In Defense of Critical Thought for Pop Culture

This post comes about as an outgrowth of a recent discussion I had about the state of American poetry. Now those of you who read a particular recent post of mine know I don’t really read poetry in literary magazines much. Well while I was talking to a friend about American poetry I pointed out that I didn’t really think what you found in literary magazines really represented American poetry.

The heart and soul of American poetry is in our music industry. Be it country music, rap or generic “pop” music, the rhythm and rhyme of song and dance form the meter of our nation’s most important poetic expressions.

Now why should that be? Aren’t music labels focused on driving the bottom line? Bent on creating albums that will appeal to the consumer and do nothing for the human condition? Maybe. But maybe, just maybe, there’s more at work in this equation than you might think.

Make no mistake – all great cultural touchstones were originally parts of popular culture. Homer was blind – it’s unlikely he wrote down his great works himself. We don’t know much about his life but it’s commonly believed he traveled about as a minstrel and sharing his stories to make a living before he was “noticed” and his stories recorded. Shakespeare’s plays were considered lowbrow and his writing not up to the standards of university educated playwrights of his time. Jane Austen wrote brilliant novels filled with characters who are timeless and loveable. She also saw things about human nature that the greatest scholars still miss in their sweeping treatises. She was taught by her parents, reading books and basic socialization, there is nothing scholarly about her novels.

Yet these people are fairly representative of their eras of great Western culture.

There were no gatekeepers these people had to go past. No journals promoting them, no scholars encouraging them (the opposite was true in at least Shakespeare’s case) and no intent on their part to create timeless works. They just tried to share something with an audience in the best way they knew how and they did it so well they set a benchmark in some way, shape or form. When they set that benchmark people took note and their work began to spread.

This brings me to the real point of this essay. In the world of pop culture critics it’s not uncommon to hear people apologizing for scrutinizing TV, movies, pop music or comic books. It’s as if there’s no reason to sift through all these new media outlets that are catering to the populace at large rather than the particular psychosis of academia. Surely the only ones deserving of critical analysis are the artistes, the literary masters, the great poets. I would like to propose to this group of pop culture critics – of which I am a very minor and unimportant member – that it’s time to stop with that attitude.

The definitive voices of days past were working in popular culture, gaining recognition and praise precisely because vast swaths of people could get to their work and appreciate the deep and timeless truths masterfully presented in ways they could clearly understand. The proliferation of mediums and technology have made tracking with culture both easier and harder. We have more information at our fingertips but at the same time anyone can create quality content very cheaply and there’s more people doing it than ever before. The need for people to sift culture with a critical eye and find the things that are truly timeless and truly accessible is greater than it’s ever been. Pop culture critics have an important role to play in that.

There’s also a need for people who will stand up and say that our movies, music, novels, comics, TV and YouTubers could be doing better. Saying that there is room for improvement and suggesting how it might come about, not because of esoteric theories but because of human nature and the need to understand, will elevate the culture and bring us closer to the next great touchstone in culture.

So the next time you take a hard look at a movie or song that you really enjoyed and want to talk about it with your friends, don’t apologize. Own it. Think long and hard about pop culture, try to create some yourself and share the lessons with others. That’s the only way culture can go from a brief pop to a timeless classic.

Something Like a Reading List (Part 3)

It’s part three of books you should read. What more do I need to say by way of introduction?

Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon

Genres: Superhero Literature

Sequels: Four and counting

When Hope Corrigan was eight the first superhumans appeared.

When Hope was sixteen, her best friend jumped off a building in the futile hope that she would be one of the few who would be blessed with superpowers.

When Hope was eighteen the Teatime Anarchist blew up a highway overpass and dropped the wreckage on top of her.

The Event – a 3.2 second period when humanity experienced shared sensory deprivation and marked the beginning of the superhuman era – changed Hope’s life three times over. The last time it left her with superpowers. At just shy of five feet and only a little over a hundred pounds, she is now one of the strongest and most durable people in the nation. Add in flight and superhuman senses and you have readymade superhero.

She has a chance to join the Chicago Sentinels, the first and best known superhero team in the nation. She can work with Atlas, Ajax and Blackstone, people who have been the gold standard for heroes since her childhood. She can have her face dragged into the media every day. She can spend hours reviewing national, state and local rules regulating superhero activity so she can test for certification! Fun!

