Genre fiction, Mercantilism, Geology

This series of thoughts arose as I started composing a review for Even Though I Knew The End, a book by C.L. Polk coming out this November. I’m really enjoying it so far, I might talk about it more here. The review will be on GeeklyInc.

These thoughts have almost nothing to do with that book.

The genre fiction conversations I grew up hearing, and the ones I’ve usually seen bandied about in pop culture, approach genre fiction the way mercantilists approach markets. By this logic, genre fiction is a zero-sum game of capitalistic bloodsport. Any pieces of art inside the same niche must beat each other to pulp as they fight for limited market share and cultural value, to the exclusion of any other piece of art. This is a perversely Highlander-ish perspective in a world built from layers upon historical layers of art, influence, and nuance.

From an artistic perspective, from the perspective of someone who loves genre fiction, this zero-sum game is a lie. Every new piece of genre fiction isn’t slipping in others’ blood as it bludgeons the opposition in a mercantilist cage match. Instead, it’s adding another layer to the geological strata of our culture and our art.

Art builds on art builds on art, in a continuous dialectic. Genre fiction responds to the pressures and inspirations of culture and life, and it grows out of the art (and other influences) which feeds its artist. Genre fiction isn’t inherently locked in a murderous struggle with itself, because every new piece broadens our experience and our palette—and various pieces may coexist despite their dissonance.

Two (maybe obvious) caveats:

The artists, their ideological perspectives, and the ideologies espoused in their art may all be in conflict with each other. Some points of view aren’t hospitable to the existence of others. I’m just saying that their art isn’t inherently in conflict outside of its ideological disagreements.

And I’m not trying to belittle the marketing departments who struggle to win that aforementioned market share for their companies’ projects. They’re working within the constraints of their system, the constraints of our current publishing industry, and I’m not offering alternatives to that system here. Beyond that, as long as we’re in a capitalist system there is pressure to fight for the audience’s time and attention—artists need to be paid for their art, so they can support themselves. I’m simply saying that the art exists outside the market free-for-all as well.

Back to my geological metaphor for the dialectic…

I like the image of geological strata of culture because it gives me concrete imagery with which to talk about synchronic and diachronic perspectives. In this the synchronic is a snapshot in time across a broad area, a landscape painting or topographical map, while the diachronic is a deeper dive tracing one particular vein of (l)ore as it changes over time, an excavation of one location tracing its history back through time layer by layer. The synchronic speaks to a broad simultaneous state of the cultural experience, giving precedence to the most recent and the most impactful influences at the specified time. But the diachronic reveals how a genre emerges from its precursors, how it differentiates itself and grows, and how it diverges from and interweaves with other pieces of the creative cultural landscape.

I also like this image because it gives the lie to the idea of genre canon. There is no past piece of genre fiction which is mandatory reading, only pieces which give diachronic context for current art. It may be useful to know about the presence of those old stories, ossified to the point of cultural bedrock, but they should be read in context as the product of their own cultural landscape rather than as essential cultural truths.

With that in mind, I find it easier to listen carefully when someone says “you must read this.” Do they mean “I require that you read this before I consider you part of my group”? Or do they mean “this will give you important context for these other pieces of culture”? If it’s the first they’re probably being an asshole. If it’s the second, maybe they’re offering a route into the diachronic cultural depths.

And because of all this, I love asking people about what else they’re reading (or watching) that is similar to other books they’ve mentioned, and what else they’ve enjoyed in general. No one person is broadly read enough to give a full synchronic view, and so each individual snapshot gives me a better understanding of the genre landscape overall. Trying to make my own map from all the different pieces is like a game for me, and sometimes I’m fortunate enough to learn of stories taking their genres in totally new directions.

Speaking of which…

Even Though I Knew The End is so beautifully aligned with noir (so far, I’m not done reading it yet) that it doesn’t feel like it changes anything about its genre. Except… so much noir is almost comedically devoted to male protagonists and period-piece toxic masculinity, and this story—despite all its love of the trappings and conventions of noir—isn’t that. It feels reminiscent of Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw in that way. I love it. Something about how it approaches noir genre fiction from a queer woman’s perspective feels revolutionary, a little like how the first season of Jessica Jones felt years ago (though less gut-wrenching so far). It is a beautiful diachronic gift, so like and yet so unlike its own genre. I haven’t finished it yet, but I expect I’ll recommend it as soon as I do.

Stranger Things s4 and breathing room

I enjoyed Stranger Things season 4.

But the last episode felt rough for me. Maybe that’s because it was almost two and a half hours, or maybe that’s because it was interrupted more than once.

I paused the last episode a couple times due to normal life, including once right at the height of the climax when the show had already been drawing out the tension for as long as possible. Turns out that last pause was the hardest on me.

I’ll come back to that.

Stranger Things has previously been pretty good about modulating its narrative and dramatic tension. The show has woven pauses into the bigger action sequences, with each interlude giving the audience time to breathe and notice how tense they are, and giving characters time to express how previous consequences are still effecting them—it’s the moment for characters to reel from the last blow, collect themselves, and push themselves unsteadily to their feet. It’s also the moment when the audience can be reminded what’s at stake in the narrative, why the tension matters. There’s a basic rhythm to these moments. If you are paying attention you can usually guess where and when the pauses will happen, even without paying attention to the background music (though that does help).

