last century. The stories that mark this period were often a celebration of human achievement and they inspired not only a sense of wonder about the universe but a hopeful image of continued human exploration and discovery. Stories such as these are the true roots of science fiction. They were a different type of story for a different type of reader and I think part of their appeal was because they were based on a truer understanding of what humanity was and what it is capable of.
It may be something of a cliché but fiction really does shape our future. This is especially true for science fiction. I attended the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was held the first weekend of October 2011 here in Orlando. This was a gathering of scientists, engineers, and even science fiction writers and philosophers to discuss the future of human space exploration. A point that was made in several talks was how much science fiction had inspired people. One speaker said that an impromptu survey he took of his engineering students revealed that over 80% of them listed Scotty from Star Trek as their primary motivation for going into that discipline. The works of Asimov, Heinlein, and others from the golden age of science fiction were also credited as being major inspirations for scientists and engineers.
Think about that and consider what current mainstream science fiction might be inspiring young people to become if anything. As writers it is our job to entertain, not shape the future but intentionally or not this is something that fiction can do. And I think we should ask ourselves if we are helping to create a bright future or a dismal one.
I would like to see science fiction return to its golden age roots. Other fiction genres can take the dark side but true science fiction should not. I suppose a subgenre distinction could be make between “mainstream” science fiction, which follows the tone and mood of other genres to appeal to wider audiences and “true” or “positive” science fiction, which carries a more hopeful (and truer) tone and mood but I can find no indication that this distinction is being widely made. Perhaps it should be.
Positive Science Fiction Part 1 – Emerging From The Dark
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity
The 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS) – Resurgence of a Dream
On Digital Books And The Evolution Of Genre Fiction
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs
I was cruising the internet a few days ago for book recommendations and I stumbled across a discussion on Amazon between people looking for science fiction novels that have a positive outlook on the future. These can be a bit difficult to find, which was why I was looking myself.
There is no widely recognized “positive” subgenre for science fiction or fantasy. I checked, which means I ran the phrase through an internet search engine, which might not pass muster for a thesis but I figured it was sufficient research for a blog post. I found some mentions of “positive science fiction” but the term is not well defined although several people seem to think we need more of it. I would be one of them.
I had a pretty good idea of what I meant by the term. I know what I like to read and so after a bit of I thought I concluded that the essential distinction between a work of positive fiction and one of negative or dark fiction is the mood it conveys.
It certainly seems as if most of the new releases by both traditional and indie authors tend toward the dark side (no pun intended). They often take place in apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic settings in which war, environmental collapse, starvation, disease, overpopulation, or alien invasion play a key role. Sometimes they are dystopian in which economic exploitation, intolerance, oppressive ideologies, and other curses of our past are resurrected to plague humanity.
The one thing most of these have in common, I think, is a negative perception of mankind. They imply that our species is not intelligent or enlightened enough to successfully address problems before they lead to some kind of catastrophe and we are forced to deal with disastrous consequences as best we can afterwards. They start with an unspoken and, I think, mistaken premise that most people (including nonhuman aliens) are, by nature, stupid, warlike, aggressive, cruel, and selfish, and that it is only the rare individual who can rise above these tendencies. The protagonists in such stories are often such exceptional people and the plots show how they struggle and possibly even triumph over whatever it was they are confronted with. But even when the protagonist wins, even when the theme of the book is obviously to serve as a warning, the mood (the prevailing emotion the reader is left with after reading such a story) is negative because the protagonist is the rare exception. When the reader turns the last page and arrives back in the real world, they are left with a residual impression of humanity that is depressing, hopeless or discouraging.
The mood conveyed by a piece of positive fiction is almost exactly the opposite. A word I found often when researching “positive science fiction” was “hopeful” and that is certainly one of the moods a work of positive fiction can provide. Others might include, fanciful, happy, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, optimistic, or even thoughtful. Positive fiction seems to start with a different assumption about humanity, that people in general are fairly decent. It is the antagonist in these stories who is often the exception. The protagonists in such stories may have some exceptional abilities or resources at their disposal but in most ways they are representative of mankind in general. They are “good” people.
