The Idea Book

Lately, my partner and I have been making our way through Black Mirror in the evenings as a way to unwind after a long time of work. Only it’s not exactly the most relaxing, mindless sort of television, so we often end up more keyed up afterwards than not.

What is Black Mirror? It’s hard to describe, but I would call it The Twilight Zone for our age. Where The Twilight Zone tackled topics like isolation, deception, witch hunts—topics relevant in the 1950s, still in the midst of a Cold War and dealing with McCarthyism and the Communist blacklists—Black Mirror deals with ideas more relevant to us: our relationship with media and technology. The Black Mirror of the title refers to the black mirrors in our lives: our screens. Our phone screens, our TV screens, our computer screens.

Elsewhere on the internet, I’ve seen Black Mirror described as science fiction, as horror, as suspense, and sometimes, as satire. I never really thought of programs like Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone as satire, but it did get me thinking.

I am a fan of satire. I love when writers and comedians hang lampshades on the ridiculous elements in our society. But if someone were to ask me to define satire, I’m not sure I could come up with a good definition, or even that many good examples, especially if Black Mirror falls under that umbrella.

In literature, of course, the work of Jonathan Swift is largely satirical. His A Modest Proposal is generally the first piece of work that comes to mind when people think of satire. By default I tend to think of satire funny, but Black Mirror, while darkly humorous at times, is not what I call funny. It’s more often what I call unsettling. It makes me think, it makes me uncomfortable, and I like that it makes me uncomfortable.

I’ve always admired satirists. I think the ability to wield your words as metaphorical weapons against the follies and evils of society is both admirable and incredibly difficult. Satire, I think, is hard to sustain in long form, just as I think horror is often difficult to sustain over the length of a novel. (I tend to think the short story format works best for both.) When we read novels, I think a vast majority of people read for story and character and less about A Grand Idea. Satire, by its very nature, is more about the Idea than the Characters, or the Character as Example. Many of the characters in Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone are like that: used to illustrate a point.

I think speculative fiction (specifically a lot science fiction) can also be about Ideas more than Characters. In the past year, I read two science fiction novels that grappled with the notion of gender: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and Lock In by John Scalzi. Both novels are quite good, and while I found their different uses of gender interesting, I connected emotionally with the former but not as much with the latter. Why is that? Perhaps it’s a failing on my part, but I felt Ancillary Justice was about one character’s journey, whereas Lock In was more about a concept. But does that mean Lock In is a “lesser” novel? I don’t think so. I tend to think of Lock In as an Idea Novel, more concerned with questions than characters. A form of satire, if you like.

That’s it from me! What do y’all think? Do you like Idea Novels? Or not?


4 Responses to The Idea Book

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jan 13 2015 at 9:25 am #

    I don’t like Idea novels so much, being more about the characters. That’s probably why I don’t read much SF anymore. (Actually I don’t read much of anything anymore, my idea of a character-driven novel isn’t the same as most people’s, I guess, and I have trouble getting into a lot of new stories. I blame the query system, forcing all novels submitted to be presentable in a single logical line. But that’s another topic for another day.) Fantasy, I have long maintained, is excellent at presenting big, new, and unusual ideas, but when the ideas overwhelm the characters and the story that’s not so good.

  2. Mawa Mahima Jan 13 2015 at 12:17 pm #

    Yes, satire is brilliant. Without it, society wouldn’t be criticised and there would be no development or progress in the world (a bit dramatic, but come on, satire helps! Satire is quite incredible when done in novel form (esp if it’s a long novel). Ideas, I believe, are explored through characters in a wide variety of genres if the author chooses to do so. Science fiction especially has a hand in criticising our society, and also in some way prophesying our future as a society considering that many sci-fis of the past are quite similar to today’s world.

  3. Reg Jan 13 2015 at 6:36 pm #

    I’m not opposed to idea novels, but they can be very difficult to connect with. I like concepts brought to life through characters when we’re talking novels, because I want a story, not a treatise. I survived college to avoid reading anymore of those.

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