Monday, July 13, 2020

The Old Guard

Title: The Old Guard
Director: Gina Prince-Brythewood 
Screenplay: Greg Rucka 
Network: Netflix 

[somber music playing]

Previously, I kind of facetiously suggested there was no point in reviewing anything, as various audience segments each consume entertainment for wildly different reasons, and their aims or intentions often do not align with those of reviewers, critics, award judges, or other gatekeepers of cultural quality. What I had not considered, and what I’m now—after watching Netflix’s latest action-caper “The Old Guard”—forced to consider, is that I omitted one case in which reviewing is at best pointless and at worst counter-productive: What if the product itself isn’t meant to be that good?

After “Titan”, “Mute”, “Extraction” and now “The Old Guard”, I’m starting to get the feeling that what Netflix is aiming for is not excellence, but a kind of good-enoughness, sufficiently competent and well-made that it elicits just enough delight among a target audience segment, but done on the cheap, taking few risks, skimping on script in favor of visuals. And it’s hard to critique something that doesn’t feel like it was ever meant to be that great anyway. It’s the brainless summer action blockbuster minus the block-busting and available year-round. It being good or bad feels almost beside the point.

[suspenseful music playing]

“The Old Guard” stars Charlize Theron as “Andy”, Andromanche the Scythian, an unkillable, fast-healing immortal along the lines of the Highlander or Wolverine or Deadpool or Hayden Panettiere’s character on “Heroes” and yes, this concept is precisely as tired and worn-out as Charlize’s cynical Andy.

Aside from a few flashback scenes in some rather unfortunate Xena cosplay, the story focuses on Andy and her team of three other centuries-old immortals, guy (Marwan Kanzari), other guy (Luca Marinelli) and slightly shifty guy (Matthias Schoenaerts) as they battle Martin Shkreli-esque pharmabro Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to turn them into lab mice for the development of new drugs based on their DNA. A new wrinkle occurs when a US Marine deployed to Afghanistan (KiKi Layne) suddenly discovers she, too, is immortal.

[Frankie Ocean playing]

The plot is utterly predictable. The team is double-crossed in precisely the way that you expect, by the person that you expect. After we learn that immortality sometimes wears off, the person you expect to become mortal again does. When the team is captured, they are rescued by exactly the person you expect in precisely the way you expect. While one was previously encouraged to switch off one’s brain for action movies, in this case it becomes almost mandatory. To the point where it feels almost like a deliberate choice.

For example, they say the famous Nigerian Prince Email scam was written in a suspicious, fishy, blatantly scammy style in order to turn off anybody with half a brain, as the scam’s targets were the truly na├»ve and stupid. Anybody else was a waste of the scammers’ time, so they set up the scam so that the audience would self-select: Only those staggeringly dumb enough to fall for it would bother to respond.

And the cynical part of me wonders if that’s what’s happening here. I’d like to believe Greg Rucka, the man who wrote the original comic book on which the movie is based, is capable of coming up with an original twist or plot point. Yet the movie is absolutely, totally laser-focused on not surprising you in any way, shape or form.

[electropop music playing]

The dialog is dull and utilitarian. The fights are jerkily shot and confusingly edited, and feature the Wickensian headshotting we’ve already seen ad nauseum in three John Wick movies, not to mention Netflix’s own Extraction. Theron essentially reprises her Furiosa role from “Mad Max” albeit with a better haircut, but the others of her team make little to no impression at all. They all behave exactly like a modern action-movie Special Forces team, and nothing at all like 1,000-year-old warriors.

Side note: Why do these people need to eat and sleep? Doesn’t the not-dying bit prevent you from starving or suffering from a lack of REM? What happens if you cut their heads off? The implications of their abilities largely go unconsidered, save for a flashback sequence in which Veronica Ngo’s character is chucked into the sea inside an iron coffin, to drown and revive and drown again for eternity. It’s the one genuinely creepy scene in the whole movie, and one I was hoping was going to power the plot, but nope, bog-standard baddies it is (Ngo’s character reappears at the very end in an obvious set-up for a sequel).

[another misplaced musical cue playing]

There isn’t much nice I can say about the rest of it, I’m afraid. The score, as I’ve hinted, is intrusive and rarely fits the mood of the scene. Thematically, it’s a bit of a mess: The preciousness of human life, how fleeting it is, ah me, oh my, such pathos, now let’s go murder 50 faceless goons with headshots that totally go SPLAT all over the walls.

The action is frequently preposterous—upon discovering her rapid-healing abilities, Layne’s squad-mates immediately turn on her. Why? Andy abducts Layne from a US army base in Afghanistan in a Humvee. How? Layne drives about a creepily empty London, streets totally deserted, until after the big escape and then cops and a crowd show up. What? I’m not a fan of the Cinema Sins style of criticism and searching for “plot holes” but this movie simply constricts itself in nonsensical plot lines.

[Gummi Bear viral song from 2007 playing]

But none of it matters. This is a movie for all the Charlize Theron stans out there. Your queen kicks ass. Yeah! In what feels like a deliberate shot at macho action-movie tropes, she’s a lesbian, Marwan and Luca’s characters are a gay couple, the new addition to the team is a black woman, the bad guy is a white dude with an army of white dudes in cop gear. I can tell the online discourse for this movie is going to be dominated by the presence of these elements. If representation matters to you, then all the headthumpingly dull plotting and wooden characterization probably won’t make any difference. If SJW-ness or whatever are your personal bugbear, no number of killer action scenes would have saved it.

It just has to be good enough to get a pass with its target audience, and they’ll defend it to the death. A thousand words of mine aren’t going to change any minds one way or the other. So I’ll stop.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Boy Who Cotted (Or Not)

I’ll be doing a bit of rizzing today. I’ll be talking about Harry Potter, and to be fair, Harry Potter fandom—with its twee Etonian schoolboy cosplay and insistence on identifying which of the nation’s current political actors are Slytherin or Hufflepuff in the middle of a pandemic and crisis of public faith in police and judicial systems—is eminently and richly risible. I say this as a man who once played Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop pen-and-paper RPG whose sessions are little more than extended Tolkien LARPing, like the SCA without the research, effort or costumes, a Medieval Times dinner show without the show and ‘dinner’ is a packet of Doritos. 

Like many in Gen X, I suspect Harry Potter isn’t really “for” me (though how you tell whether or not a piece of entertainment is or isn’t for you, and what that actually means, is a subject for another boring essay another boring day—ooh, bet you can’t wait). I read the first book out of curiosity in about 2002, watched the first movie for similar reasons, and once went on the Universal Studios ride but it made my wife sick. Some of the wordplay was mildly amusing—Diagon Alley, ha ha—but the magic didn’t work for me. I, um, lost the Quidditch in Voldemort’s horcrux of fire. I don’t know, I didn’t read the books. I do not, I’m trying in my slightly snarky way to say, really have any skin in this game. God, in His infinite wisdom, has missed me with that shit.

