(Speech, with minor edits, delivered at Philcon, Saturday November 17. 2018)
First of all, thank you to the committee for inviting me here. It is an honor and a pleasure. And while I’m required to say something like that out of courtesy, as it happens, I also mean it. While I do use words to lie for a living, a subject we’ll be coming back to, I do so in order to lay truth before the reader. So please believe me when I say that being here really is a pleasure, and an honor.
Before I get into the meat the subject—or some other protein for you vegetarians out there—I want to preface this by saying that from here on a lot of this will be aimed mostly at writers, at people who are working on this stuff. But I believe that reading is unlike sausage and law: knowing something of how it happens, about what works and what doesn’t and why, makes reading a more rewarding experience, and so hearing about it will be interesting. If, after I get into things, you discover that you don’t agree with me, please try to snore quietly.
Historian Gordon Woods, in his outstanding work, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, traces the changes in thinking of Americans from before the signing of the Declaration of Independence to some time after the ratification of the Constitution. It was a remarkable time for thought, because whenever there are vast social upheavals, these upheavals always generate changes in people’s thinking—sometimes astonishingly broad changes in a very short time. These changes in thinking can generate further upheavals. Carried to an extreme, this results in social revolution, producing another step toward human equality, or counter-revolution, another step back from it. I don’t think I’m at risk of embarrassing myself if I point out that we’re living in such a time right now.
One of the ways in which the thinking of many Americans changed—starting with the propertied classes, mostly white and exclusively male, many of whom were slave owners—and on down to the propertyless, the poor, the toilers—was a replacement of Republicanism in favor of Democracy as a goal to strive for. That is, whatever was inscribed in the Constitution, Democracy became more and more the accepted model for society, in history books, tavern conversations, wisdom to be passed on to one’s children. In other words, a virtuous society came to be seen less as one with virtuous leaders who made the important decisions than as one with a virtuous populace who were all responsible for those decisions.
The consequences of this change, happening within a couple of generations, are vast, but there is one in particular I want to talk about. The rejection of Republicanism in favor of Democracy was reflected, not only in politics, but in the realm of thought. That is to say, Americans became suspicious of experts, and suspicious of the well-educated, and became convinced that anyone’s opinion is as good as another’s. Here we have the origin of what we’ve all noticed: a broad streak of anti-intellectualism running through American society. The downside, if you will, of democracy. And let me add, so there is no confusion, that I’m a big fan of democracy. But, the way it developed in the US, it does have that downside.
There is a lot of variety in all of this, and degrees. In the most extreme form you have politicians—I won’t name names—who attack opponents for being too smart, a tactic that works often enough that it should frighten us. Other things go along with it, such as the emphasis on personal feelings. That is, “When you make that argument, I feel bad, therefore you must be wrong.” If you listen closely, you will find exactly that method underlying a lot of political opinions you hear.
This development in the thinking of Americans has two effects I want to talk about in relation to fiction: One is a deliberate attempt to write fiction for “the people,” that is, fiction that doesn’t challenge, or at least looks like it doesn’t challenge. Fiction for the common man. The pulps, and the categories of fiction that emerged from them, such as our own fields. This is one of the things that has led to the bizarre notion that there are two sorts of fiction: literature for the elite, storytelling for the unwashed masses, which has also led to the idea, in some circles, that you can tell how good a book is by where it’s shelved in the bookstore. Others have spoken at length, and better than I could, about the effects of this stupid and artificial separation of fiction, and how it has hurt, and arguably occasionally helped, the creation of good writing. The other effect—and this, too, has had a profound effect on fiction—is a broad contempt for philosophy, the ultimate, perfect target for the anti-intellectual.
For the most part, Americans fall into two groups with regard to philosophy: those who dismiss it as being pointless navel-gazing, and those who study it, and find it fascinating, but do not see how it has any relation to day-to-day life.
I believe it not only has an effect on day-to-day life, but it most certainly has an effect on fiction in general and fantastical fiction in particular.
First of all, when speaking of philosophy, I’m talking about ontology and epistemology: the doctrine of being, and theory of knowledge. That is, is there an objective reality, and how do we know what we know. Especially the second. Or, for a handy way of telling them apart, all Christians share an ontology, all fundamentalists share an epistemology. That is, Christianity requires the belief in a world ultimately determined by a conscious, unknowable, supernatural entity; fundamentalism requires the belief that we know truth because it’s what’s written in scripture. The German materialist Feurbach said, “To theology, only what is sacred is true. To philosophy, only what holds true is sacred.”
As far as ontology goes, that is, the doctrine of being, or what is reality, it is possible to go through life with the attitude, “I don’t know if there’s any reality, but I’m going to act as if there is, and that has the same result.” Well, no it doesn’t, but that’s an argument for another time. I want to focus on the epistemology, and how it affects the creation and the reading of fiction.
