Stina Leicht: Message Fiction Inside Sci-Fi & Fantasy

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 Stina’s post. You can check out S.L.’s post here.

And also, Stina is doing a Cold Iron giveaway. Details at the bottom of this post.

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What does the phrase ‘message fiction’ mean? I’ve been hearing it a lot lately. Most of the time it’s being implied that ‘message fiction’ is a new and dangerous trend. That this never happened in genre before. That isn’t true, and those throwing around the term can’t possibly be unaware of this. I’ll explain why soon, but for now I can’t help thinking what they’re truly saying is that Science Fiction and Fantasy is being taken away from its True Fans™. That these True Fans™ don’t wish to read any fiction that contains opinions or topics with which they disagree. That genre fans are delicate hot house flowers. That their constitutions are far too fragile to handle concepts they might dislike. I say, that’s their choice. They can live that way. However, they also claim that such things don’t belong in genre at all and should be edited out. There’s a word for this. It’s called censorship. Interestingly enough, they claim to be victims of censorship, and that this gives them the right to dole out the same in return. Because they are anti-censorship. This isn’t logical. Mind you, I’ve never been a big fan of ‘any means to an end’ as a strategy for anyone who claims to be a good person. That way leads, almost instantly, to becoming the thing you hate. And that’s why ultimately, this argument about message fiction boils down to just another round of “Fake Geek.”

But just for grins, let’s play along. Let’s pretend this isn’t what they mean. Let’s ask the question in earnest. What is message fiction?

As I understand it, message fiction is fiction that contains a theme. If you’ve taken an English literature class, you’re familiar with the concept. (See: http://www.roanestate.edu/owl/elementslit.html) A ’theme’ is but one of many tools of the professional writer trade. (See http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-theme-in-literature-definition-examples-quiz.html) All writers of fiction use these concepts whether they’re noticed by readers or not. Sometimes, they’re even used unconsciously by the writer. And that is why I say that if the concept of fiction with a theme is new to them, they haven’t been paying attention to our genre or literature in general. Ever.

So, does ‘Message Fiction’ have a place in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Short version: yes.

Longer version: YES. Because Science Fiction is often defined as the fiction of ideas, and while I tend to lean more toward Science Fiction and Fantasy being the fiction of ideas and characters, I agree. I’d go so far as to say that without thoughtful, attention-grabbing concepts (and characters,) you’re left with a simple chronicle of events. That isn’t literature. It’s a diary entry. In that sense, all good fiction is message fiction. And I think we can all agree as SFF fans that our genre contains good, even great, fiction.[2]

Themes have been used in SFF since its inception. Let’s start with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is widely regarded as one of the first, if not, the first SFF novel. One of its main themes is the question of whether or not scientific knowledge can be/should be used ethically. This is a classic in our genre. It’s everywhere. It’s even present in Jurassic Park which I can’t imagine anyone labeling as anything but entertainment. Star Trek has successfully used social commentary as has Sir Terry Pratchett with his extremely popular Discworld series.

Mind you, literary devices, like any tool, can be inexpertly or incorrectly used. It’s called propaganda. (See: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/propaganda) What’s the difference between fiction containing a theme and propaganda? That’s easy.

It’s the distinction between a question and a statement.

Propaganda tells you how to think. Literary themes invite you, the reader, to come up with your own answers. Propaganda leaves no doubt whatsoever. It demands that you agree. It’s very obvious. No other interpretation is permitted. It’s a closed, authoritarian approach. Literary themes, on the other hand, invite the reader to explore the matter for themselves. They’re interactive. A theme can be something you disagree with. In fact, a theme can be extremely effective if it drives home uncomfortable concepts. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a fine example. It illustrates the struggle between chaos and order, and in doing so, poses questions about the balance between individual freedom versus the establishment. How much of each is too much? It’s a difficult, uneasy read for all sorts of reasons. None of the characters are remotely admirable from what I remember. Nothing demonstrated in the novel is anything I agree with, either. Still, I felt it was a worthwhile read and an important contribution to the SFF genre because it exposed me to new ideas.