So watching the fandom tear itself to pieces over the post-publication prognostications of the series author, the forever-abbreviated J.K. Rowling, is very much me on the outside looking in on the asylum. The content of her comments I will pass over without further discussion, as I do not pretend to be either a sociologist or doctor, capable of discussing neither the biological implications of her claims nor the sociological ones.

Well, for whatever reason, the kids these days have decided trans rights is the next battlefield, and their darling angel author has quite upset the apple cart by coming out repeatedly, defiantly, brashly, recklessly, strongly, wordily, emotionally, ramblingly and unambiguously against the prevailing online wind (Not sure about attitudes IRL, but the Williams Institute says 73% of people say transgender people should be protected against discrimination).

The question then, to get to the actual point of this post here, is how do progressive or woke or social-justice-minded fans square their love for the series, world and characters with their distaste for the author’s personal opinions? This is something a segment of fans seem to be tying themselves in knots over. Fan sites Leaky Caldron and Mugglenet are removing all references to the author, but doesn’t the ongoing existence of Harry Potter fandom still work to empower Rowling and keep her in the spotlight? Even if you don’t purchase a single more book or watch another movie, isn’t your fandom itself supporting this woman?

Not to pick on anybody (well, maybe a little) but just as one highly visible example of the angst this is causing fans, Lindsay Ellis, a prominent YouTube film critic with nearly a million subscribers, recently produced a heartfelt if slightly inarticulate video on the question of whether or not it’s okay to keep buying Harry Potter stuff. Fifteen minutes and a can of Diet Canada Dry later, her conclusion was … somewhere between “I don’t know” and “No.”

Let’s think about it in the abstract. Forget about Rowling for the moment. The question is, can you separate the author from the work they produce? Could you purchase and enjoy a book, show or movie written, produced or directed by somebody who you know is or was, in your opinion, an absolute shitheel in real life?

In the end, it all comes down to money. Your money.

As far as the passive act of consumption goes, I think the main issue is whether or not you are comfortable with knowing your money is going to support this creator, or their estate if they are dead. Buying and reading a book, cuing up a show or movie up on Netflix or Amazon does nothing to directly support or promote the views of the creator. So yeah, the artistry or craft or whatever you call it can be appreciated without reference to the author.

However, indirectly they do benefit financially (along with a host of others, including editors, agents, actors, prop makers, costume designers, etc.), and in our society wealth and popularity do equal greater clout. It’s madness that discourse on social policy should be directed by the author of a young adult fantasy series about Polyjuice potions and football on a broomstick, but here we are. But yes, providing a market for the creator’s work does mean they’ll be asked to and paid to create more of it, regardless of how utterly feckless they may be in real life (for a non-political example, I present you with Game of Thrones showrunners Benioff and Weiss’s post-GoT $200 million Netflix deal—our fandom enabled this, people).

If you want to be a “fan” in the modern always-online social media sense of the word, maybe it’s a little more tricky. You’re not only financially supporting the author, you’re also helping to keep them and their work in the public eye through your fandom. People are less worked up about, say, Orson Scott Card’s homophobia because people don’t dress up as their favorite characters from Ender’s Game and there’s no “Speaker for the Dead” ride at Universal Studios where fans get vivisected and turned into trees (read the book and this joke will make sense, maybe). Public discussion even of the story, setting or characters, without any reference to the author, still helps to promote and publicize their work and thus contributes to spreading their personal views or opinions.

For example—trying to find a less controversial author, how about Neil Gaiman?—Neil Gaiman gets asked to spout off about far more topics than is probably merited by someone who is ultimately just the writer of a number of fairly popular fantasy books and comics. But he does get asked, because he is the author of some fairly popular fantasy books and comics, and therefore a public figure, and these days public figures are expected to hold forth on their views about the subject of the day (silence = complicity and therefore RIGHT OUT). So by keeping living authors in the public eye, you give them a platform to hold forth on their personal views.

If they really are dead, then Bob’s your uncle because nobody cares what the estate manager thinks and nobody’s reading Lovecraft for his racial views. But if they’re alive and you don’t like what they’re saying, you’ve got to accept the fact that your personal, private appreciation in the privacy of your own home still fuels their wealth and popularity in whatever minuscule way.

In short, more money & popularity = louder voice.

That feeds into the other big discussion around this, “cancel culture.” This is topical too, with an open letter being published in Harper’s Magazine about intellectual conformity in online debates. It’s got Chomsky’s and Steinem’s and Atwood’s and Kasparov’s and Rushdie’s names on it, but also Rowling’s (amusingly, two people retracted their support after learning of Rowling’s involvement, a fact the Fox News crowd are having a field day with—so much for the support of free speech, etc.). The letter has been criticized as little more than a bunch of stodgy and wealthy intellectuals trying to ensure they never suffer any consequences for their actions, but my point is not the letter itself, it’s that the question of supporting or opposing Rowling or people like her is no longer an issue confined to Potterdom, it’s dragged in a whole raft of other big names, albeit for perhaps self-interested reasons.

Before I go on, I don’t buy that this is solely a Twitter or woke thing, though they may be some of the more vocal proponents. The video game “Last of Us II” didn’t get review-bombed or death threats from woke lefties on Twitter. “The Last Jedi” didn’t provoke so-called SJWs to sign a petition to reboot the sequels and fire Kathleen Kennedy. As I’ve said elsewhere, my know-nothing pop psychology analysis is that cancel culture a product of the growing feeling that something is deeply wrong in our society and traditional systems are incapable of fixing either it or themselves.

Surely though, we can all agree you are free to buy or not buy the products of any given author. If I think a writer is a bit of a shit, for whatever perfectly reasonable and sane or la-la looney-tune reason I happen to think so, there’s no way you can say I should be forced to continue consuming their output. The question is whether you are also within your rights to demand or pressure their publishing house or employer to fire them or refuse to deal with them.

I’m not too worried about the people at the very top. Rowling is uncancellable. First off, her fandom is far, far too big for any online movement to do more than slightly dent. Second, if she never sees another cent from Harry Potter she’s still massively wealthy and famous enough to keep her views in the public eye (I think this is something self-defeating about boycotts, review bombs and cancelling—by the time someone or something is famous enough to become a target, it’s already too late).

Nor am I too worried about those of us at the very bottom. I’m also probably uncancellable, as I’ve got about 15 Twitter followers and 14 of them are bots. I’ve written a couple of stories which a handful of people have read in exchange for precisely zero of your Earth dollars, so again, losing my readers would costs me exactly zip. There’s a certain power that comes from total powerlessness. (I suppose you could threaten that you’d never publish me in the future … but I wouldn’t believe you ever had any intention of doing so).

It’s the people in the middle that suffer. Debut novelists whose books might get pulled, columnists or journalists who might get fired, professors who might get canned. People without much of a platform to begin with, so the “Death of the Author” argument feels beside the point.

