Fiddling at the End of the World
In Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” the titular character plays alien music upon his viol to keep some kind of otherworldly horror at bay. Each night he plays more and more frantically until, at last, the Stygian horrors of Chaos claim him, compelling him to play even while dead. It’s one of my favorite Lovecraft tales.
Increasingly, I’ve been feeling a little bit like Erich Zann. I think maybe a lot of us have.
It feels as though the wheels are coming off civilization. I’ll spare you the details, but you probably know what I’m talking about. We are facing chaos and uncertainty, dealing with various kinds of trauma and suffering, and our opportunities for combating this or changing it in any substantive way are few. All we really have to keep us going is art.
I say this because, for all we can talk about fighting and working and resisting and so on, the fact remains that you can’t actually live for doing that. Not if you want to retain your sanity, anyway. We fight on the battlefields so that we may live at home, and as the battlefield and the home become increasingly the same place and exist in the same sphere, how do we or can we escape from…you know, all of this shit?
For many of us who are artists/creators of some kind, we keep creating (or try to, anyway); for those of us who are not, we consume the art with equal greed. We artists throw ourselves into our work; our audiences throw themselves into the worlds we create. For me, I don’t want to write about the real world for obvious reasons, but nevertheless I find myself writing about it anyway, in oblique ways. Like Erich Zann, I can’t keep the chaos completely at bay – I am only mortal – so it creeps in, bit by bit. Like the narrator of the story, the audience is intrigued by the glowing edge of that realness. The fictional and the factual exist in tandem, never really separated. Fiction is a way of looking at something without really looking.
I’ve been playing The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, and as Geralt walks through Velen beneath the trees straining with the weight of hanged men, there is a certain dark parallel there to our own world. I find it soothing, though, in a way – as Geralt, I can slay the monsters and defeat the unrighteous (or try to, as best I can). If I can’t save people, maybe I can at least avenge them. In this case I am Zann’s audience, listening through the door.
But the artist – the author of The Witcher books/games, myself in my own work – we have to look out that window into the chaos. We have to face it to make the art, and we play and we play and we play and it doesn’t seem like enough. It isn’t actually enough, is it? Zann dies trying. Perhaps nothing so grandiose happens to the author who looks at the world’s ugliness and fashions it into some shadowy reflection with a lot more drama and a lot less despair, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves: very few books change the world. Very few stories rewrite history. We as a society spent 50 years screaming about Orwell’s 1984 and we went and did it anyway.
You have to look, though. You’ve no choice. The idea that we can produce works that are separate from our current times is the height of arrogance – we are, by necessity, products of the world around us. Like Erich Zann, we cannot choose what is outside our window. We can only take a hard look at it, take up our viol, and try to make it better.
Or die trying.
To Fear the Unknown
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way and start with HP Lovecraft, shall we?
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
As a side note, I’ve always found this quote to be richly ironic coming from Lovecraft, as I’ve never found his stuff terribly frightening with one or two possible exceptions (“The Whisperer in the Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark”). Usually his stories consist of a weirdo, a monster, and the monster coming to eat/claim/drive mad said weirdo. Once you’ve read one or two of them, you’ve got the formula down (with rare and important exceptions–“The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Shadow Out of Time”, and others, but those stories were always more ‘cool’ than ‘scary’, anyway). The ‘unknown’ and the fear thereof becomes significantly undermined if you already know, in loose detail, what’s going to happen.
At the heart of it, though, Lovecraft is spot-on. What is really, truly frightening is not knowing what you’re up against or how to combat it. If you doubt it, ask yourself this: if you saw an elephant walking down the street, would you be scared? Now, would you be more or less scared than if you saw an elephant walking down the street and had no idea what an elephant was at all? The second, clearly, and Lovecraft understood this. It’s just that his ability to plot didn’t quite keep up with his understanding of what makes something frightening.
In the end, if we’re trafficking in horror quotations, I prefer one by Stephen King:
The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.
~from Night Shift
So, here’s the challenge in horror: to get your readers to believe, even for a moment, that there’s something there to grab them by the ankle. That’s more than simply the unknown. That’s the unknown that knows about you. That’s the unknown and the immediate. Lovecraft’s characters, who go wandering off over hill and over dale to seek out their madness, they’re asking for it. By contrast, that VHS tape in The Ring is right there, on your living room table. You just need to pop it in and aren’t you curious about it, after all? I can not know about elephants, but I won’t be scared of one until it’s stomping through my neighborhood. I need to believe that it’s possible. I need to draw the shades to keep the man-eating giant from looking inside.
