Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

I’ve been an addicted bookworm ever since I taught myself to read at the age of four. My parents never restricted my book access, leaving me to roam untrammeled through full-bore fiction and non-fiction from the get-go. My fairy tales and myths were unexpurgated; so was my country’s painful history, unfolding right before my eyes. Whenever I dipped into “age-appropriate” books, I detested the didacticism, the insipidity, the contrived dilemmas. Even with my limited life experience, I knew watery gruel when I tasted it.

So I hardly ever read Young Adult (YA) works, even when I was YA myself. From time to time I try again, only to confirm that my allergy appears to be permanent. This puts me in several quandaries: SF/F, one of my mainstay genres, has an enormous YA component – in fact, can be considered YA almost in its entirety in terms of its proclivities; the YA domain is a major venue for women writers and a major showcase for women protagonists. Yet I constantly run into bumps, even when authors try hard… sometimes, especially when authors try hard.

One of these bumps is magic, which I find tiresome with few and ever fewer exceptions. Most fantasy magic is paper-thin, incoherent and shifts arbitrarily to fit plot points and generate dei ex machina (two better-than-average recent fantasies, Sherwood Smith’s The Banner of the Damned and Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts would have been far better works without magic, in my opinion). Another is the persistent neoteny I discussed in a previous essay. Within that category, a near-constant irritant is the “finding one’s self” theme endemic in Anglophone YA fiction. Which brings us once again to cultural parochialism, lack of imagination, possibly market niche cynicism… plus that dreaded term: agency.

“Finding one’s self” appears as a near-default trope for a culture obsessed with youth’s trappings (Flat bellies! Hard muscles! Perky breasts and perkier penises!) that still believes in the libertarian myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: the idea that you can become rich, famous and powerful provided you’re Chosen and that everyone has a near-infinity of choices for everything, from their breakfast cereal to their identity. So in a standard YA – and not just YA – story arc the protagonist must find himself (I use the male pronoun deliberately, since this narrative is essentially defined by masculine/masculinized parameters), usually through a conflict that ticks off the ersatz-mythic checklist points of the Campbel/lite quest.

Reading bits of contemporary YA SF/F (a few pages at a time is the most I can manage before breaking out in hives) it hit me why “personal growth” quests are omnipresent in them: most of the stories are products of cookie cutters. The characters are not individualized enough to register as fully dimensional people, so the canned conflicts are meant to give them some substance as well as move the standardized plot along (including the almost-mandatory assembly of the quest team, a direct import from RPG games). There is no personality delineation beyond occasional resort to verbal tricks for quick recognition, which is one reason why almost all the recent SF/F YA works I read form a single lumpy blur in my memory banks.

Mind you, Homer used such tricks: “gray-eyed Athena”, “horse-fighting Hector”. However, these occurred in a long oral epic in which they served as memory aids to both bard and audience. Furthermore, Homer did not confine his characterizations to these shortcuts. We know what Hector felt when he took leave of Andromache and Astyanax. We know what Achilles felt when Priam was begging him for Hector’s body. Homer (or whoever wrote the Iliad) did not have to write those passages, they’re not critical to the forward motion of the epic. But by doing so, the bard made us care – and Andromache, trying not to weep as she watches her husband’s jaunty helmet plume dwindle in the distance, brands herself in our memory.

The default setting of semi-infinite flexibility also plays a role in the boilerplate depictions of what constitutes self discovery. An occasional critique I get for my fiction is that my protagonists are usually fully formed when my stories start and don’t “evolve” to satisfy the growth-through-adversity mandate. Sort of like Antigone and Odysseus, who also appear fully formed, even though their actions are shaped by the sum of their external and internal circumstances. Yet I doubt either would be considered a dull thud: they have urgent lives to manage beyond just “growing into their full potential”.

My native culture has undergone more than its share of upheavals, and the ensuing hardship and instability make it less able to luxuriate in choices; by both tradition and necessity, it also demands that its members make many crucial life decisions early – and often the choices are constrained so strongly that they appear almost preordained. These constraints, incidentally, also hold for such domains as contemporary research science. For someone with my cultural background and professional experiences, the concept of fiction protagonists spending endless sequels rolling dice for their D&D designations appears neither organic nor compelling.

Not surprisingly, this brings us to agency – women characters’ agency in particular. Agency – aka women as more than decorative or useful furniture – has been a perennial issue in speculative fiction, especially in the grittygrotty pornokitch subgenre cave. On parallel lines, people have observed that the still-too-sparse SF/F women protagonists are deemed fully worthy only if they “kick ass” (with video game prototypes like Lara Croft leading the way). However, the problem is more systemic than that: characters of all ages get shoehorned into the Procrustean bunkbed of the teenage self-discovery quest. This is simply more obvious for women because, with the exception of the occasional magical crone, most SF/F hardly ever shows women past the age of “peak attractiveness” – which for the US has been relentlessly shifting to the younger and thinner end of the spectrum, except for the obligatory pneumatic breasts.