This positive premise is, I think, more accurate, which may be part of the reason it is appealing, at least to me. Why it does not dominate the speculative fiction market is a different question and one I can only speculate about.
I can hear the cynics already. People are decent? Come on! Don’t you read the news? Don’t you know what the real world is like?
Yes, of course. That is precisely my point but it will have to wait in order to keep this post at a reasonable length. Why I think this positive view of humanity is more accurate will be the subject of my next and significantly longer post.
Positive Science Fiction Part 2 – Understanding Humanity
Positive Science Fiction Part 3 – A Better World
Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood
Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs
Why Are Good Books So Hard To Find?
I love to read but even with the exponential expansion of available fiction, I still have a hard time finding new books that really appeal to me. My tastes are apparently somewhat outside the norm.
I was reminded of this recently when I sent out a call for help on Twitter. This is what I said:
I’m looking for a good 99¢ indie ebook novel similar in tone and mood with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Any suggestions?
I sent a few other Tweets in the same vein over the next few hours. Eventually a kindly Tweeter responded with a recommendation for a book by an indie writer that he was offering for free on Smashwords. It was a promotion to gain readers for the other books in the series. Great! Maybe there was a whole series of new books I would like.
I downloaded it. Last night I opened it on my Kindle and began to read.
It opened with a war scene full of action and seemingly mindless violence. This is normally a big turnoff for me but the Tweeter recommended it so I continued to read. Well, I thought, maybe it would get better. The nonstop action continued. I scanned ahead and there seemed to be no end of blood and brutality and nothing that indicated the book would eventually appeal to me and none that it bore any similarity to the wonderful books by Sir Terry Pratchett. I closed it and opened up my copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol mainly because I hadn’t yet moved it from my Kindle to my computer hard drive. Today I made an emergency visit to the library.
Now I know there are many people who thrive on nonstop action and I’m sure they would have not been able to put a book like this down. I just don’t happen to be one of them. To explain why not can be the subject of a later post but the short answer is that it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste. I find action by itself dull and uninteresting. I need to know about the characters first and there has to be something I find admirable about them before they are put in peril in order for me to care about their fate. Otherwise they are no different than those they are in conflict with. This is actually the same reason I was never a sports fan. I could never find a good reason to care which team won. The action isn’t enough. The game for the game’s sake isn’t enough. I need a reason to not only prefer one side over the other but also something to admire about the chosen side; something which their opponent either lacks or is opposed to.
I know this is out of the ordinary but that’s my point. With all the new indie authors publishing now you’d think some would be writing books that are not modeled on currently popular mainstream fiction and that there would be some that appeal to whatever niche you might find yourself in. I’m sure there are some out there for mine. Finding them is the problem.
So that is why I am asking for your help. I want to find more books to read and enjoy and I’m hoping some of you might know of some that suite my particular reading preference niche.
The following list should provide some indication of my personal tastes. Breaking out your tastes and preferences in a similar fashion may help you define and find new books you will like.
- Genre – I prefer Science Fiction although Fantasy is a close second. Mysteries and “literary fiction” can also be good if they share several of the other traits listed here. The target audience can be either adults or young adults. I find that YA books are often the most enjoyable. Within these genres, books that include insightful cultural satire are the most appealing.
- Mood – The mood is the overall feeling you get from a book. If you feel an emotion when you finish a book, the author has effectively conveyed a mood. I prefer books with positive moods such as, fanciful, happy, hopeful, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, or optimistic. If a book provokes a smile from me in the first twenty pages, that is a big plus. (You can find out more on mood here if you wish: Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood)
- Tone – The way the mood is expressed by the attitude of the author is the tone. It can also be thought of as part of the author’s style or voice. Tone reflects the author’s attitude toward the story, the characters in it, as well as toward the reader. The books I prefer tend to carry a prevailing tone that is amused, cheerful, humorous, ironic, lighthearted, optimistic, playful, satirical, or witty. (You can find out more on tone at the same link as above.)
