The Importance Of Keeping An Open Mind To The Fiction Of Ideas

[NOTE: In many ways, this month’s essay is about human nature and a phenomenon which is becoming quite common. Because of its implications for our industry, I felt it worthy of discussion. I admit wholeheartedly that I struggle with it like anyone else. The purpose is not to assess blame, point fingers or accuse. Because it’s likely to be controversial, my one request is that people please read it entirely before attempting to engage with comments. AISFP has tasked me with taking on topics to stimulate discussion and build community. And I believe that process is aided by discussions of issues such as this. It is with that motive alone that I write these essays. We welcome discussion. I only hope it can be fruitful and thoughtful, unlike so many which break out on the web. Thanks for taking time to read and engage. We look forward to your thoughts. BTS]

They say “speculative fiction” is the fiction of ideas. Ever heard that? It’s repeated so often, it’s practically cliché. One of the reasons I like science fiction is because of the ideas I discover through reading it. It also stimulates ideas in my own head which I enjoy exploring through writing myself. My writing is very much informed by the world I encounter around me. I continue to be grateful whenever I get to travel, because of the opportunities I get to meet people who view the world through different eyes. My extensive international travel has been particularly useful in widening the box in which I live. But the more I read and get to know the speculative fiction community, the more I’ve discovered a closed mindedness that seems to be the antithesis of the cliché. If speculative fiction is really the fiction of ideas, how come so many who write it are so stubbornly attached to their own ideas and resistant to anyone else’s? Do we have a fear of ideas? Is that truly healthy for what our genre needs and wants to be? Are we really so threatened by others’ beliefs or can we learn to engage with them and grow together?

As my friend and fellow SFWA writer Matthew Sanborn Smith said on my Facebook wall once when I was lamenting this: “What’s crazy is that a lot of our writer friends are science fiction and fantasy writers and yet we all have trouble putting our imaginations to work on real world problems, differences, or, at the very least, being open minded about other points of view.” People unfollow because you don’t share their politics or religion. They lambast you or label you “bigot,” “persecutor,” “denier,” “stupid,” etc. Often without knowing anything specific. You fit in a general category associated with a belief they regard as offensive and you get stereotyped with everyone else. This is done without dialogue or knowledge of your personal actions to back the accusations up.  What if you aren’t so narrowly defined? What if you’ve never discriminated or done any of the harms they are assuming? Who cares! You’re guilty by associating with any group with a member who has those offensive ideas. You just need to be open minded and smarter, that’s all. And all the while the perpetrators of this response maintain that they are open minded and enlightened and others should be more like them. Huh?

If I took this attitude, I’d not read a lot of science fiction or fantasy. For example,  should a Christian or a Democrat object to reading and avoid any books written by Atheists, Agnostics or Republicans? That might limit their options in unfortunate ways. I personally refuse to be that closed minded. I value the exposure I have to different points of view because it informs my writing and makes me think. It opens me to broader understandings of the world, and it challenges me to look at things often through a different lens. I have come by my beliefs honestly, through years of study,  thought, prayer, and examination of the world and myself. I have unpacked them in masters classes, college classes, on foreign trips, and in classes as both teacher and student. I have unpacked them in reading and writing and dialoguing with others. I have turned my back on them for a while to try on new ones, and some I’ve gone back to, others I’ve left behind. And I continue to do so. I’m a better person for it. I don’t have to agree with you on everything you believe or say to respect you or enjoy your work. Why is this so difficult for other people? Having friends of varying viewpoints is something I value highly. I have changed my mind and grown as a person from talking with them. I have been challenged time and again. And I have been forced to consider my positions carefully and really dig into who I am, what I believe and why. Is this a bad thing?

