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As I’ve said a few times before, I don’t get anywhere near as much time to read fiction as I’d like. But I do read when I can!

As I’ve also said before, I’m not much of a critic. Reviews aren’t a thing I do well. But I do like to mention it when I’ve read something I really liked, even if I have trouble explaining why I liked it.

At any rate, here are a few things I’ve read in the recent past:

What Lot’s Wife Saw, by Ioanna Bourazopoulou, translated from Greek by Yiannis Panas

This was…strange. But really, really good. How to describe it? A designer of odd crossword puzzles of his own idiosyncratic invention is asked to read a collection of letters from eyewitnesses to …a crime? A conspiracy? a mysterious series of events at any rate, in the hope that he will be able to use his puzzle-solving skills to determine what actually happened. This takes place in a world where much of Europe has been flooded by the Mediterranean, and a mysterious Salt has begun pouring into the world from one particular place. Yes, it’s where you think it would be, and the references to the story of Sodom in the Book of Genesis are quite explicit. The narrative is full of people doing strange and inexplicable things, sometimes grimly funny, often emotionally overwrought. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I began to tire near the end, and hoped that it would indeed stick its landing and not just trail off. It did, indeed, stick its landing. If you’re looking for something really strange and really really good, give this a shot.

The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Yeah, okay, see. Here’s part of what I assume is the cover copy:

Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.

Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan finds that she must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world.

So, this is chock full of action and fights and battles and betrayals and political intrigue. And those world-ships? They are all biological. Nothing in this fleet is built, it’s all birthed, and there are tentacles and blood and mucous and body fluids everywhere. It’s kind of awesome fun. You should totally read it when it comes out. In, um, February of next year. I kind of got an ARC and for once had a chance to read it before the actual release. Which doesn’t happen very often.

Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

This is a Ruritanian fantasy. It’s also a pretty straight-ahead romance, which isn’t generally my thing, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. It takes place in the fictional tiny European country of Alpennia, and involves inheritances and wills and political intrigue. There’s also magic, very Christianity-based, a matter of petitioning saints in the right way at the right times. It’s the sort of thing that could easily turn me off, but I thought was handled very very well. Basically an eccentric wealthy baron leaves nearly everything he owns–except his title and the estate attached to it–to his god-daughter, a young woman nearly at her legal majority but being pressured to find a husband who can support her, since she has no means of her own. “Everything the baron owns” includes his bodyguard/duellist, another young woman. The bodyguard can’t be freed yet, because of the terms of the baron’s will, and besides the new young baron really resents being done out of the money he expected to inherit and will stop at nothing to get it, as well as his revenge. This is lots of fun, and Goodreads calls it “Alpennia #1” which implies there are more, so those are going on my long long TBR list for whenever I can get to them.

So, there’s a thing I’d been kind of thinking about for the past couple weeks, and it seems to me that it’s kind of become relevant in a really horrible way.

At one point, a few weeks ago, someone in my hearing made the observation that the Nazis had so utterly failed to have human empathy that they might be considered more human-shaped machines than real human beings. I took polite issue with the statement at the time. I will take more public, emphatic issue with it now.

Here’s the thing–the Nazis? Those concentration camp guards, the people who dug and filled in mass graves, led prisoners to gas chambers, all of that? They were not inhuman monsters. They were human beings, and they weren’t most of them that different from anyone you might meet on your morning walk, or in the grocery store.

I know it’s really super uncomfortable to look around you and realize that–that your neighbors, or even you, yourself, might, given circumstances, commit such atrocities. Your mind flinches from it, you don’t want to even think about it. It can’t be. You know that you’re a good person! Your neighbors and co-workers are so nice and polite and decent. You can’t even imagine it, so there must have been something special, something particularly different about the people who enthusiastically embraced Hitler.

I’m here to tell you there wasn’t.

I’m quite certain those people who committed terrible atrocities were very nice to each other! Super polite and nice to other good Aryan citizens of the Reich, and certainly to their families. Of course they were! They were perfectly nice human beings.

It wasn’t that they were incapable of empathy, of any human feeling. It was more a matter of where they drew the boundaries of that empathy.

Remember that the next time you find yourself saying “I’m not racist, it’s just…” or “I’m not racist, but…” because that just and that but are where the borders of your own empathy lie. And maybe you’re okay with those being the boundaries–but, look, when someone calls you on that, don’t try to pretend it’s not there.

We’ve most of us learned the first part of the lesson really well–the Nazis were horrible! Racism is bad!–without having learned the next part of the lesson: no one thinks they’re a villain, not even Nazis. After all, those Jews were a real threat to the Aryan race! They had to do what they did.

No one thinks they’re racist, because racists are bad, and I’m not bad! I’m a good, decent person. It’s just that….

Yeah. Right.

Think about that. I’m not just talking to folks who were willing to vote for a flagrantly racist, willfully ignorant, obviously unqualified and unstable narcissist for president for what they keep insisting were totally not racist reasons. I’m also talking to folks who are dismayed to see said incompetent unstable narcissist set to take office but who say everyone should calm down, it won’t be that bad. Because this is the USA, not freaking Germany.

There was nothing special about the German people, nothing supernaturally evil about Hitler. They were all human beings, and it can happen here, and it’s far more likely to happen here if we pretend otherwise, because it’s the thing you won’t look at about yourself that will lead you right over the cliff you keep insisting isn’t really there, all the while you’re tumbling to the rocks below.

Stop telling yourself it can’t happen here. (A registry for Muslims? With maybe some kind of ID so we know who all the Muslims are? Totally reasonable, totally un-racist, and after all we’re Americans, so it’ll all be fine.)

(Read that thread)

Stop acting as though calling some action “racist” is beyond the pale, unthinkably horrible to do to someone. Stop assuming that the people you know and talk to everyday can’t be racist because after all they’re so polite to you. Stop assuming that “racist” means “inhuman monster.” The end result of doing this is to make it impossible to call anyone or anything racist that isn’t cross-burning, actual lynching, Nazi-levels of racism. And sometimes not even then, as we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Which makes it impossible to do anything about racism–prevent it, address it, anything. Even in ourselves. Especially in ourselves. Which allows it to grow unchecked.

It can happen here. Flagrant racists are often very polite and decent people (so long as you’re white). The worst monsters of history were not inhuman monsters. They were all too human.

