The Goblin Emperor: Yes, it’s fantasy, and yes it’s a novel.

So, back on June 19th I purchased an ebook of the Hugo-nominated work The Goblin Emperor (by Katherine Addison), but it being a sort of hectic and tumultuous time in my life I didn’t immediately read it and then even forgot that I had bought it. Last week, I got my first library card as a Maryland resident in order to take advantage of their ebook lending library for distracting me during a flight back to Nebraska for multiple family events.

The e-library is great, but even more so than the physical library it’s kind of a “take what you can get” situation if you need something to read and can’t wait, as they only have licenses for so many copies of each book. This is how I ended up checking out World War Z, a book that I’d always been slightly interested in reading but had never actually picked up.

When I opened my Kindle app to download the book, I was surprised to find The Goblin Emperor (I had forgotten about it, if you remember) already waiting for me, so I read it first. Having read these two books one right after another was important, for a reason I’ll get back to.

Anyway, in a year when many Hugo works were nominated whose merits are so dubious that even the people who nominated them aren’t discussing their merits, The Goblin Emperor is a novel whose merits have been rather sharply debated. It has been praised highly from a wide number of quarters, but there are some lines of criticism that have cropped up and been repeated even outside the quarters of the Puppy campaigns (though they are found most often and most vociferously within those quarters).

They are:

  • It’s not really fantasy, so much as an alternate history with non-human races because there’s no magic or other speculative element.
  • It’s not really a novel, because there is no plot/no conflict. This criticism is also phrased as “It’s more of a series of anecdotes than anything.”

The standard Puppy nonsense of “SJWS ARE SHOVING MESSAGES DOWN OUR THROATS AND VOTING FOR STORIES FOR AFFIRMATIVE ACTION REASONS” has certainly come up, too, of course, but it’s hardly worth engaging with them.

Now that I have read the book, I really have to wonder: did the people making those two criticisms of it do so? If they did, I don’t think they could have read it carefully. While the vision of elven and goblin societies in The Goblin Emperor are an example of intricate and engrossing worldbuilding, the magic-using classes of society appear to have been lifted straight out of classic D&D; e.g., there are clerics and there are wizards.

If you need someone to speak with the dead, you call a cleric, just like you would in a D&D game. The book makes it clear that this sort of thing is a bit passé in the modern world, but a major subplot (and the resolution of the main plot) revolves around the fact that it is a thing that clerics can do. And if people aren’t calling on clerics for miracles routinely, magic is still such an integral part of elven society that the emperor is expected to be accompanied by a wizard literally everywhere he goes.

And I mean literally everywhere. The emperor does not go to sleep without his bodyguards, one fighter and one blue-robed, magic-slinging wizard, there with him. The book understandably elides the toilet habits of the emperor, but the refrain about the emperor having no privacy and the bodyguards’ reaction to the few times he requests it makes it clear: they are there all the time.

Since the book opens with the titular character becoming emperor and he’s enthroned very early on and the book never strays from his point of view, this means that upwards of ninety percent of the book contains one of the few wizard characters who occupy the position of Wizard-Bodyguard, and these characters are referred to constantly. Now, they’re not casting magic constantly. They are there to protect the emperor’s life, which means they don’t use magic frivolously, for entertainment or convenience or comfort.

Two spells are cast by our blue-robed mazei (the elven term for mages, apparently) in the course of the book, but they’re both unambiguously magical and also things that would be associated with wizards in D&D: a sleep spell and a lightning bolt spell.

So that’s a lot of mention of wizards and very little wizardry, but it’s also unambiguously “real” magic, not “Well maybe it’s all hocus-pocus and the power of suggestion” magic. Also, in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the chief duty of a professional wizard is to not use magic, yet few people suggest it’s not really fantasy.

Because the book uses invented language to refer to concepts that hold important places in elven society, I can forgive people for not immediately catching on that the blue-wearing order of people who supply one half of the emperor’s traditional bodyguards are supposed to be actual-fantactual dyed-in-the-robe wizards the first few times that they’re mentioned, especially since the included glossary is 1) in the back and 2) oddly incomplete when it comes to the subject of the wizards and their order.

