The OF Blog: Interesting comment from Richard Morgan

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Interesting comment from Richard Morgan

Buried within the brouhaha of the past week surrounding the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics definition squabble on SF Signal and elsewhere (including here), Richard Morgan raises an interesting point that I think might provide grist for the mill:

Hmm - this again.

I missed out on the thread about taboos, and thus the chance to engage with those contributors who seemed to think that we've entered some mired slough of moral relativism in which dark editorial forces force out the notion of "good" characters, admirable heroes and positive outcomes. But luckily for me, here we are once again wondering why our fiction tends to lean towards dealing with the negatives of the human condition. And once again, it seems to me we have this question utterly backwards; ask not why our genre tends to see the human future in bleak terms - ask instead why we suffer this constant cry within the genre to make room for cheap, plastic, rosy 'n' cosy models of human development appropriate to a Disney movie for five year olds.

Let's just take our bearings here. If we look outside the confines of the genre for a moment, what is it we think is going on in the broader field of fiction? Let's take a few notable non-genre books off my (and my wife's) shelf at random and see what their subject matter is:

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: a young woman suffers through the brutality of the Nigeria/Biafra war.

The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell: the Nazi Holocaust, told from the point of view of one of its more enthusiastic perpetrators.

Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy: brutal and blood-soaked (and painstakingly researched) fictional account of filibuster scalp-hunting in the American west circa 1850.

Andrea Levy - Small Island: two educated and dedicated Jamaican immigrants suffer casually brutal racism at the hands of their white British and American counterparts in London during the second world war and after

Cancer Ward - Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: no commentary necessary, I imagine.

Brick Lane - Monica Ali: a woman suffers within the stifling confines of a repressive sub-culture in London's east end.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami: an ordinary man is brought into confrontation with a powerful corrupt force hidden beneath the placid surface of contemporary Japanese society and inside his own family. Along the way he revisits war-time atrocities committed in occupied China.

Snow - Orhan Pamuk: religious fundamentalism clashes with militaristic state repression in eighties eastern Turkey

The Quiet American - Graham Greene: catastrophic political innocence and arrogance march hand in hand into Vietnam from America and cause nothing but misery in their wake.

Beginning to see a pattern? Need we go on to Rushdie, Pynchon, McEwan, Proulx, Roth, DeLillo? Or the American hard-boiled crime writing tradition? Back to Shakespeare, maybe?

We award accolades to literature when we feel it has reached into the human condition, laid it bare or provided a fresh angle on it, when it has told us or made us feel something true about that condition. Bleak comes with that particular territory as standard. Humans are a dodgy, brutal lot and the project of human civilisation advances slowly and haltingly at massive human cost in blood and pain, with many retrograde steps and absolutely no guarantee of success. This is who we are. If you care about what you're writing (beyond wanting to pay the bills, that is), then you must confront this in your work and do something honest with it. Anything else is pandering.

In mainstream literature, this assumption is so much a part of the landscape that it goes largely unremarked; anyone who thinks of SF&F as adult literature should not find it sticking in their throat either.

If I had the time to sit around to think of ways to poke holes in this, I suppose I could, but I'm a bit loopy now with the allergy meds for the spider bite, so I'll just open it up for people here to examine what he says. Is "genre fiction" (however that may be defined) too prone to look for the consoling comforts, with the occasional aghast look presented when a hard, "difficult" work that dares to examine the "human condition" in unflattering lights is published?

After all, people die all the time, often in prosaic fashion, sometimes in spectacular, gut-wrenching tragedies. This wide spectrum of death, destruction, and suffering has been presented in innumerable stories and fictions over the years, but why is it a big deal when a SF/F author utilizes tried-and-true methods to explore the darker elements of human existence? It is an interesting point that Morgan raises - what do you have to say in response to it?


Cole said...

