Pink and Blue SF: An Applied Breakdown

Tuesday , 26, August 2014 17 Comments

Illustration by Paul Campbell

Sometimes, distinguishing  Pink Science Fiction from Blue can be difficult, so I thought a simple comparison of two very similarly themed science fiction tales might help.

There is some required reading involved, but it will only take you a few minutes:

The first is Rachel Swirsky’s Hugo-nominated short story “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love”

The second is Gene Wolfe’s “Build-A-Bear”

Have you read them? Good.

Now let us take a look at the two stories through the now-standard rubric to determine a story’s status as Pink or Blue.

1. It is written in conscious reaction to, and rejection of, the classic genre canon.

“Dinosaur” is published in a science fiction magazine, was nominated for an award that features a rocket ship, and yet contains only a meta-speculation as its science fiction element. There is no science behind the transformation of the man into a microtyrannosaur. The entire story is merely the conscious and unfulfilled wish of a dissatisfied woman. Look no further than: “all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.” Pink.

“Build-A-Bear” does not explain the science, or even the purpose behind a cruise ship being equipped to generate customized living creatures. Yet this is very much within the classic canon: AI, genetic engineering, the unusual consequences of high tech wish fulfillment in a quotidian environment all harken to such classic stories as “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” or Astro Boy. Furthermore, the name of the entertainer who guides the construction of Viola’s bear is Bellatrix, a fairly obvious allusion to both the star and the original Latin meaning: “female warrior.” Unlike the stereotypical modern application of the term, this is an early indication that the feminine war arts in the story will in no way resemble masculine combat techniques. The story is about the nature of feminine social status, conflict and self-defense. Blue.

2. It is politically correct.

Dinosaur – the villains quite literally employ nearly every politically incorrect slur in the arsenal. Pink.

Build-A-Bear – The sociosexual hierarchy is represented without qualification, the male (bear) hero’s maleness is an intrinsic element of his heroism. Blue.

3. It consciously elevates current progressive ideology above story, plot, and characterization. The personal is the political and the propaganda is the plot.

Dinosaur – The propaganda is not simply critical to the plot. Not only is the story about how bigotry is so horrible in society that it should be eliminated proactively by violence, but that is both its theme and its content. The theme and plot don’t simply harmonize, nor do they echo one another. They are one and the same. The personal political response of the woman is the core personal response, and the one with which the reader is invited to identify. Pink.

Build-A-Bear – This story meanders through the personal insecurities, hopes and actions of the protagonist. Despite a mention of her traditional views, her politics are a very slight facet of her larger problem: that she is aging faster than anyone ever realizes, and that she is precariously alone. She also is very weary of her own habits and flaws, but is on a personal quest to rise above those. None of this is spelled out in the narrative, and none of it is determinative of the story’s outcome. Blue.

4. It rejects Christianity and traditional Western morality.

This is where both stories get very interesting. Both wrestle with violent offense and justice, unsuspecting and otherwise innocent victims, and situations of morality. Weapons, in the hands of both villain and hero, are central elements of both stories.

Dinosaur – In this story, the slight moral dilemma is whether the narrator would feel guilty about laughing for extended periods following the fantasized vengeful acts of her dying fiancee. The other dilemma – about how she wasn’t good enough to marry his more powerful, fantasized version, and how her best bet would be to find him a mate of equal strength to him, is not a moral one, but it is a very interesting commentary on the inherent flaw in equalitarian thinking: if marriage is by definition a union between two equals, does that mean both parties should be able to bench press the same amount, adjusted for body weight? Pink.

Build-A-Bear – The protagonist’s values are traditional – she is looking specifically for an eligible bachelor and is bothered by the number of divorced men and married men who are merely looking for sex. Viola is naturally hypergamous, but finds herself in the initial steps of happily settling for a potential long-term husband candidate. But the crucial aspect of the story hinges on the question of self-defense. Remember that the bear is an extension of herself – her creation of a male-oriented consciousness that enables her to begin to seek out a meaningful relationship with a man. She’s a systems analyst, for pity’s sake, yet has an awfully difficult time navigating the system structured around her own life. Blake’s attack on her is disjointed: why would a handsome, strong and charming man resort to hiding in the shadows, stalking–with a gun, no less–a (by her own admission) somewhat dumpy woman past the prime of her youth? The final scene is, in all ways, a decidedly and traditionally Western drama. In fact, much of the action would make no sense outside of traditional Western morality. Blue.

