Thursday, 12 April 2012

Two Themes are a Couple, Three are a Crowd

In the comments on my post on Shadowrun a few days ago, John wrote the following:

Cyberpunk is already a mash-up of hardboiled fiction and science fiction. Fantasy and hardboiled both combine well with science fiction on their own, but trying to combine fantasy with hardboiled without seeming frivolous or banal is a major undertaking in itself. Throw in s.f. as well and you've got a major oversaturation of themes going on.

This got me thinking: perhaps John is right, and mashing up two themes works fine, but adding a third causes the edifice to collapse under its own weight? Are there any famous or successful three-way, or four-way, genre mashups?

An experiment. Roll 3d10 and mashup the genres in this table. What do you get?



2, 7, 3: Noir, gothic horror, hard SF. There's a female vampire disguised on a space ship and gradually killing off the crew, and there's a whiskey-soaked detective on board who is in love with her and trying to solve the crime at the same time; the way he solves the mystery is through application of a clever scientific theory. Yeah, I can see how that wouldn't work - gothic horror and hard SF cancel each other out; if the vampire is really supernatural it isn't hard SF any more, but if there is a scientific solution then it isn't actually really gothic horror. Though both work well with noir.

10, 2, 3: Victoriana, noir, hard SF. A steampunk setting in which the details are meticulously laid out so that every element of the steam-powered world makes perfect sense. A whiskey-soaked detective attempts to solve a murder, but the solution revolves around understanding something specifically to do with steam engines. That kind of works, actually, though I'm taking a very loose definition of "hard SF". You'd have to really like steam engines, and really understand what they're capable of and what the implications would be.

10, 9, 6: Victoriana, literary fiction, western. A steampunk western in which nobody does anything except mope and ponder the imponderables while having ennui-inducing sex and taking mild intoxicants. Could sort of work if the writer made great play of the fact that steam, social conservatism and violence are sort of like the human condition. But would be boring and wasteful of its setting.

Maybe John is onto something.

18 comments:

  1. I'd say you have far too few genres in that table and too little nuance in those genres there are. Three sets of rolls is also a little light for drawing solid conclusions, especially given the single example setup in each case.

    "... gothic horror and hard SF cancel each other out ..."

    I'm not convinced fictional categories map so simply to math. And to follow the reasoning, does Gothic horror have to involve the supernatural, and is the supernatural beyond scientific understanding? I'm not sure we can be as sure as this suggests.

    Maybe John is right, but we'll need to put in more work to know.

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    1. I think it's self-evident there are too few genres in it and too little nuance. ;)

      More work is certainly required. What would you suggest?

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    2. Taking a step back. Looking less at distinct categories, and more for continuities across at least two or three dimensions. Maybe breaking each genre down into its components, and going deeper than the obvious features so that rather than say 'steam' and 'whiskey', we'd have 'simple automation of some form' and possibly 'borderline addiction, to a socially accepted substance with a range of effects'. That would get things much closer to the roots, and mean that when we grow it back up the structure could take less familiar forms, other tones and flavours.

      Early thoughts only, and they might not go much further - I think it's less about theory and more about practice. If we want to create new fictional spaces, and maybe be more truly original, who knows if we'll succeed? Is it even possible today? It's do or die in some sense, breakthrough or bust; if it's worth doing, it's surely worth actually doing.

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    3. I think Porky is correct with the idea of breaking each genre down a bit more. Since this has certainly been done with TV and film medias, I see no reason why it couldn't be done with a new RPG setting.

      As an example, the triad of space opera, western and psychological horror was done with Joss Whedon's short lived TV show Firefly. It was basically a post-civil war western set in space, with some horror elements thrown in. Something along those lines is certainly playable as a sandbox setting.

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    4. When you talk about breaking genres down into components as minute as "simple automation", I think you A) lose the subject of conversation about cross-genre fiction, and B) are achieving a level of categorisation that isn't really very useful.

      e.g. Firefly is a space western, not a psychological horror. It may, arguably, at times have themes in common with psychological horror, but that's true of any fiction. If you're playing a Star Trek game, as RMDC says you can have different themes/tones in each session as you go along. But your setting is still sci-fi.