It would seem at first glance that an easy reason for the outcry is that SF/F tends to be embraced as an escape from reality, thus the desired product is warm and fuzzy. Thus the pressure from editors/booksellers for stories that provide the escape that the consumer is looking for. Beyond that, SF/F has a reputation for those warm and fuzzy stories where nothing really bad happen to the protagonist (ex. Belgariad), so much so, in fact, that when a book or series comes out like aSoIaF, where Martin doesn't really care if his characters live or die, it creates waves. I've even had people tell me that warm and fuzzy is part of the definition of SF/F.

Anonymous said...

I would speculate that readers of sci-fi and fantasy, until recently, were a group of people who were adventurous, optimistic and inspired. Now, the majority tends towards the introspective, brooding, emo-types. Thus, you get the kind of description of humanity Morgan leaves us with. Nowhere in there was the compassionate hands of a mother. Nowhere in there was the silent wisdom of a grandmother. Nowhere in there is the sympathy/empathy of a good friend. Nowhere in there is the generosity to be found in everyday interactions. You get my drift. A fixation upon one of the two extreme stratum of the range that is humanity does not make for any true insightful look into "the human condition" (i.e. it's totality).

Anonymous said...

I kind of think this whole thing about the new Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics website has been blown out of proportion and misread/understood. For instance, James Maxey - a contributor there - is not what I would call the writer of happy go lucky stories. His characters are dark and his stories are dark. The hero in his Dragon books enjoys killing sentient dragons. So let's put aside what people seem to 'think' that website is about and figure out what they're really trying to be about.

I got the impression they just wanted to talk about the things they 'like' in science fiction and fantasy. Does someone love the Matrix? Then they'll do a post about it. They're not necessarily going to talk about how some people hate that movie (or it's sequels) they're just going to talk about why they like it. For every negative opinion on a book or movie, a positive one can be found (otherwise why would the Dan Brown and Twilight books do so well - SOMEONE must like them). So it seems to me that, THAT's the point of this new site. Sometimes the internet just seemed filled with haters of everything - so it would be nice to see people, in just this one place, talking about the things they like. They're not saying everyone else should shut down, just focusing their content in one area that might be lacking elsewhere.

Just my 2 cents.

tim said...

Just saw M. John Harrison linking to this site, and I have to agree with him that the authors Morgan lists approach human existence with subtly, not necessarily a bleak view of life. I am reading Adichie's Half a yellow Sun right now, and have read most the books Morgan lists, and his short summations of the texts do not do their complexity justice, and ignore all of the beautiful, comforting moments in the books. The tension between the horror of life and ability to find joy and hope despite living through a war, through brutal racisms, through genocides, are what make these books powerful. They do not fall prey to the ennui of Camus nor to the unthinking innocent-happiness of Boys Own adventures.
What we might want (or at least, I want) is genre fiction that is consumate with the ambiguities of being human. What I don't want is garbage that pretends to do this, like McDonald's River of Gods, which only replicate the problems of their souce material (in that case, Kipling's Kim) without taking advantage of the post-colonial realities (signaled in in literature by, Rushdie, James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, etc.) Why can't science fiction and fantasy do that? Vandermeer and Harrison achieve this....

Cindy said...

I don't know enough about the SFFE group to really form a large opinion. I was under the impression that it was to discuss books and stuff and not trash the books like some people do. You can be negative about a book and still come across as classy. Then again I could have missed something completely.

James Maxey as much as I love him as an author is not the definition of warm and fuzzy, so I guess I'll just wait and see what comes from the SFFE group and if I don't like it I'll just not read it.

Martin said...

I would speculate that readers of sci-fi and fantasy, until recently, were a group of people who were adventurous, optimistic and inspired. Now, the majority tends towards the introspective, brooding, emo-types.

This is the funniest thing I've ever read.

Nels said...

Martin said...

"I would speculate that readers of sci-fi and fantasy, until recently, were a group of people who were adventurous, optimistic and inspired. Now, the majority tends towards the introspective, brooding, emo-types.

This is the funniest thing I've ever read."

I too thought that the bit quoted was the funniest thing I'd ever read, until I got the rather queasy feeling that the person who posted it might be, you know... serious.