So, I just got back from France! I spent about five days in Nantes, at Utopiales. Which I hadn’t heard of before I was invited. But hey, I’d never been to France before, and the festival sounded fun, so off I went.

It was a fabulous time. Utopiales is very well-run. Everything went so smoothly, and the fact that I speak about a dozen words of useful French (and while I can read more, it’s mostly words connected to food and cooking) didn’t cause me much difficulty at all. I got to meet my French editor–or probably more accurately, the editor of my French translator. And I got to meet my translator, the wonderful Patrick Marcel. I’m afraid translating Ancillary Justice is kind of a challenge for most of the translators who’ve worked on it, but on the plus side it’s really fun to talk about the various things that don’t work the same in other languages, and the ways that a translator might achieve some effect that’s at least similar to what I did in English.

I also got to meet a lot of readers, which I always love. I got wonderful tea! I met many French writers, and had lots of really interesting conversations that make me regret that I can’t read their work, because of the whole not-knowing-French thing. And I got to meet Paolo Bacigalupi, who it turns out is delightful company and great fun to talk and hang out with.

Nantes is a very nice city, with a castle (which formerly belonged to Anne of Brittany) and a lovely cathedral.

Once the festival was over (and, seriously, if you have a chance, if you’re anywhere near Nantes next year about this time, check it out) both Paolo and I went on to Paris, where we talked to more readers and signed books at La Dimension Fantastique.

I did some very touristy things–the day I had to myself in Paris, the weather was clear and just chilly enough for a good walk, and the map told me the Louvre was only a few kilometers from my hotel, so I figured I’d go on foot. It was a nice walk! And the Louvre is just as full of looted antiquities as ever. Every now and then I’d see a familiar object–oh, hello Etruscan couple I’ve seen photos of you all over the place! Oh, that round hat looks familiar, could it be Gudea, King of Lagash? Why, yes, it is! The Dendera Zodiac I didn’t stumble across, though, I was actually looking for it. (And found it.)

I didn’t bother with the Mona Lisa. No doubt she was surrounded the way the Venus de Milo was. I found that kind of fascinating–there were dozens of other wonderful statues in the room, but everyone was just looking at her, taking pictures, and selfies.

I walked over to Notre Dame, then, and around a bit, and then realized that I had been walking for literally hours and it was a good three kilometers back to my hotel. But, hey, the weather was still perfect and you get to see a lot more when you’re walking. Once I was back in the room and sitting down, I checked my phone, which told me I’d walked a good eight miles or so. Which it turns out is an awful lot and I’m still a bit achy from it.

Oh, and while I was in France I tried a pastry called kouign-amann, which I gather the one I tried wasn’t even the best example of and it was delicious and I am now on a mission to find some here in the US if I can.

Eventually, though, it was time to go home. I got back to St Louis just in time to be jetlagged during the time change, so I can cross that off my list of achievements. On the one hand it’s nice to be home, but I’m hoping I can visit France again some time soonish.

My thanks to everyone involved–the folks at J’ai Lu, the marvelous staff and volunteers at Utopiales, and most especially to the readers who I met and spoke with. It was wonderful to see all of you and talk with you.

Every now and then, someone will ask me about what my guilty pleasures are. But I don’t actually have any.

Not because my taste is pure sophisticated perfection, no. I like pop tarts and velveeta and happy bubblegum pop songs (some of them, anyway) and popcorn read-em-once adventures just fine. And I have no difficulty telling the difference between a pop tart and a gourmet pastry, velveeta and some of the certifiably best cheese in the US.

And not because I think there’s no such thing as standards–just because I like something doesn’t mean it’s particularly good. I don’t think it’s some terrible injustice that Velveeta hasn’t got a pile of gold medals from the World Cheese Awards. It’s just, sometimes I love me some velveeta-covered mac and cheese, or a nice frosted blueberry pop tart.

I would say I don’t understand what there is to be guilty of, in these supposedly guilty pleasures, but sadly I know all too well what that’s about.

Velveeta? Is mass produced. That mass production makes it relatively inexpensive, and easy to get your hands on. It’s easy to cook with–you basically just melt it into whatever you’re making. It’s salty, it’s filling, it’s cheesy-tasting enough, as these things go. Little kids like velveeta. It’s not exactly a sophisticated taste to have.

That cheese I referred to above? If you don’t live in the vicinity of Bloomsdale, Mo, you’ll likely have a tough time getting your hands on some. Me, I can get a few ounces of it just by heading for the nearest farmer’s market, but it’ll cost me as much as two or three big blocks of velveeta. It’s totally worth it–they didn’t get that gold medal because the goats are cute. (Although the goats are super cute.)

I can like both of these, in different ways, for different reasons, but I’m supposed to feel ashamed of admitting the one. Why is that? Why are my personal preferences, some of them in such viscerally basic areas of my life–the taste of food!–subject to what is essentially a moral judgement? Why am I only supposed to admit liking what’s publicly valorized, and ashamed of liking what’s not?

And isn’t it funny how the stuff that I’m supposed to be ashamed of liking is inexpensive, mass produced, and easy to obtain? Isn’t that interesting?

Isn’t it funny how so much of the music and reading material that’s most heartily sneered at is loved by teenage girls? The bands or solo singers those girls fixate on in crushes of one sort or another, depending on a girl’s preferences and inclination, as fantasy romantic or sexual figures, and/or figures of hero worship, oh those are all horrible and stupid, aren’t they. The music is empty formulaic crap, the performers bland and pretty and plastic, and what are these girls even thinking, looking up to Taylor Swift! Never mind that adolescent girls have as much need as anyone for working out who they are and what they like, and the young, unthreatening folks who tend to make up those pop acts are entirely appropriate for the purpose. Sure, a lot of the music is disposable (and these teens react to it as though it’s earth shattering and profound and not cliche at all! How childish!) but some of it is better than it’s given credit for. And even if it weren’t, it’s no worse than ninety percent of everything else that hits the airwaves. Why the sneers? Why the hatred?

Or Romance. Romance isn’t one of my things, right, but let’s be honest, a crappy detective novel or a crappy SF or Extruded Fantasy Product is just as bad as a crappy Romance. When it’s SF we’ll protest that no, that’s just a bad one, the whole genre’s not like that, but Romance? Romance is just stupid, man.

Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that poor people like–or tend to buy or use because it’s cheap. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things that teenage girls like, or women. Isn’t it funny how guilty pleasures are things we liked when we were kids.

I’m not saying that nothing can be criticized–there are surely bad Romance novels. Taylor Swift is a pretty good songwriter who has done some very admirable things, but she’s also had her less than admirable public moments. Velveeta doesn’t come out well in a comparison with really good cheese (unless its a competition for what will make the easiest mac & cheese, given only three minutes and a microwave to work with), and it’s probably not very good for you. I’m perfectly willing to criticize things I like, or consider criticism of those things, and still like them.

No, I’m talking about that weird, moral dimension to likes and dislikes. You like pumpkin spice anything? You should be ashamed. You should feel guilty, because you’re not supposed to like that, smart people don’t like that, people who like that have something wrong with them.

So much of what we like or dislike–what we’re publicly supposed to like or dislike–is functioning as in-group identifiers. You go to Starbucks because there are a zillion of them and you’re the kind of person who drinks lattes. You sneer at Starbucks because you’re not one of those sheep and their coffee is terrible, you go to the indie place where they serve you your latte in a mason jar, or in a puddle on a wooden plank. (I kid because I love–not long ago I was served dinner in half a dozen heaps on a wooden plank, and it was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had. But there is something a little silly and super trendy about that kind of presentation.)

Or maybe I belong to (or aspire to belong to) a group that marks identity by reaction to the more widely valorized tastes–I’m sophisticated enough to prefer a cheap, canned beer (not just any cheap canned beer mind you!) or tea instead of coffee (again, not just any tea). Or maybe I’m sure someone is sneering at me, so I pre-emptively sneer at them, those snobs and their fancy moldy cheese and wine that’s no better than two buck chuck if you cover up the label and tell them it cost a lot and won some prizes.

All of it’s an advertisement for who you claim to be, in public. Being seen liking (or disliking) the wrong things can get you marked as an outsider, or as a member of a class you desperately don’t want to be part of. Sweet Mother of God don’t let anyone think I’m too much like a woman or a poor person or a gay guy or a lesbian or an elitist college educated liberal or…

Anxiety. Fear of being mistakenly–mistakenly, I swear!–placed in a deprecated category. Or just contempt for people in those categories. It’s not really about the art, the food, the coffee. If it were, you could talk about it without the sneering, without implying that anyone who would like this crap is deserving of mockery. Without talking about liking such things as though it were something you should feel guilty about.

It’s entirely possible to criticize things you like. It’s entirely possible to like bad things and dislike good things. It’s entirely possible to be a smart, educated, decent human being who likes pumpkin spice flavored stuff, and velveeta.

And while I know it’s difficult, it’s absolutely possible to criticize things without sneering at the people who like them. It’s harder than sneering, it takes some thought. And no, you don’t have to do it just because I’m saying you can. You can do anything you want. You do you. Just maybe think about it next time you’re about to say that something is a guilty pleasure.

A while ago, I ran across someone talking about a book that, the speaker asserted, you could tell just by reading it that the author expected to get some serious award action out of. The writer obviously was out there trying hard to write super fancy prose and showing off. Where, on the other hand, this other book had Just Plain writing but the story was gripping, and that was so much better.*

I’ve been chewing on that. It struck me because one of the really interesting things about having a lot of people talk about my work these days is that I see quite a few folks say very straightforwardly that I obviously intended such and so an effect, or obviously intended to convey one or another moral or lesson, that it was plain and obvious that I was referring to this that or the other previous work, or to some historical or current event or entity. And often I come away from such assertions wondering if maybe they’re talking about a different book by a different author, that just happen to have the same names.

I’ve also seen quite different assessments of my sentence-level writing, which I find super interesting just on its own. It’s elegant! It’s beautiful. It’s muscular. It’s serviceable. It’s clunky. It’s amateur. Even more interestingly, it’s transparent, or else it’s emphatically not going to please the crowd that valorizes transparent writing. That’s super interesting to me.

So when I see these statements–that obviously a writer set out to make their writing super poetic and fancy in an attempt to gain accolades or prestige, and also the assertion that poetic or fancy writing gets in the way of what’s really important, namely the story, I can’t help but stop and go, Hmm. Very interesting. And to be fair, part of why I find this so interesting is that I, myself, sometimes have these very strong, certain reactions to a book or story. Obviously this writer means X. Obviously they’re reacting to Y. Obviously. And yet, my knowledge of my own intentions, paired with the intentions I’m often credited with (because they’re obviously right there in the text!) along with the often contradictory nature of those obvious intentions, is making me rethink my own reactions along those lines, when I read other writers’ work.

The truth is, while a writer’s intentions and influences are probably discernable in a text, in a lot of cases you kind of need to see the entire context of that writer’s life and thoughts in order to reach an even halfway accurate conclusion about what they obviously intended or were thinking when they wrote it. The more context you have, the better your assessment is going to be–if you’re missing crucial information, your conclusion may seem obvious to you but actually won’t make sense once you put those missing pieces in. And seriously, entire academic careers have been built on assembling such contexts and then using that information to support a particular argument about what some writer meant or intended. We’re talking years of research. None of us is all that likely to have completely understood a writer’s thought process just from having cast our eyes down some pages of their novel, not if they aren’t a writer we already know, or someone whose social context we’re already very familiar with. And most readers aren’t all that familiar with writers’ social context. Why should they be? They have their own to worry about. But not realizing that can lead folks to very sure, very solidly certain immediate conclusions. Conclusions that are also ridiculously off the mark. I’m not meaning to deride, here–as I said, I do it myself. I’m just more aware of it, now my context has changed.

Now, SFF writing is a small world, and I happen to have a casual acquaintance with the writer who was allegedly trying so hard to impress with fancy poetic prose. And you know what, I’ve never, ever heard that writer say any such thing about their intentions. I would, in fact, be very very shocked to hear them say such a thing. It would seem grossly unlike what I know of them, but also, while I can assemble a quick list of writers who have said, in public or private, that they expect award recognition for their work, or that they write in particular ways because they expect (or even hope) that will get them award noms, it’s actually a very short list. And most of those you could guess just by having followed the events of the last few years.