I truly believe science fiction and fantasy would not be the genres they are today if people had been as closed minded historically as so many seem to be today. Perhaps it’s the media exposure or the fact that pundits work so hard with their invective to divide us or label us and encourage anger. I don’t know. But I don’t think it bodes well for the future of our genres if people continue to have this attitude. Sure, there have always been close minded people and there always will be. But there were also far more who seemed open to continually engaging in intellectual dialogue and exploring the possibilities. At present, I could name dozens of writers who attack like pit bulls anyone who dares to voice a contrary opinion to theirs. (Names are not the point but rather the questions it raises for a fiction of ideas.) Some of you know what I’m talking about. Why is it so threatening that other people think for themselves or don’t? To me, it makes little difference . If everyone was exactly like me, how boring my library would be! I’d probably have stopped reading and found another hobby a long time ago. I’d certainly have nothing worth saying or writing about. I do have a group of people with whom I can dialogue honestly and explore our different perspectives and ideas but that circle is much smaller than it once was.

I hope this is a trend which can be reversed in times to come. We discover more about ourselves when we allow different perspectives to penetrate our shell and examine them closely. It doesn’t change who we are unless we want it to. And it doesn’t mean we have to agree with or endorse them. Part of the joy of writing for many authors used to be getting inside the heads of people very unlike themselves. It’s an escape from our own realities, yes, but it’s also a broadening of self. But how can you write good, honest, believable stories about people unlike you if you refuse to allow yourself to be exposed to different points of view? With the drop in popularity of science fiction, I wonder sometimes if this is symptomatic. Maybe we aren’t writing about enough variety to keep people coming back. Maybe the ideas are blending together too much. Are people so locked into their points of view that readers have lost interest? One advantage of much fantasy is it’s often rooted in a past where older ideas still reign and must be confronted at least with new ideas the writer brings to life through his or her characters.

I don’t have the answers, but I do work hard to continue exploring ideas and interacting with people different from my own and myself. You can’t help but be a better writer and person by doing so, in my experience. Certainly the kid from small town Kansas who went off to college and work in large cities for decades, travelled to Africa, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, and other places, returned to Kansas now in his forties a very different person. And along the way, he started selling his writing after years of rejection. Part of that is craft, but I also believe a big part of it is having more depth to write about. And depth comes from broad knowledge and understandings of peoples, the world, and various points of view so that you can use them in your work in a way that strikes readers as real.

I certainly hope writers continue to explore the world as much as they can. I hope they ask themselves about the benefits and dangers of ideas and challenge themselves to examine them carefully while doing their best to keep open minds. Our bookshelves will be better for it. And so will the writer’s lives. Above all, science fiction can’t survive and thrive without those new and continually evolving ideas. In the end, it’s really a question of what do we want our genres to be and how do we help them to get there? But it also involves asking how they came to be what they are now in the first place and how do we preserve it? I don’t think we can find the answers in one place or one set of ideas. And I don’t think we can find them on our own but together. Are we willing to enjoy the risks and rewards that togetherness can bring? I hope so.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

19 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb

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  1. I think that this is a great discussion to have, and want to thank Bryan and AISFP for beginning the dialogue. I feel very much that the science fiction and fantasy crowd have boxed in their world view to a fault. I grew up and still live in Utah, raised by conservative parents, and have been a member of the LDS (Mormon) church all my life. I am nearly 30 and still believe deeply in my religion, and tend to take my politics just right of center. As an aspiring fantasy writer, I feel I’m already at a disadvantage for my opinions and views.

    I follow dozens of authors’ blogs and twitter feeds, and endure daily venomous attacks (none personal) against my beliefs. I ignore the comments the majority of the time, knowing that what I have to say will only harm the microscopic relationships I’m trying to form as I network with the industry. It makes me sick, but there it is. I don’t feel that I can express myself completely and be taken seriously as a writer in the professional world.

    On the flip side, I–like Bryan–have expanded my world view to include many ideas and opinions that a lot of the people I know personally would frown upon. This doesn’t bother me, and I’m quite open to those I know about my thoughts and feelings on “controversial” topics. I feel that writers like Frank Herbert, George R.R. Martin, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, and many others have influenced my thinking in different ways I wouldn’t otherwise have been open to. I’m grateful for the “education” I’ve gained through reading superb works of science fiction and fantasy, and a lot of my learning comes from reading authors whose opinions and values are different than mine. This type of learning is very personal, as it comes from my thoughts reacting to an author’s words. Only I can receive what I’ve received. This is something future generations of readers desperately need. They’ll only get it if our beloved genres are open to all sorts of ideas and opinions.