Which, to quote MJH, makes us Very Afraid.

Anonymous said...

Says the emo. ;)

Anonymous said...

"There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. A book is well written or badly written; that is all".

I think the same is true if you replace "moral" with "exploring the human condition" (and, obviously, change the syntax a little to match).

Are there a lot of warm and fuzzy speculative novels out there, that barely touch on deeper themes? Yes, of course there are. But there are also hundreds of pulp romance, pulp military, pulp spy, pulp detective, pulp historical and pulp everythingelse novels out there that ALSO are warm/fuzzy/exciting/educational/whatever without touching on deeper themes and the human condition. Yes, if you compare, say, Jordan to Orhan Pamuk, fantasy will look shallow. But that's the wrong comparison to be making - just as it would be wrong to compare, say, Barbara Cartland to Walter Miller Jr.

There are pulp books that do not address the human condition greatly, and there are good books, which do [there may even be some pulp books that are actually good, as well, but that's incidental to the point]. This is, and has been, true in BOTH genres.

To some extent, it's hard to comment on what Morgan said without knowing who exactly he was complaining about, and what they said. If somebody was arguing that, in effect, SF books couldn't be good books and had to be pulp, obviously they were talking nonsense - not just in a poor thinking way, but in a poor research way, since there are a great many classic SF books that address the human condition just as well as non-SF books do.

On the other hand, I think an argument could be advanced that too much of the pulp SF market is now TRYING to address the human condition without having the ability to do so, resulting in a lack of good pulp SF.

Now, I don't think that argument would be correct. I LIKE things like ASOIAF, which are fairly pulpy but try at least to be a little more nuanced and sophisticated. However, it's not an impossible argument (I think superhero films, for instance, show the process, where there's been a great many superhero films that fail to really address the darker themes they raise, but also fail to be exciting films because they've spent too much time trying to address the darker themes), and, importantly, it's not an argument that Morgan's response does anything to counter.

Fabio Fernandes said...

As a contributor to SFFE, all I can say right now is that kirrmistwelder is right: like James Maxey, me and the other people there just want to talk about the things we like in science fiction and fantasy. Just that.

There was a major discussion inside the group about the use of word "ethics". Now we dropped that and just started to use the word "Enthusiasts" - though I think that´s too much of a concession to the politically correct. But we started to get hate mails and comments, and that was when we started to notice that people weren´t getting the gist of what we were trying to do.

Oh, well. I´m just trying to explore new venues, make new friends, open new avenues for discussion, the whole shebang. And I will still write depressing stories. :-)

Larry Nolen said...


That sounds like the best reason to join any group, although I really think most of what's gone on has been due to the murkiness of what the group's name meant. I know I was a bit confused by it and its apparent goals, but what you describe sounds perfectly acceptable to me, since it doesn't have any pretenses to being something ultra-grand but instead just a way to celebrate what the group would like to celebrate, similar to how I'll celebrate Bolaño and Shatner here ;)

Richard Morgan said...

4 vacuouswastrel:

My argument is not with the cuddly, fuzzy fiction itself ("Write What You Like, Live With Yourself and Your Royalties" has always been my mantra), but with the strident voices whingeing that cuddly fuzzy fiction is not getting a fair crack of the whip. Check out the SF Signal Mind Meld on taboos to see what I mean; it's the old "Evil Forces have conspired to prevent the stuff I like from holding the ascendancy it should." It's a failed territorial instinct, stamping its feet and sulking.

If people like rosy, cosy ultrapulp (reading it or writing it), I have no issue with that. But I am impatient with people who complain when what is essentially a model of fiction for children fails to dominate a growing and mutating genre that is doing its level best to kick in the doors of mainstream literature and take up a couple of rightful sofas near the bar.

Richard Morgan said...

redirect 4 tim

Yeah, I wasn't really trying to imply that the books I mentioned were devoid of stuff like hope or joy (though god knows you'll search pretty hard to scrape up much of either from "Blood Meridian") My point was that any fiction addressing the human condition must of necessity carry a baseline bleakness, because at base the human condition IS bleak. Humans (especially male humans) are violent apes, justice is incredibly hard to manufacture, We Are All Gonna Die, etc....