So, where does that come from, the idea that dense, fancy, poetic prose is a bid for award attention? That if you, as a reader, find the prose difficult to process, then that must be because the writer is showing off? Pretentious, even?

I have some thoughts as to where it comes from. But they’re difficult to articulate, so instead I want to ask, what makes prose “transparent”?

Right, transparent prose goes down smooth and easy and doesn’t draw attention to itself. So that way the story can shine through, right?

So, I have two more questions for you to ponder. First, is there something inherent to transparent prose that makes it fade into the background, convey meaning without drawing attention to itself? Or–second question–does the ability of prose to be transparent and easy to read depend on the reader’s experience of it?

It’s kind of obvious that there’s nothing inherent in prose that conveys meaning. I mean, try this:

Wait, maybe you just can’t read that kind of writing. Try this:

e-nu-ma e-liš la na-bu-ú šá-ma-mu
šap-liš am-ma-tum šu-ma la zak-rat
ZU.AB-ma reš-tu-ú za-ru-šu-un
mu-um-mu ti-amat mu-al-li-da-at gim-ri-šú-un
A.MEŠ-šú-nu iš-te-niš i-ḫi-qu-ú-ma
gi-pa-ra la ki-is-su-ru su-sa-a la she-‘u-ú
e-nu-ma dingir dingir la šu-pu-u ma-na-ma

Wait, you still can’t read that? Oh, right, you’d need to know how to read Old Babylonian first. And even if you did know Old Babylonian, you’d likely experience some amount of effort in the reading. The context–linguistic, historical, social–that would have made Old Babylonian like water to a fish to a native speaker of it, is alien to us and we have to assemble the bits and pieces that give this text meaning very carefully and consciously. Even if this was “transparent” poetry in Babylon, it will never ever be to us.

This is a particularly flagrant example of what I’m talking about, but it operates on a smaller scale even within one’s own native language. We learned to read so early, we often forget that things we seem to just absorb at a glance were incredibly difficult feats of reading when we were in Kindergarden. And as science fiction readers, we’ve learned just by reading a lot of SF and F how to read it. Other, perfectly skilled readers can often be baffled by a SF text, and attempts to read non-SF as though it was can lead to some really odd results and misunderstandings.

And SFF is full of subgenres, it’s written by a huge variety of people with maybe some reading history in common but not all, and all of those subgenres have their own conventions and internal expectations, and if you come up against them not knowing about them they’re going to seem weird or clunky to you.

So when you find prose “fading into the background” and other prose requiring more effort, more attention to the sentences themselves, is that inherent in the writing itself, or is that a matter of your reading history coming up against a work written by (or for) someone with a very different reading history?

Why, when that happens, is it because the writer is “pretentious” or trying to show how smart they are?

I’m also kind of side-eyeing the idea that first off, plot can somehow manifest in a written work in any other way than the actual words on the page. I mean, no words, no story. Arrange the words differently, and the story is changed. There’s no separation there, words and story are the same thing. A story told plainly and a story told in dense, elaborate, poetic prose are very different experiences. There is not some Platonic form of the story that elaborate prose is concealing, that exists beyond the sentences, that if only we could free it we would have the Pure Essence of Story stunning us with its perfection. The sentences are the story.

And there’s no objective standard for “easy to read.” Sure there are readability indexes but they’re pretty much useless, especially for fiction. And my “easy to read” is likely not your “easy to read.” Not because one of us is smarter or a better reader, but because we have different reading histories and different preferences. Different contexts.

And you know what? Enjoying dense elaborate prose, enjoying poetic writing that draws attention to the fact that, yes, these words are building the story, or writing that prompts you to stop and admire this or that construction, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to enjoy in fiction. Lots of people enjoy it. I do myself sometimes. Not because I’m smarter than folks who don’t, but because that’s a thing I like. Some folks really love watching sportsball and admiring the fabulous moves of the players. It’s all invisible to me, I know when the puck goes into the goal and that’s about it, right? Okay, I’m better with baseball, I’ve watched way more baseball in my lifetime and I can enjoy the nuances of that more than other games. But none of that is because I’m stupid, or hate sports. It’s because I spent my free time doing other things. So I tend to enjoy baseball more than other sports. Same with different kinds of writing.

So why, when it happens in fiction, when a reader runs across dense poetic prose that they aren’t processing effortlessly, do some folks assume that it’s happening because the writer wants to show everyone how smart they are? Why assume arrogance or pretension? And why assume there’s only one kind of good writing, and that’s the kind you yourself can easily read and like? It’s worth thinking about, especially the next time you read a thing with fancy sentences and immediately assume the writer is just showing off.

Or, really, the next time you’re tempted to assert that obviously some writer was trying to say or do a particular thing.

____
*In case you are tempted to assume that I am writing this in reaction to someone criticizing my own prose as too poetic and award-baity, I will give you a bit more context–the novel being praised as transparently written so that it’s wonderful story could shine through was, in fact, Ancillary Justice.

When you’re a new writer you’re very afraid. You worry. You’re putting in all this time, you’re putting in so much mental and creative energy, and likely the folks around you in physical space kind of admire that in a vague way but they have no real idea what it is you’re trying to do or what you’re facing. But you could grind your self to nothing writing and writing and come up empty–no sales, or maybe a couple sales, but let’s be honest, just between you and me, you dream big. Don’t you.

And if you’re serious, and do your research–start watching the field, keeping an eye on who’s editing what, what they like, what they don’t like, in that last interview did they mention something they wished they’d see in slush that you can turn into a story that will surely knock their socks off and get you an acceptance?–if you’re paying attention (and you should, I recommend it) you see just how small the field is.

And editors seem like gods. They hold the keys to everything you want. Or that’s what it seems like. One of the first, most basic lessons you learn–or should, anyway–is how to handle dealing with editors. Follow the guidelines! Learn proper manuscript format! Learn to write the proper sort of cover letter! Never argue with a rejection! And all of that is good advice.

