Friday, August 9, 2013

Round Table: Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Part 2

I know I'm a bit early with this update, but the amount of attention this round table has gotten has been far beyond anything I could have expected. Not wanting to keep anyone waiting, I decided to get the second installment up as soon as possible. In round two we have what happens when the we talk a little more about the real world vs fiction, grimdark, keeping up with the Sandersons, and a little more Game of Thrones.   

If you haven't read the first installment of the discussion, I'd suggest doing so.
Violence in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Part One
 I expect the third installment to be ready withing the next few days.


52 Reviews: As mentioned today's audience is much more desensitized to violence, even to  the most graphic of examples, due to the influence of both news and entertainment media. Do you as writers feel a need to 'up the ante' in terms of the level of violence in response, to make those scenes more vivid and memorable for your readers or does your handling of violence serve only the story itself?

Zachary Jernigan: I was going to say no, and then I realized that yes, I do feel a pressure to do that -- but violence is not all that different from any other subject in that regard. There is more exposure to everything nowadays, a fact I'm forced to consider whenever I write anything. Of course, much of this exposure is vicarious, and so some things are easier to pull off. Back in the day (here I'm referencing the days when armies were larger and more people had, y'know, actually punched another person) it would be harder to pull off much of what we know take for granted in more overblown scenes of violence.

The question I always find myself asking is: Should I be more realistic and show how violence really seems to occur (and has for me on the rare occasions I've been in violent encounters), or should I push it to the max and strain credulity in an effort to blow the reader away with pure craziness? Thus far, I think I've erred toward the realistic as I see it, but I don't think it's the only way to respond.

Kameron Hurley: Ok, first, congrats to Zach for not using the word “elitist” even once in that response….

As for the “up the ante violence” question - well, you know, since the success of 50 Shades of Gray I’ve felt this need to up the ante by including more graphic S&M scenes in my fiction. I mean, what’s good fiction anymore without a mention of anal beads?

If I was in this to write what everyone else is writing I’d skip writing fiction. It pays far too little to be sitting around on your hands worrying all the time about feeding the market. I do that for my day job, and it’s soul-sucking. I want to create something different, something people haven’t seen before, and I’m not going to do that by playing “Keeping up with the Sandersons” or even “Keeping up with the Jemisins.” I’m in this to surprise myself, and hopefully a few other people along the way.

I lived in Durban, South Africa for a couple of years, in a province where one in three women would be raped in her lifetime and one in three people had AIDS, and also had, according to a quote I read around that time: “the highest crime rate in the world outside a war zone” (I think this was overstating things, but it was bandied about). You couldn’t go to a party or meet up or have a round of drinks without somebody talking about how they’d been mugged, carjacked, robbed, or knew someone who’d been knifed or killed that week. It really took a toll on your psyche. Even in the nice areas, you just didn’t go outside after dark alone if there was any alternative. People were really twitchy.  But the folks I met were also some of the kindest I’d ever encountered, and living life there felt all the more precious and brilliant to me while I was doing it, because the threat of violence was always just a heart skip away.

Yet I couldn’t help but realize, years later, that many spec fic writers looking to create a fictional society with that level of violence would only write about the violence, and would forget about the kindness, and the brilliantly joyous living folks did at the edges of it. Why? Oh, I don’t know. Likely because of that age old BS one hears from people who’ve never been anywhere or studied anything: “It’s just not realistic!”

I’ve spent a decade studying war and violence and atrocities and the truth is that what writers put on the page – everything I’ve ever read – pales in comparison to what people actually did (and do) to one another. But the real surprise is that people kept on living their everyday lives, laughing and playing with their children, writing poetry, and eating dinner together, amid all this violence. That’s where the interesting stories are, to me. It’s not the violence. It’s what happens between the bouts of violence. Because violence doesn’t matter, unless you have something worth losing.

Otherwise, you’re just writing torture porn.

Jeff Salyards: I’m not entirely convinced about the whole desensitized thing, at least not on a global scale. While it’s undeniable that between all kinds of entertainment chock full of explosions, serial killers, and garden variety sociopaths, and the nonstop media coverage of real life atrocities, people are exposed to violence (or can choose to view it) like never before, and there are plenty of people who try to use studies of the effects of violence to promote one agenda or another. I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole here. But people still read Jane Austen. And watch children play in fountains. And experience horror when they witness violence in front of them, in real life, real time.
And while there has arguably been an escalation in science fiction and fantasy genres (the whole “grimdark” debate about one novel trying to out gruesome another, which I think is specious really), as others have pointed out, violence is nothing new there, and even the depiction of it isn’t exponentially more shocking than what preceded it (Robert E. Howard had amoral antiheroes running around sticking people with the pointy end, and anyone who has seen a Shakespearean revenge tragedy knows all about buckets of blood.)

