S.L. Huang: A Defense Of Escapist Blow-Shit-Up-Hell-Yeah Popcorn Entertainment

I love synchronicity. When it crackles like lightning, a shuddering bolt of electricity connecting two things in an unexpected way. Example: I have two awesome authors doing guest posts. Both of those authors sent me posts that inadvertently speak to one another about similar topics. That’s awesome, and so I’m popping both posts up today, today, today. We’ve got Stina Leicht (whose newest, Cold Iron, is out now) and S.L. Huang, with Root of Unity out (which is the third book after Zero Sum Game and Half-Life). 

Here, then, is SL’s post. You can check out Stina’s post here.

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There’s this argument that keeps popping up in genre lately, about “fiction as entertainment” versus “political message fiction.”

“We just want our space lasers and sword fights!” cry the fiction-as-entertainment people.

“Are you high? Politics is everywhere and in every character and worldbuilding decision,” cry those dirty Social Justice Warrior-types who like to shove rainbow gay unicorns down everyone’s face orifices.

Being one of those dirty rainbow unicorn types myself, I broadly agree with the idea that politics is everywhere, seeping into our perceptions like some horror-movie blob villain. After all, if a fictional world and its characters are contemporary, we’ll see the same crap the real world throws at its people — or we’ll judge its absence. And if we’re talking future or secondary world, we may think we can dodge . . . except that every reader is bringing context from our current world, and in the differences or similarities will be a Message. A glaring, honking Message that people will read into it whether the author wants them to or not. Men and women are entirely equal? It’s a Message. We see more men than women? It’s a different sort of Message.

And of course, it’s not as if messages are inherently bad, or preclude entertainment value. Some of the most engrossing classics of the SFF genre are bone-deep in message and politics, including books by Wells, Shelley, Le Guin, Butler, and Heinlein. Message fiction can be awesome! Bring on the brilliant message fiction!

But. But.

All too often, I feel like these very valid points end up going too far, and squashing the argument into something like, “All fiction is message fiction, so escapism is a myth, and what other people think of as escapism is just bad message fiction.” And that makes me sad, because I think it flattens out a vital facet of the importance of books and media. Namely:

– I believe it is possible to have media that is more about escapism than making a statement. Message is everywhere, but that message can be dialed up or down, and both have value.

– I believe such escapist fiction is hugely important. It’s as important as fiction that challenges and teaches us. Heck, it’s as important as fiction that is both escapist and challenging.

– I believe we can have awesome, escapist, action-adventure pulp that’s primarily about entertainment, and that we can do it without punching demographics in the face by erasing or misrepresenting them.

Let’s discuss!

1) Escapist fiction is possible.

As much as I agree that there is politics in everything . . . look, I’ve got to be honest; I know what I’m thinking when I write something. Sometimes I’m writing a story with a particular point in mind — I’ve got published shorts I will freely admit are the messagiest of the messagey — but sometimes my Very Serious Writer Focus is on whether one more explosion will be too gratuitous or whether I can squeeze in another Babylon 5 reference.

Yes, the things that are important to me are going to seep in around the edges; they can’t not. And my escapism isn’t everyone’s escapism — for instance, I can’t read books with crappy female representation anymore without being thrown out of the story, whereas others are able to overlook it. On the flip side, there are probably people who can’t stand all my female/POC/queer/disabled characters runnin’ around fuckin’ shit up because to them it means I have some sort of agenda (even though I would argue for the obviousness of female/POC/queer/disabled folk being able to have zany escapist adventures just as well as any other protagonists).

So maybe a book being escapist isn’t an intrinsic quality of the book — maybe it’s a function of both the book itself and the views of the person reading it. Which I think is neat! But the book and its writer do play some part. After all, two books can have the same basic worldview, but one might be deeply thought-provoking and the other may not . . . though either might take me on a ride I’ll never forget.

We’ll never be without message entirely, especially with a bunch of it coming from the reader’s perceptions. But we writers can twist that dial up or down, and aim as well as we can for a particular effect before we hope for the best and release it to the reader’s brain meats.

2) Escapist fiction is valuable.

Not only is escapist entertainment possible, it’s damn important. As much as I need and love the books that challenge me, it’s the ones that let me escape that have saved me.

The ones I could disappear into, when disappearing was all I had.

The ones I could read and reread and reread and know they’d be there for me.

The ones that kept me sane when real life was hell.

Entertainment is its own value, but escapism offers value beyond entertainment. It genuinely helps people. It grips their hands and makes them feel less alone. It gives them back spoons. It hits the right endorphins and makes everything just a little bit better. It lets that kid like me lock herself in a room and be somewhere else. It’s so goddamn important and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, or lesser, or shameful about either writing or reading books meant purely or primarily for escapist purposes. In my view, if all my books ever do is make someone feel better on a bad day, that is huge, and I have absolutely succeeded.