5. It subscribes to the anti-scientific myth of human equality.

Dinosaur – Equality is expressly critical to the marital relationship – both the fantasized one and the potential real-life one. The T-Rex himself is a symbol of equalizing: it is reduced in size to make the attack on the five villains seem “fair.” Pink.

Build-A-Bear – Viola is no match for her attacker, and she values the men she meets differently despite all of them failing her standard. They fall short at various distances. She needs her bear. Tim can’t compete on certain social levels with the other men, but at the personal, he has the edge in boldness. Viola has a range of choices, and they ultimately display themselves as intrinsically unequal. Blue.

6. It exhibits a superficial multiculturalism.

Dinosaur – overtly acknowledges the social importance of the inclusion of gays, transgenders, Muslims, Latinos, and apparently gamma males, although the characters themselves are inclusively indistinct, though, without physical or other qualifiers, it can be very difficult for the reader to separate a first person narrators from her author. Pink.

Build-A-Bear – This one could be accused of being monocultural by critics who care for such things, but only via the seemingly British-origin names of the male suitors. The ethnicity of characters and the importance of ethnicity simply is not present. In fact, reading too much ethnicity into the story would hamper the reading: look at the names again – they are symbolic. Bellatrix symbolizes supernatural, heavenly or diabolical guidance. Don symbolizes ruthless mastery of the social order. Blake means dark/bright. Tim refers to his timidity, but also his quasi-biblical humility. Viola, of course, deftly refers to all its classic references: the flower, the somewhat oversized violin-like instrument that is nonetheless capable of making beautiful music, the character from the comedy The Twelfth Night, and so on. Playing multicultural bingo on this one would be a very bad idea. Blue.

7. It utilizes racial and sexual checkboxes.

Dinosaur is structured as a list of checkboxes. Pink.

Build-A-Bear – This one has no reference to race, which means it leaves itself open to the spurious accusation of being “default white,” but there really isn’t any reason why anyone of any race, descended from an English-language legacy, couldn’t view one or many of the characters as members of the reader’s race. That is, if grown up readers actually had a need for such a gauche and selfish brand of literacy. More importantly, the sexuality in the story is up front about its traditional standards and offenses. Blue.

8. It inclines heavily to the political Left.

Dinosaur – Equality, fear, victimization and revenge. Uh…Pink.

Build-A-Bear notes that the main character is a little out of touch with the times, but principled, and that is as close as the story gets to politics, which is to say, it certainly doesn’t lean, even slightly, to the Left. Blue.

9. It celebrates and normalizes sexual deviancy.

Dinosaur tips the cap to gays and transgenders during the course of the fantasy, and I guess it attempts to normalize lizard-human relations, but this is not the story’s strength. However, even in its weakest category, Dinosaur is decidedly Pink.

Build-A-Bear is the more surprising and interesting work because of its approach to sexual deviancy: it is portrayed in its traditional light, as deviant and ultimately hostile and dangerous – an offense worthy of self-defense. This not only provides the climactic conflict, but the reference to the offensive nature of “mere” adultery earlier in the story foreshadows the gravity of Blake’s attack. Now, it seems to me that Viola’s response is a bit too understated, but it seems to be either an authorial error, or (more likely) a disassociation indicating a deeper science fiction element (that I’m not going to get into here), rather than a political statement. Blue.

10. It is structured in the conventional form of a romance novel rather than a science fiction or fantasy novel.

To put it simply, the romance is structured “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.” Keep in mind that the girl may be, and in fact likely is, the protagonist acted upon in such a story. The “getting” part doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy outcome. One of the parties may be disappointed in getting or having gotten got. Or one or both of the parties may be a corpse for all the trouble.

Dinosaur is a romance: the girl is met by the would-be dinosaur, she bravely (in her fantasy) gives him up to find the match that his lizard-self is worthy of, and by the end of the story “gets back with him,” rather sad that he’s in a permanent coma from the beating. More interesting than the structure is that the story attempts to be as unromantic and violent as possible to distance itself from its obvious traditional structure as a romance. Pink.

