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On-ramps to various weird freeways - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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On-ramps to various weird freeways [Jun. 23rd, 2016|10:25 am]
Marissa Lingen
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So there was a Fourth Street panel where Max Gladstone wanted to talk about on-ramps to the weird: what accessibility we provide readers to works with a sense of alienation and dislocation, how we allow them to navigate works of science fiction and fantasy either without feeling uncomfortable or despite that discomfort, and what tools we can get from other genres in their on ramps–genres like magic realism and surrealism. (I’m paraphrasing Max, and he should feel free to correct me if that’s not what he was talking about.) But that wasn’t the direction of the panel he was on–it was another panel but not this year’s That’s Another Panel–and then Max had to get to his next thing Sunday afternoon, and by the time Readercon rolls around, the thoughts I had early Sunday morning will be stale. Nor am I sure they’ll fit on Twitter without a blog post link to point to first. So here we go: this is your blog post link.


First of all, I think that different works of science fiction and fantasy are doing different kinds and levels of sense of dislocation and the weird. The name that gets canonically brought up in terms of “entry level” science fiction these days, someone who “provides on ramps” to science fiction, is John Scalzi. I think that in a conversation about sense of dislocation and the weird, this is more or less a complete red herring, but worth tackling first for demonstration. Most of what Scalzi has done in most of his books–I haven’t read all of them–is not all that weird. Nor is it trying to be, nor should it be trying to be–I want to emphasize that sense of dislocation, sense of the weird, is not an unmitigated virtue, is not being defined as the science fictional or fantastic thing to do, and therefore I am saying that John or his work should be deprecated for not doing it. Everybody should write the level of weirdness, alienation, dislocation, that their work demands, that they are interested in writing. John is given credit for not being highly referential, but this is blatantly false; John’s works are constantly referential. But they’re contemporary references. So the people who are frustrated by the feeling that they have to have participated in a hundred years of science fiction genre in order to understand a science fiction novel will not have that obstacle. That is one on-ramp he provides. Another he provides is almost more a staircase, because it provides access for some and not for others: it is exactly those contemporary references and style. When you have a scene of dialog with complaints about the monotony of a cafeteria menu, in exactly not only the type of complaints but the type of specific menu items that would come up for an American slightly older than me–an American John Scalzi’s age–there is a large audience for whom that is a very comforting access point. Look! It says. Things here in the future are not so weird. There may be galactic spaceships or green rejuvenated people or whatever space thing we are doing in this book. But people are still just the same. We go to our jobs and do them, we gripe about the food, we get on with it. So that sense of interpersonal familiarity is heightened with the utterly contemporary grounding. Our pop culture figures are name-checked, our relationships are reinforced. So while John gets people to buy and read science fiction–and in that sense may get people comfortable with the idea that science fiction in general is not too unbearably weird for them–what he’s not doing is getting them comfortable with a massive dislocation that is written to feel utterly unlike everything they’ve ever known. Nor does he need to want to do that. It just means that his toolbox is not all that useful for the people who do want to do that.


So. Other genres of the weird. In the course of the brief discussion during the panel, we mentioned surrealism and magic realism. I think one of the biggest on-ramps surrealism has is metatextual. People who pick up a work of surrealism have buy-in that the experience is going to be weird and dislocating before they ever get started. This is what they’ve signed on for. For all that SFF likes weird sometimes, SFF also likes adventure and speculation and many other things; alienation, dislocation, and sense of utter weirdness is not the only thing or even the main thing that a person picking up a work of science fiction and fantasy can be signing on for. So in some sense this is like asking, “How does porn get people to want to be aroused?” There is some of everybody in the world; surely there are people who watch porn for reasons other than to be aroused and then find themselves aroused anyway. But arousal is the thing it says on the tin. That is what you are buying if you buy porn. (“Buy” in the most general sense.) And the sense of dislocation, alienation, and the weird is what you are buying if you buy surrealism; the disappointing surrealism is the stuff that doesn’t deliver it. Much of the other weird avant garde that is not specifically surrealism–much of modern and post-modern art–is the same way: you go in knowing you want some of that, and if you take someone to a museum who doesn’t already want some of that, it’s not necessarily great at prompting them to start unless they just have a lightbulb moment. Much like many of us got to the weird in speculative fiction.


Which is great. (I mean, it’s terrible. Very little worse than mundane surrealism, ask me how I know. But it’s good to know.) But not very helpful in getting science fiction and fantasy writers more tools for the persuasive/converting toolbox.


