Every so often, I come head-to-head with an unsettling fact – being a “realistic” novelist hurts my sales and sometimes even upsets my editors. What do I mean? Well… after nearly twenty years as an economist, analyst, administrator, and political appointee in Washington, I know that all too many of the novelistic twists and events, such as those portrayed by Dan Brown, are not only absurd, but often physically and or politically impossible. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t write political “thrillers,” my one attempt at such proving dramatically that the vast majority of readers definitely don’t want their realism close to home.
Unfortunately, a greater number don’t want realism to get in the way, or not too much in the way, in science fiction or fantasy, and my editors are most sensitive to this. This can lead to “discussions” in which they want more direct action, while I’m trying to find a way to make the more realistic indirect events more action-oriented without compromising totally what I have learned about human nature, institutions, and human political motivations. For example, there are reasons why high-tech societies tend to be lower-violence societies, but the principal one is very simple. High-tech weaponry is very destructive, and societies where it is used widely almost invariably don’t stay high-tech. In addition, violence is expensive, and successful societies find ways to satisfy majority requirements without extensive violence [selective and targeted violence is another question].
Another factor is that people seeking power and fortune wish to be able to enjoy both after they obtain them – and you can’t enjoy either for long if you’ve destroyed the society in order to be in control. This does not apply to fanatics, no matter what such people claim, but the vast majority of fanatics don’t wish to preserve society, but to destroy – or “simplify” – it because it represents values antithetical to theirs.
Now… this sort of understanding means that there’s a lot less “action” and destruction in my books than in most other books dealing with roughly similar situations and societies, and that people actually consider factors like costs and how to pay for things. There are also more meals and meetings – as I’m often reminded, and not always in a positive manner – but meals and meetings are where most policies and actions are decided in human society. But, I’m reminded by my editors, they slow things down.
Yes… and no…
In my work, there’s almost always plenty of action at the end, and some have even claimed that there’s too much at the end, and not enough along the way. But… that’s life. World War II, in all its combat phases, lasted slightly less than six years. The economics, politics, meetings, meals, treaties, elections, usurpations of elections, and all the factors leading up to the conflict lasted more than twenty years, and the days of actual fighting, for any given soldier, were far less than that. My flight instructors offered a simple observation on being a naval aviator: “Flying is 99 percent boredom, and one percent sheer terror.” Or maybe it was 98% boredom, one percent exhilaration, and one percent terror.
On a smaller and political scale, the final version of Obama’s health care bill was passed in days – after a year of ongoing politicking, meetings, non-meetings, posturing, special elections, etc. The same is true in athletics – the amount of time spent in training, pre-season, practices, etc, dwarfs the time of the actual contest, and in football, for example, where a theoretical hour of playing time takes closer to three hours, there’s actually less than fifteen minutes of actual playing time where players are in contact or potential contact.
Obviously, fiction is to entertain, not to replicate reality directly, because few read to get what amounts to a rehash of what is now a very stressful life for many, but the question every writer faces is how close he or she hews to the underlying realities of how human beings interact with others and with their societies. For better or worse, I like my books to present at least somewhat plausible situations facing the characters, given, of course, the underlying technical or magical assumptions.
Often my editors press for less realism, or at least a greater minimization of the presentation of that realism. I press back. Sometimes, it’s not pretty. So far, at least, we’re still talking to each other.