My Frustrations With A Lot Of Speculative Fiction

So, I finally gave in and read A Song of Ice and Fire. This has been a long time pending. I remember I was introduced to the books at a Christmas party in 2011. I…didn’t actually finish them then. But I have now! And I really enjoyed them! I have some issues, but on the whole, they were very enjoyable. Enough to get me to watch and finish the show. Unfortunately, that kind of made me aware of some other issues that I have, both with the books and the show. They’re issues of personal taste, not anything objective, but when I think about them, they’re the same reason so much stuff lately has been hard for me to get through, why that genre that I once loved and still do enjoy isn’t satisfying me anymore the way it once did: the trend towards huge, expansive universes rather than completing actual stories is too much for me.

I like tightly plotted works. I like focus, I like conservation of detail. I like to follow the trail of cause and effect. When it comes to most genres, people would agree with me – excess detail in thrillers or crime novels is unappealing because it slows down the pace. Excess detail and tangents in romances would often be deemed pointless purple prose. But when it comes to fantasy? It’s almost the opposite. Fantasy novels are expected to be sprawling, on an epic scale, with details about every character we ever meet or every place the characters ever go. Like so much else to do with modern fantasy, this began with Tolkien. And my only reaction is…why? Of all the possible ways to be inspired by Tolkien’s work, why did this one have to stick around so much?

I like world building as much as the next person. But a story is more than that. Quite frankly, I think in most cases, it’s overrated. It takes away from characterization and plot development. And while both things can and should exist together and enhance each other, my experience has been that few writers balance it well, instead focusing on the world building to the detriment of everything else. That’s true when it comes to fantasy, that’s true when it comes to “hard” science fiction. Writers are so busy showing off how great their imagination is, they just info dump stuff that isn’t relevant to anything at us just to do it. They never use one word when they could use ten and when they think of a phrasing they like, they use it over and over again. It’s getting really tiresome.

One of my main takeaways from A Song of Ice and Fire was that George R. R. Martin needs a better editor. At least someone to remove some evidence of his creepy fucking fetishes that have no reason to be in the story, but preferably someone with the firmness to insist he pare down and stop going on tangents about the food at a feast or the colours and sigils of some minor house we’re never going to see again. Hell, maybe that would help me decide if I actually like his writing or not. Because as much as I enjoy the story, I’m a lot more conflicted about the writing. It alternates between some utter nonsense that seems to confuse verbosity with eloquence, embarrassingly bad sex scenes, and genuinely wonderful pieces like Arya’s delightfully simple and gorgeous reminiscing about how Needle is all she has left of her home and family. For all that it claims to be a political drama in a fantasy setting that explores how war is hell and power corrupts and all that happens is misery for the commoners that don’t care who sits on the throne, that’s diminished by the fact it’s still almost exclusively told through the eyes of the aristocracy. It tells us a lot more than it shows, and it tells a painful amount.

Take the so-called Broken Man Speech. Out of context, it’s fine. It’s good. But put it back in context and it’s like…we don’t ever really see those broken men. Not like the speech describes. We see traumatized people that start to do worse and worse things to survive, but we don’t see the effects of plain old war on regular old people in any way that really matters to me. Think about the commoners we meet. They’re rarely actually portrayed in a positive light, as the victims that they are, and when they are, it’s still through the lens of the nobility. Like…during the riots at King’s Landing. The focus isn’t on the misery of the people starving when the powerful play their games and use innocents, it’s about how their suffering turns them into savages that rape and abuse women tangentially related to the people responsible. Are there antiwar themes in the story? Of course there are. Are there criticisms of the monarchic systems? Sure. Is it ultimately a story about the human relationship with power and its corruptive influence? I think it is. But when it comes to specifically the idea of the impact all these things on the people on the outside of the power struggle, it doesn’t explore them in any real depth. While I’d be willing to accept that that’s not the story this is, the Broken Man speech indicates that that’s what it’s intended to be, and if that’s the case…I really would appreciate getting more attention on it, rather than the same amount that gets devoted to countless things that don’t actually matter. Concise is a good thing. Conservation of detail exists for a reason. Either explore something or don’t. But don’t just talk about everything for the sake of it.