For that reason, my personal preference would be to keep it a private, personal decision. Obviously, I’m speaking from a position of protected, unthreatened privilege, but I’d rather people exercised their decision to support or boycott certain artists or writers as a result of introspection and their own thoughts and feelings, rather than because somebody online told them to do it. You wouldn’t have to demand an author be fired if nobody read their work or nobody attended their classes, their positions mean nothing without an audience.

It’s not the act of boycotting that I object to (as I’ve said, it’s your money, surely you have to right to spend it however you want), it’s the herd mentality of it, people who’ve never read more than a headline or a carefully selected and inflammatory quote or played the game deciding to jump on the bandwagon. I'm not saying not to talk about it, but there is a spectrum of reactions from indifference to boycotting which do not involve trying to mobilize a community against a specific writer or property.

Bottom line, enjoy the media or entertainment that you like, but understand there are financial consequences for what you consume and talk about online.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Through a Genre Darkly

I had fun waffling about cyberpunk in the last post, so here’s another one, this time harping on another genre I like to talk about: grimdark fantasy.

Much like cyberpunk, it’s a genre that is both long-lived and has recently enjoyed something of a revival, thanks to the televisual kinomatic extravaganza that was HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (about which, I’ve pontificated about here and here).

The genre itself goes back much further, of course, with one obvious touchstone being Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone stories that started in 1961, while the word ‘grimdark’ was inspired by the 1987 tag line of tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000 “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.” Since then we’ve had a range of authors from Stephen R Donaldson’s “Thomas Covenant” to R Scott Bakker’s “Prince of Nothing” and is there something about having the initial R that makes you a nihilist, and oh yes also Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” series (here and here) and Steven Erickson’s numerous and ponderous Malazan books.

Grimdark fantasy is often described as the antidote to Tolkien, a gritty, dirty, messy genre for everyone who rolled their eyes every time Galadriel broke into song or Middle Earth was once again saved at the 11th hour by the unlooked-for arrival of a flock of Very Large Birds Indeed. Grimdark is unepic fantasy, populated by angsty antiheroes, hard-faced warriors with anger management issues, villains who might have a point actually, and lots and lots of stage blood.

Iconoclasm can feel terribly clever when you are young, lord knows I was an insufferably contrarian smart-arse from age about 10 to 30 (well, probably long after that, truth be told). Realizing that, despite your parents’ admonition to tell the truth, work hard and be kind to others, it was actually quite possible and perhaps even advantageous to do none of those things and still be successful, can feel like an enormous betrayal.

Grimdark is above all an angry, hurt cry of rejection of the beautiful lies that epic fantasy tells: Life isn’t like that. Good does not always triumph. Good is boring, evil is interesting. There are no heroes, everyone is flawed. Nobody really thinks they are evil. And so on.

Hello, Kullervo

Proponents always trot out the same handful of rationalizations for the genre’s popularity. The dark times we live in, you see. As though the year of our lord two thousand and twenty were in someway harder to live through than two world wars, an influenza epidemic that killed more than the first war, the worst economic collapse of the century, the AIDS epidemic or the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

As you can tell, I don’t think there’s anything especially new or innovative about rejecting or subverting epic fantasy tropes. Here is the most grimdark story I’ve ever read:

A boy is orphaned when his parents and family are massacred. He is brought up by his parents’ killers, rebels against them and is sold into slavery. He escapes, meets and seduces a girl who he later discovers to be his own sister (unbeknown to him, she escaped the massacre). When she realizes they have committed incest, she commits suicide. Blinded by fury, the boy returns to the family that raised him, slaughters them, and then kills himself. The end.

Pretty grim, eh?

Here’s the thing, though. That’s the story of Kullervo, a Finnish legend written down in the 19th century, but based on a much older oral tradition. It’s also, pretty much beat for beat except with more elves and dragons, Tolkien’s story of Turin Turambar, which he first began in 1917.

To flog the dead horse a few more times: Gilgamesh is a tyrant and despot whose best friend dies, and later he fails to win either immortality or eternal youth. Achilles is a selfish arse and dies in the Iliad. Beowulf gets eaten by a dragon. King Arthur is killed by his own son. So it goes.

To my mind there’s nothing especially new or modern or even particularly anti-Tolkien about having troubled heroes who do terrible things. That is, if anything, the default to which Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a rare exception.

I'll Show You Realism

Nor do I think there is anything innately more “realistic” about letting the bad guys win. George Martin may very well be correct, for all I know might does indeed make right, but a quick glance at history and a fall back on a slightly different idiom should tell us that he who lives by the sword dies by it. For example, let’s have a look at the Roman Emperors who were murdered by their own Praetorian Guard: Caligula, Galba, Pertinax, Julianus, Elagabalus and Aurelian and that’s not even going into all the ones murdered by their own regular troops.

The dictator who rules for a lifetime is a relatively modern invention, and medieval rulers who tried to act like tyrants and despots were more likely to find themselves on the wrong end of a hot poker enema a la Edward II (yes, probably apocryphal, but still a good story to tell).

Being a ruthless bastards isn’t any more of a shortcut to success than being virtuous, generous and kind. Honestly, it’s all a bit of a crap shoot. You always hear about successful authors who got a break because someone assistant’s wife just happened to read the manuscript and insist it must be published, or showrunners whose first-ever pitch was greenlit because they have famous parents or the man who became president of the United States mainly because his father had been too, and my takeaway is that quite frankly nobody, neither good nor evil, has the slightest fucking clue what they’re doing. Evil works sometimes, sure. So does being good. That’s the only reality.

What Audiences Really Want (What They Really, Really Want)

But of course all these claims at greater realism are a decoy, a smokescreen, because we all know fiction isn’t really about reflecting reality, fantasy fiction doubly not so. I mean, the name of a genre is a bit of a dead giveaway, isn’t it: Fantasy. Not reality.

The whole point of speculative fiction, non-mimetic writing and fantasy as a literary, marketing genre is that it draws on myth and magic, legends and fairy tales, in order to present a world which is very definitely NOT our own. Sure, you could write a story that is essentially just the real world with a couple of elves in the background, but then my question becomes why (other than the commercial reasons) is this marketed as fantasy? Grimdark fantasy, like all fantasy, is not a reflection but an exaggeration, a specific attempt to highlight and twist something we find in our world. In this case: the atavistic taste for revenge, and the desire to indulge our darkest impulses.

Fans do not flock to watch “Game of Thrones” or pick up the latest god and wizards tome because they’re looking for an accurate depiction of the human condition. Grimdark is as escapist as epic fantasy, merely in the opposite direction. It indulges all the things we’d like to do in our darker moments, the co-worker we’d cheerfully strangle, the careless driver we’d like to run off the road, the rude shop clerk we’d like to stuff inside their own till. Grimdark lets you vicariously live out those fantasies in all their visceral glory.

