And So It Begins

Well then.

I received my contracts just now for all four books in my space opera series, and by so signing have committed myself to four or five years hard labor in the spice mines of my soul. I’m kidding. I couldn’t be happier with how my career is going. Like I said in my last moon-faced post, this is all I’ve ever wanted, all I’ve dreamed of in life (except maybe for love and unlimited new Star Wars movies from now until I die. One of those came true).

But it’s done. Or it’s started. Hard to say which is more true, now I stop to think on it. In any event, I am now–by all the measures of gods and men (or at least legally speaking)–an author.

Couple other life updates! My revised draft is due to my wonderful editor, Sarah Guan, by June 30th, so I’ve battened down ye hatches and gotten to work. These days, that means working 9-5 for Baen Books and then hurrying home to crank out 2000 words for DAW.

Also on the subject of work, I have at last quit waiting tables at the Casa Carbone. I’d worked their nearly seven years, since about this time in 2009. Now that I have a proper job and a book deal, it seemed that it was time to move on. There’ve been a lot of changes in the past couple of months. Only 4 months ago I was just a student, waiting tables and waiting for graduation. It’s weird how quickly things change.

Anyway…back to work.

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So Much News

Much has happened in the five months since last I posted. Much and more. So much that really I can be forgiven for not having posted in so long.

When last I posted, I was still on the hunt for a literary agent, working full time as a waiter, part time as a student, and for free as an intern at Baen Books. Now, I’m an alumnus, working full time for Baen Books, and I just turned in my resignation at the restaurant I’ve worked at for seven years. And not only did I find myself an agent, Shawna McCarthy of McCarthy Literary, but she found me a publisher in Betsy Wollheim of DAW.

I’m going to be a novelist. Whaaaaaaaaaa!

I remember in tenth grade, my biology teacher, the somewhat creepy Mr. Wolfe, once asked me what I wanted to be/do when I grew up. When I told him I was a novelist he said, “Can you be a novelist without publishing anything?” Flippantly, I told him I could. While I did then and still honestly believe that, privately I felt myself something of a fraud. But now? My contract should be in the mail any day now, and I should be getting notes from my new editor, Sarah Guan, a little after that. I’ve still got a long ways to go, revisions being what they are, but I’m getting there.

The whole thing has been a truly surreal experience. It’s all happened so fast I’m surprised I don’t have whiplash. And everyone’s been so nice. Certain professionals have compared me to a certain favorite writer of mine (which floored me), and everyone has been so kind and genuinely excited about this thing I created. I still don’t know how to react. I’m looking forward to working with the team at DAW, and to finishing a book I am and can be truly proud of.

It’s strange to be changing, though, to have put aside the student’s cap and to be putting aside the tray and apron that have been the tools of my profession for my entire working life. My whole professional life is going into the world of writing: working for one publisher, writing for another. It’s all I ever wanted, and I can’t believe it’s all happening so soon.

The Waiting Game

You will doubtless have noticed that I’ve failed in my New Year’s Resolution by now: I haven’t posted since the sixth. Of January. Huzzah. But if I’m being honest I don’t quite know what else I expected. I have a terrible track record of maintaining a blog–and my life just gets busy once the school semester starts. But it’s nearly over, and every time it ends I come back, so I’m hoping that maybe school is just bad for me.

But it’s nearly over, and it’s been a hell of a four month stretch, friends, Romans…I’ve been in class, hosted a few functions, turned 22…I’ve been interning with a publishing house through university (and enjoying every minute of it)…but most importantly: I’ve finished my book. (That last sentence was a grammatical mess, but I can do what I want, it’s my blog.)

And I promise the book’s grammar is better than that last sentence.

It’s done, though! Really, totally done. Everyone reading this post at time of writing will have known me personally, probably for years, and all of you will doubtless have grown sick and tired of hearing 12, 15, 18, and 20-year-old Christopher talking about his damn book. But 22-year-old Christopher did it. The project stands at just under 130,000 words and is the first in an intended series of 5 science fiction novels. It’s really quite bizarre, having finished a project conceived in the second grade. I’ve spent the past month–discounting the time spent doing work and school work and drafting the query letter–mostly just staring aimlessly into space. I’ve played so much Minecraft I hurt my hands, and less Bloodborne than I would like, since it requires more of an investment of my time than I’ve been able to muster most days. I bought Xenoblade 3D and haven’t even touched it yet, and I spent the better part of three evenings watching Netflix and Marvel’s particularly excellent Daredevil show.