The truth is, it’s not easy being a hero. You have to work very hard, know what you can and can’t do (in every sense) and do your best to keep your spirits up and your wits about you. For Hope, that means adapting to new abilities, new surroundings and new responsibilities. It means trying to sort out what parts of her old life she can keep and what she has to give up. And it means trying to calm down a drunk and disorderly man who can crush cars with his bare hands.

It’s a lot for a girl to take in. And then the time traveler shows up…

Night Train to Rigel by Timothy Zahn

Genres: Space Opera

Sequels: First in a series of five books

It’s weird when you walk out of a building and a man collapses at your feet. It’s weirder when his last words before dying are “Frank Compton.” The weirdness doubles if your name is, in fact, Frank Compton.

Such is the situation of our intrepid hero at the beginning of Night Train to Rigel. Being a sensible man, Frank immediately rifles through the dead man’s pockets and finds a ticket for the Quadrail. Naturally, the ticket is in Frank’s name and there is nothing to tell Frank who the dead man is. With a dead man at his feet and no idea what’s going on Frank makes a snap decision. He plays along.

Frank quickly packs his bags, grabs a cab and heads out of New York. A week later he’s in out just beyond the orbit of Jupiter, getting ready to board the Quadrail for Rigel, a star in the constellation Orion. And if you’re wondering, the Quadrail is exactly what it sounds like: A train track with four rails that runs between every inhabited star in the galaxy. It’s also the only known practical method of interstellar travel. Twelve civilized species ride the rails under the watchful eyes of the Spiders, a thirteenth race that administers the Quadrail in eerie silence. At least, they were silent until now.

As it turns out, the Spiders want to talk to Frank. They believe someone or something out in the galaxy is getting ready to break their primary rule: The Quadrail is not a weapon of war. Since the Spiders’ flat refusal to ship weapons to any place that isn’t ready and willing to receive them has essentially made interstellar war impossible. But the Spiders have reason to believe that will change soon and, since humanity is the youngest and weakest of the spacefairing races and in the worst position to survive an interstellar war, that means Frank has more than an academic interesting in keeping the status quo.

But Frank got fired from his old government job for rocking the boat. He doesn’t have many friends at home and even fewer out among the stars. With nothing but an agent from the Spiders to help him get around (and make sure he follows the rules) will he be able to prevent interstellar war?

Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger

Genres: Historical Fiction

Sequels? Nope

This one is a pretty simple rags to riches story about a self-styled knight in the era of Italy’s dueling city-states. Andrea Orsini works for Cesare Borgia, Italy’s rising star. Cesare has promised him wealth and influence once the Borgias rule Italy and all it will cost Andrea is his integrity. Being a modern thinking man, Andrea is kind of okay with that.

At least, until he meets a collection of people who begin to teach him to think differently.

Prince of Foxes is a fun book with a timeless message about youth vs. experience. It gives a good picture of what Italy was like in the late 1400s with all the fighting, scheming and kidnapping of nuns (seriously!) that went on then. It also gives a more timeless tale of a man who thinks he can live with sacrificing a part of himself to get all the things he never had but begins to see that his integrity is worth more than just gold or fame.

This is a great example of historical fiction at it’s best – on their own, the halves of this story would only be average. But together they are memorable and fun. Well worth the effort to track down, although at seventy years old finding a copy might be difficult.

Clean, by Alex Hughes

Genres: Paranormal Investigation

Sequels? This is the first of the Mindspace Investigation series, which is four books long so far

Imagine, if you will, that humanity created technology that let you plug the Internet into your brain.

Then humanity, being human, decided to create computer viruses people could catch.

And in the meantime computers got to be sentient and decided to wipe out humanity because really, those viruses were kind of a pain.

And to top it off the psychics showed up and took care of all those nasty thinking computers and restored Order to Earth, terrifying the larger human population in the process.

This, as near as I can tell, is the backdrop to Clean, a story about a once-powerful psychic who got himself kicked out of the powerful psychic club when he got hooked on drugs. (For science.) Anyway, to stay sober our hero managed to get himself a job as an independent contractor for the Atlanta police and uses his gifts to provide a unique perspective into ongoing investigations.

Mindspace Investigations is an interesting series in a lot of ways. It presents us with a future where antigravity is an everyday thing but people are terrified at the thought of the Internet and psychics live in a kind of parallel society, teleporting from place to place and providing powerful medical and scientific assistance at a price without ever really integrating into society. The world building is great, but the characters are better.

