“Utterly bleak and black is not the sum of realism. All the other colors are real too.” ~From The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold
I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was three years old and watching the Ewok cartoon show on Saturday mornings (I maintain to this day that Harrison Ford was my First Love- I was twelve and obsessed with Indy and Han). In high school I started to beg my mom for books to read and she introduced me to Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. She gave me the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael. She also gave me Andre Norton books, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. It’s funny how many of these authors and genres are still staples in my reading habits all these years later.
Andre Norton’s were the first SF I read that wasn’t in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They were fast-paced and well-constructed, but too short. And there was hardly ever any romance. (I liked her Witch World books much better). My Star Wars obsession continued, but I quickly learned the Expanded Universe was not to my taste, especially books featuring my beloved three (Han, Luke and Leia). I just did not want to read about an over the hill Han Solo or my dear Chewie dying. Thanks but no thanks; I’m a fan of letting people have their happy ending, and not undoing what’s already been resolved.
It wasn’t until I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold last year that my love for SF literature was rekindled. I devoured Bujold’s entire backlist (yes, all of it) in under six months (I could have done it quicker than that but my local library took so long to order the books for me!). I fell hard for all her work, but the Vorkosiverse knocked me head over ears. Aral! Miles! Oh, that idiot Ivan! This was the first thing that started my craving for more SF books.
Another factor was I recently completed my latest manuscript, and sent it into the Void to agents and publishers. Now, without a writerly occupation, I turned my mind towards my next magnum opus and lo, the plot jockeying for attention at the front of the queue was a SF Romance. So, like the good little aspiring author I am, I began to increase my knowledge of this particular genre by reading all the SFR I could get my hands on.
Much to my dismay, so far, a lot of what I was reading was SO damn depressing! Dying worlds. Starving people. Supporting characters dying literally every chapter. Heroines being beaten and sexually assaulted. On and on, all the same. I read one SFR after another after another that were so bleak and depressing, so violent and sickening, that I just had to take a break and cleanse my palate with a shot of contemporary category goodness (Take On Me by Sarah Mayberry- cute and fun, just what I needed).
This week I dutifully dove back into what I was now considering my homework. And yet again, the book was just miserable. The first chapter begins with half the heroine’s town being blown into pieces small enough to fit in a boot. She and her family are starving; the whole world’s dying… This book did not, unsurprisingly, ever get brighter from there. The hero was molested as a young adult, and about halfway into the book the heroine gets hella-raped for a week- with a knife.
At which point I skimmed the rest of that book.
When I put that book down, I stopped and tried to parse what in particular were my overarching problems with all these books. Why, on the most basic levels, did these books fail to appeal? I also paused to consider what it was about all my favorite SF stories that made them so wonderful to me.
I now believe I’ve discovered the three essential elements to an excellent SF story (at least for me):
1. You must have an interesting world readers will want to inhabit.
This should be a given since so much of SF is about the world-building, and yet in my reading I felt many authors neglected the second part of that phrase. Readers have to want to go there. So much of the SF I read was set on barren worlds, with people scrounging to live. Worlds ruled by sadists out for their own good. These are not places I want to live, and they’re not places I ever want to visit. As I read these barren landscape books I couldn’t help but remember my childhood when, as a Star Wars fanatic, I used to lay awake all night and wish I would magically be transported to Tattooine…
That’s right: Tattooine, the bleakest, more barren desert waste in the Star Wars universe. But remember: Tattooine had the Mos Eisley cantina, and Jawas, and Jabba’s palace. Adventure. Excitement. (And I’m not a Jedi so I can bloody well crave those things if I want!) And when I was done with that world there was a spaceport to get me into the rest of the magical universe. The original Star Wars universe, even at its most barren and bleak, is still somewhere people want to revisit over and over again.
Jaran by Kate Elliott is another excellent example of this. Her world-building in Jaran is fantastic! The culture of the jaran is so well thought-out and deeply layered. Not only that the jaran people, so warm and welcoming, woo the reader even as they woo the heroine Tess. The women are feisty and fun, the men passionate yet engagingly diffident. I don’t think I’m the first reader who wished she too could be adopted by the jaran.
This leads me into my second point:
2. Your characters must be engaging.
Another given it would seem, and yet many of the books I read the heroes were broody and distant (and not in the sexy way), and the heroines were either flighty and self-conscious or cast-iron bitches. They made me long for a nice dose of Miles Vorkosigan’s hyperactive cleverness, or even his cousin Ivan’s studied doltishness. I think a lot of these books could have done with some good-old fashioned charm. I mean, would Star Wars have done half so well without Han’s rakish charm? Would the Liaden books be half so fun if Shan was a quiet, introspective type, all somber and broody-like? No!
Give me a good bit of banter and some light-hearted laughs over that broody oh-woe-is-me crap any day. I think this issue arises in part because there is such heavy emphasis on the world-building in SF. Conflicts tend to be on a global, even galaxy-wide, scale and it’s easy to lose the individual characters in the shuffle. But, really, how am I supposed to care about the fate of your universe if I don’t care about the people who inhabit that universe?
And this leads me into my third point, which so conveniently ties back to the quote at the top:
3. Your book must have some sense of hope.
As I read all these bleak, desperate, doom and gloom books I couldn’t help but compare them to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work. Now, Bujold is not someone who pulls her punches. She puts her characters through Hell. Her books go to some really dark places, and yet they never take themselves too seriously. There’s always the feeling of This Too Shall Pass. Even in the midst of despair her characters don’t muck around and feel sorry for themselves. They joke, they fight, they carry on to get back to the good place.
So, that’s what I got.