More Than Cliché

October 25, 2020 garrison worldbuilding, readings, ims228 8 minutes, 21 seconds

Reflexive World-Building

We spoke today about the challenge that genres often present to authors -- with the idea in mind that the same problem extends to world-builders: How does one appeal to readers and make the most of the tropes of a particular genre/particular "type" of world, without sliding headlong into cliché?

The question works in service to my broader point: That world-building, whatever its imagined power, and however appealing its promise of novelty, often remains overdetermined by the aging conventions and hoary clichés that we've inherited from previous generations.

So why are we slow to abandon them? Why are there so many superheroes with capes and cowls (surely the satin cape is the one of the world's least useful accessories)? Why do teenagers always find scientists unwilling to listen to their urgent warnings? Why would anyone from Security sign up for away-team duty? Obviously, there are more than a few reasons. For example:

(1) even world-builders have a soft-spot for nostalgia;
(2) readers, gamers, and world-ranging adventurers strongly (strongly) identify with genres for the same reasons we do. They are often loathe to let them go; and
(3) from a practical perspective, the clichés we associate with certain genres can make world-building faster and easier.

On the internet, obviously, never underestimate the importance of the second reason (above). But in practical terms, reason number three seems worthiest of our attention.

Genres (like neo-noir, body horror, cyberpunk, and inspirational romance) work as a kind of shorthand for writers and builders: they make creation easier. The problem, self-evidently, is that "easier" seldom means "better:"

Generic tropes become more and more fragile with each deployment, and they can collapse into cliché without warning. Remember how Danny Boyle's sprinting zombies (28 Days Later) were a nightmarish revelation? By the time Brad Pitt got around to racing them in World War Z, fast zombies seemed silly. How many stories about mysterious-billionaire-boyfriends-who-are-into-kinky-sex-with-their-naive-girlfriends does the world really need?

By this point, there are surely hundreds of games and movies that feature a creature called an "orc", whose characteristics are pretty much drawn directly from modern fantasy sources, especially Warhammer, Warcraft, and Dungeons and Dragons. Works that, in turn, had already borrowed heavily from Tolkien's novels and maybe a bit from Tolkien's original sources, like Beowulf. Do these games make use of orcs because Tolkien failed to explore all of the possibilities offered by an orcish protagonist? Obviously, no. In fact, in many cases, orcs show up because they make convenient, unnecessary-to-fully-explain enemy "hordes." They come ready to use, right out of the box.

In many cases, I think, we'll find that the best and most thoughtful world-builders don't shy away from the clichés of their genres but instead embrace them. And then turn them deftly on their heads.

Below, some examples that I find most interesting -- in this case, drawn from science fiction cinema.

Cabin in the Woods

In part, the thing that I want to insist on here is that clichés can be redeemed, revivified, and re-animated often by merely acknowledging the cliché in the first place. The wildly meta-horror movie Cabin in the Woods is excellent for many reasons, not least of which is this fantastic opening scene, where a pair of "mad scientists" -- the kind of guys who would, in the hands of a less-skilled director, be laughing maniacally as they gloated over their nightmarish zoo of soul-devouring monsters. Instead, they are getting coffee and lost in banal conversation about baby-proofing kitchen drawers. The scene ends with a kind of tongue-in-cheek reminder that this really is a horror movie: A outlandish title card pops up over the last frames of that scene, accompanied by a piercing, out-of-nowhere shock chord. The movie title appears in giant blood-red letters, super-imposed over the scientists as they travel down the hall in their golf cart.

Star Trek II: A Tale of Two Cities

Here's another example, this time from the opening of the film Star Trek II: The film starts out by saying look, let's just admit that there are clichés everywhere, but isn't that what you came here to see? The sight of favorite characters dying in the opening sequence was probably a bit alarming to many film-goers. But the public knew that someone important was rumored to die in this film, and so director Nicholas Meyer's approach is a kind of "gotcha" -- a way of appealing to the demands of a voracious readership/viewership, without totally giving in to them.

It is worth saying that near the end of the clip below, Spock gives Kirk a birthday present: An antique copy of Dicken's Tale of Two Cities, which opens with surely one of the most clichéd lines in English literature: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...". Spock denies that there is any message in the sentiment, but by the end of the film, the Vulcan will end up making the same decision as the protagonist of that novel, and will sacrifice himself for the good of others.

Kirk points out the parallel in the last scene of the movie, as he cites the last lines from that same book, which are delivered by a man who has confessed to a capital crime in order to save the lives of others. Facing death, he observes that "It is a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done. A far better place I go than I have ever been." But somehow the movie doesn't seem to suffer by placing itself next to the Dickens novel: If anything, those echoes (personal sacrifice; the prospect of redemption) seem more deeply felt than they otherwise could have been. Given that some science fiction takes place in the far-flung future, or upon far-flung worlds, or both, it makes sense that these texts often lack cultural referents. Here, though, I think the cross-references deepen Star Trek's world.