In the hands of a weaker writer Hughes’ protagonist and supporting characters might come off as stereotypes but he manages to give the struggling addict, the tough girl cop and the tired police captain a distinctive presence and sympathetic character traits without slipping into cliche. All in all, a book worth reading.

Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn

Genres: Paranormal Romance

Sequels? One so far

So before you say anything – Troubled Waters is as much a story of political intrigue as actual romance. This is one of the reasons I like it – the characters grow in affection even as they struggle over the bigger things going on around them and have to balance their responsibilities to the world around them with their feelings for each other. In fact, finding that balance point is pretty much the theme of the story.

Zoe Ardelay’s father was an advisor to the king, until he got himself exiled. And while Zoe loved her father there was a lot he never told her – the biggest part being that her maternal grandmother had appointed her successor to her position of family leadership before her death. The politics are serpentine but that’s okay, Zoe was raised in exile and doesn’t really care about them anyway. She’s just annoyed that no one told her about them.

And most people don’t seem interested in enlightening her now, not even Darien Serlast, an old friend of her father who brought her to the court in the first place.

Much like Clean, Troubled Waters puts a lot into world building but it does so in a very different way. There are a lot of scenes of simple, human interactions build around what are clearly deeply loved local traditions. Traditions that just so happen to come from worlds that don’t exist.

Balancing those non-existent traditions are people that feel as real and human as the people you meet on a day to day basis. Troubled Waters is fantasy and romance at its most believable and most entertaining.


No, this post isn’t about writing your first draft. (Note to self: Topic for the future…)

Instead, this post is about how I don’t have a post for this week. See, I kind of got last-minute shanghaied into working sound for my local theater group – the fabulous all for One Productions – and so I haven’t really had “free time” this week. Because tech week.

Normally when I do theater I plan my tech week posts out way in advance but that didn’t happen this time around due to the short notice. Rather than fall a week behind in posts and try to catch up later, I’m just going to recommend that anyone in driving distance of Fort Wayne, Indiana should take time out this weekend or next to go see Bend Us, a truly fantastic world premier musical at the Arts Lab, 300 Main Street, Fort Wayne. More information here:

Now please excuse me. I hope to get more than six hours sleep tonight, which means I’d better get started. Hope to see you at the show!

I Got Timelines to Kill

This is the second half of the big Alternate Timelines discussion! Part one is here, and you might want to read it just to figure out what I mean by some of the terms I’m throwing around. They came right off the top of my head not from reputable sources like TV Tropes and might not be familiar.

So today let’s ask a simple question: Are alternate timelines a good thing?

Any answer to this is going to be very subjective so for a moment I’ll speak just for myself and say: As a general rule I like them but only when there’s just one or, at most, two.

See, when we’re dealing with Baileiesque or Narnian timelines they’re really strong. Each serves a distinct purpose in the story and presents the answer to that powerful “what if?” question. Baileiesque stories keep the audience’s attention by highlighting one or two sudden, important changes to things the audience knew and had probably become complacent with. Narnian stories throw new wonders a the audience in rapid succession and keep the interest high, doing their best when each new element is distinct, both from everyday life and what the reader has seen previously.

In all, these two brands of alternate timelines are very effective narrative devices and their nature ensures they don’t get out of hand.

Since a Baileiesque world is a narrative device to spur character development it only exists as long as it’s needed – most of these kinds of timelines only exist as dreams or as a result of supernatural intervention anyway. I mentioned Star Trek’s Mirror, Mirror in my last post and that’s a great example of how even “permanent” alternate timelines can, for all practical intents and purposes, only be temporary narrative devices. The episode was great, gave good insight into Kirk and Spock and never had to be discussed again after it was over. That’s significant because the greatest problem with alternate timelines is that they present so many memory issues. With all the major characters and locations (and sometimes minor ones) duplicated keeping them all straight for a long period of time would be taxing. But Baileiesque narratives don’t require that so their value isn’t impacted by the complexity they could introduce.

Narnian timelines work because they assume one of the worlds is basically identical to our own. Usually, little time is spent exploring the mundane world in a broad sense. Instead the story spends the majority of its time in the Narnian world, letting the exotic and unusual work its magic on the mundane protagonists. In this way the potential complexity isn’t really that much greater than any other fantasy work.

Things start getting trickier with Ultimate timelines. Re-imagining an existing property comes with a lot of issues related to fanbase, expectations and changing cultures. Adding the idea of continuity with a previous timeline to the mix is frequently more liability than benefit. Remember the example of Star Trek: Into Darkness? Perfect case study.

