genres

Verisimilitude: A Most Essential Plot Element

Average and Nerdly discuss the newest plot element
NOTE: In case anyone’s forgotten my generic characters’ names, “Totally” refers to “Totally Everyguy,” Average’s male counterpart. (I add this note because my own mother said, “Wait, who?” Hahaha. I’m sure he would do wonders with this latest plot element.)

The Science of a Good Plot Element

So, it’s been at least 15 years since I studied any of the natural sciences. I had CP Chem in high school and a semester of Physical Science in college that included a chemistry unit. I don’t remember a ton about them (because that was half a lifetime ago, y’know), but one thing that did impress me was the solid truth of the periodic table.

Like, “These are the elements, and because of how atoms work, these elements are set in stone.”

(We’re not getting into isotopes or any of that complicated stuff, m’kay?)

The result is that any time I come across a fictional work where characters utter something akin to “This is a non-earth element,” my BS detector pings off the chart.

Because, as far as I understand, the periodic table has defined every possible element in existence, with the exception of a handful of man-made elements appended at the end. And all of those are extremely unstable and thus unlikely to exist anywhere outside the laboratory in which they are (briefly) created.

Am I wrong? Maybe I’m wrong. If so, my apologies. (And please leave an explanation for why I’m wrong in the comments. References much appreciated.)

It’s Not “Just a Story”

The realms of fiction exist to take us beyond the natural world. Even so, they have to follow natural laws or else they destroy verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude: The semblance of truth. The term indicates the degree to which a work creates the appearance of the truth. (Harmon & Holman, A Handbook to Literature, p. 538)

This oh-so-useful term doesn’t apply only to realistic fiction. For me, it’s a defining feature that separates good writing from bad across the spectrum of literature. This “semblance of truth” allows us to slip into the story, to feel alongside the characters, to agonize over plot twists and rejoice at happily ever afters.

When it breaks, we jolt out of that fictional world, and we’re generally none too happy about it. (This ties back to the unspoken Author-Audience Contract. We want a story to fool us, but without verisimilitude, it can’t.)

Verisimilitude is a tricky beast. It allows the same person to accept Tolkien’s mithril wholesale while they give the squinty side-eye to Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. In the Star Wars franchise, it simultaneously invokes the adoration of millions and the scorn of physics teachers everywhere.

(Or maybe it was only my physics teacher. My class once got a lecture on the properties of outer space thanks to someone mentioning Star Wars.)

It is, in short, subjective according to an individual’s understanding of Truth.

Fantasy at an Advantage

When it comes to verisimilitude, the fantasy genre holds a distinct advantage: the reader comes to the story with their sense of realism already disengaged.

No one fact-checks J.K. Rowling on the existence of magic. Nor do they chide C. S. Lewis on the implausibility of an inter-dimentional portal at the back of a wardrobe. A plot element need not be anchored in reality to resonate truth. It need only resonate truth within its fictional domain.

Because fantasy storylines exist outside of the normal, explainable world, many patterns of truth fall instead to characters, relationships, and personal growth.

But this doesn’t let a fantasy writer off the hook when it comes to rules. If Harry Potter suddenly created a portal to another dimension by playing a song on a flute, for example, the reader would likely object. (The HP universe requires wands for working magic, and Harry’s more of a jock than a musician. Not that he couldn’t be both, but he isn’t.)

Those who write fantasy engage in a boatload of world-building for this very reason. If they skip this step and change rules to accommodate their plot, they’ll undermine the story’s verisimilitude.

And this goes double for the author who writes in a “real world” setting. If that’s your bread and butter, beware the errant plot element.

Ultimately, you see, all fiction is fantasy. Some is simply more upfront about it.

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Citation: Harmon, William and Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature, 8th Ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Dear Readers, I come bearing gifts.

Well, just one gift, actually. And I made it myself, and it’s not a cat sweater.

It is a writing tool extraordinaire (if I do say so myself), dedicated to my dear friend Jen and offered to all. I’ve worked on this thing off and on since May, and there’s a backstory that inspired it, but in the interest of brevity (too late), I’ll let the graphic speak for itself.