There are readers who are drawn to quiet, personal, intimate fantasies. The Long Price Quartet by Abraham immediately springs to mind. There’s plenty of character-driven conflict, and even an impressive war in the third and fourth books, but violence takes a back seat for most of the series and when it does occur, it’s potent because you’ve come to know and care for the characters, not because each set piece is bloodier than the last. Abraham’s stuff is somewhat atypical, it’s true, but even his The Dagger and the Coin series, with more traditional fantasy tropes and trappings, he still keeps action and violence secondary, and in service to the characters and stories when it happens.
It’s just a matter of taste, really—the genre is vast and offers something for any audience. Not everyone wants to see the violence ante upped.

Even in books where there is a fair amount of bloodletting, there is a way of handling it where it isn’t gratuitous or for cheap thrills. Going back to Martin for a sec, countless character arcs careen wildly and go into unexpected territory due to the violence in the story. (THERE BE MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD….) Jaime Lannister earned his Kingslayer moniker through sudden violence and begins Game of Thrones by committing a pretty heinous deed involving incest, love, and attempted murder, which in the hands of a different writer might have branded him irredeemable black-hat villain for all time. But Martin delights in challenging reader expectations, and Jaime is no exception. After he has his arrogance trimmed considerably in later books and suffers some pretty serious violence of his own, and can no longer rely on his martial skills, he has to reinvent himself. It’s the effects of the violence that are compelling, more than the act or depiction in isolation.

Same dealio with Arya, a small girl who witnesses unspeakable horrors and bloodshed, bad leading to worse, until she finds herself transformed on the road to becoming like the oh-so damaged Hound—callous, cold, revenge-driven. It’s sad and powerful and poignant and disturbing because Martin explores the consequences and reverberations of violence, makes it propel characters, change them, haunt them.

With my own work, I adopt the same sort of approach, or try to. There’s more violence than in Abraham’s books (or Jane Austen’s for that matter), but as much as I enjoy writing a visceral and engaging action sequence (and as Zack will attest, some of them are on the longish side!), and try to keep it as realistic as possible, at the end of the day I’m more interested in how it showcases something about the characters—ingenuity in concocting a clever ploy or recovering from its failure, someone overcoming or succumbing to cowardly impulses, and most especially its aftermath. What happens after the blood is spilled, and casualties and losses are seen and felt? How do the characters respond to grief? Do they compartmentalize it or succumb to its full effects?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting totally escapist fiction or a cathartic release. But I don’t feel any pressure to outdo Abercrombie or Moorcock or Shakespeare in terms of how many buckets of blood to use either.

Kameron Hurley: Yeah, I think this exploration of "What does this violence actually *do* to people" is something that gets lost a lot in less nuanced work. Some writers make it all about the explosion, not the aftermath (Hollywood is especially guilty of this). Though I may have no interest in upping the ante when it comes to "more gore! More, more!" I do feel a need to create deeper, more complex characters than I did, say, 10 years ago. And that's all about responding to changing expectations in the sorts of protagonists that I, as a reader, am interested in. I have less patience for static, milquetoast protagonists who are just going through the motions without reacting and adapting to events - violent or otherwise.

Zachary Jernigan: Not to sound elitist or anything, buuuuuuuuut...

Just kidding. For me, Jeff's book struck me as arriving at its violent scenes in the most honest, passionate way. These are not scenes that exist to titillate: they are scenes that exist because they were what he genuinely wanted to write, and because he's a compassionate dude who's interested in the entire spectrum of experience, he also showed the aftermath. Echoing Kameron, the most disappointing scenes of violence -- for me -- are those that don't attempt to account for the violence. 

"BOOM! EXPLOSION AND FIRE! Arms and legs everywhere!" is kinda cool, I guess, but the event becomes so much more interesting when the camera sticks around to see how it impacts those left in the aftermath.

Jeff Salyards: Aww, thanks, Zack. I want to hug you. And kind of punch you. You know, to see what happens and how I feel about it later.

I agree--summer blockbusters or pulpy books can be fun, and sometimes I just like to check out. But something that has layers and depth and explores the effects of violence (or as Kameron said, all the lovely, everyday wonderful stuff that keeps on keeping on in spite of the violence) is vastly more interesting to me.

Zachary Jernigan: I want to be punched, Jeff. I'm so desensitized to violence from living vicariously through TV and movies and talk radio that being punched is the only way I can feel alive anymore.

Kameron Hurley: The acceptance of bro love only when it's expressed in terms of violence is an interesting phenomenon related to the celebration of and bonding over violence, too. But perhaps that's the subject of another roundtable...

 I'm going to start sounding like an academic paper if I don't stop.

