I spent this weekend at Mysticon, in Roanoke VA, where I learned a few things, taught a few other things, observed wacky behaviors and brilliant ones, too, and generally had a great time surrounded by my people. I rode up with Gail Martin and John Hartness. We drove through nearly impenetrable fog and snow-covered hills, chatting and laughing all the way. On Saturday morning, I joined John to read our work to an appreciative audience, and premiered Miniature Pirate Theater as accompaniment to the reading. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched tiny plastic pirates work a tiny plastic stripper pole while John reads from Bubba the Monster Hunter. Gail’s launch party for her latest, Ice Forged, was a raucous affair, full of happy people eating cake and buying books. I met a couple of writers who’ll probably be making guest appearances here later on this year, and got one of my Christmas present books signed by the author. Not everything was sunshine and roses, of course. Gather 1200 human beings in one small place and something is bound to go wrong along the way. We heard that an attendee had been the target of unwanted physical touching, but the con committee took immediate action and tossed the offender out on his ear, so even that had a good ending. All in all, it was a wonderful weekend.
One of the panels I served on concerned ethics in speculative fiction. In books, we can explore difficult topics in a way that causes no one any real damage. Our characters can follow tough paths to their sometimes disastrous conclusions, and allow us to test the limits of what we can bear. It’s interesting to me that when one says, “We’re going to talk about ethics in spec fic,” people sometimes assume we mean stories in which serious topics like medical experimentation and the international sex trade are discussed and chewed on and slammed around by thoughtful and brilliant characters for 500 pages. The thing is, just about all of our books cover ethical situations, and all our characters have to make ethical choices in order to solve whatever problems they have. Sometimes they follow the moral high road, and sometimes they choose a lesser path. But every conflict our characters face requires an ethical decision. In Mad Kestrel, for example, the characters are outlaws, which might ordinarily make the reader think they’d abandon their abducted captain as soon as they realized he was gone. Kestrel, though, couldn’t run away, because the captain had been her savior when she needed one. Besides, he was her friend, and important to her. She felt she had no choice but to go after him. It would have been out of character for her to do anything else. If the book had been told from Bardo’s point of view, though, the crew would have sailed off and left Binns on his own.
So ethical situations happen in every kind of book. How do we handle them in a way that doesn’t come across as smug and sermonizing? An author worth his salt knows that preaching to the readers generally chases all the readers away. It’s all in how we present the problem. Instead of raising the questions in huge, philosophical ways, the problem needs to be personal to the character. We can all stand around agreeing that child pornography is a terrible thing, but it only resonates with a reader when the character is a mother who discovers that her babysitter has been selling pictures of her naked six-year-old daughter on the internet. The larger problem is communicated best when it’s personal.
What sort of ethical problems have you been working with in your own work? And have you found a subtle and particular way to convey your topic? And here’s another question, just to really ramp things up…is there an ethical issue that fiction ought not to tackle? Why?