"Life finds a way."
-Ian Malcom (Michael Crichton.)
Something I'm not going to do here, is try and tell you what storytelling should be about. In the age of hot takes and think pieces, I probably should. A definition of what story is for. What messages it should impart. Maybe I'd say the job of a storyteller is to 'hold up a mirror.' As a crime writer, it's ever in fashion to say we 'explore the darkness of the human condition,' or write 'social fiction.' Some people will insist storytellers have no responsibility to society, others will tell you we do. One writer might say, full of conviction, that we're about showing dark realities of our own compromised existence, their friend will say it's all about presenting optimism and aspiration, of the things we could achieve.
I don't want to try and boil story down to one thing. Partly because, on any given day, all of the above is true. Sometimes in the same story at the same time. Life is too complicated to reduced down to one idea. You can take any of those positions, and be right, or wrong, depending on the day, and on your work.
The main reason I avoid boiling things down to such simple ideas, is that these days my main focus is on telling a story to the best of my ability. I think that's my job. Do the best work I can. Create an interesting and involving story. Sure, I work with subtext, I've got ideas and themes. But I don't see it as my role to tell you what they are. That's the reader's job. The writer crafts the story, the reader engages with it. If I've done my part well, the reader can do theirs.
(As an aside, this is why I'm a late convert to loglines. I used to roll my eyes at the very idea of them. Reducing a whole book or movie down to an elevator pitch? How crass. I'm an artist. If I could tell my story in one line, I wouldn't have written a book. Now I see that's actually the beauty of them. In knowing my logline, in being able to boil down the plot to a one or two sentence pitch, I'm able to sell you my story without having to break the magic and tell you what it's really about. )
So, we're agreed, I hope, that I'm not here to talk about what stories should be about?
Good, because I'm here to talk about what stories should be about.
If you're a regular listener to the Crime Friction podcast, you know we're currently working on a series of episodes that look at the process of adapting books to films. We've already recorded an episode discussing Jaws, and I've prepared for one on Jurassic Park. And in re-reading the latter, I noticed something that got me thinking about story.
See, I read the book as a teenager. It was possibly one of the first full novels I read. I enjoyed the hell out of it. What wasn't to like? Dinosaurs running around attacking people. Lots of fake science to make me feel clever. Also, there was a lot of it, so I got my money's worth. Revisiting it now in my late-thirties, I found something else going on.
A key detail here, is that somewhere in the intervening years, (hint: it was on a friend's podcast) I learned that Michael Cricton was a climate change denier. Now, in the #MeToo era, the conversation about separating art from artists has a much more important role, but for little judgemental me, my thought process upon opening the book for the first time in over twenty years went like this; "Can I still enjoy this, knowing the author was crazy?" The answer was: "Yes, kinda, but I have some thoughts."
Twenty years of pop culture, and the ever-cooky Jeff Goldblum, have worked a fun trick on us. For the movie-going public, Ian Malcom is the good guy. Walking around unflappably in sunglasses and leather, quipping about the size of poop, firing into Ellie Sattler. He even likes kids, and is willing to use himself as a human distraction to save them from a dinosaur. The movie version of Ian Malcom is a far cooler, and better, person than I will ever be.
For the early stages of the book, I found I was still reading with Goldblum in my head. The first couple of times the character went on 'life finds a way' speeches, I would smile and think, 'hey, uncle Jeff is doing his bit.' But as the story progressed, it became clear there was more to it. By the end (or...near the end....spoilers) Ian Malcolm is going into full-on science hate. The planet is fine, he's saying, the planet will always be fine. Humans need to stop having the ego to think we can change things. And, with my new-found knowledge of Crichton's views, it became impossible not to see this both as the point of the story, and as the author speaking directly through Ian Malcolm. Spielberg aside, this is a very cold and cynical book, that fundamentally believes scientists are arrogant and dangerous, and that we should stop pretending we have any say in how the planet progresses.
Which is where my brain started firing.
Why is so much of our myth, so much of our storytelling, based around cautionary tales? Why is so much of science fiction (not all, obviously, don't send me hate mail) based around telling humans not to 'play god' and to know our place? Where is the aspiration. Where is the notion that, actually, we can achieve great things if we work at it, and if we trust science?
I'm sure many people reading this now will be screaming the words Star and Trek at me. And I agree. Trek has always been at its best when its subtly telling us to embrace aspiration and work together, and is always at its worst when it tries to deal with failure and cynicism (or tell us that 9/11 was an inside job...)
But again and again, encoded deep and early by religion and ancient myths, is the idea that we can't get ahead of ourselves. That there are certain ambitions we shouldn't have. Certain knowledge we shouldn't strive for. And, to transgress these boundaries in fiction is to get eaten by our creations, or destroyed by science, or felled by an invading force. The 'mad scientist', the 'evil wizard,' Doctor Frankenshteeeen. The meme repeats over and over.
And, as we tell these stories on repeat, is it any wonder that we have a culture where nobody trusts experts? Where half the planet can be on fire, and we still debate whether the climate is changing? Where people stop vaccinating their kids? Where we still have laws made based on books from thousands of years ago?
I work hard at optimism. And it gets harder all the time. But I still think science can probably save us. If we fund it, if we embrace it. We can start to beat off the various forms of cancer. We can figure out ways to stop Alzheimers. People with HIV can already live relatively normal lives, what break throughs could be achieve with focus? With a serious level of funding, collective work, and organisation, we could mitigate the effects of climate change. We could work out ways to feed people, and to leave fossil fuels in the ground. There's nothing to be ashamed of in wanting to figure out how we can live longer, reach higher, achieve more.
The quote everyone remembers from Jurassic Park is that life finds a way. And it's delivered as a cautionary statement, a warning against our own hubris. But not all of our myths need be told this way. The story of Prometheus had a god teaching us how to make fire, for which all the other gods started to persecute us. And we can tell this as a story about needing to know our place, or needing divine guidance. But we can also choose to tell is as a story about how, whatever spark of divinity exists out in the heavens, it also exists in us. We have the fire, and we can do great things with it, and maybe the gods were scared of that.
The story of Icarus tells us of a man and his son, who built wings, and defied nature by learning to fly. Icarus flew too close to the sun, and fell back down to earth. And again, sure, we can tell it as mankind needing to know it's limitations. Or we can choose to say that, in the short time he had on this earth, Icarus flew.
Life does find a way. Ian Malcolm was right. Michael Crichton was right. But where I think they're wrong, where I think so much of our storytelling might be going wrong, is in forgetting that humanity is included in that life. We can find a way. And I think we should tell that story more often.