(Jo is a girl’s name too)
When we think of what has come before, in any of the fields we work in, we think of the great names.
Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, Le Corbusier, Lynch, Jacobs, Darwin, Mendels, Linnaeus.
We think of the giants in our proffesions whose work stabds, monolithic and timesless, ever relevant, still lighting the forward.
We talk about those who shaped the industry, corralled wayward thought and theory into forms elegant and sublime, rewrote the rules of the game, set the standard.
And therein lies the problem. At least, from what I have seen of spec-fic writing (I am no physicist, no biologist, and not even very much of a planner), therein lies the problem.
The standard, and the ground line are not the same thing. You see, the shoulders of giants are aspirational. They are high places of light and craft and fiercely gleaming revolutionary ideas. We talk about standing on them because there’s standing room only, and precious little of that.
When we think of success we think of the giants. Sometimes, in this globalized age of the international bestseller and the six-figure merchandising contract, we expand our definition and relax the dress code. We can’t pretend that there are not many kinds of success. No-one could argue that Robert Jordan or J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer or Stephen King are not successful.
But that’s not really what most of us think of as the sign we seek to show us that we have become succesful. Partly because success on that scale requires a particular market and a particular stroke of luck.
The kind of success that most of us look for is tied to, riding on and measured by those giants. You can’t really get at it until you hit the shoulders, until your name is as well-known as theirs.
You can’t become a giant though, not on your own. That way lies hubris and a Long Way Down. How many books claiming to be the next Gaiman, the new Tolkien, the Pratchett for a digital age, have you put back on the shelf in disgust. Worse, how many have you brought home with that small, knowing smile, (Pratchett eh? Big shoes you’re claiming there sweetheart) for the sole purpose of proving unworthy.
So success is Giant Territory, but you can’t become a giant by claiming it yourself. That is an honour that must be conferred upon your (fashionably self-deprecating) head from elsewhere. How it happens, I don’t claim to know. Certainly those generally thought of as giants are incredible writers, but I have the vaguest feeling that the quality and depth of their work is not all that is at play. Human celebrity culture is arcane and mysterious.
Here’s another thing, you can’t have too many giants either, that defeats the point. Giants define, encapsulate, summarize a genre. If there are too many for the internet dilettante to familiarize herself with in a few weeks, then there are too many. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, but a thing to think on nonetheless.
So why am I sitting here dissecting this metaphor until all the gummy, squirty bits are showing and we all have a vague sense of discomfort?
Because it is tied up with how we understand and measure success in the writing world, and it stinks. We can’t call ourselves successful until we share the lofty heights with the giant shoulders, and yet, we can’t make ourselves giants. So shoulders or go home. Up there its standing room only, and fleeting, with critics in padded suits and dark glasses playing bouncer. Not the time or the atmosphere to grow the ideas you need to build great stories.
None of us who write, start from the shoulders. Few of us ever even get there. Fewer still are made giants of themselves.
So where do we start? In the mud, on our own?
Except, you and I know that that isn’t right. None of us have to re-invent the space elevator. We draw, subconsciously or no, on a rich tradition of ideas and tropes, questions and dreams and terrible fears. Spec-fic is one of those self-reflective, repurposing kinds of genre.
Whose fears and dreams?
If you find yourself a short-story anthology in a used book-shop from say, twenty to forty years ago, you’ll know. I’m reading Asimov’s Mutants right now. If I were to lend it to you, you’d maybe recognise a handful of names. We start with Bradbury and end with Henderson. Mostly however, they’ll be unfamiliar, relative unknowns whose stories, by today’s standards, are a bit crap really.
Been done. Predictable. Slow.
Until you realise that the ideas were new then, explored for the first time. As much as anything can be a first, nothing new under the sun, they say. These were the ground-breakers, the extrapolaters, the educated (sometimes not so much so) guessers. It was these stories that said it first. Out of the mud… and then back into it. Other people have done those stories better since then.
Mud to mud, soil to soil, loam to leaf to loam. That’s the way of most writers. It seems like a pretty damn depressing industry then. At least it does until you remember that without loam, nothing grows.
It was these stories, these forgotten, no-body writers who formed the substrate, mixed the tropes and the fears, the questions and the dreams, their future, our present, each voice enriching and diversifying. We all start in the mud, in the loam. Even the giants.
This then, not the shoulders, is the base from which the industry grows. Only the first or the best of the mulchers have names now, but they are all there, we are all there, in the clay, and the silt and the mica-bright sand.
Most of us aren’t going to be giants. Most of us new writers, most of the time aren’t going to be the first, or the best at what we do. Not that we don’t want to be or shouldn’t chase it on Warp 9, but most of us will not get there. Whether or not we finally do, may have little enough to do with our skill. Most of us aren’t going to be giants.
Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Remember that the fact that there is nothing new under that sun is only depressing until we realise that that is also why human beings are made of star dust.
You have to stop and think about it, about the complex to really get the pleasure, but it’s all really there, really, really there.
Maybe, if we really stop and think about it, there is success in the soil also.