In that sense, the genre is regressive and conservative, not iconoclastic. Nihilism and the refusal to believe in any kind of positive change, preferring instead to indulge in revenge fantasies, is inherently pro-establishment, because they’re the ones who benefit if nobody tries to change anything. Audiences want to have their caked blood and eat it too, to feel they’re doing something rebellious while engaging in the very boggiest of standard entertainment.

(This American need to be at once both the rebel underdog and the invincible champion is probably worth exploring. Maybe next time. On the same note, I make plenty of digs at America’s expense in this blog, but to be fair, most of the Americans I’ve met have been wonderful, kind people. This kind of ribbing is just what you get for being so big and famous and dominating the discourse all the time.)

It's Not All Bad Though

The only exception I’ll admit is grimdark that is satire, either of other grimdark works or of the nihilistic mindset it supports. And to be fair, the Terry Brookses and Tad Williamses and Robert Jordanses and Brandon Sorensonsons of the genre can stand to be brought down to earth every once in a while lest they get too carried away. It’s worth pointing out that for all their medievalist and poetic trappings the modern epic fantasy is still ultimately about dudes killing other dudes with swords.

Abercrombie gets this, I think, with his alcoholic princesses, dashingly brain-dead swordsmen, manipulative mentor wizards, perfectly pleasant torturers and barbarian berserkers with a heart of … if not gold, then brass maybe. I think Warhammer 40,000 also had this, until a certain cohort of fans started taking the setting at face value (you can still see traces of humor in the dimbulb orks, for example).

In line with my unwarranted American-bashing above, I note that this kind of satire seems to be a particularly British thing. I’ve seen this elsewhere too, with reams of American publications warning you not to try humor. I think the default American mode of communication is sincerity, which is why political discourse gets so overheated, nobody can look at the topic or themselves from an ironic distance. Whereas British people seem much more keyed to look for or expect life to be absurd. But I’m digressing.

I note in closing that the “Game of Thrones” fandom has more or less evaporated now that the show is over (whimper not a bang, there) and the next book nowhere in sight (next year, says Martin, and we’ve heard that before). That suggests a lack of staying power, a lack of purchase or foothold on the imagination, and thus a shallowness to the Gotcha! adolescent epiphany that life sucks. We know, dear. That ceased to feel insightful by about age 16. These days, it’s the hopeful fantasies that feel ground-breaking and innovative.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Wither Cyberpunk?

Hello and welcome back. Today, we’re taking a break from milquetoast white middle class takes on socio-political issues and getting back to what I’m really good at: Nonsensical waffling about deeply nerdy shit. That’s right, today we’re going to talk about cyberpunk.

Here’s what I said about the genre back in March:

Cyberpunk is a wonderful genre, so fun, so full of cool gadgetry, bass-ass mofos, gangsters, mercs, techno-blitzkrieg action, neon, rain and bare buttocks gyrating to electronica. I love it, really I do. But damn is it a limited, self-referential genre.

It is. It’s a narrative straight-jacket capable of telling about three possible stories, all of them involving a hacker, a gun-toting mercenary and a prostitute with a heart of gold. Spoilers: They all die and live happily ever after.

That said, it’s surprising how long and how well the genre has survived since it downloaded itself into the public infosphere back in the early 80s. In the 90s it was rebooted through Neal Stephenson’s books and the Matrix trilogy, the Shadowrun RPG as well as William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy (peak Gibson, to my mind), then saved from the Y2K bug by things like the “Blade Runner” sequel or Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” series (covered here, here and here), which later became a Netflix series (here and here). Everything from “Black Mirror” to “Love, Death and Robots” owes a deep debt to this genre.

And it keeps going. Pandemic willing, we are currently four months away from the November 19 release of CD Projekt Red’s latest game, “Cyberpunk 2077” (which I wrote a little about here) and its promise of infinitely customizable genitalia. A tie-in anime has also been announced, slated for release in 2021. Cyberpunk has never been hotter, or cooler, or whatever your desired ambient temperature may be.

The question is, Why?

Why does this genre, so evidently a product of a very specific place and time (my bedroom, circa 1990) continue to enjoy such popularity?

Part of the reason cyberpunk is enjoying a revival, as British author Adam Roberts suggests in his blog Morphosis, is probably because kids like me who grew up in the 80s are now in positions to make creative decisions about what gets made, and we’re all feeling a little nostalgic for some babes, bikes and Blade Runner.

Another part of the reason may be pure fashion. Black never goes out of style. William Gibson’s seminal novel “Neuromancer” published in 1984 gets a lot of the credit for kicking off the genre, but it’s worth pointing out this was actually two years after both Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga series “Akira” (movie-fied in 1988) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, which together established a set of aesthetics that have survived the intervening 30 years as a shorthand for effortless dystopic cool.

It’s the aesthetics that have stuck with us more than anything, but I’m not sure those alone explain the longevity of such an (apparently) niche genre. To be sure, the fact that cyberpunk gives artists a fig leaf to cover the fetishization of gratuitously bloody gunplay and large-breasted girls is attractive to some. That doesn’t explain, for example, Altered Carbon’s use of the genre to explore themes of resistance to power and control though, or Blade Runner: 2049’s more mournful contemplation of the definition of self.

There is, I think, an ideological core to cyberpunk which still resonates with us, even 30 years later. The concerns the genre raises have not gone away, and indeed, have become ever more pressing.

What is the cyberpunk manifesto? Let’s have a look.

Tenet 1: Technology will become increasingly ubiquitous and invasive
The first and most important assertion cyberpunk makes about our future (looking forward from the 80s) is that we will become dependent on technology in every aspect of our lives.

Information networks will become connected and regulate everything from finance to consumption to politics.

In parallel, technology will also invade the body, leading to physical enhancement or even the total separation of mental and physical selves, but also a growing alienation and loss of control over ourselves. As your mind and body become increasingly digitized, you will suffer the same vulnerabilities as all digital devices—subject to manipulation and hacking.

Tenet 2: Privatization of everything and societal collapse
Cyberpunk’s corollary to the increasing colonization of every aspect of society by technology is that such technology will make it easier and easier for wealth and power to be accumulated in private hands, while public institutions grow weaker and weaker until they are effectively useless.

The lawless vacuum their collapse creates will be filled with private armies, mercenaries and assassins, drug dealers, sex workers, gangs, especially the yakuza, cyborgs and killer robots.

Tenet 3: It’s up to the lone-wolf antisocial rebel hero to save the day
The governments, the police, the corporations, and pretty much every institution you can name is either powerless or corrupt or more likely some neon-blended combination of the two. As a result, it’s up to individuals to fight back against oppression, exploitation and evil.

Okay, so that didn’t happen

At first glance, it seems easy to dismiss many of the predictions cyberpunk tried to make about the future of society.

Cyberspace, for example, has not become an immersive VR experience, but instead a Matryoshka collection of nesting screens growing paradoxically both smaller and more intrusive.

