Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Death of Genre and the Stagnation of Geek Culture.

This goes on for a lot longer than I intended and may not make a lot of sense, but the thoughts have been rolling around in my head for a few weeks now and I wanted to get them down on paper.

Two books I’ve read over the past couple of weeks have had a major impact on how I’m looking at genre and geek culture. The first tried to stuff dragons; and as many semi-colons; as physically possible; into the Napoleonic wars. The second was a sci-fi love-letter to 80’s pop culture that involved everything from Atari video-games, Dungeons and Dragons, Matthew Broderick movies, Super Giant Japanese battle robots, and a whole lot more into one big glorious ode to geeking the hell out.

The books made me realize three things: 1) genre is officially dead. 2) geek culture has become creatively bankrupt and. 3) authors who abuse semi-colons should be consigned to a special hell where all they do is come up with plots for reality TV-shows.

Have we run out of ideas? The last real development in genre was cyberpunk in the 80’s and since then all it seems we’ve been doing is mashing existing stories together to see if we can come up with anything cool.

Steampunk is arguably the most popular mashed genre going at the moment. Plus you have things like Weird West, Chuthulu is popping up everywhere, zombies are invading everything, gods/clones/monsters in high school and a thousand more examples. These are not bad things and I’m certainly not having a go at mash-ups; Ghostbusters is one of my all time favourite movies of all times and its sci-fi/horror. Mash ups can be awesome and I always like having the possibility of a ray-gun in my D&D campaign.

But even two and three tier mash-ups are getting tired and there are now anything goes, whole-damn-kitchen-sink approach in movies like Spy-Kids; TV shows like Community, Adventure Time and the Mighty Boosh; and in RPGs like RIFTS and GURPS.

In the meantime, nothing truly NEW is being created. When was the last time you’ve been to a movie, read a book or watched a show and truly said, “I’ve never seen that before!”? ‘The Matrix’ maybe? but even then I can say it was beaten by Red Dwarf’s ‘Back to Reality’ episode by seven years.

And whose fault is it? Ours: thirtyish, primarily males (more on that in a moment) who have been submerged in pop-culture since Star Wars and have never come up for air. While we are incredibly good at coming up with variations on a theme, the truly original seems to have eluded us.

Much of what we now hold dear was not created by geeks, but by television execs, movie producers, toy marketers, artists and overworked writers, all of whom were working for a paycheque, not for love.

Getting back to gender for a moment, let me ask you this; not counting Game of Thrones, what were the last three major book (series) to make a real impact in the spec-fic category? Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and (like it nor not) Twilight, and three were all written by women. Maybe because women are exposed to Geek Culture but rarely suffer from the over-exposure suffered by guys like me allows the room for some original, or at least outside ideas to filter into their imagination.

Yes, I am aware than all of the series are just their own variations-on a-theme, but they are variations on a theme that caught the attention of the muggles, which is rare enough to be astonishing.

Which brings me back around to the second book I talked about, ‘Ready Player One’. First, I’d like to state that the book is a LOT of fun and I heartily recommend it to fans of eighties minutia.

However there are two major problems with ‘Ready Player One’. My wife picked up on them almost right away, but took me longer to puzzle out. It may be because she’s just smarter than me, but it may be gender differences coming into play again.

Firstly, in the book, the hero literally shuts himself off from the world to immerse himself completely in the virtual reality of the game. The story does contain a mild warning against that kind of behaviour, but like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Scarface’ my wife and I believe that the book will be imitated more than heeded.

Nor does the book go too far to in condemning the behaviour. In the end, the hero is richly rewarded for his efforts, but suffers none of the negative side effects that befall Don Michael Corleone or Tony Montana.

Secondly, and to drag this rambling essay back to my main point, RP1 is set thirty years from now, but the characters are essentially all running around inside the head of an eighties obsessed, autistic shut-in (insert St.Elsewhere joke here). The characters spend all their time interacting with Atari Video Games, debating old Matthew Broderick movies (Ladyhawke is AWESOME), playing classic rpg modules, flying Xwings and listening to music that is already thirty years old.

Seriously, has nothing NEW has been created in the coming thirty years to occupy these kids’ inertest? The book revels in its obsession for geek culture from Star Wars to Firefly (1977-2002), and that is absolutely fine in a bubblegum adventure book, but I couldn’t help but close the book and think, ‘Jeez, geek-culture of the future is really sad’.

Then I remembered that this year we're seeing the release of yet even more Alien, Spiderman and Batman movies. Maybe it isn't just the future that looks sad.

One of my martial arts instructors told me once not to worry if it felt like I’d plateaued in my training. That was when I was truly internalizing the techniques and when that happened, I would naturally progress to the next level.

I think we’ve seriously plateaued. The question is, do we have what it takes to make it to the next level?

Question, Comments, Complaints?


  1. This is arguably the difference between a popular culture and a literature. The first is about creating something that thrills because it's recognizable; the second is about creating something that thrills because it's trying to chart new territory.

    Try China Mieville. Really. He'll blow away every expectation you have. Then try Jeff Vandermeer. Hal Duncan. KJ Bishop. Gene Wolfe, if you've never tried him. Some of these are lumped in with the New Weird marketing category. So far as I can tell, all "New Weird" means is that they're writing fantasy, but they're not settling for cliches. Mieville's _Perdido Street Station_ not only made me sit up and say "I've never seen that before," it did it at least once per chapter. It's about a decade old and it's been influential, but I think it'll probably still feel fresh if you have never had the pleasure.

  2. I'm a huge Mieville fan actually, I've had Kraken in my to-read pile for months now and I'm eager to work my way down to it. And you are absolutely right, I'd recommend him to any Gamer. He's also a rpg fan and has written a supplement for Pathfinder.

    Gene Wolfe and Vandermeer are also favourites, so I will certainly look for your other recommendations. Thanks for the recommendations!