Thursday, May 5, 2011

Please Stand By

Even the cover looks sad.
I just finished what is, quite possibly, the most depressing book I've ever read: The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch, who is perhaps best known for writing The Brave Little Toaster, a basic-cable staple of my childhood. Breaking my own silly rules, here is a capsule description of the plot: The Earth has been seeded with huge, fast-growing Plants by unseen aliens, and the last vestiges of humanity are hunted down and roasted to a crisp by robotic "insecticides." A lone gang of rural farmers who range from being truly horrible people to being only somewhat horrible people hold out for as long as they can against the encroaching monoculture, finally digging down into the Plants' root system for the winter. At the end, only five humans are left alive, and while a less misanthropic writer might have shot for an Adam and Eve style redemption, there is no redemption here. The Genocides should probably come with a tiny carton of Prozac stapled to the back cover. Or at least a picture of a cat riding an invisible bicycle, that one always cheers me up.

This ending got me to thinking how, according to TV Tropes (and no, I won't link to it, that site has been Leechblocked for months now), there are two basic ways to end a science fiction story: Twilight Zone endings, and Outer Limits endings. Twilight Zone endings are known for their twists, which usually tie up the plot with a neat little bow, and maybe teach the audience a little something too. Some jerk gets what's coming to them, some nice but hapless person gets a reward, and it's very easy to guess the ending after probably five minutes. The Outer Limits is also known for twists, but these twists are always negative, and the protagonist's alignment doesn't matter a damn. It's also easy to guess an Outer Limits ending, but instead of thinking of the quirky way that everything will come together, you just have to imagine the worst way the story will end, and even then you might be surprised at how much of a downer it is. (This is especially true of the 1990s reboot; either the Earth or humanity was destroyed at least twice a season!)

It will surprise nobody who has read my few published stories that I am an Outer Limits kind of writer, through and through. I very much enjoy punishing characters who both do and don't deserve punishment, in cruel and unusual ways. In fact, I think that one of the reasons I gravitate toward writing SF instead of "mundane" fiction is precisely because you can do this type of thing more easily in SF. Non-speculative fiction is limited by unimportant details like "how people actually act" or "what this real place actually looks like in reality." I am pretty impressed by non-SF writers who manage to wow me with the depths of their message and world-building (even if you're working in a real world context, you are still building a world for readers), because to me it's like writing with one hand tied behind my back and also I'm tired.

You head it here first, people: writing science fiction is way easier than writing "regular" fiction. (Well, once you get that pesky "science" stuff out of the way, because that's constraining, too.) And part of that comes in the fact that you don't have to be at all subtle about the ways your characters get punished, or the trials they go through. In a non-SF novel, putting your characters through hell and back for little or no reason is melodrama; in science fiction it's well, that's the way it is. Even The Genocides, bleak as it was, is not melodrama. Also, because I live in the land of hypotheticals (linking to one's own blog inside one's own blog twice = recipe for success?), it's very easy for me to think "what if there were a drug that caused everyone to think their neighbors are aliens? And how would that drug be delivered? And what if we're all taking it right now?" It's decidedly less easy for me to think "how would I, as a normal everyday person, react to news of my sister's engagement to a man I once dated?" This could be because I am insane. Or, it could just be because we're all different, and what's easy for one is hard for someone else. But anyway, rats off to ya, non-SF writers. You manage to elicit powerful emotions without the benefit of mind-control drugs, aliens, parallel worlds, or killing off most of the Earth's population, and that is fairly magical, in the non-unicorn sense.

Wow, this entry is unfocused, even for me!

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