The Critics’ Corner
How Did We Get There From Here?
by Bill Bowler, Gary Inbinder and Don Webb
Bewildering Stories’ editors have a double mission: to represent the readers to the authors and, in doing so, to help the authors present their stories as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Both authors and editors have to keep in mind that readers expect to know what game the authors are playing and what its rules are. Very often, a lot of thought is needed to determine what the “rules of the game” are and how they can be communicated efficiently to the readers.
A case in point: We recently received a submission that was basically a one-act play in short-story form. It was written concisely and, all told, quite well: the drama was effective and the characters sympathetic. However, the plot implied what we often call a “larger story,” and it was essential to the action.
The story, set in the not too distant future, went, in brief: a parent brings a child to a clinic for treatment. The child is diagnosed as having an incurable disease. The parent and clinic staff are distraught, because the government legally exterminates everyone with such an affliction. Nothing can be done, and everyone is grief-stricken.
I had a few questions, the most important of which were:
- How did the government define an “incurable” illness?
- How could the country come to such a pass that it would exterminate people suffering from illnesses that are, though incurable, nonetheless treatable? All else seems to pale against a moral, social and political catastrophe of such magnitude.
[Gary Inbinder] I think the writer would benefit from reading Dickens, e.g. Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol to see how Dickens used fiction to criticize and argue against the British “Poor Laws” and the workhouse system of his time.
Dickens also criticized the Utilitarians and Malthus’ theory of population echoed in Scrooge’s comments about “decreasing the surplus population.” Why should Scrooge be charitable, when his taxes support prisons and workhouses? Answering that question is the main theme of A Christmas Carol.
After taking a look at the past, the writer should then carefully examine some real issues of our time, perhaps the issue of “the right to die” and euthanasia, and then extrapolate to see how this might develop into something pretty awful in the near future, e.g. the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. Then pose a question (why or why not) similar to that which Dickens posed in A Christmas Carol and provide an answer.
The writer could also benefit from viewing the Japanese film The Ballad of Narayama, which deals with issues like overpopulation and the elimination of people who are “not fit to live” in the context of an isolated mid-nineteenth century Japanese village.
[Don Webb] One might also cite historical precedents, especially the Spartans’ practice of infanticide.
In sum, then, authors need to be aware of the “larger stories” that may be implicit in short fiction.
In some cases, the historical implications can be glossed over in order to concentrate on the story’s immediate objectives. For example, no science fiction novel or short story need reiterate a real or imagined history of space flight. Likewise, time-travel stories can deal summarily with the mechanics of time travel, because no one knows how to build a time machine anyway.
When it comes to social changes, though, it’s often wise to orient present-day readers by answering the question “How did we get there from here?”
For example, Robert A. Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 postulates an improbably well-armed resistance overthrowing much too easily a faceless theocratic dictatorship. The novel is a crushing disappointment: Heinlein’s combat science fiction is trivial compared to the “larger story”: How did the theocracy emerge, how did it come to power, and what kind of society does it rule?
To be fair to Heinlein, he did a creditable job with the themes of social and economic change in his little-known novel Beyond This Horizon. Though poorly constructed, the novel remains one of his very best.
[Bill Bowler] The problem of needing to fill in the “larger story” arises when an author uses realistic contemporary details. If the author wishes to criticize specifically how victims of a particular disease are specifically treated in the U.S., then those details are necessary.
But if the real point is the more basic theme — society’s reaction to incurable illness — then it can readily be depicted in more universal terms.
For example, the story could be made “bewildering.” It could be set in the year 2500 in an Earth colony on the moon Amalthea. The incurable, contagious disease could be the deadly “Jupiter fever.” A draconian law could have recently been declared by fiat of the Supreme Commander of United Earth.
Under such a — let’s call it poetic — veneer, technical or historical questions about transmission of a real disease or U.S. laws become moot.
The theme is boiled down to its essence, transformed into metaphor, and conveyed in its entirety with the reader wondering, not “How did we get there from here?” but rather “How can such injustice prevail?”
That being said, historical precedents (Sparta, Nazi Germany) can still play a role in the story, but in metaphor, their inclusion becomes more an option than a requirement.
More importantly, Don’s philosophical question — “How could it come to pass that a society would exterminate people suffering from illnesses?” — does not go away when the story is transformed to metaphor. The question remains pressing, and some hint in the story about the possible answer would still be welcome.
Copyright © 2007 by Bewildering Stories