Portrait of the Author As a Component of a “Punk-Or-Core” Formulation
From time to time, people who wish to comment on science fiction and fantasy will choose to typify the current state of the genre in a way that suits their rhetorical needs, often creating a new-and-possibly-not-especially-cogent subgenre of it by offering up some noun with the suffixes “-punk” or “-core” attached. On occasion, in course of explaining their new spin on where science fiction is at the moment, I or a specific work of mine will be offered up as an example, or as a cautionary tale, if their diagnosis of the current state of science fiction is particularly dire.
I generally find these post hoc attachments of me or my work to newly-minted punk-or-core movements intriguing. Both because it’s fun to see what things of mine get used as examples, and because it’s nice to be thought notable enough that dropping in one of my works is seen either as bolstering the existence of the thing, or damning the thing as an abomination. Hey, I’m still in the mix, you know? An easy-to-make reference point that most people who follow the field will get without too much Googling. It’s gratifying to be ubiquitous. Good for me.
I also think these attachments are usually incorrect to some degree or another. I think there are some distinct thematic streams in the flow of current science fiction, and some of them might even be rivers, but I’m not sure that I’m sailing along in any of them specifically. It’s not that I’m too special and precious and exist only in my own pond. I think it’s more that the waterway I mostly traffic in is not a stream or a river, but a canal — you know, those artificial waterways people create, usually for commercial purposes. This canal may intersect or run parallel to these other streams or rivers (and here the analogy might break down, honestly I don’t know the hydrological mechanics of canals when they encounter other bodies of water, but just work with me here, okay, thanks), and where this happens, there’s going to be commonality. But after that short confluence, every one goes on their merry way.
My canal, as it turns out, runs across a lot of thematic ground, and does a fair amount of intersecting. Some of that is by design, since I am easily bored, as a human and a writer, and like to splash around in new places. Some of that is just following the lay of the land. At the end of the day, however, it means that depending one’s inclinations and rhetorical needs, and contingent on examples, I can be grouped in with the gun-humping dudes who write military science fiction, or the woke SJW scolds who are currently ruining the Hugos, or pretty much wherever else you need me to go to make your point.
And at least superficially you won’t be wrong. I mean, I did write that story that you’re pointing to, and it does exist in that sphere, and I’m not sorry I wrote that thing, and may write a thing like it again, if I have a mind to. But I suspect on a deeper level — the level that actually makes your point something more than a facile, half-baked thesis to burble out onto a blog post or podcast because content content content — using me as an example is not hugely useful.
In furtherance of my point, it might be useful for me to note the things that I think my fiction writing tends to be, and what it tends not to be. Bear in mind as I note these that I am the author, and my view of my work is filtered through my ego and the limitations of my understanding of my own self. Got it?
Okay, then, here are the things I think my work tends to be:
Commercial. As in, I write my fiction with the intent to sell it, and I pay attention to the market. I famously wrote Old Man’s War because I went into a bookstore to see what was selling in science fiction and said to myself, huh, I see a lot of military science fiction here, maybe I should write that. I don’t do that anymore because I don’t have to, but I am still resolutely and unapologetically writing in the mode of I want to sell a kajillion of this. Overlapping this:
Accessible. And no, “commercial” and “accessible” are not the same thing. If you have a specific audience that’s large enough, you can create work commercial to that audience specifically, and not worry about whether anyone outside that group can latch onto it without doing homework first. I don’t write only for the crowd that’s already there, I write so that people who are curious can get in. Related:
Middlebrow. I play with cool and abstruse concepts but I don’t typically dwell on them in the text beyond what is useful for the telling of the story. This is the reason the one subgenre I am almost never lumped into is “hard science fiction.” I give just enough of a concept that readers feel smart for getting it, and not enough they feel stupid for not getting it.
Nostalgic. Old Man’s War reads (very intentionally) like a Heinlein novel; Redshirts explicitly plays on original series Star Trek tropes. Fuzzy Nation is an actual reboot of an H. Beam Piper novel. Generally speaking my work can easily be placed on a line with already-existing “classic” books within the genre. They also tend to play to existing themes and tropes in science fiction, either to explore them or to invert or subvert them.
Humorous. Humor is story lubricant — it helps get readers comfortable and gets them to move along with the plot. Also humor remains a differentiator for me in the field; it’s surprisingly difficult to do well in a general sense (for any genre, not just SF/F), and science fiction has not generally valued it beyond its most broad applications.
All of the above combine to make my work one overarching thing:
Familiar. Basically, if you’ve read science fiction at any point since roughly 1950 then you can hook into what I’m doing, in terms of style, tropes and themes, whether I am doing space opera, near-future science fiction, or anything else. Now, allow me to suggest I am also doing other things beyond merely and cynically rehashing what’s come before. I flatter myself that I have added to the field and not just restated it. But for better or worse, what I have added largely exists within the boundaries of the current design of the field. That design, for reasons both positive and deeply negative, was almost perfectly constructed for a writer like me to enter into it when I did.
