Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Articles that start fiction ideas #4: Where have all the icons gone, long time passing?

io9.com is a pretty interesting site, the "arts of the fantastic" sub-site off of Gawker.   I'm assuming that almost anyone likely to be reading this has found it long ago and reads it regularly, but if you haven't, get on over there and read Charlie Jane Ander's article How To Create A Brand New Iconic Hero Or Villain and Marc Bernardin's reply to it.

Now, titles are often a bit misleading, and neither Charlie nor Marc were really able to tell us how to do it.  Which is a tiny bit disappointing, in the pleasant personal daydream  department, because that's a how-to that many of us in this silly business of storytelling would dearly love to be able to do.  Creating anything that lived as long, and as deeply in the mass psyche, as Batman, Tarzan, or Bullwinkle – or equally good, the Joker, Professor Moriarity, or Boris Badenov – is as close to immortality as any of us can dream about.  Heck, I wouldn't be unhappy about being the creator of anything that tied for recognition with Mr. Ed. *

So an article with a "how to" about that was going to receive my undivided attention, even though I knew it probably would not and could not live up to its title.

Sadly, of course, over here in reality-land, it's not actually possible to write such a how-to.  If it were, we'd all be billionaires (or at least our lawyers and managers would), and the world would be neck deep in iconic figures. 

But I think there's a deeper reason why that probably-editor-imposed title was actually not the right question.  Sometimes "how to" is a much less important question than "why could …?"

Now, what was it about that era – roughly 1890 through 1960, with a scattering before and after – that was such a good time for iconic heroes and villains?

Let's sneak up on the question by looking at a figure that is often just the sidekick in the main epic: the genius inventor.  He (almost all of them were male) might be an evil dude building a take-over-the-world-ray, or a heroic inventor saving the world with a Martian death-plague vaccine, or anything in between on either side of the moral and iconic fence, but I think he's interesting for two reasons:
1)    he was very often used to narrate the real, contemporary world around him, with real life figures being fitted to the archetype, and
2)    to quite a remarkable extent, he did not really exist.

This is an excellent place to see the difference between "how to" and "why could."  Suppose for some bizarre reason you want to invent something in your garage that will transform the world (and make you overwhelmingly rich).  Then the question, "how do I change the world with something I build in my garage?" won't get you very far. 

How to? "Simply build a world-transforming device that exploits an innovative technology that the whole world will turn out to need, and have good patent attorneys" is not a very good explanation for either the successes or failures of Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, Charles Hall, George Washington Carver, James Watt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Gugliemo Marconi, the Wright Brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, Nicola Tesla, Luther Burbank, Philo Farnsworth, Lee de Forest, Hermann Oberth, Alan Turing, Vannevar Bush, Hu Davis, or Steve Wozniak.   All it does is cause you to sit daydreaming about tabletop fusion for less than a thousand dollars, or genetic-engineering a mushroom that grows on sewage sludge and makes gasoline, or what happens if you spin a disk of superconducting entangled qdots so that the edge is moving at relativistic speed.  Pretty soon you're externally another garage nut posting notes about how misunderstood you are on the Internet (and you probably have to use your mom's garage because you can't afford your own) and internally you're sort of like Lex Luthor in a world where nothing works.

But "Why could those guys come to occupy the places they did in the generally accepted narrative of technical and economic history?" is a pretty good question.  It gets you considering the intersection of:
•a culture that sought out and demanded individual heroes, with
•a capitalist economy where it was cheap to produce and distribute publicity, at a time when,
•the cost and possibility of some technical improvements had changed abruptly, and
•there was a mass market for the improved/new technical products, and
•most of the consumer market was made up of people who were simultaneously fascinated with, and
•made uneasy by the technical improvements.

I've emphasized those connections in bold-italic because I don't think they're additive, i.e. 90% of conditions met would give you 90% of heroic innovator mythology.  I think they're more multiplicative, where a single zero would cause the whole thing to fail, but if they're all 1's (i.e. yes) then you get that result.

