The epic mode

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The epic mode

Postby caliban » Wed Dec 03, 2008 9:20 pm

Athena has recently commented that she is a "frequent writer in the epic mode." I think this is a fascinating point, and I'd like to start a discussion on it. I have many questions, but let me start with two (bundles of) questions:

-- How do you define the epic mode and distinguish it from other modes? How can we recognize the epic mode when we stumble upon it? For what kinds of stories is the epic mode appropriate?

-- What attracts you to the epic mode? Why do you think it has fallen out of favor, so much so that people seem to no longer recognize it?
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Re: The epic mode

Postby Windwalker » Wed Dec 03, 2008 10:52 pm

I'll post a partial answer, as the thoughts occur to me, so that we can keep exploring.

This issue came back to the forefront of my thinking for several reasons: Kristin Kathryn Rusch's article in the latest IROSF issue, which is truly worth reading in its entirety; the various exchanges in the Viable Paradise workshop, as well as the comments I've received for some of my stories by both friends and editors.

I think the quintessential distillation of the epic mode may be Hector's response when he is told that the omens are against his going out to meet Achilles. This is his reply, which is even briefer in the original Homeric Greek: "There is a single favorable omen: to defend one's country." [Eis eionós áristos, amínestai perí pátris.]

And off he goes to do so, even though he guesses the outcome. Hector is not a berserker like Cuchulainn or Achilles. He's a thinker, a planner -- and also a man of deep feeling, as shown by his interactions with his wife and baby son. But when called to be his people's champion, he shoulders the burden without complaint or demur.

The usual definition of epic is "heroic deeds". However, what defines epic mode for me is not only the deed itself, but also the way it's done. Actions, not words, particularly not endless soul-searching/whining. Outcomes which have repercussions on others, not just individual "self-actualization". It need not be larger than life, but it has to be beyond the ordinary.

The danger, of course, is that a person can lapse into emotional inarticulacy or cartoony grandiosity. In writing, such characters often evoke the criticism that they're opaque because they don't hold forth about their emotions and motives; that they are too perfect and/or don't evolve.

I come from a culture that had more than its share of epics, both lived and imagined. So partly it's in my blood, bred in the bone. The other part is reaction. Our lives are so decidedly pedestrian, so consumed and burdened with ephemera and trivia, that I almost find refuge in writing epic stories as an antidote to being ground into dust.

People hunger for epics if left to their unreconstructed selves. In SF, as in the rest of the literature genres, the hero got used up and/or discredited. And there is always the fear of being uncool or square, especially among the literati.

This is all sounding very Ayn-Randish, in addition to being rambling (*laughs*). But it will do for a start, while I ponder more!
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Postby caliban » Thu Dec 04, 2008 1:26 am

So... some of the elements seem to be (please correct!):

a focus on the external, rather than the internal*;

a focus on narrative and action, rather than on explicit characterization**;

larger than life narrative.

----------

*Of course, a skillful writer can show the internal through the external. So perhaps might one say, the epic mode is significantly less interested in the internal than the external...?

**Of course, action and reaction denote character.

----------

Not that you were suggesting this, but there is of course a continuum (in fact, more than one dimension) between "hero" and "character who is introspective/whines about their lives." There is the Schwarzeneggerian hero, the one who is perfect and doesn't evolve, who feels no pain or laughs at it and continues to fight on. There there is the Bruce Willis hero of the "Die Hard" movies, who feels a lot of pain and nonetheless struggles on; he sure isn't perfect, although the point of the movie is not his evolution or his character arc. The latter borrows much from modern, non-heroic modes, in that his character is definitely not on the scale of Achilles or even Hector; yet obviously the story borrows heavily from the epic mode as well.

Of course there are no fixed walls, no clear delineations. I'm just thinking aloud here.
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Postby ljgeoff » Thu Dec 04, 2008 11:09 am

When I think of heros, I think of sacrifice -- knowing sacrifice. As was mentioned above, when Hector knew that he would perish, but went out anyway.

That moment of - oh, this is gonna hurt.

And how can you have a hero if you don't have heroic conflict? What makes up heroic conflict? It must be life or death, it must be something or someone that the hero cares for deeply. The hero must overcome great odds.

I was thinking of heroic plot using the wants vs. needs format. Hmm. In the movie Die Hard, John wants to find his wife, but he needs to overcome the bad guys.

