Living in the franchise flow

My last post might have ended up sounding shockingly bitter or defeatist. Maybe it sounds like I’m engaging in an activity that I don’t even like anymore? But that’s simply not true.

I suppose pop culture fandom is a bit like an addiction. You could definitely keep consuming past the point of enjoyment. You might take deep reward from fandom, or you might merely remember at one point feeling a sense of reward, and after all you’re so invested that there’s no reason to quit.

But I could quit if I wanted! I say this jokingly, of course; that phrase is the recognizable cliche of any addict ever. Yet there’s truth to it. I bashed pretty hard on Marvel films last night, but I don’t have the history with Marvel to feel any sense of personal identity bound up in its IP. I could walk away and never look back. But they’re still fun films!

Rather than a true addiction, it’s maybe more appropriate to look at my franchise fandoms as junk food. It’s way too easy to take in way too much of it, to keep consuming beyond any possible benefit. And just like junk food companies, these big studios are always trying to sell you on way more than you need, way more than you would otherwise want, way more than you should have. It all feels good–until you’re way past the point you should’ve stopped, and you feel a little bit sick. The metaphor is definitely not original to me, nor is the recommended treatment: moderation. Limit the junk food, and try to mostly eat healthy.

I admittedly don’t mostly eat healthy. Figuratively, or, uh, literally. But I try–both in the metaphor of media consumption and in my real-life dietary habits.

My big franchise fandom is, of course, Star Wars. But I’m more broadly a fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And this of course means that there are plenty of original works out there without the burden of franchise. In the past few years, I’ve read plenty of Star Wars and revisited writers like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft and George R.R. Martin, but I’m very glad to say that I’ve also read works from writers I hadn’t before, like Molly Glass and Victor Milan and Marie Brennan and Naomi Mitchison and Octavia Butler and even Carrie Fisher. I’ve also kept a steady stream of nonfiction works in my reading rotation, including a couple histories of Indiana, a few books on the paranormal, and a recent streak of true-crime books. I similarly try to keep my mix of films and games a combination of franchise favorites and new material.

I’m actually not trying to be prescriptive or judgmental. My own frustrations with franchise juggernauts, and my own efforts to counter my overexposure to the biggest commercial cash cows, are merely my own. I’m not an expert in, say, media studies or psychology. If you think that there could always be more Marvel movies, and you could never have enough, I’m not here to say that you’re wrong! It’s just my subjective experience.

What I’m trying to get at is that I get frustrated with my fandoms, and I recognize that these franchises are not healthy as one’s sole source of entertainment. But I still get a lot of enjoyment and engagement out of them, and I sometimes get a lot of inspiration or insight too. It’s just important to splice that with more enriching material. At least, it is for me.

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t typically read dystopian fiction. I like to read challenging speculative fiction, and I don’t shy away from darker portrayals of human nature, but I suppose I came to speculative fiction for escapism and escapism has always been a reason for my continued adoration of the genre. That said, my wife recently read this book and recommended it to me. And since a copy was near at hand, and since I had not yet read anything by Octavia Butler despite her celebrated status as a science fiction writer, I decided to give it a try.

This was a tough read for me, but I’m glad I read it. The book was very good. Its plot was simple enough: America is unraveling, and amidst its spiraling decay, a young woman is forced out of her childhood home to attempt to survive in a far more dangerous world. She manages to form a community out of other homeless wanderers, and all the while she carefully recruits her new friends into her newly crafted religion (Earthseed) and opens up about her inherited curse of hyperempathy (such that she experiences the pain and pleasure of others as if her own).

Even as the cast of characters grows larger and larger, they are each given unique characterizations and remain distinctive and, importantly, human. Most even manage to have character arcs, with growth in themselves and in their roles within this new community. This is an impressive feat. The language is quite beautiful as well, and naturalistic. The writing is framed as that of the protagonist’s journaling during her journey, in addition to excerpts of her Earthseed writings.

The religion is simple enough to grasp. God is not an actual deity but a personification of the Change that occurs in all things, the forming and dissolving of organizations and communities, the natural movement toward empathy in the universe. We are all shaped by Change but we can also shape the direction of Change. And the goal of Earthseed is to form similar-thinking communities to work together, even in the literal apocalypse of the book’s present, all with the hope of fulfilling a great Destiny. That Destiny is to spread humanity to the stars. Bizarrely, in my late teens and early twenties, I’d cobbled together my own deist, existentialist belief system that echoed Earthseed. I guess exposure to comparative religions and science fiction might lead one down certain thought pathways. I like this element of the book, giving hope and a greater purpose to everything that happened even in the face of potential destruction. As one of the more skeptical characters jokes later on, this religion is in many ways too simple, with not enough confusing, mystical mythology to go with it, but our protagonist (and the author) appear content to leave that complexity and myth-building to later generations.

Truly, this book was often disturbing to me because of how much it felt like a natural extension of the world we live in. It predates the appearance of smart phones and does not predict how such a technology could reshape the world as much as it has, but this book published in 1993 does manage to accurately predict climate change, resource depletion, growing separatist movements in states, an increasingly ineffective federal government, anti-labor political movements, an unserious and reactionary president, burgeoning drug epidemics, a new resurgence in toxic race relations, and more and more police brutality.

While I certainly would not limit the author’s perspective to her race, Octavia Butler used her life experiences as a black woman to simultaneously write honestly about race but also to project a future apocalyptic scenario that not only predicts the concerns I noted but manages to create an allegorical world that provides at least the tiniest window into the challenges unique to racial minorities. This was gripping and profound and, while I’m not sure what I expected when I started the book, I didn’t expect this. (Refreshingly, the new community the protagonist begins to form is quite diverse, and that diversity and multiculturalism is viewed as a strength even though early on we are told that mixed-race relationships can bring more strife from the outside world).

On top of all the above, this book manages to be maybe one of the greatest zombie apocalypse stories ever, before the big zombie boom in mainstream pop culture, and without actually having any zombies in it. There are crazy addicts who use drugs that give them an orgasmic high when watching fires burn and pillage their way through the land. Scavengers rob, rape, and kill the weak. And hordes of people on the highways may suddenly turn to animalistic savagery to overwhelm a weakened town in the wake of a natural disaster. Deeply disturbing, and most impressive.

This book ends in a way that is positive but something close to a cliffhanger. This does mean that it’s difficult to evaluate the novel as a standalone work. But I will say that it has its own narrative arc, its own purpose for existence, and it is the rare sort of work with an impending sequel that does not feel merely like a prologue to me, even while demanding its sequel as necessary to fully understand the tale.

This novel has already become a genre favorite for me, and when I am mentally ready for another dystopian book, I certainly intend to finish the duology.

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