The "hero inventor" was a social construct, even if a lone guy in  a basement really did do everything (and it was pretty rare that that actually happened).  If in fact there was no single inventor, or the one guy was in fact a sharp businessman more than an engineer, or the shrewd engineer was a shrewder publicist and actually worked for giant corporations or even government bureaucracy,  then as a society/economy/polity we fixed all that up when we told the story. 

We made up everything we had to, publicized it like crazy, and another Tony Stark/Bruce Wayne created more amazing gazillionaire-toys, or another Peter Parker sat down with his earnings from his paper route and built web-shooters that worked the first time (so well that he could safely swing from buildings on them).   And he came from a peculiar time that really wanted to believe a peculiar absurdity, that heroic innovators had to overcome scorn and humiliation before succeeding. The heroic innovator should be somebody "they" all laughed at.   (Why anyone would laugh at Hershey and his chocolate bar is beyond me.)

Naturally that iconic brilliant inventor shows up all over the landscape of pop entertainment,from Tom Swift (Sr. and Jr.) to Dr. Hans Zarkov (who builds the rocket that takes Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to Mongo), Susan Calvin, Q of the Bond movies, Gyro Gearloose, most of the comic book heroes who build their own gear, and about every third Heinlein novel.  Somehow or other, antigravity drives, supercomputers, time machines, and all are produced by one guy at a drawing board with a slide rule. 

Don't believe it?  What's the matter, buddy, haven't you ever heard of Thomas Edison?

Objectively,  it's absolutely preposterous; Edison pioneered methods for using hundreds or thousands of anonymous testers, working in parallel, to find a breakthrough.  One of Henry Ford's most significant gifts was figuring out effective ways to run teams of engineers.  No single human being could have held the whole Space Shuttle in his or her head. You can do a lot of digging before you turn up anybody Ayn-Randian in the actual history of that immense technological ascent from pretty good steam trains and watches to pretty good moon rockets and computers.

So why did our culture – or rather our great-great-grandparents' and two generations after culture – pour so much effort into persuading itself that miracles of teamwork were in fact the work of lonely individuals?  There's a standard Marxist answer of sorts, best expressed perhaps in Brecht's Questions from A Worker Who Reads, but all that really talks about is the result.

There's at least one standard take on it, which is that particularly in the US, that's the period when the giant industrial combines really took over the economy; it was the age of mass production, assembly lines, time-and-motion studies, and mass marketing.  The old cranky America of interesting dissidents and kooks was dying, with less and less room for Doc on Cannery Row, no space for Finnley Wren or Auntie Mame, where My Man Godfrey really was the forgotten man and there was not even a walk-up over a Chinese restaurant with room for Murray Burns.  Instead, more and more of the world's work would be done by The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit a.k.a The Organization Man, who was the prince of The Pyramid Climbers.  Or you might listen to Don McLean's "Homeless Brother" to get an idea of the change I'm pointing to; "the children have grown older, and the cops have gripped us tight/there's no spot 'round the melting pot for free men in their flight."

It's almost a truism in cultural studies that when something is vanishing from the culture, it gets a sort of glorious twilight of being held up and revered just before being shitcanned forever, something like those horrible office parties for elderly incompetents being forced into retirement.  The American frontier was actually a spectacular mess of a thing; an ongoing land-grab and genocide, a massive any-which-way-you-can splitting up of a whole continent's resources, a remarkably raw deal for the taxpayer back east and a phenomenal giveaway to the least scrupulous capitalists on the scene.  But it was also a place of perpetual labor shortage, so that for a brief generation or so, it was a place where, as Orwell explained about Mark Twain's frontier books: "This is how human beings behave when they are not frightened of the sack" and "If you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west."  (Whether literally true or not, it was certainly a vision that appealed to people throughout the English-speaking world; nowadays, HR would take another view).

