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.

From Twee to Grime: Tone Gone Bad

Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.

Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.

Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.

The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.

There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.

Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.

Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.

Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.