Saturday, August 22, 2009

I write chocolate

I was putzing around online and came across this video of a debate between several huge names in the science fiction genre including J. Michael Straczynski (who will always be a favorite of mine for the AMAZING Babylon 5 as well as his many great writing stints on comics like Spider-Man and, more recently, Thor. He also wrote episodes of everything from The Real Ghostbusters to He-Man. This guy is connected somehow to just about everything I hold dear in one way or another) and Harlan Ellison, just to name a few. It’s a debate about “Science Fiction” vs. “Sci-Fi”. While this showed up on the SciFi Channel’s website as a way to draw attention to their name change to SyFy (which was probably based on marketing or some other commercial reason…I don’t know. I didn’t check), I’m not addressing that whole thing at all.

Mainly, this stems from several conversations I’ve had with my agent. I’ve never hidden the fact that I write in other genres. Mostly, I’ve written a ton of westerns and have also done some mystery. I’d really love to do something in the science fiction arena and have put together several proposals that are being shopped around. When I speak of this to my agent, I say “sci-fi” merely as a way to cut down on syllables or typing. That’s all I’ve ever viewed it as. Just a simple shortening of a term for convenience sake. “Oh no,” my agent said. “You really should say science fiction. Nobody in that field likes the term sci- fi.” Me being me, I asked, “Why?” She told me about how Harlan Ellison once said at a convention or somewhere that calling it sci-fi was like lumping your wife and mother in with diseased hookers and street trash. No offense to diseased street trash, by the way. Anyway, I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the gist of it. To anyone who knows who Harlan Ellison is, this is well within the range of things he might say. I don’t know him personally, but I do know he’s famous for being very outspoken about a great many things. He’s passionate about his craft and I can appreciate that. Still, I thought this was a little extreme for me just trying to shorten a phrase down to a very common abbreviation.

For a few years, I’ve wondered if this is really a touchy subject in the genre as a whole or if it’s just touchy with Harlan Ellison. I’ve never seen the appeal of being in groups and debating topics like this. I do what I do and don’t want to argue about it afterward. My guess was that “science fiction” has more of an emphasis on science and “sci-fi” is more of a whiz-bang-explosion sort of thing. Turns out I was partially correct. Here’s the interview.

Ok. So I watched this and came away with mixed emotions. First of all, I understand the difference between the two terms and think these people do have a very valid point. Science fiction and sci-fi ARE two separate things. I get that. Second, I didn’t appreciate how arrogant and condescending the literary folks were being. They want to make it two separate sub-genres? Fine. That sort of division is necessary and I can see how a writer striving (and in several of the panelists’ cases, succeeding) to create genuinely intellectual stories that examine the human condition wouldn’t want to be lumped in with stories about giant space stations blowing shit up just to watch the pretty lights. But that doesn’t give them the right to look at the other sub-genres and call them shit. You want to know what’s really limiting this, or any, genre? The assumption that it has only one flavor.

The way I see it, consuming anything whether it’s books, movies, games or photography is like consuming food. The literary side of the argument in this video came off as vegetarians pounding the table, swearing that ALL FOOD SHOULD BE VEGETABLES!!!! Or worse yet, since vegetarians are basically the genre with several other sub-genres therein, they’re saying all food should be TOFU!! “Hey! Tofu is good for you! It makes you a better person. Eating any of that other shit is demeaning us as a species and rotting us from the inside out! EAT TOFU AND LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!” You want to be a vegetarian? Fine. Don’t yell at me for eating what I want. You’re coming off as an elitist dick. Just crank it down a notch.