But the flip side of that is fear that if you somehow piss off the editor, you will never work in this town again. Anxiety that if you italicize instead of underline in your ms formatting, or if you make one step wrong in your cover letter, that’s it, baby, rejection city. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who didn’t at one point or another spend serious time going back and forth over whether they ought to send a query about a story that had been on submission an unreasonable amount of time. When that’s a perfectly fine thing to do, to ask if the story you submitted three years ago (or whatever) actually made it there? Or was it still under consideration? Or had the editor responded but the response got lost somehow? When by and large, most editors don’t mind getting these at all. After all, sometimes subs get lost, or fall between the cracks. Sometimes responses do get lost. Sometimes editors take a long time, and if it happens a lot at a given venue, you maybe want to think how long of an average wait you’re willing to deal with, right? But just a polite “hey did my sub get there & is it still there? Thanks!” isn’t the least bit offensive. (Well, it’s offensive the day after you sub, or any time within reasonable return times, and of course what those reasonable times are changes from editor to editor, but you’ve been doing your research, right? There are resources for that.)

Most editors will tell you straight up that there’s no reason to be afraid of them. They’re perfectly fine to deal with.

But there are always a few. A few who enjoy that power dynamic a bit too much. The ones who tell you that if you don’t do things the way they want, or write the kind of things they want you to, you’ll never have a career. The ones who publish you a few times and then assume you owe them loyalty beyond the first rights to the stories you sold them, and who make dire pronouncements about your disloyalty ultimately wrecking your career, you ungrateful wretch, why, I’m the reason you’re where you are today! The ones who respond with abuse when you ask to be paid–you greedy person, don’t you know the editor/publisher has bills to pay, and terrible financial problems???

And there are writers like this, too, writers who appear to think that ruthlessly networking will get them the career (or the prestige) they want. I’m not talking about people who enjoy or are good at networking and the social stuff. I’m talking about people who put major energy into associating with the right people (or at the very least, looking as though they do), and throw anyone else under the bus. Someone who looks like they’re pals with big names, well, maybe if you tick them off you’ll ruin your prospects! You won’t–but a certain sort of person would like you to think that.

There are always a few. But I’m here to tell you that barring really outrageously obviously bad behavior–and sometimes not even then–no one’s going to blacklist you. No one person holds the keys to your potential career. Anyone who tells you they do is lying, and trying to manipulate you. Run. Do not deal with such people.

In fact, by and large the people who tell you how much power they have (or imply strongly they have some sort of power to hurt or help you) are actually not all that powerful. Oh they want to be, you bet, and to that end they’re going to use any tool at their disposal to convince you of their power and manipulate you into helping them get more, (and some of them are very, very good at doing that) but ninety percent of the time someone says something like “if you cross me your career is over” or suggests that the way to get ahead is to curry favor with them, that person is generally no more than a medium sized frog in a very small mudpuddle. (They don’t want you to look past the edges of their puddle, no, to see how small it is, and how insignificant compared to the pond that’s a few meters away. They want you to think their puddle is the pond. And it’s so hard to have perspective, when you’re new and anxious. Medium Frog knows this, uses it for their own benefit.)

And anybody pulling that shit, you don’t need. Zines come and go. Editors move around. It’s rare that a story can’t possibly sell to anyplace but Grandiose Editor’s Power Trip Quarterly. I know when you’re new, anyone ahead of you on the track, or in an editorial position, seems like they have so much power, but honestly, you don’t need them. Walk away, do not buy into that bullshit.

Now, it sometimes happens that an individual editor has a problem with a particular writer–the writer has treated them badly, been a jackass to them, or done something else the editor can’t stomach, and can’t separate from the writer’s work. You can argue all you want that an editor should only be about the work, but people don’t reliably function that way. But you know what? There are other editors who have a different relationship with that writer, or are adamant about that separation of art and artist and don’t care if a writer ate live kittens in front of small weeping children every Sunday morning for the past month. They’ll publish the work of that person, provided they think it’s good enough.

You, new writer, do not eat live kittens. Whatever your supposed transgression–wanting to be paid in a timely fashion, or at all? Not jumping to back or promote someone’s kickstarter? Daring to contradict or disagree with an editor in public? Refusing a request that you take advantage of some connection you have to blatantly further someone’s career?***–they do not even approach the sort of behavior that leads well-intentioned editors to ponder the difference between art and artist and just how they’ll handle that. You won’t be blacklisted for any of that. Your career is not on the line over it. Don’t believe anyone who tells you it is. And notice it’s always the person who wants something from you (free stories, free labor, emotional or otherwise, career advancement, obedience generally) who’s feeding you that line.

Oh, and big name writers can’t sink or make your career either. Trust me on this.

I’ll tell you honestly, there are some people in the field who I do not want to work with, for various reasons, some of which are personal and idiosyncratic. I’d bet nearly everyone has a list of such names (though generally not a formal list, right? But you know who you really don’t want to deal with) and the fact that the list exists tells you that those people are still working. They don’t need me. They’re doing perfectly fine. This fact does not bother me.

I’ll be honest, I am not down for calls to close anyone out of the field for bad behavior. I mean, for myself, bad enough, or bad in specific ways, and yeah, I don’t want to work with you. Maybe quite a few people don’t. But it’s not my call to make for anyone but me, nor should it be. No one should have that power, to shut anyone out of SFF. Behave badly enough and quite a few editors will prefer not to work with you–but that’s not the same as a field-wide blacklist, and I don’t think there should be one. Ever. Each editor gets to make the call for their venue, end of story. And yes, there will be editors who are all about the purity of art apart from artist, editors who don’t care one way or the other about kittens. You may disagree with those editors’ decisions, but they get to make that choice. You may prefer on balance not to work with such editors–again, that’s your call. You choose where to submit, and you get to have whatever reasons you want for that choice.

I am down for being open about serious problems, though. Someone who’s a really bad actor, who’s strewn destruction in their wake? Yeah, let’s know about that. We can all make our decisions about how to react to that, going forward. Concealing things to whisper networks and private chats just lets the bad actor continue to harm the unwarned.

At any rate, when most editors say that if they had a choice between two equally good writers, they’d rather work with the one who isn’t a jackass, they don’t mean writers who aren’t sufficiently deferential when asking “how high?” or writers who have the audacity to disagree with them about something. Or, editors worth working with don’t. They mean the actual, real jackasses, people who have caused honest to goodness harm to others.

