The OF Blog: Wondering about that Emotional Punch to the Junk

Monday, October 17, 2005

Wondering about that Emotional Punch to the Junk

Over the past year or so, I've slowly become less and less inclined to read a work of overt speculative fiction, as I have become more and more enamoured recently with the works of a great many Latin American authors, from Jorge Luis Borges to my current read, José María Arguedas. I never really sat down and thought about why this was happening until I read a couple of pieces that made me wonder about what possibly could be missing from most contemporary speculative fiction.

I think what I miss most is that sense of connection, as if the plight of the characters were somehow important to me. Reading Arguedas's Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers) has made me think about the oppression of the indios of Peru, of those impoverished, yet proud, descendents of the Inka, whose rich cultural tradition has had a layer of European architecture and values superimposed upon it as the streets of Cusco have Inka foundation and European storeys. Where is this sense of loss, this sense of an utterly human tragedy in most fantasy or science fiction stories? Where is the connection between the lives that the characters have lived (or died) and that of my own? Where is the realism that underlies our fantasies?

Is it because it is so very difficult to write a scene set outside our perceived world and have it become 'meaningful' to us? Can we truly experience such a sense of shared triumph or communal loss as some have while reading works such as Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front or Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises?

Recently, I was reading the comments over in wotmania's WoT messageboard in regards to the apparent 'insensitivity' that readers were showing toward a moment in the just-released latest WoT book, Knife of Dreams, that the author himself said should make people "gasp." The relative blasé attitude toward that stuck me as rather interesting - was it due to people being desensitized, or could it deal more with a greater difficulty in becoming emotionally attached to a fantasy world and its peoples and their struggles?

Is there something inherently lacking in the way that most fantasies and science fiction works are written that prevents us from associating ourselves, perhaps in cathartic fashion, with the characters being represented? It is a question that puzzles and troubles me.

Perhaps others reading this will have thoughts on this issue. Perhaps they can think of exceptions to what I have mentioned, or perhaps other ways of viewing this. Shall be interesting to see what the Blog readers here will make of this.


Anonymous said...

I understand your feeling, and I have experienced it also, though not as profoundly. I think when you have read a large amount of spec fiction, it becomes harder to find works that challenge you in some way. Much of the genre is repetitive and formulaic. Let's face it, you have certainly read a large amount of spec fiction. In the end, it is up to the author to engage us. Some do it with the beauty of the writing. Authors such as Le Guin, Wolf and Bradbury are wordsmiths whos prose is as engaging as the story. Some authors reach us on a more emotional level, some maybe an intellectual one.

I have read the Jordan book and seen some of the discussions you mention. My take is that Jordan failed to make us see the tragedy he depicted as he did. He would claim that we are too jaded, but I think that is not true. An author has a different relationship with his characters and creations than the reader. In my opinion, he failed to realized that he, the author, had not emotionally involved us, his readers, with the characters and events he depicted well enough for us to feel emotionally involved. Now, contrast that with Steven Erikson in his book Memories of Ice. I read the two books with less than 6 months seperating the time period. I was very moved by Erikson's book. Moved to laugh, and almost cry at times. I enjoyed both books, but I was certainly more emotionally, and intellectually, engaged by Erikson's.

So in the end, I feel your pain, but I also hold out that there is hope. There are authors out there who can engage us. If more of these authors are not writing in english, then we need to stand up and tell the publishers that we are tired of the same old junk and need some new blood.


Anonymous said...

I understand what you mean, and have experienced some of the same detachment myself - in literature (although not yet in the new WoT book, which is probably mostly due to the fact it's still in the post - estimated delivery date Nov. 11th. How are they sending it? Are they making it swim across the Atlantic on its own accord?) and in something I consider to be vaguely related, namely roleplaying games.

Let me elaborate on that; the link isn't always that easy to see. You say you are missing a sense of connection - essentially, that you find it hard to identify with the characters in the stories you've been reading. This is what we roleplayers try to do most of all - become a character so deeply that we, the players, truly feel their hopes, fears, pain and pleasure. (I know that that idea freaks out some non-roleplayers, but that's another matter.) I've been in games where everyone's had to take a twenty minute tea break after a particularly intense scene. I've physically flinched from imaginary knives, I've been so scared I wanted to run away and hide somewhere with lots of locks on the door, and I've been ecstaticly happy in-character despite being so depressed in real life I'd barely smiled for a week.

These instances, however, are often few and far between, for a variety of reasons. First of all, it depends on your style of playing. Some people don't feel comfortable with that level of immersion, so they don't. Secondly, it depends on the atmosphere the person running the game manages to create. It's not an easy task, and by no means everyone manages to get you that far in-character, or even wants you to. Even the best deep-immersion roleplayer will not feel the same level of involvement if a game is badly run or not meant for such immersion. Also, there is the fact that it is very, very hard to shock your average roleplayer - to reach that 'gasp' moment. I guess that is a form of desensitisation (I won't go into probably causes for that...frankly, I don't know, and I think it's a topic for sociologists and psychologists), and to break through that numb shell is the mark of the truly great Gamesmaster.

This is where I reach my point of comparison - I think it both depends on whether or not you want to be that connected to a narrative, whether it is the sort of atmosphere that reacts with your own state of mind (I have been left completely untouched by scenes the rest of the player group responded to intensely and things have messed with my brain that no one else seemed to pick up on) and on how well the author sets up an atmosphere to draw you in.

Whether or not that is missing from contemporary speculative fiction, I don't know. I do think, however, it is no more difficult to achieve that sense of connection in science fiction or fantasy than it is in 'realistic' fiction. Rather, I think that is part of the overall challenge of writing fiction (or even non-fiction) of any sort - to come up with characters people can engage with, and to then write them in a convincing and consistent manner. Whether or not that appeals to a specific person, I think, depends on the person. Maybe you are at a point in your life where you find it easier, or more rewarding, to engage with stories set in our world, or something approaching our world. Others might prefer to respond to an entirely invented environment inhabited by characters that nonetheless show things they can relate to.

On the whole, I think it comes down to personal with so many things. :D


Anonymous said...

The gasp moment was in my mind the mass suecide of a group of unimportant people who did not contribut to the story. I was mostly wondering what the implementations would be to the story than feeling sorry for the people.

Now when Dumbledore died in Harry Potter millions of people cried.

It is clear to me that the connection to the character(s) that dy is most important.

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