Monday, April 8, 2013

Is Crime Fiction Socially Aware?

Last week’s major topic in several blogs I read had to do with whether crime fiction was socially aware, at least as much as, say, science fiction or fantasy. (Jay Stringer looked at it on Do Some Damage here, after Steve Weddle got the ball rolling in response to multiple posts across the blogosphere; Steve provides the links.) I tend to be a few days late with my responses to the affairs of the day, so it won’t kill me to wait a few minutes while you read what Steve and Jay had to say, even though my two cents’ will probably then be a disappointment.

To me, this breaks down into two questions: Is crime fiction socially aware, and are science fiction and fantasy more so? Based on my reading, crime fiction is well aware of social issues, and discusses them well. I don’t read as broadly in the genre as some, so my perspective may be a result of a skewed perspective, as the writers I tend to come back to definitely have social perspectives they consistently work into their books: Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Adrian McKinty, Tim Hallinan, John McFetridge, and Leighton Gage (among others) all take the time to point out social inequities.

Crime fiction lends itself well to this, as so much crime comes about, directly or indirectly, from unfortunate social circumstances. I’m not apologizing for anyone here. Two guys grow up in almost identical situations. One goes to work every day, pays his taxes, and never ask for anything from anybody; the other robs liquor stores or sells drugs. Choices were made. Good crime fiction can provide insight into how difficult those choices may have been, and what other options may have been available.

The trick is to keep the story satisfying and suspenseful, not slip into melodrama. In one of his Derek Strange books—I forget the title—Pelecanos communicated his views on gun control so plainly I was repeatedly distracted from the story—“enough, already”—even though I agreed with everything he wrote. Moonlight Mile is Lehane’s weakest book, in large part because his politics are so overtly displayed. Both have served their views far better in other books—Pelecanos in the Turnaround and The Night Gardener; Lehane in The Given Day. The points are better made in the latter examples, in large part because the reader was not beaten about the head and shoulders with them.

As I said above, my perception may be skewed because this is the kind of crime fiction I like to read. Still, it’s not like these books aren’t readily available.

Let’s turn now to science fiction and fantasy, and how much better they supposedly deal with social issues. I will begin by stating I can provide no examples. The closest thing I’ve read to science fiction in twenty-five years is Slaughterhouse-Five. Still, having read a reasonable amount of it as a younger man—both good and bad—there is one comment I feel comfortable making: sci-fi and fantasy writers have an easier go if it, because they get to create their own worlds.

If a sci-fi writer wants to talk about child labor, he can create a world where the conditions exist to make exactly the points he wants to make. The rules of this world must still be evenhanded enough to keep from straining the readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief too hard, but it’s a big advantage. Crime fiction writers—to paraphrase Chandler—have a not very fragrant world, but it is the world in which they live, and they must do what they can with it. It won’t do to set a novel in the current day that has draconian penalties for gun ownership. To address the other side of the spectrum, legal heroin is also not an option for the crime writer. True, crime fiction can be written in a dystopian (to the author) future, or in an alternate reality, but then the story becomes borderline sci-fi/fantasy, if it does not cross the line altogether.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Philip K. Dick blended noir and science fiction brilliantly in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. (Made into the film Blade Runner, screenplay by Hamilton Fancher and David peoples, directed by Ridley Scott.) Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shussett, and director Scott mix sci-fi and horror in Alien. The list is lengthy, and distinguished.

I guess what I’m getting at—you knew there had to be a point sooner or later—is comparing the social awareness of crime and sci-fi/fantasy is like comparing the amount of scoring in baseball and hockey. The contexts are different enough to make meaningful comparison virtually impossible. Add in the added complication of what can get published and read in a certain genre, and it’s safe to say any genre is as socially aware as its readers allow it to be.

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