Thursday, September 19, 2019

Questionable Directions

I have simple standards when it comes to the entertainment I enjoy. By that I mean my bar for general enjoyment isn't very high. I'm an easy person to please. Something that is merely entertaining is enough for me to give the thumbs up and a recommendation to doesn't require much. However, I do have a few pet peeves that prevent me from ever even giving the attempt at indulging certain stories anymore.

What I dislike the most is anything that makes the universe smaller. Any story device that clips the wings of potential from the outset is one I cannot get behind. And, unfortunately, this has happened more and more over the last decade.

There are two examples that are functionally the same thing, but both are very good at making me lose interest in your story.

The first is the usage of alternate dimensions: a story that revolves around different versions of the same world and characters from multiple different angles.

This became a very popular storytelling trope in the '00s, and I have hated it from the outset as a lazy way of putting a ceiling on your universe and relying on already established settings to tell tiny stories that can never have wider impact beyond them. They are, by design intended to be small but fool others into thinking they are not.

The best example of this is in comic books. Both Marvel and DC have made it known that they revel in alternate universes for material and have for years despite declining sales. There are endless versions of every character and setting and there have been whole plotlines and events revolving around these versions and their subtle differences with the main world. This leads to endless reboots and relaunches in new or combined universes where the writer can and will make any change he wants because its any easy way to not have to expand the universe or create new characters and situations. This is a lazy way to create "new" content.

This device keeps everything insular and yet meaningless by the end of the story. If anything changes it just doesn't matter because they can just find another version of the character to use or get a new timeline and do the same thing again. It's shadowboxing with a thin veneer of world-shaking stakes.

When you dabble in alternate timelines you are essentially saying you like the idea of the universe more than the actual universe. You want to pick and nit at it until there is nothing left on the plate but peas lined up carefully. You have no interest in exploring what you've made, but would rather turn inward and admire yourself and your creations in the mirror. You are taking a universe and shrinking it down to one set of characters and settings copypasted into eternity.

There is nothing interesting about that.

Note: I am not talking about alternate history stories. Those have value as what if stories and original takes on historical events. They are not reliant on multiple realities to make their narratives work. They have more elbow room and possibilities to them than what I am referring to above.

Alternate dimensions as a story device has a limited shelf life, yet it's been used incessantly for the last two decades to weaker and weaker results.

This story was insulting in at least three different ways.
In fact, this leads to the second related issue I have with modern storytelling, and that is time travel. Time travel of a certain type, specifically.

Yes, yes, Back to the Future is a great movie (and series) and does time travel right. It also works because it is light fare and a comedy which allows more with the concept than it would if it was 100% serious and rigid. Outside of comedy time travel rarely ever works, and that is because most time travel stories are inward looking and hyper-focused on small things and limited events.

There are also stories that begin with the character thrown into the distant past or future then must stay there for the length of the story until the problem is solved.

I'm not referring to the above, as the time travel is merely the set up and not the entire plot. These stories also don't require that you take them incredibly serious, either.

My main issue with time travel, besides the logic breaking apart if you think about it too hard, is that it has the same effect as alternate dimensions does. It has a chance of undercutting any tension or stakes in the story with an infinite supply of outs or lack of excuses for even using them.

Stories that are more interested in navel-gazing instead of exploring the world before them tells me that the writer has a limited interest in what they have created and no intention of exploring it beyond a small area or time frame. Stories that focus on the past or future of a tiny cast of characters, or endless versions of them, are not interested in the wider world of your universe, only a small section of it. This tells me that the story you want to tell is going to be insular with no wider connection outside of it.

You can tell a tale in a single location with a limited cast and still have it be part of a bigger whole, because that's life. Every action has an effect on everyone else, no matter how small or simple. Eventually it goes around.

But purposefully insular stories essentially locked to their own time and space away from the bigger universe . . . don't. By design, they can't. They are trapped and segregated to their own tiny spaces that either roll out in the wider world in a limited way or a cartoonish over-correction on reality itself (which works much better when it's a comedy so you don't have to think too hard on it) essentially saying that no one outside your minuscule cast has any effect on your wider world.

Time hopping and destroying the past recklessly has consequences on a wider world that can't do anything about it, but the cast the writer focuses on is all you see otherwise. Relegating the fate of the rest of the world to an epilogue has never quite sat right with me.

These stories don't go anywhere, and that might be the point, but it doesn't make them any less tired or overdone. It doesn't involve looking outside yourself.

There was absolutely no point to this.
Perhaps I am biased being that action adventure is my favorite genre, but the whole purpose of adventure is to explore. These stories have a very limited definition that. Being insular is not an option in an adventure story, though it can make a good starting point. But that might help to describe why I don't enjoy this modern obsession with the self so much. It is very far from where my tastes go and doesn't offer what I engage in stories for.

I'm not sure exactly why this trend became so hot. In the '80s space travel and alien worlds were big as were cyberpunk and more fantastical lands, and the '90s continued much the same if with a bit more snark and edge. All that pretty much ceased in the '00s where inward looking mopefests with no point took control of the wondrous and fantastical. Now there is no hope for better or more exciting worlds, but endless squabbles over physical traits and pining for an alternate world than the one we already live in.

But we still live in this world. We can imagine better worlds, and even hope for escape, however we don't have to do that by rejecting the reality we already have. It's not perfect but it is still all we have, and we need it as a starting position. It's hard to imagine greater heights when you've never seen the sky and your feet have never touched the ground.

Here's hoping as we enter a new decade that we finally shake off the bad trends that have been glued in since the late 90s. The paste has rotten away by now. We're more than due for something else.

As I've said, I am not the hardest person to please. I want adventure. A simple pulp tale can do it in a couple thousand words. What excuse do the rest of us have?

I don't think we have any, not anymore.

And I don't!

That's why I recently wrote Gemini Warrior, my entry in the tradition of heroes fighting impossible odds and confronting evil where they see it! If you're looking for a modern adventure story without more needless misery then you've come to the right place. I've got you covered.

Find it Here!

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