May you enjoy it, but never put it to practical use.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

DISCLAIMER #1: I do not write modern romance. This is satire, and any resemblance to any existing modern romance heroine or tag line is purely coincidental. (That sometimes happens when you’re playing with clichés, haha.)

DISCLAIMER #2: This graphic is BIG, and I am not tech-savvy. I muddled over the best way to present it but decided just to toss it up on this post. Good luck. (Protip: Click on the picture to get at the larger version, Mom. It should open in a new screen.)

DISCLAIMER #3: I do have a PDF version, if anyone is silly enough to want a physical copy of this. Sized for A2 paper. (Closest American equivalent is 18″ x 24″.) It cost me $20 to get a draft copy, but the result was delightful. Uhh… leave a comment if you’re interested?

 

Drifting Towards the Worst Possible Outcomes

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What is it with time travel and Nazis, anyway? It’s generally accepted that anyone who develops a time machine has a moral obligation to use it to stop Hitler. It’s also generally accepted that, for our closed-loop timeline at least, all such endeavors failed.

(But seriously, Hitler survived how many assassination attempts? Wikipedia has an “incomplete” list of 25, so there totally could have been time travelers in that mix.)

More nerve-wracking than the time-traveler’s requirement to take out Hitler, though, is the understood condition that any changes made to the past will likely result in an Axis victory and a world-wide totalitarian state.

TVtropes.org calls it Godwin’s Law of Time Travel:

As the amount of time-traveling you do increases, the probability of Hitler winning World War II approaches one.”

This trope fits right into the open-loop mantra, “Don’t meddle.” Time, that delicate mechanism, turns its course upon the slightest variations, and all alternate roads apparently lead to a worldwide socialist regime and swastikas on the White House. (Which is one reason I prefer the closed-loop model, truth be told.)

Why can’t it lead to a libertarian paradise for once, hmm? Probably because, in our heart of hearts, we’re all cynics. It’s human nature to lean towards the Worst Possible Outcome, and for Western society, that is Hitler’s Holocaust.

I’ve taken it for granted most of my life that there is nothing worse than Hitler, but in recent years I’ve come to realize that I was wrong. For all the atrocities of WWII, the millions of people who died and the millions more who suffered, there is something worse.

It’s worse than Stalin’s Holodomor, worse than Mao’s “Three Bitter Years,” worse than Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, and all the numberless atrocities that have occurred in the history of humankind upon this earth.

It is, simply, that despite the very clear-cut lessons history teaches us through these awful events, there are still people who cling to the power-hungry ideologies that caused them.

How is this even possible? Naive as it may seem, I always assumed that Nazism died in a German bunker in 1945. It should have died there or else shortly thereafter, when images from concentration camps circulated the globe.

“This is the consequence of this system of beliefs,” those images whisper. “Do not tread this path again.”

And yet, this -ism, alongside many others with similar outcomes, rears its head in pockets around the world, as though the consequences were trivial, non-existent, or—worst of all—a necessary means to an end. It’s mind-boggling to me.

The philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Humans may not have the power to go back in time, to fix things so that we can say, “Never at all,” but we should at least hold our ground and say, “Never again.”

Of Time Loops and Paradoxes

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Time travel comes in two distinct flavors: the linear closed-loop variety and the branching open-loop variety. The first is stable and reliable, while the second is volatile and chaotic. In many time-travel stories, the reader doesn’t know for certain which variety is in effect until the end.

The Closed Loop

The closed loop treats time as an unchangeable dimension. Events from the beginning of creation to its end are set in stone, and the time traveler’s experiences are already worked into the equation. Essentially, time occurs on a straight line. The traveler loops back to the past, but nothing in the intervening time line changes because they always existed in that past before they actually went there.

Example: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

The third book in Rowling’s iconic series, Prisoner of Azkaban introduces the time-turner, a device that Hermione uses to attend multiple classes at once. The closed-loop nature of time becomes apparent at the end of the book, when Harry and Hermione go back in time to change events, not realizing until afterwards that their future selves were already at play in the earlier disasters. There’s no alternate timeline, in other words. The reader gets to experience the same events twice alongside Harry and Hermione, but the events themselves are identical.

