By fiction editor Jalyn Fiske
Writing is such a slithery thing these days (or, perhaps it has been since days began). Markets want this kind of story, editors want that, and instructors teach something else entirely. I’ll give my two cents as Fiction Editor on what we’re looking for specifically at James Gunn’s Ad Astra, but I won’t be the only one doling out advice.
In a broader sense for the broader writing world, World Fantasy Award nominee and Otherwise Award honor-listed author Betsy James will also give her sage and entertaining musings on what good writing looks like in a recurring blog here at Ad Astra. This is a real treat, and I’m thrilled to have her brilliance showcased with us!
And now, my two cents: Speculative Fiction is the literature of change.
Even casual consumers of SF recognize this definition—penned by our namesake James Gunn—on the most basic level: that futuristic technology requires invention; that a Jekyll becoming a Hyde entails transformation; that artificial intelligence achieving sentience sparks revolution. We cannot write SF without change. The great storytellers in the genre embrace this and delve even deeper, turning the notion of change into a question: Why?
A favorite scene of mine in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 illuminates this concept of change and this question of why. Guy Montag is a child in his mother’s home when the power goes out. It is a first for him (and perhaps his mother) to be without technology, one that lulls its consumers to sit slack-jawed inside television rooms, to be absorbed into the soap opera lives of actors, to exist mindlessly and distracted as the state wishes them to live.
In Bradbury’s world, society has become reliant on technology to the point that they stop looking inward or even at each other. They only look at the screen and believe what the screen tells them. Yes, the novel involves firefighters who burn houses instead of saving them in their quest to burn books, but that is merely a symptom of the disease. The disease that festers inside society, fed abundantly with state-sanctioned entertainment, is apathy.
In the power outage scene, Montag sits with his mother in the dark, their only light being a candle. And in this quiet where the TV is off and the appliances have ceased to hum, mother and son must – talk. They must sit in the stillness and the silence and discover themselves and each other.
This scene is the pivotal moment in Montag’s past that plants the seed which fuels his own personal transformation from firefighter to rebel, the seed that forces him to ask: Why?
Why do they burn books? Why do they live vicariously through TV walls? Why do they shrug their shoulders when neighbors take turns attempting suicide? Why do they drive at high speeds and run people over as a favorite past-time?
To us, the readers, it seems obvious that Montag’s world is very wrong, but to him, it is all he has ever known.
In a similar fashion, our world had a power-outage of its own when the pandemic struck, and people across the globe had to slow down. We had to stop. For the first few weeks, people took up baking and gardening and walking to fill the time, but as the quarantine dragged on, the proverbial candlelight grew stronger, the stillness quieter. Inevitably, we began to ask: Why?
Why do I work seventy hours a week? Why don’t we have family dinners more often? Why do I spend so much money buying things I don’t need? Why am I living with someone who doesn’t love me? Why don’t I pursue my dreams?
I know that for many people SF asks the questions If This Goes On… and What if?, and it does. However, I don’t believe these are the only questions, nor even the most important. The world doesn’t need to create stories that stop at asking If This Goes On… or What If? as much as it needs to show us stories that venture further and ask Why?
And haven’t we seen this already with the political turmoil brewing in several countries, triggered to new levels by the pandemic? It’s hardly surprising that given enough time to think and to observe, any population will find flaws in its culture and its value-system. And once you have seen blatant injustice, you can never un-see it.
It is difficult to ask Why?, for the answer is almost always an uncomfortable truth. And the solution is even more painful: that we must change, as Montag had to change. He lost his home, his so-called friends, his ignorant bliss – but he gained his life.
These are the kinds of stories I want to see.
What if Montag watched the woman burning herself alive with her books and his wife’s attempted suicide – both fascinating scenes – and then didn’t care? All too often, we get stories with engaging scenes or set-ups, but the characters are unaffected and uninspired. The protagonist is a mere witness.
What if Montag recognized that his world had gone bad, thought about doing something to change it, and then decided to maintain the status quo? Likewise, we receive stories where the protagonist doesn’t have much agency, or where the solution is so easy, the problem might well have never existed.
Worst of all is when the main character remains stagnant from beginning to end, when there is no character arc. The enduring legacy of Fahrenheit 451 is that Montag does not want to change. He adamantly does not want to disrupt his life and put himself at risk by the authorities. However, Montag is changed, thoroughly and completely by what he has learned and questioned, and there can be no more pretending. There is no turning back.
Stories are our guides, our candlelight, that help us look inward, and we need this light more than ever. Show me the What If? world-building that grips the reader from the very start and plunges them into the fantastic. Show me the heart-wrenching dilemmas and high-stakes conflicts that arise when the characters ask Why?. And, finally, show me characters who transform, inside and out, and become better humans when they choose the more difficult path. So that we, the readers, can see how it’s done and wish the same for ourselves.