Why does the tone of our fiction matter?

ISS Groot RocketOne thing I don’t think we’ve actually done since SuperversiveSF began partnering with Castalia is actually articulate in a concise way what our deal is. I’ve mentioned our mandates: Good storytelling, heroic characters, and a sense of wonder. There’s a certain tone we’re looking for in our fiction, a certain sense of something greater, usually presented in such a way as to eschew coming across as a soapbox– because soapboxes are irritating, even when you agree with them. I was much more firmly in the libertarian camp than I am now when I read Atlas Shrugged (seminary has made me a pinko commie) and even then, I frequently pictured Ayn Rand as a chibi little velociraptor shaking something to death long after it had died. I mentioned last week that I prefer my characters to face a lot of morally grey situations, and that’s mainly because I feel like it does more good to get people thinking about something than to lecture them about your ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. “That’s a bad guy. Put the crosshairs on his face and pull the trigger.” is perfectly fine, too. And a rant about message fiction is probably a little bit of rabbit trail, except in so far as that I think message fiction has a distasteful tone to it that’s probably (but not definitely) in conflict with a sense of wonder and heroism and all that other stuff. Lecturing comes from a place of superiority and superiority is usually off-putting. No one wants to be lectured unless they’re legitimately attending a lecture.

And pinning down the exact tone of a superversive work is probably an exercise in futility, because everyone’s going to have a different idea of what does and doesn’t qualify. “Sense of wonder” for me can run the gamut from “Man, space is big, and Jupiter is pretty!” to “Holy crap, that’s a lot of explosions! Space fleets! Boom! Shooting bad guys in the face!” But I think it’s safe to say that a Superversive work is going to leave you more or less energized when you’re done with it. Maybe a little more hopeful than you were before. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar stands out to me: both the narrative itself and the fact that someone in Hollywood can still make a movie like that these days left me feeling like the world had a little more hope than it did before. And that’s the thing with superversive fiction; it “undermines” our worldviews in a way that calls our attention up, towards the sky, and away from the mud.

The wife and I watch a lot of Seinfeld reruns on TBS. It’s not exactly superversive– and I’m not saying everything has to be– but one thing that’s really struck me is how mean spirited most of TBS’ original sitcoms appear to be in the ads that run in the commercial breaks. How they appear to be filled with just complete idiots and unlikable jerks. On one hand, one might say that it’s just a comedy, and we shouldn’t take it seriously; on the other, one might ask what that does to one’s perspective on one’s fellow human beings. Fiction influences people– you don’t have to look too far into the personal stories of astronauts and scientists before you start seeing Star Trek as an influence. (As much as I love Alien, Aliens, and even the stupid-but-beautiful Prometheus, you don’t see people who want to go to space because of those films.)

This week at SDCC, James Gunn broke the news that Rocket Racoon and Groot were going to be on NASA’s new mission patch for the ISS. Guardians of the Galaxy, apparently, brought space back into the public eye in a way that other things have failed to do. And why not? It was a fun movie, with characters of a sort that I love: bad people struggling to be good.

That is why the tone of a story matters. We clearly respond to the things we watch, play, and read. In ways big and small, that stuff influences us. If all our stories are grim, grimy stories of horrible people doing horrible things, we’re eventually going to form an idea that the people around us are horrible and horribly inclined– which is the last thing our world needs right now. Everything doesn’t need to be sunshine and rainbows and Princess Unikitty; but it’s irresponsible to create a canon of fiction that doesn’t include some sun or at least a break in the clouds.