I have also started writing a new, unrelated book. I really like it, but I’m trying not to get too invested in the whole ordeal yet because I’m waiting on the first one.

Because most of what I can do right now is wait, and plan sequels. (Which I do need to do, outlines for books 3 and 4 of that first series are a little sketchy at the moment.) But really, waiting accounts for the vast bulk of my life. Those who know me will recognize the pun, as I wait tables at a local restaurant 5-6 nights a week. More to the point, I’m waiting for returns on my query letter. After seeing what the world of self-publishing looks like, I decided it wasn’t pretty and resolved to get my book out there the old-fashioned, more legitimate way. So I drafted a query letter and sent it to agents. Five agents, to be precise, and between now and the 16th of May I should get responses back, and once I have them, I’ll send more letters out in sets of five until I get a yes or die trying. I recognize that getting a book published is a particularly hard world to crack into, but this has been my dream since I was about 8-years-old, and I’m not about to back down this close to the edge. I’ve put too much time and effort and education into becoming a writer…so I do next to nothing for now, perversely.

I’ve always been uncomfortable doing nothing, it makes me twitchy. I’m happiest doing things and getting them finished so that when I do relax and can do so all the more with the knowledge that I’ve done all I can. But it’s extremely nerve-wracking, waiting on these emails. Every time I see the little email icon on my phone, I get excited for just a second before I see it’s more spam. I’m not afraid of rejection letters, I just want answers so I can move along with my questionings.

The more astute among you readers will notice I referenced working for a publishing house, and you might be asking, “Christopher, why don’t you just ask your employer?” Well, I don’t want to. I don’t want it to look like I’m only interning with them because I want their attention. I’m not looking to pander to anyone or to take the easy way out. I don’t want to not earn what I get. Especially with this. I want my accomplishments to be meritocratic. I want my book to be published because someone genuinely believes in it and not because I filed things for them all semester. I don’t want to be handed anything. Which is why I haven’t even told my employers I’ve written a book, I don’t want to look like a climber.

I’m going to do this by the book, even if it means waiting for weeks and months on an answer. At least I have Bloodborne, I guess? As good a way to spend my waiting time as any…and I guess I’ve got one more final paper to write for class.

Best wishes.

My Greatest Fear

Spiders? No. Those guys are about two grams, tops. Boots squish them. Let’s all stop being afraid of spiders. They aren’t scary. Calm down.

No, I’m talking about something much worse. And this is going to be a serious one, so brace yourselves, brothers and sisters.

I am deeply and frequently afraid that everything I have ever known and cared about will one day cease to be and matter and to be remembered in this universe. Before moving on, you need to understand. I do not believe there is an afterlife, much as I’d like to wish there were. There’s no evidence outside the realm of faith to suggest that who and what we are goes on in any way at all, as far as I can see. You can disagree, I won’t be offended, I don’t care. Notice that I said “in this universe.” That’s important.

I’m not worried that humanity will wipe itself out, we’re too stubborn for that. I’m not worried that I’ll die one day, I lost all my grandparents in a year during my teens. I know we all die, and that’s cool, it makes life more beautiful. I recognize that my literary contributions (should I be allowed to make any) are like to be considered middling at best, and that in a century or two not a soul will remember my name.

But I’m absolutely terrified of what the humankind of a hundred thousand years from now will look like. I’m worried that Shakespeare and Da Vinci and Sophocles and Einstein and Sagan will be forgotten, that their ghosts will moulder forgotten in the mass grave of human history.

Scary, right?

No, seriously. I lose sleep over this, and it’s not something I ever really have to face. Indeed, it’s something I refuse to face. With the exception of a few close friends, no one at time of writing here has read my science fiction (maybe no one ever will, who knows?), but the future there–about 20,000 years removed from this century–shares so much in common with our world today, and indeed with ages past.