I’ll admit it – I don’t care about the historical members of each house that are only tangentially related to what is going on in the here and now of the story. I don’t care about however many hundreds of thousands of words that he’s dedicated to the history of the Targaryens that aren’t relevant to the story. It’s great that he has so many ideas about his universe. But what does any of that matter if that’s all so big a distraction, he can’t focus on the central story? I’m in favour of writers writing what they want in their own universe. But I also shouldn’t be expected to care about it. Tolkien spent his whole life revising The Silmarillion. But he did finish the key story that was Lord of the Rings.

Martin defies every rule of conservation of detail ever, and honestly…breaking rules is overrated. Holes is one of the greatest novels ever written. I mean that most sincerely. It’s the closest thing to a perfect book that I’ve ever read. And that’s partially because it follows the rules in a way that children’s fiction tends to do better than adult. It’s not about the what, it’s the how. I wish more people took cues from it when it comes to developing plots. It’s less than fifty thousand words long and it uses every single one of those words to full effect. Three interwoven storylines. Beautiful characterization. Criticism of the American justice system. An explanation of the history of Camp Green Lake and how everyone got to the points they did. There is a reason that it’s taught in schools. It goes on exactly as long as it should and not a minute longer. It’s laser focused. It’s elegantly simple. On a technical level, it’s brilliant, and I wish fantasy writers – and people writing for an “adult” audience – took the same approach.

This focus on the details often seems to me to be another way in which writers try to convey maturity in their works. Sex, profanity, violence, and painstaking detail. I get where that idea comes from…but I don’t think it’s very accurate. First of all, there’s no actual reason why there needs to be such a distinction between what is made for children and what is for adults. Many of the best pieces of fiction can be enjoyed by both. The best children’s books are written in blood, after all. Some works, by nature, are best appreciated by people in a given age group. But artificial ways of intentionally catering to one demographic over another…it seems silly to me. I think what’s needed in adult fiction is the mostly same as what’s needed in children’s literature. That includes focus when focus is needed and exploring the impact of darker subject matter, rather than just including it for its own sake.

On a tangentially related note, I am not even remotely interested in constructed languages. That they exist in so many fantasy – and science fiction, I suppose – works is another clear indication of Tolkien’s inescapable influence on the genre, but seriously? All these other writers are not Tolkien. And I don’t mean that in terms of a quality judgement, I mean it in terms of the fact that Tolkien was a linguist. He wasn’t composing these languages to flesh out the world. In many ways, the languages were the world. They mattered. That’s not the case with most other works, because Tolkien, Arrival, others like them – those are exceptions. I watched Game of Thrones and some of the time, I wanted to scream! It took every bit of willpower I had to not just fast forward through the scenes of Daenerys shouting made up words for entire scenes. There are situations in which having the rudiments of a conlang are useful. A few words, grammar rules, and so on. But entire languages gets annoying. It’s detail at the expense of the broader story. It’s the same reason that I don’t enjoy a lot of hard sci fi.

I have a STEM background and I am fascinated by scientific developments. But when it comes to stories, I mostly prefer softer sci fi, because in most cases, I don’t care about the details of how these things work. Especially because science and technology march on. Ten years from now, a meticulously researched piece may turn out to be completely obsolete. Hard sci fi, all the details about how this fictional thing could work, are usually the purview of people that want to demonstrate how smart they are or how much research they’ve done, not tell a story. For me, the best science fiction has to be the kind that uses enough detail that we can accept it’s based on science, rather than a space fantasy – not that there’s anything wrong with space fantasy at all, it’s just not really science fiction in my eyes – but not so much that that becomes the story if it’s not a driving part of the plot. It’s why I liked things like The Martian, with its clear focused man vs. nature conflict, but have a harder time with some other pieces: the focus on the technicalities gets to be too much for me.

