Flatness and Feeling: Three Recent Works

Note: The following post contains minor spoilers for the plots of All Systems Red, Ancillary Justice, and Blade Runner 2049.

Probably the major theme of recent science fiction has been the way technology distances us from our own emotions. One of the devices authors and directors use to explore this distancing effect is intentionally flattening the affect of a central protagonist, exploring the world through their unfeeling eyes to question and problematize our own relationship with the world. Flatness is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to greater or worse effect depending on the choices the author makes. I want to explore three recent works and try to see where they succeed in wielding flatness, and where they fail.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is a novella told from the perspective of Murderbot, a heavily-modified human clone working security for a scientific expedition to an unnamed planet. Murderbot’s emotions have been medically scrubbed, and its main reaction to the world around it is boredom. Even when its clients are endangered and it is forced to protect them, the emotions this creates are awkward and painful to Murderbot, and it acts in ways to escape them. The novella has gotten a lot of hype recently and it’s a nice character sketch but I think it’s the least successful of our three works. Murderbot’s perspective, while compelling, is never really challenged by the story. Almost always, when the humans in the tale act emotionally or with any kind of humanity, they are shown to be foolish and even suicidal for doing so–Murderbot is hardly a Mary Sue, but it does solve every problem in the story through the application of pure logic. Furthermore, anything Murderbot doesn’t care about (which is pretty much everything) is given short shrift here. Early in the story Murderbot fights a giant alien monster. It should be an amazing scene, but it fails–we get Murderbot’s clinical analysis of the creature but no actual description. It can’t even decide if the monster has teeth or cilia. Later on we find out why this planet is special as a setting, and Murderbot dismisses this vital bit of plot information in a couple of sentences. The problem with All Systems Red is that there’s no contrast. We get Murderbot’s grayscale world but nothing else. No visual description at all. The human characters are almost interchangeable and there’s very little interpersonal conflict.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie fares a little better, though I still had problems with it. The main character is the last survivor of a hivemind made of former prisoners of war who have been conditioned to be unfeeling and perfectly loyal soldiers for their own conquerors. The flatness here is leavened–the protagonist is allowed to feel affection for her former officers, and in fact appears to be on a revenge mission (we learn later that it’s much more complicated, and much less sentimental). The action takes place on three different worlds: a marshy planet only seen in flashbacks, a lonely ice world, and a space station with complicated social hierarchies. Leckie does a fair job describing the two planets in compelling detail (the station not as much) and there’s a set piece involving an ice bridge that adds some much needed action to a very cerebral plot. The flatness of the story works against it much of the time, however. Most of the story’s action is described in the briefest possible terms, to make room for long passages of guarded dialogue. The actual plot, which remains mysterious almost until the end of the story, is convoluted and never allowed to evolve organically. We are given mention of aliens and space battles but these are abstracted away, pawns in a five-dimensional chess game where nothing really matters but who wins. The flatness here is a mark of intellectual superiority: the few characters who do show emotion are either mocked or despised for it, while the cold and callous logic of the protagonst and antagonist are celebrated and far more effective. While Murderbot wrestles with its vestiges of humanity, the Ancillary works hard to get rid of hers–she wants very much to be a spaceship again, not a person, and this goal is seen as worthy. This isn’t a failure of the story, mind you. The whole point of Ancillary Justice is that its universe is far too big and impersonal for humanity to run, and it needs to be administrated by beings with greater mental capacity. It’s an interesting theme but one that left this human reader a little cold.

Blade Runner 2049 is the most successful work I want to look at today, one which uses its flatness as a perfect counterpoint to its deep emotional themes. Like most film noir, the movie employs a cold, cynical tone that is betrayed by the deeply human story it wants to tell. Its protagonist, K, is a replicant of a new series, one which is free of human desires. He moves deadpan through a world in crisis, performing a job. A job he has no emotional investment in–to the extent he isn’t even bored by it. He’s been designed from the ground up for flatness and his lack of reaction throughout the film is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling as both incredibly useful and–to the viewer–emotionally terrifying. All of his relationships are abstracted, through-a-glass-darkly versions of normal human interactions, and his final moments in the film are wonderfully understated. His flatness is wielded here like a blowtorch–he forces the viewer to engage with the things he refuses to touch. His opposite numbers in the film, Luv and Joi (what great names), exist at an even further remove and serve to keep his flatness emotionally grounded. When we see our first real human character in the movie his over-reactions and scenery chewing would almost be funny if they weren’t so heart-breaking, an irruption of feeling the movie seems unable to contain. This is flatness used with precision, by a master.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the two novels to a movie, of course. Blade Runner makes extensive use of its visuals to prop up K’s flatness. The lush colors and surreal set design keep the viewer awake through what could have been a very sleepy first act, definitely, and the star power of the actors compensates a lot for the emotional flatness. Yet I think authors can take a lot of lessons from this movie, all the same. We need to always remember that flatness is a device. Whether we want to praise emotional detachment, like Leckie, or just find it awkward like Wells we need to keep it under control–right up until the moment we need to lose that control and let sentiment overwhelm us.