An interesting counterexample to this is Banksy. Their work is not in museums; their audience is not very self-selected compared to most contemporary artists. I think that there are three key accessibility points there: literal physical accesssibility. Banksy stuff will be on the street where you will see it, and you will either like it or not, but you are not asked to go out of your way to get to this art that you may or may not like; the energy cost is low. Banksy’s stuff is “short” for time investment. You look, you take it in. And in fact I have seen more publication of dislocational, deeply weird fiction in short speculative fiction than in novels. And Banksy’s stuff is at least sometimes funny. Humor is a great access point if you can pull it off. If your humor is three levels of abstruse and obscure…that’s great, honestly, I love that kind of humor. But it’s important to realize that “I’ll make this really bizarre thing funny” does not automatically get you a larger audience. (Worth doing, though, because it entertains the crap out of me, and that’s what’s really important here, right? Of course. Okay.)


So the other genre we were going to talk about was magic realism. And I think one of the major tools magic realism has is sensuality. Sensuality of image and sensuality of prose. I think that most science fiction and fantasy writers know that sensory input is important at some level for almost all readers. Young writers will get advice like, “No one will care if you calculated the warp core mass exactly correctly if they can feel the spaceship controls under their hands.” But do we do it? When is the last time you could really feel the spaceship controls under your hands? Of course there are books like Dandelion Wine and the works of Cat Valente that focus on the sensual, but in general I think the speculative genres tend to shy away from it. Magic realism, on the other hand, wallows in sensuality. Why on earth is there a rain of roses in this scene? That is totally bizarre, what is going on here? Wait–do you care quite as much what’s going on here? You can practically taste the heavy, choking scent of roses in your nostrils. You can feel what the petals would be like on your skin, on your lips. Whether or not you know what they’re there for, those are some real roses, and for many readers, that pulls them along into the next piece of the book–or at the very least keeps them anchored in this one.


(For some readers, yes, you really do care. Some people bounce off magic realism because of the balance of sensuality and explanation. But if speculative writers are borrowing tools from other people’s toolbox, they can try to have both.)


And that made me think about paranormal romance. For my money, the entry point of most romance genres is sensory writing, not love or relationships or even sex. There may be stereotypes that romance novels have someone gasping, “Oh, Perceval!” on page one, but in the vast majority of romance novels, you have to wait some time to get to the sex. If sex was the on-ramp, you would have exited, parked your readerly car, and wandered off into a field of daisies. Something else has to be the on-ramp, and because I am a highly non-visual person, it looks really obvious to me that highly visual writing is one of the things it is. So: sensory writing, but focused on one sense in particular in most cases. Highly effective for a large number of readers.


Now. Does this mean I’m saying everyone should do more of this? No. I’m saying it’s one set of on-ramps, one set of access points, I have noticed, and particularly if you’re trying to do something deeply weird, deeply dislocational, and are trying to expand your audience for it, it’s a thing to think about. Adventure is a really traditional access point for both science fiction and fantasy. You can sort hard SF writers into which ones really really want to write about explosions and feel obligated to have some kind of science to dress it up and which ones really really want to write about science and feel obliged to have some kind of explosions to dress it up. Especially late in their careers, when one or the other goes out the window. But similar categorizations are more broadly true for other kinds of ideas and other kinds of action/adventure.


And I bet there are more access points I’m missing. And I’d love to talk more about them. Here or there or on Twitter. Even if you think I’m wrong. Especially if you think I’m wrong. There’s more to say here, too, about exoticism and escapism and phantasmagoria of ideas vs. senses–I know, because I’ve been having some of that conversation on email already–but honestly this is long enough and I need to hit post at some point and actually, y’know, start talking. And simultaneously get back to the story I’m writing.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2016-06-23 05:40 pm (UTC)
I tend not to like high degrees of weirdness and dislocation, so my thoughts here are automatically a bit suspect on account of being uninformed. But I will speculate that character can be used as another on-ramp: establish them vividly, get the reader to care about them, and then you can throw all manner of weird crap at the protagonist and the audience will experience it the way the character does (whatever that might be) instead of the way they would have when viewing it primarily through their own lens. (I know I will put up with a great many things, weirdness being only one of them, if I care enough and empathize enough with the main character.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-23 06:54 pm (UTC)
In some ways I think being a reluctant reader of the highly weird makes you a better data point here than someone who was speculating without information because they found the highly weird appealing for its own sake.
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[User Picture]From: rysmiel
2016-06-23 08:50 pm (UTC)
Yah, many shapes of highly weird just make me sit up and squee in ways that either limit my audience or make this an active problem for me when it comes to my own work.

Edited at 2016-06-23 08:51 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2016-06-23 11:42 pm (UTC)
Amanda Downum's latest (Dreams of Shreds and Tatters) did this quite effectively for me.
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[User Picture]From: lydy
2016-06-23 10:23 pm (UTC)
I think that there can also be a thing I'm going to call "the pace of in-clueing", which probably has a much more formal name. The way in which the weirdness of the the world is unfolded. Sometimes, it's almost like a murder mystery, with clues to what's really going on scattered about carefully. Patrick theorized once that the reason that J.K. Rowling was so popular was because her patterns of in-clueing introduced naive readers to fantasy tropes in a very accessible way. You can also do a thing with a pattern of explainable and unexplainable that creates a numinous shape. I think. Using the extrapolotory elements of the world to support the inexplicable bits. Also, possibly, vice-versa.

