This is a very long and rambling post about fantasy/sci fi literature and how most of it is terrible. I’m hiding it after a jump so as not to make the front page of my blog really long, and to hide all the cool points I’m losing for posting this. Still, if you have thoughts on the matter, I’d love to have a discussion about it. I’m out of college, I can’t take comp lit classes anymore, so to the Internet I turn.
My position as an aspiring creative writer and as a 20-something American male places me at an interesting cultural intersection. On the one hand, I like things like this:
While on the other hand, I enjoy things like this:
Now, these are obviously very different art forms. The former is a beautiful novel and one of my favorite books. The latter is a brilliantly-designed video game. However, both fall into the “fantasy/sci fi” genre of art. This genre, by and large, seems to carry low expectations in terms of characteristics we apply to more “sophisticated” art.
For the most part, I don’t get excited by crappy fantasy/sci fi. I avoid it and I don’t spend money or time on it. But millions of people do. Careers, and millions of dollars, have and will be made off of creating crappy fantasy novels, or overwrought sci-fi action films. There are times when I feel I could do this, but I can’t see the path forward because I’m blinded by good taste and standards. I can’t write a phrase like, “Kul’thar saw the tortured spirits of the ElderOnes writhing in the ebony blackness of the Ur-Void,” without snickering.
I don’t think I’m alone in getting excited when a novel or story in the “fantasy/sci fi” genre crosses over into the category of sophisticated or beautifully-told storytelling. Examples:
But am I part of a tiny minority in this category? One so small that it is not only unprofitable, but also unpopulated? Do consumers not want elegant storytelling and characters they can empathize with in this stuff? I don’t mean to suggest “no blockbusters starring Vin Diesel.” I mean simply that this is a niche that scratches no itch.
This brings us back to Starcraft 2. As a game to play against other people, its gameplay/mechanics are terrific. But there’s a plot involved, and writing and cutscenes, and those are really terrible. Risible sci-fi hokey schmaltz filled with epic bad guys and symbolically-hollow good guy martyrs, a vague Civil War motif, and truly awful dialogue.
My reaction is the same as to any big blockbuster. The studio spent millions of dollars and manhours on the product. Why not have a decent script? Is it so hard? Or is it a calculated artistic decision to make the writing terrible?
I’m finally getting to the point here. Blizzard, in its savy attempt to deepen the user’s experience with the game, has posted artwork, backstory, video clips, and short fiction on its website. I made the mistake of reading the most recent short story they published. It’s 9 pages long, and can be found here.
In short, the story is terrible. It’s basically a video clip written down, with cliche action scenes interspersed with a middle school boy’s notion of an emotionally damanged main character. A quote:
Suddenly, and most certainly unexpectedly, a whole barrage of thoughts invaded Isaac’s head: he thought about the fact that no amount of apologizing, soul-searching, quiet reflection, and seemingly interminable time since the incident at Gamma Dorian had eased his conscience. He thought about the Kel-Morian miner who had died with his guts hastily stuffed back into his body, his only concern being that of the family he was about to leave behind. He thought, though he hated to admit it, that maybe not all Kel-Morians were animals.
The inside of his brain was a whirlwind, but the one thing that hit him like a meteor was this: he had sought forgiveness from the families of the victims, but he himself had never forgiven the KMs. It was always so much easier to just keep on hating them… to not even think of them as human.
Maybe this was his chance to make a difference. To balance the scales, to atone, just as Zeke Turner had said.
Trust me, if you knew the context, that would read even worse.
My views on this writing is pretty clear. But the six pages of comments on this story are overwhelming positive. The identities of the guilty have been retained to punish them. Some samples (click for bigger view):
So this brings us back to the question. I’ve always suspected that this is a case of the writers being bad writers. But maybe this is intentional, and that many of us, or the vast majority even, don’t want this sort of stuff to be well-written. They don’t want Jim Hero, Our Man In Space, to have nuance. If this is the case, then my desire to consume and create art like 2001 and The Once and Future King puts me on a path to an artistic dead-end. This is a lesson to learn sooner rather than later.
I would be curious to hear your input, patient reader of this very long post. Whether you are a fan of fantasy/sci-fi material, or you avoid the stuff. Is the niche for emotionally-resonant literature and film that exists within these genres tiny? On a fundamental consumer level, are we looking for simplicity from these stories, and are we turned off by nuance? Is this hangover art, and we need a cheesesteak and a Coke, not honeyglazed salmon with mushroom risoto?
There’s not much of a tradition of comments on any of these posts, but I’d love to start a conversation about this.
Because I’m going for the longest post ever here, and because it’s revelent, AND because I took the time to paint this together into one .jpeg, here is Penny Arcade’s take on the subject. They did these comics in January 2009, and I think they’re both hilarious, and spot-on. I more or less identify with Tycho’s reaction at the end of it all (click for bigger view):