One of the things I found most frustrating about that film was the complete recreation of Spock’s death sequence from Wrath of Kahn, except with Kirk and Spock switching roles. A lot of people loved it just because it was Wrath of Kahn with new special effects and the roles reversed but that ignores the larger context of the story. Consider just a few problems this created:

  • Both characters wind up speaking dialog that is out of character for them. Kirk’s speech is overly precise and slightly stilted, Spock’s is inappropriately emotional and comforting.
  • Where Spock repairing the engine in Wrath of Kahn made sense because Spock was a scientist doing precise technical work on precise technical equipment, Kirk fixing that same precise technical equipment by drop-kicking it is laughably absurd. Engines do not work that way.
  • Kirk is revived by Kahn blood. Science in Star Trek is rarely that shakey.
  • Spock goes on a rampage. On a rampage. Spock. COME. ON.

A weakness of Ultimate timelines is the feeling that the creators need to homage the past incarnation of the story somehow. When a crossover with the actual past timeline is slipped into the story it warps the story even worse. I’m not sure leaving Leonard Nimoy out of the J.J. Abrams reboots would have changed them for the better but I’m not sure the huge impact Wrath of Kahn had on Into Darkness would have been quite so jarring if the writers hadn’t been worried about making two Spocks work in that world.

Ultimate reboots can kind of work as a force to be reckoned with in and of themselves. They’re sort of a genre, sort of a framing device, and sometimes they can become really successful. Look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Naoki Urosawa’s Pluto. But those stories never tried to be anything other than updates of their source material. Connecting them narratively to the source material would have needlessly muddled the waters.

That leaves us with quantum timelines. And it’s time for complete honesty:

I only like the idea of a quantum multiverse in a story when that’s the heart of the story. Just throwing out the idea of alternate timelines that sometimes show up but aren’t always involved in the story is adding a huge, huge burden on the audience. They need to keep track of what characters exist in both universes and what characters dont, not to mention whatever all the other differences between the two worlds are. They need to keep track of what characters exist in only one universe or the other. They need to do both of those things for each and every quantum timeline that exists, because there inevitably wind up being lots of them. And they need to keep track of how and why people are getting around in this complex quantum multiverse. It’s a huge amount of information to keep track of and you can’t expect them to juggle it all if it’s not of constant relevance to the plot. On top of all of that, you have to find a solid status quo you can keep returning to, if the audience is constantly being shoved into the new and weird/wacky/fantastic worlds then sooner or later they get jaded. An occasional dose of “normalcy” as your worldbuilding defines normal is an important part of keeping audiences hungry for new stories.

You have to be a good author to do all this and make it work. (Surprise!)

Now when a quantum multiverse is the foundation for a plot and properly executed with the right amount of help for the audience, so they can keep track of what’s going on, quantum multiverses make for great storytelling. But not everyone uses them that way. In fact, they’re used that way only occasionally.

This whole discussion started because I was asked what I thought of comic books using alternate timelines as plot devices. Marvel and DC both use quantum multiverses to give them access to Baileiesque, Ultimate and regular old quantum alternate timelines. And they expect their audiences to keep track of all of that even though they only use the plot threads occasionally.

That’s bad writing.

Sure, you can cross over into a negaverse on occasion, so long as it’s the same one every time, or go exploring totally different, unique universes on occasion. But expecting your audience to track with five, ten, or fifty different timelines? No. That’s bad form. I’ve noticed that DC, at least, tries to do it less these days and that’s good. In general, that’s a trend I’d like to see continue. Maybe they could let some of the publishing space that frees up go to bringing the Blue Beetle back…

But anyway. That’s what I think of the alternate timeline plot device: It’s good when it’s used properly and not overdone to a confusing extent. Like all potent narrative devices, let the aspiring author handle with care.

An Open Letter to Sherman Alexie

Mr. Alexie,

I’ve noticed a certain amount controversy in your recent selection of a poem by my friend and colleague Michael D. Hudson for the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry. Allow me a moment to congratulate you on your integrity on choosing to leave him in the collection. Mike is a dedicated poet who not only works hard on his own materials but teaches a class at the Allen County Public Library where aspiring amateur poets can bring their poetry for public reads and workshopping.