Governments have not collapsed, as electorates and oligarchs have increasingly turned to “strong men” clamping down harder and harder the more they sense the world is slipping from their grasp.

Japanese corporations, far from continuing to buy up larger and larger swathes of North America, have gone into retreat. Indeed, the 90s yellow-peril specter of Japanese domination (see Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun” and Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honor”, ’92 and ’94 respectively) now seems positively quaint.

Yet if you stop for a moment and look past the surface aesthetics and focus instead on what cyberpunk is actually saying, it’s clear many of these issues are very much still with us today.

Has technology invaded our lives? Are we dependent on it?

Ooh you betcha. Uploaded consciousness or total body prosthesis is still the realm of SF, but come on.

We all carry little rectangles of plastic and wiring that connect us 24/7 to a global information network of reaction gifs, porn, unhinged political tweets and inanely niche blogs. Social media is in the process of monetizing every aspect of our private lives. Facial recognition software and surveillance technology mean we are never truly alone. Your phone might be listening to everything you say. Your car is evaluating how well you drive, and telling your insurer. Your TV is talking to your fridge, and they think you’re a loser.

Technology has never been more omni-present in our lives, and despite appearances, I don’t think we’re any more comfortable with it than we were 30 years ago. We’ve just adopted a kind of learned helplessness, accepted that there’s nothing we can do to avoid it.

Have social institutions weakened? Are corporations becoming laws unto themselves?

I mean, come on. High-tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple or Microsoft are effectively ungovernable. Septuagenarian senators haven’t the faintest clue what these companies even do, much less how they might be regulated. Meanwhile health costs skyrocket, education fails to deliver either basic life skills or post-graduate employment, families are divided across Facebook battlezones, and ununionized workforces trapped in the gig economy Uber-drive in their spare time just to get by.

While corporations themselves have not accumulated power into the hands of faceless boards, that role has instead been played by the charismatic hero-CEO, the Jeff Bezos, Zuckerbergs and Musks of the world, the infamous 0.1% against whom even the wealth of the 1% pales into insignificance. Cyberpunk is worried about the way technology creates an inequality of information that in turn accelerates the inequality of wealth, and this is perhaps the defining characteristic of late-stage capitalism.

Lawlessness has absolutely been the result, as people slowly realize the way in which traditional power structures have been co-opted to operate to service the elite. Our cousins in the good ole US of Americuh are one month into nation-wide protests against the perceived failings of their police and judicial system. Just before that, gun-armed protesters were storming state capitals to demand a lifting of restrictions on economic activity. There is an increasing sense that systems don’t work, and it’s up to people to take matters into their own hands.

And I think that’s why we still have cyberpunk. The core unease, the sense that Joe, Jane and Gennefer average has lost control of the technology we use, and by extension of the societies we live in, has not gone away. It’s here, and it’s stronger than ever. And so is cyberpunk.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Diversity and D&D

Next in our ongoing series of pointlessly divisive and regressive essays on hot-button topics that literally nobody asked for and which I’ll probably have to delete in shame should they ever become public: racism in Dungeons & Dragons.

In a blog post titled “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons”, publisher Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has promised to address the way “some of the peoples in the game … have been characterized as monstrous and evil”. Orcs and drow, as well as the Romani-flavored Vistani, were specifically mentioned. The presentation of these races in new sourcebooks will be changed, and WotC has also promised to provide optional character generation rules to avoid racial stereotyping.

I think these are all moves in the right direction, though for the wrong reasons.

The reason I say that is I’m old enough to remember the D&D moral panic of the 80s, when it was claimed (mostly by hysterical Christians) that the presence of things like magic, devils and demons in the game was turning people into Satanists.

Well, I played D&D in the 80s, and given the existence of Jeffrey Dahmer, it is a statistical fact that I have killed and eaten fewer people than the average American. Evidently, playing D&D even in its regressive 1st and 2nd edition formats has done me no lasting harm, as it neither inspired me to worship Satan nor compelled me to dabble in any arts darker than eating too many Mars bars. I could, in short, tell that it was a game.

Given this history, I would suggest that WotC be very, very careful about what it is implying about the relationship between the game and external reality. Saying that there is a connection, that there are real-world consequences for the game mechanics, is something that can easily be used against D&D, or the entire hobby of tabletop RPGs in general. This isn’t speculation. This is what actually happened in the actual real world for an actual period of about 10 years in the United States of Actual America.

To repeat: claiming there is a connection between a rule, mechanic or setting and real-world behavior is something that can and HAS been used to vilify the entire hobby.

The core argument against the accusations was that people are capable of distinguishing between a roleplaying game and real life: The existence of X in an RPG does not lead to people attempting to do Y in real life.

The fact is, if you really want to treat D&D as an extension or reflection of reality, there is a loooooot of shit way, way, way more problematic than its treatment of orcs and the drow.

First of all, the drow are fucking cool and everyone thinks so. I have never met a D&D player who didn’t think they were awesome (indeed, in every gaming group I’ve ever encountered players have been anxious and eager to play one of the so-called ‘evil’ races so the whole supposed controversy doesn't reflect anything that happens at the game table). 

Literally THE one single most recognizable character in all of published D&D is Drizzt, a drow ranger created by author R. A. Salvatore, the hero of so many books even his Wikipedia page gives up and just calls it “a long series” and oh yeah who gets his own Wikipedia entry which is more than 99.9% of real, live human beings ever get. The drow have jet black skin and silver hair and pointed years and worship a spider goddess. The only people they might possibly be take as a stereotype of is goths, and goths are well beyond criticism.

The issue about orcs grows closer to reality, as there’s certainly a kind of apishness to the way they are described, which echoes some of the ways real-world ethnicities are stereotyped. I’d note in passing here that Tolkien orcs, from which D&D carbon-copied the idea, are in their manner of speech far, far, far more a caricature of the British working class than any racial group. 

But to say that the idea of orcs as an evil race is a problem is to be willfully, deliberately and misleadingly blind to the fact that the real, verifiable and undeniable existence of evil WHICH CONSCIOUSLY AND DELIBERATELY DEFINES ITSELF AS EVIL is a cornerstone of the genre.

Demons and devils and gods of death and suffering and pain are an objective, concrete, observable phenomenon in the D&D universe. Your player character, your avatar or persona in the game, can literally be someone who has literally forged a literal pact with a literal fiend, a literal being of literal evil. Think about what we are saying about our fellow human beings, never mind green-skinned, tusk-faced monsters. We are saying some human beings have deliberately chosen to be evil. Can you understand how problematic that would be, when applied to the real world? Do you understand that saying other people are the devil is the worldview of the sociopath, the zealot, the fanatic, the criminally insane?

The whole point of racism or demonizing one’s opponents in the real world is that it suggests your opponents are somehow in- or sub-human, to erase their humanity. In D&D though, such a view is entirely rational. Your enemies really are evil and worship the devil. Your enemies really aren’t human. So the whole scaffolding of why “racism is bad” collapses in the setting. It would take a hell of a lot more than rewriting a line or two to change this aspect of the game.

