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[GUEST POST] Steven Gould on Reality, Verisimilitude, Imagination, and Exclusion

Steven Gould is the author of Jumper, Wildside, Helm, Blind Waves, Reflex, Jumper: Griffin’s Story, 7th Sigma, Impulse, and Exo as well as several short stories published in Analog, Asimov’s, and Amazing, and other magazines and anthologies. He is the recipient of the Hal Clement Young Adult Award for Science Fiction and has been a Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and Compton Crook finalist, but his favorite distinction was being on the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned Books 1990-1999 for Jumper before the Harry Potter books came along and bumped it off the bottom of the list. Jumper was made into the 2008 feature film of the same name with Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Bell, Rachel Bilson, and Hayden Christensen. In 2013 he was hired to help develop the three movie sequels to James Cameron’s Avatar, as well as write four novels based on the films. Steve lives in New Mexico with his wife, writer Laura J. Mixon (M.J. Locke) and their two daughters, two dogs, and three chickens. He has practiced aikido and Japanese sword for the last two decades, and is the currently serving president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He can be found on twitter as @StevenGould and on Facebook as Steven Gould.

On Reality, Verisimilitude, Imagination, and Exclusion

by Steven Gould

The year is 1974 and I’m sitting in a room with Bruce Sterling, Lisa Tuttle, Joseph Pumilia, Steven Utley, Howard Waldrop, Harlan Ellison, and Keith Laumer.

When I say “with” I mean that I’m sitting in an outer circle as an audience member. All of them are participating in the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop and Neo-Pro Rodeo being held at AggieCon IV as part of the convention programming. They were all guests but for us con attendees, this was strictly a spectator event. It was so fascinating I turned over the convention program book and a blank inside cover started the first short-story I would ever finish. There were a lot of interesting things that happened there, but I want to talk about one thing in particular.

They were critiquing a fantasy story or chapter that seemed to be strongly influenced byFritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories and Harlan took issue with its depiction of a bedroom scene that mixed sensuality with some fairly broad humor. “I just don’t believe it,” he said. In defence, the author mentioned that this kind of behavior certainly happened in their bed. Harlan talked about the difference between truth and verisimilitude. “It must not just be true, it must seem true,” and he used the word verisimilitude, the first time I had encountered it (I had just turned 19.) In other workshops over the years, I’ve heard similar things. “The truth is no excuse.” “No matter how many times you say, ‘I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself,’ I still don’t believe it.” “You’ve got to sell it, and right now, I’m not buying it.”

This is one of the major skillsets of fiction–the depiction of events, settings, characters, and things that don’t cause the reader to blink, shake their head, and say, “Oh, come on!” For genre writers the needed skills are amped up a bit, for we are asking readers to buy things that don’t exist and, in many cases, are flat out impossible.

I have been using the following definition for years though I stole it from my friend, librarian and cartoonist Scott McCullar: Science Fiction is the extension of the known into the unknown without breaking the existing laws of the universe. Fantasy is expecting to make a living from writing Science Fiction.

Yucks aside, in SF we’re supposed to be following the rules though we often write about things that don’t: faster than light travel and of course, the long list of paranormal-whatists. Telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, remote viewing, precognition, levitation, and my own particular sin, apportation a.k.a teleporting a.k.a. jaunting a.k.a. jumping. Do readers seem upset when these things sneak into SF? Not so you’d notice. Why is this?

Almost certainly because the writer sold it to them and they probably sold it to them by making everything around the McGuffin as real as possible. They paid attention to the setting, the textures of reality, the feelings and reactions of the the characters shooting for psychological realism. When possible they got the science right and the culture and they didn’t introduce a bunch of anachronisms. They didn’t say “Fire!” when ordering a flight of arrows. They didn’t talk about galvanized metal in a world where Lord Galvin never existed. They did the research.

The failure modes of verisimilitude are:

  1. The reader is pulled out of the story because the writer fails to depict events in a convincing way, or…
  2. The writer depicts convincing events that are contrary to the way the reader believes the universe to be.

Is the truth really no excuse?

I was discussing mysteries with a relative and he told me he really enjoyed a particular series but he had to stop reading it because the author kept including the protagonist’s lesbian sister “only for reasons of political correctness.” The series had failed his sense of verisimilitude.

