Sunday, August 11, 2013

Round Table: Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Part 3

As this series is getting more and more attention in the blogosphere , largely due to getting posted on Redditt, I decided to once again hasten the release of the next question. Round tables are a bear to manage, both in the keeping things moving, adjusting the fluctuating schedules of a group of busy professionals who are doing this simply as a favor, and then compiling and posting the results. The authors that took part in this were a pleasure to work with and it is intensely gratifying to see their efforts draw so much attention in the genre community. When I came up with this idea, I was told by another blogger I respect that this sort of project couldn't be done. I'm glad we've managed to prove that assessment wrong. If you haven't already read the first two installments, links are provided below. 

Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part One
Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part Two

52 Reviews: Doug's point that simply throwing more blood on the page misses the point and that violence needs to pull double and often triple duty to pull its weight in the story is something I think that bears more discussion. Can each of you give an example of how you use violence in your work to accomplish more than the obvious visceral reaction?
Jeff Salyards: First, let me say that I’m honored to be a round tabler here. The answers have been fantastic and really thought provoking. Which stinks, because the bar keeps getting raised. So allow me to lower it again.

I don’t think there is anything inherently bad about a violent scene that is purely visceral, or just moves the plot along. Or even an entire book like that, really. To each their own. My dad used to read Don Pendleton novels—the ones where Mack Bolan waged a vigilante vendetta against the mob, and killed like 10,000 of their foot soldiers over the years. Formulaic, pulpy, and never mistaken for Umberto Eco or Octavia Butler. My dad was off the charts smart, but that was his mind candy. He knew it wasn’t literary fiction--he read Norman Mailer and Pendleton and chose the latter, preferring to check out and just be entertained.

And it does take skill to orchestrate exciting action sequences, to draw the reader in and make her feel the windows rattle from an explosion down the block, or shudder as she imagines what it’s like for a pike block to stand firm against a cavalry charge. It’s easy to dismiss pulpy or “cheap” violence that has no grander purpose underpinning it, and frankly, I think that’s a mistake. There’s something to be learned in a Pendleton book for instance, about crafting a page turner that resonates with the reader and keeps them hooked. It’s not as easy as it looks, and plenty of high-minded authors write muddied, confusing, inert, or otherwise crappy action scenes. And to me, that’s a bigger sin than writing a compelling bit of violence that is purely plot-driven or designed to thrill.

All that said, I do think a book is more compelling when the violence is doing double or triple duty, if it challenges the reader in some way, or reveals something more interesting than the blast radius of a pipe bomb or the best way to string a warbow.

For me, I tried to make the violence in Scourge of the Betrayer meaningful and have some weight—partly because I (hopefully) made it feel real, that no character was safe, that there were consequences, psychic and physical. There are no magic circles around anyone, and even the bad-ass main characters slip in the bloody grass, suffer injuries, and die. But beyond the realistic treatment, several of the violent encounters stand out (again, hopefully), because the narrator is a reedy scribe with no martial experience at all, and his naive and somewhat delicate sensibilities are in direct contrast to the hardened soldiers he accompanies. He signs on to record the events, thinking it will be a grand adventure, only to discover that the reality is a far different (and messier) thing.

The idea was that Arkamondos, the narrator, was in some ways a surrogate for the reader (at least the ones who aren’t exposed to violence very frequently in real life)—he’s met soldiers, but never seen them in action or traveled with them, and he’s equal parts horrified and fascinated by what he witnesses, the violence in particular. This group of covert operatives with their rough, course, and aggressive camaraderie, is so far outside his comfort zone that the conflict and tension ratchet up the longer he serves as the chronicler for the company, until there is a sort of tipping point, when he becomes less a terrified and overwhelmed observer, and more a somewhat unwilling (and pretty incompetent) participant. Arkamondos doesn’t transform into any kind of badass, but by necessity he does act and loses some objectivity in the process, questioning not only the actions of the men around him, but his own role and loyalties.

But at the very least, I hope the actions sequences at the very least succeed on the choreography/verisimilitude level, that they engage in a visceral way. If they manage to go beyond that for a reader, cool beans.

Kameron Hurley: What, where was I?

Stories. Violence in mine. Right.

