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.

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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