But let’s keep going. That’s the text of the game, what about the actual mechanics? Is there the RPG equivalent of ludonarrative dissonance? (Oooh I know a fancy word.) There sure as hell is. The game rewards you for killing monsters and stealing their stuff. Who are the monsters? Well, there’s animals just inhabiting their ecological niche which the players hunt essentially for sport, or there are the orcs and similar creatures, such as goblins, hobgoblins, gnolls or kobolds—the little rascals, Google image search “cute kobold” and stop when you get uncomfortable, it won’t take long and why do the female reptiles have breasts?—whose homes the players break into and whose extended families they slaughter. Seriously, the premise of my first-ever adventure, “Keep on the Borderlands” (1979—republished periodically since then, as recently as 2018 I think, so the concept is still alive and well) was that the players would journey to a series of caves and butcher everything they encountered.

Huge chunks of the game are dedicated to the righteous exercise of vigilante justice, perhaps the single most toxic mindset imaginable in any modern, civilized context. D&D even coined the term “murderhobo” to describe these transient, homeless people wandering around killing everything.

Which is why I say we should be careful if we suggest that the game design, descriptions and mechanics should reflect the real world for fear of real-world consequences. The entire concept of good and evil would have to go: painting people who oppose you as ‘evil’ is incredibly, unbelievably dangerous. Rewarding any kind of combat with experience points or treasure would have to go, otherwise we are encouraging murder.

Or we can accept that the game is not meant to be an accurate representation of real life. Rather, it is a mythic mode of storytelling in which evil is real, evil exists, and must be combatted.


That said I am 1000% in favor of the kind of changes WotC are proposing to make.

I am, above all else, a contrarian at (cold, shriveled) heart. Give me the chance to play an orc and I’ll make him a charismatic bard, a scholar and thoughtful sage, a gentle healer, literally anything but the stereotypical berserker. Skyrim tells you high elves are evil? Great, I’ll play a noble paladin who helps everyone in need. Deceitful changelings are a player race in the Palladium RPG? Okay, I’ll use that power only for good in order to expose and root out wrongdoers. Vampire: The Masquerade is all about a secret vampire society? Groovy. I’ll play a vampire who doesn’t believe in vampires. Give me a round hole in which to insert the round peg of a character, and I’ll hunt for the square opening.

Playing to the archetype is boring. My god that’s boring. Player characters are heroes, dammit, exceptional people who’ve transcended the bounds of the normal and become extraordinary.

I hated the class and level restrictions in D&D’s older editions. I understood they were meant to balance out the options and make every choice a viable playstyle and ensure no one build was objectively better than another, but it seemed a clumsy remedy for a self-inflicted injury. Nobody was demanding that elves be magic-resistant or dwarves be immune to poison or whatever, but having stuck those abilities in, the game designers then had to come up with reasons to make boring old humans more attractive. A simple way to cut that Gordian knot would have been to make the races purely cosmetic, a way to describe your character that had no impact on gameplay. That isn’t the route they went, and restrictions were the result.

I’m glad those have been done away with. Good riddance. The freedom to chose stat bonuses? Sure, why not. 

Rules should be about empowering player choice. We are talking about a game which takes place purely in the imagination. Imaginations do not need boundaries. Anything the game designers can do to maximize the freedom to craft exactly the character they want is to be supported, cheered, celebrated. It’s all about freeing the imagination, people.

Not trying to recreate the real world.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A Question of Style

Being a contrarian at heart (okay, being a miserable misanthrope at heart) after reading a book or watching a movie or TV show I sometimes ask myself, Why?

As in, after watching a couple of episodes of “Star Trek: Discovery”: Why? Why is this Star Trek? How does it being Star Trek add to the point or narrative they are trying to tell here?

After reading “The Name of the Wind”: Why? Why is this a fantasy? What do the fantasy elements add to this story that makes it essential that it be a fantasy?

Why is “Boneshaker” steampunk? Why is “Ancillary Justice” space opera? Why does “This is How You Lose the Time War” involve time travel? Why doesn’t Cormac McCarthy use quotation marks in “No Country for Old Men”? Why does the narrator of “Waiting for the Barbarians” remain nameless? How do these elements contribute to the story the writers are trying to tell?

This kind of came into focus recently when I read two essays, one moderately recent (published in 2007, and by calling that ‘fairly recent’ I have, ironically, dated myself) and one moderately old (1972).

The first is a review of “The Name of the Wind” and “The Children of Hurin” published in Strange Horizons and written by British SF author Adam Roberts. The second is “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” by fantasy legend Ursula K. Le Guin.

Both essays talk about style. Specifically, they decry the use of modern colloquial American English in works of fantasy. In a medieval-setting fantasy, they conclude, the characters should speak and act like medieval people, otherwise the novel is only superficially a fantasy and is instead just a kind of cheap, junk entertainment.

Le Guin likens these kinds of books to people who go to national parks “all trailers and transistors,” with all the comforts of home packed in their campers. “They go from park to park but never actually go anywhere.”

In other words, fantasies written in the modern style are failures because (A) style is the one essential ingredient that defines a genre and (B) a fantasy without a fantastical style isn’t really a fantasy at all, just a modern-day actioner with some dragons thrown in.

I started out with a lot of sympathy for the points they were trying to make. I’ve said elsewhere, words matter to me. The way they sound on the page matters to me. Good prose matters. Style matters. It’s why I continue to put up with William Gibson despite his absolute iWatch-interface idiot plots: he does style the way I do caffeine withdrawal, constantly and inventively.

I’d also agree that a lot of fantasy published from 1972 to 2007, or thereafter, has lacked much of a raison d’etre other than the author kind of likes fantasy, maybe, and because the genre is popular and people want to make money. Neither are especially malicious reasons, admittedly, but then again, they aren’t especially engaging or energizing ones either.

I rather enjoy Gay Gavriel Kay’s work, but the fantastical elements don’t really add anything to his stories other than allow him to avoid being classified as historical fiction. Others, I’ve enjoyed less. Steven Erikson’s “Gardens of the Moon” was a turgid wallow, Scott Bakker’s books are just repulsive, I gave up on the “Wheel of Time” series after about the third go-nowhere doorstopper. (Speaking of which, Brandon Sanderson’s rabid online fanbase has convinced me never to read his books—people online are usually wrong, including me, so seeing them all agree about something is the kiss of death)

In that context, I would say that “The Name of the Wind” is not the worst, but far from the best. Oh dear, painfully derivative, unimaginative, boringly-written time-filler. However, I would not agree that having the characters speak in medieval English is the key to cracking this case wide open and having everything come out all right in the end.

And this is where I would part ways with our two esteemed and published essay authors. Having identified one symptom, they rush to prescribe medication to treat this one symptom, rather than the underlying disease: Thoughtless writing.

