Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Genre / Medium / Mood / Length part 1/2

It's Wednesday again...

This post is going to be about one approach of looking at and classifying fictions, be they non-interactive fictions such as literature written stories, movies and TV shows, or interactive fictions such as computer games or RPG campaigns.

There are three primary label tag types that one must assign to a fiction, and one secondary tag type that is sometimes somewhat useful, making for a total of four.

These four are Genre, Medium and Mood, with Length being the one usually of less importance.

Just to be contary, I'll start with medium: This is how the fiction is consumed, for a non-interactive fiction, and how it is participated in, for interactive fiction.

Is it a text that you read? Or is it a narrative you listen to, or a group of voice actors voice acting that you listen to? Or is it, like before, a sequence of sounds including - different - voices, but now accompanied by a sequence of visuals, intended to be consumed in synchronization with the sounds? In other words, a movie or TV show? Or a mini-series? Or is it a simsense sequence that you take in via electrodes attached to your skull?

For interactive fictions, some of the main mediums are computer games, tabletop roleplaying games, and non-RPG board games, although most board games are so extremely non-realistic, i.e. stylized, that they loudly fail to trigger any of our fiction-consuming nerves, e.g. when I play chess I'm not really participating in an interactive fiction in which I'm a brilliant warlord trying to achieve that which is best in life. I'm very much playing a board game - aware of that on all intellectual levels - and trying to pwn my opponent. For this reason, most board games are outside of this classification scheme. They are as much interactive fictions as are dead cows or flashlights.

Genre is fantasy, science fiction, contemporary crime, literature, historical, and so forth. It's to do with the subject matter and the setting, and to some extent with the types of characters. Thus you can have a fantasy novel, i.e. a piece of written fiction intended to be read and which has fantasy items as its subject matter. Or you can have a massively multiplayer online game that has fantasy items as its subject matter. They're the same genre: fantasy.

Mood is often overlooked but is quite interesting. For instance, less than a decade ago I found out that I simply do not like the mood used to classify some movies (at least in local TV guides) called "drama". If the TV guide classifies a movie as a drama, I'm very unlikely to watch it. All those ordinary people, having emotions about ordinary things, bore me to an extreme degree. I don't give a fuck about the little emotions of little people! It offends me, on some level, that those kinds of movies are being made, and so many of them. It is wrong that society celebrates this particular type of fiction, to such an extreme degree.
I have watched and enjoyed a few drama movies in recent years, such as Gattaca, but they are exceptions. Also, Gattaca is an interesting case study, for those desiring to psychoanalyze my preferences, because it is not only a drama movie, it is also in some way a science fiction movie1. That's probably why I liked it. I was able to put up with all the icky drama because I was getting my science fictional nerve endings tickled.

Or at least part of the reason. Another reason might well be that the protagonist is not a little person. He's a driven man, he's highly ambitious: He wants to become an astronaut. So it seems I can endure dramas that are about innately great characters, but clearly not dramas that are about characters who are just great because of their social position, e.g. a character who just randomly happens to be a queen - as opposed to a character for whom it is perfectly natural to be a queen, and who if she hadn't started out as queen would quite naturally have become one during the story because that's what she has inside her. She's so great, the throne and the crown is inevitable. But for reasons that I'm pretty sure I'll touch upon in later blog entries, such characters are very rarely the subject of dramas.

But anyway, the movie (medium) titled Gattaca is both a drama and a science fiction. It is a drama by mood, and a science fiction by genre.

Some years ago, in one of the Danish Usenet groups, a poster (no I can't remember his name; even if I could I wouldn't divulge it - he might have grown up since then) complained about a sci-fi movie he had watched in the cinema or on TV. It might well have been Gattaca (I don't remember). It wasn't to his liking at all, and the gist of his complaint was that he equated "science fiction" with futuristic action. He had expected something like The Matrix.

His understanding of what science fiction was was wrong in the specific sense that it was too narrow. Someone of wider intellectual horizons would never define science fiction as this Usenet poster did.

So what are some of the possible moods? Action, thriller, comedy, drama, a few more (It's often possible to combine any two moods, e.g. an action-thriller. Perhaps it always is. Trying to combine too many moods will probably be bad, though. I think most fictions need to have at the very most three primary moods, and probably no more than two is best. On the other hand, combination mood fictions might tend to be better than single-mood fictions. I haven't given much thought to this, but it makes intuitive sense to me).