What struck me here is that these authors seemed to come at this from a perspective that science fiction readers only want to (or should) read one sort of thing. People generally read a lot of different stuff. Just like any other consumption, it boils down to your classic bell curve. You’ll tend to focus on one spot, but you’ll still hit other spots on either side. All of the science fiction fans I know may enjoy the intellectual stuff more than the explosion-oriented fare or vice versa, but they still dabble in the other stuff too. Moviegoers like to watch stuff blow up, but they also like to watch thought provoking drama and see the occasional pie-in-the-face comedy. And speaking of movies, the authors in that video threw out the “giant ant” movies as the shit that supposedly drags down quality science fiction. Are you telling me those guys don’t enjoy the occasional giant ant or explosion fest? Are you telling me they weren’t raised on that stuff? But now that they’re older and THEIR tastes have changed, everyone else’s should too. Most of these guys write comic books! Even there, you’ve got comics about teen suicide and ones about superheroes. They’re just different. What’s the debate??

On one hand, I find the fact that there is a debate at all to be sad. I realize this is an old video, but the sentiment can still be found in a lot of places regarding plenty of topics. Isn’t it obvious that there are different flavors in any genre and that’s what makes the whole thing so rich? It doesn’t all have to be purely intellectual literature. Every now and then, let’s see some cool aliens blow shit up. The fact that one end of the genre says the other end is “debasing and stupefying the public” just seems pathetic. This video was about sci-fi (yeah, I said it) but it could just as easily be about horror. Trust me, Skinners is new in the field, but I still deal with people thinking everything’s gotta be something else. “Is this like Twilight? No? Oh, so it’s about a monster hunter like Anita Blake? Not quite? Something other than those two things?? Is that possible???”

A writer needs to be passionate about what they do. Without that, they won’t have the steam to make it in this business. And a writer can’t write in every style. There are intellectuals, there are visionaries, there are technical experts, there are entertainers and plenty of others. Any one artist will excel in one or two categories and dabble in others with varying degrees of success like the ol’ bell curve. Isn’t this all common sense?? It seems pretty basic, but then I see a debate about it and hear that I can’t refer to one without upsetting the other.

This really got under my skin because if I was to get my proposal written and published, it would fall squarely into the “sci-fi” category. According to these guys, I write shit and only those who strive to be Phillip K Dick or Isaac Asimov are worth reading. Going back to the food analogy, health food can taste good and is good for you, but the junk food makes you happy you have taste buds. The crappy, unhealthy, not-so-intellectual stuff is what makes life fun. Hey, there’s a word that got completely lost in this debate FUN!!

So, I write chocolate. I realize I’m not in the same league as a fully decorated Master of Horror, but I’m not trying to be. They deserve their awards for examining the human condition. I’m writing the stuff I like, just like they’re writing the stuff they like. We’re all getting readers and many of them are the SAME readers who are pulling from different spots of the same buffet. I’m also not pounding the table and saying that all of that intellectual bullshit is ruining MY genre and how dare they lump me in with those other stuffed shirts!!!! I’m coming from the camp of writers who like watching stuff blow up and enjoy writing about cool monsters who do cool things. You know what life would be like without chocolate? It’d be just as boring, drab and mind-numbing as life with only one flavor of science fiction and only one educational television show. If I have to eat nothing but sprouts (no matter how many different ways you cook ‘em) to live a long life, then maybe it’d be worth indulging in some junk food every now and then just to check out of that gray f’ing world a little sooner.

This is what happens without editors

I'm Marcus Pelegrimas, author of the SKINNERS series. Here you'll find various ramblings about movies, video games, TV, and...oh yeah...those books I write. If there's anything you'd like to discuss, just let me know. I try to update whenever the mood strikes me, so feel free to leave comments. There may be some occasional foul language, but anyone who's too easily offended probably doesn't read my stuff anyway.

Free Stuff

Here's how it goes. As usual, I've got my truckload of promo covers from EOS Books. I'll be going to some conventions, so I hope to see you there and I'll gladly sign your books. If you can't make it to a con, just email me your name, address and any inscription so I can send you a signed cover.

BONUS ---> If you would be so kind as to write up a review for any or all Skinners books and publish it on a site like, Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any other major review site, I can send you something extra. I made up some bookmarks (which I'll sign) and I've even put together some Shimmy's VIP passes (which I'll also sign). Can't guarantee the passes will get you into a real strip club, but I think they look pretty cool. Send me a link to your review along with your name, address and inscription, and I'll get these out to you as well.