I want to emphasize this: You have an epistemology. You have a method. Even if you’re one of those who laughs at philosophy, or makes dismissive remarks about people who believe in “isms” you still have a method by which you understand the world and determine truth. Some say, “that’s fake news,” without knowing why they believe that, some say, “check your sources,” some say, “all we can know are facts” (and most of those who say that don’t know what a fact is, but that, too, is for another time), some say, “truth is whatever makes you happy.” If you’ve never studied philosophy, all that means is, you haven’t examined your method; you haven’t tested it, given it conscious thought, and decided if it’s something you agree with.
This ignorance of and hostility to philosophy, to examining our method, has obvious consequences in the field of politics: when you say to yourself, “How can anyone think that way?” the answer is probably a poor philosophical method. And as you’re saying that about someone else, chances are I’m saying that about you because I’m kind of a snide asshole.
I would like to state clearly that I believe there is an objective reality, and that it is knowable. I believe we can know theory by making deductions from facts, and that we can then test our theories. Proof of our thinking is not found in our heads, but by the changes we make in the world. That is to say, the answer to the question, “But how do I know everything I see isn’t a virtual reality simulation” is not, “It doesn’t matter,” but rather, “you’re looking for proof in the wrong place, it isn’t in our heads.” You cannot prove the truth of your thoughts by thinking. We find our proof in the changes we, socially, collectively, have made in the world.
All of which has a profound effect on my approach to storytelling, which is, in fact, why I bring it up. It also has a profound effect on my political ideology, which I’m happy to discuss if you put a glass of whiskey in my hand, but that isn’t what I’m doing here. All of that discussion of philosophy was to point out how my approach to truth, to the nature of reality, to how we know the nature of reality, makes a huge difference in how I write fantasy. If you’re a writer, it has a profound effect on your writing, too.
Now, take that thought, and put it in your pocket; we’re going to come back to it in a minute.
You’ve all heard the comment about how writers are professional liars. Usually, we tell lies in the service of truth, which is something I’ll get to in a second, but just for fun, let’s start at the opposite end: the way we use truth in the service of our lies.
One way to consider the fantastical elements in fantastical fiction is to think of it like a bank, except that it won’t get bailed out if it goes broke. What I mean is this: you make deposits of realism and withdrawals of the fantastical, and if you try to withdraw more than you’ve put in you get an overdraft notice in the form of your book flying across the room and hitting the wall. This is especially a problem for those using an ebook.
We increase our account by injecting reality. That is, by showing something the reader knows, and describing it in such a way that the reader nods and says, “Yeah, that’s right. I’ve felt that.” If you can pull that off, you’ve built up a nice supply of trust that you can spend with stuff the reader knows isn’t true. The opposite, of course, is also the case: if you do a bad job with something the reader is familiar with, you’ve got no chance with the other stuff. As I remarked to myself when reading one story I won’t name, “Why should I believe your faster-than-light drive when you obviously don’t know how to handle a firearm?”
This brings us to the fun part, which is combining them: That is, when you take something fantastical and make it feel real. I would like to now read you a brief quote that I keep coming across on the internet: “Don’t explain how it works, explain how you use it.” – Steven Brust. There are several interesting things about that quote, starting with the fact that I never said it. It is a summary of something I said summarizing something my friend Will Shetterly said summarizing something Ursula LeGuin said, and I have no idea how I keep getting the credit for it. But I’ll take it.
Anyway, here is the point that Ms. LeGuin was getting at: you don’t convince the reader that your faster-than-light drive works by throwing a bunch of fake science out there, although that by itself can be cool if you do it well. You convince the reader of your ftl drive by showing how it feels to be pressed back into the acceleration couch, by how the lights change, what’s happening on your viewscreen when the shift comes, how the ship shakes, or whatever happens. You’re describing things that the reader has actually felt, and if you do it right, it doesn’t matter to the reader that the setting for these familiar things is impossible; that part slips right by, and the next thing you know you’re at another star system where the next set of cool things is about to happen, and the reader is right there with you. I don’t think I need to remind you of seeing the Millennium Falcon go into hyperspace the first time; those of you as old as I am remember just how cool that was, and how we instantly bought into it.
As for the explanation itself, remember that a few drops of handwavium go a long way. Too much and it reduces itself to headeskium, which, as we all know, immediately upon contact with air becomes bookthrowium.
Above all, at least for me, is the reality of human interaction, of character, of personality. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than the feeling, “Huh? What? Why is he doing that? That’s just stupid.” The feeling, on the other hand, of, “Hey, she’s just as smart as I am, that’s what I’d do,” pulls you deeper into the work.
