Thursday, October 6, 2022

Draw From A Deeper Well


"This is just like [Brand X]!"

This is the most common sentence in modern fiction. It is also the most annoying sentence in modern fiction. Every time I encounter it in a story, I always roll my eyes, shake my head, and ignore the sentence. And usually the following paragraph too. Every reference to contemporary pop culture is a postule on the page, unworthy to be read and remembered.

Then I read Guy Gavriel Kay's River of Stars.

Sailing through the plot, recognition washed over me. Here was a story arc from Outlaws of the Marsh. There was a parallel to a real-world military disaster. And the male protagonist, Ren Daiyan, lives a life inspired by the feats of the legendary Marshal Yue Fei.

In primary school, I learned the story of Yue Fei. Renowned for his patriotism and military genius, he is a Chinese folk hero who led the army of the late Northern Song Dynasty against Jin invaders. As an adult, I study an art allegedly created by Yue Fei. Outlaws of the Marsh is one of the earliest, most famous of the classical Chinese novels, also set in the Northern Song Dynasty, following the exploits of 108 outlaws who rebelled against the government, and later fought against invasion from the north.

Every chapter and every beat filled me with fresh wonder. For the first time in months, years even, I didn't feel jaded when ready a fantasy book. Ever reference to the life of Yue Fei and Outlaws of the Marsh brought a smile of delight.

And, at the same time, a knowing sorrow.

I knew how the stories of Yue Fei and Outlaws of the Marsh ended. So would anyone with an interest in Chinese culture. I knew how River of Stars would end. And yet, I followed the novel all the way to the bitter end.

Why did references to pop culture provoke derision and scorn, but references to Chinese culture evoke delight? I can think of three reasons: The Three Nos.

No Effort

When your average modern author makes a pop culture reference, he is trying to force a connection. He is trying to draw a parallel between his story and Brand X, to steal the latter's thunder, to induce nostalgia, to ignite a dopamine hit.

It doesn't work on me.

From the17th to 19th centuries, nostalgia was deemed a psychological disorder. At one end of the spectrum, it was considered a benign coping mechanism; at the other end, it suggested mental weakness. Generals had soldiers discharged or executed for experiencing nostalgia. Today, it is the essence of pop culture.

The biggest blockbusters today are endless adaptations, reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels of pre-existing intellectual property. Original works are usually infused with left-wing ideology, designed primarily for propaganda and virtue signalling. Creating new works is expensive and risky. Reworking an existing IP reduces risk by tapping into a pre-existing audience, who are trained to chase the stale dopamine of ephemeral nostalgia. Inserting references to other pop culture works is a cheap and easy way to keep the nostalgia going. It only takes a few seconds to think of the line, a beat to deliver it, another beat for the hormones to flood the system.

I was never part of pop culture.

Name a modern pop culture show and chances are I've never watched it. Name a game and you will find only the shallowest of memories. Name a modern song and odds are good that I've never heard it and have no interest in it. I do not define my life by mere consoomerism, hedonism, or any element of the shallow spectacle that defines Western pop culture today.

A strange perspective, and yet a most useful one. Without the poison of dopamine, I see clearly what the creator is trying to do. Instead of elevating his work on its own merit, he is borrowing the glory of a greater one. He is outsourcing his creative effort to a completed work. He assumes that I am of his in-group and is trying to force a connection—a connection which I actively despise. He spends no effort on further sharpening his work, instead relying on the larger work to fill in the gap. And this strategy works—but only for pop culture consoomers.

River of Stars takes a different tack.

Kay does not attempt to force any connection. He does not go out of his way to say, this is a parallel to that. He does not break the narrative flow to chase a dopamine hit. He does not have characters or the narrator make any references to anything that does not exist within the story world. He simply builds the world and the characters, establishes the points of confluence with our world, and sets the story in motion.

When the reader discovers a parallel with real-world events and people, it feels like an organic discovery. The reader is pleased with himself for possessing such knowledge, and with the author for working it into the text. Instead of forcing the connection, it arises naturally.

This is the principle of wu wei: without effort.

The secret to Kay's success in this novel lies in its very premise. Few Westerners would have a working knowledge of Chinese history and culture, and even fewer would know much about the time period of the setting. He cannot make an explicit reference because his audience was never part of the culture he draws inspiration from. They would have no idea what he was talking about even if he tried. Making a contemporary pop culture reference wouldn't make sense either. The only explicit references are in the Acknowledgements section, where Kay lists his reference material and the real-life people and events that inspired the story, encouraging further exploration and discovery for those so inclined. As for the tale itself, though it is inspired by history, it stands on its own, producing its own version of old legends.

The lesson for the writer is instructive. Don't force any connection between the reader and the text. Let this connection arise organically. Embed ideas and references within the story, and let the reader discover him for himself. That forges a truer and deeper bond than one that is explicitly called out once and forever forgotten.