The unchangeable nature of a closed loop does create limitations. To the question, “Why didn’t someone use a time-turner to take out Voldemort before he got too powerful?” comes the dissatisfying answer, “Because no one did.” Everyone knows that Voldemort did rise to power, so obviously no one ever succeeded in assassinating him beforehand. To do so would create an open-loop scenario, which would destroy Rowling’s meticulously planned closed loop.

It would also negate the series as a whole, since Voldemort is the one to get the plot rolling in the first place.

The Open Loop

The open loop treats time as an ever-branching dimension, malleable and unpredictable. A change in events will cause the timeline to diverge from that point forward. This scenario requires an infinite number of universes, with the time-traveler moving from one to the next as the timeline recalibrates.

Consequently, the traveler retains memories of the events they destroy, of the alternate branches from whence they came.

Example: “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury

This short story, to which I owe my comic’s punchline, tells of a man who accidentally kills a butterfly in the prehistoric era, only to return to an alternate reality of his own time. What seems like an insignificant action causes dire consequences, for him and society both.

The open loop technically has all possible outcomes at its disposal, but let’s be honest. It’s usually the worst scenario that occurs, at least on the time traveler’s first return. If the traveler gets a chance to correct their error, things will still never be exactly what they were beforehand. “Don’t meddle” seems to be the moral of the story.

The Open-Closed Hybrid Loop

An innovative variation in time-travel stories combines open and closed loops. The broader timeline is closed, but the time traveler gets stuck in an alternating, repeating loop until they can arrive at that closed-loop outcome.

Example #1: Groundhog Day (1993)

Bill Murray stars as Phil Conners, a weatherman who gets stuck living the same day over and over and over again. He remembers each incarnation. He tries to break the loop, to no avail. He doesn’t age, but he does retain any skills he acquires over the course of his relived episodes.

Example #2: “Endless Eight” by Nagaru Tanigawa

In this installment of the Haruhi Suzumiya series, sarcastic high-schooler Kyon relives the eight weeks of summer 15,000+ times because unwitting-master-of-the-universe Haruhi is secretly dissatisfied as the holiday comes to a close. Unlike Phil Conners, Kyon retains only a sense of déjà vu from one incarnation to the next, though it does become stronger over time.

The short story is brilliant, but the anime version created a ragestorm among fans when the same episode aired 8 weeks in a row, reanimated each time with different visual details, but with the same sequence of events. It gave viewers a taste of the time loop from Yuki Nagato’s perspective, though, as she remains fully aware for each of the 15,000+ repetitions.

The open-closed hybrid allows for the exploration of multiple possibilities with the assurance of one designated outcome. It can, however, become tedious if overdone.

Beware the Paradoxes

Please note: time travel in fiction introduces the potential for massive plot holes. Attention to detail is key when incorporating this plot element into any story, written or visual, because the audience expects the end result to make sense. As with all fantasy, time travel must adhere to rules of logic.

Shoddy time travel is the reason I despise movies like The Lake House (2006) and Kate & Leopold (2001). You can’t save the guy whose death sent you to the place where you encounter the magic mailbox that allows you to meet him two years in the past (because if you save him, you wouldn’t have gone, and then you never saved him, so you did go, but then you did save him, so you wouldn’t have gone, and then…). Similarly, if a photographer from the future flees a scene before the love interest from the future appears, said photographer can’t use a photograph of the love interest at the scene to convince her to go back in time to appear on scene.

Seriously. Get your crap together, people.

(I have been banned from watching time-travel-themed chick flicks, by the way. I’ve been banned from watching chick flicks in general, but the time-travel ones are especially verboten. Apparently I’m a killjoy.)

In the Silence of the Darkest Hour

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12th century England marks the transition period between Old and Middle English. William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066 ushered in a slew of French nobility and clergymen. The ruling class, though a distinct minority, spoke a different language than the peasantry, and in the subsequent decades, this factor led to a very quickly evolving native tongue.

Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, or simply Saxon, as it was called in this period—fell out of favor. It branded its speaker as a member of a lesser social class, while French indicated a more elite status. (English would remain “vulgar” up until about a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, by the way, and the narrative of its inherent inferiority persists even today.)