But by the time they’re mentioned to be casting “cantrips” and throwing lightning bolts around? Well, I can only really conclude that the aforementioned critics did not read the book that far. Both of those events are also moments of pivotal plot development/revelations, which might also do something to explain why so many of the same critics were not aware a plot was there.

The plot criticism… well, when I read those types of comments, including by people who were otherwise defending the book, I was prepared for a non-traditional plot structure, which I’m okay with. But actually, the book’s plot is rather conventionally structured. The conflict is not, as some have said, “Protagonist vs. Self” but rather “Protagonist vs. Villains”. The character does grow and change and come to the sort of epiphanies that some people believe marks a plot. From the first page, there is a mystery that is gradually unraveled over the course of the book.

Moreover, far from being a “series of anecdotes”, the book’s narrative flows unbroken from the moment we first meet Maia on the first page until the end. I’m not saying there aren’t any moments fast-forwarded over, but that they are fast-forwards and not jump cuts from an arbitrary stopping point to an arbitrary starting point. Every time the clock or calendar is advanced, it’s for a reason, taking us from one plot-relevant scene to another.

I suspect that other than “just not reading the book to begin with”, the reason I’ve seen more than one person saying the book is plotless is because they did not understand the plot, because while it was conventional in its structure, it was unconventional in its presentation. The title character, an outsider suddenly elevated to the role of emperor of the elven lands, has to rely on others to provide him with information, carry out investigations, et cetera. So while he drives the plot, he does so indirectly and then often learns the results of the things he sets in motion secondhand. The book is a political thriller in the purest possible meaning of the words, where the viewpoint character is not an intrepid reporter or secret service agent or military intelligence specialist but a politician, or at least a political leader.

Because of the conceits under which Addison was writing (that we don’t stray from the emperor’s point of view, that the emperor is trapped by his role and forced to rely on others, et cetera), the resolution of the actual main plot is largely anti-climactic and the book continues from there through a coda that allows our hero to have a more personal triumph that hints at the nature of his likely long and successful reign. Perhaps this decision contributed a bit to the feeling of “not a novel, just a series of events” that some people complained of, yet the plot was there. And while people have complained of the similar codae to the Lord of the Rings, I’ve never yet heard anyone claim that the decision to show what happens after the plot is resolved robs Lord of the Rings of its essential story-ness.

And that brings me back to World War Z.

Years back, people criticized Rachel Swirsky’s nomination for “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” in the category of Best SF/F Short Story under similar grounds: that it wasn’t a story as such, merely a vignette. It was likewise criticized as being not worthy of that Hugo category for not being a “real” fantasy story, a subject I’ve dealt with before. The fact that these two Hugo-nominated works were both criticized separately on the same grounds is something that has bugged me before, but then I read World War Z back-to-back with The Goblin Emperor, and now it more than bugs me.

Because you know what is literally “a collection of anecdotes”? World War Z. That’s the format that the book takes. And yet I doubt anyone who has read it would question that it tells a story or that it constitutes a novel and not, say, a collection of short stories.

You know what else is more of a collection of anecdotes than a self-contained novel? Any given book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Sure, we can understand that they’re all collectively telling one story, or something that will be seen to be a single story when it’s completed. We could say they have many plots instead of one plot, but even then we’re stuck with the fact that this plot over here might have begun in this book but doesn’t end until that plot, and so on.

I’m not pointing this out to demand that people immediately start criticizing George R.R. Martin or Max Brooks on these same grounds; I’m just pointing out that by and large, people don’t. And while people have criticized Tolkien for some of the odder vignettes that were included in Lord of the Rings, no one to my knowledge have used it as an excuse to say, “Well, it’s not really a novel, is it?”

It might be that this is only the case because absent an honor being awarded for something that is specifically a novel (or in the case of “…Dinosaur…”, a short story) there’s no point in splitting such a hair, but I suspect that if any of these or several other works that take a vignette/mosaic/what-have-you approach to storytelling were nominated there wouldn’t be anyone trying to refute their eligibility based on trying to pin down an objective definition for a unit of storytelling.

Because this kind of scrutiny is so ridiculous and so pointless that it only crops up at a noticeable level when there’s another purpose being served, such as gatekeeping.

