Saturday, November 7, 2015

Quick Thoughts - "Millennial" Fiction

As with many of my thoughts, this one comes out of a Twitter rant from about a week ago where I commented that I had recognized a...well, trend could be a word for it, or perhaps a thematic convergence, of some stories recently. I called them "Millennial" stories because they were largely concerned with the Millennial experience (Millennial being the American generation after "Generation X," born starting somewhere in the early 1980s and going to about 2000). So let me try and organize these thoughts in a way that makes sense.

I should say, I am a Millennial, born in 1986 and probably the cliché of what a Millennial looks like. Insecure, liberal, white, middle class (Is this how we talk about every generation? Are there different names for generations if you're not in the privileged class?). Filled with guilt because of a growing global awareness but also a deep selfish entitlement. Disaffected and probably quite lazy. Hi there! As these stories are in some ways about my experience, I find myself often enjoying them. They speak to me. And at the same times I see them as part of a larger conversation going on in SFF, one that reflects ideas of globalization and post-colonialism. But I should get to my point, I guess...

Anyway, these stories. I think I was first recognizing it when I read "Please Undo This Hurt" by Seth Dickinson (Tor.com). The story is about two people struggling with guilt, with the desire to do no harm and the knowledge that they cannot possibly live up to that. Or, as the main character relates, "I have this stupid compassion in me, and it cries out for the hurts of others" and as her friend says "I’m a good guy, I don’t want to do anyone any harm, so I’m going to opt out." She finds a number that she can call to take her out of the world. But not just that, to make it so that she never existed. To make it so that all the harm she caused will be undone. The story is about wanting to not be a part of the shit of the world, the systems of oppression and pain. It's about wanting to opt out of the system. The story ends with the characters deciding not to, of course, because "He wouldn’t have to care anymore, of course. But he still cares. That’s how compassion works." Now, I like the story. It's a philosophy argument as much as a story, but the message is that you can't universalize opting out. That if you did the people who didn't care would be the only ones left and that wouldn't actually undo any harm. That even if you can't fix anything, it's worth it to try to do good. As someone who feels a bit put upon in this country for not living up to the promise of my parents' generation, I understand both the urge to opt out and the reassurance of being told that it's okay not to.

But this isn't the only story dealing with what I see as the "Millennial experience." In Sunny Moraine's "Dispatches from a Hole in the World" (Nightmare), the main character is studying the Year of Suicide, where Millennials did opt out, where over three hundred thousand Millennials killed themselves (this idea was also touched on in "Ten Things to Know About the Ten Questions" by Gwendolyn Kiste but I think Moraine's story is more about opting out and less about depression as I read Kiste's story). This story draws the line a bit more firmly along generational lines, and touches on a lot of the Millennial disappointments and concerns, the dissatisfaction. The main character puts it pretty clearly with "Look: don’t you judge us for opting out of a fucking lie. Don’t you ever do that." And that line speaks to me, because it is a lie that this generation was sold and then, when we were old enough to see the lie, expected to pass along. Despite the fact that it had stopped being beneficial to do so. Success had been horded by the successful, and everyone was told to play along, pass it on, despite seeing no benefit. There is something selfish there, yes, a feeling that hey, we weren't meant to have to try so hard. We were told it would be easy, that we'd have it as easy as our parents. And we don't. It's a loss of privilege that we at the same time see as a loss of something we never earned and also as a wound. Here again, though, the story argues for engagement, for pushing past the wounded feeling and coming through to try to do good. As the main characters says, "We can’t leave the holes in the world." That, in the end, we are responsible for trying to treat the wounds, despite our own dissatisfaction or pain.

