I used to take the bus into work in Hartford. I lived in Manchester at the time, and I was rather broke. (That's one of those understatement thingies.) There was one winter that was very cold, and the apartment my roommate and I lived in (we called it The Garrett, ladegard and me) was so cold that we slept with heating pads and carried kerosene lamps around with us to warm whatever little corner we were in at a given time. A wind blew through the living room, and the snow melted off the roof almost before it fell.
I had walking pneumonia (though I didn't figure it out until the following summer when my cough finally went away) and I was walking to the bus stop every day.
We got 180 inches of snow that winter. I had a broken heart. All I really remember about it is being cold and hurting all the time, and trying to figure out how to pay the heating bill and buy groceries both.
Anyway, it was November. And it was snowing. And I was on the bus, and I had my headphones on, but I wasn't listening to anything. I was eavesdropping on the guy behind me--a tall, good looking black man--who was talking on his cell phone (remember what cell phones looked like in 1995?). And he was telling his friend about how when he got out of prison he tried to go straight, but he couldn't afford to feed his family or get a place to live, so--his words--"I went back to being a gangster. And let me tell you, I got all my Christmas shopping done."
And I thought, I have to write a story about this man.
A few months after that, I saw a different man on the same bus. A big man, long-legged and broad-shouldered. A truly beautiful man, with a shaved head, dark skin and a ruby in one nostril, his nails manicured, wearing cordovan loafers and a charcoal gray silk suit. There was a gold loop in his ear. It matched the flash of his teeth when he smiled at me, mousy little white girl in a cheap business suit with a wet, chronic cough.
He obviously didn't work in insurance. We'll leave it at that.
Somewhere between those two guys and some of the people I knew in the neighborhood I grew up in, Razorface was born. Somebody called him a gangster with a heart of gold, and of course that's wrong. He's a son of a bitch. He's just a charming one, and one who's maybe trying to do what he sees as the right thing. But he's not a moral animal, to steal truepenny's turn of phrase.
It's easy to confuse charisma with moral character, of course. We do it all the time. In life as it is in art. But I try never to make the mistake of thinking a character is admirable just because I like him.
I actually find it kind of creepy when I'm reading a book, and the protagonist is doing things that are kind of... morally ambiguous... and something in the narrative reveals to me that I am not supposed to find them morally ambiguous. (I'm having a Kevin Smith Deathstar moment, if you know what I mean.)
Anyway, pursuant to how my brain handles character, Lily's bugging of me has me thinking about how I write and why it doesn't work for some people in a way that's a feature rather than a bug. Specifically, that for me, the character is the story. And either that works, or it doesn't. There's a Paul DiFillippo review of Scardown out there somewhere (I linked it eight months ago or so and can't be arsed to look for it now) in which I recall specifically that he commented that the trilogy was bloated by various personal details, and cited a scene as wasted space that, to me, was pivotal to the entire arc.
It brought home to me something about matters of craft. One of the things I was really interested in when writing the Jenny books--hell, a major ongoing tic of mine as a writer that one might even justify discussing as an ur-theme--was the effect of world events on people. There's this really artificial thing that happens in genre fiction where the entire world starts revolving around the Event. Whereas, in real life, we're far more concerned, on a daily basis, with our love affairs and our children's grades and Mom's heart condition and whether we remembered to make an appointment at the dentist--and the larger world of politics and world events encroaches on that life.
The news, in other words, is a subplot. Until we wake up one morning and the civil war is in our living room.
And the thing is, in my opinion, that stuff--the slopping of the hogs, as I like to call it--is the important stuff. Yes, world events are, you know, worth keeping an eye on. But the thing that makes a difference in your happiness in the long term is how you manage your own life. It depends on whether you maintain your honor as best you can and strive to do well by yourself and others.
I had an argument with Peter Watts a while back about whether a novel about the life of an Argentinian dirt farmer left behind by the Singularity would have any relevance. He didn't think so, because that person no longer had any influence on the wider world.
My answer was yes, of course it does. As much relevance as the life of Beowulf or Kimball Kinnison has. Or the old man, the one with the fish. Or Othello. Or--
...The vast majority of humanity has always been peasants. There is only one human narrative: we are born, we strive, we comprehend--or fail to--and we die.
We are all flecks of dust in the eye of the cosmos. Some of us argue the point more strenuously than others. We are natural solipsists; we are inclined to think of ourselves as important. We like to believe we'd be the guy, like Zaphod, who could eat the fairy cake.
But then, I'm a girl. And a Very Bad Buddhist (1). Which two things may or may not have anything to do with the fact that fiction focused on absolute hierarchies and problem solving and climbing ladders and conquering the unknown and defending my nest patch from others who would encroach upon it strikes me as rather unsatisfying. I'm reminded again of Cory's "Apres moi, le deluge" comment with regard to the Singularity-as-sour-grapes.
Does that mean that there's no point in exploring? Of course not. The journey is its own reward. We do it because it is satisfying. We do it because it feels good to have done it. Whether the exploration is internal (philosophy, a character study) or external (up the Amazon by dinghy).
That's the relevance I see, the relevance I seek. I find the explorations satisfying in and of themselves. The spiritual aspect of science fiction, as it were.
(1) for one thing, I'm actually pretty happy on the wheel, and not in any hurry to get off it. Actually, I wonder if that's one of those goal-oriented fallacies as well. I have enough goals in my life. As for the rest of it, I'm happy enough to keep peddling, and not be the center of the world.
Excellence is its own reward.