Now there are a few reasons for this, mostly literary. For a start, I really like fantasy, and have endeavoured in my writing to apply the tropes of epic fantasy to a hard science fiction adventure story through the strong hero character in a way of both engaging and refuting the Great Men Theory of History. I also am limited in that I have not been to the future, cannot imagine what it will really be like, so I have to guess, to speculate, based on what I know: the past and present. But I’m also building a future with which I am at peace. Not perfectly so, because it’s a rough place, and humanity has retained that core sense of cruelty which defines our species in the world. But at peace because my vision of humanity far in the future has retained an understanding of and a reverence for its past, and in my future my own ghost rests easy in light of this. The legacy of our civilization is safe, even if only a few people bother to study it. Shakespeare, Da Vinci and the rest stand remembered, and that’s a pretty good thing.

This seems a trifling concern, since people are even now starving and suffering the effects of racism and sexism, and everyone else is busy righting the wrongs of this world, while I’m writing the wrongs of another. (By the gods, that was clever of me.) But attending to the future is never a bad concern, and remembering the past in context allows us to understand and to better direct our own actions. The atrocities and indiscretions of our day and age are enacted because we, the people, allow them to go unmarked and unremonstrated. Our time teaches its lessons too, and this is my greatest fear, that our art and our struggles and revelations will fall flat and vanish under the booted march of time, and all we’ve accomplished and all we’ve fought for will be as nothing to tomorrow’s mankind.

Because then we will not only have died, but we will never have lived at all.

We can fake the survival of our spirit by writing science fiction, but only the next generation can make it real.

Remember When I Had a Blog?

Because gee, I sure didn’t. Man. But if the past two years have taught me anything, it’s that I’m really good at not following through on things. I’ve abandoned two YouTube video projects, as well as a third and fourth one that never saw the light of day. I’ve left Bravely Default, Pokemon Y, Tales of Graces, Xenoblade, Dark Souls II, Twilight Princess and Oracle of Ages unfinished (most of those replays, but come on), I never finished my Stargate SG-1 rewatch, never started my rewatch of Game of Thones (mostly because I know it will consume my life), and stopped rereading A Song of Ice and Fire halfway through book three (because the Red Wedding makes me weepy). And on a more serious note, I broke off one and a half relationships and excommunicated a roommate.

All of this since that post about Disney World, which remains a truly magical realm above the mess of my life.

The one thing that seems immune to my apparent lapses in attention is my writing. And I guess that if I had to pick one thing to transcend my problems, it’s that. I finished the first draft on 24 September 2014, and began the second draft about two days later, after printing all 522 pages–151,000 words–and buying a dozen fine-tip red sharpies. (I know the date precisely because I marked it on the title page in red ink).

It was a beautiful time.

Since then–and it is now 31 December 2014, an oddly mythical 99 days later–and in that time I have been through 108,302 words of the second draft. That’s just under 1100 words a day, which is more impressive when you consider that about half of it has been since December 13th, the day school ended for the semester. I’ve been on a roll, and between that, Dragon Age Inquisition (which I successfully played through to the end), and visiting with friends and family over the holidays, I’ve been having a grand time. Not even work’s kept me down, and I’ve found serving the same tired lasagna to the same tired people 5-6 nights a week has become something somewhere between therapeutically humanizing and simply a thing I have to do. It’s routine, and not uncomfortable in that quality of routine-ness. I have also concluded–beyond a shadow of a doubt–that school is bad for me. Since I’ve been done with exams I haven’t actually hated being alive. I’ve woken up early, earlier even than I had during the semester, and have written well and for a long while at a stretch. I haven’t felt the creeping spectre of depression, haven’t hated my life day after day. Now that may sound ungrateful, as I live in the world’s richest country, have enjoyed the benefit of higher education at the school I most wanted to attend, but I’ve decided that that life is not for everyone, and probably wasn’t for me. But I did it anyway, because I also believe that life is in part doing a series of things you don’t want to do, and that we all need to learn that and accept we don’t all get hot tubs on our own yacht filled with whiskey. (In fact, most of us only get the whiskey…and if I had to pick one part of the dream, well…)

But I digress. The point here is that things are good. I expect the second draft will be finished by 1 March 2015, and a third, tightening draft could be wrapped up by the time my penultimate college semester is over. If all goes well, I’ll be hunting for literary agents come April. I’ve already got a short list, I just hope I can impress one of them.

