I remember the time I was
sitting on my back porch, thinking about Mark, the cute boy in my geometry
class, and a time portal opened up—right beside my dad’s garden shed. A
handsome boy (impossibly handsome, if you want to know the truth) stepped
through the shaft of blinding blue light and he said just three words: “Come
When did I lose you? On time portal, probably. Maybe a select
few were with me until the boy was impossibly handsome. And yet, he almost
always is. When book boys have blue eyes, they are intensely blue. When they
smile, angels weep, etc. Also, in a lot of books written for teens, these
outlandishly gorgeous boys are part of a plot that’s even more outlandish.
Here, in no particular
order, a sample list of plots I’ve read or read about in the past couple of
Alien pod people
in the hallway at school!
dies at either 21 or 25
operation (though I wish it were a love-removal machine, because that’s a great song by The Cult)
turns into worm-creature
...and so on. The best
part about the thriving world of teen paranormal romance/fantasy/steampunk is
the fact that the passionate following that many of these books and series have
amassed is a testament to the fact that kids can still get lost in a story.
Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief is alive and well.
But how far is too far?
Can a premise be too outlandish, or can a writer “sell” any story if they are
passionate enough about the world they create, if the characters who live in
that world feel real, and if the rules of that world are consistent?
I think maybe writers can sell almost any idea, but I also
think we have a lucky trick in our toolbox. A story about angels or demons or
fairies or genies appeals to our collective unconscious (sometimes even the
writer doesn’t plan it) and resonates on some level we may not even realize.
Maybe that’s why so many
alterna-worlds are set in either the present or the sort-of-past. The future
usually ends up being all about Science. And it’s hard to avoid at least a hint
of cheese when dealing with anything robot-related. If you’ve ever watched Doctor Who, you know: as scary as the
idea of being converted into one is, those Cybermen—just, ugh.
The thing is, the real
world is usually sort of boring. Stories are a safe way (well, as long as you
keep the book budget under control) of living in a different, non-boring world.
A world in which a
majority of boys are heart-stoppingly handsome=bonus.
the Vampire Slayer first aired on March 10, 1997 and ran until
May 20, 2003. I still remember the first episode I caught—“The Pack” from
season 1. It was summer, I’d just moved to Florida, and the WB was rerunning
the first two seasons on Monday and Tuesday nights. It wasn’t long before I
realized I was watching what would become my favorite show, ever. Later on, I
fell pretty hard for Firefly, but
since it never really got to become a series, Buffy still holds the top spot
for me. More than that, I’m going to claim it changed all of our lives.
How, you ask? Here are five reasons. Feel free
to add more in the comments ;)
5. @$%-Kicking Heroines
Yes, there are fighting female characters who
predate her: Ripley from Alien, Xena, and Sarah Connor. But Buffy stands out
because for a couple of reasons. First, she’s young—just a high school
sophomore, facing down demons and saving the world. Second, she dusts vamps,
then goes home to change into a cute outfit for a night out at the Bronze with
her friends. She doesn’t give up her femininity to fight. Throughout the
series, Buffy struggles to balance a “real” life with her calling. But it’s not
incidental that she does: one of Whedon’s main themes as the series progresses
is that Buffy’s friendships, her ties to the world, are what set her apart from
the slayers who came before her.
4. Genre Mashing
Today, you can go to the bookstore and buy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or rent
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We
don’t think too much about mixing our genres. But when Buffy premiered in 1997,
its mix of horror, comedy, and teen angst was still pretty new. The teens on
the show didn’t dress or talk like mini-adults. Just a few years before the
epitome of teen shows was Beverly Hills,
90210. On that show, their idea of comic timing was an occasional lame pun.
And the very special episodes felt forced. When Buffy was funny, it was
hysterical (see: Buffy and Spike’s “engagement” in season 4’s Something Blue). And when it was “vey
special” it was heartbreaking. I’m still not over the end of season 2.
3. Great writing on teen television
...and not just on gritty, "serious" dramas. Again, the teen shows of the nineties (I’d say
eighties, but there weren’t many teen shows before the nineties) were incredibly contrived and staged compared to Buffy. And forget about teen shows for a
second, think of the shows you watch now. Unless they have a former-Buffy
writer on staff (and sometimes even if they do) the dialogue can be kind of
cringe-worthy. Watch an episode of Revenge
or Once Upon a Time and then try to
imagine how it might sound if Joss wrote it. But he’s a little busy now since
the number one movie of 2012, I guess.
2. The Whedonverse
No power in the verse can stop him: Joss has
created an entire Whedonverse, for those of us who will follow him anywhere.