But in some heros, what they need is to win -- the Star Wars and Terminator movies. Perhaps in the Star Wars movies, we could say that Luke wants to live, but he needs to destroy the Death Star. The same could be said of Frodo, Harry Potter, and Muad Dib.

Other characters simply sacrifice themselves for the greater good or for an innocent -- Doctor Who, Captain Kirk, Miles Vorkosigan, -- it's like they see a wrong and can't help themselves.

I friggin' love heros.

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Postby caliban » Thu Dec 04, 2008 12:45 pm

Hi Lisa! Welcome to Starship Reckless!

Hmm. Do all epics require a hero? Are all heroes epic?

I'm thinking here about superheroes and comics. We have Superman, who is the classical superhero, noble, perfect, not a whole lot of introspection otherwise he might not long for Lois Lane who is pretty awful to Clark Kent. On the other end we have Batman, whose life is one long revenge fantasy. In the middle is Spider-Man, who is tries to balance a "normal" life with doing the right thing.

In fact it has been almost a given, these days, to have graphic novels ("Watchmen," "The Dark Knight Returns") and superhero movies ("The Dark Knight," "Hancock," "The Incredibles") try to subvert the epic genre, by having self-doubting, whiny, brooding heroes. Actually they try to have it both ways, by having whiny brooding introspective superheroes, who then go out and have a classical victory over the forces of evil. Movies especially, with the need to bring in the audiences to subsidize their huge costs; in the graphic novels I cited, the victories are definitely mixed.

Another example is the recent reboot of James Bond, with Daniel Craig's portrayal of him as a stone-cold killer.

Is this why it's so hard to sell a "pure" epic hero? Is it that the Powers-That-Be (studios, book editors) think that audiences don't want them? Or do audiences indeed not want them? For example, Bryan Singer's X-Men movies, with their conflicted heroes, were huge successes; his "Superman Returns" got a flabby response.

I'm just thinking here....
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Postby Windwalker » Fri Dec 05, 2008 6:33 am

I agree with Lisa that in epic mode the protagonist needs to make sacrifices and overcome great odds -- in a conflict that changes the rest of the world, not just the hero (and I use the term regardless of gender). Even in LeGuin's quiet epics, the defiant gesture can start an avalanche that changes everything, from the ossified traditions of the Roke wizards to the social conventions of the Cetians.

I don't think all heroes need be epic (if by epic we mean the stiff-upper-lip variety). I'm thinking in particular of tricksters, from Odysseus to Zelazny's rogues. Also, as long as a sympathetic chronicler is nearby, heroism is not linked to victory, as long as the cause is worthy. Worthy, of course, is subjective: as it has often been remarked, one man's (or nation's) terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

Contemporary Western audiences like to have outer conflicts mirrored by inner ones. They're culturally geared to such a mode. As Calvin points out, many comic book heroes reflect the desire to have it both ways.

X-(Wo)men specifically has undertones that seem subversive even beyond the outcast status of the mutants. For one, Wolverine, the linchpin of the series, is actually a healer transmogrified into a killing machine. For another, it's unclear (in the films, at least -- I haven't read the comics), that the Professor is right and Magneto wrong.

Calvin already knows my views on Star Wars -- my critique appeared in Strange Horizons: We Must Love One Another or Die.
Last edited by Windwalker on Sun Dec 14, 2008 1:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby caliban » Fri Dec 05, 2008 12:36 pm

Windwalker wrote:Contemporary Western audiences like to have outer conflicts mirrored by inner ones.

Does this taste tend to run against the epic mode, at least in its purest form?

Do you think editors are receptive to the epic mode? Do they even recognize it when they see it?

Hmm. Of the prominent SF/F magazines out there, the one most leaning towards the "epic mode" as defined here is Analog, as it prefers stories with positive outcomes and is indifferent, at least, to a lot of internal conflict. (Neither are fixed rules; my story "Political Science" ended with the destruction of the Earth, and "Icarus Beach" had significant emotional content.) The catch is that the story must plausibly carry a lot of hard SF tropes.
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Postby Windwalker » Sun Dec 14, 2008 1:38 pm

caliban wrote:
Windwalker wrote:Contemporary Western audiences like to have outer conflicts mirrored by inner ones.

Does this taste tend to run against the epic mode, at least in its purest form?

Do you think editors are receptive to the epic mode? Do they even recognize it when they see it?