I also fully intend–and we’ll see how this goes–to re-up on my initial promise to use this blog. I’m not saying I’ll be here monthly, or biweekly, or weekly. I’m saying I’ll be here more than annually. We’ll see if I can stick to that, and see if I can disprove history.

On Speculative Fiction

On the Validity of Speculative Fiction as Literature

I have taken more literature classes over the course of my life than I have any other subject. Fitting, perhaps, for an English Major at NC State, to be sure, but my love for the subject reaches back much further than that. It was in first grade when I first decided that I would be a writer, when my playground activities turned from four square and dodge ball to imagining these fantastical scenarios in which my friends and I played our favorite characters and saved the world at least once a week. I was, over the course of my grade school career not only Obi-Wan Kenobi, but a Ninja Turtle, Link from the video game series The Legend of Zelda, and of course: Batman. Whilst this did of course set me up for an endless stream of ridicule at the hands of the archetypal “cool” kids, I—awkward, out-of-shape kid that I was—found my main role as the chronicler. It fell to me week after week to keep a log of what post-lunch tomfoolery happened on the playground, fell to me to account for the struggles in which a Jedi Knight, a Digimon and a pair of Power Rangers fought valiantly against an endless stream of universe-threatening villains played bravely and with aplomb my friend David.

And it fell to me to suggest, early in the third grade, that we might be better served creating our own characters to play as, that we might create some sort of overarching story, rather than select our roles on a weekly basis. I learned storytelling at the knee of my own frustration with my friends’ collective inability to imagine a bigger picture, and eventually I came to realize I didn’t need the help of my friends at all in order to tell a story. I retreated inwards, with everything they had taught me, and started anew.

It wasn’t until the fifth grade I started really getting the sense that I was a little different. I went to a small Jesuit-run Catholic school, and with not even fifty kids in my entire grade, a group of seven dorky kids playing pretend seemed to be the whole of recess: we weren’t weird. But David moved away, and Matt started playing football, and soon it was just me and my books. Now, I had the good fortune to be born in the Harry Potter generation, where everyone was at least reading that, so I retained some tenuous link to the world of my peers. But I outstripped them quickly. Fifth grade marked my discovery of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in all my life no single novel has has so lasting an impact as The Lord of the Rings. From there, I found myself reading Shakespeare and—for whatever reason—Dante. You scoff, I know, but I advanced quickly.

To me though, it was all the same, I would go from Hamlet to The Lord of the Rings to The Inferno to Frank Herbert’s Dune (where I tarried a long while, reading and rereading). I never learned to distinguish between what the ivory tower calls Literature from speculative fiction. Certainly I learned that some books were for young adults—and that as a general rule they were of a less literary caliber—but no one ever bothered to tell me that Tolkien was somehow less deserving of praise than Hemingway, or that William Gibson deserved derision while Zora Neale Hurston ought to be pedestalized. In the same way that a child has yet to inherit the racial prejudices of his parents, I had not learned to put the speculative fiction at the back of the bus.

Then I arrived in college, and everything started to change. I started taking creative writing classes, as any student interested in being a novelist would be. My first instructor, a grad student named Lucas, was not overwhelmingly enthused with my love for speculative fiction. When I announced my plans to write a science fiction short story to him, I remember still how his face fell, how he sighed heavily, as if to say “Oh, Christopher…things had been going so well!” I was genuinely confused at this reaction, as I had never been exposed to what I can only think of must be a hierarchy of genre whose existence one is presumably made privy to upon their entrance into the tweed-and-ink word of upper academia.

And I, being poor—had no real idea.