    That being said, It’s important that our fiction doesn’t get preachy. Give me a great story, with characters who have solid beliefs–no matter what they are. Ultimately, I’m able to read and fund authors whose world view I whole-heartedly disagree with only because I love the stories and worlds they create.

  2. James Clark says

    There seem to be two actions occurring at the same time here; the first is the act of surrender and the second is the act of discrimination.

    The act of surrender is what reading feels like to me. I’m pushing down my own internal monologue and inviting someone else’s into my head. I ( and my emotions) go where the story goes. I walk into uncomfortable, challenging places that are often places I would avoid in the real world, be they metaphysical or physical. I think that the response of a person who has done this act of surrender will often be honest and worthy, if not necessarily nice. It has value.

    The act of discrimination, in contrast, has little value at all. To reject the other is to reject the possibility of truth. If I was faithful, how would I examine my faith other than by being confronted about it? In our stomping patch, I think that choosing this act, rather than that of surrender could stand to weaken the whole field.

  3. And I think it does weaken it. That’s my point. People are not opening themselves to the value of hearing other points of view. Just because you read it doesn’t mean it will change you or that you have to agree but where’s the harm in being informed about how someone different than you sees the world? There’s actually REAL value in it.

  4. Hi Bryan,
    I wholeheartedly agree with your points. I believe that authors should have absolute free licence to play with new concepts which push the edge of the envelope. Without fresh ideas, literature would remain hamstrung by constant repetition of the same-old-same-old…
    I can’t help but wonder what reactions were to H.G.Wells when he first published stories like The Time Machine? One thing’s for certain, back then any armchair-critics did not have the facility to publicly post their possibly genuinely felt but often damaging or ill-considered ranting like can happen nowadays on the internet.
    Books come alive in different ways for different people. That’s one of their beauties. They might be accessible or complex, pushing a message or just designed to entertain, long or short, whacky or formulaic and, in the end, either loved or hated…, personally, I think, “Who cares…? The more the merrier!”
    Cheers Anthony

  5. It’s not just the ideas, Anthony, it’s the points of view. If we can’t get inside the heads of people who see the world unlike us? How can we write truly great stuff that transcends labels and reaches a broad audience? If all the characters think like we do and live in the world we want to see, it gets pretty bland, repetitive and boring. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to grasp their reasoning, even if it makes no sense to you, is a way to become a stronger writer. It won’t necessarily make you change your mind. It doesn’t mean you’re endorsing their view. It just means you’re stepping outside your box to expand your frames of reference so you have better tools in your arsenal.

  6. Thanks for starting a civil dialogue about this. If we can’t discuss other religions, political views, cultures, or whatever, we will stagnate. The more you close your mind, the smaller it gets. I love talking with people who think differently and believe differently than I do. It widens my perspectives and gives me so much more to think about. It helps me define what I truly believe and why I believe that way.

    I recognize not everyone will agree with my views and not everyone will enjoy my stories, but I’m not deliberately trying to offend, belittle, or criticize. I’m trying to entertain. If my story makes you think, that’s great. If you hate it, tell me. Let’s discuss without bullying, flaming, or throwing insults. We’ll both grow.

    And if I don’t like your ideas or viewpoints? That’s okay. By discussing them, I can understand them and by extension, you.

    Those who scream loudest about intolerance are usually the ones practicing it most rigorously.

  7. Fantastic discussion. It also seems that it is safer to keep one’s point-of-views to themselves if we don’t want to be shut out from everyone, in everyday life. It makes one fearful of exploring ideas in fiction. I’ve been shut out (to a degree) after acknowledging certain things, in the past, and in the past few years of writing, it has not given me much encouragement to challenge too many opinions or viewpoints….

