The following is taken from a Facebook discussion regarding the 'Sad Puppies' campaign, which selected 'Trial by Fire' as one of its nominations for Hugo consideration. In the discussion, Dr. Gannon explained some of his stylistic and narrative choices. This is one of the first places where he has spoken so directly about how he chooses to write.
My PhD is in literature, where the applications of theory to SF are, sadly, usually used for the purposes of teleogically motivated discrediting or gate-keeping projects designed to keep this form of “para-literature” in its “proper place”: the gutter. My first Fulbright (for my doctorate), to Liverpool and the SF Lit Program (then administered by my friend David Seed), was a wonderful breath of intellectual fresh air that was almost impossible to find in US academia at that time (and is still not equaled, so far as I can assess the matter now).
That said, let me go straight to the issue of perspective that has arisen in our discussion: that
1) if a narrative has a great deal of “heavy lifting” or novel concepts = 2) the thematic preponderance of the Gramscian emergent = 3) worthiness from your critical/aesthetic perspective.
There are probably simplifications and errors in that formulation, simply because I am trying to reduce our discussion thus far into a workable model that I might address in specific terms. (I assure you it is not my intent to subtly hijack the conversation by appropriating and recasting your discourse.) However, that quick and dirty formulation is the best I can do a) at this remove and b) in the time/space allowed by this discursive venue.
And that idea of “doing the best you can do” is actually not a bad place to start, because much of what I have said before indicates / determines
1) how much heavy lifting I put in my narratives 2) the objects that I choose for the reader to lift 3) where and when and above all why, that lifting occurs
Let me begin by touching on an old, and in some ways outdated, but nonetheless still-instructive critical foundation text in our genre: Darko Suvin’s “Metamophoses In Sf”. A Marxist, he was very concerned with the social transformative function of SF (as was Raymond Williams, who wrote about that relationship fairly extensively, and who adopted Gramsci’s model of the residual, dominant, and emergent as a superior mechanism for assessing forces of social/hegemonic change). If I am reinventing the wheel by invoking texts very familiar to you, I apologize, but again, I am working at the remove of FB and unsurety where our knowledge bases overlap.
Suvin’s most famous contribution to the definition/taxonomy of SF is arguably this: that the genre is distinguished by the “presence of a cognitively validated novum.” As this has been vernacularized, it is that SF’s signal feature is: The “new/unprecedented” object/factor that a) does not exist in what he calls our “zero reality” (contemporary existence) that is b) reasonably held to be validated by reference to empirical principles that do not defy or ignore the limits of scientific theory as we currently understand it.
Naturally, the smaller the deviation from “zero reality,” the more “hard” or “pertinent” the SF. Suvin also asserts (possibly a bit simplistically) that this correlates to its likelihood to be practically transformative in a social sense. In short, the fewer new variables you add to your gedanken experimenten, the more modest and potentially applicable the “equation of future possibility” is. (That the experimenter may be inept or draw wholly incorrect conclusions is a separate, and urgent matter—but it is indeed separate. This is about models, not execution, ultimately).
Here’s how this theory informs my fiction in the series of which Fire With Fire is a part. Most far ranging/heavy lifting SF or sf-fantasy tends to initialize with what I will call the Utopist’s Device: the reader is exposed to a very different place. Somehow, we have crossed from this shore of quotidian reality to that far shore of a changed world. I think this is fine, and like a whole lot of this literature. I write some of that myself, but it is a harder sell, and is not, in my opinion, a distinctive project. Lots of people do it. I chose to do something very different. In Fire With Fire, I start my series not on the far shore, but within easily discernible distance of THIS shore, the shore of contemporary reality. In short: I site the entire universe upon the bridge that we must ever build that will take us from a recognizable place to the far shore of the future. And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (the intent from the start), I hope to show readers how far we have come, how fast, and how what would have seemed a wild departure from our current reality (“heavy lifting”) did not seem like heavy lifting because they followed the process of social evolution by which we arrived at that place; because they came along for the journey over the bridge.
