Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Trust The Weird

Ok, the first thing to do is read this.

The second thing to do is realize it's very very good. It's a good D&D idea. It's a good short story.

The third thing is to know that James Teleleli Hutchings sent me his book, months and months ago ("The New Death and Others") and asked if I might review it. Which he did with a lot of bloggers.

More things:

So I read The New Death at the same time I was reading How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. A much more celebrated book.

Aside from the fact that both of them--the "compelling new voice" and the total unknown--represent people steeped in games and sci-fi movies and comics and things like that turning themselves into writers (which is going to be a very big theme in American and British lit in the next 15 years, I think), they both have 2 other things in common.

The first thing is: both authors are really good at writing about weird things. So they're worth paying attention to.

Like I said: the link at the top is a short story. Some dipshit may come in my comments and demand that stories have beginnings, middles and ends in narrated time rather than simply be long descriptions but this person would be wrong and ignorant of many authors including probably the patron saint presiding quietly over both Charles Yu and James Hutchings' work here, Jorge Luis Borges. And even if the person was not wrong, they would be ignoring the fact that the text above does whatever work a short story is supposed to do, so it comes to the same thing.

Now the second thing Charles Yu and James Hutchings have in common: both of them are less good when they try to use their very good writing about weird things in a more conventional story format.

Hutchings presses his concisely imagined, poetic, inventive worldbits into service as plot set-ups in horror stories or otherwise tales of the post-Gaiman post-Barker weird genre. Yu sends his sci fi brain ("a certified network technician for T-class personal-use chronogramattical vehicles, and an approved independent affiliate contractor for Time Warner Time, which owns and operates this universe as a spatio-temporal structural and entertainment complex zoned for retail, commercial, and residential use.") to work meeting the demands of middlebrow literary fiction (the main characters has a...sigh...distant father and a...yawwwwn...inscrutable mother and is...zzzzzz...concerned about it).

In both cases, the writing goes all flabby and flat when it's just doing the work of weaving the details around a plot we are supposed to (by broad assumption) all care about.

You can have a story about a boy who does something bad and there are terrifying consequences and you can do a story about a guy who wants to understand his dad, but in both cases you have to treat trying to communicate these things in a new and real way as if it were as hard as communicating about a time-distortion shark that chews people open from the inside-out.

Our traditional interest in traditional concerns should not be assumed, and in both these cases I think it is.
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And here's the point.

Crazy weird inventive things are not just a new set-dressing for ordinary, traditional stories about ordinary traditional people with ordinary traditionally humanistic concerns.

It's a truism that you can tell the same story in Camelot as in Brooklyn as in the 3000th century but, as a writer, if you do exactly that, and don't let the style inform the form at all, you are missing some important differences between Camelot, Brooklyn and the future.

Set dressing means something (though this is not necessarily easy to decode). It's not just the art direction is new, the whole thing is new.

A JG Ballard story not only is not about the same things as an Isaac Asimov story, it goes to different places and requires different kinds of characters. The same goes for Lovecraft, Vonnegut, Orwell, anyone who has successfully used Weird New Ideas. They have to warp the entire form and all the characters to accomodate the new ideas.

I wish The New Death had been a little braver and just decided "Ok, a description of some Cold People who live in a forest is a story. I don't need to tell people to be afraid of them or not afraid or have a character meet them, I just have to put the best of what I have to offer and nothing else out there by itself and see what kind of story it is. And if the story needs more that more will have to be written with the same energy of invention as the new idea was.".

As is, I'd rather read every day of James' Teleleli blog than James' stories. And I get the impression he'd rather write it than write his stories.

I think this is a challenge for every RPG-influenced writer that has come along or will--and many will in the next few years, there are more of them every day.

How many awesomely conceived and animated Japanese cartoons have you seen weighed down by yet another moony love-triangle where people hug their knees and stare off at falling leaves? How many pop fantasy novels combine one or two great worldbuildy ideas with 300 pages of He moved like a shadow through the whatever toward the imposing whatever.

What James and Charles have done is a more sophisticated version of the same bait-and-switch: hedging their bets about the resonance of their new ideas with tried-and-true formulae about beginnings middles and ends and relatable characters and emotions that stories are supposed to make us feel.

I wish people who lived and were clearly raised in worlds of ideas had more confidence in the power of ideas alone to be compelling. When I was 10 I didn't need Batman to have a kid sidekick in order to be able to render it readable, I still don't.

Either leave Robin out or take on the hard work of making him as interesting as Batman.

There is an idea that these stock plots and forms exist because they resonate with something eternally unchangingly human in us. But there are a lot of things about "us" that do change. We like new ideas because we are new people, and the forms need to change to respect that.

I could go on and try to explain how this all relates in my mind to recent trends in RPGs related to commodifying gamable ideas into stock drooler-story formats, but I finished my review and those thoughts are still half-formed.

31 comments:

  1. You definitely hit the nail on the head for me with this write up. James was kind enough to share his book with me, but I've been struggling to get through it for all these reasons. I love Teleleli. I love the macabre and the strange and the surreal world it paints; it's people and culture haunt my dreams, it's that good. But "The New Death" is out of context to that, and it's exactly because it tries to be traditional, unlike Teleleli.

    As a writer, this review is reassuring. It's encouraging to hear soneone ask for a person to stick to what works for them and not try to fit the mold the world has determined is "right".

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  2. Another really excellent example of this is Steven Hall's novel The Raw Shark Texts. It's one of the more compellingly original sci-fi concepts I've ever read (semiotic space is real, and able of sustaining symbolic life, like idea sharks which can strangely and non-intuitively act on the physical world) but stapled to a cloying attempt at a "good story." Some guy with a mysterious past...haunted by the memory of his dead lover...on a journey of flee the bad guy/discover the self...meets a manic pixie dream girl...who might be a reincarnation of his...you get the idea.