A quick aside:

These breathers are an elementary fight-scene choreography technique. In a fight scene they’re vital to giving your performers a chance to rest, check in with each other between bouts of action, and sell the drama of the fight. Almost exactly the same is true of these pauses in any other high tension segment of narrative. While these pauses are less mandatory in written work (written characters aren’t facing physical limitations after all), written action sequences still benefit from them. First, that’s because pauses are believable, and they help build the audience’s sense of a written character as a relatable, exhaustible being. Second, each pause is a chance to reorient your reader to the larger scene, to pull back slightly from the rush of the moment and take stock of the situation (whether that’s an internal emotional experience or an external assessment). Third, pauses allow the audience to unwind a little bit—they don’t release narrative tension so much as let it settle into a more stable state while you ready yourself for the next bit, a resolution-in-miniature.

Many big exciting movies these days forget these pauses, or use them on what feels like the wrong rhythm. This is wild speculation, but… maybe that’s because so much is done with CGI now? Animated figures don’t need time to check where they are in the choreography, they don’t need to take a moment to breathe, they don’t feel how the last four big stunts (done over who knows how many takes) are wearing them down.

But those pauses aren’t actually for the actors. You could easily edit a film to remove all the downtime. I just think the film would be worse for it. That’s because the pauses are there for the narrative and the audience. Missing those breathers also gives the audience no time to breathe. There’s no moment to let recent consequences sink in, there’s no time to see the ways in which the characters are reeling, there’s no time to process the emotional weight of whatever just happened.

The only thing worse, to my mind, than having no downtime is having pauses where characters feel none of the consequences of what just happened to them. Telling stories is about spinning lies so consistently that they all ring true. Ignoring the last lie you told introduces discord and undermines the whole thing (which happened for me in the last episode, when *SPOILERS* Nancy, Robin, & Steve don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from their several scenes of almost-dying *END SPOILERS*).

So, back to my poorly timed pause.

The last episode of season four is a heck of a ride. It’s long, it’s full of action, there’s a ton of build up and payoff. And for better or worse they draw the tension out, and keep ramping everything up, for a long time.

That progressive heightening of tension might have been tolerable if I hadn’t paused right at the peak. But I did. I paused for a little over half an hour to eat dinner, and I did it before the episode gave me any resolution in its dramatic climax.

That pause—without a breather’s usual resolution-in-miniature—gave me time to reflect, when I think I was supposed to just finish the narrative ride. In that pause, I could recognize how much the show had wrung out of its escalating tension, how it had pushed past its previous limits, and how it had pushed me to my limits. I just felt worn out, a side effect of how successfully the show had pulled me in and connected me to these characters and their story.

On further reflection, I think I noticed this so acutely because Stranger Things has previously done a good job of including breathers and not pushing its escalation too far. Or maybe I’m full of it and would have felt just as wrung out in previous seasons if I’d paused at just the wrong time. Either way, I really hope that season five takes a slightly more balanced approach.

It looks like they’re setting themselves up for a big finale, and if they try to maintain peak intensity for as long as they did with the last episode of season four I’ll be too worn out to enjoy it as much as it deserves. Furthermore, if they don’t build in those pauses they’ll fall into the same trap some MCU movies do: lots of big flashy scenes and moments of great import, without the variation in action and tension, or the foundation in narrative consequences, that lend meaning and emotional weight to those big scenes. I think they’ve set a big task for themselves; they’ve got four seasons of previous drama to (mostly) resolve, and bigger stakes than before.

My hope is that season five will take the time it needs, and the slow scenes it needs, to build its drama. I’m down for some big flashy stuff, yes, but it was the small-scale moments of emotional poignancy that grabbed me in the first few seasons: the emotional stakes, the fear and uncertainty, the mystery. That’s way more exciting to me than a big set piece of blockbuster spectacle. I don’t know how they can best deliver those things given what they’ve established so far, but I really hope they do.

After one season of Strange New Worlds

For all my love of Star Trek, I hadn’t thought of myself as a Trekkie per se. There were always other fans more passionate about the setting, the stories, the characters… all the minutiae that are so often obsessed over by a particular class of nerd. Yes, I am a nerd, but I wasn’t hooked on those details in the same way.

It didn’t help that I grew up implicitly believing you could be either a Star Wars super-fan or a Star Trek super-fan, but not both. Ridiculous I know, and confusing for a kid who (re)watched both regularly. I still don’t believe that I’m tied to one fandom over the other. But there’s something special about Star Trek’s focus on seeking to do the right thing that I find uplifting. Watching the first season of Strange New Worlds has reminded me of that, and of how big a part that plays in my love for Star Trek. 

There’s a lot of science fiction that does an excellent job of making dramatic and exciting stories. People struggle against some kind of oppression, or fight villains, or try to make a place for themselves in an uncaring world. Right and wrong are often painted across the story in all-caps, and there’s little question of who or what is good or bad. It’s simplistic. In some ways, that simplicity is soothing; we don’t have to think anything through, we know who needs punching (it’s the nazis).