My first story went very well, was received extremely well by my classmates and by Lucas, surprisingly. He said after the reading that he was surprised how I focused on the characters and the drama rather than on “the technobabble and bug-eyed monsters” (here I paraphrase, I regret that the events are a few years past and I cannot quite remember the precise words). I was rather taken aback by this—why shouldn’t science fiction focus on character and character drama? Character is the absolute soul of literature: We enjoy Hamlet because of Hamlet, not because of Elsinore or the sword fighting. That being said, the sword fighting is an attractor, come for the sword fighting, stay for the characters. I don’t see why the window dressing—whether it’s drafty and paranoid Elsinore or the deserts of far-flung Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune—should much change the drama of the moment. Is Paul’s forced suppression of grief over the murders of his father and first son and his thinly suppressed rage any the lesser because his revenge unfolds on a desert planet so very far from Earth? Is his victory any the lesser because it’s won with sandstorms and sandworms and nuclear warheads?

No.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think the point is really all that negotiable. I’ve a hard time seeing much difference in artistic merit between one avenging son and his utter failure in Elsinore and another in his success on Arrakis. Why should Arrakis be a poorer stage for such a drama than Earth? What exactly makes Earth better? What makes Hamlet’s struggle better than Paul’s? What makes the revenge of Edmond Dantes better than that of Hiro’s in Snow Crash, or the doomed love between Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby more tragic than that of Meryn and Siri in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion?

Oh, because it’s more real, they said. Because of the verisimilitude. Because it’s easier to conceive of and empathize with a doomed romance in 1920’s New York than it is to conceive of a pair of lovers who only meet for a couple weeks every seven years, the visiting man only aging slightly thanks to relativistic space travel whilst his land-bound lover goes from girl to woman to crone before his eyes. Nonsense. You can imagine that well enough, as can this mere twenty-year-old, undergraduate that I am, still yet uninitiated to the upper echelons of the tweed-and-ink ivory tower. If I can manage it with only my natural interest in the material, I’m quite sure my writing instructors over the years can manage it with their much-vaunted powers of literary analysis.

Is it perhaps that the alien setting and material somehow distracts from and dilutes the message? Perhaps through all the glitz and technobabble and bug-eyed monsters the inherent soul of a narrative might be buried. I submit to you that that is not the fault of the genre but of individual authors. Regular literature has its bad actors, for every Khaled Hosseini, every F. Scott Fitzgerald, every Ernest Heminway, every Mark Twain and every John Green there’s a hundred thousand Nicholas Sparks, trotting out the same old saccharine romance time and time again. The fault, if there is one, lies not with the genre, but with the specific work of fiction. This should be apparent particularly to teachers of creative writing. Lucas should have seen that in a class of about twenty students, maybe six or seven were writing anything resembling decent work. (I confess I do include myself in this, but then, it was an introductory level class and I had already been writing for some years.) By sheer volume we’re already looking at a majority of work—genre fiction or no—that fails at being narratively coherent, much less good.

There is also the problem of simple familiarity. You value Hamlet’s struggles more than Paul’s—value Edmond’s torments more than Hiro’s—value the tragedy of Gatsby’s love for Daisy more than Meryn’s for Siri—not because of some inherent superiority in these works of classic literature, but because you’ve heard of them. There is a sense in literary academia of being “the old guard,” last bastion of a vein and episode of western civilizaton, keepers of the flame of Culture with a capital-C. But C also stands for conservative, a four-letter word in learned circles. I submit to you that this prejudice against science fiction and fantasy stems, not from some legitimate complaint against the conventions of the genre but out of some contempt for the newness of it all.

Granted, it is extraordinarily hard to inject high drama into a tale of of bug-eyed monsters and silly robots. All the more reason to admire the successes of the genre then, succeeding in the face of genre conventions which by their very presence damage the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief and to connect with the human elements and the deeper message and point of a narrative. Consider the second episode of the now fifty-year-old television program Doctor Who, which introduces the series’ most iconic (and longest lasting) villain: the Daleks. Sydney Newman, Head of Drama for the BBC and the man behind the launch of the program, insisted the show stick to “proper history” with a particular ban on robots and funny aliens. Due to the show’s premiering the day after the Kennedy assassination, ratings for the purely historical—and frankly quite dull—pilot episode An Unearthly Child were dangerously low, and the show faced cancellation after a mere one episode. Fortunately, the show’s producer, Verity Lambert, managed to convince Newman to run a story, The Daleks, which did indeed contain robot-monsters, albeit not bug-eyed ones. The Daleks netted over ten million viewers, cementing the show’s place in the BBC’s schedule.