  8. STILL ONE OF MY FAVORITE QUOTES: “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” – Elizabeth Taylor

    The best thing about SF/Fisction is that it questions everything. It is the things one doesn’t question that gets us all in trouble. The moment it is considered “wrong” or “disloyal” to quesion how things are done is when everyting goes down the tubes. That’s why I loved “Animal Farm” by George orwell. Such a clever book.

  9. Jaleta, Ingrid, and Susan, thanks for your thoughts. LOL So far everyone is agreeing with me, to my surprise. Either no one’s annoyed by this bold post or they’re staying quiet. Not sure if that’s good or bad but glad I’m not alone in my feelings about this.

  10. The problem with dissenting with this essay and trying to justify it, is that it is tantamount to saying, “I’m ignorant, I like being that way, and for good measure, here’s why…”.

    Which oddly, I have actually heard from people in more specific contexts. Usually, in an effort to justify their own cognitive dissonance about a topic.

    For example, people who are Christians that also believe in Evolution. These are incompatible world views and most people don’t like to discuss the topics where they are forced to ask hard questions about their own reality.

    Is it any surprise that people don’t want their literature forcing them to ask such questions of themselves?

  11. Politics and all the issues swept into it have become increasingly polarized in the USA, to the point where having a good-natured discussion of dissimilar ideas seems pointless to any except those who love arguing for argument’s sake. Likewise, I try to keep my own such beliefs out of my social media, as I do not wish to advertise myself as a pundit but an entertainer.

    That said, I feel fantasy and science fiction offer unique environment to explore emotionally charged ideas in more palatable settings. Tolkien wrote the LotR in part to explore the issue of good and evil. The distance of another world or planet may in part allow readers to step past their biases and see things through the eyes of another culture, or perhaps gender, even species. And it’s my firm belief that a drop of magic helps the medicine go down.

  12. Robert Hegwood says

    This discussion hits home for me in a personal way. A couple of years ago I submitted a bit of short fiction to a new literary magazine based, in Texas, I think. The story did not fit neatly into any genre, there was a bit of alternate reality/different time stream, a bit of fairy tale, a bit of magical realism. The story was reject out of hand not for any stated deficients of character or plot or any other writerly concern. It was rejected because it expressed a positive view of the Confederacy in general, and general Lee in particular. I don’t think the editor even noticed the story once her social and political red flags had been triggered. The story itself was born from an observed similarity between a picture of a mounted Gen. Robert E. Lee and that of Sinter Claus on horse back northern European Christmas imagery. I wondered what changes in history would have to come about to realize a fusion of the Santa Claus mythos and the Southern Lost Cause mythos. Basically the story centered on a child’s visit from Santa/Robert E. Lee. To do so required a traditional Southern pro Confederate take on the old South and the Civil War, and that is the way it was written. So, I was very surprised by the angry, and a more than a little bit nasty rejection I received from this journal’s editor…a journal I had published in before, and which was located in a Southern state (so I figured it would be at least friendly to southern cultural tropes). If the story had been rejected because it wasn’t well written, didn’t fit the needs of their publication, was not literary enough, that would have been perfectly understandable. I’m not saying the story should have been published. I think it’s well written, but that’s me, the guy who wrote it. I just think if it’s going to be rejected, it should be rejected for its insufficiencies as a story not because the editor hates a positive expression of the mythos of Gone With the Wind. Rejections on merit/need I may not like, but can understand and live with…rejections for reasons of cultural insult I don’t quite know how to process.

    I suspect this editor is not alone in the publishing industry who takes a dim and narrow view of any insufficiently progressive perspective expressed in the poems and stories of putative authors.

    • Robert Hegwood says

      Addendum. Noticed a number of typos on the above after I posted, but didn’t see an edit feature. I guess I shall have to be more careful next time.

    • Shaun Farrell says

      That’s really interesting, Robert. Were you able to place the story somewhere else?

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