No Depth

The next time you see a pop culture reference in a modern book, cut it out.

Is the plot diminished? Are the characters reduced? Has the story become incomprehensible?

Chances are, the answer is no.

There is no depth to such references. They exist simply to create a superficial and incestuous connection, emblematic of a superficial and incestuous culture. They are hooks in the soul, serving no higher purpose than to drag the reader deeper into the Skinner box.

By contrast, River of Stars doesn't settle for making shallow connections to a distant culture. It doesn't completely replicate historical people and events either. Kay places a fresh spin on them, creating a wholly original tale. As he notes in the Acknowledgements page, Kay invented the personal interactions between the characters of his story, characters whose real-life counterparts might not necessarily have met each other, never mind acted in the way their fictional counterparts did.

Yue Fei received martial training early in life, then proceeded to join the army, where he swiftly made his mark as one of the most capable and fearsome leaders of his time. Ren Daiyuan, in contrast, began his career as an outlaw of the marsh. Ren preys on the government officials responsible for the Flowers and Rocks Network, a program designed to beautify the emperor's garden at staggering cost in lives and treasure, but his true ambition is to reclaim the provinces lost to the northern invaders. A fortuitous series of events allows him to wash his hands of his past and become a military commander—the most eminent military commander of his time.

By welding together the legend of Yue Fei and Outlaws of the Marsh, Kay created an original character, a marked departure from the man who inspired him. At the same time, Kay takes care to pay homage to Yue Fei where appropriate. It is said that Yue Fei had the words 尽忠报国 ('serve the country with utmost loyalty') tattooed on his back. Ren also gains his own tattoo—but in a manner befitting a low fantasy tale, and with words markedly different from Yue Fei's.

Kay also handled the ending of the story with great care. As I alluded to earlier, those who know the stories of Yue Fei and the Water Margin also know how the stories must end. The ending of River of Stars hews closely to the emotional tones of the conclusion of both tales. At the same time, it dives more deeply into character motivations and psyches, showing why characters acted the way they did, and in the final pages, the novel presents a fresh twist on the original endings.

The historical references in River of Stars are an integral part of the plot. At the same time, Kay uses them as a springboard, creating an immersive story within an authentic, believable setting. There is far greater depth in each of the references in River of Stars than in the pop culture references found within an entire series of modern works.

This is how a reference should be used: to inspire innovation and creativity, to produce a superior work, to add to the culture and body of knowledge. A shallow pop culture reference has no in-story reason to exist, and can be deleted without repercussions or remorse.

No Roots

Yue Fei and Outlaws of the Marsh are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. They transmit values and ideas that echo across the ages. These stories are taught in schools, read in homes, archived in libraries and bookstores. They are the touchpoints of the Chinese diaspora, connecting them to the distant past.

Western pop culture has no roots now.

During the pulp era, Christianity and the classics were the foundations of Western culture. A writer would make references to the Bible, to the Greek and Roman gods and heroes of old, and be readily understood. By standing on the shoulders of giants, the grandmasters made tremendous contributions to the field. They pursued Truth, Beauty and Goodness, and brightened the distant horizons. Even today, they are remembered long after their deaths: Tolkien, Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs.

Today, in this postmodern era, pop culture saws off the branches it sits on. Wokefied IPs derogate the fanbase in favour of pushing an agenda. Religion is a safe target for scorn—except for one faith. Creators of the original work are ridiculed or cast out, so that their works can be skinsuited by parasites. You are expected to cheer for the steady degradation and dumbing down of culture, or risk being called a bigot, a racist, a sexist, a whatever-phobe.

Why do pop culture works keep making references to other pop culture works? Because it has no roots. After years and decades of post-modernism, pop culture creators today have only ever known pop culture. They either do not know where they come from, or they scorn those that came before them. They have no understanding of anything outside that tiny bubble. They see all things within the framework of the bubble. They produce works for that bubble.

It is all they can do.

They are lost in an eternal now, their works doomed to obscurity within years, even months. They who have no roots will leave nothing that will last the ages. Works grounded in a barren present will be incomprehensible to an audience of tomorrow. Just recently I finished reading a novel set in late 2019 to early 2020, and current events have already exposed a significant section of the plot as short-sighted and outright deceptive.

The bubble is starting to collapse. Audiences are getting sick of shallow wokefied nonsense. Soon these creators will see the error of their ways, or be swept away in a wave of contempt.

As for other creators, those who seek the True and Good and Beautiful, I say this: drink from a deeper well. Seek out your histories, your traditions, your heritage. Expand your horizons beyond the Year of the Current. Feed your mind with high-quality works, and your output will be of similar quality, or better.

This is how you will regain your culture.

Saga of the Swordbreaker is deeply inspired by Chinese history, culture and metaphysics—and yet it stands by itself as a singular work. Check it out here!

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