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On-ramps to various weird freeways

So there was a Fourth Street panel where Max Gladstone wanted to talk about on-ramps to the weird: what accessibility we provide readers to works with a sense of alienation and dislocation, how we allow them to navigate works of science fiction and fantasy either without feeling uncomfortable or despite that discomfort, and what tools we can get from other genres in their on ramps–genres like magic realism and surrealism. (I’m paraphrasing Max, and he should feel free to correct me if that’s not what he was talking about.) But that wasn’t the direction of the panel he was on–it was another panel but not this year’s That’s Another Panel–and then Max had to get to his next thing Sunday afternoon, and by the time Readercon rolls around, the thoughts I had early Sunday morning will be stale. Nor am I sure they’ll fit on Twitter without a blog post link to point to first. So here we go: this is your blog post link.

First of all, I think that different works of science fiction and fantasy are doing different kinds and levels of sense of dislocation and the weird. The name that gets canonically brought up in terms of “entry level” science fiction these days, someone who “provides on ramps” to science fiction, is John Scalzi. I think that in a conversation about sense of dislocation and the weird, this is more or less a complete red herring, but worth tackling first for demonstration. Most of what Scalzi has done in most of his books–I haven’t read all of them–is not all that weird. Nor is it trying to be, nor should it be trying to be–I want to emphasize that sense of dislocation, sense of the weird, is not an unmitigated virtue, is not being defined as the science fictional or fantastic thing to do, and therefore I am saying that John or his work should be deprecated for not doing it. Everybody should write the level of weirdness, alienation, dislocation, that their work demands, that they are interested in writing. John is given credit for not being highly referential, but this is blatantly false; John’s works are constantly referential. But they’re contemporary references. So the people who are frustrated by the feeling that they have to have participated in a hundred years of science fiction genre in order to understand a science fiction novel will not have that obstacle. That is one on-ramp he provides. Another he provides is almost more a staircase, because it provides access for some and not for others: it is exactly those contemporary references and style. When you have a scene of dialog with complaints about the monotony of a cafeteria menu, in exactly not only the type of complaints but the type of specific menu items that would come up for an American slightly older than me–an American John Scalzi’s age–there is a large audience for whom that is a very comforting access point. Look! It says. Things here in the future are not so weird. There may be galactic spaceships or green rejuvenated people or whatever space thing we are doing in this book. But people are still just the same. We go to our jobs and do them, we gripe about the food, we get on with it. So that sense of interpersonal familiarity is heightened with the utterly contemporary grounding. Our pop culture figures are name-checked, our relationships are reinforced. So while John gets people to buy and read science fiction–and in that sense may get people comfortable with the idea that science fiction in general is not too unbearably weird for them–what he’s not doing is getting them comfortable with a massive dislocation that is written to feel utterly unlike everything they’ve ever known. Nor does he need to want to do that. It just means that his toolbox is not all that useful for the people who do want to do that.

So. Other genres of the weird. In the course of the brief discussion during the panel, we mentioned surrealism and magic realism. I think one of the biggest on-ramps surrealism has is metatextual. People who pick up a work of surrealism have buy-in that the experience is going to be weird and dislocating before they ever get started. This is what they’ve signed on for. For all that SFF likes weird sometimes, SFF also likes adventure and speculation and many other things; alienation, dislocation, and sense of utter weirdness is not the only thing or even the main thing that a person picking up a work of science fiction and fantasy can be signing on for. So in some sense this is like asking, “How does porn get people to want to be aroused?” There is some of everybody in the world; surely there are people who watch porn for reasons other than to be aroused and then find themselves aroused anyway. But arousal is the thing it says on the tin. That is what you are buying if you buy porn. (“Buy” in the most general sense.) And the sense of dislocation, alienation, and the weird is what you are buying if you buy surrealism; the disappointing surrealism is the stuff that doesn’t deliver it. Much of the other weird avant garde that is not specifically surrealism–much of modern and post-modern art–is the same way: you go in knowing you want some of that, and if you take someone to a museum who doesn’t already want some of that, it’s not necessarily great at prompting them to start unless they just have a lightbulb moment. Much like many of us got to the weird in speculative fiction.