I’ve loved almost everything he’s done (the only exception for me is Cabin in the Woods.) Now that Avengers has exploded, a lot of the
formerly uninitiated are starting to discover the genius of Whedon: Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse. If you
have Netflix and a takeout menu your weekends could be set for the year.
is number one for me. The other week I was in a Twitter chat with some other debut authors, and one of the
questions was about our influences. A lot of writers in the chat were
mentioning classic authors. But I said Joss Whedon. The way his characters
spoke on Buffy still echoes through almost every show and book with teenage
characters. Watch an episode of anything on the CW or ABC Family and you’ll
hear at least a hint of Buffy-slang. His signature anthimeria: turning
adjectives to nouns or verbs, is now a part of our regular speech. The Scooby
gang was generally fighting for their lives, but they never stopped being witty
while doing it. Even small throwaways, like the names of random demons, were a
chance for comedy: for example, the sixth season demon M’Fasnick (like, Mmmm, coookies?)
Buffy was even known for tossing off a memorable one-liner before offing a vamp. The
way these characters spoke was revolutionary: inspired by real slang, improved
by genius writers. I catch myself writing a Whedonism pretty often. And I’m
guessing I’m far from the only one.
Sunday marks sixteen years since we were first welcomed to the Hellmouth Buffy
may not be the most important show of your life, like it is for me. But I can
almost guarantee that something you’ve laughed or cried at in the past sixteen
years has been influenced by the genius of Joss.
The not-so-distant future is a very popular
setting, and for good reason. It’s interesting to wonder where we’re headed. We
can extrapolate, but in a way the future is tabula rasa—writers can paint any
picture they want, because no one really
knows. I think it’s surprising how many similarities these futures tend to
have, actually. The popularity of the dystopian setting isn’t hard to explain:
it was a big trend (for a while), and also a broken world means built-in
I’ve written before about
the fact that in an alarming number of these possible futures, actual food is
no longer a thing. People eat blue pellets or pre-measured scientific portions.
Nightmare. The other option is that we go backwards: for example, Katniss
providing for her family by hunting in the woods.
Fashion is also a logical
casualty in worlds like the one found in the Hunger Games series. For folks in the districts, it’s back to
basics: whatever you can scrounge or make at home. This series is interesting
because it has both kinds of future world:
the futuristic dystopia of The Capitol, and the back-to-our-beginnings
Districts. Fashion does seem to be the raison d’etre of the Capitol dwellers,
along with the ritual slaying of children, that is.
One other part of modern
life that's noticeably absent from a lot of dystopian futures is
one a lot of us can’t imagine living without: Reading. Books. Literature.
In the case of characters like Katniss, it’s unclear whether or not there are
still books around in her world, but either way she doesn’t have the money or
the time to curl up with a new release. I also think it’s strongly suggested
that in the Capitol they’ve mostly thrown over thinking for a neo-Roman
bread-and-circuses mentality. In a lot of other back-to-basics broken future
worlds, books have suffered a similar fate: no one has time to read, because
they’re too busy running from the government, dying at twenty-one, or having
the love-area of their brains removed.
In some dystopian/SF worlds, the fact that literature is gone is part of the
point. In my favorite classic dystopian, Brave
New World, literature has been taken away, on purpose, as part of the plan
to end conflict—and cognition. Fahrenheit
451, Feed, Uglies—my bookshelf is
full of cautionary tales about a world full of people who have lost touch with
the great words and ideas contained in books, and this loss has contributed
to—or caused—the people to be less than they
might otherwise have been.
I could write here about
the oncoming storm. The common core standards that quantify how much fiction
(versus the preferred, more practical non-fiction) a public school student can
and should be exposed to. David Coleman, the College Board president, has been
widely quoted as saying that it’s rare in a working environment in which someone
will ask for “a market analysis by Friday, but before that…a compelling account
of your childhood.” No, Mr. Coleman. I don’t want a compelling account of a
random market analyst’s childhood. Or of yours, thanks very much. But wouldn’t
the world be poorer if no one ever read about Pip’s coming of age? Or even
Harry’s or Katniss’s?
So maybe we are creeping in that general direction. Literature may not be directly
practical. I have news: neither is algebra. I’m still waiting for that moment when I need to use something other
than retail math (70% off!) in my life. Ever. But literature is communication.
Which is sort of important in actual life (at least until we have our feeds
But books are more than
that. They’re part of the reason we’re here. Artifacts that testify, sometimes
so eloquently that you want to cry, that we’re all trying to figure out what it
means to be human.
That’s why I think the
2002 film version of The Time Machine
is the most hopeful SF story ever. In that film, as in the book, the distant
future’s version of humanity is broken nearly beyond repair, split into two,
and the great ideas of the past are all literal dust. But in the movie, the
contents of the New York Public Library have been preserved on some sort of
self-powering future computer. One of the final scenes shows the hologram
librarian of the past reading Mark Twain to a group of Eloi children. The
subtext (something people who read literature learn to pick up on—another
benefit) is that literature will save us.