Shortcuts Through the Ghetto

by wjw on June 10, 2009

I was reading a fantasy novel the other day, by one of those “widely-acknowledged masters of the genre” we’re always hearing about, and the story had a familiar sort of shape.

(1) Young woman moves into spooky old house in a small village filled with eccentric relatives and retainers.

(2) Spooky things happen.

(3) Heroine receives explanation from Local Crone, to-wit: “There are Pixies living in the bottom of your garden!”

(Or, for Pixies in the Garden, feel free to read Elves in the Attic, Fay in the Fireplace, Goblins in the Henhouse. Whatever.)

(4) Heroine slaps forehead, says, “Pixies! Why didn’t I think of that!”

The rest of the book was the heroine dealing in fairly straightfoward fashion with the Pixie Situation.

All of which had me thinking, “Thank God we’re in a genre novel!” Because if we weren’t in a genre novel, the story would have featured a different Stage (4), in which the heroine decided that the Local Crone was batty, and gone about her life in a perfectly rational manner, setting out humane traps for whatever animals she actually thought were living in the garden, or maybe leaving around poisoned baits, and in the end being kidnapped by a tribe of enraged Pixies and turned into barbecue in the Otherworldly Secret Pixie HQ Beneath the Rhododendra.

But luckily for the protagonist, she was the heroine of a novel set in a genre in which people automatically believe the Local Crone, or the Wizard with the Pointy Hat, or whatever other elderly person may be in authority. Because as we all know, old people are benign, or at worse disinterested, and aren’t crazy, and never lie, and always know more about what’s going on than we do, and never try to take advantage of a young credulous person for financial gain or mere viciousness, whichever might apply.

And being in a genre novel also saved us about 50 pages of argument reading more or less like this:


HEROINE: No way!

LC: Way!

H: No way!

LC: Way!

Phew! Aren’t you glad we don’t have to read all that?

It’s not like fantasy has a monopoly on that kind of thing. If fantasy takes place in a world where Pixies live in the garden and batty old ladies are Secret Masters of the Universe, genre romance takes place in the universe in which the heroine and the hero lock eyes on the first page, obsess about each other for 450 misunderstanding-prone pages (which may include Hot Sex), and then have an HEA. Because once they commit to each other, as we know, all their problems are over!

Cozy mysteries take place in a world in which rich toffs with eyeglasses, or weird comic-opera Belgians with mustachios, can barge into a criminal investigation, and the local police welcome them with open arms! (Cozy mysteries, alas, never feature Hot Sex.)

Hard-boiled mysteries take place in the world where half the police force is on the pad.

And science fiction takes place in a world in which someone can say, “I’ve just invented a star drive that will allow me to travel to Betelgeuse in 4.3 minutes,” nobody ever says, “That would seem to violate many commonly understood laws of physics. I’d like to check your calculations!” (They never even say, “Good work! Let’s have Hot Sex!”)

Genre feels free to cut out all the boring, mundane stuff, and get to the part that turns the readership on. (Which is very often not Hot Sex, go figure.) We skip the part where the old lady tries to convince a modern young person of the existence of Pixies, we skip most of the really complex stuff that happens during courtship, let alone all the complex stuff that happens after marriage, we skip the scene where the weird Belgian tries to talk his way into the investigation, and science fiction skips, well, a lot of the actual science, especially if it’s inconvenient. (Lord knows I do.)

I think I’m probably an unusual reader, though, because I tend not to like these shortcuts so much. I actually enjoy the bits where the the cool, weird stuff of genre rubs up against the real world. I think it’s nifty when the scientist has a brilliant idea, but the bureaucracy won’t let him fund it; I think it’s great when the junior officers know how to handle the crisis, only the admiral thinks they’re wrong and orders them to do something that will only make the situation worse; I like it when the one person who knows how to deal with the Pixie Situation finds himself interviewed in a padded cell by the nice doctors at Bellevue.

Introducing all this fine grit into the well-oiled machinery of genre makes me think the work has something to do with the world I actually live in— because, let’s face it, I can never in real life get my personal machinery completely grit-free. (Which has unfortunate consequences during the Hot Sex, but let’s not get into that.)

Plus— on the fictioneering side— Reality simply becomes another obstacle that the protagonist has to overcome! And when that happens, it’s much, much cooler!

Reality! It’s the new black!

Margot June 11, 2009 at 5:02 am

Well, yes. But you're not imitating life either — you're mixing the thrills and the crunchy details for our amusement. As when Beloved says, "And in the meantime, practice your typing" or when Aiah has to put back on her lace and heels at the office.

But here's an odd thing — good fiction is differently amusing than a day at a (real) office, but not more so. At work you get soap-opera plotlines along with real frustration and the satisfaction of doing work. To be sure, I like my job.

And as for the aristocrat in the monocle — I bet you enjoyed Gaudy Night as much as I did.


Ralf the Dog June 11, 2009 at 6:56 am

I wonder if a good book is like a memory. When I remember events of 5 10 20 or 100 years ago I don't remember the boring parts.

