Something strange occurred to me today, regarding style and how it develops. I was reading Rudy’s Blog, in particular this post where Mr. Rucker mentions how his work-in-progress novel The Big Aha features “creepy vermin” living in “higher or alternate forms of reality,” and which he later clarifies as being “subtle rats” (or at least that’s my understanding).
Putting aside all the other really interesting stuff in that blog post which I should probably have spent more time considering, I couldn’t help but get stuck on those two phrases. Maybe it’s because the mention of rats make me think of the two fancy rats I used to keep as pets, before their unfortunate passing; particularly Harriet, my favorite, who was a hairless rat (get it?). Now, Harriet was most definitely not “creepy”–she preferred to skitter or scamper rather than creep. Likewise, she may have been “subtle” meaning delicate or faint (she was a small rat), but she definitely wasn’t cunning or wily, unless you count the ingenious methods she devised for storing excess food in piles of shredded paper in her cage. So, if I am ever lucky enough to meet rats who live in higher forms of reality, I doubt that “vermin” would be the word I would choose to describe them.
The trope of casting animal species as “evil” is firmly established in speculative fiction; TVTropes and Wikipedia can attest to that. Tolkien did it with his wargs, which were described as demonic wolves, and since then I’ve seen incarnations of evil dogs, evil spiders, bats, cats, hyenas, snakes (going all the way back to the bible), and of course the humble rat.
I understand, of course, about the value of symbols, and how by adopting symbols that have a certain cultural resonance, we can evoke powerful feelings in our readers by association (for example, rats in western culture are associated with the black death, although they are also held as sacred by at least one other culture). But still, there’s something about this kind of pigeon-holing that does not appeal to me personally, perhaps even on a subconscious level (to say nothing of the poor pigeons).
When writing fiction, we’re always (ironically) seeking to show what we believe is the truth (as Tim O’Brien said: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth”). When you read my work, even if I’m doing my best to portray characters or situations that are as far removed from my experience as possible, you’re still viewing the world through my personal window, and all the small choices I make, from the narrative down to the sentence level, are a reflection of my worldview. If I look back at how I’ve used animals in my fiction, such as the vultures in EPIC FANTASY 0.9b, I’ve had a tendency to portray them sympathetically, even if they are initially antagonistic. And I think that such portrayals reflect a belief on my part that all animals, no matter how lowly or despised, have an inherent nobility and grace that humans tend to lack. Tacking on distinctly human ideas like “good” and “evil” to animal behavior means missing out on this beautiful aspect of their natures, and, at least in my opinion, does more to obscure the truth than to show it.
This isn’t to say that the way I treat animals in stories is “right” and Mr. Rucker (or Tolkien or whoever) is “wrong.” Hell, I’ll still buy The Big Aha and most likely enjoy it immensely; it’s not going to bother me that Rucker’s world-view clashes with mine (well, maybe it would bother me if he were really off-kilter, but in this instance we’re just blowing up a very minor aspect of his book for the purposes of example). On the contrary, one of the things I’m looking for when I read is for an author’s style to honestly reflect his or her personal philosophy, so that I can compare it with, and perhaps even revise, my own. It’s one thing for a book to deliver a good story, but it’s another for that book to make you re-think how you see the world (and doing both at once probably isn’t a bad idea, either).
On one level, being honest is the easiest thing you can do to improve your writing. To some people it will come so naturally that they couldn’t imagine writing any other way. To others, it may be a very difficult thing to do, either because they fear other people finding out their personal thoughts, or they fear finding things out about themselves (this goes back to what I said about animals being better than us: who ever heard of a rat lying to itself?). Honesty is a quality of writing that isn’t talked about that much, but if you’re dishonest with your readers, they’re going to pick up on it and react negatively, even if they don’t know exactly why they feel that way. Or at least, that’s what I believe; maybe someone else can convince me I’m wrong.
P.S. The above doesn’t apply to mosquitoes, though. And that goddamn cockatiel my wife’s former roommate had that used to screech REALLY LOUD at five in the morning. Fuck that thing. Fiction needs more villainous, demonic cockatiels, IMO.