I love fantasy. I love science fiction. And I love expansive universes that feel like real, lived in places. But sometimes, I just we could have more stories that end. Plot, characters, voice, tone, themes…those are what interest me most of all about stories. I’d rather have more focus on them to give me a story that gets to a point than one that drags on forever in the name of worldbuilding.

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The Strange Sense Of Elitism In Film Criticism

There was a debate all over my Twitter timeline a while ago about something Ethan Hawke said about how superhero movies get overpraised and that Logan is a fine superhero movie, but not a great movie. And regardless of my feelings towards Logan  specifically, I think this betrays the typical genre elitism that does more harm than good by preventing excellent works from being recognized as excellent and thus keeping standards from getting higher.

There are countless counterexamples to Hawke’s point. So instead of listing all of them, let’s focus on three main points: the literary merit of commercial entertainment, the dismissal of the superhero genre, and the pretentiousness behind the idea that literary fiction is its own category.

Meaningful Stories In Popular Media

If you pick out any member of the Animorphs fandom and ask them about the series, I doubt you’d find a single one that would argue that it isn’t kind of trashy sci fi aimed at children. Because it is. They were cheap paperbacks pushed out at a breakneck pace to sell toys to kids with a lot of lighthearted, funny scenes largely centred around fish-out-of-water comedy. No one will deny that. But that absolutely does not preclude them from having literary merit.

It’s a story about child soldiers and trauma and galaxy wide imperialism. Sure, there are moments where the lead characters argue over Teletubbies and an alien eats chocolate off the floor, but that doesn’t negate the themes of genocide, slavery, and depression. They coexist. They work together to build multifaceted characters. Anyone is free to not like it, or think it’s not well written, but if your argument for why it doesn’t have merit or why those themes aren’t meaningful is it’s about kids turning into animals, you’re not making a good case.

“It’s written in a simplistic style targeted at children and lacks the sophistication necessary to appeal to me” is a fair enough statement. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a novel – sure, I like things that sound good, pieces of literature that can flow over me where how it makes me feel is somewhat more important than what specifically is happening, but I’ve always felt that that is best suited for poetry and short stories than for a full length novel – but I can understand why someone would feel that way. I don’t agree, but it’s an infinitely better case than “it’s not a great book, it’s a fine adventure story, it’s still about kids turning into animals”.

I don’t have much use for media that doesn’t tell me a compelling story. Characters, plot, themes, and style all work together to create a story. No amount of interesting style or themes or both of them put together is enough to make up for boring characters or a nonexistent plot. Animorphs? It does a great job handling all of them together. The books take themselves just seriously enough. They’re a perfect example of how meaningful and pretentiousness don’t have to go hand in hand, how there doesn’t have to be a trade off between developed characters and a developed plot, how themes in children’s literature can be handled more subtly than by dropping an anvil over the reader’s head, how a blunt style isn’t inherently worse than anything else. Most of all, they demonstrate how it doesn’t even matter what the plot is – any plot can be the plot of a meaningful story.

Dismissal of Superheroes

I genuinely don’t understand this need to be all it’s not a superhero story, it’s a whatever story with superheroes! “Superhero” isn’t a genre, it’s an archetype. A wide range of stories can fall into the superhero category. It comes across as people trying to separate something they enjoy from other things with similar elements, not for the sake of describing what it is, but for the sake of making it sound more “high brow”. This extends far beyond superhero stories. Like, what does the phrase “genre fiction” even mean? Nothing. It means nothing.

It becomes a vicious cycle. People expect superhero movies to be straightforward, so people go watch them when they want some shallow entertainment. That results in those that try something new not doing as well, which in turn results in less creative movies, which solidifies people’s belief that superhero movies should be straightforward entertainment. Then you have Batman v Superman, which is a whole different thing altogether.

