The Importance of Stories

Back when I edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I would occasionally explore the topic of storytelling in my editorials. More precisely, I would explore why storytelling is important and what makes it a necessary part of the human condition.

I think about that topic often because at times I feel like I work in a frivolous profession. I read a lot and write a lot, things I would do even if no one paid me. I come from a family of teachers who can see tangible results from their work. When my father died, students from all over the world talked about the way he influenced them. Just this last year as I got in touch with old high school friends on Facebook, they told me they took my father's classes while in college, and he was one of the best, most influential teachers they had.

Writers don't usually get that kind of feedback. We get nice letters from fans, people who talk about the enjoyment they got from the fiction or the way that they love the stories. That's important, but it's not a direct correlation from a class to a job, for example, like my father's students would often mention.

The week I struggled most with the frivolity of my profession was the week after 9/11 in 2001. Friends escaped the Towers or had harrowing experiences near Ground Zero. I was in the middle of a novel, and I couldn't bring myself to return to it. It felt like I wasn't doing enough.

Gradually, I got past that feeling, but it took Harry Potter to get me through. Seriously, without Harry, I'm not sure I would have come back to writing as quickly as I had.

In those dark days after the attack, I overdosed on news—both from friends in New York and from the television. Eventually, I couldn't watch or listen any more. I needed an escape. I'd been planning to read the Harry Potter books, but hadn't gotten to them. I picked up the first on the night of 9/11 and read it in silence, letting Harry's troubles substitute for my own.

And eventually, Harry reminded me that fiction was more than frivolity; it was a necessary escape from a harsh world.

What I had forgotten, even then, was that fiction can have a larger, even more powerful purpose than escape. I knew this intellectually, but I hadn't really thought about it until this September, when I was lucky enough to be a Guest of Honor at Elstercon in Leipzig, Germany.

Leipzig has a long intellectual tradition. Its university has existed for an unbroken six hundred years—longer than our country has existed. Bach spent 27 years in the city as the man in charge of all the church choirs, and he wrote some of his most important music there. Goethe wrote his most famous play, Faust, there, setting part of it in a still existing tavern called Auerbachs Keller.

In 1945, the Allies traded Leipzig and the surrounding area to the Soviets for a chunk of Berlin, and Leipzig—that great intellectual city—disappeared behind the communist veil. Suddenly, thoughts became dangerous and ideas were restricted. Literature got censored. The world narrowed for the people left behind.

Leipzig remained true to its traditions, though, and the movement to tear down the Wall started there, not a mile from where the convention would eventually be held. In 1989, the world opened up for the citizens of that city, and they could travel. Within three years, the small science fiction community there started a convention and invited their favorite authors from the west to visit.

Science fiction—and ideas—were important, in a way that those of us who lived in the free west couldn't understand.

The original founders of the convention still put on this convention. A large number of the attendees have returned each year. This convention is different than any other I've gone to (and I've been to more conventions than I can say), primarily because it's about science fiction.

You'd think that Worldcon or Readercon would be about science fiction, but they aren't. They're about science fiction and writing and games and and and. Elstercon is the first convention I've attended where I did not spend 90% of my time talking to new writers about how to break into publishing. I spent 90% of my time talking about literature and ideas and how important they are.

Plus I listened to stories. Stories about kids who grew up in a world where bookstores couldn't carry the latest title. Several attendees told me about the bookstores behind the Wall. They used the word “adventure.” It was exciting to go to a bookstore because you never knew what you would find. A bookstore in Leipzig might differ from a bookstore somewhere in the GDR, in that neither store would have the same books. And the books would differ between East and West Germany. In East Germany, the editions might be censored. In West Germany, they weren't.

Over the weekend, I heard stories about books so important that the stores wouldn't sell their only copy, but would loan them out instead; books that received mythological status; books with hand-typed chapters in them that someone culled from the uncensored West German versions.

As we walked through the tiny dealers' room, filled with books and nothing else, one reader pointed out a Gregory Benford book in German. “That's the first book I read,” he said, “that took me away from this world. And,” he added with a smile, “it was the first book I read that had a compelling story.”

So much of East German science fiction was utopian. It existed to prove a point or to show a future that was better than the present. It was political, yes, but also inspirational. The idea of a story was secondary.

And that came up often as well. We spent quite a bit of time discussing utopian science fiction, even in the context of Star Trek.

“Why did Voyager abandon Gene Roddenberry's vision?” one fan asked me. It turned out she wasn't talking about my complaint with Voyager—that James T. Kirk could have gotten the entire ship home within the two-hour time limit of the pilot episode. (Think about it.)

She was complaining about the conflict between the crew, of the utopian vision that Roddenberry had of people who had a positive mission, of all nationalities getting along, and of a society without money at all. It was, she said, the perfect communist utopia, one that no one had achieved but everyone wanted.

That made me stop and think. It also made me realize that she had a good point. If you were talking pure quill communism, the kind of stuff that Marx discussed in Das Kapital, the things my poli-sci professor of thirty years ago meant when he called Marx's vision the purest vision of democracy ever invented (everyone equal across the board—not created equal, but living equal), then she was right. Roddenberry's idealism, which he in no way would have called communism, spoke to someone behind a Wall, offering her a hope for the future, a hope she believed badly hurt by a new show in the franchise, Voyager.

Ideas as presented in fiction—whether it was in novels or in televised sf—were threatening, and important, and difficult. In another conversation, a Star Trek fan told me that the only episode of classic Trek that did not air in Germany (I presume West Germany, but I might be wrong) in the 1970s was “Patterns of Force,” the Nazi episode. Bootlegged copies found their way to Germany by the 1980s, but no one saw the entire episode until the videocassettes arrived in the 1990s.

As all of this marvelous discussion happened, I remembered something I had learned in yet another college class. I remembered all of the novelists imprisoned for writing their truth. Not the truth. But their truth. And not just novelists imprisoned by the Soviets, but throughout history. Writers have often suffered for telling stories.

We're just lucky, here in the United States and in the West. We don't imprison novelists for writing what they want. We can tell whatever story we chose to tell. Those stories might not find an audience because they might not sell, but they're not being censored, and their authors aren't being told they cannot write about that topic without fearing for their lives.

Writing feels frivolous here at times because we have so much freedom. Because we can talk about what we want to talk about. We can exchange ideas without being afraid someone will put us in prison for our beliefs.

We forget—or at least I forget—that this is a luxury that writers throughout history have not always had. We forget—or at least I forget—that stories are often the way that Walls develop cracks, that ideas make their way into the general populace, which then opens minds to new ways of thinking, to new worlds, and new cultures, and different ways of doing things.

I valued the weekend in Leipzig more than I can say. It had a profound impact on me, and sent me home with new resolve to write about things that I sometimes shy away from—my own views of the world (couched, of course, in science fictional terms). Yes, sometimes what I do—what writers do—is frivolous. Sometimes, it provides a much needed escape from a very dark world. And sometimes, it provides a light where no light has existed for a long time.

Writing provides adventure, not just within the pages of the book, but with the existence of the book itself.

The folks of Elstercon reminded me of that. Leipzig itself reminded me of that.

And I am grateful.

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