Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Weird for the sake of weird

For those who don't recognize it the above is a quote from Mo the bartender in 'The Simpsons'. He explains that the new look of his bar is postmodern, and when this naturally draws a blank look from Homer he explains it as 'weird for the sake of weird'. This came to mind after reading a Jack Campbell short story the structure of which is a singe short scene constantly rewritten at the behest of a agent to make it more 'futuristic'. The effect is that a paragraph long lunch invitation becomes a page plus of impenetrable technobabble. So the question is when does 'futuristic' become 'weird for the sake of weird'?

Obviously when dealing with futuristic technology you need to offer up some explanation and a few made up words perhaps to describe it; you can't just have your spacecraft vanish from one star system and appear another with giving the process a name at least. The keyword here though is futuristic; do you really need to offer up and elaborate explanation of how a future phone works? Or a future gun? If you write 'the bolt of energy from the gun burned a neat whole through Smith's chest' would it really be better to offer a three paragraph explanation of the faux physics of the weapon. Sure you establish its futuristic credentials but by the time you reach the bottom of the page the reader may have forgotten that Smith was shot in the first place.

Language is another area where it seems some authors delight in inserting weirdness for the sake of it; one good example is in David Weber's 'Safehold' series. Set on a future colony long isolated from Earth everything is still described with nice comprehensible terms except for names; names use an odd spelling pattern that makes them very hard to read until you figure the scheme out. When you do you discover they are perfectly ordinary English names, now did this little conceit add anything to the book? I really don't think so. The focus needs to be the story and the characters, not having the reader trying to figure out why the author has used 'z' instead of 'j'.

Probably the worst example of 'weird for the sake of weird' is when an author changes human behaviour for their future society; often in the shape of some idyllic utopia where everyone lives in harmony, or in pursuit of some perfect society based on their particularly political ideals. The fundamental issue here is that people just don;t change. Their language and society may change but people remain the same. Archaeologists working at a fort called Vindolanda along Hardian's wall found what amounted to a collection of Roman postcards written by people at the fort. When these were translated did they reveal an alien, incomprehensible mindset? No; one of the best known turns out to be an invitation to a birthday party. There's also shopping lists and even a letter from a merchant complaining about the terrible state of the local roads. The better part of 2000 years later those Romans still come across as people like us and I don't seen any reason to pretend they will be 200 or 2000 years in the future. The author who writes his characters as 'utopian' or 'metahuman' is risking losing the suspension of disbelief needed for the reader to enjoy a story simply because they don't ring true.

So I suppose if there's a moral here its use your 'futuristic' elements sparingly and don't try to inject them into the human psyche.

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