The Lessons of Creepypasta

First there were campfire stories–which probably date back to the invention of language. These begat “urban legends”: the Hook, the call coming from inside the house. The Russian scientists who accidentally drilled into hell. Stories without authors, folk tales for a more scientific age. Creepypasta is the direct descendant of that canon. It has its own unique features, true. Typically creepypasta does have a listed author. Like all things in the internet age it competes with itself–stories get ratings, get YouTube reviews. Get followers. Creepypasta generates fan art, and derivative works, and even wikis. Yet creepypasta is experienced best the same way these stories ever were: alone in the dark, shared from friend to friend as a kind of rite of passage. Maybe you can’t toast marshmallows with the light from a touchscreen, but you can still scare yourself silly.

As a horror author I’m fascinated by these stories. So often they’re dismally written and threadbare. Sometimes, though, they pack a terrible, visceral punch in such a short word count. A good creepypasta is like horror haiku.

I want to explore some of the things I’ve learned from reading far too much creepypasta. Below I’ll make reference to many of the stories as if you’ve already read them. If you haven’t, they can be easily googled, so I won’t bother with synopses.

Creepypasta is Fast Fiction

The best pastas are short and to the point. They don’t waste time on deep character studies or establishing mood. You’re already a little scared, clicking the link. That’s enough. We get, typically, a nameless narrator setting up the plot, then a scene or two of rising tension, followed by a big nasty reveal. In many ways creepypasta shares its structure with jokes more than short stories: introduction, complication, punchline. Candle Cove is less than a page, in its earliest (and best) versions. Slenderman is mostly just a couple of forum posts. Longer works like the Russian Sleep Experiment still hold out the promise of a final awful epiphany, but as is the rule in all things, the bigger the buildup the bigger the resolution had better be. Longer pastas are routinely downvoted. Fans come for the quick rush of fear–boring your readers is the kiss of death.

Lots of Villains, No Heroes

Jeff the Killer, Slenderman, the Inverted Mickey of Abandoned by Disney–creepypasta loves its monsters. They tend to be visually interesting (it’s easier to make fan art, that way) and often their mere appearance is enough to scare the narrator into running or screaming or having a heart attack. In fact, we rarely see them at work. Their crimes are often second-hand, mere rumors of atrocity. A bloody mouth or a wild look in the eyes is enough. If we never actually see what they do, our imaginations can run wild–a man with a hatchet is scary, a man chopping up body parts is just, in Raymond Carver’s wonderful phrase, “popular mechanics”. Furthermore it might push focus onto the victim, which is a big no-no in creepypasta. While the killers may be richly, even floridly described the victims and especially the narrators are usually cyphers–they almost never have actual names, nor are we ever told what they look like. They exist on the other side of your computer screen, speaking to you through anonymous media. The fact that the killer pushes through into reality is the scariest thing about them.

Stakes are High, or Pointless

If the protagonist actually wants something in a creepypasta, the stakes in a story tend to be ridiculous, to justify potentially suicidal behavior. In one version of No-End House, you win an astonishing amount of money if you can make it through to the final room (you won’t). Some protagonists, like Orpheus, want to find and restore their dead or missing loved ones (it never works). More often than not, though, there are no stakes at all. Protagonists exist in creepypasta for one reason: to regret their own curiosity–which, of course, makes them us, copies their identity onto the reader who similarly was unwise enough to click on a link they knew would scare them. In many pastas the inciting motive of the “hero” is a simple compulsion. They couldn’t not look, they couldn’t not explore the abandoned Disney park, they couldn’t resist opening that letter with no return address or looking at the one image file on the thumb drive. They exist simply as puppets of fate, victims of a universe that actively wishes their demise.

