Thursday, October 12, 2006

Medieval Fallout III and Judging Books by Their Covers IV

First, kudos to John Scalzi for allowing me to rope him into the discussion. After bringing his audience up to speed, Scalzi write:

"...much of the debate between Ms. Rusch and Mr. McDonald is irrelevant, because it starts from an erroneous premise. That erroneous premise is that the Star Wars films are entertainment. Star Wars is not entertainment. Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot."

He then proceeds into one of the funniest bits of Lucas-bashing I've heard in a while, with some very insightful points made along the way, including this gem:

"What's interesting about mythology is that it's the residue of a teleological system that's dead; it's what you get after everyone who believed in something has croaked and nothing is left but stories. Building a mythology is necrophilic storytelling; one that implicitly kills off an entire culture and plays with its corpse (or corpus, as the case may be). It's one better than being a God, really. Gods have to deal with the universes they create; mythmakers merely have to say what happened. When Lucas started Star Wars with the words 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...' he was implicitly serving notice to the audience that they weren't participants, they were at best witnesses to events that had already happened, through participants who were long dead.

Why does this matter? It matters because Lucas' intent was to build an overarching mythological structure, not necessarily to make a bunch of movies. If you listen to Lucas blather on in his laconic fashion on the Star Wars DVD commentaries, you'll hear him say about how he wanted everything to make sense in the long view -- that all his films served the mythology. This is fine, but it reinforces the point that the films themselves -- not to mention the scripts and the acting -- are secondary to Lucas' true goal of myth building. Myths can be entertaining -- indeed, they survive because they can entertain, even if they don't brook participation. These films could work as entertainment. But fundamentally they don't, because Lucas doesn't seem to care if the films work as entertainment, as long as they sufficiently conform to his created mythology.

This is especially evident in the prequel trilogy, which is designed for the specific purpose of consecrating the mythology of the Skywalker family; in essence, putting flesh on the bones of the myth, so that the flesh could then turn to dust and the bones could be chopped up for reliquaries. Because they're not designed as entertainment, it's not surprising they're not really all that entertaining; strip out the yeoman work of Industrial Light and Magic and what you have left is a grim Calvinistic stomp toward the creation of Darth Vader. Lucas was so intent to get there that he didn't bother to slow down to write a decent script or to give his cast (riddled though it was with acclaimed actors) an opportunity to do more than solemnly intone its lines. Lucas simply couldn't be bothered to do more; entertainment gave way to scriptual sufficiency."

Amen. Like John, I felt palpable relief when the whole thing was over, because I was excited that the amazing technologies that Lucas had pioneered, the costs of which are dropping all the time, would be available to a whole new generation of hopefully better and more talented filmmakers and writers who could rush in to fill the now vacant niche now that Star Wars is over. So I was really upset to hear about plans for a Star Wars television series, though, of course, if Lucas will stay out of it, and allow younger filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon to run the show, perhaps we will finally get a Star Wars equal to its special effects.

And speaking of, Joel Shepherd comments that:

"the greatest potential of SF, and what it can do that few other genres can, is to transform greatly significant concepts that could under other circumstances be quite boring, and make them exciting, sexy and action packed. And that the best SF has action that's more dramatic, and more gripping in a purely entertaining fashion, because it's actually about something that matters. Otherwise, you have what Hollywood usually turns out -- tremendous action, awesome special effects, within which characters that no one cares about go through a series of action sequences the consequences of which are utterly unimportant both technically and emotionally... so why should anyone care if they survive or not? By avoiding 'cleverness' in plot, they kill drama in the action, thus achieving neither, and a bomb of a movie."

Of course, Scalzi points out that sometimes the audience can't distinguish the difference, citing how the Yoda light saber duel is itself always cited as proof that the movie didn't suck, how two hours of lame storytelling can be justified in the mind's of so many fans because of a few seconds of cool.

Which has me thinking about comments Terry Gilliam made ten years ago about how you have to train your audience, and that Hollywood is repsonsible for dumbing audiences down over decades to the point where smart filmmaking is impossible. I agreed with him at the time, but think the trend has turned, largely due to the democratization of special effects and the importance of secondary markets (DVD boxed sets, etc...) necessitating more complex narratives that will lend stories longer shelf life, more rewards on frequent viewing, etc...