I think the prevailing taste does run against the epic mode. These preferences are encouraged by several developments in popular culture, which is increasingly geared towards adolescents. Adolescents have limited life experience, are self-centered, love angst and gizmos and their prevailing fear is of appearing uncool. Hence, we see the infantilizing of films and TV shows (case in point: Twilight), the prevalence of cyberpunk but also the flowering of fanfiction, most of which is an angstfest.

Editors blow with the prevailing winds. But nowdays many editors are no longer editors; they are (and call themselves, if they are frank) aquisition managers.
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Postby caliban » Sun Dec 14, 2008 8:26 pm

Windwalker wrote:I think the prevailing taste does run against the epic mode. These preferences are encouraged by several developments in popular culture, which is increasingly geared towards adolescents. Adolescents have limited life experience, are self-centered, love angst and gizmos and their prevailing fear is of appearing uncool. Hence, we see the infantilizing of films and TV shows (case in point: Twilight), the prevalence of cyberpunk but also the flowering of fanfiction, most of which is an angstfest.


I agree that much of popular culture is increasingly geared towards adolescents.

But let's be clear -- the rise of adolescent culture did not wipe away a thriving subliterature in the epic mode. (You did not claim that, nor do I think you believe it, but your post is open to that interpretation.) The Romantics already did that a couple of centuries ago. (Though they were arguably adolescent in some ways, it was not quite the extreme infantilizing that you point to.) The Moderns did it a century ago. (Even the Postmoderns forty years ago.) Goethe, Shelley, Byron, the Brontes, all had angst a-plenty, were all about the angst. Starting with Wordsworth modern poetry all but abandoned the classic epic mode. Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Proust, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Camus, were not all about angst, but just as fatal to the epic mode.

The reason I'm being a bit argumentative here is that I can't help the thought that golden age SF -- particularly in the 30s and 40s -- were frequently in the epic mode, were they not? And yet they were very adolescent in their outlook, emotionally stunted, uniformly sexist, frequently racist, overwhelmingly with a Anglo-Saxon-uber-alles attitude. In the 1950s, with the Futurians, under Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, with Fred Pohl and Algis Budrys, SF began to be tinged with angst -- not adolescent angst, but existential angst -- and with the New Wave of the 1960s, allowing in Delaney, Russ, LeGuin, Ellison, and others, who wrote about the angst of not fitting in, that SF arguably matured.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. It's quite possible that all the brilliance and insight of those years past have been squeezed out, leaving just little more than the narcissistic angst of adolescents. Certainly when I turn to a lot of American fiction, it often revolved around that kind of whiny, narcissistic angst. In recent years, in fact, the most vibrant fiction (and non-fiction) I have found have been about the clash of cultures; see for example many of the Orange and Booker-winners in recent years about the immigrant experience in Britain.

A bit of a rambling response. To circle back where I began -- I agree modern culture is aimed towards adolescents. But I don't think that alone is responsible for lack of interest in the epic mode; I think it had already fallen out of favor long ago, and was in fact most preserved in genre fiction.
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Postby Windwalker » Sun Dec 14, 2008 8:48 pm

I agree completely, as you almost certainly know. There's no question that in mainstream literature the epic mode had been superceded long ago, only to be later used ironically in such works as Joyce's Ulysses.

SF between the sixties and the eighties was the real golden era by my definition -- combining interesting plotlines with complex characters and important questions. The forties/fifties SF is more a geek's definition of epic than the real item.

Most of my mainstream reading these days is from immigrant authors also. But SF is based on different premises. In my opinion, that makes it necessary for it to employ more traditional storytelling modes (as is the case with other genre fiction).
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Postby Windwalker » Mon Dec 15, 2008 12:43 am

By the way, there is (was) one character on TV that meets all the traditional criteria of an epic hero and is also complex -- Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. I'd put Max of the Road Warrior and Thunderdome in that category as well.
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Postby caliban » Mon Dec 15, 2008 1:33 am

Windwalker wrote:SF between the sixties and the eighties was the real golden era by my definition -- combining interesting plotlines with complex characters and important questions. The forties/fifties SF is more a geek's definition of epic than the real item..

I agree with the first part. As to the second..., well, can you explain the difference? Do not Doc Smith's Lensmen series meet your criteria? Many of Heinlein's early books seem to fit your criteria (as he got older, his characters tended to sit around and spout philosophy). Also, Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. Etc. I mean, you're probably right, but the difference seems a subtle one, and I'd like to learn the subtleties!

Windwalker wrote: But SF is based on different premises. In my opinion, that makes it necessary for it to employ more traditional storytelling modes (as is the case with other genre fiction).

