Astronauts > Ninjas

A common scene of the day: Joe on a rock. Posing.

From here on out, I’m decreeing that Zombies, Ninjas and Pirates are no longer cool, and that Astronauts, Mongolians, Vikings and Robots are taking their place as the ‘cool’ things to geek out about.

Let me explain.

Over the past couple of years, these three character types have become more popular than usual. Pirates, Zombies and Ninjas have long been popular with the geek crowd. Recent films and games have only thrown the fuel on the fire. At camp, there were endless debates as to whether Pirates or Ninjas were better, or who would win in a fight, and I remember at least a couple of camp-wide games that revolved around these types of characters.

A couple weeks ago, I watched one of Yatzhee’s Zero Punctuation reviews for a game called Left 4 Dead, which is essentially a point and shoot at the undead, and where he says the following: “It’s my observation that Zombies are second only to Pirates, Ninjas and Monkeys in the list of things nerds like and need to shut the fuck up about.” After listening to that, it got me thinking – He’s certainly right, but but necessarily for the reasons that he presents in the game (basically, he rants about how Zombies have been overused for just about everything.)

I’ve never really gotten the whole pirates vs. ninjas vs. zombies thing. Sure, they make some interesting stories, but not to the level at which they’re really adored at. I think that it’s easy to atribute much of the hype to films because geeks and nerds like the various films that they’ve been portrayed in, and like to talk about it. The endless discussions are informed by the imaginations of screenwriters, and not necessarily fact, and as a result, 90% of the discussions are pure crap in the first place, a sort of rosy-nostalgic look at what we think these things should be.

The root complaint that I have at this point is that for such an inventive, interesting and imaginative genre, there’s very little actual innovation and imagination going on amongst the fan community. We obsess over pirates, ninjas and zombies because we’ve seen them before in films, and know all there is to know about them, reading over books like the Zombie survival handbook and Under the Black Flag if you’re really into the subject.

I’ve seen the fan community in action – we’re an incredbily handy bunch, and especially when it comes to things like costuming, there’s very little that people can’t do, and do it well. But, I try and think back to the various conventions that I’ve gone to, and wonder, when was the last time that I’ve seen something truely original. I’ve seen amazing costumes, especially from the 501st Legion that I’m a part of – and I’m not trying to disparage their work in the slightest – but everything revolves around existing media – Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Batman, Spiderman, you name it, you go to a big convention, you’ll likely see them. Even for halloween, unless you’re five, you’re unlikely to see any originality when it comes to costumes.

Forrest Ackerman, who recently passed away in December of 2008, was the first Science Fiction fan, appearing at the 1st World Con science fiction convention in a costume that he made himself, a sort of astronaut, essentially starting the trend of fan costuming. While I’m sure that there have been more cases of originality, I really haven’t seen anything like it. I’ve thought to myself that it would be really fun to try and construct something new and original for a con, before I remember that I’m really not that into costuming or conventions, but should I ever have the time and inclination, it’ll be something to attempt, for sure.

But this is something that falls beyond costuming – it’s largely affecting the entire genre. There are two specific examples that I can think of where this is happening – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! and the downsizing of the science fiction sections in Borders Books.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a book that’s unoriginal to its core – it takes most of the text of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice and inserts Zombies into it. I’m not necessarily against this by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m more worried about what it stands for in the greater sceme of things – a general trend of unoriginal thinking when it comes to the genre, especially in popular circles. The big comic book giants in particular are guitly of this sort of thing, running their characters for years on end, without rest or retirement, without replenishing the ranks with new characters that might be more interesting or more relevant. This sort of thinking penetrates all levels of fandom, from the top down. Fans don’t necessarily demand anything particularly original, and the production end of things doesn’t seem to mind turning over the same franchises to them. And I don’t blame them – much of this is a business, and this sells – keep it up, because there are good stories there. But the fan community should demand better.

