How Has Covid Changed Our Stories?

This weekend, while mowing the lawn, I listened to Asphalt Meadows, the new Death Cab for Cutie album. I am a horrible screen addict who has to constantly fight the urge to inundate myself with multiple streams of content at once, Back to the Future-style, so mowing the lawn is a great time for me to actually listen to music while part of my brain is focused on the simple task of driving in straight lines.

Marty McFly watches six channels at once in Back to the Future.

Upon initial listen, I really liked it. It’s clearly recognizable as a Death Cab album, but it also feels like something very different from the band. There is considerably less slick production. The sound is much more raw. Out of the quiet parts, they blast you with almost violent noise.

Death Cab has always had an emo melancholy streak, but it’s amped up here. And yet, there are still glimmers of hope in the face of tragedy. I’m hardly an expert music critic, but it feels like a Covid album.

Trends and Tectonic Shifts in Storytelling

The last few years have had such broad effects on society and on most of us personally. I’ve been wondering for a while just what long-term changes this will wreak on the world at large. It’ll take decades to begin to understand how these plague years have changed us.

As a writer, I think one of the most interesting lenses to view society through is our stories. There are always trends in fiction, like the waves of zombies following The Walking Dead, the vampire romances following Twilight, and the myriad dystopias post-Hunger Games. But there are bigger trends too. These meta-trends can show something about our collective sentiment or what we’re seeking in our imagined worlds that we feel lacking in the real one.

The optimistic science-fiction of the post-WWII era reflected a society that thought it could do anything. This was a society that believed technology could be harnessed to solve any problem and overcome any obstacle. This was the Jetsons-style future of sleek silver spaceships and moving sidewalks and personal robot butlers.

Is Cyberpunk the Present Day Yet?

When this blog was young (a whopping 1.5 years ago), I wrote an article inspired by a tweet by William Gibson, and asked, is cyberpunk retro-futurism yet? Looking back, I think that while the aesthetics of cyberpunk have been reused and recycled extensively, it’s the deeper themes of cyberpunk that really seem to be oddly on-point in our current day and age.

The futurists of the 1980s looking toward a world dominated by mega-corporations and invasive technology seems almost quaint in our modern era of Amazon and Facebook, of ad-targeting and bot-farms and Cambridge Analytica and wondering whether Alexa or Siri is listening in on our conversations. In a lot of ways, we’ve out-cyberpunked the genre of cyberpunk with our own dystopic reality.

But looking beyond these surface-level themes of cyberpunk, I think there is an even more resonant core. Cyberpunk is about vast, uncontrollable systems. Rogue AIs, mega-corporations, and legions of near-human replicants all represent systems so big and so complicated that the average person on the street has no way to even understand what’s going on, let alone take it in a fair fight. Cyberpunk is about survival in a world of vast, incomprehensible, world-controlling systems that are completely indifferent to you.

Surviving in a completely indifferent world. Boy, that sounds familiar.

When Dystopia is Too Optimistic

What about the last few years? What has changed in our stories? Again, this is something that will need the space of another decade or two to really understand, but I can look at the anecdotal evidence of the stories I’ve been reading and watching recently. A lot of these stories are about found family, about belonging, hope and love in a world of hate and nihilism.

Covid, along with the political and cultural fissures that have developed and deepened in recent years, have left many of us feeling…brittle. The world is made of glass these days. It feels like so many things are just barely holding together, and it would only take one or two well-aimed blows to shatter. This is what I heard in Asphalt Meadows while I mowed the lawn.

If the era of The Hunger Games and its dystopian facsimiles was about fighting back against authoritarianism, this era of fiction feels like an all-out fight against nihilism. Only, back in The Hunger Games days, there really wasn’t anyone rooting for the authoritarians. (If anything, people were awfully glib about the message of that series, which seemed to be that it’s not actually that easy to make things better through violent revolution.)

Today’s question seems to be whether or not to give in to complete nihilism, and I think the jury is still out on which way we’re going.

Nihilism and Its Opposite

One of the best movies of the past year was unquestionably Everything Everywhere All at Once. If you haven’t seen it, go see it right now. If you have seen it, go watch this great analysis on Movies With Mikey (one of my favorite channels about movies), and feel those feelings all over again.

E.E.A.A.O. puts to shame the shallow multiverses of Hollywood powerhouses like Marvel. This isn’t an excuse to trot out all the nostalgic reboots of reboots of reboots. This isn’t a story where evil threatens to destroy the world, or even the universe. This is a threat to every world in every universe. You know, everything everywhere all at once. Only, the threat isn’t evil. It’s malicious indifference. It’s nihilism.

In the absurd drama that only The Daniels can pull off with such panache, it’s the literal “everything bagel,” the black hole of indifference that threatens to absorb the sprawl of infinite universes. After all, when the universe is infinite, everything that can happen, happens. Nothing is unique. Nothing is special. In the face of everything, nothing matters. This is the argument the characters of the film are pitted against. Why care? Why bother?

