Cup of Dcaf: Themes and Subtlety in Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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This has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s pretty much par for the course that good SFF has more than just a basic story going on. The ability to construct new worlds, cultures, and environments gives authors an unparalleled ability to comment on things in our own world in a more nuanced, and if done well, more effective manner. This can cover things like racial topics, economic issues, religion, military strategy and policy…you name it. If it’s an issue in our world, it’s probably been written about.

But when you break it down, some books (and TV shows or movies) handle this much better than others. As a writer of fantasy, and especially All Flames Cast—which deals with religion and politics as central themes—this intrigues me, and I wanted to pay a little more attention to things like this. I wanted to figure out why this is, and what makes certain books more effective than others. TV comes into it a bit as well, though I don’t watch very much TV.

What I have seen is that it all comes down to subtlety. In narratives that shove their themes right in your face, it can be both distracting from the story and aggravating. However, when the ideas are woven seamlessly into the story, growing and being explored naturally as a result of the plot and the characters’ growth, it tends to work much better all around.

A great example of this is Stephen R. Donaldson’s Gap Cycle. When you read the opening pages of the first book, The Real Story, things seem to be pretty nicely laid out: space pirates and a damsel in distress, set against the backdrop of humanity’s future amongst the stars. Before that book is even finished, however, the game has changed and major thematic elements of corporate power, military force and foreign threats, and the very personal way this can effect a person are all tied inextricably into the plot. It isn’t shoved in your face through awkward exposition or blatant plotting; rather, Donaldson has these themes slowly develop with each page, supported by his characters choices and the growing complexity of events.

This is the key, I think, to working social commentary into fiction. It has to be an organic outgrowth of the story rather than a forced explication with a story built around it.

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