In my earlier post about projects-to-be, I forgot to mention the little bit of closet-cleaning and reorganization I undertook on my idea-wiki, which turned up a whole passel of ideas that were thisclose to being useful ideas but for one reason or another didn't make it. One of them was a story project that went by the codename Alt-Pop.
The idea went something like this: it's 1994, but not our 1994. The "Video LP" (VLP) format reigns supreme in households across the nation. The LISP-PC runs on most every desktop. Claire Noto's The Tourist is in theaters and hitting the bigtime, and everyone's jazzed for the summer release of The Stars My Destination, directed by James Cameron. Alan Vega and Martin Rev have released their third gold album and are touring in support of Bruce Springsteen¹. And so on.
The problem I had with the story was simple: I couldn't for the life of me figure out the larger point of setting up a counterfactual modern history.
Most of the time, when we do something like this, it's for the sake of commentary. We want to examine critically some aspect of our lives, so we create a fiction where that particular element is systematically inverted or altered: pace Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle for one classic example.
And as fun as it was to come up with a laundry list of things to switch around — VLP instead of VHS; LISP-PC instead of Mac or Windows; The Stars My Destination instead of True Lies, etc. — I couldn't hitch all of that to a larger reason for the story to exist. There didn't seem to be any point in writing it except to show how things could have turned out differently, and that by itself didn't seem like enough. There had to be another level of commentary, and I wasn't able to find it.
In a previous life, so to speak, I might well have been satisfied with the idea that all I needed to do to be creative was to create something that sported enough attention-getting detail ("greebling", as they call it in design) that any questions about the larger purpose of providing all that detail would only be asked by complete spoilsports and party-poopers. It didn't help that before long I realized I was one of those very party-poopers. I kept asking myself, what was the real point? and not getting an answer that satisfied me. I knew full well I could have done it, and that I knew how to pull it off, right down to all the silly little digs back at the real world ("You know, I think Apple was working on something called 'Lisa' that was like this, but they never got it to market before Symbolics started their PC division..."), but I'd still have been lacking in providing a larger meaning for it all.
Not long after I put the project aside, my most blatant example of What Not To Do arrived in the form of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. That book seemed like an embodiment of all the things I had been flirting with doing in my story, but which I had backed away from when I realized they weren't enough by themselves. And in the same vein, a friend of mine was once buttonholed by a friend of his about some new fantasy series (another set of interminable doorstoppers, if memory serves), who wouldn't shut up about how clever and original this series's magic system was. (He now cringes whenever he hears the words "magic system".) That reminded me of Dwight Macdonald talking about how the painstaking enumeration of technical detail in American fiction tends to reach its nadir with the legal thriller — sorry, "novel of social issues", where the practice of law becomes the equivalent of philosophy for the middlebrow set. It is, once again, the mistaking of complexity for profundity.
I'm not saying that a magic system in a novel is a sign that it is boring. It's that a story is not synonymous with a neat idea. It can contain such things, but it is not about them. There has to be a bigger concern at work than just the enumeration of of cleverly-turned detail, of evoking complexity of detail for its own sake.
And none of this excluded the possibility that I might find the right formula for it someday. And so there's a page in the idea-wiki in which I've dutifully jotted every single one of these little inversions. I add a couple more every couple of weeks. By the time this idea does come together, it will at the very least be flush with detail. And with any luck, the right kind.
¹ Not all that ridiculous even in this world. Springsteen was and remains a huge Suicide fan.