I also tend not to like comedies, or at least most kinds of comedies. One TV show I like a lot, especially the first season, is Hustle. I laugh some while watching it. Does that make it a comedy? I think in a way it does, but it's an unusual form of comedy. The root of it is, as far as I can see, is that we're not - usually - laughing at the protagonists. It's a show about con artists - long con artists to be specific - and we laugh at their marks.

Some editors at English Wikipedia, and perhaps also some other people, want to classify Hustle as a "Dramedy", a portmanteau of the words comedy and drama. Dramedy might well be a legitimate fiction mood classification, but it's not why Hustle works for me while most other comedies don't.

Over at my favourite wiki, about a year and a half ago, there was a kind of forum discussion thread about something the original poster called Competence Porn. I think the consensus they reached is absolute stinking shit, but the original idea has some merit, and really deserved a better thread, the OP's choice of title aside (not that I mind; I'm European. We are, as a breed, rarely offended by matters sexual).

If a protagonist, or a group of protagonists, are pornographically competent, how likely is it that most of the audience's laughter will be directed at them? Not very, I'd say. We're much more likely to laugh at their marks, the people they con, trick, fool and otherwise pwn vanquish.

Competence porn, little people vs great people, and so forth, is something that a dude named Northrop Frye once wrote something about. I tried reading some of it once, I think almost a decade ago, and it didn't make much sense to me. However my Danish teacher at Greve Gymnasium, Bodil (who also taught philosophy), talked a bit about it once, back in 2nd grade perhaps (a couple of years later, the subject for my Danish oral exam was a snippet from an Icelandic saga, and although Bodil was no longer my teacher I aced it, getting the equivalent of an A, in part thanks to her), and science fiction writer Orson Scott Card also spends a few pages on it in Character and Viewpoint; those pages are good but not brilliant, because Card is writing from a certain perspective. He's a Mormon, which as far as I understand means he's some kind of White Christ-user, and so his perspective can't help being quite different from mine. Still, he's well worth listening to (unlike Frye's original text, Card's make a lot of sense to me).

I have some thoughts on the Frye matter myself (otherwise I wouldn't insinuate any disagreement with Card). Not currently sufficient for a blog entry, but possibly in a year or two.

So, you like fantasy? Or you like science fiction? That's good, it may even be slightly useful to know, but what's really helpful, in terms of matching people up with books they're likely to enjoy, is to know what kind of mood of fantasy a person likes, or what kind of mood of science fiction he likes.

It's all good and proper to have fetisches for subject matter, e.g. the subject matter of the fantasy genre, or the science fiction genre. But I really doubt there are all that many people that like all moods of fantasy, or all moods of science fiction. I think almost everyone who likes fantasy likes some moods of fantasy while disliking other moods, and likewise almost everyone who likes science fiction likes some moods of science fiction while disliking other moods.

What's the fiction trying to make you do? Which buttons is the fiction trying to press? Thrills? Erotic buttons (which, as Card points out in the above-to-linked book, is just a different kind of thrill)? Humour of some form? Mystery, the revelation of interesting secrets? Or just crude and base secrets? Is the fiction trying to induce fear in the consumer? What's the fiction trying to make you do?

There are certain buttons I like having pressed, and others that don't usually amuse me at all (e.g. laughing at protagonists). Some buttons, such as sense of wonder, might or might not be unique to science fiction and fantasy.

...And this blog is getting very, very long. I'll cut off here, and then post the final bit, in a week, or two weeks at the most. See you then!
Peter Knutsen typed these letters

1. I frequently claim that there is no such thing as a science fiction movie, that no science fiction movies ever get made, and the only place to get real science fiction, as opposed to sci-fi, is in written form, in the form of short stories, novels and series of novels. To this a friend of mine, Klaus, always point to the movie Gattaca as proof that I'm wrong. That movie is worth watching, and it can indeed be argued that its existence proves me wrong, although one can also point to the proverb which says that if there's only a single exception to a rule, then that is proof that the rule holds true. And Gattaca is the single exception. Hollywood will not touch science fiction.

Also notice I'm not linking to Gattaca. Because it's not that good. It is a science fiction movie, but "science fiction" doesn't mean "good". Gattaca suffers from the same problem as a lot of other bad fiction suffers from, including a lot of bad science fiction, which is that the author had a message but couldn't be arsed to write a letter. So he wrote a movie script, or a novel, instead, and inflicted it upon us. There really ought to be a law against that. A Draconian law:

Anyone who has a message, but who goes to somewhere other than the nearest postal office to deliver it? Off with his head!

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