Friday, November 11, 2011

Running out of stories, or just looking for a way around?

The other day, I posted on a discussion board dedicated mostly to discussing Queen Elizabeth & her reign, that I'd seen a copy of "The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer" on the shelf at a bookstore. I confess that I was snarky about it.

As someone who posted after me pointed out, this is one of an emerging genre of books that posit famous historical personages as secret warriors in the fight against the undead. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer is a famous one. There are others including Queen Victoria and even Sarah Palin, though I hope the latter is satire of some sort.

For what it's worth, I have nothing against these authors or any other who turns their hand to the literary mash-up genre. Kudos to all of you for pursuing your idea and getting it published and read in a tough market. This genre is emerging as adjacent to if not part of the literary mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies among others.

My problem isn't with the individual books, but that they are viewed by the world at large as science fiction or at best fantasy. And we should all be aware that to those outside the fan base for those things, there isn't a difference.

But the question this really begs is have we expended all of our ideas to the extent that the only way forward is endless remixing and rehashing of what we've already done?

I have a folder full of ideas that argues otherwise.  But if every author has one of these folders (and they do) then why does it seem like it?

While I was thinking about this, I stumbled across a thought-provoking essay by astrophysicist and novelist David Brin on how to define Science Fiction and while I don't agree on every point, it clarified a lot of what I've been feeling about the state of science fiction.

The lack of originality is one part pessimism and one part laziness. Because if you believe there are no new stories to tell, or if you believe that telling an imaginative and uplifting story is trite, then why not be lazy?
"Let there be no mistake—this is the giant fault line down the middle of science fiction’s broadly varied and tolerantly diverse community of authors and readers. The notion that children might, possibly, sometimes,learn from the mistakes of their parents, avoid repeating them… then forge on to make new mistakes all their own, overcoming obstacles on their way to becoming better beings than ourselves."
David BrinWriting for the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies
On this point, I concur with Dr. Brin: we live in a time when optimism is treated as though it were a contagious disease. When the hope that (as Dr Brin says) our successors might learn from our mistakes and not repeat them seems anathema to us. Year after year, we are hammered with stories whose key element seems to be complete failure of human society to learn and improve.

And I get that too. I watch the events that are happening in the world. As a student of history, I see the cycles of human experience repeat. And it saddens me.

But it does not make me a pessimist.

Howard Carter is an homage to the greatest stories of Sci Fi's past, but it is more than that. Its story rests on the refutation that cycles are unbreakable. Its stance is pointedly and fearlessly anti-fatalist.

Because I am, at heart, an optimist. I'm a cynical one sometimes, but an optimist nonetheless.

There are dystopian stories that need to be told. And science fiction does and should have a role to play in warning us of the future consequences of current trends. But I feel deeply and personally that we took a wrong turn somewhere when we decided that science fiction had to stop positing positive futures. Not that dystopian stories should not be told, but by making it cliche or trite to posit any advancement and dwell solely on the inevitability of decline, we've shot ourselves in the collective foot as a literary movement and as a society.

Though much of it is dystopian, Steampunk is an expression of this, a point that I think Dr. Brin misses. That by re-imagining the past as more enlightened and inclusive than it really way, we've turned our optimism inside out and sent it back in time and into alternate universes. When we were told we're not allowed to imagine that mankind can be better, we started imagining how mankind could have been better.

I don't think these strange genre fluctuations and mash-ups mean we've run out of ideas or that we've reached the end of our creativity. I think it means we're running against a wall and I see it as a sign of frustration on the part of authors at the constraints imposed upon them. I see them as a way of saying, 'If we can't go forward, we'll go under, over, or around'.

But then... I am an optimist.


  1. Sometimes all I want to do (or have the time for) is click Like. All excellent points. Personally I'm guilty of not thinking much about what point my story may be making. As many writers are (I suspect) I'm not always confident that I'm being creative. I think that a lot (most?) of these Classic Author or Historical Personage fights Monsters stories are cynical attempts to cash in on a current craze, and the faster you can crank one out, the more likely you are not to miss this particular wave.

