Ethics in Speculative Fiction

Misty MasseyMisty Massey
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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?

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14 comments to Ethics in Speculative Fiction

  • Thought-provoking post, Misty! I’ve written two different series where children (Rani, age 13, in GLASSWRIGHTS’ APPRENTICE and Keara, age 12, in DARKBEAST) need to navigate the mores and ethical expectations of their culture. As children, they often make choices that are “true” and resonant for themselves, despite the fact that their behavior is scandalous, heretical, or treasonous. I’ve loved using the supposed innocence of children to explore social ethics. (I’ve also always wanted to write the same story from the perspective of the protagonist and then from the antagonist, creating the ethical framework for each to plead his/her case!)

  • Do the ethics of not eating people whether they’re good or bad count? ;)

    Really, I think nothing should be taboo if it’s well done. Unfortunately, ofttimes writers get into using a big beaty stick to the head rather than a tickly feather to the brain and it detracts from the ethical message they’re trying to convey and only serves to irritate the reader. I did write a dystopian sci-fi novella recently that might feel a tad heavy handed to some readers, but I might argue that’s how I feel from time to time about the new series Continuum, as well. It’s still a cool show though, IMO. There is a fine line between being preachy and giving just enough to readers to allow them to think for themselves.

  • A tickly feather to the brain…I love that image! :)

  • In my current MS, my character Bethany will have to make the choice between saving those she love or herself. This dilema causes her to relaspe (to drugs) after doing so good, which in turn, will help no one.

    I think all topics should be written about. It’s a part of our world, no matter how horried or good the situation is. I remember reading the book The Lovely Bones, and thought, why would someone write something like this. But looking back, I get it. Writers have a unique way of getting a message out there. Whats it called, subliminal messaging. Sometimes knowing that someone else can relate helps. Another example is, our children. We encourage them to read about the great child detectives or the boys and girls in YA who have to overcome some really big issues like, parent abandonment or teen sex. Sometimes people need a guide on overcoming, of letting go. Literature helps with that.

  • I don’t think any topic should be off limits, but there are some where you better be a badass writer if you’re planning on tackling them.

    In my current WIP, my MC Cassie is a bad person, pretty much period. So there is a lot in the story redemption (if it is possible at all, ’cause sometimes it’s not). I’m tired of “really, I’m bad! EVIL even!” characters that, well, aren’t. Like the evil vampire that really is a softy on the inside (esp. once he finds the right sex life … I mean true love…). I think we talked about it on the Pirate Panel at Mysticon. So, I don’t know that I want Cassie to be okay. To be excused. Early on, I had a critiquer suggest I make her past less bad. I thought, “nope, she’s got to deal with a real evil there.” So, in terms of ethical questions, how do you deal with having made some horrible choices? Do you write yourself off as evil? Or do you try to do right? I also tire of “I didn’t know” as an excuse. Perhaps “I didn’t realize the full extent of the consequences” but not “I didn’t know it was bad.” Cassie couldn’t have seen the full consequences, but it never, ever means her actions were okay. (she hired a hit-man to kill her half-brother so she could inherit the family senat seat. At 18 she did this).

    I guess I’m, right now, more interested in dealing with the consequences of bad (or evil) choices than in the choices themselves.

  • I agree that ethical situations happen in every book. Sometimes the ethical choices made are controversial, and it seems to me that when I think a writer has gone overboard in the portrayal of the situation it’s because it is a controversial issue and the writer feels strongly about the side s/he has taken. I don’t think there’s any ethical situation that should absolutely be forbidden, but I may choose not to read about some of them!

    In my WIP, I’m looking more at how people perceive themselves and others than whether or not they actually are evil. Most people think my MC is evil because she’s a Killer. But the Killers are an official branch of the military, and she’s never killed anyone except when ordered to do by the government. She’s never broken the law, and sees herself as doing good, not evil. (I’m thinking of her role as similar to someone in our world who performs abortions. It’s legal and many people agree that you are doing good, but lots of others think it is immoral and wrong.) I guess I’m really looking at what “evil” is, how we define it differently, and how our perception of it can change.

  • I agree with your assessment about the ethics in fiction, but would take it even further. Good fiction is funadmentally based on conflict and choice; the more difficult the choice, the higher the stakes, and presumably a deeper involvement for the reader, as she/he wonders, ‘What would I do?’
    In my latest WIP, my hero gives up his business on earth to travel to a distant planet to search for his brother (who saved his life when they were children). The brother is deeply flawed and also the cause of a horrific childhood experience for the hero, yet the hero cannot let his brother’s disappearance go unchallenged. The story theme started out as one based on obsession and guilt, but as the hero’s need to save his brother to repay him for his life developed, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do. Where does one draw the line when rescuing someone you love? Is there a line? Would you give your planet? Would you give up your life? Would you give up your soul? And what would happen to you if you didn’t give it your all, knowing you might have saved your loved one?