Now, what things is my work not?
Innovative. As noted above, I don’t tend to be a fiction writer to break molds; I tend to be a writer who looks at the mold and figures out how best to use it as it is, or leave it alone if it’s not something I find useful or interesting. That’s fine, but that’s not everyone, and it shouldn’t be. Other writers, for whom the field has not been constructed so congenially, either for their taste or for who they are (or both) are currently taking a sledgehammer to parts of it and/or are building on previously unused land. This is useful and absolutely necessary work, and I applaud it and celebrate it, and work to be part of making room for it within the genre. I also recognize that the nexus of the most significant innovation in the field is happening away from what I am doing.
Didactic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with didactic literature, incidentally. It can be really useful, and obviously science fiction is filled with books, classic or otherwise, written didactically and/or absolutely read didactically by their fans. But I don’t tend to fill my books with explicit exhortations about what is best in life. I mean, I have a blog for that. There is irony here in that many of my detractors will tell you my fiction work is didactic as fuck; I do suggest that they have generally taken their dislike for my personal social/political positions and overlaid those onto my fiction. Which, fine, but I generally disagree, and anyway expression of opinion is not necessarily didactic in itself (on that note, I should say that as my upcoming book The Kaiju Preservation Society takes place in 2020, there is some real-world opinion leakage there, because how could there not be).
Ornate. Either in construction – my plots and stories tend to be straightforward in their composition and linear in their telling – or on the level of language use and sentence construction. Very few people come to my work for the sheer poetry of the text, or for the mirror maze design of the stories.
Exclusive. Some very excellent work has been created with no audience, or a very small audience, intended other than the creator themselves. Other very excellent work was created without a concern for finding an audience for it (even if the audience for it turned out later to be huge). And then there are the people really who do just write for themselves, for pleasure or compulsion or a little of both, and are surprised that anyone else might care. I can respect all of those, but that is so not me. For reasons of ego and income, I have never written fiction without the idea of others reading it. That has implications for both what I write and how.
Influential. This is a tricky one so hear me out: Inasmuch as I write well within the existing lines of the genre and my work generally can be plotted out on a line with other more foundational authors and works, the chance that my writing in itself will be influential for itself is low. It doesn’t mean that PR people don’t use the line “For fans of Scalzi” in the marketing materials, or that people haven’t been inspired by me or my work to write their own stuff. But the mode of my writing is well-established. If you write like me, you write like a lot of people do.
(Having laid these out, let me stress that I think each of these rubrics is value-neutral and that each them can be performed positively or negatively, or indifferently. You can write a stone-cold classic that is essentially familiar; you can be innovative as hell and make a complete textual mess. And vice-versa.)
(And while we’re at it, let me additionally stress that I am not running myself down here. Folks, I’m really fucking good at what I do, and bluntly, right at the moment, I’m not sure anyone else does what I do in the genre better than I do it. I also think what I do is desired, appreciated and useful in the field, both in an artistic and commercial sense. Don’t cry for me. I am fine. But let’s all not pretend about what I am and am not, relating to the current field of science fiction literature.)
Now, what you might notice for all of the above is that none of it is really about theme or subject or (with the exception of the bit about ornamentation) style, which are the things that are at the heart of most punk-or-core formulations, and of subgenres as a whole. Cyberpunk and steampunk, as two well-understood examples, were largely about theme: Technology and how it makes (and remakes) society. Some writers do tend to stick to a particular theme, or at least are known for it due to their most famous works. William Gibson is the father of cyberpunk; China Mieville is forever associated with “New Weird.”
There is nothing wrong with that! Gibson and Mieville are not exactly hurting in terms of notability and influence. But also, it’s not what I do. As noted before, my commercial path intersects a lot of subgenres, and there is no consistency, in terms of sales or critical response, to which subgenre I write in and what gets noticed.
Which I consider a feature, not bug, to my career. I like my commercial/critical reputation not being tied into a single theme/subgenre/series. I would be (mildly) sad if my career were defined as, say, the Old Man’s War series and then just “everything else.” I love the Old Man’s War series! I’m going to write another one in it (eventually)! Also, part of the reason I love that series is that I don’t resent it for being the only thing of mine anyone wants to read (and the OMW series doesn’t confine itself to a single subgenre in any event, so).
For these reasons, I generally find being lumped into a “punk-and-core” formulation with regard to me and my work superficially accurate at best, and inaccurately reductive beyond that – I hop between themes a lot, and my time in any one subgenre tends to be transitory rather than rooted. I mean, don’t let me stop you if you think you can make a reasonable argument otherwise; as I said, my own view of this is rooted in my own ego and self-regard, and I don’t claim to be a perfect arbiter of me.
I will say, however, I am likely to continue to do things as I have done them, because it works for me and I’m having fun doing it this way. This may or may not do damage to your punk-and-core argument somewhere along the line. I’m fine with that. You should be, too.