Now I’m delighted to host a Q&A with him about We Can Be Heroes, his other work, and writing in general. He’s a genuinely smart and insightful guy, so it was a real pleasure to explore his thought process. This is part 1; part 2 will go up tomorrow.
1. We’ve already discussed your background in the introductory piece for these questions, so we’re getting right to the questions. What place do you feel technology has in fantasy? Does it fill a need, or is it window dressing for the story? And how far can technology impinge on the story before the fantasy slips into another genre altogether?
SFG: Though I love both fantasy and SF equally, I’ve honestly always had a bit of antipathy toward futuristic or modern technology intruding into fantasy narrative. I think “science fantasy” as a subgenre unto itself is all right because it usually knowingly identifies itself as occupying that place in between the genres, most obviously in works like Burrough’s John Carter books or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. But even in the New Sun books and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, I get to a place as a reader where I feel like the author is using the marriage of fantasy and tech as a kind of cheat — because when tech intrudes into fantasy, it usually does so with melodramatic intent.
The textbook definition of melodrama from a writer’s perspective is “unearned emotion” — the idea of weaving elements into a story that tug at the reader’s heartstrings far in excess of any honest emotion the story is generating. This is things like your helpless child character in artificial jeopardy, laying on angst-filled backstory that has nothing to do with the story at hand, the way that every disaster movie in the ’70s managed to have a cute little freaking dog in it who needed to be rescued, et al. In the case of tech in fantasy, the oft-used cheat comes from using tech as a means of letting the reader feel superior to the characters. While they’re running around going, “What are these mysterious artifacts and how can we use them to save our world?”, the reader gets to go “Nyahh! I know what that is, stupid fictional people!” Likewise the whole “dying earth” idea carries a potentially huge melodramatic wallop, simply because the context of post-apocalyptica can’t help but tear at a reader engaging in a story that shows the destruction of his or her own life, culture, people, and world.
Having said all that, however… Every once in a while a fantasy novel comes along that totally knocks me on my ass and completely negates my curmudgeonly demeanor — because that novel incorporates the threads of technology into the weave of fantasy in a way that makes the fantasy even stronger, rather than cheapening it through melodramatic tricks. Though plenty of fantasy-with-tech books do this, the two most recent such that I would point people toward are the Oathbreaker series — Book One: The Knight’s Tale; Book Two: The Magus’s Tale. (I can’t remember the name of the writer offhand; I’m sure people can look it up.)
2 and 3. But then again, one might argue that the post-apocalyptic setting allows us to explore what it truly means to be human, in a way that’s unbounded by traditional rules. You might even say that it’s an escape from what we perceive as the rigid boundaries of today’s world, and… wait a second, we’re totally justifying escapism here. But then again, isn’t all fiction escapism of one sort of another? Even Lifetime television is escapism. So this is really questions 2 and 3 here, with the third question being: how does an author earn emotion?
SFG: I don’t know this “Lifetime television” of which you speak, but you’re definitely right in terms of talking about the potential of the post-apocalyptic setting (emphasis mine). The baseline of all great fiction is the connection that an author creates between the world of the story and the worldview of the reader, and all writers look for the points of emotional resonance that define that connection. All fiction is escapism, sure, but mainstream and historical fiction have an arguably easier time creating connections with the reader’s worldview within that escapist experience. Even novels that explore history or culture far removed from a reader’s experience are still grounded in the reality of what it means to be human. But very often in the most escapist of fantasy and SF fiction, the writer can lose sight of that sense of groundedness, creating fiction that’s wonderfully imaginative but ultimately empty. It’s easy enough to create a fantasy world that will inspire a reader to say, “I’m entertained by what’s happening to the characters in this world.” It’s another thing to create a world that will make a reader say, “I understand what it feels like to be the characters in this world,” but to my mind, that’s that fantasy should always be shooting for.
As to how to earn emotion, I think that’s really the definitive question at the heart of fiction. There are any number of different types of stories, different genres, different writing styles — but for me, a good story always lays down a kind of emotional map for the reader to follow. And touching back to the point above, I think the specific challenge in that regard for fantasy and speculative fiction is that those genres are inherently defined by the creation of unreal worlds, and the wilder we make our worlds, the easier it is to lose the connection to the reader. All fantasy needs threads of empathy and human experience to hook the reader in, and there’s no question that using technology as a fantasy touchstone (particularly in a post-apocalyptic context) can be a most useful and dynamic hook. I just think that there’s a risk of that particular story element diminishing the connection to the world by making that connection too easily. Done badly, post-apocalyptica can actually downplay the humanity of a story by becoming trite — specifically, the stories that implicitly say, “You know this fantasy world you’re reading? Well, bwah-ha! It’s actually your world and I’ve destroyed it and everything you used to love! And now for my next dramatic trick…”
4. So do you regard setting in fiction largely as secondary to the other considerations–plot, character, action, and so forth–or do you think it can play an important role in defining how all of those pieces come together?
