Sometimes there are elements in the real world which are too ripe with material to pass up for a fiction writer. As many often say, the truth can be stranger than fiction. But sometimes there are things in the world we can’t exactly define as truth or fiction which can be even stranger. Urban legends and the fields of cryptozoology are full of stories like these – stories where it sounds like bullshit, but something about them makes it feel more tangible. Sure, these things are only really believed by people on the fringe, but they seem to be based on something and every once in a while a creature jumps from legend to reality when they’re confirmed. So, while such a thing still existing in the modern age seems pretty unlikely, there are always some true believers. Plenty of people will swear to the existence of Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, or Chupacabra and there are a lot of people who will believe in UFOs well into the future. Each of these is of questionable validity, but is trying to explain something people have actually seen, and speaks to something of the human experience.
And for regular visitors to the blog you’ll know I included an urban legend in the alternate history of my books just last Friday. The “men in black” have long been part of pop culture and have been at the heart of conspiracy theories and ufology for at least 70 years now. But for most people the term is inseparable from the charming franchise of movies based on the legend. For the people most familiar with that depiction and the basic idea of where the stories came from, it may be strange that I included them into a world centered more on creatures from folklore.
As a speculative fiction writer, I spend a lot of time looking into the roots of mythology and the ways that our genres have evolved over time. It’s easy to see a straight line that can be drawn from the stories of our ancestors to the stories we tell today – especially in fantasy where some of the same elements remain in circulation. And it’s certainly easy to see how some things we have today are derived from things that came from antiquity. Superheroes, though wrapped in contemporary trappings, are obviously comparable to the heroes of the ancient stories. In fact, frequently these heroes are so similar that you can slip those mythological characters into the mix and not have them seem out of place at all.
So it’s not too surprising that we often hear someone define comic books and fantasy stories as the “new mythology” that we create today. These statements, comparing the traits of the heroes of old to the stories of today, essentially say that today’s mostly secular culture has adopted superheroes to fill in the place that characters like Hercules had filled before. And this makes sense on many levels. It’s true that we make great productions about these heroes and that someday they’ll sit comfortably next to each other in the historical records of future generations. But one chief difference has always jumped out at me and makes it feel like the statement isn’t entirely accurate:
Speculative fiction, being that it is purely speculative, is an evolving set of genres. Science fiction and fantasy are generally meant to be fluid and will reflect the times they were made in quite often. And because of this a great many variations will appear within the genre for things that everyone happens to share. What are the differences between Orcs and Orks? How many kinds of vampires are there actually? How distantly related are Legolas and the Keebler Elves?
Sometimes these differences are pretty profound, other times they’re almost non-existent. But what I’ve found most often is that the differences are generally discouraged if a specific work has reached an iconic status. Vampires have had dozens, if not hundreds of variations over the years, but many of the traits which are accepted as “canon” were originated either within Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the movie adaptations to follow. This is strange, because it means the original source material, the folklore, is generally forgotten in favor of variations on a theme of Dracula. It’s because of this that I personally went out of my way to include several variations of vampire in my stories and bring back old bits of lore that are often forgotten – like the fact a vampire can’t cross certain materials without counting every grain in their path.
The funny thing is that, in my world of sci-fantasy reinterpretations of the mythological as biological creatures, I’ve had a few run-ins with people who felt that I had somehow been “wrong” to change the lore. As one person said to me very early on, “I prefer my version”. It’s not the only feedback you get, but it’s one that you realize is quietly prevalent. Though some books and movies get away with it because they’re popular, if something has flaws, it will be immediately criticized for getting the lore “wrong”. Hell, at one point even I took part in doing this before realizing the flaw in my thinking.
Throughout speculative fiction of all genres, be it fantasy or sci-fi, we have certain tropes that are universal. There’s generally an ancient forgotten civilization, a more war-like race, some benevolent watcher species, and a species or individual with some sort of supernatural power. These supernatural powers have a variety of manifestations and uses, but some of the most common across all genres are powers of the mind. The ability to hypnotize, read minds, or see into the future are in almost all branches of these genres and will likely be there until the future they claimed to see finally comes to pass.
And why wouldn’t they be? The concept is fascinating on so many levels. We’ve even tried to see if it was possible in the real world, and found that it probably wasn’t (at least on this world). People still insist that they can do it though, often using cold reading techniques and research to try to fake the talent, and continue to keep the ability right on our collective minds. For every story where someone claims to be able to speak to the dead there are at least a dozen or so real world people who are claiming to do exactly that. And as a result these concepts are an inexorable part of our culture and will be for some time to come (maybe even forever).
But on a writing level, there are problems presented with such powers, problems which often result in a whole other set of tropes that are used as a compromise. It wouldn’t take very much effort to find episodes of shows where the psychic cast member has somehow been stripped of their powers or are somehow nullified. The entire point of Minority Report, both the movie and the original story, was whether or not these perceptions should be trusted. And almost every one of the X-Men movies has found a way to completely remove Professor X’s powers from the equation.
In a time when every studio needs to have their own franchise of interwoven properties, Universal studios came to answer it with their “Dark Universe“. Starting with The Mummy (a decision they may be regretting given the reviews), the plan was to have Universal bring together all of its major “movie monster” properties in the same way that Marvel and DC had been doing over the last few years. Bringing together the likes of The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, and several other properties, the hope was to create something with the kind of cross promotional marketing power as an Avengers or Justice League.
But, while these properties are essentially chosen for their iconic status, they’re also chosen for being ostensibly within the same genre. They are, after all, old school horror icons which have been part of the cultural mindset for generations. Each of them, a movie monster that had been in film since the days before color, represent something with instant brand recognition. And for the longest time all of us have grouped them within our minds as being essentially a part of a single genre.
Within fictional worlds filled with fantastic or alien civilizations, there’s a tendency for these other civilizations to be marked with very specific personality traits. Sometimes these traits even translate across similar races in both genres. Elves and Vulcans both come across as cold and detached but are actually fighting back something a bit more primitive. In places where there is more than one kind of “elf”, each of them will represent opposing philosophies that have somehow physically altered them. Orcs and Orc-like races across both fantasy and sci-fi settings are usually savage brutes with a penchant for violence. And you’re always going to find at least one race that is devoted to the accumulation of wealth – some more blatantly than others.
And from a certain vantage this comes across as disingenuous or even lazy. People aren’t so uniform and those things that are universal between us all aren’t so instantly identifiable. The human race has a great potential for savagery if left to our own devices. The accumulation of wealth can easily overwhelm some of us, but the rest of us are likely to see that person in a negative light. And, of course, as self-assured some of us can possibly be, the kind of people who approach the sort of arrogance or detachment you find in several fantasy races would just be considered assholes in the real world.
But to each of these, we have to remember to keep in mind (especially for writers): these characters aren’t human, and that can make all the difference. Continue reading Fantastic Lineages→