#SpaceOperaWeek: Realism is Dumb by Jon Del Arroz

Wednesday , 17, May 2017 9 Comments

Everything that we’ve been told about science fiction and fantasy writing for the last couple of decades is a lie. All we hear is ‘you have to make it more real’ and ‘that needs to be realistic dialogue’ or ‘it wouldn’t really happen that way’. It’s led to the genre changing from John Carter leaping over mounds on Barsoom and felling six armed giant creatures, to a culture of big name editors telling classes of students that unless you can explain the evolutionary biology of alien species, you shouldn’t have any humanoid aliens in your work (I’ve sat through such a class). In terms of Space Opera, it’s spelled the death knell for the sub-genre except in very rare instances.

On the micro level, authors have shied away from description, preferring a modernistic Hemmingway style that’s dominating our publishing industry. That style was originally hailed for its realism, creating an open space where readers can feel something is real.It leaves more to the imagination, in theory, creating quicker sentences that a reader can’t dissect or overanalyze. It also has the side effect of removing a sense of wonder from the reading.

On a macro level the realism writing mindset has led to characters in extraordinary settings with extraordinary gifts sitting around and doing ordinary things. As a case study, look at Tom King’s Vision graphic novel, hailed by critics in 2016. The book amounted to a well-known android/robot with crazy powers feeding his robot children cereal and giving them piano lessons in order for them to fit in. This is a character bread from an ultimate space robot villain, Ultron, originally a classic science fiction and space opera concept at its finest. Vision was reduced in this mini-series to boring realism, and the sales in turn reflected that even if the critics applauded.

There’s also the extremely lopsided politics that turn off average readers. Most people don’t want to get fed politics in their entertainment. The real world is already negative enough as we’re bombarded 24-7 with news reports of how horrible everything is. The insertion of politics into story stems from an excess of realism mindset, trying to mimic what they see in the mainstream media. It creates a feel-bad “we’re all victims” message instead of telling a compelling story with heroes solving problems.

It’s no coincidence that as realism has overwhelmed modern Space Opera and Science Fiction, authors are pushed to become more and more realistic through the way publishers purchase books. The publishers see critical accolades and awards being given to books that promote extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and a free promotional tool for short term sales. Over the long term, however that marketing strategy has destroyed the sense of wonder that made multiple generations of readers go wide-eyed when picking up a Space Opera book in our youths. So few writers know any different anymore. However, the sales trends show that the sci-fi and comics industry has declined to a point where very few people read at all.Though as has been discussed on this blog before,these industries used to be a hallmark of culture read by millions.

The problem is realism goes against what these genres were created for. They go against what the readers crave. The people in power at the publishing houses that produce these genres turned to content that readers don’t want, and moreover the establishment Big Publishing actively dislikes the genre, wishing they could be “real” literary fiction. #SpaceOperaWeek, for example, is an event created by Tor, with one of its primary contributors stating up front, “I’m not really a Space Opera kind of girl.”

It’s bizarre to see people paid to write and provide criticism on the genre actively stating they don’t like it. If they’re not the target audience, why should they be listened to? I posit to writers: if you want Space Opera and Science Fiction to survive, we must make a culture shift to stop listening to the critics who hate the genre, and instead listen to the readers who love it.

If you look at work that readers love, work that lasts over time, it almost invariably bucks the realism trend and goes fully into the realm of what the critics would call absurd. You won’t see the book Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell winning many awards or being talked about in critical cricles, but there’s an element of excitement about “a cigar-chomping monkey, nuclear powered Zeppelins, electronic souls and a battle to avert Armageddon” that immediately compels a reader to pick up the book. I mean holy crap that sounds cool, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t we want more of this element to bleed over into our Space Opera writing?

Or would you rather read about wondrous aliens from dying planets like Superman brushing his teeth for 3 pages and staring in a mirror reflecting on his life?

It’s pretty obvious what’s fun, and what isn’t. Long term sales do reflect readers tastes, despite what gets propagandized to us by the publishing elite. The Pulp Revolution offers content that has the fun factor that can save the genre from endless doldrums. And I’m taking that to heart. In my own writing, I look at a finished draft manuscript and think to myself: what can I do to add a component of unreal that would be fun for both me and the reader? How can I stretch my imagination to the point where I’m providing an actual service in science fiction or fantasy? Keeping things strictly the way they “will be” in several hundred years or whatnot won’t create a compelling setting or interesting story.  That’s what the Pulp Revolution is about recreating and bringing back, so that people tune in and check it out. That’s what will create great Space Opera.

