Writers: Is It Overused "Theme"or Truthful Observation?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that various readers and reviewers have remarked on the fact that I seemed obsessed with the “theme” of power, and sometimes the “theme” of gender and sexual politics. Other writers get identified with these or other “themes,” and usually, but not always, the noted identification carries the implication that the writer under discussion should get on with it and stop pounding at that theme.

But… is there a distinction between observation of human nature and a theme that underlies human behavior? Or is it just a matter of reader and reviewer opinion? Is it a repetitive and unnecessary theme when the reader or reviewer doesn’t want to accept the observations, but merely life-like when they do?

For better or worse, before I became a full-time writer, I spent almost thirty years in the worlds of the military, business, and government and politics, and in these worlds I received a thorough education in how power is used and abused in all fashions by human beings. As many others before me have noted, and as doubtless many others after me will note, very few people really understand and know how to use power effectively, and even fewer use it for what might be called the “greater good.” This is not a “theme.” It’s an observed fact, and if I include fictionalized versions and variations on what I’ve observed, as an author, I’m being true to human nature.

This issue applies to other aspects of writing science fiction and fantasy as well.

In the Spellsong Cycle, Anna continues to use the same tactics, often in battle after battle. So do various others of my characters in other books, and some readers have complained that was “unrealistic,” that such tactics wouldn’t continue to work. In combat, effective tactics are based on the abilities of the combatants, the weapons at hand, the geography, and various other limited factors. The range of effective tactics is indeed limited, and tactics are used effectively over and over again. This is why military strategists study ancient and modern campaigns. In addition, weapons change their form, but their functions change slowly over time, and sometimes not at all over centuries. Today, the function of the vast majority of modern weapons is the same as two centuries ago — to apply various destructive and explosive devices to the most vulnerable aspects of the enemy. We’ve gone from musket balls to cluster-bombs and RPVs, but the function remains the same. Even in science fiction, this observation holds true.

Likewise, so does another human variable — the slowness of human beings, especially in groups — to learn from experience. Even after WWI, the armies of most industrialized nations, including the U.S., still retained cavalry units — with horses — despite the clear knowledge that mounted cavalry was ineffective and counter-productive against such weapons as the machine gun. Castles took a long time to vanish after the development of artillery. Yet I can’t count the number of times I’ve had readers complain about — and even some reviewers comment on — why one side or the other doesn’t learn how to cope with something after one or two battles. Borrowing from another media… Duhhh!

After a certain amount of experience, I learned that fights of all kinds consist of short and violent action, punctuated by far longer periods of comparatively little action. As a beginning Naval aviator, I was told that flying was “99% boredom and one percent sheer terror.” In a sense, it’s true. Most time in the air is spent getting to a place where intense action occurs or is undertaken before you return. Some missions are designed to have no action; you’re either gathering information or waiting on station in the event something might happen. Yet far too many books depict only the action and all action… and more action. To me, that’s incredibly unrealistic.

Yes, fiction has to offer entertainment, and no one wants to read, and I certainly don’t want to write, something as boring as a moment-by-moment adaptation of boring reality. By the same token, not taking into account the crux of human nature and human brilliance and stupidity — and at least some of the waiting in between — can only result in the written version of a high-speed video game.

I don’t write those, but they do get written, and that’s part of the marketplace. I don’t mind that, either, believe it or not, but what I do mind is when readers and reviewers with a “video-game” mindset criticize those authors who are trying to enlighten and educate, as well as entertain, because their books are more true to life. Some themes are true, both in life and fiction, and ignoring them is one reason why conflicts like Vietnam and Iraq, or the Middle East, or… [pick your favorite politico-military morass] have occurred and will continue to happen.

Overused theme or time-tested observation? In the end, it still depends on the reader’s viewpoint.