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The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 3

I was nostrils-deep writing Ten Gentle Opportunities and wasn’t paying attention when Sarah Hoyt quietly posted a bombshell: The Human Wave Manifesto. It was actually a manifesto in two parts, probably because I don’t think she intended it to be a manifesto at first. (Sabrina Chase had a part in it too.)

But boy, manifesto it is, bigtime.

I powerfully suggest that you read Sarah’s manifesto (perhaps twice) but I’ll summarize for those in a hurry:

The Human Wave is a resistance movement. It’s a reminder that SFF is about unlimited possibility; i.e., there are unexplored universes lying right outside our own navels. So first of all, it’s about throwing off a 30-year accumulation of Thou Shalt Nots and These Are Necessary Rules that the Insider Alphas of the SFF world have laid down. Back in the 60s we had whole posters printed with just two words: Question Authority. That’s what the Human Wave is about: questioning authority. The Insider Alphas are not authorities. They’re just writers and editors of a certain psychology that always makes a beeline for the levers of power. The Human Wave is under the floor right now, disconnecting all the levers. (If only we can keep them from hearing us giggle…)

Human Wave science fiction and fantasy (SFF) is fiction that deliberately subverts those supposed rules (fetishes, actually) and re-takes what was once commonplace in the SFF universe. The guiding principles of the Human Wave (as laid out by Sarah Hoyt) are in fact exhortations to freedom:

  1. Write fiction that entertains; nay, fiction that makes us gasp.
  2. Write fiction that celebrates rather than denigrates the human spirit.
  3. Write fiction in which characters are characters, fully realized individuals and not primarily defined as members of groups.
  4. Write fiction in which the message doesn’t overpower the rest of the story.
  5. Write fiction that isn’t eaten by Grey Goo; i.e., fuzzy characters wandering around landscapes of indeterminate importance doing nothing coherent, learning nothing, and ultimately having nothing to say.
  6. Write fiction that is upbeat; or if it must be downbeat, make sure it’s at least meaningful and that its insights are worth the downer.
  7. Write in a style that can be understood; i.e., don’t let style overwhelm or obscure substance.
  8. Write fiction that has internal logic and is faithful to that logic, especially your explorations of science and magic.
  9. Write fiction that isn’t boring, since ordinary life does not suffer a boredom shortage.
  10. Write what you write best and make no apologies; i.e., just shut up and write!

That’s the best synopsis I can provide. I’ve broadened the concept to include fantasy (the second “F” in SFF) but otherwise have tried to be faithful to Sarah’s intent. I will also add an eleventh commandment:

11. If you have that skill, write fiction that makes us laugh.

What I found heartening about the Human Wave is that it’s how I’ve always written, even if I take it farther than caution might suggest. I have a primal fear of not delivering enough value to my readers. That’s why I throw in dump trucks full of ideas, lots of explosions and gunfights, a little humor even in serious stories, and end with a mayhem-filled action climax. Yeah, I’m an old guy. I learned this stuff basically by reading the best of the pulps. There’s nothing shameful about the pulps, just as there was nothing shameful about 1958 De Sotos. Just as we can now make far better cars than 1958 De Sotos, we can write far better popular fiction than the Fifties pulps. We just have to ditch the shame.

I’ll also add this: Literature is good, and literary techniques can be dazzling in the right hands. I’ve read my share, and in fact have a degree in it, for what that’s worth. My two objections to literary SF are that not everyone has the skill to write it, and even when well-written, it doesn’t work as a steady diet. Let those who can write it, write it. Let’s just not insist it’s the whole picture, or even the worthiest part of the picture. Yes, literary is good. Choice is even better.

So. Where do we go from here? I’d certainly like to see a list of authors who embrace the Human Wave, as well as stories that embrace it, whether their authors ever heard of it or not. Such a list has not been attempted, to my knowledge. Although I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with it, I’ve already begun such a list. If you have authors or stories to nominate as part of the Human Wave, please send them along or share them in the comments.

Maybe it’s finally time to bring to life.

Now, although I consider this entry the heart of the matter, I’m not done yet. I’m a little nervous about the last topic in the title. Give me a few days to figure things out, and we’ll wrap this series up.


  1. Bob Fegert says:

    I’m no writer but those guiding principles make perfect sense to me.

  2. Dave Thompson says:

    I have been away from SFF for a very long time. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit the genre and see what there is to read…

    Thanks Jeff!

  3. Rob Hickok says:

    Sounds like time to resurrect some Heinlein, Asimov, Aspirin… Make all the newbies read at least a hundred pieces of copy from the era of the greats before they even attempt their own. Heck, Shatner could probably pull off better than a lot of the gook floating around today.

  4. Ed Hanley says:

    I’m an old guy, too. When I started reading SF the Human Wave was all there was, it was like Waimea, it was like the Pipeline. Thank you, John Campbell. Somewhere in the 80’s or so SF got all slippery and gooey, hard to hang onto, the Human Wave was just ripples washing up on hard sand, a few shore birds darting along with it. Then it went away and I became sad to walk into a book store and see all those SF titles that could do nothing but bore me. I started reading more Louis L’Amour and Dean Koontz to drown my sorrow. But now it’s time. All that writing talent is still there in the wide world. Bring back the Human Wave! Yes!

