Keeping it Real

Two things have happened repeatedly to me over the last few weeks.

First, books keep telling me that ‘Fiction is the art of using lies to tell the truth.’  Second, people keep asking me if it’s deliberate that all the main characters in The Glass Republic, the second Skyscraper Throne novel, are women.

The more I think about it, the more I think these two things are connected. Bear with me here.

First up, let’s talk about the truth.

No, not that ‘The Truth’, the ordinary every day, law of nature truth. Water flows downhill, the sun rises in the east, my hair isn’t coming back any time soon, Orlando Bloom is a terrible actor. That kind of stuff.

The idea that fiction/storytelling/art is all about ‘using lies to tell the truth’ crops up all over the place. It’s in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, and China Miéville’s Embassytown in almost identical formulations. (It’s entirely possible that both of them are quoting someone else, but if so, Google won’t tell me who.)

Roughly, the idea is that fiction works the same way as the metaphors it so often employs.  When Macbeth says ‘sleep knits up the ravelled sleeve of care’  he’s saying something true, even if care isn’t literally a sleeve and sleep – afflicted with the same lack of opposable thumbs that almost all nouns suffer from – can’t literally handle a knitting needle. In the same way, 1984 expresses truths about power and oppression, despite clocks never really having struck thirteen in Airstrip One.

This model also firmly establishes the relationship between the lie and the truth: the lie is the delivery system, and the truth is the payload, the lie is the means, and the truth is the end, the lie is the meat-grinder and the truth is… you get the idea.

Except it’s (obviously) more complicated that, because the truth is a means as well as an end. To see why, we need to look at another fantastical bugbear: world building.

World building gets a bad rap. The way it gets talked about, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s an exotic fetish that only SFF writers indulge in between rounds of Magic: The Gathering*. The truth is though, all fiction builds a world.  All stories paint a picture of a way our world could be if things were different. The only thing that sets the genres apart is how different.

The difference could be as small as there being a girl called Hazel Grace and a boy called Augustus and they both have cancer, and they are in love. It could be as huge as dragons being real, and the King of seven kingdoms sitting on an iron throne and zombies massing behind a huge wall of ice to the north. There’s a scale, and all fiction exists somewhere on it. But even secondary worlds like GRRM’s don’t change everything. Water still flows downhill, the sun still rises in the east, and were Orlando Bloom to exist in King’s Landing… well I’m sure he’d be a terrible actor there too.

The point is that the world of the story, the stage Martin has built for his drama to play out on, is built of truth as well as lies. It accurately represents the real world in some ways, and in other ways distorts it.

But so what? Why does any of this matter?

It matters because if your job is interweaving truth and lies, it’s really important to keep an eye on which is which.

And so we come back to the question I’ve been asked four times in the past month: is it deliberate that every major character in The Glass Republic – Pen, the lead; her best friend Beth, her love interest, the villain and the villain’s chief lieutenant – are all women?

The answer is a big fat no. I picked most of those characters when writing The City’s Son, and didn’t have a particular eye on the gender balance of its sequel when I did.  But the answer is also an equally big, equally fat yes, because when I wrote The City’s Son, I was also writing a world in where dramas would play out in which the chief actors on all sides were women, and when The Glass Republic came along it was one of those dramas.

And the only reason I built the world of The Skyscraper Throne that way, is because that’s the way the real world is.

In other words, it’s the truth. Not a profound truth, certainly not an insight, just one of the many ordinary things about the real world the story didn’t change, like the direction of the flow of the Thames.

Now, in principle, I have no objection to changing things. I changed loads. I added in runaway train ghosts and glass-skinned streetlamp spirits and a crane-fingered demolition god. I’m a borderline lunatic fantasist, I’ll change anything I want about the world if I have a reason.  But I why would I change the fact that women can be as heroic and villainous and powerful and desperate and interesting as anyone else, and certainly enough to dominate a story? Not only do I not have a reason to write that world, but a lot of people a lot more eloquent than me have written about the harm it causes when people do.

For one thing – and this won’t come as news to anybody – if enough stories include a lie without questioning it, if the lie saturates the culture, then people can forget it’s a lie at all. Take the example recently cited by Cracked that most people probably don’t realize there are no Skyscrapers in Washington D.C. because they’ve seen so many thrillers set there with scenes that play out fifty stories up.  Sometimes this sort of reality slippage is innocuous, sometimes it’s actively harmful, but in either case you’re not using lies to tell the truth anymore, you’re using lies to tell lies. It’s lies all the way down. A layer cake of horse manure.

I don’t want to make this out to be worse than it is. There are thousands of writers far more skilled than me, writing stories with exquisite care and attention to which parts of their fictional worlds are true and which false, but there are also apparently enough people not doing that that it’s set up a norm. A norm that means that I get asked ‘why so many women?’ – as if that couldn’t just happen in any fictional universe from time to time.

Which, if those universes are supposed to represent the width and breadth of our imaginings, not just of the way things are, but of the way things could be, is obviously nuts.

There are a million reasons to have your story deviate from reality. Reality, after all, sucks donkey balls a lot of the time.  Maybe you’re painting a world that’s more hopeful, or more fun, more terrifying or just plain cooler than the real one. But it strikes me that it is important to think about it, to at least have a reason, and to make sure you’re happy with it, before you mix that lie into what’s true.

*(I’m a mono-black control fella myself, that Pestilence/Chimeric Idol combo is a killerˆ

^Man, that dates me.


One thought on “Keeping it Real

  1. Have a look at the fiction and nonfiction writing of B.S. Johnson, who thought all fiction was lies – and wanted nothing to do with lying!

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