Real and Fictive Fiction

I’m about to attempt to draw a line, albeit a wide and fuzzy one to split fiction — or at least speculative fiction — into two differing sub-genres, those that I will call “real” fiction and “fictive” fiction.

But isn’t all fiction fictive, by definition? In a technical sense, that’s absolutely correct.

Why am I bothering with what sounds like a technical exercise? Because, first, in point of fact, I believe it to be anything but technical, and, second, I see too many readers and reviewers belaboring and bashing perfectly good books because said readers and reviewers don’t seem to understand the distinction. Nor do many of them seem to care.

So, in the interest of reader and reviewer education, as if many will heed the effort, I am attempting to suggest that the differences between these two types of fiction not only exist, but that at the extremes they are very different. In the middle, of course, where much fiction is written, the distinctions can be blurred into indistinguishability, but because it is often indistinguished there, that lack of distinction doesn’t seem to matter in such cases.

In “real” fiction, human beings, or other intelligent beings, behave in ways consistent with their culture, genetics, heritage, education [or lack thereof], and their job description. This means that if a character is depicted as a business owner, an inordinate amount of his or her time should be devoted to that business. Soldiers should be preparing for war and handling military collateral duties, of which any army in history has had a plethora. Teachers should be teaching, plumbers plumbing, smiths smithing, engineers engineering, and so forth. They should all have concerns about income, because all humans have always had such a concern, and those who have not generally ended up dead or redundant, neither of which should involve a protagonist. They also have to juggle their economic requirements against their emotional needs and requirements, as well as against everyone else’s economic and emotional requirements, not to mention the requirements imposed by the culture, geography, and climate. Needless to say, there are authors who do not wish to bother with these troublesome details, and those who cannot be bothered because such details merely get in the way of the story. There are also those for whom the details threaten to bury the story, something of which I’ve occasionally been accused.

But, for better or worse, “real” fiction at its best tends to illuminate aspects of life and culture as we know it, but at enough of a distance that such illumination is not blinding. It generally does not provide nearly the escapism of “fictive” fiction, but it can be enjoyable to those who appreciate a dose of realism with their escapism.

On the other hand, in “fictive” fiction, accurate depiction of culture, character, background, and economics all take a back seat to adventure and escapism. In fictive fantasy, the peasant boy or girl can become the great hero, despite never having even held a sword or piloted a spacecraft. No one looks too closely at where the resources come from to wage war or go on a lengthy quest. Cities can appear or be built in deserts. Creatures whose biology is patently suspect can appear and wreak havoc or bestow bounty. Great and glorious love can spontaneously arise and enchant two people who do not have the same background or culture, nor speak the same language, and who may not even have the same biology.

In fictive science fiction, new inventions can be created overnight and produced in quantity in days or weeks. Information can be obtained with a quick supercomputer [or the equivalent] search. Private investigators can afford to work on a single case for little or no retainer or expenses for weeks on end. Scientists can create black holes with little equipment in portable laboratories, and global climate change can overwhelm an entire planet in days, if not in hours.

I’m not saying that such fictive fiction stories aren’t entertaining, nor am I saying that many are not well written stylistically. What I am saying is that they’re about cultures or people that haven’t the remotest chance of ever being close to any recognizable reality, and that’s all right. Some readers, and sometimes I’m even one of them, need that kind of escape.

The problem comes when the devotees of one kind of fiction read the other kind, thinking that it might be “their” kind… and come away disappointed and angry enough to complain that writer “x” is not “radically awesome” enough or that writer “y” has so little understanding of technology and economics that he [or she] could not even build a sand castle, let alone a real one.

In short, be careful of damning a book because the writer didn’t write it to your specifications; it may well meet someone else’s. That applies to style as well. Just because a book is written from the first person viewpoint or in the present tense, or both, doesn’t mean it’s either bad or good. It’s a differing approach. Different is different. Poorly written is poorly written. But “different” based on personal expectations, as opposed to technical quality of writing, doesn’t automatically equate to poorly written and bad, and these days I’m seeing that equation far too often, and it doesn’t do either other readers or the writers much good.