The "Save the World" Expectation

One of my soon-to-be-published novels recently received a review which essentially said that the book was engaging and well-written, but the conclusion was perfunctory because it “leaves unresolved the larger issues of the role of magic in public life and the position of women in society.” Oh? And exactly how many reviewers would think of criticizing Jane Austen for not resolving the position of women in society? Or Tolkien for not resolving the issues of the role of magic in public life?

In case you haven’t gathered, the book is The Lord-Protector’s Daughter, and in it, the protagonist is faced with a nearly impossible situation where she must fight an extraordinarily chauvinistic culture and the expectations placed on her in order just to survive. She does more than that, but it’s clear that the reviewer expected one young woman to totally change society in less than half a year. I’m not bringing this up because I’m more than slightly irritated at the denseness of the reviewer, which I am, but because many readers — and reviewers — of F&SF exhibit what I’d call a “save the world expectation.” This expectation is endemic, so far as I can tell, only to two genres — thrillers and F&SF. No one expects Hercule Poirot to save the world, only to solve the mystery. In virtually all so-called mainstream literature, the characters may not even be able to save themselves, let alone the world. In romances, the characters only have to save each other.

Now… I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with F&SF books where characters save or destroy worlds, or galaxies. I’ve certainly written some. What bothers me is the expectation that this must always happen… or the book is somehow unfulfilling. I’m certainly not the only one to notice this, either. As a matter of fact, the sometime author, editor, and critic Matt Cheney made this observation about another of my books, Archform:Beauty:

Finally, I was particularly pleased with the resolution of the central plot elements. Though the mystery is solved and the bad guys get taken care of (and two of the characters even find love and at least momentary happiness), the triumphs of the novel are primarily personal. For the police and politicians, it was all one crisis among many, and for most of the citizens it was just a good news story for a day or two. What we, the readers, see is that for a handful of people, life has changed, but the world around them has not. Even though things are different for these characters, they still have to work their way through the world, they have to get through their days, they have the remaining moments of their lives to live. That, it seems to me, is a courageous ending for a book of this sort, perhaps even a subversive one…

Anytime a scholastic genre critic like Matt has to note that a book that doesn’t “save the world” is subversive, it certainly suggests to me that we have too many world-savers and not enough books that “merely” provoke thought… or heaven forbid, entertain without saving or destroying worlds.

But then, as someone categorized as “subversive,” I suppose I’m being optimistic when I hope that readers — and reviewers — won’t be disappointed when my characters don’t always save or transform the world.