Katherine Addison is a woman who wrote a novel that made it onto the Hugo ballot on its own merits. Rachel Swirsky is a woman who wrote a story that had a radical pro-SJW message shoved down our throats. Nota bene: I still have yet to find anyone who can explain what message it shoved down my throat, but I have been assured that it’s totally there.

People question the legitimacy of these works not because they have any kind of deep and abiding respect for the sanctity of the terms “novel” and “short story”, but because they object to them. They object to their existence, to the fact that they have received positive notice. Puppies and others saying that “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” isn’t a story and The Goblin Emperor isn’t a novel is not that different from Gamergate saying that Gone Home isn’t a game. The point is to explain away its success as irrelevant while also trying t head off any further success.

I am not a Hugo voter, but if I were, I would totally be voting for The Goblin Emperor for best novel. It is not a perfect book. Despite having been pinned with a reputation for being a “Social Justice Affirmative Action Message Book” or whatever the puppies call it, it does suffer from some of the most common missteps in fantasy dealing with race. The decision to hide all information about pronunciation, translation, and pronoun casing in the back of the book also affects its readability, particularly in the electronic edition (where flipping from one point to another is trivial, but flipping ahead is a good way to irrevocably lose your place).

Yet for these faults, it’s a great book and it got there on its own merits. It could have been a bog standard “D&D World With The Serial Numbers Filed Off” but it’s so much more than that.

I understand the point of view of people who are voting No Award for the entire ballot on the principle that voting any other way legitimizes the Puppies’ tactics or on the principle, but I believe in the case of the Best Novel category, voting for a work that made it on despite their machinations rather than because of them would not carry such an unintended message.


Note: A previous version of this post reflected that The Goblin Emperor replaced a withdrawn work on the ballot. This was an error of my own memory that was caught by multiple commenters, and the post has been edited appropriately. Apologies for the mistake.

The Puppies come so close to getting it, so often.

While reading the linked articles on Mike Glyer’s daily round-up of Puppy and Puppy-adjacent posts, I stumbled across a post by Dave Freer from February called “To Serve One Master — The Reader“.

The major thrust of the blog post is the idea that however an author intends a work to be received is secondary to how readers receive it, which… okay. This is something that it’s taken me a long time to accept as an author, but I have to say that I am in general agreement with it.

The thing is, it’s weird to see a self-professed Puppy saying this. After all, these are the same people who, whenever someone starts talking about the racist or sexist content of a work, respond with “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE AUTHOR MEANT! YOU CAN’T KNOW WHAT’S IN THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS! YOU’RE JUST READING INTO THINGS!”

Of course, predictably, to the author of this blog post, “the reader” (also referred to as “the customer”) is a monolithic if not singular entity. “The reader” has a single set of tastes, which all authors are obliged to satisfy.

According to Dave Freer, its the people who remember what one commenter calls the “SHAZAAM!” factor of Star Trek who are Star Trek’s customers, not the people who appreciate the utopian social messages and the hope for the future, or the clever dialogue and rich characterization and interpersonal relationships, or any other aspect of the show.

According to Dave Freer, when people go to a movie that features a rich fictional culture and also laser battles, it’s the people who remember the laser battles (and only those people) that are the customers who deserve to be catered to.

Freer uses the piece to berate authors who don’t write for “the reader”/”the customer”, explicitly meaning consumers who want the sorts of things Dave Freer thinks consumers should want.

He advises writers:

Of course you can just hope they like your stuff. Or you can try and write what they want. Maybe slant it a bit in the direction that you want to communicate about. Of course if that slant fails to gain traction and overwhelms what they did want… you’ve lost. And, if they’re not a captive audience, they’ll find something they do like. … It’s really important to find out what customers want, and give it to them.

So a writer’s job is to figure out exactly what readers want to read and then give it to them? Yet when readers say they want more diverse books, or they want to read books with characters they can identify with, or they want to read books that don’t use real-life sources of trauma as set decoration, that’s “political correctness run wild” or “SJW thought police” or whatever buzzwords the Sad Puppies and their ilk want to string together today.

Why? Because the people who want to read those things aren’t readers. Only the people whose tastes and preferences are Dave Freer-approved are readers. To the Sad Puppies, an author’s job is to please the Dave Freers and William Lehmans of the world, not the K. Tempest Bradfords and David Gerrolds.