- Theme – I tend to especially like books with an implied message of personal and/or cultural progress and discovery.
- Characters – There should be something admirable about the protagonist and his, her or its allies. They should be ethically and philosophically superior examples of humanity, even if they don’t happen to be human. This could be because they are unbiased, kindhearted, caring, nurturing, empathetic, or several other positive traits. This is what makes me care about what happens to them and makes me sure that their goals deserve to prevail. It also helps if the main character is intellectually above the norm. Those who are bright, analytical, observant, inquisitive, insightful or skeptical are especially appealing.
- Fantastic Creatures – If the story is a fantasy and includes such things as vampires, zombies, ghosts, or other supernatural or mythical beings, I prefer a certain amount of humor and satire in how these creatures are portrayed. I can suspend disbelief for the sake of a story and pretend such things can exist but it is more enjoyable if the tone of the book conveys that I’m not expected to.
So now know more about my taste in books than you ever wanted to. Thanks for letting me share. I have one more favor to ask. If you know of books that you think meet my somewhat peculiar taste by authors I have not listed below, please let me know either as a comment here or on Twitter.
These are some of the writers I know of who have written books that met the minimum threshold of my exacting standards.
- Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
- Piers Anthony (Xanth Series – These are almost too silly but can be fun to read.)
- Robert Asprin (Myth and Phule Series)
- Kage Baker (Company Series – a bit too much romance but not bad.)
- Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom of Landover Series)
- Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Series)
- Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl Series)
- Peter David (Apropos of Nothing Series)
- L. Sprague de Camp (The Reluctant King)
- Gordon R. Dickson (The Dragon Knight Series and others)
- Jasper Fforde
- Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)
- Neil Gaiman
- Craig Shaw Gardner
- William Goldman (The Princess Bride – one of my favorites.)
- Tom Holt (Some of his are good, others I didn’t much care for.)
- Jim C. Hines (The Goblin Series was especially fun.)
- Fritz Leiber
- Gregory Maguire (Wicked was enjoyable. The others, not so much.)
- Lee Martinez (Usually his books are a hoot.)
- Jack McDevitt (Alex Benedict Series)
- Martin Millar (The Good Fairies of New York)
- K.E. Mills (A bit verbose but not bad.)
- John Moore
- Grant Naylor (Red Dwarf)
- Terry Pratchett (My favorite writer by far. Fortunately a prolific one.)
- Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials)
- Robert Rankin
- Rick Riordan
- Spider Robinson
- J. K. Rowling
- John Scalzi (Fuzzy Nation)
- Martin Scott (Thraxas)
Thanks and happy reading.
I stated in a previous blog post that I thought tone and mood mattered more to me than genre and provided a far better indicator of whether or not I would like a particular book. I’m not saying genre doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter as much. In this post, I’m going to try to explore why that might be. I assume others may also share my ranking of relative importance but since my sample size for this in one, my hypothesis is philosophical rather than scientific so I’ll treat this as a personal voyage.
As a reminder (so you don’t have to read the previous blog), the term mood describes the overall feeling of a literary work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone describes the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.
Fiction is an art form. People feel something when they read it. As with all art forms, it is this emotion that draws people to the work. It may have intellectual aspects as well, which can enhance the experience; and increased knowledge about the art form can add to one’s appreciation of it, but it is the emotional impact that makes a person either like a particular piece or dislike it.
First, let me define the term “art form.” I’m making this one up, not the term, the definition, so there is no compelling reason for you to agree. It’s just my take on what all good art has in common. For me, an art form is any stylized representation of some aspect of reality intended to evoke an emotional response from an audience. That’s what makes a novel art, and a text book not. Not that you can’t have an emotional response to a text book. When in school, there were several text books I really came to hate but I seriously doubt the authors intended that.