There’s all sorts of tension and conflict you can build into books, especially books that aren’t explicitly about violence and what it does to people. Maybe your hero’s transformative experience happens on a fishing trip when she decides to throw back a prize-winning fish, or the first time she comes in before her mom during a race, or the day he watches his father die of cancer. In my series, starting with God’s War, I wanted to create a society of people shaped by the terrible violence of constant war, who had to do terrible things to survive, and I wanted people to *understand* them by the end of the book/series. Not like them. Just... understand why they were who they were. In a novel that’s all about violence and what it does to people – well, you’re going to end up showing a lot of violence. Because I think we forget what it means sometimes, and what perpetuating it can do to people. I wanted all of that on the page, instead of just the ride on to glory parts.

My “heroes” are incredibly damaged and complex people. Nobody survives this long in this place without doing things they regret, and paying for past choices. My protagonist's revelation that she’s chosen her path as a bloody bounty hunter for herself – and not, in truth, been forced down it by others – happens during a sword fight with her former mentor where she pops his eye out. The first book’s climax is a bloody boxing match that ends with razor blades and shotguns. It’s a match where my protagonist has to face, in the ring, the sister of a boy she killed, and know, understand, and confront what that death has done to this woman (and to my protagonist). There are certainly other ways I could have conveyed this information.... maybe, but I had explicitly set out to look at what happens to people when they’re born into and hope to survive within a society at endless war. If you want to understand these people, you need to know what it is they have to do to survive.

If you’re at war – on and off – for centuries, with this particular type of tech/magic, in a resource-strapped environment, how would people change? What would be the same? What would their moral code look like? Because everyone in the book has a moral code, just maybe not one we’d recognize as such. In a lot of traditional fantasy, you’ll find characters who commit violence without any real psychological ramifications. They still get the girl or the guy, save the world, and get the happily ever after. We all know happily ever after is kinda syrupy, but I wanted to show *why* it was so hard to swallow after you Defeat Evil. Because defeating evil means you must become evil yourself. How do you live with that? These people cannot live the lives that they do, doing the things that they do, and have what we consider “normal” human relationships afterwards. It’s not like, “Hey, we defeated the dark lord! Babies and picket fences for everyone!” You end up deeply damaged by these events.

I wanted to show that end result. But I couldn’t get there unless I showed clearly, explicitly, what types of actions these people engaged in every day. If you don’t have an idea of the atrocities they commit, it’s harder to understand why they aren’t shitting rainbows at the end.

There's this assassin in the Serenity movie who says something about how, in the perfect, peaceful society he wants to create, there will not be people like him. A perfect society won't need ruthless killers. By the time we hit the end of my series, I explore that bit as well in the last book. What happens to these bloody, broken people when peace breaks out? What do they do with their lives? Unless you'd experienced that journey with them, unless you'd seen what they'd done, it would be more difficult to empathize with them at that point, too. What happens to somebody who's done all these horrific things when the world has moved on? It becomes this grim happy tragedy of "oh yay peace" and "oh God I created a world that has no place for me in it what do I do now?"

And I find all of that stuff endlessly fascinating.

Zachary Jernigan: Well, isn't this just peachy? I started responding to this three times and could think of nothing to say. I finally though, What the hell? I'll just wait for Kameron to answer and maybe that will inspire me. If I'm really lucky, her answer will be short and kinda crappy.
Look how that worked out. What a great answer. And I have nothing to add.

Nah. I guess I'll give it a whirl.
The thing is, I'm not a huge fan of the action scene as a beast of its own, out of context. I know some folks love reading about gals and guys punching/stabbing/shooting the crap out of each other -- it may be the favorite part of a book for them -- but it ain't me. In fact, any active scene (even sex scenes) get boring to me if they're there just to show me what's occurring physically, to get the visceral reaction. I suppose some folks have a technical interest. But even though I've practiced martial arts a bit and been in a few fights, ultimately I'm not into the mechanics of violence enough to invest myself in the descriptions themselves. I can, I think, tell when most violent encounters are portrayed unrealistically, but even those will get a pass from me if it occurs in an emotionally realistic context.

In other words, I'm not interested in the fight itself. (Perhaps this is why I write pretty short fight scenes.) I am, however, very much interested in why people -- two people, three, rarely more than four -- are brought to the point of violence and, like Kameron, what having been violent means to them.