I am not, by self-identification, a horror writer. I think part of it is because I’ve never had a horror book scare me, so I don’t quite get it. I’ve been told that things I’ve written and done have been creepy or scary, but I confess to not really understanding what they mean all the time. That said, I like horror. It’s fun to scare people. It is a rare and unique challenge.
Very soon I’m going to be starting up a gothic horror RPG (Ravenloft is the setting, for you nerds out there, and I’m using the FATE system), and I’ve been wracking my brain on how, when, and why to scare my players. One of the basic tricks is, of course, keeping them in the dark. You need to keep the enemy unknown to keep it scary; as soon as it makes its first on-screen appearance, it loses it’s magic. In RPGs, where players are so often obsessed with the minutiae of statistics, stunts, and dice, this is especially important. I can never describe something as a ‘vampire’ and have it work as a terrifying foe. I need to keep it’s identity in the dark for as long as possible, giving the players the sense that something is going to grab their ankle without actually making the swipe. It’s at that moment–at the moment when the scaly, taloned hand grasps the ankle, that ‘horror’ evaporates. We are then, at that precise moment, in an action scene.
My friend, John Perich, recently drew my attention to this article by Kyle Munkittrick regarding the importance of Mass Effect and its universe on science fiction overall. As a science fiction author, someone deeply involved in the tropes and subgenres of science fiction, and as a lifelong fan of the genre, the article rubs me the wrong way. Mass Effect, while I expect it is a fine game with a well-realized world and excellent storyline (my critique is in no way directed at the game itself), the authors claims seem to indicate to me a certain ignorance of science fiction in general that bugs me.
The author’s central thesis is this:
Mass Effect can and does take ideas to a new plane of existence. Think of the Big Issues in your favorite series. Whether it is realistic science explaining humanoid life throughout the galaxy, or dealing with FTL travel, or the ethical ambiguity of progress, or even the very purpose of the human race in our universe, Mass Effect has got it. By virtue of three simple traits – its medium, its message, and its philosophy – Mass Effect eclipses and engulfs all of science fiction’s greatest universes.
In essence, it is his claim that the Mass Effect world has managed to effectively supplant all preceding science fiction by virtue of its scope and philosophy. This is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. I can say this without ever having played the game, and the reason I can do this is simply because all of the things pointed out by Mr. Munkittrick as being unique and special to the game have not only been done before, but done before multiple times and done very well. Apparently, because the game does all of them at once, this makes it automatically superior to any individual exploration of various aspects of this theme, which, to my mind, is sort of like saying WalMart is automatically superior to any other store since they sell all the things the other stores do collectively. If we are approaching literature in the same way we approach the purchase of bath towels, then I suppose the argument might stand. Literature and, indeed, all art, is not to be so quantitatively assessed. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through the claims of the article one-by-one.
In this portion of the article, the author puts forward the idea that Mass Effect, by virtue of being a video game, grants the work a kind of special power. This isn’t altogether untrue, of course – you, in a video game of this nature, have unparalleled control over the path of the storyline, something like those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books of old. This, of course, facilitates a level of engagement that is altogether different from that of a book (it also dilutes authorial control and symbolic and thematic resonance, in my experience, but I haven’t played Mass Effect, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt by saying it is an exception to this phenomenon).
More specifically, however, the author makes three claims. First is this:
The first advantage, setting, involves the portrayal of alien species and alien worlds with ease. Novels require descriptions, comics require painstaking drawings, films and television require either hours of expression deadening makeup or expensive CGI. In a video game, rendering an asari or a hanar requires the same amount of work as a human. Want a cast of thousands? No problem. Need a mob of hundreds of individuals representing fifteen different species rendered inside an colossal ancient space station? No sweat.
So, if I can paraphrase, the argument is that novels use exhausting words to convey meaning, comics have to actually draw things, and film costs lots of money to make this diversity possible. Video games, however, do so effortlessly, somehow, as though the programmers and graphic artists and game designers of these games haven’t spent years and years of work fashioning this environment with every bit as much effort and work as your average novelist, artist, or movie producer.