While on the one hand, a TV program about scary robots with laser guns was very popular with the children tuning in, it was the narrative which has stood the test of time, and brought the Daleks back to television screens time and time again, season after season for fifteen years. In narrative, the Daleks evolved from a race of human-like aliens on a distant planet embroiled in decades of thermonuclear war with another race of aliens distinguishable only by hair color. (The Daleks’ antecedents were dark haired, fighting against a blond-haired, blue-eyed race of equally fascist opponents for command of a nuclear wasteland of a planet.) The Nazi analog should not be ignored, but that the writers made the dark-haired British analog the group that would evolve into the hateful, xenophobic, armored mutants that are the Daleks was an inspired choice. It helps to show that one doesn’t have to be an officer at a concentration camp to be capable of evil, it’s not necessarily the Nazis that spawn evil—but the evil we might become in fighting them. Add on top of that the Cold War anxieties running through the west in 1963 (especially airing within a month of the assassination of President Kennedy) and you have a perfect example of seizing the zeitgeist.

Hence ten million viewers.

Hence fifty years of programming.

Could The Daleks work without the science fiction elements? No. How precisely would you tell a cautionary tale about the horrors of nuclear war and blind use of science in pursuit of destruction other than to show such a world? And such showing would of necessity demand a little speculating. You see, science fiction and fantasy allow us to tell stories that exceed our ordinary world. It would be impossible to tell the story of Paul Atreides on Earth, as Arrakis itself is crucial to the story of Dune. It is similarly impossible to tell the love story of Siri and Meryn told in Hyperion, as it hinges on the time-dilating properties of light-speed space travel, which is as distant from our day and age as is nuclear holocaust and bug-eyed aliens.

This then is one of the stronger points in favor of speculative fiction. Regardless of quality, speculative fiction, be it science fiction or fantasy, allows us as readers and writers both to explore the vasty vistas of the improbable, the impossible and the arcane. It allows us to tell stories that transcend mere reality, and in transcending allows us to examine aspects of the human spirit in ways which cannot be described by the tale of a lost boy wandering New York City alone in winter. It is sometimes not enough to say that mankind in indomitable, to say that our works will last a thousand thousand years. Sometimes you need to show that, to examine what the passing of so much time might do to our civilization. How can you write a tale about the effects of technological integration on society without taking things a little further than they are in our day and age? You’re much better served as a writer showing a future like those imagined by Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, where technology has wiped out traditional institutions like governments and families, than you are to tell a story of a family grown distant and sour because their kids play too much Angry Birds.

Moreover, the tweed-and-ink world ought to remember that it’s proud tradition of stultified, capital-L Literature with it’s capital-C Culture is full to bursting with the tropes and memes and conventions of speculative fiction. Hamlet himself learns of his father’s murder from said father’s Ghost. Dante crosses into the afterlife, accompanied by a dead Roman poet as he encounters the famous dead, noble and otherwise. Macbeth confronts witches. Arthur becomes king of the Britons with the aid of a wizard and a magic sword. But that’s only fantasy, you say: Science fiction remains an infant genre, full of what Jules Verne himelf called “mere entertainments.”

Respectfully, tell that to François-Marie Arouet—better known as Voltaire—who in 1754 wrote Micromegas, the tale of a pair of alien visitors and their reflections on Earth. Tell that to Johannes Kepler, who in 1608 wrote Somnium, a novel written in Latin about the cosmic adventures of a young boy who travels to the moon with the help of a witch and a demon. Where exactly does the line get drawn? Are we to accept Romeo and Juliet and Henry V as “literary” but deny Hamlet and Macbeth the privilege?

Let us be honest now, in frowning on speculative fiction you’re merely attempting to legislate taste. You know that inwardly your complaint against these genres is that you feel there’s something inherently unserious in talking about hyperspace and dragons. And literature should—above all else—be a serious undertaking. I invite you to tell that to Lewis Carroll, whose work, it should be noted, most assuredly counts as fantastical. More than that, I’ve yet to hear any one of those nay-saying writing professors (and grad students like Lucas) dare to so much as whisper that Alice in Wonderland might not be of a sufficiently literary nature.

