On the role of truth and philosophy in fantastic fiction

Fantasy and science fiction author and political activist Steven Brust (previously) was this year's Guest of Honor at Philcon, an excellent Philadelphia-area science fiction (I have also had the privilege to be Philcon's GoH, and it's a great con); his guest of honor speech is entitled Truth as a Vehicle for Enhancing Fiction, Fiction as a Vehicle for Discovering Truth, and he's posted a transcript to his blog.

It's a fascinating examination of how philosophy and fiction mesh, and particularly how "pulp" forms of fiction like fantasy and science fiction both convey philosophical ideas and benefit from their inclusion -- and how people who claim not to have a philosophy or to adhere to "isms" are in fact, espousing a philosophy.

So now we turn it around, because yeah, we really can can discover truth, understand reality better, through fiction, and that’s how we create fiction that hits hard, that punches, that stays with us. But now the question is, what sort of truth do we find in our made-up worlds?

I call a book successful insofar as people who read it are glad they did. But that’s only because I’ve learned that it’s easier to meet my standards if I set them low. In other words, “a good story well told,” as the saying goes, is worthwhile, but not all that challenging. We all know a story can do more than that. We’ve all read books that gave us new ideas to play with, or made us reconsider things we thought we knew.

I like to call us epiphanizers, at least in intention. What I mean is, the highest goal, the thing to shoot for, is to give the reader that moment of, “Oh my god, that’s true, and I’d never realized it.” To put it in more formal terms, it means to reveal contradictions that are concealed in everyday life.

So how do you do that? It isn’t simply a matter of standing up there and saying, “Hey, here’s this truth I’ve learned about life.” The ones who do that are called either philosophers or stand-up comedians. With a novel, it isn’t like you’re trying to find a slick or clever way to deliver some message, and concealing it in 100,000 words. If there was a shorter way to get your point across, you’d do that. Let me hit that point harder: there’s an old chestnut, I don’t know where it’s from, that says “Until a writer can express the theme of his novel in a single declarative sentence, he shouldn’t set pen to paper.” I believe that if you can express your theme in a single declarative sentence, you should write that single declarative sentence, then make your novel about something interesting.

Truth as a Vehicle for Enhancing Fiction, Fiction as a Vehicle for Discovering Truth [Steven Brust/Dreamcafe]

(Image: Kyle Cassidy, CC-BY-SA)

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