A Recovering Sci-fi Writer Reflects on a Change in Genre
Blame On Spec magazine. The moment I cashed the check for my modest 1,500 word professional fiction debut in 2009, I was hooked. Making money? For doing something I do compulsively, anyway? It was like getting paid to breathe. Over the course of the next several years I would publish some 35 pieces of short fiction in various magazines, culminating with the 2015 publication of my post-apocalyptic novel The Book of Ashes. I felt as if I had truly arrived.
Of course, I was at a disadvantage. Being blue collar, I couldn't afford some of the upscale writers workshops that are the virtual price of admission for breaking into the "big time," and affording jaunts to sci-fi conventions pales in importance compared to buying groceries. But I was doing pretty well. Well enough, anyway. Until Wokeism descended upon the genre like a 300-pound sumo wrestler flattening an infant.
I suppose there's always been something of a progressive streak in sci-fi, underpinned by a vague kind of "do no harm" humanism. But with the arrival of Woke, the ethos of "boldly go" became supplanted by one of "don't you dare." A mean-spirited self-righteousness cloaking itself as love for humanity seized the podcasts and social media feeds I followed. Writers took to fomenting controversy over trivia: an insensitive word choice or wrong opinion could lead to accusations political wrongthink (or worse). Writers took to canceling each other, canceling publishers and magazines, films ... Anything that transgressed the ever-shifting goal posts of the utopia toward which they feverishly labored by dint of word-magic. I watched careers, projects and publishers ruined in an orgy of moral narcissism. Following publication of Ashes, I left the field in utter disgust.
The period of 2016 to 2020 saw me writing crime and military short fiction, and founding a Kindle micro-press called Storm Rhino. It was in this way that I found myself drifting into company better suited to my goals and temperament - a community of no-nonsense hard workers, many with a background in the police or military who brought the work ethic of such careers to bear on the craft. And, what's more: they could write real good. These folks were producing spy thrillers, westerns and detective novels of the kind I cut my teeth on back in boyhood. With my PI license and compulsive graphomania, I fit right in with this merry band of degenerates, which included guys like Alex Shaw and Brian Drake. Meeting such august bad-asses was like spending a holiday weekend in great company fueled by Cuban cigars, fine whiskey and precision firearms. Where had these guys been all my life?
And then something even more unexpected happened.
Being a writer is a lot like being a detective. You walk down a hallway full of doors and keep opening them, one after another. Some open onto brick walls. Others lead to empty rooms. But every now and then, a stairway heading upward appears and you take it. This is how I would describe my falling into the company of distinguished publishing professionals (and well-known reprobates) Mike Bray and Paul Bishop at Wolfpack Publishing. I published a trilogy of detective novels under their imprint Rough Edges Press. And I remain immensely grateful for the opportunity and proud of what we were able to produce.
At Rough Edges, I made some fantastic friends. The imprint was helmed at the time by author James Reasoner, with whom I have since established a lasting professional association of great importance to me. I also got to know Stephen Mertz, one hell of an author and a really nice guy. Stephen was the protégé of the one and only Don Pendleton of EXECUTIONER fame, and he authored several of Bolan later adventures under the Harlequin Gold Eagle imprint. I learned a great deal chatting with Stephen. Mark Allan was also an important connection - a writer with a strong sensibility for producing modern "urban" westerns in the genre of Yellowstone or C.J. Box. It was because of these three that I began to seriously consider writing some western fiction. The more I explored and actually ghostwrote a few western projects for other publishers, the more I came to appreciate the genre.
I believe the western novel functions for North Americans much as the classic fantasy novels of Tolkien and Lewis do for Europeans: in both genres, life's complexities are reduced to village level, with characters fulfilling archetypal roles (king, thief, sheriff, outlaw). In both genres, we see life in miniature - a harkening back to an earlier, simpler age. And both serve as stages upon which to enact what are essentially moral dramas.
And aren't moral dramas the stuff of our times? Let's return to that sumo wrestler flattening that infant for a sec ...
With everyone so preoccupied with complex questions of right and wrong in this digital age, it's perhaps worth stepping back and revisiting that good old village-scale perspective of life. Reducing our complex moral problems to simple, small-town ones and perhaps even reducing our own horizons to that of our local communities and neighborhoods might not be a bad thing. As I have researched, learned about and written in the western genre, I have become increasingly impressed by the power of community as it is expressed both in history and fiction, and in the decisive power of the individual acting from moral conviction.
Perhaps the difference between then and now is that the classic western hero (or Medieval knight, for that matter) acts out their moral convictions within the context of a stable social framework. They don't call for the destruction of the social order but rather work toward its preservation and improvement. We exist today in a wilderness of shifting goalposts and moral relativism that suggests destruction of our civilization to be a desirable thing. When such options are posited as a moral "good," then one should begin asking questions. Perhaps the challenge of our time is not so much to do good as to understand the context in which that good must be done. What's best for this town, sheriff? And who decides anyway, pilgrim?
Moral action is best taken in the spirit of service. I'm no expert on the topic, but it seems to me that the spirit of service is about as far removed as can be from the spirit of policing the moral attitudes of others. The spirit of service means sacrificing to enable the freedom of others, for good or ill. It is difficult and frustrating work, and often disappointing. I have been able to experience some of this first hand in security and investigations. And I have explored those ideas in my recent fiction. I wouldn't trade those experiences, or what I learned, or the chance to protect the freedom of others for anything.
And where it comes to achieving humility and placing oneself at the service of others, there's still plenty of west left to be won. Like the man said:
For all the strays that ain't been roped
And all the broncs that ain't been broke
For all the west that ain't been won yet,
There's still a few cowboys left
Damn straight, pilgrim.