Art by Juan Pablo Rolda
Let’s talk about being stuck in paradigms and not even knowing it. The reason you should care – if you’re an aspiring writer or somebody interested in the craft of storytelling, then you probably want to break some kind of new ground. At least for me, I like to think I’m an original, coming up with cool stuff that inspires other people. When somebody tells me I wrote something that really made them think or that gave them the shivers…or best of all, that made them want to know more…that’s fireworks to me! So paradigms are cancer. Off with their head – if you know what I mean!
Here’s an example, for the science fiction nerds out there like myself. Maybe it was Star Trek that started this, not sure; but have you noticed when you’re watching basically any show or movie set on a spaceship that the doors swish open and closed automatically? That would require motion sensors and motors. The doors always look like heavy industrial steel. In fact, everything looks like industrial steel and huge! Just huge. But stop and think about it for just a second – space has precious little resources; and every bit of mass you take along with you takes up more energy to move the ship at all. Massive freaking spaceships made of heavy steel with silly, unnecessary things like automatic doors are a bit unlikely. “Hold on, genius”, you might say. “These aren’t science text books. Energy is free in my story. If I want doors to swish shut automatically, maybe I’m thinking about emergency containment!” Blah blah. Maybe – and you have to ask yourself this – maybe you’re just coasting on paradigms Gene Roddenberry set up decades ago.
Why are spaceships always gray metal? Is it because that’s most likely, or because Navy ships have been battleship gray; and that was the paradigm folks like George Lucas just carried on from the trailblazing pulp cover artists of the 1930s? When you’re at the airport, are the planes gray? You can disagree; but my guess is the economics of space travel either in our future or in whatever alternative universe you’re dreaming up, say commercial enterprises will be building ships for space travel. They won’t have to worry about obscuring visibility in ocean environments like the Navy does. I’m saying spaceships probably won’t be battleship gray with all sorts of squiggly machinery and useless lights blinking all over their hulls. Think about it. Isn’t it more likely they’ll be smaller, probably modular vessels with logos and smooth shielded hulls, light on mass and with relatively small hallways and workspaces, maybe capable of linking up into larger structures?
Gravity? Every show you’ll watch has their folks walking around and nothing floating. That means you’re assuming the ship spins or you should at least hand-wave something about ‘gravity generators’ or something. Why not just make it spin? How hard is that?
Don’t get me started on robots. The pulps set the stage for human-looking robotics; and we’re still living with that. We’ll probably get there, no doubt. But what’s the point of all that design if the job you’re giving it is to clean the floor or pilot the ship or load cargo or to repair things? Why make it look human with all the expense and complications and liabilities, to do mundane things like that? Form will follow function, right? That’s actually how the world really works when manufacturing plants have to actually spend money on R&D and machinery and raw materials and labor to make something real. Those slick little Roomba vacuum cleaners are a fantastic example of this. They look nothing like C3PO; but they can suck up dog hair like nobody’s business.
I’m going to end with my least favorite paradigm of all because your argument should build to a climax, shouldn’t it? I mean, this one really…really needs to go. If you’re guilty of it, please stop and question yourself. I purposely avoid the heck out of this one because it’s so tired and lazy and ridiculous by now. Yet it’s hard to stay away from it. I’ve veered very close and hated myself afterwards, like when you eat the whole bag of those little chocolate doughnuts. Stop. Stay away. Go back.
‘The chosen one’. Oh my God, how many times have you heard somebody say this? Look, I understand that to set up a mythology, some sort of over-arching roller coaster you want your characters to get swept up in, this is a handy little trick. Just make the main guy the chosen one; and all sorts of mysterious things can happen. Then you can show all the whiz-bang stuff they can do and didn’t know, so replicate the ‘coming of age’ motif which everybody loves so much. Me too. But isn’t it getting old? We’re pretty sophisticated in our appreciation of narrative structure and themes by now, so isn’t it time to put this one to bed? It almost never makes sense anyway, when you poke on who chose them and why.
Anyway, I should really practice what I’m preaching here. When you agree to move beyond some of these deeply entrenched themes or backdrop devices, it gets challenging. There’s maybe even an argument to be made that things like I’m talking about here are the common vocabulary now, so to change them up too much makes the reader confused or uncomfortable and distracts from what you’re really trying to say. Honestly, if we’ve thought about it that much, then we probably did our due diligence and should have the big, freaking steel doors swish open and closed if we feel like it.