I was gobsmacked. Perhaps the author of that series had a sister who was gay. Perhaps the author herself was. Equally significant, had no one told my relative about his own great niece who happened to be in a committed relationship with another woman? Where is the failure of verisimilitude–in the fiction or in the reader’s worldview? And what is responsible for that reader’s worldview? Could it have anything to do with the systematic exclusion of lesbians from all the media he consumed throughout his life? What do we say to the approximately 9 million Americans who identify as LGBT–it is “unrealistic” to expect them to appear in our literature, film, or television?

How about people of color? I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told it is too “jarring” to have a PoC in a historical fantasy because they weren’t in Europe. Ignoring the nonsense of supposing that all Fantasy needs to be Euro-centric, even going with Europe as a setting, it is quite clear that people of color have been in Europe since at least the Roman occupation of Britain. But if we go by our last hundred years of western literature (and a lot of the formal history) they have been left out of settings and history. Again, we have a failure of “verisimilitude.”

How many times have you heard that as story involving female action heroes is just wrong because women don’t belong in combat, either because they are unsuited for it, or too disruptive, or too “delicate” to face the horrors of war? Despite the fact that Women Have Always Fought?

I have been “corrected” about science in my stories, when, in fact, my depiction was based on the latest data and the current and predominant consensus of the scientific community. The reader’s outdated or just plain erroneous conceptions led to a failure of verisimilitude. But is this my failure as a writer or is it a different kind of failure?

Where do we draw the line? Sure, vastly improbable things happen in the real world that, when depicted in fiction give the reader pause. But we’re not talking about improbable things. We’re talking about people who exist in large numbers and who have been left out of our stories, histories, and everyday lives–people our eyes pass over without registering their existence, their problems, or their contributions.

If our imagination can encompass psychics and unicorns and dragons and vampires and even teleports, why can’t it encompass the range of humanity that does and has shared our world as long as humans have walked on the earth?

Sometimes the truth is an excuse. Sometimes reality is all the justification we need.

About John DeNardo (13014 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Steven Gould on Reality, Verisimilitude, Imagination, and Exclusion

  1. Paul Connelly // September 25, 2014 at 9:36 pm //

    Well written fantasy or science fiction will only be fully appreciated by readers who come to it with a certain amount of openness, a willingness to be taken out of their familiar world and shown a world that has strange and unfamiliar aspects, some possibly unsettling or even frightening. That openness is not necessary for enjoyment, just for a deeper engagement with what makes fantastic literature uniquely powerful.

    There’s definitely a substantial percentage of readers who don’t want to be unsettled, who want to be reassured and have their familiar storylines rehashed over and over. It isn’t unique to reading either. We have TV viewers who must stick with the Fox news stories about cowardly, corrupt liberals and evil Muslim fanatics. Anything outside this view of the world is threatening and manifestly false. It’s the same for the bloggers that have to go to Daily Kos and defend Obama for doing all the same things they castigated Bush for doing, and downrating anyone who disagrees. In some religious subcultures you can find a total commitment to insularity, to walling out all contact with opposing viewpoints, so members can maintain the rap they have going on among themselves without interruption.

    With readers, the narrowness of your genre choices is probably a good tip-off to how limited a concept of what seems real you have. And publishers concentrate most of their marketing effort on seeing that you get matched up with a reliable supply of more of the same.

    Authors can polish their craft to provide high quality material while nonetheless staying within these markets. That is obviously not the path taken by, for instance, R. A. Lafferty, Caitlin Kiernan, J. G. Ballard, Cordwainer Smith, et al. Readers who get a lot out of writers like that are probably not limiting themselves to marketing segments of the genre, whether it’s lads with swords and bloodthirsty temperaments, kickass heroines with vampire boyfriends, or even highbrow literature of the metafictional, surreal, or interstitial sort. And they are likely less critical of what they read on the verisimilitude score and more critical on the quality of writing or lack of originality scores.

  2. Great post! One of my favorite stories about the making of Superman: The Movie (1978) is that director Richard Donner put up a big sign that said “Verisimilitude,” reflecting his philosophy behind the film. (Touched on here: http://prettycleverfilms.com/essays/directing-superman-cinematic-approaches-to-the-man-of-steel/)

    And at Clarion West, we had a plush frog that someone in the workshop’s past had named the Verisimilitoad. Ah, you had to be there 🙂

    However, as you said, there is a difference between truth and perceived truth. At the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop last summer, we learned that there’s a delicate balance between writing something that is factually correct and writing something that readers will assume is wrong because it has been handled poorly in media. I think in those instances, we need to stick to the truth and hope that readers will want to learn more, expand their knowledge, challenge their assumptions, and in time the truth will be better represented in all stories.

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