The Universe is Self-Aware, and it Hates You

If Lovecraft dragged horror fiction into the twentieth century, he did it by throwing away the religious and mystical baggage of the nineteenth. God couldn’t save you from Cthulhu and holy water didn’t kill space vampires. The universe is a cold and uncaring place, and you are contemptibly small. Creepypasta, as the horror literature of the twenty-first century, wants to take it a step farther. The cosmos isn’t just a cold void, it’s also a seething mass of disdain and hatred. There is only one way to survive the events of a pasta, and that is to be left alive so you can tell the tale (and even then, you know the evil hasn’t forgotten you, and your time is limited). Many pastas, like Return to Earth, don’t even allow that level of grace–the narrator is telling his story to no one, watching his own demise creep closer, knowing that no one will ever hear what he says. Reality in creepypasta is fluid, malleable, but it only ever bends one way–toward destroying you. No one in a creepypasta ever learned a spell from the Necronomicon to push the nasty things away. And where Lovecraft saw a kind of hope in ignorance–a delusion that brought blissful sleep–in pastaland the horrors seek you out, through message board posts and text messages. There’s no way to escape, or even deny what’s happening.

Style: Distance and Outsiderness

Creepypasta always comes at a remove. The story you’re reading started with someone noticing a strange link on a web page, or they find hidden files on a game cartridge. Candle Cove’s entire substance is just the narrator remembering a strange television show from their youth. The writers of these stories know that you’re bored with real life. They know you think the world is empty of the supernatural, and so they build a firewall between you and the horror–one which always turns out to be more permeable than you thought. Distancing techniques can also add verisimilitude to a story. The great evolution of creepypasta, the SCP wikia, follows a rigidly anti-entertainment format (there’s a reason the containment procedures come first) and an enforced clinical tone to separate you from the horror. Then it pulls the floor out from under you. It’s a great trick. Because pastas are “documents” that you, the reader, have found you can open them safely, but their very artifactual nature makes them seem more realistic, and therefore less escapable. They force you to engage with, and even participate in, the squick. Creepypasta that eschews the clinical tone has its own distancing technique, one based on reader expectation. The best pastas use their outsider status to great effect. This isn’t some polished story that Stephen King sent to an editor for feedback. This is the breathless recounting of a desperate survivor. A madman’s ravings that no publisher would ever touch. The narrator announces at the beginning that no one would ever believe what he has to say–forcing the reader to enter into a devil’s bargain, the one wedding guest who was forced to listen to the Ancient Mariner.

Conclusions for Horror Writers

Creepypasta is very much an anti-style, a kind of radical reimagining of horror that places it outside the more traditional, more established venues for writing. Channel Zero, SyFy’s attempt to turn pastas into television (just like Freaky Links before it, and a dozen other attempts), misses the central point of the creepypasta format–that it’s something you discover in secret, something you weren’t supposed to see. Not something that gets endless promos and celebrity hype on basic cable. Horror writers can’t just lift creepypasta for their own ends–it’s a type of storytelling that only works in short chunks on a computer screen. Yet there are lessons to take away here, messages from a new wave of horror fandom that has its own values and desires. As horror writers, whether we work in novels or short stories, we’d be foolish not to look at the audience reaction to creepypasta and tailor our work to appeal to this new generation of horror fans. We can respond to the cosmic malevolence of creepypasta, eschewing the more rationalistic horrors of the past. We can examine distancing techniques for use in our own work, and rethink the levels of deep characterization we give to our protagonists (rethink, mind you, not necessarily abandon). If nothing else, creepypasta can serve as wonderful inspiration. I’ve read enough horror novels in my life that I’ve gotten pretty jaded. Evil clowns and zombies don’t really scare me anymore. I’ll freely admit that the pictures of Slenderman did, that Abandoned by Disney got my pulse elevated. Creepypasta works as an incredible laboratory examining what still scares us–and what always will.

Dream Logic: Using Surrealism in Fiction

I heard a podcast recently where the guest talked about the Magical Realist novel he was working on. The host asked, “is that just a fantasy novel but you don’t want to admit you like geek stuff?” The guest laughed and admitted that was pretty much accurate.

Similarly, you hear a lot of people go on and on about “dream logic” as if it’s an excuse not to have to write a plot for your story, or have characters with realistic motivations.

Neither of these things is remotely true. Oh, it’s true that some writers use these terms as excuses. But they shouldn’t.