3) Escapist fiction is for everyone.

We need escapist books — and we all need them. There’s no literary law that underrepresented folk are somehow “permitted” in agenda-driven political message SFF but that the realm of pulpy action-adventure must contain only shitty women and zero nonwhite people. Frankly, I find such a notion ridiculous.

Here’s what I like to think will attract people to my most recent book, Root of Unity: explosions, car chases, gun fights, nerd jokes, and snarky go-to-the-ends-of-the-world-for-each-other character dynamics. Here’s what else it includes in the process of doing all that: Women. Nonwhite people. Disabled people. Women and nonwhite people and disabled people whose characters are affected by the politics of the world they live in, and women and nonwhite people and disabled people talking to each other and pushing their own agendas and doing math and trying to kill each other and blowing up lots of things.

Does one of these lists negate the other? Why should it?

Just because I’m a woman of color who writes about other women of color doesn’t mean I can’t write pulpy action-adventure SFF. Hell, just because I’m a woman of color who writes about other women of color doesn’t mean I can’t be proud to write pulpy action-adventure SFF!

Awesome escapist fiction doesn’t and shouldn’t belong to any particular group. And I will die on the hill saying we need it just as much as we need the deep, important classics, and that we don’t have to exclude anyone in creating it.

* * *

SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. She is unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com and on Twitter as @sl_huang. Her newest is Root of Unity:

Cas Russell has always used her superpowered mathematical skills to dodge snipers or take down enemies. Oh, yeah, and make as much money as possible on whatever unsavory gigs people will hire her for. But then one of her few friends asks a favor: help him track down a stolen math proof. One that, in the wrong hands, could crumble encryption protocols worldwide and utterly collapse global commerce.

Cas is immediately ducking car bombs and men with AKs — this is the type of math people are willing to kill for, and the U.S. government wants it as much as the bad guys do. But all that pales compared to what Cas learns from delving into the proof. Because the more she works on the case, the more she realizes something is very, very wrong . . . with her.

For the first time, Cas questions her own bizarre mathematical abilities. How far they reach. How they tie into the pieces of herself that are broken — or missing.

How the new proof might knit her brain back together . . . while making her more powerful than she’s ever imagined.

Desperate to fix her fractured self, Cas dives into the tangled layers of higher mathematics, frantic for numerical power that might not even be possible — and willing to do anything, betray anyone, to get it.

Root of Unity: Amazon


28 responses to “S.L. Huang: A Defense Of Escapist Blow-Shit-Up-Hell-Yeah Popcorn Entertainment”

  1. For me, it’s simple: don’t make everything about the message; but don’t artificially take the background radiation of the message out either. Explosion-porn doesn’t become more explosion-porny because you changed a female character to be male, so having gender equality isn’t automatically counter-escapist.

  2. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! I was chatting just last night with my oldest son about the value of all the books and movies we love. The thought provoking ones that nourish our souls with new ideas and the edge of our seats fun ones that nourish our souls with a freedom from interpreting ideas.

    Random Addition: Almost everything I write includes people of various colors, abilities, and sexual orientation. I write often about my family, and when I write fiction I always imagine a world that’s similar. I’ve been charged with having an agenda. I honestly (honestly!) didn’t know that so much diversity was unusual, or an agenda.

    • Thank you!

      You know, weirdly, I’ve had the opposite experience from you. In earlier years (before I published anything) I kept defaulting to pretty one-note demographics in my writing. Which my life is not like at ALL. When I finally looked around enough to realize how *unrealistically* I was writing, I was stunned.

      It’s what makes me *facepalm* so hard at people who think the presence of a certain demographic of person automatically means AGENDAAAAA!!!!

  3. Great post, interesting discussion! I’d argue EVERY piece of fiction has an agenda- to persuade the reader to become part of the protagonist’s world- be it good, bad or shades between. The material could be political, emotional, psychological, or laser-beams and lascivious lovers, as long as it’s well-written the “agenda” seeps through. My metric is if the work gets to you, on any level, the author’s done a fine job.

  4. This is how I started out. Wanting to write fiction that deposited you in another world for a little while, hopefully a world you wouldn’t want to leave and that would stay with you after. That’s what my favourite stories did for me when I was growing up. Gave me a little time away from a real world that wasn’t always so great. I’ve always believed the best stories live inside us like immortal sparks even after we close the pages. I’ve never found that particular spark to be the monopoly of any one type of story or genre. That’s why the world of literature is so big and amazing. Because it has to appeal to a big, amazing world. So we should be proud of whatever stories we come up with, escapist or no, because we were brave enough and passionate enough, driven enough and caring enough to choose to be part of that big amazing world, and that’s a triumph worth celebrating in and of itself.

