How am I behind with my reading list already? It’s barely February, and after today I’ve still got a backlog of eight books to write about. I guess I could read less, but what fun would that be?
- Under the Dome, Stephen King
- Just After Sunset, Stephen King
- Beyond Armageddon, ed. Walter M. Miller Jr. & Martin H. Greenberg
- Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, ed. John Joseph Adams
Why yes, Virginia, I did go through a week or so of wanting to read about things going horribly wrong with the world. It turned out I got to read some pretty damn compelling stories as part of the whole experience.
Under the Dome was perhaps the best of these books – though admittedly I’ve always liked Stephen King. He’s an extraordinary narrative craftsman, and I admire how he creates memorable characters in just a few lines or pages. What I particularly liked about this book was the way he kept the overtly supernatural elements to a minimum. Most of the damage that’s done in the book is done by human beings to each other; the spec-fic elements exist to isolate the characters, to put them under pressure and in particular relationships to each other.
I also wanted to call out Under the Dome for professional reasons. Because of my academic interests, I periodically get called by people who want to talk about narrative structure. Usually Campbell is the first word out of their mouths, at which point I get just a bit cranky. Quest narratives are all very well and good, but they’re not the only kind of story out there. Under the Dome is an excellent example of a story of a very different sort, which I think of as the “wrench in the works” story. An existing narrative ecosystem is disrupted by an intrusive event, which can be anything from a stranger coming to town to the descent of a mysterious dome. What plays out, then, is the consequences for the system of that event, as experienced by one or more of the affected individuals.
I find this approach to narrative particularly fruitful for designing interaction-tolerant stories (which is what I totally would be calling what I do, if I hadn’t just made up that term on the spot). If you can fast-forward the consequences for an ecosystem of a surprise event, you can fast-forward them for surprising things your players do, too! Of course, you have to design an ecosystem that’s imbalanced enough that actions at the scale the players can expect to take will rock it – but you don’t have to keep coming up with novel material every time the players take action.
Short stories rarely have the time to build a narrative ecosystem in the way a novel does, but I enjoyed all three collections nonetheless. Reading the three together made me realize, though, just how optimistic an author King is. Lots of dreadful things happen, and you may finish his book with a head full of gruesome images – but virtue often, if not always, wins out. Some of the stories in Beyond Armageddon and Wastelands were the “Hey, let’s rebuild!” genre of post-apocalyptic story, but the ones that have stuck with me are the sadder ones. “A Master of Babylon” and “The Feast of St. Janis” both look at what happens to art when the world that made it disappears. “Artie’s Angels” asks what kind of myths people need in a destroyed world – and what they cost the myth-makers. “Judgment Passed” is an eerie look at how one can live in a post-Rapture world. And, okay, not so very sad but totally awesome: “And the Deep Blue See,” a post-apocalyptic motorcycle race against time with the Devil.
Next week, catching up. I swear!