This difference in language statuses resulted in a lovely phenomenon, however: many of those on the lower end of the social spectrum sought to elevate their standing through language acquisition, so that French and Saxon co-mingled to produce a new hybrid English.

That’s right. It’s extremely likely that our beloved language is, at its roots, a creole.

Evidence lies in the shift from the Old English structure of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV, very Germanic) to the Middle English structure of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO, a common creole structure). French vocabulary piled into the language with class distinctions firmly attached. This is the period that gave us the Saxon terms for animals in the field—cow, pig, and chicken—but French terms at the dinner table—beef, pork, and poultry. The peasants in the field spoke Saxon, but their feudal, meat-eating masters spoke French, and the surviving terms reflect as much.

French and Latin dominated the written word. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ended its approximately 300-year run in A.D. 1154, but it was a singular relic by then. The Insular Script, developed in Ireland and popular in the Old English period, would give way to Carolingian cursive and a more gothic style (both of which are super difficult to read, haha), so that not even the alphabet looked the same.

Not that it mattered: for the duration of the 12th century, only peasants spoke English, and they were more than likely illiterate.

This illiteracy added to the rapid linguistic change. The written word provides an anchor; from A.D. 1100-1200, the English language was a ship adrift. Accents shifted and dialects mushroomed. The feudal system chained English speakers to their French masters’ lands, isolating communities from one another. The language of London arose as the standard-bearer while the western and northern dialects became marked and increasingly distinct.

King John I’s loss of Normandy in 1204 heralded the slackening of French influence upon the island nation. From that point onward, English would gradually reclaim its rightful place once more. But in the midst of the 12th century, native speakers could harbor little hope for their spoken word.

Truly this is the Dark Age of the English language, out of which a brilliant future emerged.

 

Out of Place in Time and Space

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Anachronism, that bane of all historical fiction writers, can crop up when you least expect it. Obvious New World acquisitions—coffee, cocoa, and tobacco—perhaps are easy enough to weed out. They are luxury items, associated with a certain lifestyle.

New World produce of a humbler nature might sneak into the narrative undetected. Basic as it may seem, those medieval peasants aren’t eating potatoes in their stew, and they can’t throw tomatoes at the prisoners in the stocks. Sorry.

Corn provides a particularly interesting case, because the word existed in English prior to New World exploration. It referred generally to all grain rather than one specific type. Thus, in the KJV Bible, when Pharaoh dreams of seven ears of “corn,” it’s not the on-the-cob variety; and when Christ’s disciples pluck the corn from the corn fields, they naturally rub its chaff off between their hands before they eat it.

It’s easy enough, from a modern perspective, to substitute the narrowed definition of corn into either of these instances. For Americans at least, corn is almost everywhere we look, from our soft drinks to our gasoline. And because it’s so pervasive in our culture, it’s an effortless hop-skip-and-jump to assume that it’s always been there.

Alas, not so.

Technology provides another source for potential anachronism. The introduction of gunpowder was a game-changer for any civilization. The development of cannons and guns rendered such protections as castle walls and plate armor ineffective where they had previously guarded against blades and battering rams. As guns increased in power, armor became a hindrance rather than a help.

The cycle of armor, too, has a logical progression to it. A prominent anachronism occurs in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: protagonist Hank Morgan encounters plate armor in 6th century England, roughly 700 years before it came into use. Mail—or maille, or mayle—preceded this more recognized type of armor. Oddly enough, the term “chain mail” is a later descriptor: Dictionary.com lists its entrance into the language as occurring between 1815-1825 (which exactly corresponds to when Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe artfully romanticized the Medieval period).

Which brings us to, perhaps, the most glaring anachronism of them all: the language itself.

Language change can be at once both rapid and slow, obvious and subtle. Slang comes and goes like a flash in the pan, while a subject-agreement cycle might require centuries to manifest. Literacy plays a huge role in slowing change, but any encounter with foreign cultures will speed it up. All of these elements and more combine to make an ever-shifting linguistic field. Anachronism of terms, then, is basically impossible to avoid.