Is the editing down of memory like the editing down of a book? Would an understanding of how memories change over time make us better writers?

mythusmage June 11, 2009 at 7:44 am

Just because I'm contradictory…

***Sheryl asked, with some trepidation, "Could it be pixies?"

"Pixies?" the old woman replied. "No, more likely rats or something like that."

"Rats, in my garden?"

Her host set the garden shears down and turned to face the young woman.

"Of course rats. Pixies have the courtesy to introduce themselves soon after you more in."***

(BTW, what is it with Blogger and *blockquote*?)

toadbile June 11, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Lethal traps and poisoned honey bait ARE rational reactions to a Pixie infestation.

Dave Bishop June 11, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Were these pixies in a US setting, by any chance? You see, pixies in a US setting never quite work for me. Yes, I know that the US was settled by Europeans, who just may have, deliberately or accidentally, imported their indigenous fairy fauna when they emigrated … but I just can't suspend my disbelief when I read about the 'wee folk' manifesting themselves in Los Angeles or Chicago.

Mathew June 12, 2009 at 3:01 am

On the subject of reality in SF, I've talked to other readers of SF about my love of the Dread Empire series, and after alot of discussion I finally figured out that I liked the realistic physics the most. Not necessarily the wormhole gates, but the way that little things like the ponderous capital ship battles, gimbled acceleration cages, and inertia played out in the story.
Biggest lazy writer cop-out: Inertial damping.

Margot June 12, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Regarding pixies in a US setting — How about Chris Adrian's "A Tiny Feast," published in the April 20 New Yorker? That put faeries not just in the US but in a children's oncology ward.

And what happens ecologically between exotic and native faery faunas? An unexpored genre.

Regarding the physics in Dread Empire — I agree. But the wonderful episode in which Sula docks with the yacht isn't right. The yacht would rotate but not oscillate; there's no restoring force. I've suspended bigger disbeliefs, though.

Ralf the Dog June 12, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I have discovered a new genre. The Economic Revenge Horror Film. I had the misfortune to watch a movie called "Drag Me To Hell." (Ok, it was not that bad.) It was about a loan officer who decided to foreclose on an old lady's house. The old lady does what anyone would do under the circumstances and put's a curse on the banker so that she will be dragged to Hell in three days.

I am sure that everyone who has lost their house or been denied a loan will like this movie.

The actor that plays the boyfriend of the banker is the guy who play's Mac in the Apple commercials. You don't see the daemon much so I don't know if it is the guy who play's PC. Most of the computers in the movie are Macs. The only people that have a non iPhone are the ones who burn.

Message of the move? Get an iPhone or burn in Hell!

Ralf the Dog June 12, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Dave, it is quite sad but we don't have pixies. Our native Jacalope population eats them.

dubjay June 14, 2009 at 1:50 am

If you start seeing inertial dampers in the Praxis series, you know I'm dead out of real ideas.

Margot, bear in mind re the yacht rescue that there was a mechanism by which the attitude jets got fired randomly . . . the yacht basically never settled down.

I couldn't actually tell whether the pixie infestation was in Britain or North America. The book was that vague about its location. Probably North America.

When I see a book with pixies or elves in North America, I just figure the writer was too lazy to find out about the things that the Indians thought were living underground or in the woods . . .

John Goodrich June 14, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Is it bad that I want tread the novel that involves the "Otherworldly Secret Pixie HQ Beneath the Rhododendra" BBQ?

SpeakerToManagers June 14, 2009 at 3:35 pm

And in the comments here are at least half a dozen ways of making that kind of fantasy novel better. How about the background action being the competition between the native supernatural population and the invading pixie species? Maybe the hero has to take sides, or falls in love with the local exterminator and helps fumigate against pixies.

This topic is similar to one I get into about how movies and much popular fiction have no idea how to show a character going through a day on the job, when that's anything other than being a cop, a doctor, or a soldier. Even geek genre writers are bad about showing how software engineers or graphic designers spend their days.

Steve Stirling June 14, 2009 at 5:53 pm

American Pixies: something like half the plants you see in a field in eastern North America are Eurasian in origin and arrived post-1492.

Why not pixies? I mean, we displaced the Indians, why not our supernatural fauna displacing theirs?

Or vice versa. Most of the squirrels in Britain these days are American gray squirrels, not the native red variety, but usually it's an east-to-west transition.

Steve Stirling June 14, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Convincing the uninitiated: the easy way is just to have something unmistakably supenatural/SFnal -happen-.

Then, unless the viewpoint character is deeply stupid, they have to accept the evidence of their eyes.

What annoys me is a contemporary character who sees, shall we say, a saucer landing or gets sucked through a dimensional doorway and sees a dragon perched on a castle tower, or is attacked by some super-strong character who drinks their blood…

… but apparently has no experience with the -concepts- of 'aliens' or 'other dimensions' or 'vampires'.

Apparently those works are set in an alternate reality where pop culture doesn't permeate everything.

Dave Bishop June 16, 2009 at 10:00 am

I take your point, Mr Stirling. Logically pixies in America work – but, imaginatively, they don't seem to work for me. Perhaps it's got something to do with the way that some authors approach the subject?

I know that I should read 'Little Big' by John Crowley, which may be the last word on the subject (possibly?), but I can't seem to get past the first chapter.

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