All I’m saying is think about it first.
10 thoughts on “Smashing Paradigms Like Halloween Pumpkins!”
If you look at the top 200 SF best sellers on Amazon (free and paid), they’re dominated by those old paradigms to the point where it’s hard to find anything else. No imagination? Brainwashed by watching too much TV and too many movies? Ignorant about what’s out there in the real world? All of the above.
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Michael Moorcock isn’t my favorite writer; but he has some fantastic work – no doubt. He asked, “Do you really want to write the kinds of books you’d have to in order to sell at that level?”
For some of us, the answer is no. We can hope for a breakthrough, but not write with financial success in mind. I’m expanding what was originally intended to be a short story into a novella. I doubt there’s a niche for it even in a world of niches, but it’s something I have to write. Who in the world would want to read about a supermax prison for the worst of the worst, based on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, in which two people converse about guilt, torture, life in solitary, and the ethics of being the all-powerful warden of such a prison?
If you’re passionate about something, doesn’t that always come through? I’d rather read something whose premise didn’t thrill me to begin with, but where I can tell the author was pumped about it – than something that sounded great up front but was executed poorly or was boring.
Whether or not the passion comes through depends a lot on the writer’s ability to convey it. It’s interesting to read someone’s blog posts about their book, and how they’ve been consumed by it, etc. Then read the sample of the book and it’s a dud. But a *different* premise will at least get my attention. Too often, it doesn’t pan out, and that’s a disappointment. What you’re looking for here is pretty rare in my experience. I like to think I’m working toward the same kind of philosophy as yours, but I constantly feel that I’m a decent workman, and not much more. Maybe I’m just trapped in my own subjectivity. Not about to give up, though. Your posts are giving me a reason to work harder. Which includes subverting or avoiding altogether the common vocabulary. If readers don’t want to be upset or uncomfortable, they can go elsewhere.
Your idea about the Panopticon Prison is an interesting one. I had a thought that may or may not be of use to you. If you’re worried it might be too esoteric for some folks, that they might not relate or find it useful, consider expanding a bit. It struck me as I was mulling over what you said that many folks might feel they’re in a prison of some kind, whether it’s their dead-end job, unhappy marriage, gender issues, abusive relationships, money problems…whatever. Who hasn’t felt that way, right? Maybe the supermax prison could be presented mythically, like it represents all prisons and is the ultimate realization of the idea…and the folks trapped in it ponder and rage against their jailers. This could be fascinating if the characters pop. Anyway, I had to send that your way. Personally, I hate it when people don’t just tell me how awesome my ideas are and try to be helpful. Best of luck with it!
That’s an interesting idea — sort of a contemporary Dante’s Inferno. Or maybe Purgatorio would be more appropriate. But it’s not my kind of thing, unfortunately (fortunately, for the reading public?). My central obsession is criminal justice, particularly the death penalty, so much of my current and future writing is slanted in that direction. Also, I’m rather literal-minded and not too big on myth. Actually, I can see that idea developed as satire, which would be my take if I was capable of doing it. Being so submerged in criminal justice for the last few years, it’s a bit difficult for me to have the proper sympathetic feelings for anyone in the free world who’s capable of making choices for themself. Not to reduce the very real problems to some simplistic joke, though.
The prison in my story is the result of a compromise after decades of battles over the death penalty. Capital punishment was eliminated in the US, but those deemed too dangerous to ever see freedom are condemned to solitary confinement for the rest of their lives. I intend it to be very uncomfortable for readers, but without turning it into a polemic. I’ll definitely be walking a tightrope. Worse, there are only two protagonists. I’ve given myself enough of a challenge without attempting something that I’d be terrible at.
I invite you to give your idea a try. I think it’s worth attempting.
When you’re done, feel free to send it my way for a review if that’s of interest to you. Good luck!
I appreciate the offer. I might just do that. I have a wonderful beta reader, but since she’s a professional developmental editor and has eye problems, I don’t submit everything to her. It would be great to have another one, especially someone with a compatible philosophy. Much thanks.
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