But speaking of training the audience, thanks to my friend Tomas for cluing me in to this article on Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show. "Wizard Oil" documents Carol Pinchefsky's "informal study in introducing non-genre readers to science fiction and fantasy." Determining that the best way to introduce someone to SF&F was through personal recommendation, Carol asked four volunteer genre virgins about their own reading habits and tastes, then provided each of them with a short story to read, followed by a short questionaire. The results are fascinating to read about. Especially this comment from "Wendy K," who represents, I think, a type of reader I know well:

I understand the appeal of reading about another world, where the characters are upon a completely different plane. It's just not real life. You're escaping when you read those kind of stories. I understand the appeal, and it's interesting enough to me, but I wouldn't want to drown myself in the genre. I'm really interested in life on Earth."

Meanwhile, Carol reports a better than 25% success rate with growing new potential readers, making me wonder if everyone in SF shouldn't try this experiment themselves. I routinely give books to new readers, but I think I may start blogging the results in future.

And speaking of new readers and how to grow them, in response to an anonymous post suggesting I/Pyr shouldn't be afraid to scare away readers over 50 in order to grow a new audience, "Robert" posts:

Oh, give me a break! I am 52 and am not 'scared away' by more complex SF -- it's what's kept me reading all these years, NOT nostalgic tie-ins. Seems to me that Star Wars books are being marketed to a younger audience, as are most "entertaining" Sci-fi movies."

Thanks, Robert. (And I'm glad you like our books!) Perhaps some truth here re: younger audiences, as another anonymous responded:

"As an early 30's guy who ate up SF/F through high school and college and now rarely touches at least SF, I can only explain my reasons:

1.)I get more than enough politics in the air I breathe, and without inviting it. The last thing I want is to get knee-deep in a novel whose premises or presuppositions bug me. I get all the politics I need from CNN/NPR. Am I the only one who is utterly weary of politics? Voter turnout says no.

2.)As someone who owns original F/SF art, the heavy reliance on digital covers with composited photos of models is always a turnoff. I can't bring myself to buy anything with a digital cover that doesn't at least fool me into thinking it isn't digital (Lockwood). This also tips my interest towards fantasy. There's a reason guys like Whelan, Donato, and Parkinson (RIP) have been so popular over the years.

3.)I'm what someone might call a fairly normal guy. I tried the literary con scene but didn't fit in with the in-jokes, the constant obscure quoting and all that. So, the scene put me off. I'm more comfortable at a paper gaming convention where the media is still SF/F but the people are more everyday. Perhaps something in the literature caused the hardcore fanbase to be so...what they are.

4.)Like most my age, I spend more free time playing video games than reading SF/F these days. Most of what is appealing about SF/F is the visual aspect, which is a large part of why games/movies/tv dominate SF/F consumption, why fantasy art generates large fanbases.

Great stories can be had without any SF/F dressing. I do read normal fiction still from time to time, and non-fiction because I like learning. What SF/F can get me (and part of why I still read mainly Fantasy on occasion) that regular fiction cannot, is sheer, unbridled imagination--stories I can't easily get without the SF/F component."

Interesting the comment on the visual aspect of reading and the attraction to fantasy over SF covers. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of photoshopped covers - or rather, they are the exception, not the rule at Pyr. Neither am I after the more lurid brass binini clad warrior maiden and dragon type. As I've said elsewhere, I think John Scalzi said it best when he spoke to the need to produce covers that neither hid their genre elements nor presented them in an adolescent light. Covers that were inclusive rather than exclusive. We are continually praised for our covers, so I hope that we are succeeding in producing books that announce their sense of wonder upfront without looking like something from a pulp digest of the 1950s. I do think that "bland" is NOT the way to go, not in an age of unparalleled consumer choice. The cover has got to draw the reader in, and so much of what I see either turns off or fails to stand out.

Towards that end, I'm also fascinated by this article on Bookslut, "Judging a Book by its Cover: The Dispossessed," which examines five different cover treatments for Ursula K Le Guin's The Dispossessed and what the writer, Heather Smith, thinks each communicates to her. (Thanks Emily for the link!) And I love her description of "
Chuck Norris being pursued by a giant space piggy." Now, that's what we need more of, surely!

Meanwhile, I've just found Cheryl Morgan's new blog url, where she addresses Kristine Kathryn Rusch's notion that we need more Star Wars in our novels, not less:

"I don’t think the same sort of writing is possible today. If anything, science, in the form of global warming, genetic engineering, pollution and the much hyped gray goo of nanotechnology, is seen as a threat to our lives, not a promise of hope. So are people going to be turning to science fiction for their upbeat happy endings? I think not. They are much more likely to turn to books set in worlds that are manifestly not our own: books that talk about fairies and unicorns; books in which good triumphs simply because it is Good.