Despite all the universe-hopping and existential threats, this isn’t really a movie about big stakes. Big stakes are what fuel nihilism. It’s those incomprehensibly huge cyberpunk systems that can’t be fought by mere mortals. Like Amazon and Facebook, or national US politics. This is a film about the opposite of nihilism, something I’m not sure there’s even a good word for. Perhaps it’s along the lines of the Buddhist idea that when nothing matters, everything matters: every word, every action, every choice and every moment has value.

The movie centers around the moment when the protagonist begins to understand this. She stops worrying about the fate of everything everywhere, and starts paying attention to the people around her: her husband, her daughter, her father, her IRS auditor. She stops worrying about the incomprehensible systems and the vast universe that seem like the overwhelming problem, and focuses on what she can do in the here and now. She fights nihilism with hope, and (perhaps because it’s a movie) that’s what saves the multiverse, and more importantly, her family.

“All or Nothing” Fiction

Even as I write this, I have a hard time taking myself seriously. Determined hope vs. nihilism, what a unique and clever new idea, right? Spoken plain, it feels a little too simple, even childish. But then I look at the fragile world around us, and at my own perpetual temptation to look at no less than two screens at any given moment, just to avoid having to think too much about what’s going on out there.

We are, collectively, tired. There’s a real temptation to just stop caring about…everything. I think the fiction of the moment is all about this fight, this question. Do we actually care? Or do we just look away and let it all happen? Do we give up because the problems are too big to solve? Or do we each do what we can do, in our own infinitesimally tiny corner of the multiverse?

Does nothing matter? Or does everything?

The Read/Write/Watch Report

No storytelling class this week, so I’m here with the low-down on what I read and wrote, with a bonus of what I watched.

What I Read

I’m still reading through Dune, out loud, with my oldest child. We’ve finished part two, and moved into the last third of the book. While “feudalism in space” can sometimes seem a little silly, it does lend the book a timeless feel. I think you could change the setting to the middle ages (or a fantasy world based on the middle ages) and very little about the plot would have to change. And there’s no retro-futuristic technology that makes it obvious that the book was written half a century ago.

Of course, that is a pretty good indicator that Dune isn’t very “hard” sci-fi, but that doesn’t bother me. I appreciate sci-fi that really incorporates the scientific elements and futurism into the plot, but I don’t mind a little space fantasy. And sometimes, I think the fetishization of hard sci-fi by a certain readership just results in books that are full of exquisitely detailed technology and populated by dull cardboard characters.

Keeping up the comic book kick I’ve been on lately, I also started rereading Scott Pilgrim. It’s such a weird mix of nerd culture and awkward young people and goofy fourth-wall breaking fun. It surprises you with the semi-serious arc of the titular main character thinking he’s a pretty great guy, only to slowly realize that he’s poisoned every romantic relationship he’s ever been in. Plus, it has a movie adaptation that actually works in spite of all that weirdness, thanks to the genius of Edgar Wright and his close collaboration with the author, Bryan Lee O’Malley. I might just watch that again once I’m done with the books.

What I Wrote

I finished the first draft of a short story, “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” It’s about rich teens trying to rebel in an over-populated and under-resourced future, and the moral complications of pursuing your own happiness instead of actively sacrificing to make the world better.

It’s been a while since I wrote any short stories, and this one just flowed right out. As soon as I finished, I started thinking about some cleanup that needed to be done, including the removal of a couple side-characters that ended up not really having much purpose. I’m going to let it sit for a few days though, so I can come at it with fresh eyes for the edit.

What I Watched

I’ve really cut back on watching TV and films over the course of the pandemic, and I honestly didn’t have much to cut back on in the first place. However, my wife and I had a date night, and we went out to see an actual movie in an actual theater. It’s quite the thing. All of the theaters in our area seem to have converted into the kind that are a fancy, big-chaired, liquor-and-food-serving extravaganza. Which is a big improvement over the cheap, sticky and uncomfortable theaters of my youth.

We saw the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it was the strangest and most enjoyable thing I’ve allowed into my eyeballs in quite some time. I wish we could cut 50% of the superhero movies, sequels and reboots and just fund deeply weird, lovingly-made things like this.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the basic premise involves a middle-aged woman who is not having a great time in life, who finds out that she has the ability to connect her brain to other versions of herself across infinite universes. This lets her tap into her alternate-selves’ life experiences and skills, which is pretty necessary because she also finds herself in a fight against a big bad evil that’s rampaging across all these universes.

A lot of the fun of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the “anything is possible” aspect of infinite universes. You are going to see. some. things. The story also does a great job of tying the really big story of war across infinite universes with the small and personal story of this woman and her family relationships. It’s a fantastic illustration of one of the principles Chuck Wendig talked about in Damn Fine Story: the stakes can be incredibly huge, but it doesn’t matter unless they are also something personal to the characters, something we can all relate to in our own lives.