Monday, January 28, 2013


If I chose, I could write voluminously about several purely political subjects this morning. The weekend news was unusually rich in directions for exposition. But today I have a somewhat more important topic in mind than any matter of public policy.

Yup. Vampires.

First, the most basic of the basics: Vampires don't exist. They can't. The way the creature is defined is inconsistent with the fundamental needs of a species that would endure for many generations. I've used that observation in a short story, in fact.

Second: Vampire-centric fiction is at an all-time high in popularity. It seems primarily aimed at teenaged girls, but it's flying off the shelves at such a rate that its fan base is surely wider than just the double-X / pre-driver's-license set. That's worth a few moments' thought.

Third: Writers of fiction, both conventional and indie, have flocked to the vampire genre -- given the way the bloodsuckers are portrayed so frequently as innocents, even heroes, I refuse to call it horror -- in remarkable numbers. Most probably just hope to slurp down a ladleful or two of the gravy before the train reaches the terminal. However, some appear to think the milieu is inherently worthy regardless of the trend in consumption.

For my part, I avoid it. I've written one vampire-centric story, titled "Class Action." If you have the inclination, you can read it for free at Smashwords. I used the vampire motif as a vehicle for exploration of a fundamental idea about justice; I won't spoil the story for you by revealing it here.

However, I consider the vampire-fiction fad an important sociological indicator. It harmonizes with an observation of Mark Steyn's, from his book After America: that when our exterior opportunities for exploration and advancement are foreclosed, we naturally turn to the interior sort. And what "interior" landscape exhibits more commercial potential, at least for the moment, than fiction about vampires, good or bad, heroes or villains, sparkly (Stephenie Meyer) or splatty (Larry Correia)?

I had a brief exchange of thoughts with SF and military-fiction writer Tom Kratman over the weekend, concerning the pseudo-science that characterizes most science fiction. As a former physicist, I tend to agonize over such things in my own stories. Tom doesn't let them trouble him. He said, most memorably, that he writes specifically to illuminate eternal verities. The rest is just the required scaffolding.

Now, Tom is far more forthright and much less influenced by others' opinions than most professional writers. A typical pro writer would approach a statement of intentions that important far more delicately, so as not to risk alienating any portion of his fan base. Indeed, most would rather change the subject completely; to speak of one's innermost motivations for writing fiction is to bare an unusually vulnerable region of the soul.

The matter becomes even riskier and more complex when one considers that the reader base for most SF, fantasy, and horror is top-heavy with younger persons: teenagers and the youngest adults. To speak to such persons of eternal truths is to risk being snorted aside as an old fuddy-duddy "who thinks he knows better than we do." Serious threat to one's income, there.

HOT FLASH TO THE YOUNGER SET: We old farts do know better than you wet-behind-the-ears types. About damned near everything that really matters, too. Yes, even those of us who drove nails, taxis, or dump trucks for our livings. We've got the scars to prove it.

But let's get back to the subject of fiction. If one seeks to illuminate eternal verities -- and please don't mistake me; that's my intent as a storyteller just as much as Tom's -- why set our stories in fantastic realms that do not (and probably cannot) exist? Why not ground them in the mundane world with which we're all familiar? Wouldn't it be a lot less work?

Heh, heh, heh!

Long ago, the late John Brunner set down two overarching rules of storytelling that must be honored in the creation of worthwhile fiction of any sort:

  1. The raw material of fiction is people.
  2. The essence of story is change.

"People" don't necessarily have to be homo sapiens terrestrialis. They can be as non-human or trans-human as you like, provided only that they exhibit the indispensable characteristics of limited sentient creatures under the veil of Time:

  • Each individual must have a bounded personal identity and a sense thereof;
  • He must have individual desires not yet fulfilled, and individual vulnerabilities that cannot be perfectly insulated from unpleasant developments;
  • His power to act on his desires, fears, and beliefs must be limited.

A character coextensive with the entire universe is unworkable. An omnipotent or invulnerable character is essentially uninteresting. The comic-book industry has known all that for many decades.

But this notion of mandatory change deserves some explication, as well. If the Marquee characters are the same, in terms of motivations and values, at the end of the story as they were at the outset, it will fail to satisfy. Things must happen that drive at least some of them to change in emotionally significant ways.

The absence of emotionally significant change is why soulless adventures such as the "Doc Savage" and "Lensman" stories are so forgettable. The challenges those protagonists face don't result in any alteration to their motivations or values. As some wag whose name I've misplaced once said, Kimball Kinnison would be infinitely more interesting if he'd just catch a cold now and then.

But Brunner's Laws give the necessary elements of a story. A story can possess them yet remain unsatisfying. It can be unoriginal, or blandly plotted, or too derivative, or unrealistically unbalanced toward hero or villain. Any of those flaws can cause the reader to toss the thing aside without finishing it.

But a story can exhibit an even worse failing than those: It can be fatally false-to-fact. That is, it can contradict the laws of the universe reflected in the nature of Man.