I haven’t read much of his poetry myself, but then as near as I can gather Mike’s poetry isn’t really germane to the discussion at hand, is it? The controversy over his appearance in BAP comes entirely from his use of a pseudonym and what that supposedly says about his character.

So let me tell you what I hear about Michael’s character from his use of the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou.

What I hear is a profound respect for the literary traditions of China. Yes, Mike chose his pseudonym because it increased his chances of getting published in an industry dominated by identity politics. But we don’t assume Benjamin Franklin used the pen name Silence Dogood as an attempt to steal something from someone else, but in an attempt to make his point rather than being ignored. I find it highly unlikely that Mr. Franklin would have chosen to represent himself as he did if he had no respect for the insight and intellect of women – and I don’t think Mike would have chosen to represent himself by a Chinese pseudonym if he didn’t have a respect for the literary traditions of China.

Let’s face it, Mr. Alexie. China has a rich, powerful and four thousand year old literary tradition. Said tradition is deep and nuanced, literary and poetic, philosophical and mundane. It has enough depth to support three of its greatest philosophers squaring off against three of Europe’s greatest thinkers in one of the Epic Rap Battles of History, surely it can stand a few people representing themselves by Chinese names. Rather than saying Mike took something from the Chinese tradition shouldn’t you say that Mike is now a part of Chinese tradition and will enjoy twice the scrutiny – that of Chinese scholars as well as that of American scholars? For that matter, what would the opinion of a Chinese thinker be on the work of Mike Hudson?

There’s a story I’m fond of, probably apocryphal but quite illustrative. The details vary from telling to telling but the essentials go like this: There was a fairly inexperienced American sports reporter at the Olympics who wound up standing next to a fairly prominent Chinese Communist official while observing one of the events. Teams were shuffling from one place to the other and there was an awkward lull things. The reporter felt like he should says something to fill time but he didn’t want to give offense by bringing up anything relating to current events and the strained relations between America and China. Flailing about frantically, the cub reporter quickly decided to introduce himself and ask, “What do you think of the American Revolution?”

The Communist official thought for a moment and then answered, “It is too soon to tell.”

The point? Chinese philosophy very often takes a long view. They view current events like a man standing at the edge of a rushing river. Yes, they seem to be moving very quickly but in the end what people are seeing is actually a very small part of a huge cycle that is endless and unchanging. The water flows to the ocean, rises as rain, falls on the land, flows into the river and rushes by the man on the riverbank on the way to the ocean over and over and over again. Chinese thinkers view the past as a huge cycle, repeating over and over again and only those enlightened enough to break the cycle and transcend it are remembered. The value of any author or poet is not seen in the present day but many, many generations down the line.

(As an aside: I am speaking in fairly broad terms here Mr. Alexie. I am aware that there are numerous traditions of intellectual thought in China. In fact, China is a nation composed of many ethnic groups of wildly different languages, histories and schools of thought. Trying to lump them together into a convenient label like “Chinese” is like lumping all the ethnicities and histories of Americans into a single group. It’s silly.

I noticed you characterized your response to Mike’s pen name as that of one “brown” man to another. If you put my father, who was born in Taiwan and had two parents who immigrated from the mainland, up against any typical person of European descent you’d have a hard time telling their skin tone apart. His whiteness, or lack thereof, is immaterial to who he is, what experiences he can communicate and the impact those things have on other people. The only reason it would matter is if there was some kind of quota for how many Chinese people/people of a given color there could be in a given place/event/publication at any given time and surely we don’t want that.)

Now you can think what you will of the value of the Chinese way of thinking. But it seems to me that said way of thinking precludes us judging a person’s artistic merit during their own lifetime, or even the lifetime of the civilization that spawned it. In that respect, Mike is the same as all other poets that are weighed in the balance of time.

And that’s the other thing I hear from Mike’s decision to submit poems under a Chinese pseudonym: He’s saying he wants to walk with us on the way to the end of time. If using a different name is all that takes then so be it. Michael Hudson hasn’t taken anything from anyone. He’s offered to be a fellow traveler with us as we explore the full depths of the American Literary scene. And for accepting his offer in spite of all that drove you to reject it, I applaud you, Mr. Alexie.

Sincerely yours,

Nathaniel Chen

Get Me to the Church on Timelines

So recently I was asked for my opinion on alternate timelines and alternate universes, particularly as used in comics. This is really a big topic to tackle all at once so I thought I would break it down into two parts. This week I wanted to look at what kinds of alternate universes there are, just so we’re all on the same page, and then next week I’ll give my opinion on the usefulness of each in telling a story.

