Gimmick or Tool?

I recently read a reader’s review of one of my books that complained that I’d used the same “device” in several Recluce books — a use of order/chaos and drugs that suppressed memories. Earlier, other readers complained that surely, in a high-tech future, there would be more fantastic weapons than space torps. These “reviewers” then concluded, on this basis, that the books were repetitive.

My first reaction was, “Come off it, idiots!” My second was, “Why do you bother reading when you obviously don’t understand much about human nature and culture… and clearly don’t want to?” My third reaction was to write this blog to attempt to clarify something that has come up more than a few times, not only in regard to my writing, but in regard to the work of more than a few other writers.

Let’s start out with one basic point that I’ve discussed before, and that Heinlein pointed out in print more than 35 years ago. There are no new plots. There are only differing ways of addressing the eternal basic plots.

The second point is that human beings use tools. We develop them; we use them; we keep using them so long as they work. Hammers have been in existence for as long as we have historical evidence, and for at least some 50,000 years, if not longer. They meet a need, and they aren’t going away.

Now… how does this apply to F&SF? It’s so simple that I’m almost embarrassed to put it in print, but it’s also so simple and basic that more than a few readers obviously haven’t thought about it. When a writer creates a fantasy world and its subcultures, assuming that these cultures are populated by beings with human or humanlike characteristics, these beings will use tools, techniques, and the like for replicable results. They will continue to use them so long as they work, or until they are supplanted by something else which they find better. That means that they will hone and use the “magic talents” that they possess that are useful. They will not throw them away or forget about them unless they are not useful. Thus, fantasy series that are true to societal nature will in fact — and should — present various techniques and tools used over and over again by those who can.

Likewise, these tools — whatever they may be in whatever books by whatever authors — will always be used in furtherance of human motives along one or more of the basic plots in human literature.

New gimmicks merely for the sake of introducing new gimmickry to avoid reader “boredom” are not only fraudulent, but bad writing. They may provide momentary excitement, like a sugar high, or other highs, but there’s not much behind it. And like those addicted to other highs, readers who continually desire new gadgets, gimmicks, and twists can seldom fully appreciate much beyond such.

Now… those who desire the continually “new” will and do argue against writing too many books in a given fantasy universe, but I consider that about as valid as saying writers should stop writing mainstream fiction because people use weapons to get their way in all cultures or because bribery is endemic, or asking why people all travel by one of the limited means of transport in a given culture.

By the same token, hewing to the “traditional” for the sake of the traditional and because the unfamiliar is unacceptable is just as much a fault. Neither new for the sake of new nor tradition for the sake of tradition makes for good writing.