Though I'm not violent by nature and never have been, I try to place myself in context with others who are either by nature or profession. I have no own inclinations toward aggression (they just happen to not be expressed physically all that often), and I know full well how wonderful it feels to give vent to it when you feel justified. Likewise, I know how awful it feels to give vent to it -- yes, even when justified. I'd like to think this says something good about me, in that I haven't reached the place where I fully enjoy laying into someone else. There's always a wage for letting your heart pump loudly enough for your fists to follow. There's always a measure of regret, of guilt; otherwise, you've stopped being fully human.

I try to explore this fact when I write about violence -- that it can be a glorious thing, a justified thing, but it is never a good thing. Every scene of violence in No Return reflects this mindset.

Douglas Hulick: So far we've been talking about the consequences of violence--especially beyond the obvious, such as skinned knuckled and perforated spleens and defeating the baddy and Dong-Dong the Evil Lord is Dead--and the kinds of psychological toll it can take on people. With the rise of more character-based stories, this only makes sense, and I for one am glad people like Jeff and Kameron and Zachary are looking into it. Because, you see, I'm not--or at least, not to the same extent.
One of the things I wrestled with early on when creating the world of the Kin was how violence was going to be seen and reacted to by the main characters, and especially my protagonist. Since it is written in a very tight, first-person POV, what Drothe said and thought and felt was what would be presented to the reader. His attitudes and assumptions would color every aspect of the book. And, let's face it, he exists in a violent subsection of his society -- a place where people don't think so much about the consequences of violence as they think about using violence as a consequence. The knife isn't used to save the princess or defeat the monster or cast down the unjust: it's used to send a message. Did you screw up? Cheat your boss and get caught? Maybe cross the wrong line or step on the wrong toes? Then it's very possible that you'll get a visit from a couple of hard customers who will, at the very least, threaten painful consequences, if not deliver them. Violence is as much a calling card and a short-hand telegraph service as it is anything in the back streets of Ildrecca.

Where did I get this notion? Again, from research. Not just the modern mob, but also historical criminals and judicial systems. In a society where you can lose body parts for some legal transgressions, its not hard to imagine that being reflected in the criminal elements of society and their attitudes towards humanity in general. If the darker portions of a society are in some ways a bloodier, more twisted reflection of what that civilization holds up to the light, then it only makes sense that the darker corner's view towards humanity and life are appropriately (and darkly) reflected as well. In both cases, it's still about power and control and enforcing respect, be it institutional or personal--its just that the criminals don't have all the tools that law and normal society has, and so they tend to be blunter about it.
That doesn't mean different people don't have different takes on it, of course. I have two crime lords in the book who have very different managerial styles when it comes to enforcing their will and keeping their people in order. But in both cases, the threat of violence as a consequence for trespasses is still there--its just how far you have to trespass before you get the knife. In a world like that, the consequences for violence start to become much more pragmatic, and things like honor and truth and loyalty--arguably much rarer occurrences among the Kin--become worthy of reflection instead.

That's of course the macro-level take. On the micro-level, it comes down to what the violence needs to accomplish in the scene, and how it can move other elements along. Probably the simplest example, for me, is the first true fight we encounter in the book. In this instance, Drothe and his friend Bronze Degan are ambushed in an alley during a conversation. The ambush itself has nothing to do with the overall plot--it's just a street gang trying to tap a couple of easy marks--and their reaction to it says as much. But that in itself--that they see it to some degree as an interruption, that the two of them immediately evaluate and divide up the challenge in fewer words than it takes to tell, that Drothe has to strategize about and play out his fight, while Degan handles his "off camera" with far less effort--tells the reader a lot, not only about their relationship, but about who each man is. In terms of the overall story-arc, it may seem unimportant at the time, but that little alley fight introduces us to a relationship that becomes one of the key points of tension and internal conflict for Drothe in the book. Could I have done it a different way--via a conversation, or over dinner, or what have you? Of course. But in a violent world like I was planning for Drothe and the Kin, showing it in the midst of a physical conflict seemed the most appropriate. Plus, you know, I got to write a sword fight, so Yay!


  1. Wow. Huge props for pulling that off! And it doesn't hurt that I ate up the discussion. Awesome stuff.

  2. I am quite flabbergasted.

    This is amazing stuff! I am so glad I found this while perusing the Google.

    Seriously, top notch discussion. I can't get enough of it!