So, I just got a rejection letter for a story I submitted to Analog. This, in and of itself, is unexceptional (sadly) and part and parcel of this whole ‘trying to be a successful writer’ thing. What made it interesting to me, though, was the list of things they tag onto the bottom of their form letter. Ordinarily these lists are comprised of somewhat disingenuous reminders of what makes a bad story (i.e. a list of most common reasons why they reject things) and they are typically quite uninformative for someone who knows their way around plot, character, and the genre in general. This one, though, had a peculiar one that had me scratching my head. It went like this:
—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering.
This, to me, basically says ‘we prefer happy endings and victory to tragedy and defeat. If the guy loses, at least make it awesome.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so.
Now, I’ve noticed the trend for science fiction stories to end on an upnote before. The one most consistent thing I’ve gleaned from reading the Writers of the Future anthology is that the vast, vast majority of scifi stories end in victory of some kind – occasionally bittersweet, but consistently upbeat in some fashion. This note on my rejection letter left me wondering ‘is this a thing?’
Yes, it is a Thing
I’ve spent a bit too much time this morning trying to think of science fiction titles with downbeat endings – tragedies, in other words. I generally think of scifi as a genre that lends itself to the grim and dark but, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see my error. Think for a second: how many downbeat scifi titles that end ’negatively’ can you name? Here’s my list:
- The Planet of the Apes
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- The Sparrow
- A Canticle For Lebowitz (sort of)
And…hmmmm…nothing much else. Even those are a stretch.
Granted, I’m definitely missing a few in that list, but if you go down the list of the darkest, most depressing scifi stories ever and you’ll still get the upbeat ending, nine times out of ten. Terminator? John Connor wins! Aliens? The Aliens are always defeated eventually. Zombie Apocapypses? 99% of the time the last band of survivors finds a cure, escapes from trouble, or what have you. Even Children of Men, one of the darkest, most dismal scifi universes ever, has the woman with the last child escape England and vanish into the mist – that, my friends, is hope.
What’s up with that?
What is Up With This
I suppose this trend isn’t unique to science fiction – most stories in any genre end happily somehow. They might be troubled victories, but the protagonist seldom loses, seldom sees his plans thwarted, seldom finds his efforts futile. I guess, on some level, we all like to think that the happy ending is out there for all of us, no matter how terrible things look. Alien brain slugs might be eating our neighbors, but we, dammit, are going to find a way to survive.
Part of this also might have something to do with science itself. Science is an inherently positive discipline in some ways, or at least it is perceived as such. We like to think of it as constantly striding forward, fixing problems, uncovering truths. Such a glorious and wonderous discipline cannot lead to tragedy! Why, that would mean we, humanity, were fundamentally wrong about something, and we can’t have that. Oh no no no! We dare not even think of such things!
Is this a Bad Thing?
I am a big believer in the power of tragedy, myself. My natural predilection is for my stories to have at least partially tragic endings. It has taken a surprising amount of effort on my part to pull myself away from that habit, and I am stuck asking myself sometimes why I’m trying so hard.
A good tragedy isn’t depressing, it’s somehow fulfilling. It’s like a meal – it sticks to your ribs, makes you think about it for months afterwards. They can hurt your heart, but it’s a good kind of hurt; it’s the kind that makes you realize you’ve grown somehow. You’ve understood something that a victorious ending might not have illuminated. You’ve grown.
Now, I’m not saying every single thing I read or write should end sadly – far from it - but I am suggesting that, if this is a stipulation of the genre, we ought to bend it a bit, if not break it outright. Not every tale of our future selves ends well; we should be courageous and willing enough to explore that.
The Good News: A few months back, I earned a semi-finalist finish in the Writers of the Future Contest, which I feel is kind of a big deal. It came with a nice certificate and, more importantly, a personalized critique from scifi writer KD Wentworth. In the overwhelming complexity and drama of my personal life during this same period, however, I feared that, due to my recent move, my ‘prize’ was going to be lost in the mail. It wasn’t; I got the critique yesterday.
Turns out they really liked my story–it was among the very last to be cut. Considering that they receive thousands of entries each quarter, this is good news. Furthermore, those aspects of the story I was most concerned with perfecting (the struggle of the main character, the resolution to that struggle, and the emotional gravity of the situation) was, according to her words, very engaging. Great!
The Bad News: What got my story cut was that an aspect of the story was drawing upon a trope that is as old as the hills–a demon in a box that can turn upon its owner at any time. She and the rest of the judges apparently felt that other stories were more original (and I have no doubt that they were in this regard) and she gave me some substantive advice on how to make the story better by fixing this element. Appropriately, this was the element that I had obsessed over the least and that I hadn’t really considered a problem. Good–I’m learning. That’s supremely important to me.
How Original is Original?
As I have mulled this problem over the last few hours, here’s the thing I keep circling back to: just how different do we have to make things to make them new, but without making them so new that we lose the thematic and cultural resonance we’re seeking. To suggest that fantasy fiction doesn’t draw upon myth, legend, and folklore is ridiculous. My story about a demon in a box obviously isn’t the first, but it also isn’t the last nor will demons in boxes be relegated to some kind of literary no-fly zone so that nobody who writes about them will be successful. Nonsense.
So, then, if I’m to change the demon somehow (and I will; I think Wentworth’s critique is spot-on and really helpful), what kind of change are we talking here? Physical (not in a box but a sheep’s bladder?), operational (it doesn’t want your soul, but rather your eyes or your hair or your sense of humor), metaphorical (it doesn’t represent evil, but simply fear or despair or even, just for the hell of it, hope), or what? Is this enough? Of note, it isn’t called a demon, but rather a ghul, and the setting is sufficiently unique from your average fantasy tale to keep it interesting–I assumed I had done enough to make it fresh. Perhaps it was fresh, but maybe not fresh enough.
But where do you stop?
I’ve written about this problem before. I need to change the rules somehow, shake things up. How is, of course, my trouble (I’m not fishing for suggestions), and perhaps I’m overthinking this. Nevertheless, I think it’s a useful bit of critique for all of us to hear, even if we haven’t heard it said about our own work. We can’t rest on the shoulders of those who have come before us. We do not have that luxury, not when the competition is so fierce.
I need to push myself–go somewhere new, explore. You should too.