In almost all SF/F YA works we rarely if ever see full adults, especially women, doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: work at things they care for and often are good at; love, hate and everything in between; create and preserve and sometimes destroy; grow old and experienced, if not always wise; but above all, go through the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life. The artificiality and interchangeability of the standard conflicts makes most YA books as individualized (and as nutritional) as movie theater popcorn – in large part because their readers’ cortices register that nothing really crucial is at stake, no matter how many djinn or dark-magic wizards are involved.

To put it simply, heroes in both real life and non-popcorn fiction often have little choice (and to be crystal-clear, “heroes” include non-male people – once again I use the term deliberately because “heroine” has very different connotations). What makes non-messianic people heroes is when in unusual circumstances they surpass their usual selves. Heroes feel fear, doubt, guilt, grief for their actions; what they don’t do is navel-gaze, because they’re busy with far more substantive struggles. Give me an artisan with a thickened waist whose arthritis is hobbling her but who retains the passion to push against formidable obstacles while still appreciating her wine. I’ll take her over all the homogenized teenager Chosen Ones of YA SF/F.

War for the Country

By Viktoría Theodhórou – Poet, resistance fighter

A soft mat she found and sat down, upon the leaves.
A song emerges from the flute of her throat,
softly, so her dozing companions don’t awaken,
just so it accompanies their dreams.
Her hands don’t stay still, she takes up thread and needle
to darn their wool socks with the hand grenade
she always carries at her waist, with it she lies and rises.
The grenade inside the sock, round and oblivious
to its fire, thinks it’s a wooden egg,
that the country was freed and the war ended
and Katia is not a partisan in the snow-covered woods –
that she sits by the window behind the white lilacs
and sews the socks of her beloved, who came home whole.

Images: 1st, Tree of Books, by Vlad Gerasimov; 2nd, Hector and Andromache, Giorgio de Chirico; 3rd, magical crones: Fin Raziel in Willow (Patricia Hayes), The Oracle in The Matrix (Gloria Foster)

21 Responses to “Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest”

  1. Caliban says:

    Part of the appeal of YA, I think, is that in the US fiction market current so-called “literary fiction” is frequently if not primarily about repulsively narcissistic characters. This makes YA fiction look downright refreshing by comparison. Not a great choice, but…

  2. Athena says:

    This may be one reason why good non-fiction (biography and history in particular) looks increasingly attractive to those of us who used to be fiction junkies!

  3. Thank you for this!
    Agency is the myth that you’re always in control of your own life (and that, if you’re not, you’re weak and unworthy rather than overwhelmed), and it’s given way too much value, not only in fiction, but also in real life 🙁

  4. Athena says:

    You’re welcome, Aliette. Indeed, agency means a person has motivations and the willingness to act upon them. Control is totally extrinsic to that.

  5. Caliban says:

    Indeed, I find myself reading more nonfiction–for me a lot of it about the lives of ordinary people in China and India and elsewhere, which feels more vital than a lot of fiction out of the US.

  6. Dylan Fox says:

    “Heroism isn’t never being afraid. Heroism is being terrified and doing it anyway.” I’ve been rummaging through the Internet, but I’m afraid I can’t find an original source for that. The closest I can get is Edward Vernon Rickenbacker or John Wayne.

    Of course, the other problem with the ‘finding yourself’ quest is that, at the end of it, you stop growing. By the time you hit age eighteen you’re supposed to be the fully-formed adult you’re going to be for the rest of your life. This ties in with our education system. I mean, there’s pressure on you from age 14 to pick you life’s direction, but at 18 you’ve got to pick your degree or apprenticeship and that’ll lead you by the hand into the job you’re going to work for the rest of your life. And, of course, your job defines who you are. (I was watching some stand up the other day, and when the comedian asked audience members, ‘what’s your name? And who are you?’ Every single person gave their job titles in answer to the second question.)

  7. asakiyume says:

    I know we continue to discuss agency, but what you wrote in response to Aliette I find an excellent summary:

    Indeed, agency means a person has motivations and the willingness to act upon them. Control is totally extrinsic to that.

    Very nice.

    I’m nearly done with Banner of the Damned; looking forward to having a chance to share ideas.

  8. Athena says:

    Calvin, you and me both!

    Dylan, there is no question that your work defines you. It shapes your identity in many ways. As for heroism, if someone doesn’t feel fear, s/he cannot be brave de facto.

    Francesca, indeed: I think the default definition of agency in the SF/F community is a narrow subset of the entire spectrum. I love forward to discussing The Banner of the Damned with you!

  9. Foxessa says:

    Yes, why YA does not appeal to me, an adult woman, and didn’t appeal to me much when I wasn’t.

    Speaking of Banner of the Damned, have you seen this? 🙂

    Love, C.

  10. Athena says:

    I did read that review — and I both agree and disagree with it. I agree that the book is too busy (much never gets resolved or even followed up), that the Marlovan half of the equation is rather standard epic-fantasy fodder and that the Colendan culture is an interesting mix of Heian Japan and Renaissance Italy. However, I found the transitions clumsy even when I found out how Emras did her mental spying, I thought seeing only the courts was not terribly interesting, I found the battles muddy, the female antagonist was literally a walking cliché, I’d much rather have followed the older Colendan Queen’s story arc — and you already know what I think about the magic. Nevertheless, I managed to actually finish it, a rare feat for me these days as far as fantasy goes, though I returned it when I finished it.

