Should a novel have a message?

I consider Foundryside interesting and well-written despite never being able to fully enjoy the novel as much as it deserves. Foundryside’s original worldbuilding is both subtle and detailed. Magic based on computer programming not only makes perfect sense, but also creates unique opportunities for unexpected plot twists and reveals. Above all else, I appreciated the fact that local mages were de-facto coders, the main character being a cyborg of sorts. I liked almost everything. Except one little thing – the depiction of a destructive capitalist society. It was vivid enough to make me shake comrade Bennett’s hand. Moreover, I did not disagree with the author’s agenda, but I could not simply ignore its interference with the story. The ‘message’ was the reason why I had trouble digesting the novel.

As someone, who has a habit of stating opinions with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I have low tolerance for forced messages in literature. While I can find those messages valid, ideology overdose distracts me from complicated characters and intriguing mysteries. In the case of Foundryside, for example, I could figure out the system did not work on my own (it was obvious). I needed no hints.

While I see no inherent problem with a book having a ‘message’, this approach always strikes me as underhanded. All agenda-filled pieces of fiction resort to simplified depictions of the ‘bad order’ and the ‘good order’ very much in the vein of Plato’s dialogues. Only in the case of Plato, the debate about state organization and political systems served a vastly different purpose. The Dialogues are not a work of art, but a collection of philosophical texts. What comes off as assertive in philosophy, history, and sociology, becomes preachy in genre fiction.

You don’t agree with me, do you?

Philosophy VS Art. As scholars, we always expect heavy-handed messages in philosophical treaties, workbooks, our primary and secondary sources. In fact, we may even riot if a sociology workbook is riddled with enigmatic allusions and resembles the writings of Nostradamus. Most philosophy works investigate certain aspects of life, not bothering to entertain the reader and not caring about pretty prose. We know that. We don’t expect anything else.

When philosophy works masquerade as fiction, the situation gets trickier. In some cases, the border between fiction and philosophy is so vague that you do not grasp certain novels as literary works and certain authors as artists. They are philosophers, who mastered the art of cosplay. Ayn Rand, Chernyshevsky and a bunch of others are all perfect examples of philosophers, who excel at cosplay. You may agree or disagree with their ideas, but you will read their works to challenge yourself intellectually. Literary value is a bonus in philosophy, but not a requirement.

In the case of literary and genre fiction, such a direct approach to expressing philosophical ideas does not work. The greatest reason for that disfunction is the logic of a story that stands in the way of hard-core ideology. I loathed War and Peace with my whole heart because I despised the author’s ideas, strongly disagreed with his message, and hated the abundance of pointless exposition in the otherwise entertaining story.

In genre fiction you never want a lecture to replace a story. If you don’t agree with a subtle message, you can still enjoy the book. If you are bombarded with the ideology you despise, you can only resent the novel. The same is valid when it comes to characters.

Matters of perspective. In some cases, a novel may lose its’ appeal because the author would push the ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ characters forward despite all logic. Such was my reaction to Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire. I could not stand the ‘good Emperox’ Cardenia/Greyland II, whom I considered an epitome of mediocrity without a single hint of leadership in her bones. Despite my personal opinion, she could still be an amazing and believable character. She was not.

Cardenia was infuriating for one reason only: her political manoeuvring worked because her otherwise brilliant opponents were plagued by bad luck and struck by idiot balls whenever she needed to survive and shine. Thus, I could not comprehend why the Nohamapetan family was portrayed as evil, when, in truth, they were simply effective and unscrupulous politicians with grand visions, a dose of charisma, and (in the case of Ghreni) noble intentions. Their attempts to take down the Empire did not strike me as anything nepharious in the long run. After all, the system of Interdependency was already far from ideal. They had the will to change that.

In the case of The Collapsing Empire, the author’s preferences were so obvious that they prevented me from enjoying the trilogy as much as I would have otherwise. And, no, I did not necessarily need my favourite characters to win, I only needed to see a more nuanced portrayal of all sides with their limitations and strengths.

It’s all about your vision!

Nuanced depictions. Fiction’s great strength is its’ ability to provoke a reader’s mind, prompting him to make his own conclusions. And most of the time, all novels with a ‘message’ do not make full use of this opportunity. A space opera that does that brilliantly is Legend of the Galactic Heroes that excels at subtlety on every level. By the times you have read the last volume, you can only suspect whether the Galactic Reich under Reinhard or the bureaucracy-stricken Alliance is the political system that the author prefers. Or, perhaps, Phezzan? Or the new Iserlohn Republic?

While the author obviously adores Reinhard as a character, he constantly challenges his views and actions, presenting his opposition as equally capable and brilliant. Moreover, the sheer amount of characters provides the reader with an overview of conflicting opinions and strategies that work and fail not because of authorial intent but because of logic and circumstances.

In the end, an author can make his characters radical or conformist, leftist or conservative, but without their opinions being challenged and their opponents portrayed as capable, a piece of fiction turns into a sermon. It is natural for our biases and ideas to seep into our writing. It cannot be otherwise. However, it is our awareness of the fact that makes our ideas more applealing. Making your characters mouthpieces for your agenda can be interesting, but leaving them unchallanged makes a book one-sided, exclusing all those, who do not agree with the message. When one or two characters voice the author’s opinion, the novel works, if the author bends the narrative to shove his message down everyone’s throat, it does not.

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