Cory Doctorow has a useful saying in this regard: "Don't overweird the pudding." In other words, if you have a fantastical story/setting, playing word games is a bad idea. (Mostly because the reader is confused -- is it just a metaphor or is really weird stuff happening?) On the other hand, a perfectly mundane, everyday story is perfect for playing word games -- e.g., Joyce and Faulkner.

In this line one of my writing groups has adopted "Weird Pudding" as our label....
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Postby Windwalker » Tue Dec 16, 2008 11:25 am

caliban wrote:Do not Doc Smith's Lensmen series meet your criteria? Many of Heinlein's early books seem to fit your criteria (as he got older, his characters tended to sit around and spout philosophy). Also, Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. Etc. I mean, you're probably right, but the difference seems a subtle one, and I'd like to learn the subtleties!

Let me preface my reply with something I should have said from the start: I dislike the completely stone-faced hero, as I made plain in my Snatchismo article. I prefer people to be articulate. But I also like them to act, not sit around wringing their hands and souls. In short (*laughs*), I'm very Greek in this -- my ideal is an even mixture of contemplation and action.

I read a fair amount of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, though not Smith. Their characters are too cardboard to be considered heroes. The authors themselves were unapologetic about the fact that they used their characters as mouthpieces for ideas -- as did Huxley, Wells, Lem...

The protagonists from that "era" that come closest to my definition of heroic are Poul Anderson's -- Nicholas van Rjin in particular (who has a fair portion of the Trickster in him and also happens to be half-Indonesian), as well as characters in his shorter stories: some of his Ythrians, Donya of Hervar and Joserek Derain in The Winter of the World. The characters from more recent SF that come closest are C. J. Cherryh's Signy Mallory in Downbelow Station, Jack McDevitt's Christopher Sim in A Talent for War. Perhaps the quintessential archetype of my notion of a nuanced hero is Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond, whose wit is as sharp as his rapier and who has a hefty load of angst, but never lets it immobilize him.

I recently read an essay by Joanna Russ. She made a point that encapsulates much of what we're exploring here: that SF is quasi-medieval, in that it is 1) didactic, 2) preoccupied with phenomena and 3) quasi-religious (broadly defined) in tone. This explains much, including the larger-than-life, flat characterization as well as the need for SF to remain largely narrative if it wants to remain successful.
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Postby caliban » Tue Dec 16, 2008 12:59 pm

Windwalker wrote:I read a fair amount of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, though not Smith. Their characters are too cardboard to be considered heroes.

Sorry to be argumentative here, but you seem to excluding these works from being "epic" merely on the quality of the execution. If I write a sonnet with the boundaries of meter and rhyme, it's a sonnet no matter how horrible it is.

I'm just trying to grapple with the definition of "epic", irregardless of quality. (Not that we don't appreciate being pointed to stories with particularly interesting heroes we'd enjoy reading, on the contrary.) After all, 90% of science fiction is of poor quality, but then, 90% of anything, including the set of stories written in the epic mode, is of poor quality. :)

Now, bringing it back to the description of the epic mode, if I can restate how I've come to understand what you've said:

-- Usually involves a hero (no gender implied), who is focused, albeit not exclusively, on outward actions, often at great sacrifice. These actions must have large scale implications, so we're not talking office politics here.

Does this seem like a reasonable description of the epic, and does it describe much of your writing? Or have I gone off the rails, as I often do?

One thought that comes to me is your interesting use of the word "mode" with regards to the epic. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but "mode" sounds distinct from "genre." Thus we could have a story in the science fiction genre in the epic mode, a western in the epic mode, and so on.
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Postby Windwalker » Tue Dec 16, 2008 2:34 pm

caliban wrote:Usually involves a hero (no gender implied), who is focused, albeit not exclusively, on outward actions, often at great sacrifice. These actions must have large scale implications, so we're not talking office politics here.

I would add one clause to this: that the hero is self-aware. That is, s/he goes into it knowing (or at least weighing) the consequences to self and others.

caliban wrote:One thought that comes to me is your interesting use of the word "mode" with regards to the epic. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but "mode" sounds distinct from "genre." Thus we could have a story in the science fiction genre in the epic mode, a western in the epic mode, and so on.

Exactly! Any genre story can be in the epic mode. Think of Le Carré's Smiley who fits the definition above to a T, except for lacking the physique that traditionally goes with the role.
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