Edited at 2016-06-23 10:24 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-23 10:31 pm (UTC)
So Rowling has a classic structure--you see it in Bellamy in Looking Backward, you see it in Swift--where you have the naive character who needs the weird stuff explained. And again, I think the level of weird/sense of dislocation she's aiming for is fairly low, because there is explanation. The things that are inexplicable in Rowling are mostly poorly thought out (Quidditch, seriously, this scoring) rather than gonzo or deeply numinous.

But again: this is okay. Because one, not everybody has to want to do something borderline surreal, deep weird, etc. And two, sometimes having enjoyed one thing that is clearly fantasy, clearly SF, etc. can itself induce comfort with other, weirder works.

I'm not sure how well the naive character who needs explanations works when explanations are incomplete or not forthcoming. Possibly quite well. I don't mean "I think it doesn't work well," I really do mean I'm not sure. But it's certainly worth thinking about, and in the circumstances where you do have those explanations, it's a very useful tool in the toolbox.
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[User Picture]From: lydy
2016-06-23 11:06 pm (UTC)
I was thinking, in part, of doing a mirror image of Rowling. One possible ramp is to have a character who is completely comfortable with the weird bits and needs no explanation, and pace the way in which they encounter the odd bits to reveal what you wish to be seen. I was wondering about juxtaposing weird bit with extrapolatory bits, and creating kind of a "persistence of vision" effect. One where the reader can see how the world got that particular bit, because the connections are clear, and using that ah-ha moment to pull them a little farther into the weird bit. A lot of readers, myself included, love those ah-ha moments, where a thing we know is recontextualized, or the implications of a current trend are explored, and I think that you can use that to pull people out of their comfort zone.

Edited at 2016-06-23 11:07 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-23 11:37 pm (UTC)
So the character's comfort with weirdness is sort of a means of heating the pot of water before the frogs notice? (Note: do not try with actual frogs. Actual frogs do not seem much interested in weird fiction.)

Edited at 2016-06-23 11:38 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2016-06-23 11:40 pm (UTC)
One of the on-ramps I have found very useful both as a reader and as a writer is to have something that looks on the surface as though it is something the reader is familiar with, or can at least pick up from context, and then have it be completely different when it is zoomed in on and the details matter. I have a work in progress, for instance, in which they don't have the word 'house' and what they use instead is the word 'marriage', which they kiiiiiiind of also mean the way we mean it but not quite; you are either a child of a marriage or married and living in a marriage. This particular disjunct is not going to be made clear for about the first third of the book, while people do talk about their marriages, and the work they need to do on their marriages, and someone is thinking about marrying in over there, and this person is going to go through their coming-of-age soon and decide where to get married, and such-and-such a marriage is so many generations old that maybe it's time we should stop continuing it and set up something new. And all of that talk is going to sound familiar to the reader, or at least like poly setups that have appeared in other books, until it becomes clear that no, this literally means house, the physical structure of a house is what is being referred to by this word (and this will become clear because there is a marriage lived in by only one person). Which should, if I do it right, provide a moment of conceptual vertigo that causes the reader to reframe an entire aspect of the book. But that won't have been something the reader needs to wrap their head around right away; the pace of revelation of just how different this culture is remains pretty constant throughout the book, so you don't have to do absolutely all the acclimating straight off.

And I'm amused that you wound up using 'rain of roses' as an example, because there's an Elizabeth Hand novel in which the Rain of Roses is a historical event, that people refer to, and you get about three-quarters of the way through the book before anyone gets around to explaining that there is a metaphor involved. That's the reverse of the technique I just mentioned, actually, where something sounds weirder than it turns out to be when you poke into it. And that can also be worth doing, because it gives the reader a bit of a break, as well as reframing an aspect of the book in a way that suddenly makes more sense rather than less.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-23 11:45 pm (UTC)
I dislike that kind of break from the weird back to more normalcy in general. I dislike it when things are not as weird as they sound. Even in actual history. I want the Rain of Roses to be a Fortean-style event, not a bloody metaphor.

But I think it's crucial that the staircase metaphor I used for Scalzi's contemporary-style dialogs about the cafeteria food could in fact be applied to pretty much anything. Pretty much all of these provide access to some but not all.

I am interested in your book's house/marriage thing, though. I am in for that. So the "oh, this is just a different usage wait no" thing sometimes works just fine for me.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2016-06-24 01:49 am (UTC)
Agreed that I would much prefer things to be at least as weird as they sound. I am all for things being weirder than they sound, but less weird is right out.

