Saturday, March 04, 2017

a book report on Redshirts, and a few words about sympathy and art

One of the best parts of not having to worry about trying to be a scholar in the absence of any success as a scholar is that my schedule is less packed than it was before. This means I actually have time to read for pleasure again, something that, if I'm to be honest, I haven't been able to regularly do since 1994. I try to balance light and fun reads with heavier stuff (both more intense science fiction and non-fiction). Earlier today, I finished the John Scalzi novel Redshirts, and I can tell that although I thought this would be one of the light reads, I will be pondering this one for a while.

Redshirts is set on a spaceship in the distant future and focuses on a group of entry-level shipmates. The obvious parallel is to the red shirts from Star Trek...not the main officers/heroes of the ship, but the people who do the grunt work...and, as a fun bonus are more likely to die than the officers. Soon after boarding their ship, the protagonists realize that the non-officers on the ship have an annoying (and statistically unrealistically high) tendency to die while on away missions.

After some adventure and meeting a sage figure, our heroes eventually discover their exploits are the basis for a 21st century science fiction television show. I don't mean that they influence the show, but rather, the show determines their reality. While the characters are, to themselves and those around them, real people, many of their exploits are determined by the writers of this much earlier television show. Did I mention the television show in question is really cheesy and hackneyed?

Once the protagonists realize their fate is at the mercy of a centuries-before hacky television writer, they decide to go back in time and confront the writer in question. And then it gets weird. And then the twists start coming.

Redshirts is actually billed as "a novel with three codas." The novel portion of it stays pretty light and fast-paced action sci-fi. It's a very "metafiction" type novel, and the blurred line between reality and fantasy is mostly played for laughs. Good laughs. My daughter kept asking me why I was cackling, and I really couldn't explain it all to her. I blew through this portion of the book, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

Then the codas hit, and they each added different perspectives, both to the narrative and to its philosophical depth. While one of the cool things the novel did was shine a light on who we'd normally think of as minor characters, the codas took the minor characters from that arc and made them the center of their own story. Each one only served to deepen the weight of the novel. You know the saying, "every character is the hero of their own story?" That's definitely true of Redshirts, except the more "minor character" you go, the more important and emotionally deep the stories get, and, by extension, so did the main narrative.

We don't think enough about the fate of those in the background. We don't think enough of the characters in our stories leading vastly richer and deeper lives than our stories let on. This is true of the art we create, sure, but it is equally true in our real world experiences. Nobody is entirely a villain or a hero. No one is simple. And when we ignore their complexity, we can and do only get a particularly shallow view of any story to which they are connected...and, by extension, to the world as a whole. To our own stories, for that matter.

I'm a songwriter. One of the things I try to do is to present vivid characters, because it gives the song that much more of an impact. Even so, I have to constantly remind myself to delve behind the easy surface. Case in point? One of the most appreciated songs on Skeleton Coast is "Totally Low Standard Blues." It's the narrative of a guy who's circling around  a relationship with someone who is fairly broken. The narrator, though, is more obsessed with his own brokenness, though, and he interprets his crush's affections for him as her biggest fault.

The line more than a few listeners have latched onto is, "If I was the best you can do, then what does that say about you?" And yes, it is a funny and catchy line. However, it's a line brimming with loathing...for everyone and everything, I guess, but mostly for the narrator himself.

Don't get me wrong; I do like this song a lot, but it did shape me a lot as a writer. Do I want to be the kind of songwriter who only focuses on the negative? Who only sees the worst in things? Who ignores any depth his characters might have in favor of the clever impression?

I was actually not all that concerned about the narrator. In case you haven't guessed, this song is fairly autobiographical, but although it could be read as self-hatred, I have plenty of other songs in which to make my own case. The damaged object of affection, though, was another issue for me. She is partially based on a real person, and it's a real person who has endured a pretty rough existence, and for that, I have a lot of sympathy for her. By only focusing on the damage, I was being unfair...and not a little bit of a jerk.

But in addition to being unfair to a real person, I realized I was being unfair to my writing. I was being unfair to my characters. And I was also being unfair to my listeners (all six of them). Moreover, I was taking the easy way out. I was closer to the comedian going for the cheap crack about someone's appearance than I was being an artist. And that bothered me.

Before you think of me as guided by delusions of grandeur, I don't think of myself as high class or elitist when it comes to my music. Nor do I ever see my number of listeners going into even the triple digits (although it would admittedly be nice to play an arena at some point). No, I'm mostly doing this for myself. Writing songs makes me feel sane. Moreover, it makes me feel significant in some way. So a few years after I wrote "Totally Low Standard Blues," I decided I had to be fair to its subject. I wrote another song largely about the same person (called "Side to Side," which will be on the album after next), and when I first played it, I felt like some kind of karmic balance had been restored.

I bring up this digression into my own songwriting to (more than anything else) make clear why I was so knocked out by Redshirts. While yes, it is a fun and goofy sci-fi romp, it's also a pretty good meditation on art and perception...on how, if we want to be honest, we need to see everyone's story, and to treat those stories with respect and reverence. To do so is essential for art.

Moreover, I think that the respect and reverence for others is essential for life. That, though, is another post.

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