  • Ken

    I agree with Pea Faerie. I don’t think that there should be anything that’s off limits, but, for some things, you’d better bring your “A-game” to the party…of course, you really should be doing that anyway :)

    In my WIP, my MC finds herself faced with the decision to “Make a deal with the Devil” in order to provide and care for those she loves. The question there is “Can someone do the wrong thing for the right reasons?” If so, what are the consequences? If not, what is the fallout from that as well?

    I think that’s the difference between Daniel’s Big Beaty stick and the Tickly Feather to the brain (That IS a great image). The Stick focuses on the act, while the feather focuses on why the act was committed.

  • Misty, In the Jane Yellowrock books, I’ve been faced with a lot of ethical dilemmas, from violence (Jane kills things that need killing) to sexual freedom (Jane is pretty hung up about sex and probably needs to get laid)to tackling religion without ever tackling religion. For me, the writer, the following is my goal for my character:

    My MC doesn’t care how other people worship or live, or who other people worship or live with, or if other people worship or live alone. But she is concerned with who she is in the eyes of her deity, and now, at this point in the series, who she is in the eyes of her cultural heritage and her own history, as well. Finding wholeness and inner peace rather than bashing others who think and act differently from her has become one of her goals. Understanding her own need for violence has become a goal. She has friends who are Wiccan, pagan, atheists, witches, and other practitioners. She kills a lot beings who need killing. But she doesn’t make lifestyle judgments.

    And maybe that is message that I (as a fiction writer) need to remember as a big part of my writing ethics:Write the story to show the reasons for a character’s actions, and the results of those personal choices. Write the story without preaching.

  • sagablessed

    Current WIP deals with one character who killed his abusive father and how that can affect a fragile mind, another concerns infidelity and the consequences of that, and another how much room to give your near-adult child growing up.
    The purpose of these flaws is not to preach, but rather to show that the characters respond to stress in different ways. Is one wrong or right? I don’t tell the reader that. The ‘tickle’ thing works better as literary device, in my humble opinion.
    On Faith’s note: When a writer preaches, I think it shows a lack of respect for the reader: ie the reader is incapable of deciding for him/her self what is truely moral or not.

  • quillet

    I don’t think any ethical issue is really off-limits for fiction, although a ~very~ careful touch may sometimes be needed. Like Daniel says, the tickly feather to the brain is better than the big beaty stick to the head (love those images!). Even so, there will always be readers who disagree with an author’s handling of an issue. That, though, can be the start of a dialogue; and whether it’s a small one inside the reader’s head or a big and heated one amongst hundreds of people on the internet, that’s better (in my opinion) than sweeping things under the rug. Fiction is awesome for that!

    The ethical issue in my WIP is about vengeance and justice, where the line is between them or even if there is one, because maybe they overlap. My tickly-feather approach is just to plunge my MC into the problem and let him flounder. Someone has killed his wife, and at first he wants vengeance plain and simple, but eventually his enemy will have a face and a name and some mitigating circumstances. Everything gets complicated. I can’t say much without spoilers, but basically even justice won’t be simple.

  • I’m glad that you guys seem to all agree that no issue is untackle-able in fiction. There are, though, a few that I will choose not to read, because they trigger emotions I don’t care to deal with. The other night, we were watching Criminal Minds, and the story involved a young man whose family had attempted to “cure” his sexuality by enrolling him in a special school that used horrible tactics, including sex with prostitutes even though the boys were unwilling. In other words, rape. At the end, the young man had tied his father up and was intending to sexually assault him for revenge. It was utterly terrifying, not just because of the situation, but also because part of me thought the punishment fit perfectly. Had this been a novel, I might have put it down and left it forever unread. Doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t write about it…just means I know my own limits. :)

  • I’ve written stories exploring euthanasia, racism, religious persecution, etc., but never as a dissertation of my personal ethics. In each case, it hasn’t been my (the author’s) ethical dilemma, but the character’s. I may not agree with the choices my characters make, but those choices have to be true to who those characters are.

  • Nathan Elberg

    The ethical question for the writer is whether he portrays his characters honestly. For example, let’s say a character thinks homosexuality is revolting, and the writer knows that his readers will consider that attitude revolting. Will the writer create a nuanced, perhaps sensitive person who happens to have a repellant attitude, or will the character fulfill the readers’ expectations of a bible-thumping, ignorant, insensitive clod? Will the writer give credence and respect to the characters he disagrees with?
    I’m having trouble getting one of my short stories published because one character describes another (with Down’s Syndrome) as a “retard.” Editors have written back, offended. But I need the word “retard” to accurately portray my character. It would be unethical to call the Down’s Syndrome character “mentally challenged.”