Much has been written about the dysfunction of the English writing system. People lament that words like break and beak don’t rhyme, or that though, through, rough, trough, bought, and bough display six different pronunciations for the same cluster of four letters. Welcome to the Great Vowel Shift. In the 1300-1600s, English vowels migrated in their pronunciation.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for people like me who love this sort of thing), this is the same time period in which Caxton brought the printing press across the Channel and standardized spelling became a thing. Mid-shift. Meaning half these vowels shifted their pronunciation after printers decided, “Hey, this is how that word is spelled.”

Haha. Oh well.

Personally, I adore the English spelling system. It’s quirky, yes, but all restricted codes are. Those who call for spelling reforms dismiss the history inherently tied to our lexicon. They also fail to acknowledge that funetik speling looks iliterit. English has 13 vowels and only 6 letters with which to represent them. A true spelling reform would require a revised alphabet.

Too much effort.

And of course, for any type of historical fiction, modern spelling applies. But if you’re headed back to the Middle Ages, be aware that any modern words dating from that period had a markedly different pronunciation back then. Chances are, your time-traveling hero won’t recognize them right off the bat, especially when they’re ensconced amid the jargon of their day.

Time to Trust Technology

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It takes a special kind of character to self-experiment with new technology. On one end of the spectrum, you have the Tesla-smart guy, who’s done the math backwards and forwards and knows that everything will work as expected. On the other, you have the delusionally stupid guy who just assumes that everything will work out.

And then, in the middle, there’s the desperate, fearful, hopeful one who needs it to work.

Luckily, in time-travel fiction, the time-travel mechanism pretty much always does its job. Sometimes it’s accidental. Sometimes it’s supernatural. Sometimes it’s a lab experiment with a convoluted machine that harbors suspiciously jargon-esque parts, like “flux capacitors” and such.

*coughBackToTheFuturecough*

Reason would dictate that for every successful bout of fictional time travel, there were probably half a million other scientists that ended their quest as rust-colored smears on their garage walls. But of course those stories never get written.

(Because they would be short and gruesome. But I digress.)

I’ll admit it. There’s part of me, upon encountering a trope like time travel, that wonders, “No, really, how many people failed at this before your character succeeded?” Part of the allure of time travel is that *this* character succeeds where so many have failed. *This* character breaks through that seemingly impenetrable barrier that so many others slammed their shoulders against. *This* character is wise, special, well-favored of the fiction gods.

That’s hardly unique to time-travel stories, though. Most genres want a special protagonist. Pay no attention to the scores of failures that exist to counter-balance such success.

The term “time machine” comes courtesy of H. G. Wells, author of—you guessed it—The Time Machine. In this classic tale, a time traveller creates a vehicle that carries him hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he discovers that the human race has devolved into two factions: the Morlocks and the Eloi. The Morlocks are skulking and brutish—because anything called a “Morlock” is going to be antagonistic, of course—and the Eloi, true to their lyrical name, are innocent and harmless.

And there’s a girl called “Weena.” Yeah, Wells isn’t winning any awards for his names from this corner of the Internet. (But I will give him credit for recognizing his weakness and leaving his time traveller nameless, hahaha.)

The novel, published in 1895, in addition to sparking hundreds of time-machine tales in its wake, has received multiple adaptations for radio, film, and comic books. It is, in short, a literary icon.

And its protagonist, of the Tesla-smart camp, set the benchmark for time-traveling protagonists everywhere. But he also disappeared at the end of the book. So maybe—just maybe—somewhere in time, there’s a rust-colored smear with his genetic signature on it.

You don’t know. No one does.

Delight in Glorious Girl Power

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Prissy is having none of your shenanigans today, Narrator. None.

Chick lit comes in several flavors, but one of the tried-and-true staples of this genre is the ensemble cast of Interesting People. They are Just Like You™, only they’re out having grand adventures in the world while you’re sitting upside-down on your couch reading. (A minor difference.)

But you too can have grand adventures if you can collect at least three friends to go with you!

Of course, it can’t be just any three friends. There are categories.

We have the Ringleader, the Sober One, the Free-Spirit/Artist, and the Outlier. Add a fifth body, and the Free-Spirit/Artist can split into two separate personifications. Sometimes the Ringleader doubles as one of the others, and an alternate category enters the fray. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes.

(Never mind that using templates like this will suck out all the real variety from a story and replace it with manufactured schlock.)