  5. Just watched John Wick this weekend. Perfect example. Absurd, ridiculous, but totally FUN action movie. 90 minutes of zero thinking, hammy acting and outrageous action. And it’s the most fun I have had watching a movie in a long time. There is a time and place for everything.

    • I had a word about action movies in an earlier draft of this piece — I am an action movie nut! Explosions and snarky one-liners for 90 minutes that leaves me on an emotional high? Sign me up. I’m so glad those movies exist!

      (And of course I want more of them with all types of people, like The Heat, which is a solid buddy cop movie that just happens to star two women but is the only one ever to do so.)

  6. “…if all my books ever do is make someone feel better on a bad day, that is huge, and I have absolutely succeeded.”

    So much THIS. I also agree with the person who said don’t make everything about the message. I’m not sure you can have a good story without *something* that makes you think. That’s the whole reason I read sci-fi and speculative fiction after all.

    Real life is sucky for a lot of people. I don’t begrudge anyone their cozy mystery or fluffy romance or shoot-em-up action story. At the end of the day, it’s about getting through the day. Everyone’s escapism is different–but we all *need* it.

  7. I too fail to see a clear distinction between message fiction and escapist fantasy. Sure, there is a point where things can clearly cross over to message fiction, but there is no reason why a book or movie can’t be all kinds of fun and have a theme. I believe the other post used this example, but Jurassic Park has a clear message and is all kinds of fun. The message is more hit you over the head in the book than the movie, but in both cases the media provides plenty of escapism while making a point.

    I would argue that it’s impossible not to have any message. A lack of a message usually means the message is that the status quo is awesome. I’ve lost track of how many male writers I’ve known who claimed they never wanted to have a message but really had the message that sexism is awesome.

    Right now, I write commercial romance. Everything I write is escapist, but everything has a theme. Romance is not usually a place where you see ideas about science of philosophy, but there is no avoiding gender politics.

    • Yup, I would agree with this — like Stina’s post, what you’re saying isn’t something I find contradictory to what I wrote above! I think there’s a lot of nuance in the escapism vs. message continuum that we often lose in these discussions…. heck, I don’t even think of it as a continuum, since it’s not like lessening one automatically increases the other.

      I’m glad to see someone weigh in about romance — I was thinking about the romance genre when writing this post, but it’s not something I know a lot about so I refrained from mentioning it. I was hoping people with more knowledge would add some perspective from that genre!

  8. Interesting posts. I’m not as familiar with current genre fiction as most of the others who’ve posted comments. But I’m not new to fiction—reading fiction or writing it. At risk of seeming like I’m chickenshit, I’m not taking sides: both posts make the same point in different ways.

    I believe a fiction writers (actually, any type of writer) should write whatever they can write about. No matter how their finish product turns out, nobody is gonna give a shit about a novel or short story simply because of a thinly disguised political message, or because a bunch of motherfuckers are chopping off heads for no other reason than to stay in practice. If readers find the story dull, they are not gonna give a fuck about your message about saving the planet. And if your story is interesting, readers are not gonna give a fuck that there’s no message in it at all.

    The first novel I read—when I was nine or ten—was Treasure Island. I couldn’t then, and can’t now, tell you if there’s a message in that story, other than “reading adventure stories is a hell of a lot better than watching TV.” And when I became addicted to sci-fi in my early teens, I was intrigued by the interactions of humans and aliens. I loved reading about the interactions of people or creatures different from any in my own experiences.

    I guess any story has “politics,” since politics has something to do with human interactions. No? But I’d bet that most people read to be entertained. Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve often had times when escaping my daily life by reading was very entertaining.

    If an interesting story has a message about social justice, or about keeping the planet from looking like a baked potato, then I’m OK with that. But I don’t read fiction for the sole purpose of getting instructions on how to live, or which rich lying assbite to vote for. I am never more selfish than when I’m reading.

    • “At risk of seeming like I’m chickenshit, I’m not taking sides: both posts make the same point in different ways.”

      Ha, I don’t think you’re chickenshit — I don’t think our two posts are actually contradictory, at least not the vast majority of them.

      Good points about what readers will care about!

      • SL Huang,
        I sincerely apologize! I’m feeling a bit stupid right now. When I left my comment, I had not read Sinta Leicht’s post. I was speed reading, and I mistook the hiatus in your post—with your name and some info under it—for the beginning of a different post. So, I was actually comparing you to yourself. It was early in the morning and I was all fucked up—not high but brain scrambled. Somehow, I interpreted the description of your new novel as being a graphic example of how good entertainment can have a message. Guess I need to slow down. I will reread both posts, and this time I won’t comment unless I fully understand what I’m commenting about. Sorry.

        Wishing you the best.

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