The Return of Realism

Writing tends to model whatever glaring errors exist in the culture at the time, and that skewed representation of reality creates a a skewed perception that eventually makes a story or characters ring untrue,  even if subconsciously. And the slope is inclined toward the error, so it always magnifies… until a backlash occurs. For example, the world has (for some time) equated “weird” with “interesting,” “equality” with “sameness,” and “benevolence” (or heroism) with “superhumanity.” And because of these errors, much of the writing — even while becoming more and more wild and speculative — becomes bland, identical, and boring. If everyone is weird, then nothing is weird. If everyone is a rebel, then no one rebels. I talk about this in Hell and the Sea. Here is a snippet from Chapter 8 of Hell and the Sea:

“By “falsity” I mean this: within a fiction story the distinct elements of the plot need to have some anchor in reality – in the world we actually live in. Even if a story is set in outer space or deep into the future or in the made-up fantasy world of Middle Earth, there needs to be a sense of reality and truth, such that this event or place or action could have happened somewhere that is real.

We are living in a time where the movies and television and even books are being overwhelmed with falsity… with unreality. With superheroes and magic and fantasy so extreme and unbelievable that even the computers are struggling to keep up with what writers and producers and directors are trying to portray. Superheroes, magic, and fantasy can have their charms but we’d long since passed the point of charm, in my opinion, and the way things were going I could see a backlash developing against so much falsity. Much of what I was seeing and reading made the most surreal LSD visions from the 60s and 70s Kerouac style seem objective and reasonable. We’d long since passed deus ex machina –  God from the machine – where weak writers use writer magic to make things miraculously turn out for the protagonist because they are too lazy to write well. We were now seeing deus est scriptor, God as the writer… the author turned prepubescent deity… illogical… destructive anti-literary masturbation. Churning out falsity like the pulps used to churn out detective stories.

Films began by blowing up identifiable landmarks. It was a fun conceit. It appealed to some latent affection viewers had for patriotism or history or architecture and their secret desire to see the old world smashed. But falsity cannot abide long with itself. It must grow ever grander. Next visionaries blew worlds into dust with increasing fury. In the first film a superhero lands and cracks the sidewalk and in part three he folds up a mile of pavement like a twelve year old sliding on an area rug. Once this pattern develops there is no end to it but unimaginable falsity. This is where we are with a good number of genre fiction books. And readers and viewers know it is false. They try to love it but don’t and don’t know why they can’t.

Writers try to explain it all with hand-waving but it doesn’t work. Eventually that house must fall.

How many angsty-teenager-irrationally-gains-godlike-powers-to-lead-uprising-against-bully-society can the market take? A lot, apparently, but the cup soon enough runneth over. There is an end to that sort of thing. When every book, movie, and episode must turn up the magic a notch, eventually we end up with perhaps the world’s shortest book:

Jenna, for no reason, had the power to destroy the universe. So she did.”

And this is where we are… Falsity upon falsity upon falsity. Therefore there is nothing that remains even remotely true in the work. No remnant that can communicate with the real world it must inhabit. We’ve tried so hard to make a world that is weird, fair, mind-blowing, or cool, that we’ve left off making it true or even interesting.

However, the commonplace can be very interesting if intelligence is applied (or implied.) We are sitting at the precipice of a backlash against un-reality… against superficiality. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of the times, or a response to the surrealism of politics and of the culture right now, but realism is coming back, even in Sci-fi and Fantasy, and specifically because the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of falsity that it can’t go much further. Think about the books, movies, or TV you are watching… is there any part of it — any portion of it at all — that could really exist in any real world. If so, good. But, if the only things “real” left in the story are emotions, then what is left is a dead body with feelings. The best of writing makes sense of our world, or gives us more knowledge of it, and yes… sometimes it gives us a break from it… but within that vacation, the story should inform our reality in some way. When it doesn’t, and that lack becomes the mainstream, then a backlash is on the way.

About Michael Bunker

Michael Bunker is a USA Today bestselling author, off-gridder, husband, and father of four children. He lives with his family in a "plain" community in Central Texas, where he reads and writes books...and occasionally tilts at windmills. He is the author of several popular and acclaimed works of dystopian sci-fi, including the WICK series, The Silo Archipelago, and the Amish/Sci-Fi thriller Pennsylvania; two books humor/satire including Hugh Howey Must Die! and LEGENDARIUM; as well as many nonfiction works, including the bestseller Surviving Off Off-Grid.

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