The Friendly Foursome appears across the chick lit spectrum, with such notable examples as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya SisterhoodThe Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and pretty much any other book with the word “sisterhood” in its title.

(I joke, I joke. Mostly.)

Some examples from my sordid reading past:

  • The Baby-Sitters Club: This series starts with Ringleader Kristy and her friends Mary Anne (Sober), Claudia (Free-Spirit/Artist), and Stacey (Outlier, because she’s new to the neighborhood and has secret diabetes!) playing the core Friendly Foursome. As the books progress and more characters enter the fray, the categories reduplicate: Dawn is a Free Spirit, Mallory is a Ringleader Jr., Jessi is an Outlier, and so forth. And why I can remember any of this when it’s been a quarter of a century since I picked up one of these books is beyond me.
  • Anne of Green Gables: Diana Barry, Ruby Gillis, and Jane Andrews fill out Ringleader Anne Shirley’s foursome. Diana, oddly enough, is the Outlier of the group, because she gets married young while the others go off into the world for further education/life experiences. Ruby is the Free Spirit (as attested by her dramatic consumptive death), which leaves Jane as the Sober One.
  • Pride and Prejudice: Stay with me here. Elizabeth takes the Ringleader position, Jane is the Sober One, Mary is the Outlier, and Kitty and Lydia share the Free-Spirit/Artist designation, though Kitty has more sense once she’s away from her younger sister’s influence. Even though this novel is hardly an “ensemble cast” (because Elizabeth is clearly the focal character), the pattern emerges.
  • The “Teen Girl Squad” from Homestar Runner: Not a book, but I couldn’t leave it out. This cartoon-within-a-cartoon is a parody of the Friendly Foursome. Cheerleader takes the Ringleader position, So-and-So is the Sober One (because she’s obsessed with studying, not because she’s actually sober), What’s-her-Face is the Free Spirit, and The Ugly One is the Outlier, and all to random comedic effect.

Ensemble casts only work when each character is separate and distinct from everyone else. At the same time, too many differences (or too much detail in tiny personal foibles) can come across as contrived rather than organic characterization. The author using this formula, then, must walk that fine line between clever and cliché.

But when it’s done right, it’s ever so much fun.

Embrace the Endless Misery

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In recent years, Dystopia has experienced a surge in popularity. The readiness with which consumers gravitate towards stories of bleak futures, oppressive regimes, and outliers desperate to change the status quo reflects current economic, political, and social uncertainty. When dystopia is popular, the world itself is in upheaval.

A depressing thought, I’ll readily admit.

The term, which literally means “not-good-place” (from Greek) is used as an antonym for Utopia, a perfect society. Dystopias, then, present a negative future outcome, usually to an extreme degree.

Ironically, its supposed opposite wasn’t really all that better.

A Word on Utopia

The term “Utopia,” coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 tale of the same name, far from holding some wonderful meaning, is Greek for “no place.” More wrote in Latin (because anything of worth in those days was written in Latin), and he expected his reader to be well-enough educated to understand the translation for the place name, as well as for other proper nouns that appear within the work.

This was, primarily, because he wrote the piece with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The account of this perfect island society includes chamber pots made of gold and a visit from the Flatulentine ambassadors. In my copy, the elected officials’ titles are translated to “Sty-wards” and “Bench-eaters.” The Mayor of each town serves for life unless he tries to implement a dictatorship. (And why would he need to? He’s already got the position until he dies.)

Quizzically, the Utopian society includes elements we readily associate with our modern concept of a dystopia:

  • Communism with a rigid social structure (no private property, and a set number of houses per city and people per house)
  • Slavery (two per household)
  • Euthanasia of the terminally ill (by choice, but after a lecture on how worthless their life is)
  • Forced celibacy as punishment for immorality
  • Public shaming (mainly of criminals)
  • Prescribed careers (with a choice of wool-worker, stonemason, blacksmith, or carpenter, but everyone must take turns working the farmland)

Everything on the island is very orderly, and the people are very happy.

Kind of like the brainwashed denizens of modern dystopias.

It Never Ends Well

The dystopian genre looks to a dismal future, and the flavor of dismal, in my opinion, is largely determined by one factor: technology.