Jeff Salyards: We could punch you, too, Kameron. Don't want you to feel excluded from the manly-man expressions of affection.

Kameron Hurley: Just over here bonding with the bros. Good times, good times.

I do think it's funny it only took two questions in a roundtable about violence before we all started punching each other.

Zachary Jernigan: I'll not be punching anyone. I make a bad enough name for myself with my words. 

Plus, I have very easily cut knuckles.

And... Now that I look back on it, I see I misinterpreted something in Matt's question. When I read, "'up the ante' in terms of the level of violence in response, to make those scenes more vivid and memorable for the readers," I thought, Well, sure I try to make those scenes more vivid and memorable. But I've never felt any need to actually make the scene more, y'know, actually violent. I think a scene of violence is exactly as violent as it needs to be for the -- uh -- violence to occur.

If someone's weak-ass knuckles get cut on somebody's hard teeth, then I'll write that. I personally wouldn't get all that into the sensation -- hell, it sometimes hurts a bit when you punch someone -- but some writers would. I try not to question why somebody chose to depict a certain act in and of its self. But violence, as we've hammered home, doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's going to say a very different thing to me if the author seems to have no awareness of this fact than if the author seems cognizant that violence is never a random occurrence. 

When something is perceived to be random, then all the stops can be pulled with no regard for the complexities of the situation. In such self-indulgent scenes, the violence begins to feel comical, ungrounded to any sense of reality.

Douglas Hulick: I find it interesting that one of the underlying assumptions in this question seems to be that writers are reactionary. That we somehow look at other work (be it literature, film, games, various other media, or even current events) and feel the need to tailor or adjust our art to "keep up with the Jones." I'm certain there are writers out there who do this--who write to market, or feel like they have to push the envelope that much more than it was just pushed, or out-whatever someone at something--inspiration and motivation come in a lot of forms, and if that's what does it for you, rock on. But that's not me, and it's not most writers I talk to.

This isn't a competition. I don't sit down and say, "By God, that Martin: I'll show HIM some blood on the page! Rawr!" Nor even, "OMG! Abercrombie just slaughtered half an army and I only have five bodies on the page. Quick, more corpses!" It's not that...I dunno, basic? Visceral? Dare I say, conscious? Because we all do react to other works, of course, and are sometimes even inspired by them--but it isn't (or rarely is) a Point A to Point B kind of thing, where I read something someone has done and then turn to the keyboard to give it my swing. Heaven knows I have enough going on in my own head when I'm writing that I don't have time to stop and worry about what George or Joe or Lynch or anyone else did last year. I've got my own problems to deal with in this damn book, ya know?

Stepping back for a moment to what Jeff said in response to the first question--that he doesn't fully buy into the whole desensitization thing when it comes to society--I think he has a point, especially with regards to this follow up question. Maybe it’s less a case of desensitization (on a societal level) and more a degree of acceptance, or even expectation, when it comes to violence in different forms of media. It's not so much "Has GRRM opened the door to darker violence in fantasy" (which, as has been pointed out, he hasn't--he's just the latest incarnation), but rather "Has the fantasy reader, on a certain level, become more open to, or even anticipatory of, this kind of depiction on the page?" Not because they don't react if it’s not there, but because, in certain types of work, they now expect it? You can argue that either way. A lot is going to depend on what you like to read and what you like to write. I know Michael Sullivan and I have, quite amicably, told each other that we have no interest in reading the other's work because what we each of us writes doesn't appeal to the other. Michael doesn't like grim or dark books, and I got tired of heart-of-gold rogue stories back in the 1980s. But each kind of writing still has an audience. And, as was said, people still read Jane Austin.

Kameron mentioned violence in real life, and how even as writers of fiction we can't get close to conveying reality on the page at some points. That's very true. I've done a lot of research on organized crime, criminals, and the like over the years for my books. Some of the stuff these guys did? I don't want to put on the page. Other things, it's more than I'm willing to put down. Not because it icks me out, but because I have to ask myself: does that really serve the story? Does it reveal something new about my characters? What does it convey besides the obvious? Yeah, I can put in something utterly heinous some guy did in Queens back in the '60s (or in Russia last month), but just because I can doesn't mean I should. If you're just throwing blood on the page to get a visceral reaction, you're shorting the reader and yourself. Everything in a story should, ideally, do double or triple duty beyond the obvious, and that's especially true of the violence. Violence is easy--its action and conflict and risk all rolled into one--but it needs to serve some deeper purpose, or its just window dressing. Even the beginnings of most James Bond movies, which inevitably start with huge amounts of action, loop back into the bigger plot later on. Sometimes you see it coming from the start, sometimes you don't, but it isn't *just* there to get your heart pumping from the word go. That pulse bump may be the most obvious reason, but it can't be all of it. Not if you're doing it right.

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