Borders, last year announced that they were reducing the numbers of SF/F books that they’d have in their stores, a move that would likely hurt smaller and up and coming authors, as it put them in a catch 22 type postition – they weren’t selling enough books to warrent shelf-space, but at the same time, they’re not selling well because they don’t have the shelfspace, at least in theory. The trent here seems to favor more of the media-tie ins that sell far better. While that works for authors who are writing media-tieins, what about the authors who want to tell their own stories?

I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that books that are part of a larger franchise, such as Star Wars or Star Trek do excepetionally well, and they should – there are some excellent reads out there, and I know a bunch of authors who view their works as far more than a simple paycheck (Karen Traviss, Michael A Stackpole, to name two), and it shows. But, they sell, because they contain familiar concepts, characters and ongoing storylines.

I have no issues with tie-in media, so long as it’s well written. But for me, tie-in media is a form of advertising. That’s fine, especially because it’s generally entertaining, and features stories that are fun, but I’ll always value a story that’s original (and there will be those that will argue about just what originality is – in this instance, not tied in with someone else’s works) over everything else, just because it’s something new, a different way at looking at a story or story type. And there are good arguments here – because technically, there are only a handful of different story types – I mean, how many stories about space ships can you really expect? In a recent article that I wrote for io9, I was almost shocked to find that the main villian in most of the military science fiction stories were insectoids – Starship Troopers, Armor, Ender’s Game and Alien – all used similar elements to tell their stories. But, their stories are all very different, and I always find that I get more out of them, and most other standalone SF/F novels than I do for 90% of the tie-in books that I read. You just can’t compare Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to Spider-Man: Down These Mean Streets, no matter the protestations of tie-in authors, you just can’t.

Sadly, this originality is something that seems to be lacking within the geek community, and we’ve become fans of the pre-existing. My complaint here is that Science Fiction and Fantasy has been an incredibly innovative and creative genre , and those qualities have become very far and few between when it comes to a good book or film. The imagination is still there, but the originality is not, and this is why we have the endless Zombies vs. Pirates vs. Ninja debates, I think – we just can’t seem to think of anything else to geek out over. And while it’s not completely original, how about Astronauts, Robots, Mongolians and Vikings? They’re totally better than Zombie Ninja Pirates any day of the week.

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4 thoughts on “Astronauts > Ninjas

  1. Interesting points made. My thought (as a fellow member of the 501st Legion) is that there are a lot of people who are technically proficient when it comes to crafting the props and costumes we wear. Artistry, imagination and originality are, sadly, lacking in the community. Thing is, I believe that people want– no, seek– the attention they get when costumed up and if they wear something no one can identify, they don’t get the feedback they want.

    • I think that you’re right, and I realize that it’s a bit hypocritical of me to complain about this, being a member and replicating a storm trooper and clone trooper, as well as being an avid reader of a number of tie-in stories.
      I suspect that with the talent that some of our people have, should they focus on a project that’s fairly original (ie, outside of any franchise) and did a good job at it, I suspect that they would get a lot of attention for said items. But, it really depends on the venue and things like that. Unfortunately, outside of Halloween, it’s hard to find times to do any sort of costuming, and most of these big cons really support the multimedia stuff.

  2. Insightful essay. There’s always a certain familiarity in specific pop cultural tropes that pop up from time to time. In the 60s it was Westerns. I think it was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” that kicked me off this particular zombie train.

    • Thanks Dan – I completely agree – familiarity breeds more of the same, and while I’m not against that, what I dislike is that it seems to close out everything else.

      I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, when I first heard about it, is a fun idea, but on more reflection on it, it’s a sort of niche thing that’s much more in the mainstream part of culture. Also not a bad thing, but this idea just sounds too cute, honestly. I hear the author’s doing a book called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I’m not as interested in. There’s no new idea there, and it seems to me that this is a genre that should have a whole lot more creativity than what we are currently seeing.

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