Some classic examples:

  • 1984 by George Orwell: Big Brother is watching you. Computer surveillance is everywhere.
  • Brave New World by Aldus Huxley: Genetic engineering, clones, embryonic “hatcheries” instead of pregnancy, which is vulgar and disgraceful. Science has supplanted Mother Nature.
  • Anthem by Ayn Rand: Hive-minded colonies stuck in a rebirth of the Dark Ages. Innovation is cause for punishment.

None of these books ends well. (You can argue that Anthem has a happy-ish ending, as the protagonist and his love interest escape to live free, but what’s their future look like, really? Two crazy kids, off in this abandoned house by themselves, determined to restore individuality when no one else seems to give a rip about it.)

More recent dystopias face similar issues. The ills of society are so huge, so overwhelming that they’re basically impossible for a protagonist to amend. In the cases where a successful revolution does occur, there’s no guarantee that its results will be any better than the original oppressive regime. Instead, the stories conclude on an uncertain note, at best a pause in the calamities of their chaotic world.

But that is dystopia by it’s very nature. You can’t escape. The governing destruction will always cycle around again.

 

Beware the Monster in the Shadows

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Sheesh, MarySue. You have to earn your sparkles in urban fantasy. You can’t just show up with them.

Lest anyone worry that I’m about to delve into the many nuances of werewolves and vampires and werepires¹ and whatnot, this week’s series actually bounces through a handful of sub-genres. Urban fantasy, with its gritty atmosphere and edgy feel, gets the first whack.

I’m not going to say that all urban fantasy heroines are MarySues, but many of them do tend to lean that direction. There’s definitely a formula at play: socially awkward, seemingly normal girl enters a new environment, only to be singled out by supernatural forces.

Maybe she’s secretly one of them. Maybe she’s a “chosen one” destined to destroy or to save them. Maybe she just smells nice.

Whatever the catalyst, she gets drawn into a coexisting society filled with danger and intrigue and…

Yes. Lurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrve.

Because you know when you pick up that book with its cool-toned cover and Gothic title font that there’s a lurve story embedded within.

(I’m not going to call it a love story. Sorry, but fiction rarely reaches that ideal.)

The heroine, typically, is an ingenue, unversed in the ways of this supernatural culture. Often she’s an avatar for the reader, so her lack of knowledge makes sense. She and the reader receive enlightenment together, a dual initiation into the new-found underworld.

Except that the reader comes into the story expecting the supernatural encounters, whereas the heroine is always taken by surprise. Her supernatural love interest (because he couldn’t possibly be normal) guides her through the transition. Sometimes she experiences the whole gamut of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—as she reconciles her newly acquired knowledge with her former worldview.

It’s all very dramatic. And of course, in the end, she integrates into the shadow-ranks. (But good shadows, you know. The hot, sexy monsters, not the icky, slimy ones.)

The urban fantasy setting is always someplace you could find on a map: London, Paris, New York, Seattle. Only, it’s a gritty, edgy version of these places, because “urban” brings gritty, edgy imagery to mind. Night plays a huge role in this genre, mostly because supernaturals such as vampires and werewolves tend to avoid daylight.

And probably because the bald light of day renders such fantastic creatures ridiculous. (Go on. Tell me you haven’t envisioned monsters in the quiet, bumping night, only to scoff at yourself the next morning for such lunacy. I’m the only one? Whatevs.)

The human psyche has an inborn affinity for superstition, I think, but our carefully organized modern world with its scientific description for every tiny creature and event precludes such indulgence. Tales of shadow-lurking demons, passed through centuries of folklore, find a surprisingly natural refuge in big cities and small towns alike, though. There’s always something beyond our horizon of knowledge, something more to discover, something more to examine.

And fiction leads the way. So why not werewolves? Or vampires? Or werepires?

(Just kidding on the werepires. Were- literally means “man-” so the hybrid word is nonsensical. “Wolfpire” makes more sense, and “manpire” would sound better.)

 

¹Hat-tip to my cousin Melia for introducing me to this delightful portmanteau. A Google search of the term yields 26.3K hits, which makes me want to question humanity. But I’m sure there are sillier things afoot in pop culture, so I’ll let it lie.