  5. Rob Hickok says:

    Bear, Cherryh, Wolverton, Harrison, Card, Donaldson, Foster, Gibson, Herbert allong with the Lords of SciFi are my practically inbred library nowadays. I haven’t gone shopping for new in a long time. These guys pass for getting my fix and rotate through duty on my nightstand about annually. I went back to Tom Swift for a while, just to clear the cobwebs.

  6. TRX says:

    > Sara Hoyt

    Well, that took care of an afternoon… I’d never heard of her before, but I like her style.

    1. Me too. And boy, I envy her energy. I’ve heard her speak (at Mile-High Con 2011) and she was marvelous.

  7. Jack Smith says:

    Monocultures can exist only where they are able to exercise exclusionary power.

    In some cases, a particular industry can be dominated by a small number of players, and perhaps far more often than not, those players concentrate in a particular geographic location. Historically for example, Detroit for automobiles, New York for securities and banking and publishing, Washington DC for government, Dallas and Houston for petroleum, Southern California for film and TV entertainment immediately come to mind.

    But, along comes new technology – which often does not select the same bastions of consensus as their headquarters. Thus, the Japanese auto companies selected southern cities, not Detroit, and more recently Tesla is Silicon Valley centric.

    Where the old guard sees competition, they do their best to use government to head it off. At the center of every large company is management that seeks to become a Rentier capitalist. And increasingly a government that embraces that concept so long as the campaign funding spigot is open.

    In the case of publishing, it seems to be a great case for overthrowing the NY-centered industry. Barriers to entry are much lower than any time in the last 100 years, as sales no longer have to funnel through local bookstores. And in paperless publishing, the barriers to entry are even further reduced. “Every man a publisher!”

    1. There are still some skills that even ebook publishers need to know, and I suspect I could make a decent living teaching those skills. One gotcha is that the tools are still relatively crude and still evolving. People are still hand-editing the HTML inside ebook files, which boggles the mind. It’s like programming a book with TeX and not using any macros or templates. (I know what that’s like, as I was doing it in 1986.) Jutoh comes the closest in WYSIWYG editing among the cheap or free tools, but it’s nowhere near done yet.

      So ultimately ebook publishing will become primary, and print will be an add-on for titles that prove themselves via online sales.

      If I were ten years younger I might take a shot at an ebook-centered publishing house, but I’m now 62 and would prefer to spend my retirement doing, seeing, and writing interesting things rather than running a company, which sometimes has elements of proctoring the seventh-grade detention room.

      I am amazed at how quickly the transformation is happening.

      1. Jack Smith says:

        My microcontroller programming book was published by a well known technical/scientific publishing house – Elsevier – but the editing and layout (using InDesign 2.0) was done by an independent 3rd party contractor.

        My contact with the direct Elsevier employees was minimal.

        Files were submitted in Microsoft Word and graphics as JPG or GIF files.

        As an experiment, I tried laying out a couple chapters with InDesign 2.0 myself – decided that whilst I could do it, the task needs a mixed set of skills, being a blend of artistic ability to make it look good and technical skills to most efficiently use the software.

        That was more than a decade ago and the available tools have progressed of course.

  8. […] rather than denigration of the human spirit, plot, ideas, optimism, and sense of wonder. I endorse this without hesitation, and will have even more to say about it in future […]

  9. […] say in summary what I said here: The Human Wave is about allowing things, not forbidding things. Yes, what the Human Wave stands […]

  10. Greg Q says:

    So, Jeff, you intrigue me. What’s your best book available on Amazon on Kindle? Got a link that gets you the referrer credit? 🙂

    1. I don’t have any referrer links, but thanks for the offer.

      Now, I have two books and a loose story available on Kindle. The one to start with is my short story collection, Cold Hands and Other Stories which gathers all my stories that are not explicitly about AI. (I have a second story collection called Souls in Silicon, which contains all of my AI stories. Alas, I haven’t gotten it up on Kindle yet.)

      Next you should try Drumlin Circus / On Gossamer Wings which consists of two short novels both set in my Drumlins universe, one by me and one by my friend Jim Strickland. Drumlin Circus follows naturally from “Drumlin Boiler,” which is included in the Cold Hands collection. Read “Drumlin Boiler” first.

      “Whale Meat” is a standalone novelette, because it’s the only true fantasy story I’ve ever sold, and so was not a good fit in my two SF story collections.

      Now, I’m hard at work getting a number of other things up on Kindle: My 2005 hard SF novel The Cunning Blood will be out this summer or fall at the latest. (I’m mostly waiting for an artist to finish the cover.) I have another long novella / short novel in prep called “Firejammer,” and again, it’s awaiting cover art. Next January I’m going to publish my humorous SF/fantasy mashup Ten Gentle Opportunities, which defies categorization.

      I’m recently retired out of technical publishing (most of my commercial work has been computer tech-related) and hope to write SF and (some) fantasy for the rest of my life.

      This page is a good long-form summary of my current books:

      (Used copies of my older tech books are available on used book sites.)

      Many thanks for the inquiry. Stay turned; much more is on the way now that I have time to pour it into ebook format!

      1. Whoops. I had forgotten that I threw “Whale Meat” into Cold Hands and Other Stories at the last minute, so you don’t need to buy “Whale Meat” as a separate item.

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