Surrealism is a style, not an excuse. It can be incredibly powerful when it’s done right. You look at a Salvador Dali painting of people wearing lobsters on their heads and your first reaction is to laugh. Then you move away quickly, and the image haunts you every time you think about it. That’s not just Dali throwing weird crap on a canvas and calling it art. The whole point of Surrealism, according to its creators, was to tap into the subconscious. To make connections between things that seemed separate. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and almost impossible to do well. When it does work, it’s magic.

“Every dream has its navel,” as Freud almost assuredly didn’t say. I’ve always interpreted this as meaning that any story, no matter how far-fetched, weird, or seemingly dissonant, must contain a connection to reality. At the very least some kind of nod to real, lived experience. Surrealism exists on that thread-like connection, the region where the wild nonsense of chaos bleeds into the stark cold light of day. Great practitioners understand that you have to walk that tightrope to bring back phenomenal stories.

When people talk about Dream Logic they always forget the “logic” part. Or the “realism” in Magical Realism. Let’s look at some of these styles individually, and see where, while they promise chaos and insanity, are actually art at its most carefully controlled:

Dream Logic: Often called “Fairy Tale Logic” as well. In some ways, DL is the opposite of surrealism. It’s the attempt to impose consistent, logical rules onto a nonsensical world, and more often than not, the attempt fails (intentionally). If surrealism is about digging in the deep soil of the Id, DL is about the Superego trying to make sense of a messy room. Alice in Wonderland is dream logic at its finest–Alice is a scientist attempting to solve Wonderland with clear syllogistic logic. The story is about what happens when you push too hard and the crazy thing pops back up behind you. David Lynch is a modern master of DL–Twin Peaks: The Return is a master class in the style. Be careful, though. Readers who expect straightforward narrative will quickly get bored with this “crazy” style. You need to find a way to keep them turning pages.

Stream of Consciousness: Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine is one of my favorite books. It’s the story of a man riding down an escalator, letting his thoughts wander. James Joyce’s Ulysses is often held up as the one and only masterpiece of SOC. It’s not, though. The real master here is Stephen King. King gives some terrible writing advice in his book On Writing: create an incredibly realized character and then just see what happens to them. No one should ever do this. King gets away with it because he has a genius-level aptitude for creating stories out of random events–his brain just naturally gravitates toward a loose, swingy plot, so eventually he gets a book out of his wool-gathering. Do you have Stephen King’s instincts? No? Best to use this for, say, a chapter in a longer work, or just in flashbacks, unless you’re absolutely certain you can bring it back home.

Magical Realism: Argh! No, it’s not just fantasy! It’s a reaction against fantasy! Magical Realism is an attempt to describe the real world–the place you’re living right now–period. The conceit is that the only way to truly explain the beauty and importance of a real place, person, or event is to highlight it with fantastic symbols. Some life events are so big and so impossible to describe that we need metaphors to handle them. The loss of a loved one becomes a story about them growing wings and flying away. But the story, the damned story, is about the loss, not the wings. This might be one of the most misused terms in literary history.

Dadaism: Not just surrealism’s cranky punk rock grandpa. The two movements actually serve radically different ends. If surrealism mines for hidden connections between disparate subjects, Dada is all about breaking apart the established connections of our every day life. A toilet seat covered in velvet is surreal; one covered in spikes is Dada. It forces you to rethink the things you do automatically all day long. A metronome is something you watch. Unless there’s an eye on it, then it’s watching you, pal. A man puts a bicycle wheel on a stool and puts it in a museum. Not just to prove that art is bullshit. No! That was the opposite of the point! The point was to show that objects you encounter everyday become invisible to you. By recontextualizing them they become visible again, which is one of the most jarring experiences you can have. Dada was about iconoclasm, about smashing your face into consciousness.

The last thing to say about invoking surrealism in your work is that it’s dangerous to the writer, first, and the reader, second. The writer who dallies with the unconscious is liable to end up discovering things about themselves–their own personal internal symbol systems, phobias they didn’t know they had. If you find that happening while you’re writing, it’s actually a sign that you’re on the right track. You owe it to yourself to explore those strange feelings. To dig deep and see what you can find. Write crazily. Try automatic writing, where you just type without looking at the screen. Throw a random symbol in your work and see what shakes loose. Just remember–you have to edit it all, later. You have to make it make sense, make sure the reader never feels like you’ve lost control. Whatever happened while you were composing is yours to keep, and doesn’t have to show up on the page.