Ultimately, though, what is and isn’t “literary” is not a thing which anyone, not even the tweed-and-ink emperors of the ivory tower, can legislate from on high. Despite my sincere wishes that such drivel as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (a work of fantasy) and EL James’ Fifty Shades of Gray (a work of realistic fiction) might be stricken from circulation and from the pages of history, that is not my call to make.

Literature simply is.

Art is.

We, the audience, intended or otherwise, may enjoy or revile a piece of writing (I personally loathe Lewis Carroll) but it is not for us to try to reduce a piece from the status of art. A story or narrative is “literary” because it is literature—because it is written words printed on a page. I could have written nonsense paragraphs in imitation of Gertrude Stein and my submissions would have been literary. For all their departures from realism, the Impressionists were creating art. Photo-realistic portraiture, for all its impressive technique, seems rather pointless, as reality can now be documented in all it’s mundane detail by any eight-year-old with his own smartphone.

It is left to artists to dream.

And it is for this reason that speculative fiction should not only be tolerated, but lauded. Speculative fiction allows writers to dream more broadly than ordinary literature. It allows us to exceed reality, and in exceeding to turn back to regard ourselves as individuals and as a species from a new height. It allows us to take humanity both as it is and as it might be, and to discuss our contemporary state through a lens alien enough that we might come at our own problems with fresh eyes, and looking, truly see for the first time.

A Reflection on Language, from Class

On the Identity of Language

Language is, in the simplest terms, any systematic means of communication used to express and to convey ideas. That language may be spoken, it may be written, it may be gestured or represented by images, but it must be possessed of a structure—a grammar—of governing rules which allows for understanding between speakers/readers/signers.

Until last week, I had been thinking of grammar as a unified, monolithic thing, as a governing convention which I, as both a speaker and writer of contemporary English, might choose to follow or break as necessary. I had never considered there might be three kinds of grammar: mental, descriptive, prescriptive. Prescriptive grammar, the rules and codifications trotted out to me over the course of my many years of English education, was all I had ever considered. Descriptive grammar, which contains all the colloquial errors made by the average speaker, had not entered my considerations as a thing worth studying in any capacity beyond the sense that mistakes are useful teaching opportunities.

For the record, I still do think prescriptive grammar is useful, more than that, I think it is absolutely crucial to clear and unambiguous communication. More than that, I personally enjoy the confusing shades of word choice the English language asks of its more discerning speakers. I for one am a particular fan of the distinction between the words “hung” and “hanged,” a distinction so monumentally arbitrary as to be almost absurd, but the result of which is a curious texturing to English that should be celebrated by each and every one of its speakers.

That, to me, is what language is. More than its scientific definition as systematic communication, language is beautiful. We have, in our modern and bloodless era, a conceit that language is a sort of delivery mechanism, that language exists only to deliver ideas from one brain to the next, and that only the information conveyed is of any use. But language is more than that, not merely a tool but a product in itself, as any reader of William Shakespeare or John Keats could tell you. Language must occupy a space in our society equal parts science and art, and we as speakers should revel in the beauty and in the power of words. It is, if you will excuse the metaphor, not only the paint, but the painting. Sure, one could just paint a wall solid red, one could just convey the information directly, but you can use the same medium to create masterpieces. We use the same words Shakespeare uses all the time, to far poorer effect.

That being said, I do agree with the assertion that language is arbitrary. The rules of prescribed grammar—and the conventions of described grammar, even when they are at direct odds with the prescribed rules—are only the rules because we all agree they are the rules. And that really is a fascinating thing to consider. If all of us right now decided that trees weren’t going to be called trees anymore, and instead we would start calling them ergs, then suddenly there would be birds singing in the ergtops and people lounging in the shade of an erg, and suddenly the world would sound like a very different place while in reality absolutely nothing would have changed.

Having considered that though, is there any reason that trees are called trees? Are languages somehow optimized? And if so, along what lines? Is there somewhere a better word for tree? I know I’m proposing very bizarre questions, but it brooks discussion, I think.