May 20th, 2012

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Addiction in Science Fiction

One of my writer-friends, Joan Slonczewski, posted an interesting essay about addiction in science fiction.

I've touched on this occasionally in my writing.  For instance, in "Good Help Is Hard To Find," the supporting character is a drunk and the main character is having a difficult time switching from Evil to Good.  One of my unpublished stories, "Pebbles from the River Lethe," is primarily about post-traumatic stress disorder but that arcs into a major thread on addiction.  Or threads, if you count the protagonist's early attempts to self-medicate with alcohol.

I look at addiction as an adaptive malfunction.  So my sorting process goes like this:

* Is there an underlying problem that you're trying to alleviate?  If yes, then you have a valid reason to explore substances or practices to that end.  If not, what you're doing is recreational and should be kept at a lower level.

* Is what you're doing causing a problem?  If yes, then you need to consider the possibility of quitting and the relative cost.  If not, then it's functioning as maintenance and not an addiction.

* Is the solution causing more trouble than the original problem?  If yes, then you need to be doing something about that.  If not, then at least you're ahead of where you were.

* Can you scale back or stop if you wish to do so?  If yes, this is not an addiction.  If not, it is, and the advisability of maintaining it depends on the risk/benefit assessment.

* Is there a level at which the benefits may be obtained without much if any negative side effects?  If yes, it's maintenance.  If not, that's a problem typical of many addictive substances, especially as habituation increases.  Many things are functional at one level but dysfunctional at others.

By my definition, an addiction is something that you can't readily withdraw from even if it causes more trouble than it's worth.  It's your own adaptive process working against you instead of for you.  

This leaves out some things that cause physical adaptation but do not make trouble, such as some maintenance medications.  Bear in mind that food, water, oxygen, and many other things are required for life; and some of those can trigger the habituation effect under some circumstances.  This also goes against the sometimes fashionable idea that if any substance ever causes a problem, it's an addiction; well, no, if you can stop after a bad experience, that's just a mistake and you learned from it.  People do that.

This also includes some things that society customarily excludes from consideration because they are recommended or required.  Just because everyone thought it was dandy to smoke for decades didn't make cigarettes not kill people.  Same with prescription drugs, it took a long time for anyone to admit that those can be as addictive and destructive as street drugs.  So can religion, sex, and all sorts of other stuff.  What matters is whether it does damage and whether you can stop; not whether or not something is "respectable."

In speculative fiction, we can look at different things that a society might excuse or condemn, or that might become addictive.  Magic, new drugs, alien symbiotes, gods, artifacts -- all kinds of stuff can mess up a character's mind and life.  Then we can explore positive or negative ways that society deals with that.  ([personal profile] haikujaguar has a wonderful story about social response to addiction.)  Sometimes that reveals new ways of thinking about a problem or looking for solutions.

What are some of your favorite stories that touch on this topic?
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Writing Across Cultures

This article talks about the challenges of writing other cultures.  It's good as far as it goes, in that exploring can be good inspiration and it's important to do your homework so you don't write stupid things.

But it's also staring at a wall that isn't entirely real.  It makes a huge gigantic deal out of that wall, as if humanity is all about being "us" or "them."

It's not.  Racial distinctions are illusions, cultural fabrications not backed by science.  Social boundaries can be real, but even those are thought a great deal more than they're done.  As soon as people meet, they start swapping ideas and usually genes.  Consider the fact that global travel means fewer and fewer people are "pure" anything these days.  This is especially true in America but also true throughout most of the rest of the world, barring a few obsessively endogamous groups.  

So don't assume that you are "other," that you have no connection with some society or ethnic group that interests you.  Look for common ground.  Better yet, take a detailed look at your family tree and see how much diversity you can find in there. Then go explore some of that stuff.

People are people.  We all have a lot of common experience just by sharing a species and a home planet.  A story that focuses on that has a much better chance of working as a story and not devolving into stereotypes.  Consider the success of "Roots," which was at its heart a story about family, not just a black family coming into and out of slavery.

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More Thoughts on Books

We went to another bookstore recently.  This time I did, eventually, manage to find a couple things worth bringing home.  One was a novel, one was a dictionary.  Yay!

But I wound up thinking about all the sturgeons running over those shelves.  Book after book of undiluted crud.  Me being me, of course, I stacked up all that data and looked for patterns.

1) A lot of series books these days are utterly unmemorable.  They're formulaic.  They're so similar that once I've read a book or two in a series, I often can't remember which ones  I've read and which I don't have yet.  This of course makes me less inclined to buy more.  It's not worth the time it would take me to hunt through what I have at home and make a list.  No, this isn't a series problem in general.  There are older series that I carried in my head, for years, which ones I was missing and wanted.  So if a series isn't good enough that I can remember what I've read and what I haven't, off the top of my head, fuck it.  I may fill in the gaps if the books are a quarter each at a yardsale or bargain box, but that's about it.

2) Sexual empowerment does not mean dressing like a slut, angsting over two or more guys who are frankly unreliable unlikable dicks with feet, and staggering from crisis to crisis.  I'm starting to wonder if all those urban fantasy books are either written by or paid for by people who just really want to fuck bad girls.  Listen, if the world needs saving, I am going to look in the library not in the principal's office.  Sexual empowerment means doing what you want with your body, yes, with or without a partner of mutually agreeable interest -- as part of a healthy lifestyle  overall.

3) Which brings me to gripe number three, the appalling dearth of healthy relationships of any  kind.  It's not just that characters don't understand how to begin a successful romance.  They also don't get along well with their coworkers, their parents, their mentors, or anyone else.  Even encounters with random strangers are often dysfunctional.  If two characters have a comfortable relationship, that's a sign that one of them is about to die or they're about to become estranged to Start The Drama.  Just no.  I'm tired of reading this.  It's only fun to torment characters emotionally if there is some contrast going on.  Otherwise it gets predictable and boring.  I want to see some stories where people have healthy relationships of various kinds.  I've been writing more of this myself and now I know part of the reason why.  I'll have to try and remember to request it in prompt calls too.  I can't be the only reader who wants to see characters that aren't emotionally constipated.

That gave me another interesting insight.  There's a branch of fanfic that is sometimes just its usual fluffy nonsense, but occasionally goes into quite deep psychological territory: the fixit.  These stories rely on taking a pivotal moment and pivoting it to turn out differently.  Now, the standard plot structure in a western story looks like this, a long rise to a peak and then a short drop.  A fully developed fixit story is the opposite: a brief summary of the canon, the big disaster scene with its crucial alteration, and then a long sequence of scenes showing how the characters work through their various issues until they reach a resolution. 

The drawback to this is, of course, that it's fanfic and usually requires familiarity with the source material in order to work.  The drawback of the mainstream plot design is that it tends to shortchange problem-solving.  You hit the big crisis very late in the story and then everything is supposed to be resolved very quickly.  How many times have you been dissatisfied by an author handwaving away important relationship challenges or other unresolved issues? 

So then I got to wondering, what would it look like if this plot concept were moved from fanfic to canon?  The plot structure would change.  It would introduce the characters, set up some escalating issues and early attempts to solve them, have a big explosive scene in the middle, then follow the characters as they methodically worked through the problems and found solutions step-by-step, ending at the conclusion.  I'd enjoy seeing this in action.  It would be new and different.

Has anyone else noticed similar patterns, or other ones?  Stuff you're sick of seeing in almost every book?  What would you like to be reading instead?