  11. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Despite being a young adult, I actually don’t keep up with what young adults read these days. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction books. Right now I am reading The Once and Future Moon, and I finished The Starflight Handbook some time before. If I were to write any SF, such nonfiction reference books will have been a much greater influence than anyone else’s story.

    I don’t know what this “finding one’s self” obsession is- any real person constantly changes as a result of their experiences, so at what point have we “found ourselves”?

    Magic in fantasy stories does have a tendency to simply do what the author needs it to do at any point in time, a bit like badly handled technobabble in poorly written science fiction books and shows. Only the author isn’t called out on it because, well, its magic.

    One cute trick hard SF stories sometimes do is have a technical solution to a problem that a sufficiently inventive and informed reader might have puzzled out for themselves. This is not a deus ex machina, however, since the solution isn’t magical, and the readers had all the clues that the characters did.

  12. Athena says:

    Not just that: we can become many things, depending on specific circumstances at decision forks. So the “destined to become X” thing is silly even in fantasy.

  13. On magic: it’s a very subtle thing to get right. Using it as a trump card to make your plot go whichever way it needs to go is a callow ploy. But defining it too much is a mistake, too, I think. Magic too often becomes a form of ritualistic technology rather than the evocation of some numinous force, something that can only be done sparingly and with at least partly unexpected consequences. I enjoy Vance’s Dying Earth stories but I think that since then, fantasy writers have very rarely got the wild, reality-transcending sense of magic right.

    I agree so much with your statements on agency. I am drawn to stories where characters’ destines are contingent on forces they do not control, even if they have a fixed range of agency; in this way, at least, Lovecraft was closer to reality than, say, Heinlein.

    I like this blog and the commentary on it a lot. I had long thought the genre blogsphere was overrun by backslapping parties like Pat’s and similar.

  14. Athena says:

    I’m glad you like the blog, Jayaprakash.

    I agree with you that magic in fantasy is like technology in SF — not only does it serve a similar purpose, but it also makes the work date quickly if it’s too sloppy or too explicit.

    Agency is much in the air these days, partly as an inherent component of the discussion about Others in SF/F. I think the discussion will become more coherent if people read more primary sources, including history.

  15. Foxessa says:

    What was most interesting about Banner, and which you hardly ever see in Fantasy, particularly Fantasy aimed at the mainstream demo by a member of that demo, was the work with point of view, to make it more sophisticated, while smooth as silk. The author’s choice to marry the narrative pov with the magic in the novel was innovative. That it wasn’t entirely successful, the author was aware of, it seems.

    What the author still seems not to have figured out is how much her creation of this world and the characters that inhabit it in her childhood and adolescence holds back accomplishing her goals. The author’s emotional senses from those years also infuse too much of the narrative of the books she’s publishing as an adult, and that too, interferes with the accomplishment.

  16. Athena says:

    I haven’t read the rest of Sherwood Smith’s work, so I don’t have a global view of it. I agree with you that while the world in Banner is thought out in considerable detail, the characters (and some aspects of the world) don’t match the sophistication of its better portions. There is still a preoccupation with teenagers’ concerns; it’s still very much an adolescent quest story. Whenever it breaks out of that straitjacket, no matter how briefly, I could literally feel my interest quicken: for example, whenever Queen Hatahra appears. Lasva’s attempts at diplomatic solutions, sidelined as they were by both the Marlovans and the author, were far more interesting than Emras playing with magical dolls. Also, the second half of the book hinges on a total improbability: namely, that the Marlovan kings would trust a magician who introduced himself as their best friend without any provenance credentials.

  17. Foxessa says:

    Fascinating material — thank you. I shall point a couple of people to it, persons who got their degrees in Philosophy and the Classics and continue in their love of Greek and Latin and the works written in them.

    Love, C,

  18. Athena says:

    You’re welcome, C! Yes, viewpoints can vary radically depending on cultural background.

  19. Foxessa says:

    Oops, that was supposed to be a response to a later post you made — am losing my little mind trying to get the African expedition in order.

    Love, C,

  20. matthew says:

    I find myself allergic to YA as well for reasons pretty similar to those you’ve mapped out. I wanted to add something, though. Renata Salecl recently wrote a book called “Choice” about the tyranny of choice within the late capitalist system. She has an interesting interrogation of the quest so central to the American myth. You’ve articulated a much shorter version of her analysis, so I thought I’d mention it.

    Otherwise… I’ve read quite a bit of the blog related to literature and I can only add my unequivocal support. Many of the same problems I’ve been struggling with within SF and F, you’ve articulated so clearly and so persuasively. Keep fighting the good fight!

  21. Athena says:

    Matthew, that’s fascinating to learn! I will see if I can find out more about Saleci’s book. Thank you for the good words and good wishes.