In contrast, Build-A-Bear appears to be nothing more than a romance story, but if you look at its structure, you will see very quickly that Viola’s quest for romance is merely the motivational vehicle for the story to pursue interesting ideas like AI, virtual relationships, self-defense, traditional values, and the nature of divine gifts. In Dinosaur, conflict and revenge are platforms for the broken romance. In Build-A-Bear, imperfect romance is a vehicle for conflict and ideas. Blue.

So, although the story inspired by stuffed animals (pink ones, no less!) might suggest pink thematic material, and the one about the Tyrannusaurus Rex would inspire red-toothed Blue, the results are quite the opposite. This demonstrates that the best way to determine whether an author tends toward Pink themes or Blue is to read a little of his work first. The cover art or subject matter is more likely to deceive than illuminate.

One last thing: the Pink and Blue divide is rarely so tidy as this little exercise indicates. Generally speaking, it is about a work having a preponderance of these qualities to qualify as Pink. There is certainly Blue SF that caters to a few Pink fantasies here and there, and Pink that crosses over for the Blue dollar. But I can’t think of many stories that are perfect centrists: the gulf at that point is still too wide.

17 Comments
  • SH says:

    Does anyone have any thoughts on why the short fiction markets are so slanted pink? Last year I decided to get off the fence and start writing seriously. I wrote a few short stories, got two published in paying markets. A little success out of the gate was nice but now I look around and it seems that I don’t have anywhere else to send anything. The big short fiction markets just aren’t a good fit for me. What they print isn’t what I want to read and what I write isn’t what they want to print. I have a couple pieces in the can and I can’t find markets for them. I don’t mind rejection but there simply isn’t any point to wasting a venue like Apex’s time with a straight up old school sci-fi or fantasy story. Theoretically we are dealing with markets in the buying and selling markets sense, in which case I am sitting on a product without buyers. I can alter my work to suit those markets or keep plowing away, waiting for the wind to change. But I do find it curious. With the success of GRRM and other fantasy door stoppers its clear there is a market for novels that tell a good story. The short fiction scene seems a totally different animal and I wonder why. In the meantime I am starting on a proper novel. Adieu short fiction markets! Don’t be sad, we’ll always have Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

    • Eric Ashley says:

      I’ve heard Wolfe extensively praised. But I could not get into the Long Sun stuff. This however was nice.

      And thats a point for the other commenter. Short stories are good intros to get the reader into longer works.

    • Karen Myers says:

      I’m getting the same reaction, SH. The only short works I can write (and maybe my long ones, too) are emulations of the “great” ones of the Golden Age — my tastes are pretty traditional. Doesn’t seem to be what anyone wants, so I may just start pushing the shorts straight to indie publication. I’m not saying I’m necessarily “worthy”, but my material isn’t what the current SFF periodicals want.

      • Daniel Eness says:

        Right now, as best as I can tell, the short market has morphed very much. Allow me to demonstrate this empirically:

        I have written and published a number of short stories. I publish them as experiments to see how they sell and in what format.

        The first thing I have discovered is that unless the individual short story is extremely topical or directly connected to a well-known or decently-selling work, or is confused for something else…it will not sell on its own. There isn’t a serious market for your lone short story.

        I compared those stand alone shorts to the sales of anthologies that I made from them. One anthology I made (no longer available, because most of its content is now available via other means) was simply an omnibus of short stories.

        No one bought. Literally no one.

        Then I collected a number of similarly themed ghost stories set on the Titanic with historic figures into a small anthology, just in time for the 100th Anniversary of the disaster. It sells well on Titanic memorial days, and consistently in other months over the years.

        Another wider anthology does better than my first anthology, because it is somewhat themed, but not as strongly as the Titanic one.

        After I anthologized the Titanic stories, my individual Titanic stories began to sell better too.

        One “problem” you might say I face is that I write too broadly, and so I am unable to build up a reliable bank of specific genre novels or stories in the short run. This is true, but in the long run, I really don’t care. I keep moving forward, writing something new as quickly as possible so that I can get started on the next thing.

        I say simultaneously submit your new stories to all eligible markets as soon as you are done with them, give those folks a month to get back to you, and in the meantime prep it for self-publication. Then start on your next thing. At the end of the month, hit “publish” and don’t look back.

        I personally don’t bother with most short markets any more – I don’t want to risk the money I know I’ll get from doing it right all by myself against the chance that one of the paying markets isn’t going to tie something of mine up when it could be anthologized and making more over the long haul. I’ve been submitting stuff since the late 1980s, and have never found much fortune there. For about 20 years, I thought it was because I was really pretty terrible (and I might have been) and wasn’t it a little sad and funny that the one thing I was best at still pretty much sucked.