There are many potential reasons to write a fantasy novel. One of my long-time favorites (though I find he’s a bit stuck in a rut these days) is Joe Abercrombie, whose style is instantly identifiable, and quite obviously a reaction to many of the tropes that have become established in quote-unquote high fantasy. His kindly wizard mentor is a manipulative bastard, his dashing heroes are brain-dead or vicious thugs, his inquisitorial torturer is kind of a nice guy, and the barbarian berserker perhaps the only one of them with any soul.

His work is therefore in conversation with previous works of fantasy, not the medieval world in which his books are set. Writing in an authentic medieval style would therefore obscure his point, not clarify it. It would add nothing to the narratives he is trying to present.

Terry Pratchett, to cherry-pick another good example, writes fantasy for satirical purposes. His books about the meaning of holidays and fairy tales (Hogfather), police work and tolerance (Night Watch), movie-making, the postal service, or the rules of inheritance in Dwarven kingdoms are all designed to poke fun at our own world. Again, putting a lot of iambic pentameter or inverted sentence structure into the mix would do nothing but muddy the waters.

Lack of style is a problem, yes, but medieval English is not the only possible register for a fantasy book. The only thing I ask is that the elements of the book have a point. If the story is a fantasy, why? If time-travel SF, why? If the characters speak like Shakespeare, or like Chaucer, or like Jane Austen, or like robots, then why? How does it contribute to the story?

Think it through.

Just so I’m not criticizing stuff I don’t like, let me use one property very near and dear to my crusty old heart as an example: good old BattleTech. Here’s an example that quite obviously didn’t think things through. The setting borrows heavily from “Dune” and “The Mote in God’s Eye” and “Hammer’s Slammers” with noble Houses locked in struggle for domination over the galaxy. Never considering what that says about humanity, or about the rule of nobility. What use are kings and princes and dukes if the galaxy is plunged into a state of constant bloody warfare? Why has humanity turned to autocratic rule across the galaxy, given the utter failure of these rulers to deliver peace and prosperity?

I don’t like a lot of superhero comics or movies for precisely the same reason. A world in which humanity is utterly dependent on super-powered vigilante heroes to right its wrongs is one that is profoundly fucked up and depressing. Better hope Superman isn’t busy or having a bad day, buddy, otherwise you’re FUCKED. Nothing you can do about it except cry. 

(Compare to Tolkien, where the final reveal is that the long-awaited Return of the King wielding a sword out of legend was a sideshow, a decoy, and the world is saved by a potato-obsessed gardener).

Novels or shows or movies can be written in many styles or many purposes. All that I ask is that they be able to answer the question: 


Monday, June 15, 2020

Literary Theory and Criticism, What's It Good For?

Kipling was an apologist for colonialism. Tolkien has a race and gender representation problem. Lovecraft, hoo boy, let’s not even get started on Lovecraft.

In America’s current cultural moment, race and gender are big topics again, and at least online this has extended into a reevaluation of famous historical authors like the ones above, often finding them falling short of today’s standards. This has generated a debate between those who say it’s unfair to judge attitudes in the past by modern criteria, others who say that the reader’s or viewer’s emotional response to entertainment is an essential part of any criticism, and is thus fair game.

Often this seems to be framed as a bipolar disagreement between two extremes—either creative works must be appreciated on their own merits, or they must be considered in the context of the people and culture that produced them.

There’s a strong normative bias in all these arguments—the assumption that we here in the 21st century in Westernized nations are wiser, more thoughtful, less prejudiced and more moral than people were in the past. In other words, the assumption that the values of 2020 are normal, those of other periods abnormal and therefore bad. I have my doubts. Perhaps we are less prejudiced about some things, yet harbor blind spots in others. The trope of violent overthrow of regimes one disagrees with, for example, plays much, much different in collectivist, consensus-based cultures.

(Case in point: While I thoroughly enjoyed the prose in “This Is How You Lose the Time War” I also found the love story between two avowedly amoral, conscienceless killers slightly repulsive).

Let’s throw it open wider though. I’d argue that there’s nothing objectively better or worse than any critical approach, or even having no critical approach at all.

Start from first principles. Literary theory and criticism: What is it for? What is its purpose?

If the aim is purely to describe, analyze, categorize and classify literature or stories, then we wouldn’t even be having this debate. There’s no argument that Kipling wrote in Victorian India, Lovecraft in turn-of-the-century America or Tolkien in post-war England. The presence or absence of elements that are racist, misogynistic or homophobic would be one more thing to add to the list.

Of course, literary criticism isn’t just descriptive. It aims to differentiate between good and bad art, things that are worthwhile and things that aren’t. That’s where we run into trouble, because we have no clear, common, universally-accepted foundation on which to judge the quality of literature.

I know that saying that everyone’s opinion is equally valid sounds like a surrender, and the rebuttal is: “Opinion without insight is worthless.” That makes assumptions about what the opinion is for, though. At times, I’m interested just to hear someone’s instinctive, visceral response. At others, I want an analysis of the meaning or imagery employed.

How ‘should’ we judge literature, art and entertainment? On what basis do we call something ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Are some ways of analyzing creative output more ‘correct’ or ‘worthwhile’ than others? Given that any individual’s response to entertainment will be intensely subjective, are objective standards even possible?

Let’s consider some of the possible perspectives.

Commercial success feels like a shallow one, though you’ll be called elitist if you say a popular thing isn’t very good (hello, Twilight). Book sales and box office receipts at least have the advantage of being based on objectively verifiable reality, but it feels disingenuous to suggest, say, an Avengers movie is of higher quality than “The Godfather” or the Harry Potter books are better-written than “The Left Hand of Darkness” just because the former moved more units.

You can talk about the technique or craft, such as believable and engaging characters, intriguing plots, interesting or imaginative settings and description, the unity of theme and narrative, and so on. The problem with this is, of course, that on purpose and by design, some of these elements may be truncated or missing. “Waiting for Godot” is essentially plotless, but isn’t that the point? Every anti-war movie from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Das Boot” to “Dunkirk” and “1917” is an end-to-end slog of misery and futility, but you’d be daft for criticizing them for not being cheerier.

One can look at the response the work creates, and try to evaluate if it has achieved its objective. You look at the affect created in the readers or consumers, the work’s ability to generate the desired emotional or intellectual response. Does it make us laugh, cheer, cry or think at the desired times and in the desired ways? There’s an element of mind-reading going on there, in two ways. First, you have to assume the way that you personally reacted to something is the way others will perceive it, and second, you have you guess whether that reaction is the intended one or not.

What even is the ‘desired’ impact? Here we get into questions of authorial intent. It is possible to write a technically accomplished book which is designed to make the reader uncomfortable. “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a well-written book, but you are not meant to sympathize too much with any of the central characters, unless it is to see the same flaws in yourself. One can depict racism or misogyny precisely because one wants to criticize or satirize these attitudes, but unless the author baldly states ‘this is a satire’ (which ruins the point of satire) you’re left guessing as to their real intent.