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  2. If you really want to know, you could post the topic on Story Games. They'll love it.

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    1. And embarrass themselves talking about it!

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  3. To expand on what I meant: Any given genre can of course have a lot of nuance and subgenres and difference of themes and so on. And you can mash together any genres you like and maybe come up with a passable story or setting. But in order for cross-genre fiction to work well, the themes of each component need to complement each other, not just sit alongside each other. Three genres all complementing each other is a way more complicated set-up than just two, maybe unsustainably complicated depending on the genres.

    Take cyberpunk: Hardboiled fiction relies pretty heavily on a straightforward and unsentimental portrayal of commonplace human darkness. SF, at least in the Philip K Dickian sense, involves taking our world, changing a few key things and then following that through to its logical conclusion and examining its effect on people and the world. It's easy to see how the two can complement each other quite well. Now try to crowbar fantasy in there without diluting any of your themes.

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  4. "wasteful of its setting."

    I think you hit on something very smart about literary fiction there:
    the reason imaginative worlds so often seem to go hand in hand with adventure fiction and violence is it's a way to explore the setting--as much of it as possible.

    Ulysses is good, but if it were set on Mars you'd be like "Wait, I went all the way to Mars and all I got was this stupid hallucination"

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    1. Yep. You need a "man of action" in there to get off his arse and find out what the setting is all about. Otherwise there really is no point in doing it.

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  5. While I agree with John's thesis, I think your examples here could work with a little genre looseness. In fact, they sort of already do exist, e.g.:

    2, 7, 3: Noir, gothic horror, hard SF

    Sounds like Solaris, or even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or better yet, Alien: what's more Noir than the realization that you've been double-crossed by your own company, and that none of the institutions you thought you could rely on have your best interest at heart?

    10, 9, 6: Victoriana, literary fiction, western.

    No need to bring Steampunk into this one. There are all kinds of novels set in late-19th-Century America (and South America) that fit the bill. Much of Marquez fits the bill, for example.

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  6. You know, the great thing about a lot of broad settings is that you have a single core genre with holes for temporary, modular genres to attach. How many times has a Star Trek episode been less sci-fi and more western, psychological drama, gangster noir?

    Frankly, Star Trek is pretty boring without another lens to focus it. That's why we get monsters of the week and oddball situations. That's why Q was so fun.

    How often do we have "the horror session" or "the murder mystery" in our D&D games? Aren't we already doing this?

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    1. That's two themes, though, isn't it?

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    2. Yes, but those two in particular often follow hard on each other no matter what the background genre is. :P

      I guess what I'm getting at is that we rarely mix genres wholesale, whether we're tossing together two or twenty. Even Shadowrun doesn't play that way. We have a major genre as our backdrop and toss in tropes and themes from other genres where appropriate.

      Really, with Shadowrun, cyberpunk is the background, and fantasy is a genre which has taken up residence on the couch more or less for good. The Kato Kaelin genre. It's not a full-on gonzo puree, and even at its worst it doesn't try to be.

      Trying to fold everything of genre A into everything of genre B is doomed to fail, even with just two genres. Of course you can't do it with a third. But you can lampshade the elements of other genres which you mix into your core setting, like special guest stars. That's possible to accomplish with any number of genre tropes in one go if done with a light hand.

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  7. Greyhawk Knight13 April 2012 16:21

    "but trying to combine fantasy with hardboiled without seeming frivolous or banal is a major undertaking in itself."

    Steven Brust's novels about that master assassin, whatshecalled, Vlad Taltos?

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    1. I haven't heard of it before, I'll check it out.

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  8. Makes sense for a novel. Not sure I agree for a game where consistency between sessions/adventures is perhaps a bit more flexible. A cyberpunk game could be Sci-Fi/Noir one session and Sci-Fi/Western the next.

    Really short stories are the same. One time Conan is overthrowing a kingdom, the next he's solving a mystery, the next he's escaping a maze of horrors.

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  9. Victoriana, noir, hard sf immediately makes me think of "The Diamond Age, Or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer ", by Neil Stephenson. Victoriana doesn't have to literally be steam engines, does it? I don't think "The Diamond Age" is noir, but it's certainly and literally Victoriana and hard sf.

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