        Once individual readers began to buy stories directly from me, however, that changed and I realized that I probably hadn’t had a writing problem for years. I’d been suffering one of distribution. Now I just write and write and really don’t concern myself with which market is going to buy what: I know that if one reader is willing to pay money or even pirate something I’ve written, then a hundred are. Now its just my job to make sure it is available to each one of them in the format they want, when they are ready for it.

        Ultimately, I believe the fastest way to sell short stories is to publish a novel first, and then have associated shorts that go with it. I’ve observed a lot of that, just based on sales ranks of other authors who go deeper into a particular market than I have yet.

      • SH says:

        We are meat and potatoes people in a vegan cupcake world. I should have also attached some caveats too; I don’t believe I am Shai Hulud’s gift to prose. If my quality is up to bar I will eventually break out. If it isn’t then I won’t. But there is no denying we are behind the eight ball in the short fiction markets. I’ll keep an eye out for your stuff on amazon or wherever you intend to publish.

    • Hans says:

      SH, I’m in the same boat. But don’t count those mags out. I’ve had some luck with the pro mags. The only problem is how careful you have to be.

      Then there’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, which is fairly conservative (soft blue?).

      Stupefying Stories is still a bastion of good stories. Turgeson (sp?) is published by Analog. The pickings for fantasy venues are more limited.

      What I’ve decided to do is to self pub the short stories on Amazon.

      But honestly I still think you can get good stories published in any of the mags (provided they can’t find your political opinion with a simple blog search?).

      It would be nice to have a blue magazine (I would add Christian too, since IGMS slants heavily mormon). Actually, OSC is doing a lot for mormon writers (and for blue writers) by keeping IGMS running, probably out of his own pocket.

      It seems like Castalia House’s approach to running anthologies versus a monthly pub makes better economic sense.

      • SH says:

        Excellent points. I have had some luck too which makes it a little more frustrating. IGMS is on my list of potential markets. I submitted there once without luck but I’ll have another go at some point.

  • Jill says:

    That Build-a-Bear story is hilarious. I like that the protag’s masculine/heroic element is a pink bear–very fitting for a female heroine.

  • John Cunningham says:

    SH asked–
    With the success of GRRM and other fantasy door stoppers its clear there is a market for novels that tell a good story. The short fiction scene seems a totally different animal and I wonder why. In the meantime I am starting on a proper novel. Adieu short fiction markets! Don’t be sad, we’ll always have Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

    I think you should package 2 or 3 short stories, and put them on Amazon as Kindle’s for 99 cents or $1.99. this will get your name before teh public while your novel is in the works.

  • VD says:

    Does anyone have any thoughts on why the short fiction markets are so slanted pink?

    It’s the editors. When Campbell was the main editor, SF slanted Right. With Dozois and company, it not only slants Left, but is beginning to move away from being science fiction at all.

  • Daniel says:

    To those who may be new to the concept, “Pink” and “Blue” do not refer to two separate schools, they refer to intellectual differentiators:

    In other words, Pink adheres to a number (not necessarily, but usually a majority) of the “Pink” principles. Those that do not adhere to the principles are simply “Not-Pink.” Blue can only be “proven” in the shadow of Pink. It is what used to be simply called Science Fiction.

    An example: “The Yellow Wallpaper” is radical feminist fantasy…and yet it would not qualify as Pink. And Jack London’s openly socialistic 27th century science fiction novel “Iron Heel” absolutely and without doubt is disqualified from Pink, and is therefore Blue, despite being clearly Left-wing fiction.

  • Hans says:

    Any of y’all catch the first episode of Doctor Who last week? Could they have been more preachy? Dude, I don’t care if the lizard lady and the 90lb female ninja are gay or married or whatever. You don’t have to tell me over and over again. I get it. I don’t care, because it doesn’t have anything to do with the story.

    Imagine the writer had a character saying “I’m a Christian…” Just throwing it around a few times in a haughty, judgmental way. Everybody would be saying how preachy it was, Christians included.

    Call it “pinkeye”. It’s like being colorblind, they just can’t see that what they’re writing is incredible. They’re remarkably tone deaf.

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