It’s really striking how often the Sad Puppies claim that “the other side” is all about dictating who is and isn’t “True Fans”, given how much of their rhetoric revolves around this kind of thing. It’s also striking how much this ideology overlaps with Gamergate.

Freer repeats a common Sad Puppy talking point, that SF/F is in some kind of death spiral because so many authors refuse to cater to “the reader”. This notion—insofar as it is based on anything—is based on the fact that in a diverse field where authors are free to write whatever they want that appeals to any audience (not just Dave Freer’s idealized concept of “the reader”), a market that would otherwise belong wholly to the lowest common denominators is instead spread out among more works.

The Puppies see this as a terrifying prospect, the end of the genre as we know it. Puppy standard-bearer Brad Torgersen, in his now-infamous “Nutty Nuggets” post (which might as well be subtitled “WHY CAN’T I JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVER?”), lamented a future where SF/F is everywhere: SF/F romances, SF/F mysteries, et cetera.

I don’t know what the problem with that is.

Science fiction everywhere?

I call that winning.

It might be—I’m not in a position to know, but it might be—that the “fracturing” of the field in terms of more diverse voices writing for more diverse audiences is making it harder for the big publishing houses to churn out big blockbusters. I don’t know. But as an independent author, I don’t see much percentage in measuring the health of the genre by the performance of the biggest players only. I’d rather measure the field’s growth in terms of how many people are reading and writing science fiction vs. how many copies the most popular books sell.

Of Dinosaurs, Legos, and Impossible Hypotheticals

A Super Serious Meditation on the Nature of Speculative Fiction

One of the squawking points that the Puppy campaigners keep returning to in their quest to prove the existence of a shadowy Social Justice Warrior cabal that at some point took over and subverted the Hugo awards (thus necessitating that they ride in as liberators) is the 2014 nomination of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love“, a quirky yet haunting and deeply emotive short story by Rachel Swirsky.

The Puppies, who only understand that tastes are subjective when it’s convenient for them, take it for granted that this story is so awful the only possible reason it could have been nominated was that the SJW clique was rewarding it for pushing the “proper” message.

I’ve never yet had a Puppy who was able to explain, when asked, exactly what the message was. Dinosaurs are more awesome and less frail than humans? Five men should not gang up on one person and savagely beat them with pool cues for being different? What’s the controversial hidden meaning of this story, exactly?

It’s worth noting that the Hugo voting community was and remains pretty sharply divided about this, and it did not win. So one must wonder what all the fuss is about, even if the story does not seem Hugo-worthy. Of course, some people might say that if it’s an honor just to be nominated, then it’s worth asking if the honor was earned… but the Puppies’ individual grievances suggest that they don’t see nomination as an honor. Both Torgersen and Correia’s Campbell nominations have been treated essentially as pledges that were not fulfilled, for instance, and Torgersen acts as though Mike Resnick’s nomination was an unforgivable snub.

But I don’t wish to focus too much on the Puppies’ problems with this story, because there are complaints against it that go beyond their borders. As I said, the community has been divided about its merits, if not as a work in general than as a speculative fiction story in particular. The common criticism amounts to the idea that it is neither a story nor SF/F.

My John Z. Upjohn’s review of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie actually plays on the logic of this: that since the whole story is inflected in the conditional case, nothing really happens within it. The narrator is not telling us what happened when the person referred to in the title was a dinosaur, but merely relating what might have happened if they were a dinosaur. So while the story is full of science fiction-y concepts (though it explicitly paints them as magical and thus fantasy, but more on that later), it’s not actually a specfic story—the reasoning goes—because none of that stuff actually happens.

As it happens, I can’t agree with this logic. I just can’t. “A text in which the narrator explains what would happen if something impossible according to our current understanding of the world happened” is a pretty decent definition of a speculative story to me. In fact, I’m not sure how it could be improved upon. If Rachel Swirsky had written an alternate version of the story that simply straight-out related the events being described as hypothetical in the extant version, they would be no less hypothetical and no more real, would they?

Speculative fiction consists of speculation; that is tautology. It answers the question “What might happen if this other, currently impossible thing happened?”