SFG: No, I definitely think setting can be all-important, especially in fantasy. I just think that in a significant amount of fantasy, the world-building can inadvertently push the other necessary foundations of a great novel to the side. And this isn’t a necessarily a comment on the quality of the writing, because there are plenty of good fantasy and science-fiction novels (particularly the stories of the golden age of SF) that are more focused on their worlds than their characters. But to my mind, the books that consistently cross the threshold between good and great are those that use the imaginative perfection of their settings to support strong plot and character story, rather than using setting as a substitute for the other narrative elements important to a novel.
The most iconic example one can probably talk about in this kind of discussion is Lord of the Rings, a work that rightly and deservedly defines contemporary epic and heroic fantasy on just about every level. Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite books of all time, and I’ve honestly lost track of the number of times I’ve read it. But I have no problems with the many fantasy fans who admit that they’ve never really been able to get into Tolkien’s opus, because though I think Lord of the Rings is a monumental and amazing book, I’m happy to admit that it’s actually not a great novel. Looked at objectively, Lord of the Rings fails to deliver a lot of the character- and plot-based touchstones that a great novel should deliver, because its narrative is more broadly focused on world, mythology, and history than on character story.
Now, in the singular case of Tolkien, that world, mythology, and history is rendered so perfectly that it creates an emotional resonance that eclipses any shortcomings in the character story (for me, anyway). But for the rest of us merely mortal authors, creating compelling fantasy is a tighter balancing act between our world-building and the more traditional tropes of narrative fiction. I certainly don’t think it’s the case that most writers sit down and say, “I’m the equal of Tolkien and my world is amazing, so I’m going to focus on that world in my fiction more than on character, plot, theme, and all that other crap.” But as fantasists, we can sometimes love our fictional worlds so much that we let that love blind us to the other equally important aspects of the narrative.
5. Well, let’s contrast fantasy world-building with something you have recent experience in doing. In your recent (and truly excellent!) novel, We Can Be Heroes, your setting is the modern day in our world. I’d suggest that it’s actually harder to write a story set in our world because you need to make sure all the details are right–or at least right enough that you won’t get called out in a way that exposes the underpinnings of the story. When you’re building a fantasy world, there’s no one else there to tell you it’s wrong unless they’ve been involved in your world for a long time. How do you navigate a recognizable world in your fiction?
SFG: First, thank you, very kind, et al. Second, I think you’re right about it being generally easier to write fantasy than “real-world fiction,” but there are some universals to the process of world-building. In my own experience, building up the world of a story comprises two distinct mechanics — the details (the actual concrete terms of the world) and the rules (the dramatic glue that holds the details together). Now, on the detail side of things, a writer working in the real world might seem to have an obvious advantage, because he or she just has to look around to populate the imagination and the narrative with those details. However, even writers working in the “real world” impose a layer of fictional reality over top of their details, in kind of the opposite way that fantasy writers often built their fictional details on the bones and blueprints of the real world.
As a case in point, the first half of We Can Be Heroes takes place in a fictionalized version of the small Western Canadian town in which I grew up (Whassup 100 Mile!), in which the town as it exists now has been overlaid with details of the town as it was when I was living there. You could go walk the halls of my old high school having read the book, and you’d be able to see where the various bits of the story take place because all of the details are real — but none of them are “right” in the sense you phrase it in the question, because all of them have been filtered through the fictional perspective of the story.
By the same token, the second half of We Can Be Heroes takes place in Vancouver, and the details of the city as the story makes use of them are, in fact, highly accurate. But the thing is, that accuracy only matters to a person who knows Vancouver, and who’s going to be potentially knocked out of the story by verisimilitude issues along the lines of: “Hey, I know that neighborhood, and that particular bit of setting you describe is actually two blocks over!” The kind of accuracy that matters on a more important level is what I’d call “impression accuracy.” If you as the reader don’t know Vancouver, the details can’t possibly matter — and so what’s important is that it feels real. That to me is where the rules of the world come in, to hold the details together. In the case of this book, that means hitting the visual and social touchstones that will allow my description and my sense of Vancouver to fit the feel of the place that you’ve gotten from having watched the 2010 Winter Olympics, or knowing that the X-Men movies were shot there, or what have you. It means picking and choosing the details of past and present in a small Western Canadian town that you’re probably never going to visit, then gluing them together with the experience of having lived in that small town. The details of the world define how the world looks; the rules of the world define how it feels, is probably the best way to put it.