The Shocking: Notes Toward a Theory

We’re often told that comedy appeals to our intellectual side–our appreciation of wit and timing–while drama appeals to our emotions. Appealing to one or the other is the way to reach an audience, to create a significant effect in the reader’s/viewer’s brain that will cause them to be entertained. Either we need to laugh at the protagonist and his/her futile struggles, or we need to cry for them, to want them to succeed.

I’m a fan of horror stories, though, and it occurs to me that there might be a third axis of effect. A third way to reach an audience. Specifically I’m thinking of the physiological effect. The moment when the movie-goer jumps out of their seat, or the reader closes the book, unable to read further. I don’t think this is an emotional effect. I think it happens faster, in the spinal cord where our reflexes live, not in the brain. This is not sustained fear or dread but the moment of shock, the jolt of pure adrenaline.

As an experiment, I tried to plot a number of types of stories–subgenres of fiction–onto these three axes, to show why we need the physiological category. The graph above shows my work. I like to think of the three arms of the graph, the intellectual, emotional, and physiological effects, as, respectively, the “Aha!” moment, the “Oh, no!” moment, and the “Oh shit!” moment. Every story, in this model, attempts to create one of those effects–or a combination of them.

Different stories–different genres, if you like–aim to achieve different effects. Romantic comedies want us to aspire to the condition of the lover or the beloved, while whodunnit mysteries want us to think that the author is very clever. The most obvious example of the physiologically-oriented story is of course pornography–which wants to create an immediate, physical reaction in the consumer. However I think much of horror–and almost all horror movies–fit in here somewhere as well, in the region between the intellect and the physiological which I’ve labeled as The Shocking.

The story which attempts to evoke shock has a perverse sort of mission–it dares you to stop experiencing the very thing you sought out. It makes you want to cover your eyes so you don’t see the blood-stained axe. It mocks your attempt to make it all the way through a Stephen King novel when it’s already 3 am and you’re alone in that creaky old farmhouse. It doesn’t care about your intellect–you can’t think your way out of a jump scare. It doesn’t have anything to do with love or hate or any of the more nuanced emotions. It just wants to watch you squirm.

Fear, of course, is an emotion, and belongs on a different axis. But “true” fear isn’t what I’m getting at here. Fear sticks with you. It bothers you. Shock, on the other hand, is immediate and cathartic. You jump, your hand goes to your mouth–but then you relax. Your nervous system may be tuned to a higher pitch but you don’t linger on the feeling. True horror fans will not, I think, be surprised to find that I’ve linked shock and pornography here. The distance between shock and fear is the same as the space between lust and love.

Shock and the physiological do not require deep characterization or intricate plot to achieve their end. In fact these things tend to draw us out of the effect. Just as horror comedies always end up being funny but not scary, shock movies with complicated plots always feel wrong–the shock becomes prurient, sprinkled in to keep the viewer awake and therefore less “artful”. No, a good shock moment is one where the plot suddenly becomes meaningless, where the characters turn into nothing more than witnesses to a crime. Shock is an irruption of story, an unexpected moment which offers neither explanation nor apology. It is amazingly effective when done right; when done ham-handedly, nothing feels cheaper or more contrived.

There are horror stories which eschew shock and the physiological effect, of course. Weird fiction comes to mind, a subgenre which puts aside jumping cats and pure gore, instead attempting to achieve an effect of the uncanny–the moment when you realize something is very wrong with the world, something you can’t quite identify. Lovecraft is often held up as the inventor or at least perfector of weird fiction, but he had his moments of relishing the gory and the grotesque–when I put weird fiction on the other side of the graph here I’m thinking more of the abstract horrors of Aickman and Ligotti and the luminous Ramsey Campbell.

Gothic fiction, the predecessor to modern horror, attempted to explore the depths of the pathetic (the term is not meant to be pejorative, but more clinical). A young woman in peril evokes our pity and our hope, but always we know the nasty thing was lurking around the corner, spying on her, and that makes us clench our jaws in anticipation. It’s interesting that the Gothic split, in the early 20th century, into horror and romance, two categories we think of very differently now–but which both attempt to evoke the physiological effect.

I subtitled this piece “notes toward a theory” because I’m still not entirely sure if this model is complete. There may be additional axes. I think there might be a Spiritual axis–stories which attempt to elevate the soul rather than the emotions, though we see so few of those kind of stories these days its hard to say if that element deserves a full dimension on the graph. But I do believe that looking at our physiological response to some stories, especially horror stories, can add new light to our understanding of how stories work.