Let me start by defining what’s not an alternate timeline for the purposes of this discussion, namely anything like alternate history fiction. If we were to accept that definition then all fiction counts as an alternate timeline of some sort and the term just stops being useful. Yes, there are genres of fiction that are deliberately structured to be to our world as some of the following definitions of an “alternate timeline” are to fictional worlds but when you get down to basics you’ll realize all fiction does fit that description to some extent so you just have to ask how much the creators intended for that to be true. If that makes sense.

Let’s just move on.

For a story to have an alternate universe premise it must have two separate worlds that are somehow the same (a shared history, shared characters or something similar) and then make the characters of those two worlds aware of each other. That’s a little dense, I know, but maybe I can clear up what I mean by giving some examples of the four prevailing types of alternate universe.

The first, and probably best known kind of alternate universe is the Baileiesque alternate universe. This kind of alternate universe I’ve named for George Bailey, the protagonist of It’s a Wonderful Life. George’s story is one of the biggest, best known examples of the type in popular culture and most people probably know the story already, how George Bailey was contemplating suicide and callously tells his guardian angel that the people who know him would have been better off if he’d never been born.

So Clarence, George’s angel watchman, takes his charge to a twisted, darkened world where George meets people and sees places that should be familiar but seem to have been robbed of something that made them good and vital. It’s a world where George Bailey was never born.

Baileiesque alternate timelines are always defined by the person who visits them and exist to show them something about themselves. They’ve been used in everything from simple morality stories like It’s a Wonderful Life to iconic science fiction like the Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror. These alternatives are narrative devices that let characters and audiences explore some path not taken and strive to make sure that both audience and character see as much as possible from their “home” world reflected in the alternative timeline.

The second kind of alternate universe is the Narnian alternate universe. These kinds of places are entirely different from the world as we know it, possibly even having different rules governing them from the beginning of time. As the name implies, Narnian universes are best embodied in C.S. Lewis’ fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. They are places of wonder visited by (usually) more mundane people who become something more than they were as a result of their visit.

Unlike Baileiesque stories, Narnian alternate universes serve to build something new in characters, rather than reveal something that is already true about them. Narnian stories are hero’s journeys, rather than opportunities for introspection. As a result there’s as little overlap between people, places and histories as possible between most Narnian alternate universes and the homes of the characters who visit them.

The third kind of alternate universe is an Ultimate universe. The name is derived from Marvel’s Ultimate line of comic books, where that publishing house completely reimagined its heroes with modern backstories and a more tightly written continuity. Characters were reworked to fit new sensibilities or storytelling conventions. Then the whole thing eventually crossed over into the main Marvel timeline before Mainline Marvel, Ultimate Marvel and a few other Marvel ideas got mashed into an incomprehensible mess that’s supposed to be the new continuity going forward.

Confused? I am too.

Let me try and give a better illustration of the Ultimate alternate universe phenomenon. Get on Netflix and watch Star Trek, both the original TV series and the movie Wrath of Kahn, then the two recent J.J. Abrams films. If anyone accuses you of wasting time tell them it’s for science.

Back? Good. You’ve now experienced the Ultimate phenomenon in a very limited case. When Star Trek was rebooted the studio couldn’t resist using Leonard Nimoy to tie-in for all the fans of the classic series. But the way this reboot reinterprets the characters, particularly in the case of Uhura and Spock, and casts the entire crew of the Enterprise as misfits rather than the cream of Starfleet is done entirely to make the narrative more exciting for modern viewers. The very long shadow Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn casts over Star Trek: Into Darkness is another classic hallmark of Ultimate alternate universes and the existence of Nimoy-Spock solidifies the modern movie franchises as true alternate timelines, since they’ve interacted with the original.

Unlike Narnian and Baleiesque alternate universes, which exist primarily as narrative devices, Ultimate universes exist to allow a popular story that has grown out of hand or out of relevance to take the highlights and rebuild the story and characters into something new and easier for new audiences to get into. At least, in theory.

The final kind of alternate universe is the quantum alternate universe or the more commonly used term multiverse. You know how I said Baileiesque universes show how the world would be if one thing were different? Quantum universes assume that all the different things that could happen did happen and each has its own universe. Basically, a quantum universe is the ultimate attempt to answer “what if?”

