I’ve been thinking, yet again, about the notion of “subversion” in general as it relates to sf/f. Unlike the alleged real world, where subversion is what outfits like Homeland Security and the NSA will try to get you disappeared over, in our genre subversion is rated a Good Thing by reviewers and academics alike (readers perhaps have a different idea, but we’re not talking about them right now). Perhaps even the highest achievement to which a sf/f story can aspire. If you doubt that, just try to remember the last time you saw the term “subversive” used in a genre review where it was regarded as a bad thing. Take your time.
It’s a given that nearly all fiction is subversive by nature, even that which intends to reinforce the status quo. One reason for that is that fiction and storytelling actually does what Adam often says on Mythbusters “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” That’s what story does, at least the good ones. For a while you’re seeing through someone else’s eyes and your own perspective comes undone. Perhaps only temporarily, but the effect does linger. If that’s not by nature subversive, it’ll do until a better definition comes along.
Yet that’s just the baseline. Sf/F has always taken especial pride in being, or being perceived as, subversive. The notion that we’re thinking up the future, attacking the status quo, guiding progress (“I’m not trying to predict the future. I’m trying to prevent it!” – Ray Bradbury) or telling dark truths that can only be told behind the mask of fantasy. Which is why, to my way of thinking, the resistance to sf/f as serious literature comes as much from within as without. A variation on the sf/f fan and the mainstream literature maven linking arms to “keep science fiction and fantasy in the gutter where it belongs.” Different motivations, but the same goal. If you accept the notion that subversion is a sf or fantasy story’s reason for existing, then there’s no choice. Subversion by definition doesn’t come from the top down, but rather the bottom up. How could sf/f ever be subversive again if it becomes respectable?
So here, for what little it may be worth, is my considered opinion on the subject:
I could not possibly care less. What’s more, neither should you.
I’m serious. I’ve been dinged for writing a Beowulf story which doesn’t end with Beowulf dying and turning the rule of his tribe over to a democratically elected council. A story which even implied, rather strongly, that maybe there was a time and a place for kings. I’ve also been praised for writing work that “subverts expectations,” which I take as a compliment, but assumes that I know what the readers’ expectations are in the first place, and I’m here to tell you that just ain’t so. I’d rather give my readers more credit than that. Half the time I don’t know what to expect. Why should they? I’ve also been told that the reader can never be sure of where I’m going in a particular story, and that’s a compliment I accept most happily. I don’t believe in agendas nor do I have one, except to follow where the story leads. Fashions and movements in genre come and go. Agendas come and go. Subversion may be a virtue or may not. It depends on what you’re trying to subvert. Better yet, don’t try. Explore. Think. Work it out and write it down. Someone is always going to find patterns, whether they’re present or not. It’s what people do.
Trust the tale, not the teller. The writer’s job is to write. Interpretation and explanation is another union.