Yet other science fiction drags us all down into the muck. Everyone is bad, and at best you can be the least bad. And as much as I enjoy those stories at times, they are depressing. They don’t offer any route forward, just a series of grim dead ends. No wins for humanity or people in general, just losses and maybe a draw.

Star Trek, for all that it falls victim to the foibles of its various writers, doesn’t do that. Instead, it has a clear set of ideals and a broad faith that people will rise to the occasion for the sake of others when things are at their worst. Star Trek’s heroes are people who struggle to make moral and ethical decisions in difficult situations, and act to help others. They have ideals, and a model for good and ethical behavior, and they aren’t afraid to question that model and acknowledge when and where it falls short.

Something I hadn’t known while growing up on The Next Generation, but which makes a lot of sense in retrospect: Eugene Roddenberry, the man who first conceived of Star Trek, had first-hand experience with average people acting heroically in terrible circumstances. He survived multiple airplane crashes, during and after World War 2, and served as a crash investigator for a time. In his third crash, while deadheading a Pan-Am flight from Karachi to Istanbul, he repeatedly re-entered the burning wreckage to rescue survivors despite having just broken two ribs during the crash. Regardless of any of his personal failings, that sort of heroism fits with the spirit of the show he created.

And that sort of heroism feels better to me than the heroism of blowing up the Death Star. It feels broader and deeper, even if it may not be as big or flashy. That heroism is within the reach of the average person, not limited to the force-sensitives or the fighter pilots. That’s what comes through for me in so many of Star Trek’s stories.

But for all this talk of heroism and ethics, I’m neglecting the delightfully weird and wacky places that Star Trek goes at the same time. Strange New Worlds has shenanigans. It wanders off in odd directions, and plays with the setting in ways that feel both irreverent and extremely true to the absurd lineage that preceded it. For better or worse, the pressure to create episodes for syndicated TV shows has pushed Star Trek into some bizarre and hilarious places over the years. Rather than looking at the weirdness as something imperfect, something to be surgically removed in this era of TV, Strange New Worlds is willing to purposefully embrace it.

This show is willing to be serious, yes. But it’s also able to laugh at itself. Without being comedy-focused in the same way as The Lower Decks (another excellent show), Strange New Worlds repurposes the weirdness to let off steam while investigating characters’ personal storylines. The combination of deeply personal and emotional story with moments of absurdity feels just right, a moment of lightness that offers poignant relief from the gravitas of Star Fleet.

So yes. Having now finished the first season of Strange New Worlds, I have to say that it lived up to my expectations and then some. Even with a few frustrating spots, it reminded me of what I love about Star Trek. It proved that the good and hopeful feelings that I remembered from watching Star Trek as a child, along with the occasional bizarre comedy, can still be found in Star Trek today. I wrote weeks ago that I was excited for more, and I’m glad to say that—after having watched the whole first season—I still am.

Removing old stories, discovering old habits

I have finally taken down an old post, a story that I am now submitting elsewhere in a far more polished and developed fashion. What I originally posted here as rough draft flash fiction under 2k words is now a story over 5k words long that has been through multiple rounds of edits and rewrites.

I’m not sure to what degree my old stories here are impossible to sell elsewhere. It probably varies by how strictly other publishers interpret the “first publishing rights” required of nearly all publications. But perhaps via extensive additions and rewrites, and pulling the original rough draft down, I can make some of my flash fic more salable.

This process is a bit dispiriting, in some ways. I found posting flash fic here quite satisfying, and I wrote a lot of it. The whole experience gave me good practice sharing things with the rest of the world (a frightening prospect, usually), and the structure and rhythm of it meant that I managed pretty regular output. Knowing that some people would enjoy seeing the story, even when it was only a few folks, was a nice incentive.

My hope is that I can instead (finally) reach the same feeling of regularity in submitting finished stories to paying outlets. But I’ve been hoping that for years, and it’s been quite difficult for me to achieve. My perfectionism doesn’t help, nor does the frequent rejection, nor does the difficulty of sharing the piece with excited friends beyond whoever helps me with critique and revisions. At least when I post on the blog I can send people an simple link.

And with all those issues, there’s also the simple fact that I can’t submit (or can’t bring myself to submit) the same one-and-a-half-drafts quality work to publishers that I would regularly post here. Even if I could bring myself to do that, I suspect it would scupper my chances of being published. This means that—where I had previously beaten out my perfectionism by allowing myself to be wrong on the internet—I now *do* turn more of my critical focus on my work before sharing it with the rest of the world. That critical focus is a huge stumbling block when it comes to producing anything.

In some ways, I taught myself to produce work consistently by convincing myself that the final quality of the piece didn’t actually matter. Ceasing to post rough passes of material here makes that belief feel more and more like the lie that it is. The final quality does matter, when I change the context in which it’s being submitted. All of that means I have to relearn how to make myself produce regularly. Funny, I hadn’t recognized the extent to which that’s true until now.