The fact that those people–and if you’re paying attention, which as a serious new writer you have been, you can probably think of one or more–can in fact still sell stories should be a sign to you that you, who have merely had the bad grace to demand to be paid for your work, or to be treated with respect, or have refused to agree that when you signed over first rights to a couple of stories you also signed over your soul and perpetual loyalty, will be okay.

This is, incidentally, a small part of why I’m so adamant about not worrying so much about what everyone tells you you’ve got to do (or not do) in order to be published–what sort of thing to write, or how, or how long, or with what structure, or whatever. I think it feeds into a kind of anxiety about whether or not you’re ticking off the right list items, and they all seem so minor and arbitrary and yet there they are, the things you need to do to succeed! It’s not a big step to add other things to that list (never disagree with an editor, never even mildly annoy big names in the field, never question weird things in the contract, never complain never never never), and it’s so, so easy for a manipulative, abusive asshole to use all of that to twist you in knots. But all you need is your writing. No guarantees, right? There never are. But that’s all you need, you don’t need to contort your work into the One True Form, you don’t need to take a particular path, you don’t need to avoid themes and motifs that are of deep personal interest to you because “readers/editors won’t like it,” and you don’t need that asshole trying to convince you of their power. Better, in my opinion, to go into the game knowing you can do it on your own terms.

No one person has the power to destroy your career. I’m not joking about this. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise, tell them to fuck off. Break off contact, don’t work with them.

You don’t need them. All you need is you and your writing. Just do the writing, and send it out. It’ll be okay.

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***Just to remove all ambiguity, none of these things are actually transgressions. They are all perfectly reasonable things to do when the situation calls for them.

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Clarification: October 18, 2016

I would like to clear up a thing that might be ambiguous in this post: For any writer who has found themselves ensnared by someone setting themselves up as being able to make or break them, to blacklist them–it was not your fault. You did nothing wrong. Folks who successfully pull this sort of power trip are very, very convincing, and manipulative as hell. They take skillful advantage of the idea that one can be blacklisted, of the social connections in the field, of your willingness to trust, to help others, to be kind, to be grateful to people who help you. All good qualities that they twist for their own ends. It’s them, not you.

I want to talk about apologies. And yes, there are a few actual recent events that have prompted these thoughts, but the thoughts are not directed at anyone in particular, or meant to be direct commentary on those situations.

So, let’s say a person does a thing or things, we’ll call them Person A, and Person B is hurt or offended by it. Or frightened, or upset, right?

And let’s say B calls A on their behavior, whatever it was that hurt, offended, frightened, or upset B.

We all know at this point (or we should) that the first thing A should do is apologize. A real apology, not a Sorry-If-You-Were-Offended-Why-You-So-Oversensitive Notpology, but a real one. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I will try to do better.”

Now, it’s true sometimes B doesn’t even want to hear that apology. They’re that upset. And sometimes, Person B will hear the apology but still be hurt and angry and want nothing further to do with Person A.

Every now and then, when this happens, Person A will react…unproductively. They will insist that it’s super important for them to make an apology! That’s all they want! Of course Person B said “don’t talk to me any more, ever again” but this is an apology!

Or Person B will hear the apology and then respond with some version of “Nice story, bro. We’re still done.”

And Person A–or possibly their friends, or onlookers who have not been party to the less public aspects of the situation–will cry indignantly “But Person A apologized! What more do you want?”

So, these reactions are coming from a set of assumptions that I think folks would do well to ponder. Here’s the question: Who is the apology for? Why does one apologize? Now, you probably instantly replied that the apology was for the person who was wronged, but why is it so often the case that when someone doesn’t react to an apology with public forgiveness, people ask that question, “What more do you want?” as though the automatic, proper response to an apology is to pretend the thing being apologized for never happened? That expectation, that having received an apology Person B is obliged to accept it and forgive Person A, that tells you right there that the apology was actually made for the benefit of Person A all along.

This assumption is more blatant in some cases than in others. The scale goes from a good apology and then a “wait why didn’t you hit the reset button on our relationship” reaction, to a long abject apology that’s still somehow all about the offender and how bad they feel and how they want you to take some action to help them keep from offending again so they can stop feeling horrible and you can hit that reset button, to the person who you’ve asked to please stay the fuck away from you but they keep getting up in your face because I NEED TO APOLOGIZE IT’S JUST AN APOLOGY WHAT KIND OF BITCH ARE YOU IF YOU WON’T EVEN HEAR MY APOLOGY LOOK HOW MEAN SHE’S BEING COMPLAINING ABOUT HOW I JUST WANT TO APOLOGIZE.

I think a lot of folks have this basic assumption about how apologies work and what they’re for–that having apologized, they’re due forgiveness, and the person they’ve apologized to should now stop being angry. Perfectly decent folks, who mean well. Onlookers who don’t recognize that the long apology email that is somehow all about how the offender is hurt by the situation is straight out of a habitual emotional abuser’s playbook and only see how abject it seems. Perfectly decent people, who may not even realize they have this assumption (so many of our assumptions are invisible to us, and yes, contradict the things we say and think we believe).

So I want to say this straight out–the apology is not for the apologizer. The person offended against has no obligation whatever to accept any apology at all, or to forgive, or to stop being hurt or angry, or to pretend they’re not hurt or angry any more. I mean, if they want to, if they can, if they think it’s proper, sure. But the apology is for the person who was offended, and they have no obligation to respond in any particular way. Or respond at all, frankly.

Of course, some folks aren’t well meaning. Some folks use the assumption about apologies to malicious advantage. Make your apology sufficiently abject and manipulative, and suddenly your victim is the bad guy here for being so unrelentingly mean and refusing to be understanding of your ordinary human frailties, your oh-so-kind-hearted inner soul. Most of these I’ve had personal experience with are expert in turning out an apology that makes the victim into the real offender, thereby eliciting reassurance from the person they’ve hurt, and making them feel guilty for attempting to refuse to be victimized again. (It’s not my fault I’ve had traumas that make me prone to thoughtlessly offend! I can’t help it! Do you want to be just like those people who made me into this pitiful creature who can’t help but offend you? What sort of terrible person are you, to speak up and hurt me this way? Really when you look at it, I’m the victim here!) It’s not always that blatant, but I’m going to tell you right now, folks, when you get the sort of apology that makes you feel bad for being hurt or upset, or that’s mostly about them and their feelings, you want to run from that apologizer as fast as you can. That’s a red flag.

