Hey there, Action Force. This weekend I was at Fencon, a Dallas area science fiction / fantasy convention. I had a great time, hung out with some cool people, touched base with a few fans, and just otherwise socialized with random folks. It’s a great con, and if you happen to live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area (or already happen to live there), it’s definitely worth checking out when it rolls around. I’m usually there, which is pretty solid reason for true blue A.Leegionaire to drop in for a visit.
While there, I talked to fans. One fan in particular stands out because it gave me something to post about. He said that he liked what he wrote, but he wondered when I’d write something with “some teeth”, as he put it. When I asked for a clarification, he said that he’d read Monster and felt, while it had some interesting depths, it didn’t really explore those depths enough. It was an interesting discussion, and one I think worth exploring.
I’ve heard this observation more than once, read it plenty of times in reviews, and otherwise seen it bandied about. It’s a variation of the fun versus fluff debate. While I know what side of that debate I’m on, I also hear this enough (from both sincere fans and dismissive critics) that I can’t just blow it off. But it was specifically the phrase “with teeth” that illustrates just how difficult this topic is to navigate. We’re not talking about the story itself, but the execution of the story.
I think the best example might be found in Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain. If you were to summarize the story in the broadest terms, it is a pulpy adventure homage featuring a brilliant space squid who outsmarts everyone while visiting exotic locales and facing weird perils. Emperor Mollusk is apologetically absurd, and it blasts from one strange set piece to another with nary a pause. It’s hero is virtually infallible, and his self-confidence crosses into arrogance and egotism (justifiably so within the story).
This doesn’t change the fact that Emperor Mollusk is intended to deal with some pretty heavy issues within the story. Chiefly, it explores what it would genuinely be like to be the most important person in your universe, to control and shape the lives of millions with your talents. Emperor Mollusk, for all his genius, knows he is brilliant and incredibly dangerous at the same time. A recurring point of the story (often mistaken only for a joke) is that Emperor is simultaneously Terra’s (aka Earth’s) last line of defense and its most persistent danger. The odds are just as good that Emperor will destroy Terra as save it, and even as he knows this, he’s powerless to stop it. He is driven by his own compulsions, and that those compulsions could destroy a world and not just himself isn’t lost on Emperor.
I think that’s actually some pretty deep stuff there, and while most of us aren’t going to destroy a planet with our mistakes, we can still do tremendous damage to those around us. We are all capable of unthinkable destruction to ourselves, our loved ones, and total strangers. And, yes, accidents happen, but a lot of that damage is also the darker sides of our nature. If you haven’t hurt someone you’ve loved through a careless action, then I can only either assume you’re very lucky or (far more likely) completely oblivious to those around you.
Emperor’s entire character arc is tied to the near genocide of a world. For those who haven’t read the book yet, some mild spoilers coming up. In order to defend Terra from an invasion of Saturnites, Emperor had to nearly obliterate Saturn itself. Even though he didn’t have to follow it through (though the story makes it clear he would have if necessary) Emperor is responsible for the death of millions, the devastation of an entire civilization, and the pain and loss of trillions. There’s little attempt to sugar coat this. The devastation of Saturn is somewhat justified within story as a weapon of last resort, and it’s softened by the fact that the Saturnites are the aggressors in the conflict. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that Emperor has nearly committed genocide (or even worse planetcide).
Writing that chapter wasn’t easy for me. Despite its many absurdities, I had to ask myself if Emperor Mollusk could ever be redeemed after an act like that? This is part of the reason that bit of backstory is told in flashback near the end of the book. If the story started with it, I’m fairly positive it would seem every bit as horrific as it is. But by then, the audience has come to identify with Emperor or at least enjoy exploring his universe. More honestly, by then most readers have decided the story is just a light, fluffy read and aren’t really paying attention.
It probably helps that the destruction of Saturn takes place from a distance and that the Saturnites are rock creatures. It’s easy to see it as merely a plot point, I suppose.
And that’s where the idea of “with teeth” comes in. I don’t think my books are light. Not at all. In fact, the more I think about my books, the more I write, the more I see them as complex and interesting explorations of the human experience. That they often fail to be perceived as such is a matter of execution, and that’s squarely on my shoulders. I make choices as a storyteller with the assumption that someone will look past the space squid or robot detective, the weird settings, the deliberately accessible style, and see something more. But, more often than no, they won’t.
(This isn’t meant as a rebuttal of critics who don’t like the stories. Nobody is going to write a book everyone loves, and The Mighty Robot King knows there are plenty of “deep” stories that I find to be shallow and uninteresting.)
“Teeth” seems to be less about themes and depth and more about the appearance of such. A novel like The Road relies on its teeth. A Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and even a show like Mad Men gain artistic credibility by having unpleasant moments and harsh brutality (either physical or social) rear its ugly head on a regular basis. That’s a legitimate artistic choice, and one that works very well. Yet it isn’t something I find appealing very often (either as artist or audience).
I’ve always believed that art (at least some of it) should strive to challenge the audience, and ironically, it seems to me that art “with teeth” is so easily accepted as deep and mature that it’s often not challenging at all right now. I remember reading a review years ago where the reviewer wondered if they actually liked a show or if they had simply bought into the It’s not TV. It’s HBO hype. In essence, Teeth have become safe.
There are no easy answers, and I believe human experience is so varied that there’s no single story to be told, no universal style to be had. All I know is that whenever I hear someone talk about how awesome these books and shows with teeth are, I often wonder if they would be as appreciated without the teeth. What if no one in Game of Thrones died, but instead was thrown into prison and never seen again? Would people think the show was as mindblowing? Or would it just come across as a plodding fantasy epic with very little fantasy to recommend it? Is it the story’s plotting that holds the audience’s interest or is it the blood, torture, and rape?
I’m only asking the question. Not trying to answer it. It’s too complicated a topic.
I do know though that my stories might lack these things, but it doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. Depth is where you find it. I know that I find depths in my stories as I write them, but perhaps without more obvious teeth, I can’t reasonably expect many others to see those depths.
Maybe I need to write a sequel to Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain where Emperor barely saves the world, kills thousands in the process, and then kills the bad guy (but then cries for two minutes so you know he really really feels bad about it) before walking away with no long-term emotional consequences. It might seem absurd, but hey, it seemed to work for Man of Steel, right?
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,