That feeling the audience gets from art, whether it is a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a film, or a novel, is ultimately what determines if they like it–not appreciate it–like it. They like how it makes them feel. You can appreciate how a painter uses color and texture or how a writer constructs scenes and characters but still not like the end result. The work, despite all of its technical strengths may not touch you, it may not make you feel anything, or it may evoke feelings you don’t like or want at the time.
Consciously or unconsciously, people approach a work of art with the desire to feel something from it. If the work meets their emotional need, they like it. If it does not, they don’t. But of course different people have different emotional needs at different times so a book they did not like ten years ago, they may find they like now and may not even understand why. I think it is because their emotional needs have changed during that time. The novel, after all, is the same.
In some ways, all art is a form of escapism. This is especially true for novels, as well as movies and fictional television shows. But the word escapism has negative connotations and is, I think, not entirely accurate. People turn to fictional stories in books and movies to temporarily take their minds away from the pressures of their individual realities or to vicariously partake in something they may find missing in their real lives, but this isn’t so much to escape from their lives as to balance them emotionally.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s assume a person works every day at a dull job in which he has no real control over what he does or when he does it. When he comes home, this doesn’t change. Several things have to be done, whether it’s pick up the kids from school, drop them off at band practice, cook supper, pay the bills, mow the lawn, or fix something that broke the day before. When he gets that rare moment of free time, how does he fill it? Well, if he likes having no real control over his life, if he does not like making decisions, he may just turn on the TV news and watch more things he can’t really have much effect on. His dull and impotent life doesn’t bother him and therefore doesn’t create an emotional need. But if the necessity to always react to situations rather than control them makes him feel frustrated, a good novel with a protagonist who always takes charge of any situation, may be just what he needs. It can help him feel things he does not often get to feel in his normal routine. It can help balance his emotional life. Whether the novel is an epic adventure, mystery, space opera, or western, doesn’t matter as much as the feeling of excitement and potency the mood of the novel provides.
The thing creating an emotional need does not have to be personal. For example, someone who has more generalized frustrations about humanity in general, who is bothered by how people always seem to find excuses to harm one another or do really irrational and self destructive things, may turn to fiction to balance growing feelings of pessimism with books with optimistic and hopeful moods.
Escapism? Maybe. Therapy? Perhaps. Novels can fulfill an emotional need and are probably more effective and certainly less fattening than downing a six-pack.
When asked what kind of books you read, how often do you respond initially with some genre category: science fiction, fantasy, young adult, epic adventure, etc? When you do, occasionally someone might say, ah, so you must really like X (X being the best selling or most heavily marketed book in that genre at the time). If you say you didn’t much care for it, or loathed it, or aren’t interested in reading it after seeing the description in some review, you may find yourself confronting a very bewildered face, especially if the owner of said face happens to really like X.
As an example, I’m going to pick one extremely popular Young Adult (YA) fantasy series; Harry Potter. If we assume only people who like this genre will even crack open the cover, all reader reviews on Amazon.com , Goodreads, or any other site should give these books four of five stars. It may surprise you that there are actually some readers of YA fantasy who loathed these books.
The following statistics are of customer reviews on Amazon.com for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as of 3 July 2011.
5 star: 4,758 (84%)
4 star: 548 (10%)
3 star: 93 (2%)
2 star: 80 (1%)
1 star: 76 (1%)
(2% lost due to rounding)
Here is another example. These numbers are for the popular YA Soft Science Fiction book Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
5 star: 1,906 (76%)
4 star: 373 (15%)
3 star: 106 (4%)
2 star: 50 (2%)
1 star: 49 (2%)
(1% lost due to rounding)
Okay, so there are always a few malcontents. The stats still show that most people really liked these books, right? In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 94% gave it four or five stars. For Hunger Games, it was 91%.