I think one reason Scalzi is so popular is that his work provides on-ramps to multiple sets of people: if you don't read SF at all, you get things like that cafeteria conversation, and if you are a person who grew up on Golden Age old-time SF like Heinlein and Asimov but didn't follow the New Wave-- and there's a surprisingly large number of those; my father was one-- Scalzi is an introduction to modern SF content and themes, to the current discourse, while still using narrative strategies and tropes that you recognize. I think that's one reason the Puppies hate Scalzi so, that he writes the kind of stuff they claim that they like while having the politics they don't. They'd much prefer their opponents be abstruse post-modernists you need a degree to understand, and they'll outright lie to insist that they are (about Ann Leckie, frex).

It's kind of amazing how little distinction there turns out to be between the concepts of 'house' and 'marriage' in a small farming-village setting when you remove patriarchal ideas of inheritance and monogamy-only ideas of sexual propriety. Like, one reason I'm doing it this way is that it took me a long time to find any.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-24 02:02 am (UTC)
That lie about Ann Leckie is so baffling. It only works if you don't actually read Ann Leckie. Which I suppose is still quite a lot of working, since there's so much to read in the world that "I heard it wasn't worth reading for the following reasons" has to be enough for a great many people.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-23 11:47 pm (UTC)
But critically: I think that you're saying that Hand referred to rather than describing the Rain of Roses. I could tolerate that. If she described someone being caught in it, struggling to breathe for the perfume of the roses--and then she said, wait, no, it was all a metaphor, really that didn't literally happen--I would find that unforgivable. I think that would be "I will never read you again" level of offense.

Which Elizabeth Hand has already come pretty close to with her "psych meds make you less creative" bullshit. But that's a political point, not an aesthetic one.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2016-06-24 01:40 am (UTC)
Yeah, she refers to the Rain of Roses as a historical event and we get the far-reaching consequences of it, but we don't get an actual description of what physically happened until very late in the book, and finding out it's a metaphor doesn't contradict any of the previous information. It's also a metaphor solidly based in the physicality of what happened-- it was a biological warfare strafing, and in order to make it less clear what they were doing, the terrorists who dropped the viral dust scented it very heavily with rose, and the artificial scent was long-lasting enough that it lingers in the contaminated patches of ground. So throughout the book the scent of roses is frightening, and the concept of roses is frightening (because, as it turns out, they mask danger), and you can threaten people with literal actual roses, but that all turns out to make sense. Until you find out that it's a metaphor, though, the whole thing is honestly pretty confusing. I liked that it did all turn out to fit together, that there was an explanation for all of these pieces, and it even made sense that the main character would not have gotten around to talking about what it actually is in conversation for most of the book, because after all everyone in that culture knows. But I think I would have worked in the revelation earlier, because by the time the metaphor is made plain you've spent so long thinking of the Rain of Roses as a literal thing that changing that really IMO hurts the book's tone. De-weirding in the bad way.

If I hadn't already been reading Elizabeth Hand for fifteen years, so that she was formative for me, I might well have stopped when the 'psych meds make you less creative' thing happened; as it is, I was pretty seriously offended but was like 'I will call this out repeatedly on the internet and hopefully enough people will do that that she never does it again'. So far so good, but damn, I hope she never does do it again.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-24 01:43 am (UTC)
Oh yeah, that sounds like the sort of thing that could have been really cool if it was clear early on, but if I waited most of a book to find it out, I would feel much worse about the de-weirding. What a shame.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2016-06-24 07:47 am (UTC)
Haven't read that book, but agreed that it sounds like if it were just explained earlier, that would be totally awesome.

(Me, I was imagining the Rain of Roses was something like a bunch of Yorks and Lancastrians being defenestrated. And now I'm fighting the urge to put that in a story.)
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2016-06-27 12:10 am (UTC)
A structural thing that serves... partly as an on-ramp for me and partly as a guiderail that keeps me engaged is something I vaguely think of as the structural use of totemic objects and actions. Sometimes a story or series will establish a very concrete object or action (drinking tea / wine, writing in a journal at a certain desk, entering a certain room) early on, and then play on that action with variations to highlight bits of the plot or key character pivots. I do not know why this works so well for me but it gets me to the deepest part of my brain.

It's like solving a puzzle game - completely addictive reward for my brain. Once one is well hooked in, I'll read easily 15,000 words of story where not much else is happening to eagerly find out how the totemic object/action will appear in its next variation.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-06-27 12:38 am (UTC)
That's interesting. I wonder how many people it works for, and for what percentage it works consciously.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-07-11 05:14 pm (UTC)
And then I was never in the same place with you and Max at the same time, ack! Well, that's what the internet is for.
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