Point being, reality can make your fantastical fiction work better.
So now we turn it around, because yeah, we really can can discover truth, understand reality better, through fiction, and that’s how we create fiction that hits hard, that punches, that stays with us. But now the question is, what sort of truth do we find in our made-up worlds?
I call a book successful insofar as people who read it are glad they did. But that’s only because I’ve learned that it’s easier to meet my standards if I set them low. In other words, “a good story well told,” as the saying goes, is worthwhile, but not all that challenging. We all know a story can do more than that. We’ve all read books that gave us new ideas to play with, or made us reconsider things we thought we knew.
I like to call us epiphanizers, at least in intention. What I mean is, the highest goal, the thing to shoot for, is to give the reader that moment of, “Oh my god, that’s true, and I’d never realized it.” To put it in more formal terms, it means to reveal contradictions that are concealed in everyday life.
So how do you do that? It isn’t simply a matter of standing up there and saying, “Hey, here’s this truth I’ve learned about life.” The ones who do that are called either philosophers or stand-up comedians. With a novel, it isn’t like you’re trying to find a slick or clever way to deliver some message, and concealing it in 100,000 words. If there were a shorter way to get your point across, you’d do that. Let me hit that harder: there’s an old chestnut, I don’t know where it’s from, that says “Until a writer can express the theme of his novel in a single declarative sentence, he shouldn’t set pen to paper.” I believe that if you can express your theme in a single declarative sentence, you should write that single declarative sentence, then make your novel about something interesting.
One element, maybe the most important, is: there’s no substitute for doing the work. That is, for studying, for learning, for getting a solid base on your subject. Our job as writers is to take truth and cast it as images; we hope as images that will stay with the reader. You can’t do that from a base of ignorance.
A key element of stage magic is simply that the audience can’t conceive of someone going through all of that work for such a tiny effect. I once saw a performance by Penn and Teller in which they actually built a clock with a second hand that moved maybe twenty percent fast just to increase the tension while one of them was underwater. That’s the sort of thing I mean about doing the work, about a lot of work for what seems to be a tiny effect. The first step in laying truth before the reader is a thorough understanding of what you’re writing about.
But that isn’t the only thing. Now take those remarks I made about philosophy out of your pockets and put them here. First, it’s harder to lay truth before the reader if you don’t believe there is any such thing. But beyond that, my point is fiction as exploration, as journey by the writer in an attempt to discover something true, that carries the reader along for the ride. Once you’ve done the research, the study, if you then set as a theme a question, something you honestly don’t know the answer to but are fascinated by, you can then use the book as a vehicle to explore it. If you do it right, you probably won’t come up with an answer to your question, but you’ll understand it better, and, here’s the fun part, the reader will be engaged with you at a deeper level, probably unaware of why that is.
I no longer remember the questions I was exploring with most of my books; only a few stand out that way. But there is always a question that, either I start with, or that I discover partway through. I remember that in Brokedown Palace, for example, I was exploring the relationship between creation and destruction, asking myself just how necessary is the latter to the former. Jhereg was about professionalism, and what it means. To Reign In Hell, really my only political book, was about a hesitant leadership in a revolutionary epoch. The Phoenix Guards was about just what does friendship mean? And so on.
I should add that the meaning of the book, what it is about to me, the author, becomes something else entirely as soon as it goes out into the world. The reader might discover meaning that has nothing to do with my idea of what I was looking at. The meaning a reader finds is every bit as legitimate as what I had in mind. By making this exploration, whether the reader is aware of it or not, there will be a deeper, a more profound experience for the reader. The book is more likely to remain with the reader. The images we use to carry out this examination are more likely to be images that become a part of the reader’s life, which I would have to call the victory condition of writing. This is also how you write a book that rewards re-reading, because the deeper you go deliberately, the more depth the reader will discover, even if I had intended those depths to lead to a subaquatic cave and the reader finds nothing but a giant squid.
Though not really the point, there is an additional benefit to this approach to writing: it helps keep you honest. That is, if you don’t know the answer to the question that is underlying your story, you have less worry about forcing your characters into actions that feel false and contrived.
I should add that this is not an argument either for or against outlining. What I’m talking about can happen if you start out with no idea where you’re going except a vague direction, or if you’ve mapped out every detail. Either way, there is room in the book for you to ask a question you don’t know the answer to.
And underpinning all of these questions is my belief that, yes, there is an objective reality, and that the fact that we’ll never fully know it does not relieve us of the responsibility to try, and that the role of the novelist, although I might never have succeeded in this, is to discover what is true and lay it before the reader.
Thank you for your patience. I’ll now take questions on this, or on anything else except particle physics. I don’t know anything about particle physics, so don’t ask.