What you do with that is of course subject to almost infinite possible variation, including the aforementioned hope and joy - though these are by no means as essential to the project as you seem to be implying; Blood Meridian starts with a quote citing scalping as an intrinsic human practice for the last 300,000 years and rarely gets more cheerful than that thereafter. It does not end on a positive note. It's still a devastatingly powerful novel that examines the human condition (and our willful illusions about it) with masterful clarity.

p.s. - bit harsh on McDonald, I feel; I thought RoG was a very competent and heartfelt attempt to import human concerns into an SFnal context (and vice versa). I don't know India first-hand, but what was in the book seemed to me to gel pretty well with what current affairs and cultural coverage I have read/seen is saying.

Anonymous said...

Richard/Richard Morgan/Mr. Morgan/(what IS the etiquette here? Oh, I don't know... it's still strange seeing real names on the internet):

First of all, my thanks and appreciation for replying to me, a humble human. I'm new to frequenting these locales, and I must say it is still disconcerting to see authors acting like people, and interacting with peoples - I must confess, I always assumed you all to be some form of colony of Analytical Engines, hidden in a room under London somewhere, set about your task many centuries ago, constructing your mechanical young from the detritus that the city discards, and the cannibalisation of your own protogenitors. Perhaps you are, and you've only grown more subtle in your imitations of man... perhaps one days you will even grow yourselves bodies and walk around among us in austere disguise like the children of emperors.

In any case, human or calculator, I hope you'll forgive any sycophantic element of tone in my comments...


Well, as I said, I can't really comment too much, as I've not heard the people you're arguing against [I've read the page it's on, but your comment seems only tangential to what you're commenting on].

However, I do think you commit three errors in what you've said.

Firstly, you derogate those who argue for more 'rosy cosy' genre writing on the grounds that that is a model of fiction 'for children' and that 'adult fiction outside the genre is not like that. Well, whether or not I agree with the conclusion (people shouldn't argue for more rosy cosy genre writing), the argument itself doesn't work at all - because adult fiction in other genres DOES abide by that model. Orhan Pamuk and Cormac McCarthy are not representative of non-genre work any more than Walter Miller Jr is representative of genre work. Most adult fiction is indeed 'pandering', whatever the genre; most fiction is pulp. If anything, I'd say pulp fantasy was more likely to be dark than pulp non-fantasy, not less (perhaps because of the emoish and socially alienated demographic among fantasy readers).

You may say that all that fiction is itself for children. But of course statistics would prove you entirely wrong - it's written by adults, for adults, and is read by adults. Just because they are adults you do not like does not make them children... and it's hubristic to assume that the books you like are the only books with a place, and that the people you don't like are only 'children', who have no right to their own books. It may be that your books are artistically better than their books, but it would be naive to think that artistic merit is the only good quality a book can have. And if those books have merits, they have roles, and if they have roles it is always possible that their role is not being sufficiently met, and thus that there should be more such books. [I don't see any reason to think this is the case, but it's certainly possible - though I would think that the publishing industry would act to correct the imbalance. However, we know that industries can be out of touch with their consumers for suprisingly long periods, and it's possible that the people you argue against may be more in touch than the publishers]

Furthermore, I think it's a little childish to use the argument that what matters is getting a seat at the big boy's table. The last thing any writer should be thinking about is how best to impress other writers - even writers in 'respectable' genres. If fantasy keeps kicking on the door of the literary club, the club ought to ignore it, as an imitative and status-conscious genre. Fantasy should be, and I suspect only will be, accepted as respectable when fantasy writers pursue their own visions without thinking 'wait, is this going to lose me points with the in-crowd?'.

Anonymous said...