Lastly I want to touch on the much more explicit "Where the Millennials Went" by Zach Lisabeth (Fantasy Scroll), where there is an actual fantasy world that people can travel to in order to escape the disappointment that is adulthood. A place of childhood promises. Freedom from student loans and predatory housing practices. A place where "President Maggie greeted each and every one of her constituents with a participation trophy and a flexible career. Together they ushered in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and access to contraception." A dream world. Here, opting out becomes a way of gathering power, a metaphor for refusing to accept the shit and standing up and fighting for better things. The revolution in this fantasy world stands in for voting and making the world better by reform. Like the previous stories, the center of the plot and message is on wanting to opt out (though of the three this is the only one that doesn't use that term). But it's clear that the goal here is to achieve those things that have been stripped away, to get back to what we were promised. Again, the point is engagement, reform, resistance.

What binds these stories, though, as "Millennial" fiction, goes slightly deeper than the idea that there is hopelessness and powerlessness and that opting out is not the answer. It is an integral part of what makes these stories "Millennial" to me, but there are many stories about struggle against a system that is corrupt, that causes pain and misery. Another part is the need for community and compassion/empathy, which is another strong message throughout most of the stories. The last line of Moraine's story is "All we ever had was each other." It's a vague answer to a more direct question. The question being "What can we do?" and the answer being "Try to be good to one another." Which is a fair if slightly unhelpful answer. Perhaps the real answer is "You are not alone" which is also true but which is similarly unsatisfying when looking at what to do. But I think that's part of what defines "Millennial" fiction, that it is more concerned with mindset than action, offers answers in terms of philosophy rather than direction.

So to break things down into something approaching the "rules" of "Millennial" fiction, I think it must:

1. Be primarily concerned with wanting to opt out of reality.
2. Reject opting out in favor of trying, with the idea that trying is the most one can do/be asked to do.

But I'm not really happy with those. Because there are works that seem to follow those "rules" but are not, in my mind, "Millennial." In works like Making Wolf by Tade Thompson and "Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef" by Cassandra Khaw, there are main characters who feel powerless in their situations but who want to opt out of the harm being caused (so check to rule 1). And they do reject opting out in favor of trying to make things better (check to rule 2). Here, however, it is incredibly transparent that by attempting to opt out of the system and then try anyway, the characters prop it up. They become a part of it not because they want to but because participating is the only way they see of getting through without losing what they have. It's interesting that the goal of doing no harm, of having some promised happiness, security, and power, is shared by both of these sets of stories. In those I would label "Millennial," though, the story ends with the determination to do something, to live, where the other stories refuse to look away from what comes next, which is the reliance on privilege to try and change things. The part that "Millennial" stories seem less willing to look at is that trying often leads to reliance on privilege which in turn further entrenches the systems of harm. What Making Wolf and "Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef" do very well is showing that trying is not enough, surviving is not enough.

So I add a third "rule" to my criteria. "Millennial" fiction must also

3. Treat harm done by the system wanting to be opted out from as natural and only able to be minimized, not eliminated.

In that, the third story ("Where the Millennials Went") almost doesn't pass because it argues for changing the system. But as I see it the story only wants to roll back the system to factory settings, arguing that other people broke it but not that it has always been broken. And again, I still like these stories. They basically say don't let guilt at being privileged stop you from trying to do good in the world. And that's an important message. But I do like that these kinds of stories are being complicated by works that call into question more the fundamental need for harm in the system.

I'm struck by the latest issue of Omenana, which is looking at visions of the future. Flash fiction that looks at how the future might be. I contrast these stories to Terraform as a whole. The premise for all of these is the same. But the themes are...different. In Omenana, the emphasis is very much on tearing down walls, on breaking down privilege for everyone so that there can be a base of equality to build from. Basically, "Millennial" stories, like Millennials themselves (myself definitely included here), hesitate from saying "tear it all down," because we still have so much to lose. It maybe doesn't feel that way because we have lost already and we want that loss recognized. It is no less real just because it's a fall from one privileged position to another. It is no less a crisis point. But there is also the recognition on some level that our hurt at this is a selfish hurt, and while there is the knowledge that we should be trying to do something, we don't want that effort to be worse than we have it now. We want to know that we won't have to fall further, won't have to hurt further. For those already lower, bringing everyone down means starting over is possible, abandoning the structures of oppression and trying something new. For those falling, there is an urge to want to halt that fall first. Which is where I see the urge to opt out springing from. We want it better for everyone yes, but first we don't want to lose more.