So, but the well meaning offender does really want to do better going forward, and they’ve apologized, but lots of folks are still critical. What to do?

Well, do better going forward, for one. And no, that still won’t guarantee that everyone stops with the side-eye when your name comes up, or whatever. That’s the breaks. You’ve still got to do better going forward because it’s the right thing to do, because you really do regret the offense and don’t want to repeat it.

This isn’t always easy. It might mean stepping voluntarily out of situations in which you know you’ll be prone to offend. Say, places or positions where you’re going to run into a person who wants no further contact with you. Or positions of authority–official or otherwise–over people who you’ve had a habit of treating badly. And every day, trying to do better. All the time. You won’t get public rewards for it, and some people will never take you off their list of bad actors, but that’s not the point, is it? The apology wasn’t for rehabilitating your reputation or making you feel better about having treated someone badly. It was only the first step in your effort to be better to the people around you.

The apology isn’t for the apologizer, and it’s not going to magically wipe away your offense or repair your reputation. It’s only the simplest, most basic beginning. One you’ll need to make good on with your actions in the future.

Hey, do you all remember last year when David Steffen successfully kickstarted the Long List Anthology? He’s doing it again this year, and like last year it’s going to be full of fabulous fiction–including, this year, my novelette “Another Word for World” if the KS makes its novelette stretch goal.

Check it out:

The purpose of the Long List Anthology is to celebrate more of the fiction that was loved by the Hugo Award voting audience. Every year, besides the well-known final ballot, there is a lesser-known longer list of nominated works. The purpose of this anthology is to put a bunch these stories in a package to make them easy for readers to find, so you can put them on your bookshelf or load them up on your e-reader. The goal here is to widen that celebration of great fan-loved fiction.This will be the second volume of the Long List Anthology. Last year’s volume was a huge success, reaching the base goal in a couple days, and the stretch goals for novelettes and novellas not long after, and up into audiobook stretch goals after that. It has sold close to 10,000 copies, appeared in Amazon’s top 100 paid books for a time, and still continues to sell copies steadily almost a year later.

The base funding goal will include the Short Story category only. Stretch goals will expand the anthology to include novelettes , and then novellas.

Ebook copies will be available in EPUB, MOBI, and PDF.

It’s already a fabulous ToC without the stretch goals–we’re talking Ursula Vernon, Amal El-Mohtar, Alyssa Wong, and I could keep going and piling on the awesome. And two of the pieces are letters from the award winning and just generally well received Letters to Tiptree.

With the novelette stretch goal, there’s Rose Lemberg, Elizabeth Bear, Cat Valente, Naomi Kritzer, and Tamsyn Muir. And if the novella stretch goal is met, we’re talking Usman T. Malik and Kai Ashante Wilson.

As I post this, the base goal is very close to being met. But how much more awesome would it be to have the novelettes and the two novellas in there? Pretty awesome, is what I’m thinking.

If this sounds cool to you, and it’s something within your means at the moment, please consider supporting. Personally I think the entire Long List project is an excellent one, and I’m hoping it continues.

So, if you haven’t heard about the recent (for certain values of recent) issues with the Hungarian SF magazine Galaktika, here are some links to fill you in:

SFWA’s Statement on Galaktika

A. G. Carpenter’s blog post about Galaktika

Bence Pintér’s article (in Hungarian)

In summary, Galaktika is a Hungarian SF magazine, and is, moreover, a revival of a highly respected older publication. And it turns out, they’ve been publishing translations of a lot of English-language science fiction stories. Stories they yoinked off the web, translated into Hungarian, and published without asking the authors for permission, let alone paying them.

I gather some authors who have discovered this have been hesitant to make noise about it, because if Galaktika folded, Hungary wouldn’t have any other prominent venue for short sf. I’m going to be straight with you, though–for various reasons, some of which would be impolitic to detail here in public, I have come to the conclusion that while this sort of thing seems reasonable on the surface (if a big magazine went down, that would be bad for writers!), when you look closely you start to see how skeevy it is (therefore writers should be willing to make Sacrifices to keep this magazine (or book publisher, I’m biting my tongue) going! If you really value the field and writers you won’t demand to be paid or treated with any kind of respect or courtesy YOUR WRITING CAREER IS ON THE LINE so do what we tell you and don’t complain or else).

And the sheer volume of stories Galaktika has stolen–yes, stolen–has become more and more apparent. And it so happens that SFWA’s Griefcom got involved, and they were unable to make much headway, it seems,* and felt compelled to make that public statement linked above.

It just so happens that one of the stories Galaktika stole was mine. No, they did not ask, and no, they did not pay.

Now, the story of mine they took was a tiny flash piece. Not huge, to me, in the scheme of things. But you know what ticks me off more?

Their really inadequate excuses for these thefts. Editor in chief István Burger is quoted in the SFWA statement as saying:

When I decided to revive Galaktika more than 10 years ago, I went to the leader of one of the most respected literary agencies, to ask for his advice how to get permissions for the stories we plan to publish in the magazine in the future. I had no experience at all in this respect.

Our conversation had a very friendly atmosphere, the leader of the agency was happy that such an aknowledged magazine was revived. Finally we had a verbal agreement, that – as we plan to have a serious book publishing activity as well – we can consider short stories in Galaktika sort of an advertisement in which authors are introduced to Hungarian readers, so that we could publish their novels afterwards. The money we would pay for the rights for the novels contains the price of short stories. So agencies don’t have to deal with rights of short stories for $10 which is as much work as to get the rights of a $1000 novel. During this conversation it became obvious that agencies don’t want to deal with $10-20 so I didn’t want to bother the others with similar requests. Of course in case of longer stories and novels we made contracts.

I hope that it is obvious now that there were no intentional stealing at all, as we made an agreement in time for the use of stories. Now I regret that it was only a verbal agreement, but at that time we both acknowledged it.

Yeah, the fact that the verbal “agreement” wasn’t on paper means nothing. There can have been no agreement that mattered if the rights-holders of the stories concerned weren’t involved. Having a tape-recording of the conversation notarized by God Herself would change nothing. (I’m willing to believe the conversation actually happened, by the way, and that if so Mr Burger’s description of it is spun hard enough that the anonymous literary agent might only barely recognize it.)