    In addition to Borges this is also what makes Calvino's Inivisible Cities, or Ben Marcus' Notable American Women interesting - that it can be weird in content without being conventional in form.

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    1. Invisible Cities may be the only campaign setting guide anyone need buy.

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  3. Well-observed and well-put. I love D&D but have no desire to read any D&D novels for just this reason.

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  4. Strange. My original comment vanished. If this is a double post, I'm sorry.

    This review hits the nail on the head for me. James sent me a copy of "The New Death" but I've struggled to get through it for these reasons. I love Teleleli; it's macabre and strange and surreal; its people and places haunt my dreams, it's that good. I want to explore the world, and have my players explore it, too.

    As a writer, this review is both refreshing and reassuring. It helps to hear there is an audience who hungers for and appreciates a less-traditional style. There might be a time and a place for traditional writer, but Teleleli is not that place.

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  5. I can really only take stuff like that in limited doses, though. Which makes novels of it challenging, unless they are books of short stories.

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  6. Great post. Lots to chew on here. I wish there were more readers this good at reading.

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    1. Also, I'll definitely check out the Teleli.

      Charlie Yu

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  7. I felt this way about Mieville's The City & The City. The crime procedural used to prop up his wonderfully weird idea felt forced. I still recommend it, because the idea is too good to miss.

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  8. Thanks for the review. I've linked to it from Teleleli.

    A few other reviews actually said my stories were too incomplete, or that they felt like ideas rather than stories :)

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  9. Maybe Melville was struggling with this issue when he wrote Moby Dick. He got his whaling industry/cetology/whale-fight slash fiction mixed up with Shakespearean melodrama. A weird case where a bizarre, not fully baked mix of styles didn't (eventually) prevent the main stream from discovering, and enjoying, the book.

    Also: "In both cases, the writing goes all flabby and flat when it's just doing the work of weaving the details around a plot we are supposed to (by broad assumption) all care about." I didn't realize I had bought into this broad assumption until now. Thanks. Sincerely. I noticed some time ago that reading fragments of roleplaying setting material is usually more enjoyable for me than reading science fiction or fantasy. I know a lot - maybe most - of what I love about the genres can actually be traced back to RPGs and other games. Fictional, but non-narrative. Hm... I don't know what to do with this information...

    Oh, and add to the distant father and inscrutable mother cliches the sad-sack male 20-ish/30-ish protagonist. Authors, we know you're writing about yourselves. Save us the trouble! Sad sack male introverts are NOT INTERESTING. And punk girl dream dates (when written by men) are NOT A GOOD FALL-BACK.

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  10. This excellent post reminds me of a tangential thought from Charlie Stross about the "goals" of Science Fiction as compared to Science Fantasy. Science Fiction has to do with weird (new) worlds that ultimately change in the story climax and nothing is the same afterwards... whereas Science Fantasy is about weird (familiar) worlds that after reaching the story climax return to the way things were before. Science Fiction is thus startling and thoughtful and Science Fantasy is comforting. You can probably guess Mr. Stross' preference.

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    1. If this is accurate journalism I think either way Mr Stross is wrong.
      Wrong about definitions and wrong about requirements. I think no matter what it is not so simple or easy to define.
      I think, in fact "the entire world changing" is, by itself a sort of stock scifi plot element at this point with no inherent value.

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  11. I find myself increasingly impatient with the 'soap opera' elements of most fiction... all the stuff that happens when the stuff you want to be reading about isn't happening. Filler.
    This puts me in mind of 'The Puttermesser Papers' by Cynthia Ozick... so I think I'll go read that again.

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  12. For those who agree with Zack and prefer my blog posts to my stories:

    What do you think of this? It's a collection of my ideas in an encyclopedia or RPG sourcebook format.

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    1. I think I'm going to bookmark it and save it for a long, leisurely weekend. It's wonderful.

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    2. Do you guys think anyone would buy it without game stats?

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    3. Not only do I think people would buy it without game stats, I think people would buy it as a non-game product, just as a book.

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    4. I concur. Get that on the kindle, and I'm sold. Or if it's easier to sell a watermarked pdf on rpgnow, that'll work too.

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    5. Hm...

      In the 80s they used to have collections of science fiction paintings with accompanying text. The text presented the paintings as if they were showing real scenes, and all the paintings in the book were in the same fictional universe - although it seems like the paintings were really made first, not commissioned for the books. There are some examples here.

      Anyway I wonder if it would work as a fantasy version of that?

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    6. I think it's a wonderful idea.

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    7. hell yeah i'd buy it, stats or no stats pictures or no pi

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    8. I've posted about this idea on my blog.

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    9. I've posted about this idea on my blog.

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  13. Related to this, have you been reading Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staple's ongoing comic, "Saga"? There's a lot of weirdness, but the main plot and character interactions are very recognizably contemporary Romeo y Juliet melodrama.

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    1. Been meaning to check it out on account of Fiona Staples

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  14. And as an aside, I cast my vote that Zak does more book reviews, regardless of their appropriateness to gaming.

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  15. A good random chart achieves a lot of the same things as Borges' list of titles in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".

    This post has given me a lot of food for thought.

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  16. I just have to put the best of what I have to offer and nothing else out there by itself and see what kind of story it is. And if the story needs more that more will have to be written with the same energy of invention as the new idea was.

    Thank you for this. I need to remember it with my history work as well as any fiction or RPG stuff I write.

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