Friday, 11 January 2019

My Tin Ears

I consider myself a fan of fantasy, horror and science fiction, and speculative fiction in general. But this is very much an abstract notion. When it comes down to concrete reality, I have absolutely no interest in huge swathes of those genres/sub-genres/whatever you want to call them. In particular I have tin ears for:
  • Dr Who. The BBC does documentaries well, but is almost incapable of producing drama that doesn't make me want to cringe myself into a ball and then roll into the nearest bin. (I make an exception for the old 1990s Pride & Prejudice series - catch it now on Netflix.) Dr Who is horrendous. Like watching somebody scratch their nails down a blackboard for an hour. Have you ever bitten into a sheet of tin foil? Try it now. Nasty, isn't it? That's what watching Dr Who is like for me.
  • Superheroes. Hearing about some superhero comics, I am often intrigued. They seem to be full of interesting characters and ideas. I get why intelligent people like them. But, fundamentally, I just don't like looking at the pictures. For me, the thrill of fiction has always come from picturing things for myself, in my own imagination. Comics thrust the artist's vision into my head, and it is never as interesting as what I would have come up with myself just by reading words on a page.
  • Vampires. Even without having been done to death in recent years, and transformed into annoying emo-teens in the process, vampires never interested me particularly. Ooh, a guy in a suit who is going to suck your blood and doesn't like garlic. Scary. 
  • While we're at it, gothic horror in general. I like my horror to be of the more prosaic variety: the humdrum rendered terrifying by incongruity or skillful manipulation by the author. Gothic horror is, in essence, about scary things self-consciously visually representing themselves as scary; I have no interest in it as a consequence.
  • Dark elves. It is easy to take pot shots at D&D drow and RA Salvatore. But my complaint is broader than that, and runs as follows: elves are most interesting when presented as morally ambivalent, capricious, inscrutable and fey - basically, in the manner in which Tolkien gives us the Noldor in The Silmarillion. Dividing elves into "good" and "bad" is the ultimate banalifying impulse. Elves are better when they're neither. 
What do you have tin ears for? 

31 comments:

  1. "Steampunk". I mean, I read The Difference Engine when it came out in 1990, and Gibson is always fun to read. But to think that such a throwaway novel would spawn a multi-decade fetish within nerd culture... there's just not much there after you deliver the twenty-word elevator pitch. I mean, "cyberpunk" at least resonated with some interesting cultural trends of the 1980s before it was turned into saturday morning cartoons; what cultural anxieties is steampunk speaking to (rather than simply signifying)?

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    1. Yeah, there's way too little punk in Steampunk. I think I'd like it better if they called it Victoriana or something. Also true of Dieselpunk, Raypunk, and all the other things the slap punk onto. I'm waiting for someone to start marketing Swordpunk books.

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    2. Wow. I plugged Swordpunk into Google. I should have known it was already out there.

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    3. The Difference Engine is barely steampunk. It's more a fairly staid alternate history techno-thriller.

      Steampunk had actually run its course by the time The Difference Engine came out. Actual Steampunk was much deeper into the realm of weird fiction.

      If you want to read the kind of books that actually inspired the term steampunk, look at James P. Blaylock's '80s work, such as Homunculus. To give a sense of the book, here is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia synopsis.

      "A dirigible with a dead pilot has been passing over Victorian London in a decaying orbit for some years, arousing the interest of the Royal Society, as well as scientist-explorer Langdon St. Ives and the evangelist/counterfeiter Shiloh. Shiloh is convinced that the dirigible carries his father, a tiny space alien, but withholds this knowledge from vivisectionist Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, who he is paying to reanimate Shiloh's dead mother, none other than Joanna Southcott. Narbondo and the evil millionaire Kelso Drake have their own interest in the alien; Drake possesses its spacecraft, which he uses for perverse purposes in one of his chain of stop-and-go brothels."

      That's what steampunk was like. It's certainly not to everyone's taste, but it has little in common with either The Difference Engine or the cosplay scene that came later.