So even though there is hardly a human activity more cooperative, both immediately and at a distance, than technical innovation, and even though there were literally hundreds of counter examples available to anyone with eyes, the movies, pulp fiction, radio drama, and early comic books preferred the idea that the riddles of the universe could be solved – and turned into handy gadgets like giant robots and death rays – by lone, impoverished maniacs in old castle towers, or at least by any handy gazillionaire with a particular bent for good or evil.

All right, so the world was becoming mass-ified, people were becoming interchangeable.  Two world wars demonstrated that the new way of warfare was mass-produced slaughter in which most fighters died of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (e.g. being a British infantrymen sent running into machine gun fire at the Somme, or a Japanese infantryman left to die in a hole in the Pacific).  We could still dig out the occasional Sergeant York or Audie Murphy, and in our pop fiction, Achilles and Hector lived again.  Inventions came out of places like Bell Labs, but we could find the contribution of the Boy Scout in his garage and make that into the holy vision it had all sprung from, bringing back Daedulus – who lived again, even more so, as the hero's kindly older mentor/buddy or the nemesis who wanted to rule the world.  Mass civil disobedience by millions of people liberated millions, but somebody had to stand in front of the camera, and that person could be the Prophet and the Liberator. 

I'm going to suggest that those iconic figures had something going for them that isn't immediately obvious: they were the psychic focus of the Resistance.

The Ranger had to be Lone because the mundane world of the working ranch, railroad, and mine was a depressing, dull place with little freedom to it; the jerks were in charge.  The General Purpose Savior Honky (of whom Jake in Avatar is just the latest incarnation) was never, for example, an official of an international body, or an investigator from the Department of Not Treating the Natives Like Shit; he was some isolated reluctant hero who got dragged into it because he just couldn't stand to see the unfairness of it all.  "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid … " doesn't work if the man is working for the Bureau of Social Welfare and has a large backup team of specialists. 

Nowadays community is a positive buzzword, and certainly most of us like to feel connected, but we want to feel connected as individuals, not as Rank 27, File 132.  We don't always know what each other are feeling, and we even like that we have to figure it out, and that other people have to figure us out.  There are countless myths about the tricky Old Coyote, and the mighty Hercules, and the wily Sindbad, but hardly any about the replaceable Bob.  What surprise is there, then, that when our culture brought forth  mass-produced entertainment for mass society, the characters were colorful, larger than life, exaggerated, mythic, iconic – i.e. thoroughly individual?

A real-life Joker or Riddler would be caught in almost no time, by a team of cops; you'd get him on surveillance cameras.  A real life mad scientist might possibly murder many of us with a germ, but probably it would look like a flu epidemic; he's not going to build a giant robot and hold Chicago hostage.  Look at the actual level of violent street crime in a major city in the developed world, calculate the odds of someone being on the scene just when it's happening, and how much work is there, really, for The Shadow,  or even for Mike Hammer? 

But it wasn't about that.  It was about the dream world and the dream time, where we are all individuals.

And not just any individuals.  We are all the princes and princesses of Fairyland.  In Fairyland there is one person that really matters, and that person's becoming or being recognized as who they are supposed to be is what the story is about.

Because Fairyland is a metaphor for growing up.  Sleeping Beauty has an encounter with something forbidden and falls into an apparent coma, along with everybody else in her life, but when the right guy kisses her she wakes up.  Snow White hangs out with a crowd of sexless little men until she is fed something superficially attractive by a cruel, envious older woman, and when she is kissed, she too wakes up and assumes her rightful role as queen.  Peter Parker, as a teenager, suddenly gets magic juice in his blood and becomes much more powerful, but when he refuses to use that power responsibly, he loses his family, and must struggle to atone.  A moment of pity and compassion for a helpless, dying being both dooms and ennobles Hal Jordan to become the Green Lantern. **  Diana, Princess of Themyscira, gives up the dull princess gig of hanging around being awesome with the other Amazons, and goes out and fights in the real world of sexism, supervillains, and inconvenience, and emerges as much more of a person – indeed, as Wonder Woman.