Swirsky’s story does a number of things worthy of discussion. Making the question explicit, making the speculative nature of speculative fiction part of the text rather than the subtext is simply one of them. If there’s any doubt that this skillful play on convention is not deliberate and informed, it should be laid to rest by the line which follows another impossible hypothetical introduced into the text, the line that reads:

all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.

In this line, Swirsky is commenting on the porousness of the boundaries we try to draw when it comes to speculative fiction. This is science fiction, that is fantasy; this has lasers and star ships, that has swords and sorcery. But even without getting into Arthur C. Clarke’s apt but perhaps overworked adage about sufficiently advanced science… the divide really isn’t as clear as all that.

So much science fiction never bothers to address the why or how of its hypotheticals, because the question the author wants to address isn’t (for instance) “How can we make autonomous intelligent beings to serve us?” but “What happens when we do?” Isaac Asimov’s “positronic brains” weren’t a prediction; he grabbed the most scienterrific buzzword available to him at the time and used it to explain the leap necessary to answer the question of “If We Were Robot-Makers, My Fellow Humans”.

So much of the annals of science fiction require us to imagine not just a new technological breakthrough but a specific breakthrough in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, some principle hidden to actual real-world modern humans, which when mastered allows us to do things that seem like magic.

Similarly, there are certainly stories with fantasy trappings that dress them up with what Swirsky refers to as the “trappings” of science fiction: magic may be explained away by the wise as simply “subconscious psionic talents focused through the use of repetitive motions and chants”. Actually, I haven’t read all that much that takes that particular route, but it apparently is or was once a common enough meme that I’ve encountered readers who just assume that all well-written magic must be this, and are shocked at the idea that it might not be the author’s intent.

The point I am making here is that you can interpret nearly all of science fiction as fantasy and nearly all of fantasy as science fiction, which might be why we get so hung up on the “trappings”, on the limbs and outer flourishes. This story is science fiction because it has atomic blaster rays, or cyberspace, or nanites, according to your epoch. That story is fantasy because it has elves and dwarves and dragons. Sometimes we focus on the feel when drawing the dividing line. Even a grim and gritty science fiction story is not grim and gritty in quite the same way as a grim and gritty fantasy story, though exploring why would probably take a whole separate blog post.

This porous divide is not the major theme or focus of Rachel Swirsky’s work, and I’m not suggesting that it is only in her acknowledgment of it that the work achieves relevance or eligibility as a speculative fiction story. If talking about the nature of science fiction and fantasy made a work science fiction or fantasy, this blog post would count as speculative fiction. My point here is that there is a lot more going on in this brief piece than a “mere” chasing down of impossible hypotheticals.

But that “mere” is used advisedly, because that’s “merely” what science fiction and fantasy are.

There’s another work nominated this year that has stirred similar questions in a more limited way, perhaps more limited because the Dramatic Presentation categories are seen as less serious and crucial in a literary award than the literary categories, and perhaps because as a Sad Puppy pick it is taken less seriously to begin with.

The work in question is The Lego Movie, which contains a couple of scenes near the end that make explicit the implicit framing device for a movie about Lego characters in a world made out of Lego blocks: it’s all a child, playing with toys. It is this moment, in my opinion, that elevates The Lego Movie from merely being charming and fun to actually pretty sublimely brilliant. It explained so many of the odd quirks of characterization and storytelling earlier in the film.

I mean, it changed the movie’s version of Batman from “weirdly out of character, but okay, it’s funny” to “…that’s freaking brilliant” because it wasn’t Batman as adult comic book fans understand him but Batman seen through the eyes of a child, with way more focus on the cool factor of everything and of course he has the coolest girlfriend and of course even the grimdark angst seems kind of fun…

But that’s just one representative example. Taken as a whole, the movie reminded me of the way my brothers and I used to play with our toys, not playing with this set of characters or that but throwing them all together in an expansive world, some with the figures “playing themselves” and others being creatively repurposed.

We had one figure of a female character with green hair in a red body suit. I believe it was a Robotech character, but she often stood in for Samus Aran because we didn’t have a Samus action figure available to us, but if you unlocked the armor-less playthrough and had the Varia, Samus had green hair and a red body suit. These are the kinds of creative compromises a child’s imagination makes on the fly, and The Lego Movie nailed that.

