Difference and Complexity Makes Good Art, Composing, 24/04/2015

Yesterday, I made a modest contribution to the progressives’ side of the Sad and Rabid Puppies debate. I wrote that post from my perspective as a fan of science-fiction literature (as well as literature in general) and a political progressive who believes that our life improves through complexity, diversity, change, and difference. 

But I'm also a science-fiction writer, even if I'm just at the start of my career and I've barely been able to do any promotion. And as a science-fiction writer, I believe that good art comes from exploring diverse styles of narrative, figuring out concepts and characters that have never quite been seen before. The collision of characters with different cultural histories and ways of seeing the world make for new personalities in literature. 

Diversity in this context is literally the injection of difference in art. So of course I'm opposed to the ideology of the Puppies. Art made without bothering to explore difference, whether inserting cultural differences or colliding genres, is not good art. Good art doesn’t repeat the same ideas that it always has. It innovates. 

Not only do the Puppies believe that art whose themes express cultural diversity could only win awards through a conspiracy of empty affirmative action, they believe that award winning art should be simple and conservative. The first insults minorities. The second insults all our intelligences.

Being disturbed is part of enlightenment.
Just go with it.
I have a single book of sci-fi available right now. You can still buy Under the Trees, Eaten at Amazon, and I encourage you to do that. Its protagonist is a female, its other major character is a Métis man from Quebec. Exploring their cultural and gender differences are a key underlying tension in the entire book’s narrative. 

And that isn’t even the main focus of the story. It just accompanies it, giving you an extra layer of ideas in the text for you to think about. I like stimulating art, and so I write it. I’m sorry I haven't been able to promote it much because so much of my time has been taken up by my communications college program. Now that I have more time to explore Toronto, I can find venues for readings and prepare some of the multimedia shows that I want to work on.

Also, artistic impulses never stop until after you die. So I'm already trying out new ideas for fiction work, and I want to keep working in sci-fi.* The Star Trek story I was playing with last month has a curious potential to it.

* I’m going to start revising the A Small Man's Town novel manuscript into linked short stories. But I don't really feel like this is a new project as much as a remix of an old work into a more marketable format.

The Puppies have actually inspired me to expand this idea into something more than an exercise. The sub-genre that the Puppies, especially the Sad ones, believe is ignored would be military science fiction. These are usually sci-fi war novels, the worst of which tend to culturally conservative themes that one-dimensionally value militaristic jingoism, empty patriotism, and an aesthetic of ubiquitous violence.

Star Trek provides an interesting quandary, which the excellent Vaka Rangi blog has led me to explore. Star Trek is a military setting, as Starfleet is an openly military organization, but the overall professed values of the Federation and the values that the Enterprise crew try to live, are those of peace, diversity, and enlightened openness. They live these values not just culturally, but ethically and ontologically. They sometimes face problems that can only be solved by conceiving of entirely new modes of existence.

Why should only Star Trek have a monopoly on such a progressive vision for military science-fiction and humanity as a whole? The characters are all already original. Why not change all the details of the world of Beyond the Farthest Stars, and release it as an epic military sci-fi novel motivated by progressive, diversity-minded political and ethical ideas?

Here’s how such a book would go. I'd drop the episodic structure of a television show and integrate the storylines. The first part would play out pretty much as the first episode summary I wrote on the blog in March. 

Ensign Quentin Nichols joins the crew of the Illumination in a series of comedic incidents as the Academy valedictorian befriends the hard-partying men of the bridge crew, including the pan-sexual helmsman Paul Diamond. 

The eight-person cast of characters is introduced, with a special focus on Security Chief Natalie Bondar's personal history. A standard pilot episode's plot unfolds where main characters are endangered while rescuing the crew of a damaged freighter, but everyone is excitingly saved. 

The freighter itself is carrying contraband, the matter transmuter devices that have made capitalist production obsolete in the Confederation. These machines are tightly controlled because it gives the Confederation their decisive advantage in galactic politics: their entire population is prosperous without any dependence on boom-bust market cycles. The realization of what is essentially a communist utopia has been turned into a weapon of realpolitik and imperial expansion.

In the shadow of the first adventure, BFS’ main plot is introduced. A rival galactic empire may be stoking new conflict on a human colony, a Confederation protectorate that spent 15 years in brutal civil war. The world and the war where Bondar was born.

Part Two finds the Illumination pursuing a lead on the Lacedian covert operative who fuelled the arms trade to the two sides in that war, Lovanek. Through a reasonably plausible narrative contrivance, he and Bondar have personal history. When Bondar and Captain Bajwa find Lovanek, they come under fire from gangsters who’ve come to kill Lovanek, so the crew find themselves having to protect a gunrunner and war criminal. I imagine patterning them after Mexican cartels like the Zetas.

After fighting off the gangsters, the crew discovers evidence linking the Space-Zetas to the stolen matter transmuters, which means Lovanek is involved there too. Bajwa finds himself having to promise Lovanek asylum in the Confederation if he’ll hand over all his evidence about the contraband transmuter trade and betray the Lacedian conspiracy on Bondar’s homeworld. 

While all that political narrative is playing out, I’ll also have a story more like a typical first contact story. A scientist on a world that doesn’t yet have interstellar travel is experimenting with a transporter while the Illumination is doing a scientific scan near the planet. He’s beamed aboard for a short set of adventures, learns much about the potential for creatures of many kinds to live among the stars, and returns home confirmed in his conviction to progress his civilization.

The details of the overall story are still sketchy, of course. I’m not yet sure what that conspiracy involving starting a new war on Bondar’s homeworld will involve. I know it’ll have something to do with the transmuter smuggling and the moral consequences of the Confederation so callously manipulating galactic politics with utopian technology. I know it’ll involve a trip to Khohav ben Zion, the Jewish-Yazidi world-ship where Chief Science Officer Solomon was raised. I know the book will have four parts. I imagine I’ll steal a lot of narrative and world-building construction techniques of balancing micro and macro social scales from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and from Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.

Above all, the climax of the story must come on Bondar’s homeworld, and it must involve an intense sequence of action and character narrative between Bondar and Nichols. Nichols is a creature of privilege: not only is he valedictorian in an institution that values intelligence, and clearly the meta-textual Mary Sue figure of the story, but he lives in an entirely privileged society. 

Ubiquitous matter transmutation technology means that no one is poor, hungry, or starving. Prosperity is genuinely universal on worlds where the Confederation government allows transmuters, and Nichols has never lived on worlds without this privilege.

Bondar is literally a child of war. Her entire childhood and adolescence, from age 2 to 17, was consumed by a planet-wide civil conflict. She didn’t join the Confederation because of its material prosperity, which she found hypocritical because prosperity is dispersed as a reward for compliance. She joined the Explorer Fleet because her friend Sidarth Bajwa showed her how journeying through the skies progressing and learning was the greatest life there could be.

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