The ending of stories

It’s occurred to me lately that our biggest problem with life is not the amount of suffering in it, but the fact that suffering doesn’t come in the right place.

Imagine a story in which the protagonist experiences trouble and pain all the way through.  Finally, at the very end, he finds happiness and peace.  That is, by common consent,  a happy story.  But a story in which he has happiness at the beginning, but then has trouble and pain all the way to the end, would be a sad story. So would a story where he is sad at the beginning, happy in the middle, but sad again at the end.  Even if the sadness and happiness are in the same proportions as in the happy story.  I guess it is because we tend to think of the end as the resting place, the place where life will settle down when the story is over.

If the trouble with life is not the existence of suffering, but the fact that suffering is all mixed up with the other stuff, then this is something that the traditional fairy-tale type story corrects for us.  (So does traditional religion, where the good guys end up in heaven, and the bad guys get their due).

Literary short fiction, aware of the over-neatness of the ‘happy ending’, tends these days to end on an ambiguous or unresolved note.    The wooden shutter bangs in the wind.  Life  doesn’t reach a resolution.  It just goes on…

But since a story does actually have to stop, this final unresolved note does not actually sound quite like life just going on.  It has a particular wistful, slightly plaintive ring of its own, which in its way is as artificial as a fairy tale happy ending, and can get a bit tedious.   Life isn’t always wistful, and wistfulness certainly isn’t its natural resting place.   Sometimes, for instance, we can feel completely at peace, even to the point of being entirely reconciled to the fact that the feeling of peace won’t go on forever.

Maybe to reflect the full diversity of available ending moments, it would be good to try and get away a bit from that plaintive, wistful and unresolved note, and try and end on as many different notes as possible, including cheerful ones.

The Future of Science Fiction

I recently received of copy of a book published by the British Science Fiction Association, called British Science Fiction and Fantasy.  It was compiled by Paul Kincaid and Niall Narrison, and is a survey of the state of these two genres, based on interviews with authors.

I was interested in some comments from  Charles Stross (on page 169) in which he observes that the great weakness of SF is that:

…it is getting close to a century old.  Most art forms do not survive the life expectancy of their founders, while retaining their initial vibrancy and openness; by the third generation,  most of the active practitioners are “second artists”, recyling standard clichéd tropes and running variations on the classics.  Comforting, reassuring classics  – which are the trump of death to an art form based on cognitive dissonance and a sense of wonder.

I agree with him that it would indeed be ‘the trump of death’ to try and endlessly recreate the science fiction of a previous generation.  But I increasingly think that it is mistaken to think of science fiction as ‘a genre’ or ‘an art form’ (singular).   Think of  Orwell’s 1984, Ballard’s  Terminal Beach, a Star Wars movie,  Dan Dare, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, District 9…   Are they really all the same genre?  Hardly.  But they are all science fiction as I would define it.

Rather than think of SF as a genre, perhaps we should think of it as a resource which can be used for many different purposes, as a pack of playing cards can be used for games from Bridge, to Poker, to Canasta to Snap and Old Maid.  SF’s continuing value as a means of telling stories and exploring ideas is illustrated by the frequency with which authors who don’t think of themselves as SF writers nevertheless make use of it (Orwell is a case in point, but see also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Doris Lessing etc etc.)

Stross is rather sniffy about this sort of thing.  He speaks of SF being ‘colonized by backpackers from the literary faculty, who appropriate the contents of the [SF] toy chest’.   But surely it is precisely the concern to cling onto our toys, to be pure,  to discourage miscegenation, which lead to the kind of death by staleness and repetition that he himself warns about?