When the story is just a story

Why do we write stories anyway?

To entertain… To share our imaginations for fun… To elucidate a message about the weighty issues afflicting humanity?

Writers are frequently expected to answer with that last option. Science fiction, in particular, often uses analogies to explore current and historical human issues. On the flip side, writers may get themselves into trouble when they attempt to explore these issues (through analogy or overtly) and get things wrong.

Your kink is not my kink

Writing can be a lonely endeavor, but once the results are shared the text takes on a life of its own – it is read, absorbed, analyzed, and interpreted by readers, each one filtering the story through their own experiences and interests.

So what happens when a text is misinterpreted? What happens when the misinterpretation leads to a conclusion that the writer is perpetuating harmful stereotypes?

My first two books were a science fiction adventure duology, Song of Scarabaeus and Children of Scarabaeus (Eos/HarperVoyager). I was inspired by the sci-fi I was reading and watching at the time, and my aim was to write an adventure story around the tropes I loved – an MC out of her depth, a rag-tag crew in a grungy spaceship, terraforming biotechnology. A space adventure from the perspective of one young woman caught up in events bigger than she can control.

Writers draw inspiration from everywhere. This doesn’t always mean we’re trying to say anything deep and meaningful about our source material. In the Scarabaeus books, the original Talasi were isolationist fanatics who chose to cut themselves off from star-faring humanity, colonizing a forest on a toxic planet and illegally altering their heritable DNA to survive. Thus the Talasi doomed their descendants to physical dependency on the ecosystem so they could never leave. The leaders imposed rules to further isolate the people (e.g. shunning technology, outlawing spoken language, rejecting outsiders). I’ll state something the characters never do: this DNA meddling was a highly immoral act. Isolating your descendants in a star-faring galaxy is arguably immoral as well. If we wanted to draw an analogy, it’s not to native peoples living in harmony with nature. A better analogy is a cult.

If you start with the wrong analogy, your analysis is going to head down the wrong path. If you interpret the Talasi as analgous to innocent natives being crushed by colonialism, then a stereotypical portrayal of the natives as barbaric, or of the high-tech colonists as overlords and saviors, would be understandably objectionable.

(For the record, to address the issue of stolen children within the context of colonialism, the Talasi explictly do not happily hand over their children [Children of Scarabaeus, p.93]. This misinterpretation again demonstrates how the wrong analogy might predispose a reader to reach a wrong conclusion despite the plain evidence in the text.)

Backstory serves the story

But the Talasi are very clearly not “native” to the planet according to how we use the term to mean indigenous peoples, or in the way the Na’vi of Avatar are natives. What I call “cultish” I suppose others might call “culture” but that’s a debate for another day. The Talasi dependence on the planet plays into the storyline as a hurdle to Edie leaving – so I built a history to show how this dependence came about. Readers who followed me through to my contemporary series (Wynter Wild) know that I have an interest in cults and imposed belief systems. And that I fully support the efforts of any individual to break free of their birth-culture, and even discard it entirely, if they wish to. The Talasi have made this nigh impossible. Song of Scarabaeus explores what a completely isolated culture, the offshoot of an unnamed Earth culture and which began as a cult, could look like generations down the track – the good and the bad. It so happens that Edie is a victim of the “bad” aspects of this particular culture.

People are born the way they’re born, needing different things, finding meaning in different things.

Indio, Rhythm and Rhyme (Wynter Wild book 3)

Edie is the only point-of-view character – everything is filtered through her. She’s fully aware that other characters (such as the rover crew and Natesa) twist the narrative (“unreliable narrators” in literary terms). Edie has personal reasons to not identify with the Talasi but has developed a detached sympathy for them. Genetically she is of course half not-Talasi, and emotionally she yearns for her not-Talasi mother, so it’s natural for her to seek a place for herself beyond her homeworld. She’s entranced by stories from the stars and quickly comes to despise her role for the Crib. This is why she accepts to some degree the third option (rovers and their clients on the Fringe) as a means of escape.

Keeping it personal

In creating a plausible and rich future, SF writers have a wealth of real human history to draw from, mixing-and-matching elements we find interesting. My personal preference, which I hope shows in my writing, is to focus on the characters, not the politics. Even if I’m writing a story with galaxy-wide consequences, it’s from the perspective of tiny cogs in the machine – a young woman with personal grievances and no political power, not a boardroom of world leaders pushing around chess pieces like you’ll see in The Expanse (which I often enjoy – I just don’t write that).

The science fiction genre gave me the chance to write this sort of story against an exciting fantasy backdrop. The Wynter Wild series does this too, although the fantasy elements are of a different nature. In both cases, the main character grew up in isolation, but outcast, which gives her a unique perspective once she’s thrown into the wide world and has to learn how things work, who to trust, and ultimately what really matters to her.

Finn and Edie, Children of Scarabaeus

Have you ever heard that some writers write the same story over and over again? I guess I won’t deny that for myself. I have enough self-awareness to understand why I write this particular story – and to know I have no business even dabbling in an #ownvoices story from the perspective of any minority on Earth, past, present, or – via analogy – future.

Human first

The meaning of Indio’s quote above is that, when you boil it down, we are each a unique human being* first. Whatever our culture imposes on top of that is secondary (or irrelevant, if we choose to make it so). Edie values justice and does not value what her culture sees as sacred tradition – it’s her choice.

(*In a sci-fi context, where sentient aliens may come into play, we are each a unique moral agent first.)

Beyond the window dressing, Song of Scarabaeus is little more than the story of an unconnected/disconnected human who learns to connect with another human, in defiance of the politics of her society, to the point where she wrecks a planet to save him. The Wynter Wild books are dressed up, too, with rock music and hobby farming and the occasional melodramatic plot twist, but pull that curtain aside and it’s the story of an unconnected/disconnected human who learns to connect with three other humans, in defiance of the rules of her society, to the point where she… well, she probably writes a chart-topping song about it.

That, to me, is meaningful.

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