And that’s the thing. When it comes to venturing outside our comfort zone human beings tend to be well… fearful. Thus, if we’re not invited to explore, most of us don’t. There’s a danger in this. If anything proves that, it’s the phenomenon of the filter bubble. (See: http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles?language=en) It’s what ultimately happens when a search engine personalizes searches. The idea was that the data returned would guide the user to more information in which the user is specifically interested. Thus, causing them to increase interaction with the product. However, there was an unforeseen negative consequence to this kind of search engine behavior. Any information that challenges the user’s world view is edited out of their experience. Why is this bad?

Because human beings learn best through trial and error. Ask any teacher. It’s very difficult to learn anything if you don’t make any mistakes. The whole process of creativity and invention happens through trial and error.

If the world is tailored to only give feedback the user approves of, the whole world looks like it agrees with them. One stops questioning and learning. Not just that, one begins to miss out on factual events in other parts of the world.[2] It’s not only damaging to creativity, science, and engineering. It’s damaging to democracy. Linda Nagata’s The Red touches on this very subject. It’s well worth thinking about.

So, does ‘message fiction’ belong in SFF? I don’t think there’s a doubt that it does. It’s why I work with themes in Cold Iron — mostly around killing, death, racism, and vengeance among others. Can you have fun at the same time? I think you can. In fact, my favorite kinds of fiction are fun fiction that teaches me something. I find it more mentally engaging. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

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[1] Is it possible to write without a theme? One can experiment. However, I don’t believe it’s wise or actually possible. First, writing is about communication at its base, and communication is about conveying meaning. If there’s no substance behind what you habitually read… if it’s empty of thought… well, studies are showing that when it comes to a healthy brain, the phrase “use it or lose it” applies.

(See: http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Neurosciences/articles/The%20Brain…Use%20it%20or%20Lose%20It/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080207091859.htm

http://www.brainhq.com/news/use-it-or-lose-it-principles-brain-plasticity)

I don’t know about you, but I worry about how my own brain is going to function thirty years down the road. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with escapism, but like anything, moderation is best. Second, how one might write without a theme? It would mean not venturing outside the defaults. Boring. But okay. Still, the message sent is that only the default matters. In addition, that stance ignores the writer’s subconscious, and the writer’s subconscious is inseparable from the writer’s imagination. Beliefs and ideas creep in, whether the writer is aware or not, and the writer will get tagged for that by critics. It’s just best do so consciously and have control rather than be caught unaware and well, don’t.

[2] See: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/the-truth-about-black-twitter/390120/

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Cold Iron Giveaway! My publisher is giving away ten copies of Cold Iron. If you’re interested in participating in the drawing, please state as much in the comments and leave your email address so that I can contact you if you’re a winner. Winners will be announced on Twitter and on my blog (csleicht.com) Thanks!

Stina Leicht is a two time Campbell Award nominee for Best New Writer and a Crawford Award finalist. The first novel in her new Flintlock Epic Fantasy series, Cold Iron, debuted July 2015 with Simon and Schuster’s Saga imprint:

Fraternal twins Nels and Suvi move beyond their royal heritage and into military and magical dominion in this flintlock epic fantasy debut from a two-time Campbell Award finalist.

Prince Nels is the scholarly runt of the ancient Kainen royal family of Eledore, disregarded as flawed by the king and many others. Only Suvi, his fraternal twin sister, supports him. When Nels is ambushed by an Acrasian scouting party, he does the forbidden for a member of the ruling family: He picks up a fallen sword and defends himself.

Disowned and dismissed to the military, Nels establishes himself as a leader as Eledore begins to shatter under the attack of the Acrasians, who the Kainen had previously dismissed as barbarians. But Nels knows differently, and with the aid of Suvi, who has allied with pirates, he mounts a military offensive with sword, canon, and what little magic is left in the world.

Cold Iron: Indiebound | B&N | Amazon