      Infernal Devices, by K.W. Jeter is another good example of the brief '80s cyberpunk trend.

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    4. I rather enjoyed Steampunk until I looked at it and said to myself 'What the hell kind of Victorians are you wearing top hats indoors and corsets over the rest of your clothes? This is just dress-up.'

      Something like The Difference Engine goes a bit deeper and feels less insubstantial. It's not that I object to an aesthetic-driven work (Steampunk, Dieselpunk, &c), its just that it seems better to apply it to an entirely fictionalised place. The term 'Gaslamp fantasy' may be the one to use.

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    5. My own feeling about anything "-punk" is that it means the fiction is interested in the impact of a given technology on society, particularly from the perspective of those outside the mainstream elites who are benefiting most from it. In other words, I think you could do interesting steampunk fiction in the vein of what William Gibson was doing in Neuromancer - following poor people using, and subverting, steam technology to get what they can. Rather than just pseudo-Victoriana dressing up.

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    6. I read and enjoyed Cherie Priest's book Boneshaker. It did exactly what you're talking about, examining how technology (in this case mad science) impacts people who've fallen through the cracks of society.

      The book also has zombies, so by my scorecard it shouldn't have worked for me at all, but I quite enjoyed it.

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    7. Throwaway novel indeed!! I remember reading the Difference Engine after digging through all the other Gibson I could get my hands on, and was stunned by how boring it was. I don't remember anything actually happening...

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    1. Blogger needs a comment editor!

      Most entertainment fails to speak to me. That’s probably a picayune conceit of mine rather than anything wrong with the vast entertainment apparatus.

      Specifically to your points, I agree 100%. Elves and other Tolkien creatures ought not be people in funny suits. They ought to be aliens, each in their own way.

      Vampires and zombies (especially zombies) have caught the zeitgeist because in some way a large number of people feel like zombies. It’s relatable. I don’t know why. In the early 80s to early 90s, people could relate to black and white morality adventures. Maybe not so much anymore.

      These gripes will be back with the tropes that spawn them. Roll with it and don’t let the hackneyed contrivances get you down.

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    2. It fails to speak to me too - I think it is called getting old....

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  3. Zombies. I liked them, but they passed my over-saturation point long ago.

    Long, multi-book, huge story arcs. These days I might make it through a trilogy, though even those are a stretch for me anymore, but if the story takes more than that? I just don't have the time and focus anymore. Especially if the series isn't complete.

    Alternate history. If you cross all the way into fantasy or sci-fi with it, like a Deadlands book, fine. But stuff like what Harry Turtledove does holds zero interest for me. Not saying it's bad, just not my jam.

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    1. What I really hate are the popularity of zombies in RPGs. The main thing RPGs have going for them are the fact that everyone NPC you encounter is played by an actual human being that you can interact with.

      There have been too many sessions that I have played in where the GM throws out the "surprise" that location we are in has been overrun by zombies. Great. Every opponent we meet will be stupid an attack on sight.

      I understand why they work in video games. They are the perfect way to conceal the fact that most games have crappy AI. It's pretty easy to program convincing zombie behavior. I'm just tired of it in tabletop RPGs.

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    2. Agree entirely about zombies. Interesting in the Romero films. Boring otherwise.

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  4. Game of Thrones. Yes, it's broadly similar to some of the things in which I am interested, but I don't think it's a good example of that genre, and I don't understand why so many people like it. Is it the boobs?

    Black Mirror. I think I would have loved it when I was 17, but I haven't been 17 for a long time.

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    1. I've not seen the Game of Thrones TV series. I liked the first three books and will continue to read whatever new ones he comes out with, if he ever does. But it increasingly feels like a task I have to complete, rather than something I will enjoy.