Here’s the rub, though: a movie that is about imagination and how children play with toys isn’t speculative fiction in any meaningful sense, is it? The story that the little boy is creating for himself is both science fiction and fantasy, but the story about the little boy creating that story through play is rooted firmly in the real world, right? Anybody could do that.

Except during those scenes in the “real world”, the main character maintains his consciousness and a small amount of ability to move independently of the child. There’s no narrator relating this to us. The child is not aware it’s happening. The Lego Movie thus is a fantasy movie, because it contains this element of the unvarnished fantastical.

But look at what a whiplash, razor-thin calculation this is: if we had a cut of the movie that removed the main character’s internal monologue from the scenes taking place in the basement and replaced the character’s independent movement with being accidentally swept to the floor or something similar, the movie wouldn’t be fantasy anymore, yet if we removed those scenes entirely, it would be fantasy again?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

It’s far less ridiculous to simply declare that The Lego Movie is a fantasy movie than it is to say that it all hinges on the explicitness or lack thereof of a framing device.

To use some other examples:

The Wizard of Oz is a fantasy movie because the story we’re told from the moment that Dorothy is knocked out until the moment she regains consciousness is a fantasy movie; nobody went to the theater to see the amazing adventures of a young woman’s misfiring neurons, but her magical adventures in a land of wonder.

Big Fish is a fantasy movie because it contains a fantasy story; that this fantasy story is intertwined with a family drama makes it no less fantastical. The family drama keeps us grounded and invested, but no one went into that movie thinking, “Gee, I really hope that Billy Crudup reconciles with Albert Finney before he dies.” People might have thought that—or felt it, rather than explicitly having those words pass through their heads—while sitting there watching it, but that’s not why they showed up for it.

How about Edward Scissorhands? If you casually think about that movie, you might not even realize it has an explicit framing device. But the movie is explicitly a story we are being told, which means that any or all of the more impossible, unlikely, and phantasmagorical elements of the story might be imagined or exaggerated or just plain fabricated. The whole thing could be another “Big Fish” story.

Then there’s The Princess Bride. The heartwarming story of Columbo bonding with Wonder Years over a beloved classic story is important, sure. It adds an inflection to the other story, the story that he tells.

But when you get right down to it, what’s the difference between a fantasy story the movie tells to you directly and one the movie tells by means of addressing it to a character within the movie? Not much, by my reckoning. I’m not saying it’s not an important creative decision. The Princess Bride, The Lego Movie, and Big Fish would all be very different movies without their explicit frames. It’s hard to imagine them not being worse movies.

But every movie—every story—has at least an implicit frame. Even if a text is written in third person omniscient style with the least discursive and obtrusive voice possible, we are still being told this happened and that happened and he thought this and she said that and they did this thing. Convention dictates that an invisible narrator presented without appreciable personality or agenda should be fairly reliable, but what does “reliable” mean when we’re told the story of a thing that never happened and never could?

The lover of the narrator in Rachel Swirsky’s story never was a dinosaur, yes! And Han Solo never flew the Millennium Falcon. Captain Janeway never tricked the Borg Queen and returned to the Alpha Quadrant. Link never reunited the Triforce. These things are all both fictional and also impossible.

If you subscribe to the more SFnal-friendly versions of the multiverse theory (or to borrow the trappings of the other genre, the “all stories are true” theory of The Sandman), then of course these things did happen, somewhere, somewhen, somehow.

There is a world where Han Solo exists. In fact, there are infinite numbers of worlds in which he existed, which means that not only are there worlds in which he didn’t shoot first, there are worlds in which a trusting and slow Han Solo was shot dead by a cagey Greedo, and there are worlds in which Han Solo never owed money to Jabba because he was a vapor farmer instead of a spice smuggler.

So even allowing that there is a “real” world of Star Wars somewhere out there doesn’t let us say with any certainty or authority that any cut of a Star Wars movie or any particular of its expanded universe is “what really happened”.

All that we have in any SF/F story is the story, not the story of what really happened, just the story, or maybe more accurately, a story.

If we can imagine that any SF/F story we tell each other might be happening somewhere, we can imagine the same is true that any such story told within any story we’re telling each other.