Never once does it shy away from being a superhero story, because there’s no denying that’s what it is. It’s based on a comic book. It’s about the most iconic superheroes of all time. But that doesn’t preclude it from being a layered story, filled with allusions and themes. It’s the most high budget arthouse movie ever made. All the political themes are interwoven into the story. It’s more than just pseudo-deep quotes, all the themes are rooted throughout the movie. That the characters are public figures and heroes mattersIt’s thoughtful and unique. But critics expected they didn’t have to pay much attention because it’s a superhero movie and didn’t get nearly as much out of it as people thought about what they were watching.

If our expectations for superhero movies included that they must mean something, and critics actually thought critically, the reaction to Batman v Superman would have been hugely different. If you took the same movie and didn’t tell them it was directed by Zack Snyder – because critics clearly have something against him – it would have just as much action and bombast, but critics would be more receptive to the themes and quiet drama of the whole movie. They’d call it – rightfully – a work of art and a political statement. They might even go so far as to make the mistake in saying it’s not a superhero movie, it’s a drama about our relationship with power. It is that. But it matters that it’s told using superheroes. Pretty much the only reason that critics didn’t analyze it through that lens is because it’s a superhero movie. This goes back to the “superhero movie” as compared to “movie with superheroes” issue. If you extend that further, you get the frequent argument that something is not part of a given genre, it just has elements of that genre. That takes us to the “literary fiction” debate.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

Perhaps the reason a certain demographic claims “genre fiction” is a lesser art form than so-called “literary fiction” is that they’re constantly redefining the best works in any genre as something other than what it is – especially in retrospect. Consider – The Book Thief has beautiful characterization and striking prose. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, and it’s widely considered to be an excellent book. It’s also narrated by Death – that makes it a fantasy. But I’ve seen multiple critics ignore that fantasy aspect and focus solely on the historical setting. Similarly, I saw an article once about literary fiction that claimed All the Pretty Horses is not a Western and 1984 is not sci fi. I think most of us can agree those claims are absurd. Style doesn’t change the genre. Being well written or memorable or having literary merit for whatever reason doesn’t stop something from fitting the conventions of a given genre.

It especially irks me when it comes to the topic of science fiction, because some of the core tenants of sci fi have always been questioning the world and society. It’s a weird kind of self-importance to suggest that only literary fiction addresses those themes, and even weirder to pitch your work as literature, as if that’s something you or critics get to decide and not time. There are lots of movies and novels that have literary merit. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong to different genres. It reminds me a bit of the way some Game of Thrones fans try to talk about how much it transcends a genreThere’s a line about it in Parks and Recreation that’s something along the lines of “they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world”. Is there something about fantasy which means fantasy writers don’t tell human stories? No, because that’s stupid. Everyone tells human stories. Saying that it’s not a fantasy story, it’s something else in a fantasy setting doesn’t actually mean anything.


Hawke had a very valid point in that when it comes to superhero movies, most aren’t very good, and they’re praised for being mindless entertainment. But the reason for that has nothing to do with what they are. It has nothing to do with “people wearing tights” or “having metal coming out of their hands”. I’ve been vocal about my issues with Logan as a movie, but something I will never say is that one of the problems with it is the fact it involves people with metal claws. You can make anything sound silly if you talk about it like that – Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man who gets put on display in an alien zoo.

With live action superhero movies, we’re talking about a fairly small sample size. Sure, that’s expanded a huge amount in the past fifteen years, but we’re not talking about anything so broad as “fantasy” or “science fiction”. So we can say things like most superhero movies are lazy without generalizing, because a lot of people have seen a significant percentage of the movies that fall into that category. If that’s what Hawke meant, that’s what he should have said. But what he did say was dismissive of entire genre based on what the genre is, rather than what it’s produced. We have to judge people’s statements for what they are, not bend over backwards trying to find a way to justify them as correct because we agree with something kind of relevant to what they’re talking about.

Logan isn’t a great movie and most superhero movies are overpraised and carefully calculated to sell rather than actually make a point. Yeah. True. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction and fantasy elements of those stories.