la_marquise_de_ has a wonderful post about what history is for (short answer: nothing, it just is), and she finishes it by stating that expecting something to be “obviously and economically useful” is a very Western (and unhealthy) assumption. This, in turn, set me to digging up a couple thoughts about SF I had at the bottom of the drawer.
See, I’ve heard those thoughts before about useful things. The “utilitarian” approach (ie, it can’t exist unless it’s good for something) is also very strongly present in genre, and I hadn’t realised how much.
For instance, there’s a lot of advice about keeping things as short as possible, about making scenes do double duty, about avoiding bulky infodumps. There’s advice about keeping a clear and readable style, not getting into the reader’s way, and so forth. In other words: do not waste words. Do not waste the reader’s time. Do not be fanciful. Always be useful and give bang for the buck. If the book is thick, it had damned well be because every word counts.
There’s also a lot of advice about writing an SF story that boils down to being economical: for instance, the school of thought of the Novum (the idea that a true SF story should be about one technology/piece of technology, and following its resonance into society, ie most minor modification you can think of) definitely fits this. And how many times have you heard that a novel should be easily summarised and boiled down to an elevator pitch–and that, if you can’t, it has to be because there is a problem in the structure of the novel itself?
There is also this pernicious idea that stories have to depend on the technology or they’re not true SF: I say “pernicious” because on the one hand, I understand where we’re coming from in trying to define genre, to separate it from mainstream (though I’m not entirely sure I approve, but that’s another story)–but on the other, if you think about it, this basically amounts to saying “this setting/detail had better be useful” (sort of like Novum to the Nth power). This also comes in flavours of “this plot had better be useful” (aka, it has to have a point, an arc, a theme or whathaveyou), and in “this character had better be useful” (aka, the characters who are not essential to the plot shouldn’t be there )–and my favourite, the special alternate history bonus: an alternate history setting has to explicitly tell us something about our own world, or it might as well not exist.
And I find this… troubling.
We can see the results of this approach everywhere, I think (and to some extent, this goes beyond literature); and I don’t think we’ve necessarily gone good places with this. The “utilitarian” approach does have good sides (I’m not advocating we should let authors ramble on and on without firm editing), but it comes with strong dangers: it encourages simple stories with a to-the-point-backdrop and plot. It creates stories that are deliberately simplistic, with pre-catalogued plots, a cast of characters as thin as paper, and a world that can be summed up in one or two key concepts. It thins out the author’s voice (and authorial intervention), and ends up arbitrarily restricting what one can and can’t do with a story.
It prevents novels from being filled with random worldbuilding, with random acts and facts–whereas life itself is full of random things, of details that don’t fit in with each other–of plots that cut off and don’t necessarily make sense by the end.
And, most serious from where I stand, it plays on our already-exacerbated Western tendencies to tie everything into neat narratives, and also ends up reinforcing those tendencies–because, if you keep reading novels that have a point, you’ll soon expect all novels to have a point.
Similarly, the hunger for simple narrative has gone beyond fiction: there’s a general drive towards wanting simple accounts for a phenomenon, and single-factor explanations.
And that’s just not how things work in life.
Case in point (and brief digression): the Rio-Paris Air France crash. Nearly all media stressed one possible explanation (the pilots are to blame, for instance, which seems the majority vote). The truth is, like most accidents, this was a combination of improbable and serious events that led to the plane plunging downwards, and it’s impossible to pinpoint which incident “crashed” the plane. They all did: had even one circumstance gone differently, the plane would still be there. But people prefer the single-factor explanation. It’s simple. It makes sense. Why look for more?
Except, of course, that the single-factor explanation is bunk.
Stories didn’t use to be that simple. Les Misérables doesn’t work that way. Sure, you can argue that it’s a book about the redemption of Jean Valjean–but that completely fails to tell us about the book. You can argue it’s about poverty and the life of the destitute–and sure, it is that too. But the book is much more complex than that; it has a multitude of facets–a multitude of minor characters who all have their own lives (and if you only kept those necessary to the plot, it would be a much poorer book)–and this makes it breathe. This makes it real. This makes full; and fulfilling.
I’m not saying you won’t take anything away from Les Misérables or Dream of Red Mansions (that last being pretty much the epitome of “plotless” for me, but utterly wonderful nevertheless). Of course you will. Of course you’ll find your own lessons, and your own interpretations.
But to want novels and/or worldbuilding to be as simple as possible feels wrong to me–like we’re cutting off our own limbs because, after all, they’re not really necessary/economical… It reminds me of Karl Marx’s “religion is the opium of the people”. By this, he meant that religion gave people what they wanted–the illusion of stability and purpose–and kept them from realising they were exploited; we seemed to have moved to “fiction is our opium”–into a world where fiction satisfies our cravings for simplicity, and prevents us from realising how complex and difficult the real world can be.
So, anyway, that’s what I see. I’d never realised before how much it worried me, or how many of those things came together in a solid (and utterly wrong, at least from my POV) vision of the world according to fiction .
What do you think? Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments (specifically, if you want to disagree, do go ahead. I could use some reassurance here… )
 Wanting few characters in a novel didn’t apply in Ancient China, for instance: the list of Romance of the Three Kingdoms characters fills out half a thick volume; and the Chinese wouldn’t have considered the story realistic unless it listed tons of minor and major characters.
 I’m mostly thinking of popular fiction here (genre), and particularly of US fiction, but I do see it elsewhere.
I’m aware we do have a counter-culture to this: we do have people seeking to make novels complex and organic; but I’m getting the strong feeling they’re the minority vote…