Fellow writers, take this advice: don’t worry about realism, try to have as much fun as possible.

Jon Del Arroz is the author of the Alliance Award nominated and top-10 Amazon bestselling Space Opera, Star Realms: Rescue Run. His second novel, For Steam And Country, is set to be released this summer. He is considered to be the leading Hispanic voice in Science Fiction, and hails from the San Francisco Bay Area. He regularly posts to his popular Science Fiction blog at http://delarroz.com. Twitter: @jondelarroz Gab.ai: @otomo

9 Comments
  • Jill says:

    “a cigar-chomping monkey, nuclear powered Zeppelins, electronic souls and a battle to avert Armageddon”

    Yes, that does sound cool. I like weird books, cannot lie.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    A great insight, Jon. I never thought of it that way.

  • Bies Podkrakowski says:

    Still, humanoid aliens that’s lazy writing. And boring. Each time I am reading about them it seems to me that the writer’s imagination was terminally mutilated by too much Star Trek.

    Now, crablike, murderous aliens like Neal Ashers’ Prador are the way to go.
    Interesting article about how to create disgusting, hideous SF monsters: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/skinner_feature.htm

  • deuce says:

    “If entertainment means light and playful pleasure, then I think it is exactly what we ought to get from some literary work – say, from a trifle by Prior or Martial. If it means those things which ‘grip’ the reader of popular romance – suspense, excitement and so forth – then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.”

    —- C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

    “Entertainment is fiction’s purpose.”
    — Edgar Rice Burroughs

    What the PulpRev brings to the table is the “revolutionary” concept that fiction — space opera, fantasy, crime fiction, whatever — should accomplish its PRIMARY function of entertaining the reader before it worries about anything else. That is the winning strategy. That is why people are still reading Burroughs for pleasure and not Upton Sinclair.

    When entertainment is the goal in writing fiction, it shows. Go back and read some of the earnestly “realistic” or “accurate” SF from 40/50/whatever years ago. They’re as dated as a textbook from the same era because their “appeal” was all tied to their supposed “accuracy”, not whether they actually entertained the reader. Pedagoguery disguised as “fiction” is still pedagoguery. Elaborate word problems disguised as “fiction” are still word problems. Entertaining fictional adventures are still entertaining fictional adventures, no matter what historical/fantasy/sf trappings they wear. THAT is why they last. That is why their appeal endures.

  • Keith West says:

    ” It also has the side effect of removing a sense of wonder from the reading.”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of description the last few months, especially as it relates to my writing. The above sentence made a lot of things click for me.

    Deuce mentions Upton Sinclair. We read THE JUNGLE as a history assignment my freshman year of high school. I liked it because it was gross. (Remember, I was about 14 or 15.) That is until I got to the pages long diatribe about the joys of socialism at the end. That’s when I put the book down and haven’t picked up a Sinclair book since.

  • jic says:

    “You won’t see the book Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell winning many awards”

    It won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel (split with *Ancillary Justice*, of all things).

  • Suburbanbanshee says:

    I agree with most of your points. But I can see that you have not experienced the dubious joys of supposedly-literary over-description in today’s sf/f.

    You get horrifying books where it takes fifty pages for a boy to cross a castle courtyard. You get books where everything is a simile, but the simile makes no sense. You get flashbacks in places where a flashback destroys the pacing. You get a teenage boy musing about the light off a backpack, when he should be choosing between helping his friends win the Big Game and going searching for his father instead. (When the father has been missing for years, and there is no reason he should miss the Big Game. Ugh, so much stupidity.)

  • Suburbanbanshee says:

    The other point is that verisimilitude can be fun, if used correctly. In the classic cartoon where the wolf and the sheepdog both have to clock in, there is a lot of funny stuff about wolf versus sheepdog. But having them both dealing with “realistic” work problems at the same time is what makes the cartoon so memorable.

    Obviously, the situation itself is totally unreal. So the verisimilitude just makes it more fantastic, in the end.

    Certain brands of fantasy and at can benefit from that. The classic Marvel Spiderman spent his whole life cycling between mundane requirements and superhero action, and his stories were stronger for it.

    But of course there is a balancing act. Spiderman brushing his teeth upside down while hanging from a web, or Superman brushing his teeth with heat vision and checking for cavities with his X-Ray vision, could be interesting and fun. But you want to keep it short and sweet.

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