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  5. I agree with all of yours - but I'd exempt vampires as presented by Stoker. Not a guy in a suit, but a wolfish old man with a drooping moustache who boasts of having the blood of Attila in his veins and creeps down the walls of buildings to capture infants to feed to his harem. Much better than almost every interpretation that followed (barring, perhaps, Murnau's). I also like vampires as draugr-style walking corpses - stinking of the grave , devoid of suaveness and fat with blood.

    Also: the sub-Tolkien genre: Brooks, Eddings, et al.

    And, heretically, Robert E. Howard. I like the concepts. I like reading about him and his works. I like the odd line here and there. But I find the stories almost unreadable - even Beyond the Black River and Red Nails.

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    1. Even more heretically I've never really bothered reading much REH at all.

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  6. I can't stand the rebooted Dr. Who but have you ever tried the classics? Troughton and Baker, in particular?

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    1. I used to watch it as a kid. I hated it even then. There is something almost bleakly depressing about early Dr Who.

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  7. Metal in general, which all kinds of gamers seem to be into. I don't dislike it, but it does not speak to me at all - mostly, when I am listening to metal, it just passes me by. And the same applies to a whole lot of metal-adjacent things, particularly the grimdark aesthetic. I am that one guy who has always wanted to play a light-hearted WFRP campaign, and who sees the career system as a wonderful opportunity to play a game of blundering nobodies in a corrupt, violent, but ultimately funny world. Needless to say, I am not LotFP's target audience either.

    I *mostly* don't get superheroes. I understand their appeal on the rational level, but they have never grabbed me despite attempts to enjoy the highlights. There are select comics and movies I enjoy which fit into the genre, but that may be due to something else, like the 1989 Batman's expressionist scenery or early Flash Gordon's D&Disms.

    Anime/manga. Same issue. Yes, I know it is not a genre... but most of it totally is. I like the exceptions, but it seems I don't appreciate the rule.

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    1. Yeah, I dislike a lot of what we call anime/manga, but in Japan there's a lot more normal stuff that's pretty good.

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    2. Amusingly, despite being an extreme metalhead I find most "metal-inspired" RPG stuff at best not that interesting and at worst annoying or even embarrassing.

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  8. I think to me it's anything that has written "grim 'n' gritty" all over it. Maybe it's kinda what you said about the images in comic books. I'm not saying that a situation can't look bleak in my fantasy/Sci-fi, but if something feels depressing to read, it stops to interest me at a certain point of time. Which is why I kinda stopped caring about GoT eventually and prefer Heroic fantasy over everything else.
    Hm, and maybe Lovecraft. I really love some of the elements that came out of Mythos, but as a whole, it fails to interest me.
    On the other hand, I love basically everything else that has been pointed out by you and the other commentators. ^^

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    1. Grim and gritty has become a form of kitsch. I wrote a post about that ages ago...can't now remember what it was titled even!

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  9. Star Trek. I watched most of the series and never really clicked. Ironically I prefer the story of Star Trek and the execution of Star Wars even though I am not a fan of most of the latter's themes. I much prefer Rogue One and Empire Strikes Back over any of the Trek films.

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  10. Zombie apocalypse fiction, horror fiction, and most supernatural investigation fiction as portrayed in television serials.

    Still like Cthulhu/culty-type stuff in celluloid (and digital), but am O So Tired of it in literature and role-playing. I see Cthulhu on any type of RPG book and I'm generally a hard pass.

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  11. Tolkien.
    I finally finished The Hobbit this decade, after first brushing up against it in high school. I've never finished LotR; I made it through Fellowship once.
    He is a great plotter and linguist, but he cannot write. Howard could write and Lovecraft could write, but Tolkien reads like a dry essay on the history of his worldbuilding. "Let me tell you about my campaign."

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  12. Much of the fantasy genre in general. I love the idea of it, and I find the odd gem here and there, but for the most part I walk away feeling like the bar to publishing must be really rather low.

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  13. Star wars and Star Trek. I read and Watch a lot of Fantasy and sci-fi but those and Aldo tolkienesque Fantasy are notte my Cup of tea. I amici more a sword & Sorcery and old fashioned space opera guy.

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