    It's funny, though. The mystery genre has been hosting this sort of thing for ages, casting Queen Elizabeth herself, Shakespeare, Dickens, even classic mystery writers as the sleuth in a series of whodunits. (Hence my earlier suggestion about Elizabeth Taylor.) The mystery still has to work to sell, so originality can't be completely compromised. I'm not sure about the history.

    Note: As much as I love mysteries, I find a lot of such mysteries on the low end of the grace-and-style meter, but probably no worse than average for the historical mystery genre. (I'm tediously fussy about grace and style.)

    So, are the zombie stories and the mysrteries in the came class and/or category? I'm not sure. I've got to get back to my moldy Assyrian ghost now.

  2. ("Likes" Maggie's comment)

    I would like to repeat: I would totally buy "Elizabeth Taylor, Vampire Hunter", but I take your point.

    I would say that they are in the same ball park, if not sitting in the same section.

    After I posted this, I kept thinking about it, and as I was thinking, I looked down at the shelf and saw my copy of The Beekeeper's Apprentice, which re-imagines Sherlock Holmes into the WWI era and gave him a young lady companion.

    What I think I glossed over in the Brin piece was him talking about science fiction moving from re-hashing the old navel-gazing and inward-looking stories to looking up and out and to a better world beyond our current crises. The best of those stories, of course, were written in the era of the Cold War, and many are thinly-veiled reflections of the red scare, et al. And many feel that the incessant zombie infestation is the pressure release valve for our nascent fears of rampant and unstoppable disease.

  3. FWIW, I think the original mashups belong to Abbot & Costello, met Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, "The Killer" (aka Boris Karloff), Captain Kidd, and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. There may be more, but you get the gist.

    And even though these movies were successful for their time, the duo didn't do these movies at the top of their creative form any more than the Marx Brothers were when they made A Night in Casablanca. (Or Bugs Bunny was when he made a very similar Casablanca remake)

  4. I think the reason science fiction is so fatalistic its that it allows for more conflict. It's harder to write a compelling science fiction story set in a future where everything is great than one where characters are struggling to survive. That's the problem "Star Trek: the next generation" had, where Roddenberry ordered the writers not to have characters fighting each other, and Earth was paradise.

    But I think a lot of fantasy is dystopian as well, but all the woodsy outdoors and magical animals put a nice face on it. How many fantasy novels are set in kingdoms being oppressed by an evil wizard or warlord? Set "Lord of the Rings" on a spaceship, and it's pretty dark.

    1. That's certainly true. I've always decried Roddenberry's too-tight grip on utopia, but there were still stories to tell and they got around it by creating human-seeming aliens and simulacra to fight with (BORG anyone?) What really cuts the heart out of Next Gen and most space opera (in my opinion anyway) was/is the heavy reliance on the deus ex machina of their technology. We're doomed! (Unless Chief O'Brien can recalibrate the deflector dish in time...)

      It's a trap that many fall into. But I think it's possible to do both. A positive future outlook can coexist with a realistic worldview (even if the world is not Earth) that incorporates man's inhumanity to man. Lois McMaster Bujold is a prime example; her Vokosigan books manage to take a positive outlook of our future societal arc and allow for a wide array of permutations -- may of them dystopian -- across many worlds. Plenty of room for conflict.

      Lord of the Rings is pretty dark already despite its fairy tale setting. Cram it into a space station, or set it among the stars and I'm not sure it would get much darker. As a veteran of the Great War, Tolkien had no illusions about the terrors and long-term implications of war. I think his treatment of Frodo's post-traumatic stress disorder was particularly deft. Return of the King is often lambasted for having too many endings. I agree, but I generally view "Scouring of the Shire" as a fourth book, albeit a novella. The Hobbits returning home to find their idyllic corner of the world irrevocably scarred by Saruman's machinations and Frodo's companions leading their peaceful folk in an uprising was necessary to close out their stories.

      Tolkien knew all too well what it was to come home a changed man, having seen things that shock the conscience, and to find a world that had continued on without him... but I digress.


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