And growing up, like it or not, is a matter of becoming more, and not less, individual; even in cultures that don't value individuality in the  same flamboyant, public sense that the West has tended to, finding out who you are matters, and that "who you are" will be different from who everyone else is. ***

So here's the rub of it, I think: modern mass society, for a long time, had not much room for individuality, and in many ways was no place for grownups.  As consumers and citizens, we were more desirable if we behaved like adolescents, running after every fad and desperately trying to outcompete the neighbors on superficial matters.  Whatever we might lose as workers and creators could be compensated for with better robots and more dumbed down jobs, but the economy really, really needed people whose lives could be changed by getting a new car, the right brand of beer, a healthy organic cereal for the kids that moms can feel good about, a great night's sleep, and breast implants.   (Not necessarily all at once).

That's not a grownup thought pattern.

As far back as the mid-1950s,  Paul Goodman, in Growing up Absurd, was noting that there was less and less room for adults in the contemporary world.  Our pop culture was a daydream of the most attractive idea there is for adolescents: growing up.  But our economy and society increasingly said, dream, but don't do.

I'm hardly the first person to note that when we raise our kids to think that virtue should win out over vice (perhaps after a long struggle), or that being true to yourself can be more important than fitting in, or that the people in authority are not the best judges of who deserves compassion, or any of the rest, we are raising rebels.  How many movie villains have we heard sneer at the hero's best qualities?

The thwarted hero/heroine quest is a metaphor for something else, too: for the disenabling of maturity, for removing the possibility of growing up.  The trouble is, it's a shitty story.  "And so, having heard the warning of the Cranky Crone of Curmudgeondom, Prince Daring rethought the whole thing, went home and made up with his parents, married a local girl who bored him silly, and settled into his pleasant sincecure."  So you can't thwart the development and keep them reading.

But you can teach them not to value it, and that's what I think our particular stage of consumer capitalism is doing to the young, and is really the reason why it's hard to imagine the birth of new iconic heroes/heroines/villains.  One of the most common defenses against maturity is my old and much-loathed enemy, snark.   If Spider-Man is just an angsty teenager, if Batman is merely a campy bodybuilder with a psychotic tendency to ultra-violence, if Sherlock Holmes is only an autistic freak who works on weird police cases … then their stories can be entertaining without mattering.  And it's easy to sell that version, because first of all the real buyers, the distribution and sales personnel, are not kids.  Not chronologically of course, but also not emotionally.  It's all more fun if it's mocked as you're doing it, if we all feel in on the secret, if we just treat it as another turn of the Hero's Journey Crank.

And that kid in the corner?  He doesn't know what he's missing, though he may be aware that nothing quite scratches the itch.  She has no clue what's wrong with all the snarkiness surrounding the story; all stories as far as she knows are embedded in snark.

I don't know enough about the game world to know whether Marc is right, that game narrative is in its infancy.  Maybe games can be made snark and irony proof, and maybe they can be made to reward a world in which Player One grows up.  I hope so.  Because honestly, when the day comes, and it's coming quickly, that we pass the reins of civilization to younger hands, I'm sort of hoping it'll be to Flash Gordon, Philip Marlowe, Stephanie Plum, or Harry Potter – and not to Bart Simpson.

* It might not be a horse, of course, of course.  People of a certain age have now begun to hum.

**I assume we all know that sometime around adolescence, young men have that strange awakening of the ability to discern other people's suffering as important, and that a young man who does not awaken in that way is forever stunted? (Depictions of this run the gamut from the high end of Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed" all the way down to Barry Longyear's Enemy Mine).  Or have the more brutal versions of pop entertainment won out completely, and am I just talking to myself?

***This is one reason why our master poet of childhood named, recurringly, the characters in his best works "Whos."  Because ultimately, it is their individuality or personhood that matters; a person's a person, no matter how small,  and the big person who defends this asserts firmly that "I meant what I said, and I said what I meant."