Let me be absolutely clear about this: this excuse is utter bullshit. If Mr Burger actually believes this, he has no business trying to run a magazine.

Look, the thing about Galaktika publishing books too is completely irrelevant. My books are published in Hungary, translated into Hungarian–by Gabo, not the publisher that owns Galaktika. No story of mine in Galaktika was ever going to be an advertisement for a translation of my books. If I’d wanted an advertisement I would have bought an ad.

And I’ve been asked several times–sometimes personally, sometimes through my agent–for permission to translate short stories. Sometimes specifically in order to promote the translated editions of my novels! My agent is not too busy to deal with such things, and neither am I. And besides, let’s say I and/or my agent didn’t want to deal with such a small transaction? Well, tough cookies. That doesn’t mean you just get to take what you want anyway.

As for the claim that Galaktika was somehow an advertisement for the authors being stolen from–well, that’s suspiciously like the claim that “exposure” is a valuable commodity that writers should be more than happy to get in lieu of actual money. Sadly, one cannot eat exposure, or pay rent with it. And while any author is of course within their rights to allow a magazine to publish their work without payment, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with any given writer choosing to do that with any given story, the key words there are writer and choosing. Editors can’t just print anything they want without paying or asking permission because the author will get exposure and besides the magazine can’t really afford to pay.

(Here’s an extra-credit question: If the magazine can’t afford to pay writers even a token amount for a story, how in the world do you know it has any readers to speak of, to provide that oh-so-invaluable exposure?)

So, the TLDR of this is this bit from the SFWA statement: “SFWA formally recommends that authors, editors, translators, and other publishing professionals avoid working with Galaktika until the magazine has demonstrated that existing issues have been addressed and that there will be no recurrence.” The folks running it have demonstrated what is either bad faith or astounding ignorance. And writers are not obliged to put up with theft and mistreatment in exchange for dubious exposure, or because somehow the magazine or publisher involved is crucial to the field. How crucial is it if they’re not paying you? Seriously. That’s some abusive shit right there.

Aspiring writers, remember–people die of exposure. Exposure is not payment. If your work is good enough to be published, it’s good enough to be paid for. And nobody needs publishers who demand the rights to your work without pay while justifying it as somehow good for you. Nobody.
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*In comments at the annleckie.com blog, John Johnston III, chairman of SFWA’s Griefcom, objects to my characterizing the situation as SFWA being able to make no headway. “Actually Griefcom has made and almost certainly will continue to make a great deal of “headway” on the Galaktika situation, and that blog post was a part of the process.” Well, he should know, because he is, as I’ve said, chairman of the excellent Griefcom. I knew that going public with a situation is something Griefcom generally avoids, and only resorts to when it absolutely must, and I oversimplified that as “making no headway.” I apologize to the good folks on Griefcom for my mischaracterization. They do a lot of excellent work for writers.

Or, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

I’m looking at what is likely the homestretch on the WiP, or at least the first complete draft of it. So of course I’m thinking about blog posts right now instead of writing.

It is notoriously difficult to define “science fiction” but a common attempt to do so–to wall off stuff that isn’t “really” science fiction from the proper stuff–is to assert that a real science fiction story wouldn’t survive the removal of the science fictiony bits, where, I don’t know, I guess “fake” science fiction is just Westerns with spaceships instead of horses or somesuch.

I never thought much about this except to think that well, sure, that would probably be a succinct way to define the most science fictiony of science fiction.

But the more I’ve thought about it, recently, the less satisfied I’ve been with this. I’m not sure there are any stories that fit this requirement.

Here’s the thing. Almost any story, you could remove some or other bit of it, replace it with some more present-world (or past world) analogue, and it would still be recognizably the same story on some level.

Let’s take Star Trek. Okay, some of you may consider ST to be “fake” science fiction. I’ll lay my cards on the table and tell you I laugh when I see someone call ST “hard science fiction. I consider it to be space opera. But let’s consider it a moment, shall we? At first glance all the aliens and the transporter and that utopian Federation of Planets stuff, and you’d think you couldn’t remove it, but let’s set it back a couple centuries, build the Enterprise out of wood, make Kirk into Horatio Hornblower and change the Klingons to French, the Romulans to Spanish. (I know, I know, the Klingons are actually stand-ins for the Russians, and the Vulcans/Romulans for the Chinese but that’s not helping the cause of “can’t remove the skiffy elements” is it.) You could take Star Trek and remove it’s snfal elements and still end up with basically the same stories.

That was an easy one, right? A gimme? Sure, maybe. But consider–there’s always–always–a level of abstraction available at which a story with whatever elements removed qualifies as “the same.” And the reverse is true–there’s always a level of specificity at which the removal of very small things means a large change. I mean, you could go very close-up on Star Trek and say that without dilithium crystals and tribbles, very specifically, it wouldn’t be the same. And it wouldn’t!

So it’s just about how much change it can take before too much violence is done to the original, right? Well, no. Any change is going to do violence to the original. Traduttore tradittore, after all. And the question of how much violence to the original is too much isn’t hard and fast.

I’m sure someone is going to comment insisting that Star Trek is one thing, but story Foo would actually really be irreparably changed by the removal of element Bar, and thus am I refuted. But seriously, there are almost no sfnal elements that couldn’t be framed some other way, no blackhole that can’t become an inescapable whirlpool, no alien that can’t become the denizen of some far away island, and while we’re at it whole planets get treated basically like smallish islands of one sort or another in quite a lot of sf anyway so that’s an easy enough transition to make. The question of whether that non-sfnal framing constitutes an obviously different story, or one recognizably the same if superficially different, is not one that can be answered easily, not in any really objective way.

And I can’t help noticing how often this particular criterion is used to delegitimize stories as “real” science fiction that by any other measure would more than qualify. It’s not just that the critic doesn’t really like this work, no, sadly the story is just not “really” science fiction, because if you take away the robots and the spaceships and the cloning and the black holes and the aliens and the interstellar civilizations and the fact that it’s set way in the future, well, it’s still a story about people wanting something and struggling to get it. Not really science fiction, see?

And well, sure, you take all that away and no, it’s not science fiction. But you had to take it away to begin with, didn’t you.