Sunday, March 20, 2016
Big and Small
(Picture from here.)
I tend to write small fiction.
By this I mean fiction about characters that do not have a big impact on the world at large. The actions and consequences of my characters rarely extend much beyond the people they know or care about.
This is in contrast to a common theme in the genre: when the consequences of the characters’ actions have a large impact on the world.
Lord of the Rings is an ensemble story where the protagonists are fighting against a foe that will end their lives and the hopes and dreams of their entire world. This is pretty much true of all of the multivolume fantasy and science fiction works recently published. Game of Thrones is about life and death involving wars, famines, zombies and the oncoming unrelenting and ancient winter.
My stories tend to be small. A young man discovering he’s the clone of Gordie Howe. (The Ice) A disillusioned musician regains his love of music from working with a software robot. (Sudden, Broken and Unexpected) An old woman who returns to smoking only to find nanobots singing in her lungs. (The Great Caruso) The world shakes in none of these stories.
This is not to say that big stories where the world changes aren’t fun. I’ve just written very few of them.
There are a number of reasons for this.
For one, I’m interested in what I call moral decisions. These are decisions where a person has to sacrifice something. I call them “moral” decisions because they always require traversing some sort of of internal conflict. Decisions that require no sacrifice have no moral dimension. There’s no moral dimension choosing which flavor of ice cream to eat. There is a moral decision in determining whether or not to eat said ice cream if one is lactose intolerant. A small one, I admit.
This is, I think, why serial killers and other sorts of psychopaths hold little interest for me. I envision a psychopath as someone for whom the decision whether or not to commit violence as being the same sort of decision as to what flavor of ice cream to eat. Or what flavor of ice cream to put on the body—but I digress. The point is that without the moral consequence and the associated self-conflict, the character isn’t interesting.
I like to play with these decision. Little ones. Big ones. How they happen. How do we deal with the effects. What happens when we avoid them. What does it take to commit to such a decision. What does it take not to make one.
Big stories have a large presence in SF and Fantasy. The best ones, in my opinion, are those where the small stories and the big stories blend.
In Bester’s The Stars My Destination we start with a small story of revenge. But as Foyle grows as a human being he discovers capabilities within himself that suggest a change in humanity. In the late Patricia Anthony’s very excellent Brother Termite, the character of Reen is continually wrestling with his own moral behavior in the context of the extinction of both the human race and his own alien species. In both works, the relationships between the characters is what pushes the story forward, not the larger context.
Now, it’s true that every big story is made up of many small stories. But there are a number of works where the big story swallows up all but the faintest traces of its constituent small stories. This is true of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, for example. Most of the Star Wars franchise films are guilty of the same problem. Ditto, The Matrix. As well as nearly all of Michael Chrichton’s novels.
Even though I don’t tend to write them, I have a weakness for big stories with big endings. I just want to traverse small stories to get there.