I am Strange Horizons' New Media Reviews Editor. "What makes a medium new?" I hear you ask. From one point of view, everything Strange Horizons publishes could be seen as using a pretty new medium: the Internet. But the way I see it, our fiction would be pretty much the same printed on a page as it is pixelated on your screen. (As a matter of fact, in the not-too-distant future, you'll be able to get quite a good bit of it in print. . . . But that's another story, to be told another time.)
Written text has been around as a medium for storytelling for a few thousand years. Our "new media" category includes all those nifty devices that have shown up in the last century and a half or so. This includes motion pictures and animation; high-quality mass-produced graphics, from coffee-table art books to comics; and recorded sound. (On that last, one might argue that a basic audio-book -- as contrasted with audio dramas using a large cast and extensive special effects -- is actually closer than a book to the very oldest medium, the oral traditions of ancient storytellers. However, the relationship between performer and audience is clearly different.) It also includes innovations such as the interactive story, which is the driving force behind many modern forms of game -- computer games, role-playing games, and so on.
Now, remember that Strange Horizons was created partly to encourage the ongoing integration of speculative fiction into the mainstream consciousness. Most writers, and many readers, of speculative fiction are acutely aware of the fact that there are still people out there who think that SF is kids' stuff, that it's not "literature." We're here, in part, to prove them wrong.
Of course, if you want to do that, you usually point to the classic books that have pushed powerful ideas into the mainstream -- Brave New World, The Left Hand of Darkness, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. You point to books like The Lord of the Rings, which joined the timeless power of myth with the spirit of an age. You do not, usually, point to the cheesy special-effects laden movies that are churned out at an ever-increasing rate, hoping to make a buck right now by going "bing!" louder than the competition, and expecting to be forgotten in a few years. You certainly don't point to the gamer geeks with their "Monsters & Mayhem" guidebooks.
But maybe you should. I actually agree with the snobs that there's a lot of junk out there, and I think that a lot of people are forming their impression of SF based on that junk. Furthermore, a lot of people seem to be satisfied with unintelligent, but flashy, entertainment. However, I don't think that ignorance is irredeemable. If you have a friend who hasn't read any SF, or perhaps doesn't even read books often, instead of pushing a thousand-page trilogy on her, try handing her a video, so she can get a taste of the genre in one evening. Then tell her the book is better. How many people do you think have started reading SF as a direct result of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies? I obviously don't know, but I'll wager that there are some. Some of them will even move on from those books to discover the many wonders of the genre.
But that's only part of why I'm here. Another part is that what matters to me is not how you tell a story, but whether your story is any good. And the fact is, there are some very good stories being told in all sorts of media, if you take the time to look. Just as the critics who claim The Lord of the Rings isn't "real literature" are missing out on a treasure that's right under the same noses they're looking down, so too are those who dismiss anything that is not made of wood-pulp. Extraordinary talent can be found in the oddest places.
Consider the bizarre rumination on immortality and art that was Shadow of the Vampire. Among other virtues, this film showcased an intriguing trend in SF film-making towards using the medium to explore itself. While one could write a book about an author, the solitary nature of that craft doesn't offer the kind of material available in film, where the interactions of cast and crew provide fertile ground for tale-spinning.
On the small screen, take a look at the goofily named Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It has more than its fair share of immature teen angst, and a lot of its appeal has to do with its comic side. But it also deals with controversial themes, from homosexuality to drug abuse; asks difficult questions about power, responsibility, love, family, and death; presents characters who have real complexity and depth; and most importantly, it tells stories worth hearing.
Turning to games, one could cite Zork Nemesis, a descendant of the classic 80s text adventures with a darker bent than its predecessors. Its plot revolved around the practice of alchemy, and this subject was carefully researched. Pages from historical texts were scanned and incorporated into the game, as were a variety of artworks. This attention to detail was also applied to the diverse puzzles, perplexing whodunnit plot, and well-performed cinematic sequences, to produce a game that was well-worth the time it took to play. One standout feature was the use of stereo sound, fairly novel at the time. Early in the game, as I walked through a courtyard, past a fountain, I realized that as I looked around, I could always hear where the fountain was in the space around me. Even the language I use to describe this conveys how totally real the experience was. This kind of manipulation of the senses can be used to create anything from awe, to fear, to slapstick humor.
Finally, taking the games off the screen and onto the tabletop, one could consider that most geeky of past-times, the pen-and-paper role-playing game. It's very hard to assess the merits of an RPG, because much of the storytelling is done "on the fly" by those playing it. The details of combat, movement, and economy shape the story in unpredictable ways, but a clever gamemaster knows when to bend the rules to maintain the atmosphere he desires. The most important part of creating an RPG is providing a consistent, rich backdrop for the story. That takes talent, and some published RPGs do a very good job of it. For example, White Wolf's World of Darkness weaves disparate elements, drawn from the legends of cultures across the globe, into a whole that is as compelling as many of the classic worlds of SF.
I love books. I have more books than I can fit on my shelves, and I'm on a first-name basis with the staff of my favorite bookstore. I know that a written story can build a world in such depth that I feel like I know its neighborhoods, and give its characters such detail that they seem like old friends. Books will always have the upper hand when it comes to telling long, complex tales. On the other hand, I also like the new methods of storytelling. I think those shiny, flashy new media presentations, when done well, can have more emotional immediacy than books.
Maybe you've tried to tell a story to a friend, and couldn't convey to him why it mattered to you, and finally you threw up your hands in exasperation and said, "You just had to be there!" The reason people like new media is that they give authors new ways to take you there. Sure, there are cultural and financial issues that tend to make a lot of new media presentations into exercises in repetition of trite themes. But the only way to encourage an improvement in quality is to pay attention to those that rise above the level of the lowest common denominator. There's a basic human drive to define one's self as superior to others, to have an "us" and a "them," and say that We're Better Than Them! Humans like social hierarchy. But one of the greatest lessons SF can teach us is that ignoring the hierarchy, violating the social boundaries, and exploring the unknown, can enrich us beyond measure.
R Michael Harman is the New Media Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.
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