Deep Popcorn

04 June 97

Over the eight-odd years of my professional writing career, a lot of people have asked me whether I have any overall storytelling philosophy, and if so, what it is. For a long time I had no answer to this, and then for a longer time I had one I could only explain by waving my hands around and saying "you know" a lot. After long deliberation, though, I'm happy to report I've boiled it down to two simple words: deep popcorn.

The science fiction and fantasy of the so-called Golden Age was ruled by "sense of wonder." Kicking the reader in the eyeballs every couple of paragraphs was the absolute top priority, telling a clear, credible story was a distant second, and moving or enlightening the reader with important life observations was, well, simply not done. Popcorn entertainment was the rule of the day, and a fine day it was.

The SF audience was young in that era, though, and not very demanding of, or patient with, a lot of boring blah-blah about moral ambiguity. But time passed, the Baby Boom happened, and suddenly SF was faced with an enormous demographic hump that would dictate "average reader" tastes for the remainder of the 20th century. To make a long story short, the Boomers grew up, the Humanist revolution hit, and suddenly SF was shedding its childish image and being talked about as Actual Literature. The popcorn was still there, but increasingly it was being dismissed, discredited, and generally swept under the rug. Then, as now, relevance and respectability were the field's primary goals.

These are good goals, and a lot of outstanding work has come out of them. DUNE, for example, and RED MARS, and LORD OF THE RINGS, and THE DISPOSESSED. The problem with these books is that they presume, and cater to, an adult audience that demands Depth from its characters, themes and environments. Which is not to say that children -- especially teenagers -- can't read and enjoy these books. In many cases they do. It also doesn't mean that adults _will_ necessarily enjoy them; many SF readers are at heart simple people, with lives that demand (or can withstand) little examination. To borrow a term from the vitamin industry, the "bioavailability" of the embedded Humanist message is not terribly high; it flushes right through these readers systems, leaving little behind except impurities in the urine.

So are these readers -- especially the young ones -- wholly immune, or even allergic, to the moral of a story? Perish the thought! The original STAR TREK, one of the preachiest shows ever to grace the television screen, is also one of the most popular and accessible. Why? Because it buries its messages in palatable, high-gloss visuals and gee-whiz action scenes. Because on the surface it's mental popcorn, with the nutritional goodies hidden discreetly inside. Some people will laugh at the idea of STAR TREK as a complex, almost mythic story that works on many different levels, but it's not by accident that Gene Roddenberry died a rich man.

To invoke some more recent examples, I'll point to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RAISING ARIZONA, GROUNDHOG DAY and TOY STORY as sterling examples of what I'm talking about. At first glance these four films have little in common, but on closer examination we see: (1) That they're all speculative fiction, taking place well outside the realm of everyday experience. (2) That they all have light, uncomplicated plots that can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages, economic backgrounds, or whatever. (3) That they all engage in a small amount of explicit moralizing, and most importantly... (4) That in the end, the good guys triumph only by overtly rejecting their dark sides and concentrating on becoming better people.

Granted, none of these films are hard science fiction, and so maybe not all that representative of my storytelling methods. Also, the becoming-a-better-person theme is hardly the only trick in the Humanist bag. Still, despite its very different tropes and avenues of growth I can point to Hal Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY as another classic of multi-layered storytelling. Of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, for that matter -- everyone laughs at that show, though usually for wildly different reasons.

Far moreso than Golden Age wonder tales and Humanist slogs through the quagmires of the human psyche, these "deep popcorn" fables of speculative fiction have a unique and powerful abilty to communicate ideas not merely to the old or the young, the brilliant or the slow, the naive or the jaded, but to everyone who cares to listen. And that, in two simple words, is my whole storytelling philosphy.

Easy to say, though, and hard to follow through on. Whether I'm successful at this or not is for you, and only you, to decide.

See last quarter's rant.

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