The Great Speculative Fiction Multiverse not only demands we imagine that there actually a world where a little boy played out his frustration with his too restrictive dad using the world’s most amazing Lego set, it demands we imagine a world where conscious and autonomous Lego figures lived out that story. This demand does not change when we tell these two stories in proximity to each other, does it?

The distinction between “speculative fiction” and “not speculative fiction” is important, sure, but at the end of the day I’d say that the nature of the boundary is more something interesting to explore than necessary to pin down.

And I don’t need to know exactly where the dividing line between “fantasy” and “non-fantasy” lies to know that a story in which the narrator explains what might happen if a human being could magically transform into a human-sized T-rex is a fantasy story.

My mother read to me

“Why do you write?” is a question that most authors who find themselves famous enough will eventually face in an interview. I don’t anticipate that happening, but as luck would have it, it’s Mother’s Day, and that means I can give my answer anyway.

Most authors whose answer to this question get quoted enough for you to have read them have something clever to say. Isaac Asimov, for instance, said he wrote for the same reason he breathed: because if he stopped, he would die. This was not only pithy, but also had the virtue of being true in the inverse case, so far as anyone has noticed.

I don’t have a clever answer.

If you were to ask me why I write, I would ask you to clarify what you meant by “why”. It’s a slippery word, and I don’t trust it. We squeeze out of these three letters and one syllable more uses than a Hobbit can cram into “Good morning.” Do you mean for what purpose do I write? Or do you mean what is my motivation for writing? Or do you mean what is the reason that I write the things that I do and not other things? Or do you mean what proximate cause impels me to write in the moment?

In the very unlikely event that you were still interested in my answer, and the further unlikely event that you clarified that what you meant was the ultimate root cause of my condition of being a writer, I would tell you this:

My mother read to me.

When I was very young, she read to me and my siblings The Chronicles of Narnia (in the proper narrative order, thank you very much), and The Hobbit, and the Wrinkle in Time series, and other things, including the works of Mark Twain.

I was very young when all this started, young enough that I was not aware I had an age. I said “siblings” up there mostly out of force of habit as I’ve had decades to get used to being one out of four. It was just my older brother and myself at the beginning. As the younger one, I had the privilege of going along for the ride. There were frequent stops to define words and explain things that were unfamiliar to us.

I’m grateful for this experience for many reasons. It meant that I could greet a large number of the books I encountered throughout my schooling as old friends. Having heard A Wind in the Door meant that when I was diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder before I was midway through elementary school, I had a frame of reference for what would otherwise have been incomprehensible and thus terrifying. It means I get an additional layer of nostalgia when I put on an audiobook of one of my childhood favorites.

And I am dead certain that it is the ultimate reason I am a writer today.

Oh, there were steps along the way. I doubt I would have become a writer if I hadn’t gotten into D&D and other roleplaying games, which I wouldn’t have gotten into without comic books. My interest in writing also spun out of my interest in computer game development, which came out of video games. There was a certain amount of tagging along after my older brother in those things, naturally.

I think he probably retained more of those early story  times than I did, having been older at the time, but I daresay they were more of a foundational experience for me, having been younger at the time. Because of my mother, I grew up speaking fantasy as a first tongue. I walked in what ifs almost from my first steps. My world has been a multiverse for as long as I have known it.

Today, I thank my mother not just for giving me life, but giving me lives, and a shining multitude of worlds to spin them in. It is because of you, Mom, that I look deeper, go further, and ask what if?

Happy Mother’s Day.



One of my favorite moments when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier came when the sub-titular character was unmasked, and someone in the theater let out an exclamation of genuine surprise. I envy the person that experience. I really do. Same with the people who didn’t pick up that Anthony Mackie’s character was a high-flying superhero before the reveal.

And when I figure out the central mystery to a story before a big reveal, I feel great about it.

But not every story is a mystery, and I wouldn’t trade decades of comic fandom knowledge for not knowing who the Winter Soldier and Sam Wilson are before seeing it on the big screen.

And you know what? While I didn’t share in the experience of the people who were surprised, knowing who those people were didn’t diminish my enjoyment. It just changed the nature of it. My pleasure came from seeing how these familiar stories were pulled off this time.