I am not saying that these stories I have kind of lumped into the boat of "Millennial" fiction are bad (as I said, I like these stories, and they do prompt some introspection as to why I like them, as to why this trend exists). I'm saying they're part of a broader conversation, and one that needs to happen, about privilege and action. The stories do not, after all, merely say that one shouldn't worry about guilt or privilege or loss or harm. The stories say that you can't just ignore it, that you have to recognize the hurt. But, as other works in SFF are demonstrating, just recognizing there is damage done isn't enough to dismantle it. Wanting to not participate is an important step, but one that only props up systems of oppression unless something is done to reach further. Trying is important, yes, but without some clearer direction on how to try, visions of what a Millennial future might look like are...a bit bleak (and not without reason).

Anyway, why do all this? I think I just wanted to share my thoughts on some trends I've seen reading through short SFF recently. I think I hoped that organizing these thoughts would allow me some frame by which to compare stories and also to do some introspection into how I read and write and how I might be able to do both better. I'm not sure if it's helpful at all. I hope, at least, it isn't wildly insulting or offensive. I think that Millennials get blamed for a lot in the US and I understand so much of the feels of these stories. At the same time, there are parallel movements in SFF that I think give some vital contrast and insight into how to complicate the Millennial experience. Or something. Maybe. But thanks for reading (and sorry that was so long).

All the best,

Charles Payseur

5 comments:

  1. This is really interesting - but it seems to rely on a different understanding of 'privilege' than I have.
    In your essay, I see a focus on losing privileges and how that would create a level playing field. I'm in no position to say whether millenials feel this is happening to them, but I can't help wondering how we decide specific things are 'privileges' rather than 'rights.'
    One can create a level playing field by taking away 'privileges,' but nobody would advocate creating a level playing field by taking away 'rights' - you would only try to extend those rights to everybody.
    Does accepting the 'privilege' formation represent a pre-emptive surrender to the idea that there is no set of rights that we all deserve and should fight for together, but merely a pecking order? That, I would say, really props up systems of oppression.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I don't think I was trying to say that losing privilege causes more equality, because I don't think that's necessarily true. And I understand that certain things are "rights" and shouldn't be denied anyone. But I think that the system (in the US at the very least) is corrupt. That Millennials are seeing less benefit from that corruption than our parents did and do is at the heart of this. I would be all for everyone rising up, but as the system only works as an exploitative model, where certain people are used to provide wealth for the higher classes, I do not see that as possible. In effect, like with Making Wolf and "Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef" I think that trying to use the corruption to help people can only lead to further harm. It's the system that needs to be taken down. Which does mean those still benefiting from corruption losing that benefit. In order to fight for universal rights, everyone must first have an equal standing. First. Otherwise all that's being done is trying to minimize harm while accepting it as necessary, telling those who already lack "rights" that they must wait for legislation, for progress, for some future where things are better while those who already enjoy those rights prioritize their own retaining of those "rights." I do not think that acknowledging that the system is corrupt prevents cooperation. I think it is the only way to cooperate.

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  2. I agree with you that the system is corrupt, but not that tearing everything down to level ground is the only way to start over - because, as you point out in your essay, if the punctilious give up their power the ony folks left with power will be the unjust.

    This may be part of the 'millenial' thing, though, because when I was the age of current millenials I would have agreed with you a lot more.

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  3. I kept thinking about your article and realized that I wrote a character in my latest novel who does just what you're describing - and he is the closest to millenial age of all my characters. Coincidence? Maybe I agree with you more than I think I do.

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  4. An excellent, amazing counter to this idea of "Millennial" fiction is Sam J. Miller's "To Die Dancing" in the current Apex Magazine. It is amazing and completely complicates the wanting to opt out vs. having to work from within and surviving vs. being moral. Definitely deserves a part in this conversation.

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