Now the thing that makes multiverses tick is that lots of people travel around in them – there’d be no point, narratively speaking, otherwise. The alternate possible universes are open to everyone, so they don’t have a character building purpose as a set piece. Rather they are almost always the central lynchpin of the plot, the thing that makes everything else interesting and effective. The many alternate universes in a quantum universe is somewhere between MacGuffin and Deus Ex Machina, driving the plot forward and bringing it to a close.

So these are the four broad types of alternate timelines that exist in modern fiction. How good or useful are they? Tune in next week and we’ll hash that out – but if you want the short version it’s “depends.”

Genrely Speaking: Superhero Literature

This is a genre. Seriously.

Superheroes are big right now and writing novels about them has slowly started to gain ground as writers interested in telling their own superheroic stories have realized just how difficult it is to break into the comic publishing industries. The two big comic publishing houses are reluctant to throw resources behind unknown characters/authors and the process of printing comic books, which the American market expects to come in color, is very expensive for smaller/independent publishers so not many new titles get started that way, either.

That pretty much leaves writers wanting to dig into superheroes but with no artistic skill of their own two options – find an artist willing to work with them and pursue the webcomic route or write a novel. Artists willing to work on these kinds of independent projects are hard to come by so we’re seeing more and more superhero literature turning up. To be fair, novels are capable of many things comic books are not and authors may also be drawn to that. So what are the signifiers of superhero literature?

  1. Superheroes. Or at the very least people with the powers of superheroes, going the whole nine yards and including costumes, codenames and the like is optional although the best examples of the genre that I’ve seen find very good reasons to include both (particularly Marion G. Harmon’s excellent series Wearing the Cape). Note that these characters do not have to be at the center of the story, they just have to be present. Carrie Vaughn’s End of the Golden Age features a completely normal protagonist and is probably the best-written example of the genre I’ve read.
  2. A strong emphasis on physical conflict. A direct influence of the genre’s original incarnation, superheroes have always been a bit of a power fantasy and the ultimate fulfillment of that fantasy is being able to stand up to danger in the most direct way possible. Whether it’s stopping a tsunami or battling a supervillain expect superhero fiction to have the protagonist right there on the scene, facing the opposition with their bare hands and whatever powers at their disposal.
  3. Analysis of the emotional and long-term consequences of the conflicts the protagonist are caught up in. This is what really sets the genre apart from comic books. Producing comic panels that accurately convey subtler nuances of emotion is difficult, as is having enough text space to really delve into a character’s psyche. Raw text allows much more depth to be explored and is much cheaper to produce. This is not a license for satire, the story must take the superheroics of its characters absolutely seriously and show people reacting to them in authentic ways. When it does, superhero literature is at its best.

What are the weaknesses of superhero literature? Setting aside the inherent ridiculousness of the concept the genre has a strong emphasis on sensationalism and wish fulfillment that, when not handled well, can make it feel very juvenile. Of the three points listed above #3 is the most important in making the story work – if the emotional depth or realistic look at consequences is missing then the willing suspension of disbelief will quickly fall apart for all but the most hardcore audiences – who are probably all reading comic books and not that interested in pure text.

Which is the genre’s other weakness. Superhero literature is for those who like the abstract idea of superheroes but have never found that idea taken in a direction they care for by most comics publishers. It’s not likely to be a point of contact between book lovers and comic lovers and we’re not likely to ever see a series of novels focusing on big name properties like Superman or Iron Man simply because those characters’ stories are already being told in another medium that fans like better.

What are the strengths of superhero literature? There are a lot of serious questions the idea of superheroes would raise in any society. Few of those serious questions are addressed in comics and, when they are, the constraints of the medium (25-40 pages of story a month in most cases) can really cramp comics ability to answer them. While some titles, like Irredeemable, have tangled with the these ideas a little and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman promises some of the same the societal implications of superheroes that are a running subtheme in Wearing the Cape, no other medium can go as deep as a novel.

Also, while superheroes are often presented to audiences as role models what exactly that means for people when those role models come up short is rarely addressed in comics. Both End of the Golden Age and Alex Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible offer interesting insight into what trying to be a heroic role model might cost heroes shouldering the mantle of role model – and those who love them.

Superhero literature is a very young genre, the youngest we’ve tackled so far, and as such there’s a lot to be desired in it. That said it does show promise in taking a very popular kind of story of the era and making it something a little deeper and more challenging. All in all, well worth a look every now and then to see how it’s developing.