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t3knomanser's Fustian Deposits

Joseph Campbell Killed Genre Fiction

How Random Babbling Becomes Corporate Policy

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Mad science gone horribly, horribly wrong(or right).

Joseph Campbell Killed Genre Fiction

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This has been irking me for a long time, but in light of Stross's anti-Star Trek rant and this rant about sexist/feminist influences in SF, I think it's time for me to put this idea down on page.

Joseph Campbell killed genre fiction. Mostly SF, but genre fiction in general. It wasn't his fault. Joseph Campbell did something fairly brilliant: he saw a way to take traditional stories and build them together into a single taxonomy. He found elements that crossed cultures (although it's definitely got a Western bias) and synthesized a sort of "grand unified theory" of mythology and literature.

I'm not here to debate the veracity of this idea. Campbell is right in enough ways that his ideas have explanatory power, even if there are cases that fall outside of his scope.

Sometime between when he had those ideas and today, people blew his findings out of proportion. Repeatedly, I've dealt with people that use Campbell to defend unoriginal literature, claiming he proved that all stories were the same anyway. Those not as well read might not name-drop Campbell, but they like to trot out the "finite number of stories" canard.

It's simply not true. While there are some commonly used story templates, there are as many unique stories as there are ways to arrange words into meaningful sentences.

And this gets us back to the death of genre fiction. Modern science fiction, especially in TV and movies, takes the stance that stories are the same, and are inherently about the characters, and that science fiction or fantasy is just another costume to dress the same story up in. Some might consider this the "literary" tradition. In this approach, all the trappings of the setting exist only to drive up the special effect's budget and provide trailer-fodder, while the story could be told equally well in any other setting. Star Wars is the most obvious example of this: sword and sorcery fare in spaceships. But pretty much every Star Trek episode from some point in the middle of the TNG era also fits the bill.

What you find is that the setting is just props and costumes. For some stories, that's fine, but genre fiction used to be about exploring ideas. Whether it's taking a modern idea and casting it in a different light by analogy or imagining a world drastically altered by some new technology or idea, in classical genre fiction, it was always the ideas that took center stage.

In some cases, notably the likes of Heinlein and Asimov, the result was cardboard characters that generally could be grouped into a handful of niches, few of which ever truly leapt off the page. At the same time, these books are rife with ideas. Different social codes, technologies that reshape society in strange ways.

I'm not trying to say that character driven drama is bad and idea driven drama is good. But the best genre fiction can do both. Sterling's Holy Fire builds a fascinating world, and then shows it to us through the eyes of a newly rejuvenated octogenarian learning about the gerontocracy from the ground up. Vonnegut, of course, was a master of mixing bizarre ideas with likable characters.

My main complaint is that the pendulum has swung away from "big ideas", at least in mainstream sci-fi. It's hardly dead, but sometimes, it feels like somebody slit genre fiction's throat.
  • My essay on Asimov acutally brought up his "cardboard cutout" characters. My argument on that was that this actually helped. If his characters were more diverse, the stories would have needed much more exposition before the reader could start reading the actual story and exploring what Asimov was doing with them. I went into this at great length with several examples.

    It's a risky technique to use, if you go too far with being formulaic, the formula will get in the way of the ideas you are presenting. But Asimov used it well. Just enough to lower the barrier to entry, without it getting in the way of his point.
    • For what Asimov was writing, it definitely helped. It's a matter of "what is the story about?" Asimov was writing stories about ideas. About how we might make robots and what that would do to society. About how we might develop the tools to control our own destiny, and what that foresight might mean for us.

      In a story like that, deeply complex characters detract from the deeply complex ideas.
  • One the one hand you have {insert cardboard tech}
    On the other hand, you have {insert cardboard character}
    Both suck.

    Great science fiction isn't about the hard scientific, intricately laid out detail. It's not about ignoring character and relationship development. Great science fiction is essentially "stories about humanism and progress and how they get fucked up sometimes and how we overcome that (or not.)" The details, whether about the technical or the human interest, all have to fit together to support that megaplot.

    There are great Next Gen episodes like Devil's Due, Who Watches the Watchers, Time's Arrow, Unification, and The Chase. They are neither technobabble dependent nor gooey-relationship dependent.

    There are also terrible Next Gen episodes. Some of them are gooey (late season focus on romances is usually a sign that they've run out of ideas) and some of them are technobabbly (31 flavors of radiation) and some of them just suffer from a weak villain. But you can't judge a TV series by its lousy eps, because short production cycles, shifting writing crews, conflicts among the artistic vision types, and random shit like an actor getting sick at the last minute, get in the way of consistency.
  • "Star Wars is the most obvious example of this: sword and sorcery fare in spaceships"

    Actually, Star Wars is just the Ride & Fall of the Roman Empire. Everything in it is stolen from history, not fantasy. Hence opening "Long, long ago..."
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