Now of course we have things like Star Wars, but that isn’t SF in the way that Hugo Gernsback would have understood it (at least the original trilogy, which is all I’ve seen – Karen Traviss tie-in novels are likely to be another thing entirely). Lucas freely admits that what he did was create a mythological story in an outer-space setting. And he has The Force, which we all know will fix it so that the good guys win in the end.

Now sure you can write happy books with SF-like themes. Chris Roberson, for example, is making a career of doing so. But I don’t think we can make science fiction happy and upbeat with just a Picard-like wave of the finger and an imperious 'make it so'. We have to write from the cultural background in which we live, and if you are writing books about science then these days that means addressing people’s fears, not promising them fantasy endings. Ignoring that requirement will probably just get you laughed at. The 'that’s just science fiction' put-downs we see so often in the media these days are, I think, a product of belief that SF is still mired in the 1950s."

Absolutely, agreed. Then there is the Carol Pinchefsky's case subject "Nancy S," who likes things specifically because they are mature and uncomfortable:

"I liked the foreign setting, the coffee bar. I liked the descriptions. I like the bleak outlook and crushed spirits of the main character. When those quirky things happen, people took them in stride because of their bleak outlook, not something a normal person would do. The characterization was well done, it allowed for the unusual plot occurrences to be believable. It had things we can relate to, but having the miraculous in such pedestrian circumstances was fresh. It was more than adorable -- it was dark."

Thinking back on Kristine's example of how the mainstream is colonizing SF tropes, and my own rebuttal that said books are NOT packaged like Star Wars novels, and all the comments above, are science fiction readerships polarizing between those who like their entertainments lurid and those who are embarrassed by same? To reference my favorite superhero, there really are two Batmen - the Batman of Superfriends and the Batman of Dark Knight. One belongs to one audience, the other to a quite distinct one - and both are equally valid. Does science fiction need a Vertigo line? Really, it should be obvious that genre is a country, not a formula, and that all kinds of people live there. No one dismisses mystery as being wholey juvenile because it is home to both Silence of the Lambs and the adventures of Sneaky Pie Brown, crime-solving cat. Perhaps Carol's informal study is the best way to communicate this to that larger audience that exists for genre film and bring a few more potential settlers to our lands. When they get here, they can decide for themselves in which district they want to live.


Cheryl said...

To borrow a phrase from Jay Lake's postings today, "I blame the English Language." What you are describing here is an argument over terminology. That is something that we (fans, bloggers) are way too fond of. Glenda Larke's LJ, has recently seen a furious debate over the meaning of the term "fantasy trilogy". Is it a long book chopped into three parts, or three books loosely linked that tell a single story? Who cares? I'm more interested in the strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches for different types of story-telling.

But to get back to your point, yes, the outside world does allow two definitions of "mystery". It does not, in general, allow for two different definitions of "science fiction". When someone outside the community says "science fiction" they are probably thinking of Flash Gordon. When we say it we may be thinking of Arthur C. Clarke, Octavia Butler or Jon Courtenay Grimwood. The conversation can't move forward until we can agree on what we are talking about.

Jason M. Robertson said...

In my personal efforts to evangelize science fiction, I am usually stymied by folks who may be intelligent and educated and interested, but simply no longer read fiction at any reasonable pace. You can lend them books tailored to their preferences but if they take two months to read it, the odds of success are low, and the benefits of having them as a book-buying sf reader relatively marginal.

Granted, the folks I most often encounter in life and attempt to get to read sf are young professionals and academic graduate students, and neither category is known for a massive time surplus, but this just represents a life-stage which most of the potential audience will pass through. During it I am afraid folks lose their reading habit and equate the genre with the material they were reading before life got in the way. When they establish themselves ten or twenty years downtime they are out of the loop and likely to reorient their leisure time to pursuits seen as closer social markers to their class, station and peers.

I just think that volume in reading is essential to supporting the continuation of the habit in individuals, and society is somewhat hostile to this. I wonder what the mark for novels purchased in a year by an average sf fan to prevent publication die-back is.

Tim Akers said...

I vote for our own Vertigo line. Vertigo is what got me reading comic books, and served as the entry for a lot of people I know. It's a good idea.

Lou Anders said...

Gollancz editor Simon Spanton, for whom I have tremendous respect, has said that the target for expanding the SF readership is NOT the completely uninitiated, but the "lapsed catholics of science fiction," thouse who read SF in their youth, and now dip in to pick up the occassion - as defined by 1 a year - book by an old favorite or on a peer's recommendation. Re-engaging those readers, and turning them into 10 a year book buyers is the goal. He is speaking more towards who you market towards, rather than about attempting to convert, but I see much wisdom in his words. Meanwhile, I am considering conducting my own form of Carol's experiment soon(ish).