Extend this line of inquiry far enough and you have to evaluate the author themselves as a person. Orson Scott Card is famous for many things, including both “Ender’s Game” and his opposition to same-sex marriage. J.K. Rowling will be forever remembered for Harry Potter and opposing trans rights. Personally, I am inclined to believe that all people, whether authors or directors or producers or poets, are not all one thing or another, have both admirable qualities and others less so. I do not expect any of them to be paragons of virtue, though of course I am disappointed at times by their words or behavior. But now we’re not even pretending to evaluate the narrative—arguments become purely about the morality of financially supporting this person, rather than the quality of their work.

In short, you won’t find any universal agreement about ANY of the standards we should use to evaluate literature, or even whether we should evaluate it by any standard other than popularity. You can knock holes in any basis for literary criticism.

And the truth is, I think people are largely just emotionally responding to what they know, see or hear about a piece of literature, movie or show, without analyzing it too much. I strongly suspect that comes later. I don’t think anyone sits down to read a book or watch a show with a handy little checklist of points to critique at their elbow. You either like Tolkien or you don’t, the excuses come later. If you like Kipling, you’ll overlook the civilizing-the-natives stuff, if not, not. It’s possible to enjoy Cthulhu without becoming a racist, it’s equally possible not to enjoy Cthulhu precisely because the author was. You aren’t going to convince Lovecraft either way, he’s a hundred years in the grave.

Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores, Hugo and Nebula Awards, Goodreads reviews, they’re all valid reactions in their own ways, and I think you’re fine so long as you’re aware of where they are coming from. Best novels chosen by members of SFWA will be novels that appeal to American science fiction writers, Academy Award winners will be movies that appeal to Academy members, Metacritic scores will reflect the opinions of the kinds of people who post their opinions on Metacritic. One tells you the fans’ gut reaction, one tells you what insiders think, neither is automatically the right or proper or more insightful opinion.

So the only thing I’m really against is the implication that there are right and wrong ways to critique entertainment. Putting literature in historical context is one, insisting it stand alone is another, both have their merits and you won’t convince anyone either way, as they’ve already made up their minds.

People will like what they like, for the reasons they like it.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Waiting for the Librarians

Genres are strange things, round holes into which publishers and readers frantically ram square pegs, imaginary boxes with invisible walls, an identity bestowed upon writers from on high with little regard to what they are actually writing.

The line between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ (speculative, SF&F) fiction in particular seems arbitrary to me: Entirely subjective depending on the author, with no criteria to differentiate them other than nebulous assertions of seriousness or supposed quality.

After I caught a promo for an upcoming movie based on Pulitzer-prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” I read the book—which is well-written but not an entirely comfortable read—it occurred to me to wonder what is really so different between this work of ‘literature’ and other works of ‘genre fiction’.

Here’s the story: A magistrate in a border town ruled by an unnamed Empire receives a visit from Colonel Joll of the Empire’s internal security forces. The Colonel appears convinced the barbarians beyond the border are massing for an attack, and sets about capturing, interrogating and torturing a number of barbarians to find out their plans. This forces the magistrate to confront his own quiet compliance and collusion with the repressive, brutal regime he represents. It does not end happily.

It takes place in a realistic world, but clearly not our world. The barbarians of the title are described in vaguely Mongol or Afghan terms, the Empire has a British flavor though it could as easily be French, Belgian, Spanish, or even the American frontier. That secondary-world status would seem to make this genre fiction, but the vaulting importance of the theme gets it carried aloft into the circles of literature.

As a society we have collectively decided that the surface elements, the setting, the characters, the situations they find themselves in, are not enough to distinguish between literary and genre fiction. It depends rather upon the perceived universality or applicability of the theme, or crystal-ball readings of authorial intent. Coetzee’s book is one example, but there are many others.

I think we’d all agree dystopian fiction is a branch of speculative (genre) fiction. Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” features an imaginary America under religious extremist rule facing an epidemic of infertility. No? Try Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” A purely imaginary post-apocalyptic world. One more: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” Here we’ve got cloning.

Of course, you’ll never find any of them in the science fiction section of the bookstore (assuming anyone is still Neanderthal enough to go to a physical bookstore to purchase something so crude as an actual book). Atwood, McCarthy and Ishiguro are all literature authors, you see.

On the flip side, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” clearly deals with the same kinds of questions that literary fiction is supposed to concern itself, such as the relationship between charismatic leaders and their followers or the limits and potential of human consciousness. But no. Genre fiction. In between all the singing and the refusal to allow passing, “Lord of the Rings” has some fairly serious things to say about faith, the nature of heroism and the importance of nature. Doesn’t matter. Fantasy. Iain Banks’ “The Bridge,” which takes place almost entirely in the mind of a man in a coma, gets classified as literature, while “Hydrogen Sonata,” which asks how we can find meaning in a purely mechanistic universe, is science fiction.

So you see, I don’t entirely buy the argument that literary fiction is defined by its themes. More often than not, it appears defined purely by the author’s reputation than anything in the actual texts themselves.

Ishiguro came to fame with “Remains of the Day,” which pegged him as literary rather than genre fiction, and there he has remained ever since, regardless of whether he’s writing about cloning or dragon-seeking Anglo-Saxons (“The Buried Giant”). Atwood and McCarthy were also so anointed, and so they have remained. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” is clearly SF and liberally pisses all over literary conventions by having three climaxes, all in the first chapter, but the name on the cover ensures it gets placed elsewhere. Despite the fantastical elements of his books nobody quite knows how to classify Haruki Murakami, so, er, literature it is!

In short, I can’t help but see these as ultimately random, subjective choices.

And yet. Go on to the submissions page of any literary agent or fiction magazine, and you’ll find a list of do’s and don’ts, things they do or do not want to see. Certain kinds of prose, this kind of setting, such-and-such characters. They would like all square narrative pegs to fit the rounded holes of their publication.

I understand the need for publishers and publications to differentiate themselves and establish a clear identity, I just don’t think the rigid application of a checklist of surface-level criteria is the way to go about it.

Like the old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip that lampooned people who called comics ‘low art,’ yet Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of comic panels ‘high art,’ I think the distinction between literary and genre fiction is more fiction than fact, an invented excuse to be snobbish about things one was naturally inclined to like anyway. 

Heck, I think the attempt to define genres of fiction for any purpose other than description post-publication is a stupid, shallow and destructive waste of time. It closes mental doors before one even begins to read, potentially blocking hundreds, thousands of great stories from ever seeing the light of day because they don’t quite fit somebody’s preconception of what the genre is supposed to be like.

So if any of the two or three people who ever read this blog reached the end of this post, I implore you not to be constrained by made-up genres or distinctions between literature and speculative fiction. The distinctions are mostly made up. There’s plenty of great speculative fiction on the literature shelves, lots of great literature in the SF&F section.