Furthermore, and more importantly, this is supposed to be somehow novel or unique. Nevermind that it’s been done before, and often. You would have an awfully hard time matching the diversity inherent in Banks’ Culture novels. Furthermore, if you want to talk non-humanoid, bizarre lifeforms and marginalized humanity, there are plenty of choices to pick from, not least of which are the humans of Stephen Baxter’s novels, which at various times in his 4,000,000 year chronology shows humanity being conquered by the Squeem (an aquatic, collectively intelligent species of fish) and the Qax (a species of intelligent marshland – yeah, you heard me) or being completely embarrassed and marginalized by the god-like Xeelee.
The second and third points in the Medium argument circle around the fact that you can control the main character’s choices and even form, which increases engagement in the work. This I won’t bother to contest – it’s true, no doubt. This fact, however, doesn’t make Mass Effect some great contribution to science fiction unless, for some reason, you lack the attention span or capacity to focus on challenging things like ‘books’ to bother seeing what else is out there or what other characters you can identify with. I’m not certain if this argument is the intention of the author, in that it seems to assume that our modern culture can’t or won’t support artistic mediums wherein we cannot control and shape characters ourselves. It strikes me as a cynical and depressing view of modern audiences.
In this segment of the article, Munkittrick presents the central message of Mass Effect as this:
Mass Effect has a simple message: human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things.
This is fair enough – a theme often explored by science fiction, and has been hit upon by many, many authors through the years. Munkittrick, however, is primarily focused upon Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar: Galactica, and a brief aside to Starship Troopers (though I’m thinking he means the movie, though, since Heinlein’s message for humanity is rather more in keeping with Mass Effect’s) and Ender’s Game.
This narrowness of scifi allusions tells me, first of all, that the author doesn’t really know enough about science fiction to appropriately assess how important a contribution Mass Effect is likely to make to the genre. Those five works are, essentially, sticking your toe in the shallow-end of what scifi can and has done. I, and I’m sure every scifi writer and fan, are pretty damned tired of having everything we read or have done being compared to Star Wars and Star Trek. Quite simply, the marginalization and racism against humans in Mass Effect for the purpose of, to borrow the author’s phrase, “destabiliz[e] the player’s sense of confidence in his or her own skin,” is an old storyline. For reference, think of The Time Machine (1895), War of the Worlds (1897), Planet of the Apes (1963), Childhood’s End (1953), Battlefield: Earth (1982), Excession (1996), and so on and so forth. Granted, not all of them do *exactly* the same thing, but I think that’s a sufficient crosssection of work to demonstrate how ‘done’ this storyline is. It’s a perfectly good storyline, mind you, but not a landmark one.
The philosophy under discussion is ‘Cosmicism’, which is basically the idea that humans are too insignificant to understand or construct true meaningful existence in the universe. It is, as the author points out, posited by HP Lovecraft. He also claims that Mass Effect is the only work since then to bother with this postmodernist take on human existence. This is, of course, false (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perhaps the most prominent work to approach the same material, as did Childhood’s End and a lot of Clarke’s other work, as does, on a thematic level, much of the cyberpunk subgenre – or the good stuff, anyway).
In any event, the author proceeds to present a wide variety of storylines that have analogs in other works and all tie this into postmodern thought. This isn’t especially novel, since the other works are also tying it into postmodern thought, because that’s where they got the idea, and HP Lovecraft and the creators of Mass Effect aren’t the only two artists to consider such things. Now, Munkittrick is clearly a big fan of Cosmicism and a devout postmodernist, so the praise he heaps upon Mass Effect I feel, to some extent, is due to his discovery of a video game that simulates his own worldview or, perhaps, allows him to entertain questions he likes entertaining. To state, as he does, that “Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity” is simply not true except, perhaps, for the word ‘blockbuster’. I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘blockbuster’, exactly. I would think that Neuromancer does and it, indeed, has such heavy postmodernist themes that it should least qualify as intellectual precedent.
I don’t want to sound as if I’m getting down on Mass Effect – I’m not. What I’m reacting to here is the willingness of some people, who seem poorly read in science fiction, to make assessments that this science fiction property they just discovered is going to change the genre forever. It’s disingenuous to the genre and to the artists and authors who have worked so hard to advance it. I’m not going to get into how I find Cosmicsm an interesting but ultimately pointless endeavor, or point out how all the ‘aliens’ you can ever imagine are really just humans in different clothing or symbols of concepts humans deal with and that, therefore, giving a franchise crap for having ‘too many humans’ is like criticizing language for using too many words – no, that’s just me spouting my own version of the Good News just as this article is doing here. Instead, this is just me saying:
Before handing things awards, do some more research.