Second, I think you conflate two entirely different concepts. On the one hand we have 'cosy rosy' fiction that doesn't touch on the cruelties of the human condition and that is essentially childish. On the other hand we have 'positive' fiction that paints an optimistic view of what humanity can accomplish, in which hope triumphs over despair. The former is what you seem to be arguing against. The latter seems to be what your opponents are arguing for (eg in the statements in the Mind Meld article).

Clearly, these two visions are unrelated. Depth and hope are not incompatible.Indeed, even optimistic books may have elements of bleakness. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a book of hope, for instance, triumphing over all the little trivial occurences of history like the repeated, and perhaps eternal, self-destruction of the human race in nuclear holocaust and genocide.

Ultimately, you seem to be confused between 'tackling the human condition' and 'tackling the human condition correctly'. I can write about China even if what I say is false. Just so, even if you are right about the human condition, other authors do not have to agree with you in order to be saying something about the human condition.

You seem to suggest that those who disagree with you about the 'baseline of bleakness' in the human condition are only writing 'rosy cosy fiction for children'. This seems incredibly naive and hubristic - hubristic to be so certain of your own correctness in the face of opposition, but far more importantly naive to assume that incorrect views cannot be interesting or valuable views.

Using again the same example, Canticle for Leibowitz is a theistic book, and because of that is able to sustain an indomitable optimism. I am not theistic - but nonetheless I recognise that the perspective offered by the book is a valuable one, an interesting one, and the very writing of the book is an important part of the human condition.

Even in books that do not touch on the bleak at all - well, bleakness is not present in all parts of life, and those other parts of life can be quite beautiful and fascinating in their own right. And even those things touched by bleakness need not be seen by all as being bleak - some people might not see the bleakness. Those people may or may not be wrong - but that does not mean they cannot be interesting. Indeed, a well-written and genuinely positive book would be a true prize indeed, as it would offer a perspective remarkably different from that of the common man.

Anonymous said...

The third mistake is, of course, the whole negativism of your view of the human condition. That, no doubt, is too large a topic to enter into here - but perhaps I could suggest that as well as considering that you might be wrong, you might also consider that you may be talking nonsense? It seems to me a quaint and outmoded notion, to talk of "the human condition" and how it truly is "at base", as though it were something real and objective.

To my mind, the human condition is not an object at all, but a story, encompasing many events - and a story is a text, and like all texts it has no definitive reading. The human condition is a book - when I read it, it may sound very different from when you read it, and who is to decree which reading is correct?

In fact, let's go further - the human condition is a play-book, a guide for a story-teller, in which various required characters and events are detailed, but the dialogue and the narration is left unwritten. When we hear the story from one teller, it is one way; from another... another way entirely. As a writer, you should know already that the heart of a tale, its significance, whether it is happy or whether it is sad... all that is not in the events related but in the way the story is told. And now that God is dead, we have nobody to appoint one storyteller or another as the word of truth.

Or, to simplify the point: what you think happens, and what you think about what happens, are two entirely different things. Even if the former is undebated, the later is always debatable, and hardly a realm for dogmatic declarations.


On the minor point: actually, I thought Blood Meridian had a lot of joy. Many of the characters take joy in their actions - in particular, the Judge takes joy in all sorts of things. And I also think it would be a better book if it had more hope and joy in it - it would touch on the human condition in a more nuanced way. This is not because I think the human condition is any brighter than it paints (although I don't think it isn't, either), but because a book that only sees the world through one pair of spectacles is at heart an unartful book - a boring book.
(This is one reason why I think All the Pretty Horses is probably a superior work, even if it's less attention-grabbing).

[OK, triple-post again. How do people manage to actually have discussions through this format? "Concision"? I grew up reading epic fantasy, I know not of this "concision" of which you speak]

Cora Buhlert said...

I was going to type a long response to Richard Morgan's very one-sided view of the human condition, but it's late and I'm tired and besides Jennifer Crusie says it much better than I can.

I have read and enjoyed both Richard Morgan and Jennifer Crusie. Just as there is room for both Crusie and Morgan on my bookshelf, there is room for both optimistic and pessimistic views of the human condition.

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