Myke Cole is the author of the Shadow Ops military fantasy series coming from Ace (Penguin). The first novel, Control Point, will be published in February, 2012. As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing. His website is at www.mykecole.com and he tweets as @MykeCole.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had this experience: You turn on the TV and do some channel surfing. If your TV is plugged in on planet Earth, sooner or later, you come across a rerun of Jersey Shore. There’s Snooki, or Snooky, or Snookums, or whatever the heck her name is, squalling over some perceived slight, backstabbing her friends while trying to ensure that her strategically positioned naughty bits cascade out of her three-sizes-too-small halter-top at the most dramatic possible moment.
You’re offended, you’re horrified, you’re insulted to think that you and this woman are members of the same species.
And, try as you might, you can’t change that channel.
I have a lot of friends for whom Jersey Shore, or Judge Judy, or The Simple Life, or any of a host of reality TV shows is a “guilty pleasure.” These are my friends, folks. They’re not like Snooki at all.
So why are they so drawn to her story?
Well, here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s her story, per se. I think that somewhere in our genetic code, humans are wired to be pack animals. We’re baboons in troop. We sniff each other, sleep on top of each other, groom each other, snarl and snap at each other. We’re fascinated by one another. There are a lot of self-declared misanthropes and loners in SF fandom, and I think they’re kidding themselves.
Because good speculative fiction, like all good entertainment, is about people. That resonance that draws me to A Song of Ice and Fire or The First Law or Firefly is the very same impulse that draws me to Jersey Shore. Those stories are about people and all of their…you know…stuff, and that is riveting on a very basic level.
And the more flawed the better. There are popular works of speculative fiction, and then there are monumental works of speculative fiction. What’s the real difference? Reasonable people will take different positions, but I’ll throw my hat in the ring and say that the works that endure, that shake the pillars of the genre, are the ones that deal with humans in their infinite complexity, that compel readers to identify with them in spite of horrible shortcomings, to see themselves reflected in them. In great speculative fiction we get that same heady mix of “there but for the grace of god go I” and “Oh wow, I feel like that all the time!” that we do from watching Jersey Shore. Snooki or Paris Hilton remind us that the fabulous and famous are no better than we are, and that we, for all our rough edges, are fabulous as well. That we can love the broken means that we can be loved in our brokenness. That’s a powerful message, and one we never tire of.
It works, time and time again. I hated Jamie Lannister until Martin put me in his head and showed me the method to his madness. How many legions of fans stuck by Steven R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, even after his vicious encounter with Lena? When the twisted, despised Gollum finally found his end in the fires of Mount Doom, I’ll bet you bowed your heads alongside me, hoping he’d found a measure of peace. Jardir had his reasons for taking Arlen’s spear. Darth Vader had his reasons for taking Luke’s hand. Mal is cold and distant, but it’s the price of leadership, and we’re glad he’s willing to step up and pay it.
As a writer, I’ll tackle a thorny plot problem without fear. I’ll plow through the inner workings of my magic system and prune prose without blinking. I don’t think any of us have ever seen a movie where we didn’t have to gloss over a plot hole or two. Heck, Star Trek and comic books make liberal use of time travel and “alternate universes” as a bold-faced device to get out of plot corners that the writers have painted themselves into.
But when I build characters, when I write dialogue, then my knees knock together. I doubt myself. I fuss incessantly. Because people know people. And, pack animals that we are, that’s what we came to see.
If you get that wrong, you’re building on sand.
So when Snooki’s on TV? I stop what I’m doing, have a seat and pay attention. There, in the midst of all that nasty, conniving pettiness is precisely what I’m trying to do. It’s called “reality TV” for a reason.