In short, to reinvoke Suvin above, it is absolutely my critical and structural intent to bring the reader on the journey of change, rather than drop them into the middle of its consequences/results. I am not interested in demonstrating either stylistic or conceptual pyrotechnics to create a “wow” effect, because that is not how we experience social change; it comes daily, on cat’s feet, and we only realize how far we have come when we glance in the rearview mirror . That is how we qualitatively experience real change in our real lives. Because I care so much about verisimilitude (because: immersivity), I want that experience to track into my fiction; that change is something we feel more in retrospect than in any given moment.
Regarding the heavy lifting hints that are in Fire With Fire: what you see in the first pages is NOT the military; it is the intelligence community. Very different, and for a very important thematic reason. If you read to the end, you will find that Fire With Fire unfolds a very serious critique of the intelligence community per se, as well as how it would be challenged/adapt to something as comparatively outre as first contact. It is neither a positive or a negative assessment, because I am not interested in grinding a political axe; any futurist who does so is skewing their own project. You can write to either attempt to maximally change the future, or to attempt to explore it; you cannot do both at the same time. You can explore the changes you would like to see, yes, but that is becoming an actor in the process—which I try to avoid.
And which you, quite reasonably, point out is impossible to avoid in toto. I agree with you. But in so far as all things are political (simply in what their positions reflect about the world they depict), the question becomes: is the choice of reflection/representation motivated by partisanship, or not? If there is anything I write about with conviction, it is simply this: that human hope is founded in love, and vice versa—and these qualities, more than anything else, are the key to our future. This is not a religious contention: I am deeply agnostic (that’s another conversation, obviously). It is based upon a 55-year assessment of where the engines of a compassionate journey into our future are turning within us, what wants celebration as not so much a praiseworthy trait, as a necessary trait, if we are to survive. Fire With Fire, and what follows, does frame this as a “value” worthy of consideration; it is the only such value I do it with, simply because the shapes it can take in our social and cultural constructs are wildly variform. It is not a cosmologically or theologically privileged value, though; its merits reside in it as a human/evolutionary/social construct.
This extensive (not to say exhausting and boring) excursis of the critical and structural underpinnings to my Tales of the Terran Republic series is actually just brushing the surface. Suffice it to say, I want to reach a broad readership; I want verisimilitude and suppression of narrative artifice/voice to maximize immersity; I want to examine a path of change that is defined by projection that cleaves to real models of both the rate and type of social/technological changes we have observed and speculatively chart (i.e.; to remain accountable to historical method). This means it is expressly NOT my intent for the universe to serve as a stage upon which to mount a vastly changed world in which that change is not so much determined by likelihood as it is by authorial desire to dazzle, or fashion a parable (which Suvin and most Marxists would say is not real SF, by the way. Not that that matters.)
These are some of the broad strokes identifying why I am writing the series I have chosen, and the methods and strategies whereby I approach that. It may be of zero interest to you, therefore. I understand that, and am a believer of that utterly true latin axiom de gustibus non disputandem (est?). And I am sorry you will not find much to engage you in Tales of the Terran Republic. I am very much trying to slipstream a contemporary approach with/into hard sf, and create a solidly moving dramatic tale as well.
I realize and acknowledge that that is not why all people read SF, and they might want the heavy lifting all up front—which I understand. I think one of the premier works that illustrates a fusion of the two concerns, by the way, is Wells’ Time Machine—that is wonderfully instructive regarding degrees of change, without becoming didactic (well, not very much, anyhow). But I am more in his tradition of “War of the Worlds,” “The War in the Air,” “Things to Come,” and especially, “The World Set Free” (which was required reading for the participants in the Manhattan Project, by the way, at the express request of Szilard and Einstein).
Anyhow, thanks for a rare opportunity to talk about my work. Which, I trust, you may find as having a different (not better, just different) narrative pedigree than some of the fiction you have addressed somewhat sweepingly in re: to the Sad Puppies ballot. On which, btw, I was placed without any consultation; Brad liked the book and put it there. He has, in the course of this convo, probably learned more about my politics than he ever knew, or was interested in asking. And still—just how much * does * this say about my politics? What it says is this: my opinion is that the future is too important for my own lenses to compromise my attempt to glimpse some of its possible shapes. Hence, in any partisan sense of the word, I tend to banish political preference from my fiction as an inherently degranging variable.