And that’s something I think is often missing from our discussion about spoilers. The idea that knowing what’s going to happen diminishes the experience of hearing a story is a kind of strange and fairly modern idea. I mean, there came a point in time where Homer’s telling of the Trojan War became codified as “the official” one, but Homer himself was a performer, not a scribe. Do we think he told the story the same way each time? Do we think people edged away from him when he started up with that “RAGE!” spiel again because there was no point in hearing the story again if they already knew where it was going?

To imagine this requires us to ignore the fact that the story of the war with Troy was old when Homer was young. He might have increased its popularity, but it’s also likely that its permeation into his culture is why his telling became one of his best known works.

Of course, the historicity of Homer and the connection between the surviving written version of The Iliad and any such person is far from a settled question. But I think we have enough evidence to accept that people out there were singing of the rage of Achilles, and we can imagine one such person who was particularly successful at it and call this person Homer.

The point is that while there must of necessity have been a point in any Hellene’s life when they first heard of the rage of Achilles, the strength of Ajax, and the wiles of Odysseus, that point would not usually have been the last time they heard of these things, nor the one and only time they enjoyed them.

A few years ago, there was a raft of articles referring to a study that indicates that having a story spoiled may actually make it more enjoyable by in essence allowing us to sit back and just take the story as it comes. In the time since then, I have increasingly come around to this way of thinking.

I’ve also started to wonder if the disdain for spoilers isn’t tied to the idea that there is (or should be) a “real telling” of a story. The idea of “canon” to mean “the fixed, objective reality of What Really Happened in a fictional timeline” rather than “a body of work” is also a relatively new idea, one that probably dates back to the original Sherlockians trying to reconcile details that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had simply fired off and then forgotten about, but not much further in any concrete form, and one that has only really penetrated into the ranks of the storytellers themselves as young fans who grow up caring more about such continuity concerns become content producers themselves, and inspire another generation who cares about it even more…

I’ve seen people talking about a divide in fandom between people who see Canon as something to be kept, an immutable stone record that is mastered through memorizing and internalizing the minute arcana which makes it up, and those who see Canon as a set of building blocks and foundations to build on, to be mastered by exploration and analysis and creative rejiggering.

This divide is not intrinsically sexual, but is fairly heavily gendered in practice, as represented by the Geek Boy who quizzes Geek Girls about the trivia of the t-shirts they are wearing, while the same Geek Girls have folders full of fan art and fan fic.

The gender divide is not what interests me here, so much as how deeply entrenched the point of view of the Canon Keepers is and how it might be affecting the prevailing view of spoilers as, in effect, a crime against the art. Now, only the Sith deal in absolutes few things in life are black and white, so rather than describing Canon Keepers as people who believe there is absolutely one telling of a story, maybe I should try a more nuanced description: some tellings are official/real, and no others are. So you can accept the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the 616 comic universe and maybe some of the other versions as “real”, but for each “real version”, there is a single Approved Telling, and you have exactly one shot to see/hear it in the Approved Fashion.

The plot summary on Wikipedia, your excited co-worker at the next cubicle telling the person one cubicle over, the clever parody gifsets circulating on Tumblr… these are not the Approved Tellings, and they therefore diminish it by their existence.

In spelling out this speculation… and I should point out that much of the last two paragraphs are speculative… I’m not trying to say there’s anything wrong with the “carved in stone” approach to canon versus the “built from tinker toys” approach, nor with this potentially related approach to reading stories/seeing movies.

I’m just raising the question of where it comes from, in the interest of examining if it’s really necessary, on a person-by-person basis. I feel like some of us have just accepted the idea that spoilers spoil in the sense of ruining a movie.

You ever notice how the second time you watch a movie, you often catch a lot more than you did the first time? The genuinely clever lines, the little background details that show how much thought went into the worldbuilding and plot, stuff like that? This will always be the case, but I suspect based no my experience that you catch more of it when you’re also not trying to put together the larger details.

It’s true that I’ll only see a movie the first time once, but I also generally only see movies on the big screen once. If I want to get the most out of that opportunity, I believe I’m best served in most cases by having read a fairly detailed plot summary. I don’t want to know all the twists. I don’t want to know all the jokes. I don’t want to know all the background details.

But I want to know the story, in the same way that an ancient Greek crowding around a poet singing on the street corner would know of the rage of Achilles.