Yes and no. There are two reasons why these figures do not necessarily represent the overall opinions of readers of those particular genres. The most obvious is that no statistics indicate how many applicable genre readers decided not to read these after seeing the description on the book jacket or on Amazon. The reader reviews only represent the opinions of people who actually thought enough of the book to pick it up and give it a shot based on the marketing and, possibly, other reviews. In other words, only those who expected to like the book before reading it were in the pool of potential reviewers. The other reason is that many people (myself included) are more likely to write a positive review for a book they liked and simply not say anything about the stinkers.
So what is it beyond genre that makes someone want to read a book and, having read it, like it? I think much of the answer to this question lies in what it is different people are looking for in their reading experience.
I have probably read thousands of fiction books. Until recently, I never really kept count or, except for a few I really liked, kept copies. These were in various genres but primarily science fiction, fantasy, epic adventure, and YA although I have also read several mysteries, and books considered literary fiction. Some I liked, some I didn’t, and I asked myself why this was. What was it about one book I really liked while another in the same genre, possibly with a similar plot left me cold? I have come to realize that, for me, the tone and mood of the novel matters more than the genre.
If you are not familiar with tone and mood as they apply to literature, here are some quick definitions.
Tone – The tone of a novel reflects the author’s attitude toward not only the characters and events he creates but toward the story itself as a whole as well as toward the reader. It is conveyed by how the author tells the story including choice of setting, vocabulary, and other details. A single book can have more than one tone simultaneously and they can be mixed in an almost infinite number of combinations.
Following are some words that can describe tone:
Amused, Angry, Cheerful, Clear, Conciliatory, Conversational, Detailed, Formal, Gloomy, Humorous, Imploring, Informal, Ironic, Lighthearted, Matter-of-fact, Neutral, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Playful, Pompous, Resigned, Sad, Satirical, Serious, Suspicious, Witty. . .
An example may help to clarify this concept. Terry Pratchett populates his immensely popular Discworld fantasy novels with likeable and believable characters and he puts them in situations that can seem very real–except he conveys through the use of a lighthearted and satirical tone that he does not take them seriously and neither should the reader. Neither they nor the world they inhabit can really exist, and yet the stories are immensely enjoyable and have important meaning and relevance. It’s not easy to do but Sir Pratchett is a master at it.
Mood – The mood of a story is the prevailing emotion the reader experiences when reading the book. Setting, plot, dialog, images, and many other factors can be used to convey mood. Sometimes the mood will remain the same from the first page of a novel to the last; other times it will change because of changes in the plot or characters. The emotion the reader feels at the end, however, is the most important for defining the overall mood of the book.
Following are some words that can describe mood:
Anxious, Cold, Disgusted, Depressed, Excited, Fanciful, Frightened, Frustrated, Gloomy, Happy, Hopeful, Idealistic, Intellectual, Joyful, Lonely, Loss, Melancholy, Mournful, Mysterious, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Realistic, Romantic, Sad, Sentimental, Sorrowful, Suspenseful, Suspicious, Tense, Thoughtful . . .
Basic emotions such as these provide the mood for the story.
A good example of tone and mood is provided here using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as and example. http://www.online-literature.com/austen/prideprejudice/
The tone of the novel is light, satirical, and vivid. The mood is intellectual and cold. In this book, lack of strong emotion is the prevailing mood.
Notice that words that can be used to describe tone can also be used to define mood because both are dependent on feeling. You can think of mood as the overall feeling of the work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone as the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.
This blog post has already gone much longer than I had originally intended, so even though this has not been an exhaustive exploration of tone and mood, it’s time to wrap it up.
My point in this post is to point out that there are aspects of fiction beyond genre that may be better indicators of whether or not a person will like a particular book. A bit of introspection has led me to suspect that the most important–to me at least–are tone and mood. As to why that is will have to wait for another blog post though.