There are stories in your head. I can smell’em. What I wouldn’t give to get in there and elbow your inhibitions in the eye, tear the guts out of the pretenses that you throw out instead, and kick your denials solidly in the ass.
Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder is, simply the single most intelligent comic – and indeed, of any contemporary story-delivering medium – that I know. Whatever her background is, she certainly received top-drawer training in evolutionary biology, behavior, ecology, and cultural-political history, without a shred of the usual pop-psych and pundit-y nonsense that coats these topics like scum. And she uses them for compelling plots, insightful spins, rather biting humor, and plain old spectacle.
She’s been doing it for what now, twenty years (!), introducing and developing but never really explaining a far future which is decidedly exotic, but yet, really plain solid social science fiction, to think about today. (Way ahead of the curve on internet publishing + collection publication too.) I could go on and on geeking out about the setting and her protagonist, Jaeger, but I’ll leave it to you to discover if you’re lucky enough to not know it and to get started. My aim here is a little different.
The collected story “Dream Sequence” is more than a favorite; I consider it a battle-cry (possibly in partnership with “Talisman”). Not to put too fine a point on it, the story is about the drive to create, specifically stories, and how easily it’s diverted into an infantilized, stunted, and ultimately self-paralyzing form. It’s all the worse because the actual creativity, and the beauty of the thing created, does depend on the input of all these participants – they refuse to do so openly and believe it’s all the mastery of this person who’s providing the foundation.
There’s a guy whose imagined fantasy-world, or rather, his attentiveness to it, is so vivid, that it has become a commercial playground for recreation via cyber-neurological connections. It’s incredibly successful and profitable; it’s franchised to death via all possible other media, and people are beginning to take vacations there rather than physical ones. But something awful has begun to desecrate and mutilate the visitors in ritual, symbolic, and yet insultingly humorous ways.
The events in Elsewhere (as it’s called) get pretty ghastly, but even worse are the psychological manifestations in the victims in the real world, especially since they match a whole host of modern dysfunctions so perfectly. Not ordinarily a fan of blatant symbolism, I like it here a lot, partly because the dream topic permits a little leeway, but especially since it’s unrelievedly savage. Magri White tries to figure out where the “stain” is in his beautiful imagined landscape, unaware that it’s on his own face.
Then there’s Ivo, who serves as the story’s face for Elsewhere’s fandom base, as the quintessential sort-of lovable useless dork who freely acknowledges that his sleep-deprived obsessive use of Elsewhere is better than anything in his actual life, any price be damned. Long-time readers of the blog may remember the discussion in the comments of Justice comes by night, in which we debated whether the character Ed in Box Office Poison was an exasperating but understandable protagonist, or in essence, an infant monster with no imaginable creative merit of his own. Ivo is Ed squared.
The confusing plot-point (for summarizing, not in the story itself) is that the thing running around committing atrocities in Elsewhere isn’t Jaeger himself, but a construct built using his image and also of Magri’s dead brother who may or may not have existed. It’s really an insightful aspect of Magri himself as a frustrated creator but also of the creative potential that all these visitors to Elsewhere bring but which is stifling/being stifled in a toxic feedback with Magri’s own timidity.
This jaeger-construct shifts through a series of nightmarish forms, and it gives Magri a thorough going-over through multiple encounters, to result in one of the satisfying redemptions of a weakling hero I can think of, without being overwrought. When he decides to take some real-world action, look out. That’s because Magri’s not the bad guy. The corporate persons who’ve been running his life aren’t either (although his judgment upon them concerning “two-headed piglets” is yet another winner line in a book full of such). The story’s ire is instead directed at Magri’s adoring nigh-lobotomized audience. The jaeger-construct gleefully tortures, mutilates, dismembers, and otherwise disrespects them, and they say, “Oohhh, Elsewhere is so lovely,” “Oohhh, Magri’s such a genius,” and take no action in their fantasy wonderland at all. It hates their guts, and although it’s just a construct with no actual mind, it’s saying what Magri really thinks of his audience deep down.
But it loves them too. Its savagery is born of Magri’s buried knowledge that yes, he and his audience could go the next step, could make shining epics and dark powerful legends, could be real creators. It comes down to the jaeger-thing going nose to nose with Ivo, the single most resistant Elsewhere user, and the one suffering the most threatening neural damage for it. It tells him what it thinks of him. And I know all about what it’s talking about. Very, very well. Twelve years of running the independent-RPG website, The Forge, worth of well. Veterans thereof might recognize the panels to the right … eh?
After finally managing to get Ivo to begin to start to maybe to almost kind of create a story, it growls what might have been the single solid driving judgment during my whole time with the Forge:
I hope you finish it one day, you lazy, selfish shit.
That’s the bumper sticker on my own ass, and if you don’t like it, then get out ahead in front, God damn it. For myself in owning that particular sentiment, and in specific reference to the Forge, I’m not talking about designing role-playing games; I’m talking about using them. Getting past the initial and intoxicating Color of first-contact, taking hold of what’s there to do instead of pressing at provided levers or waiting for more input. Making it go rather than sitting in the ride.
C’mon, Star Wars fandom blithering about the next-est movie, comics fandom demanding to know how this works and how that works, anyone who brandishes the vile phrases “TOS” and “MCU,” name whatever you like. The construct had the right idea: rip out your guts, put your head on a pole, spray your blood across the rocks. Motivate you to do something, to take action with these unbelievably excellent imagined sensations and inspiring fictions, to rock yourself and others with more unbelievably excellent stuff. Why? Why such an awful, intolerant, thought? Am I an elitist, thinking himself “better” than you (you lazy, selfish shit)?
No. Wrong answer. It’s because a deadened audience is the death of the activity. There is no such thing as the boundary between creators and audience. “It,” the art, the thing, the experience, the awesome-ness, is us. All of us. Literally no one “can’t do it,” the fact that you like someone else’s story is direct proof that you are doing it. He or she isn’t making a story unless you do it. It all fails only when you won’t and go into nipple-sucking mode to get the initial engagement repeated over and over.
Tell me a story. Short or long, oblique or straightforward (those are the only variables, you know). Or let’s do it together, neither of us in charge. C’mon. Of course it’s not safe. But finding out, finishing it, that’s the best there is.
Links: Lightspeed Press
Next: Round-headed kid