And with that we come to the eternal verities.

We call certain truths eternal verities because they've always been true, in all places and times. They cannot be false, because they arise from human nature, which, if it changes at all, does so very slowly. As long as men are what we are, the eternal verities will remain utterly trustworthy.

Despite that, which seems to me so obvious as not even to require saying, there are any number of persons who disbelieve one or more of the eternal verities -- and who'd prefer for reasons of their own that you disbelieve them, too. Some of them put a lot of work into trying to convince us that there are exceptions to one or more of the eternal verities.

Every writer of fiction is in some sense a polemicist, though some are more consciously so than others. If a writer's story is worthy, it's because it not only entertains the reader but edifies him as well. That is, he has used his story to illustrate how the eternal verities operate in an inherently interesting, challenging situation. A story that merely entertains without illuminating some core truth about Man and his societies is what the C.S.O. calls "mindless entertainment:" however diverting it might be, it will have no enduring place in the reader's memory or affections.

Most persons indulge in mindless entertainment from time to time. (Real Housewives and Millionaire Matchmaker, anyone?) But we get nothing out of it apart from a brief distraction from our more important concerns. It's rest for the brain, at best. An intelligent reader will want more -- and the more intelligent he is, the more he'll enjoy a serious challenge to his imagination in the process of getting it.

There's a profound irony here. A sound story will illuminate one or more of the eternal verities. It's an element as necessary as a cast of characters: the "steak" of the fictional product. But the entertainment value of the story will arise from how cleverly and imaginatively the writer casts the conflicts that envelop his protagonists: the "sizzle" that will draw the reader into the tale, and will cause him to seek out that writer's works in the future. Though he would spurn a writer who failed to provide a goodly portion of "steak," the intelligent reader becomes a fan of a particular writer almost entirely because of the "sizzle."

And we who write are fully aware of it.

I've written elsewhere about a writer's ethical duties, and also about the power of fiction to promote ideas. A writer must be passionate about any ideas he seeks to promote, or his fictions will be insipid. But passion about the "steak" must come secondary to craft about the "sizzle," or his stories will not be read. And a great part of the effectiveness of the most effective polemic stories arises from the imagination their creator brought to them.

One of the earliest important polemic novels, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, was proto-science fiction. The ideas Bellamy promulgated were wrong -- tragically so -- but he attained a wide readership nonetheless, because he dared to write imaginatively, about a future time whose divergences from his present rendered it interesting to the reader. Similarly, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, arguably the premier polemic fiction of the post-World War II decades, imaginatively placed its protagonists and conflicts in a future -- for Rand and her earliest readers -- unimagined by most Americans of the Fifties and Sixties. (That's it's largely come to pass today is irrelevant for our purposes.) The "sizzle" in those books was sufficient to draw the reader in, make him commit to the stories and their conflicts, and follow them to the end.

Polemic fiction will just about always be genre fiction: SF, fantasy, supernatural, military, what-have-you. That's where the most imaginative and passionate writers spend their efforts, for two reasons:

  • The promise of a particular kind of "sizzle" tends to draw in the most intellectually active and flexible readers;
  • The writer can pose fresh, original challenges to his characters that will, nonetheless, cast new light on one or more eternal truths.

The vitality of genre fiction derives in large measure from its use as a dual vehicle: for entertainment and ideas both. Just about any of the genres -- that is, apart from the dreary "literary" category -- will serve both purposes for a determined writer with the necessary imagination and technical chops. Why, it might even be possible in vampire fiction...though not, I dare say, in the sort that's being vended to teenaged girls today.


Weetabix said...

I surely do appreciate the effort you put into your fiction. It shows.

I know that, at least from me, you receive very little feedback on it because it's so well thought out and thorough, there seems little left to say except, "Amen!" I hope you don't read the paucity of feedback as lack of interest.

lelnet said...

Vampire fiction (at least, the variety marketed to young girls, which is the overwhelming majority of it) exists to explore eternal verities of the psychosexual nature, whose discussion in polite society has long been politically least when both of the protagonists are mortal humans.

Consider some of the propositions in that realm which are, if not certainly true then at least arguably true, but which nevertheless must never be expressed aloud under one's own name, lest severe social penalties ensue. The real unspeakable taboos, in other words, as opposed to the historical (if not entirely imaginary) ones about which our culture's intellectual class has utterly lost the capacity to shut up.

I am fairly certain that, upon contemplation of such things, several notions regarding the appeal of vampire fiction to the female audience will occur to you.

Anonymous said...

I personal believe popular fiction is a expression of our fears as a society during the 70 and 80 it was evil aliens that we coudnt understand just like we didnt understand communism now its zombies and vampires evil parasites that prey on the living just like the Obama voter that preys on the working just my two thoughts

MvL said...

"I hope you don't read the paucity of feedback as lack of interest."
I agree crunchy-one. "Amen' indeed.