Which is great. (I mean, it’s terrible. Very little worse than mundane surrealism, ask me how I know. But it’s good to know.) But not very helpful in getting science fiction and fantasy writers more tools for the persuasive/converting toolbox.

An interesting counterexample to this is Banksy. Their work is not in museums; their audience is not very self-selected compared to most contemporary artists. I think that there are three key accessibility points there: literal physical accesssibility. Banksy stuff will be on the street where you will see it, and you will either like it or not, but you are not asked to go out of your way to get to this art that you may or may not like; the energy cost is low. Banksy’s stuff is “short” for time investment. You look, you take it in. And in fact I have seen more publication of dislocational, deeply weird fiction in short speculative fiction than in novels. And Banksy’s stuff is at least sometimes funny. Humor is a great access point if you can pull it off. If your humor is three levels of abstruse and obscure…that’s great, honestly, I love that kind of humor. But it’s important to realize that “I’ll make this really bizarre thing funny” does not automatically get you a larger audience. (Worth doing, though, because it entertains the crap out of me, and that’s what’s really important here, right? Of course. Okay.)

So the other genre we were going to talk about was magic realism. And I think one of the major tools magic realism has is sensuality. Sensuality of image and sensuality of prose. I think that most science fiction and fantasy writers know that sensory input is important at some level for almost all readers. Young writers will get advice like, “No one will care if you calculated the warp core mass exactly correctly if they can feel the spaceship controls under their hands.” But do we do it? When is the last time you could really feel the spaceship controls under your hands? Of course there are books like Dandelion Wine and the works of Cat Valente that focus on the sensual, but in general I think the speculative genres tend to shy away from it. Magic realism, on the other hand, wallows in sensuality. Why on earth is there a rain of roses in this scene? That is totally bizarre, what is going on here? Wait–do you care quite as much what’s going on here? You can practically taste the heavy, choking scent of roses in your nostrils. You can feel what the petals would be like on your skin, on your lips. Whether or not you know what they’re there for, those are some real roses, and for many readers, that pulls them along into the next piece of the book–or at the very least keeps them anchored in this one.

(For some readers, yes, you really do care. Some people bounce off magic realism because of the balance of sensuality and explanation. But if speculative writers are borrowing tools from other people’s toolbox, they can try to have both.)

And that made me think about paranormal romance. For my money, the entry point of most romance genres is sensory writing, not love or relationships or even sex. There may be stereotypes that romance novels have someone gasping, “Oh, Perceval!” on page one, but in the vast majority of romance novels, you have to wait some time to get to the sex. If sex was the on-ramp, you would have exited, parked your readerly car, and wandered off into a field of daisies. Something else has to be the on-ramp, and because I am a highly non-visual person, it looks really obvious to me that highly visual writing is one of the things it is. So: sensory writing, but focused on one sense in particular in most cases. Highly effective for a large number of readers.

Now. Does this mean I’m saying everyone should do more of this? No. I’m saying it’s one set of on-ramps, one set of access points, I have noticed, and particularly if you’re trying to do something deeply weird, deeply dislocational, and are trying to expand your audience for it, it’s a thing to think about. Adventure is a really traditional access point for both science fiction and fantasy. You can sort hard SF writers into which ones really really want to write about explosions and feel obligated to have some kind of science to dress it up and which ones really really want to write about science and feel obliged to have some kind of explosions to dress it up. Especially late in their careers, when one or the other goes out the window. But similar categorizations are more broadly true for other kinds of ideas and other kinds of action/adventure.

And I bet there are more access points I’m missing. And I’d love to talk more about them. Here or there or on Twitter. Even if you think I’m wrong. Especially if you think I’m wrong. There’s more to say here, too, about exoticism and escapism and phantasmagoria of ideas vs. senses–I know, because I’ve been having some of that conversation on email already–but honestly this is long enough and I need to hit post at some point and actually, y’know, start talking. And simultaneously get back to the story I’m writing.

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