Some of you may be familiar with the infamous concept of the “Adam and Eve” story. This is an SF story which ends with a man and women as the last survivors of a nuclear war, or the first colonists on an alien planet. And their first names are … Adam and Eve. So was this set in our future — or Earth’s past?
I don’t know when the first version of this appeared, but it goes back at least to the 1960s or early 1950s. There’s a Marvel short SF story that uses the trope (probably the first place I encountered it), and an S5 Twilight Zone episode, “Probe 7, Over and Out.” And truthfully, I don’t think it’s that horrible an idea. Not deep, but cute enough for a flash fiction story — much less satisfying as the punchline of the TZ episode. The reason it’s infamous is because lots and lots of people write and submit the story (or they used to, back in the 20th century), convinced it’s a fresh idea that’s sure to sell. No Adam and Eve Stories is a staple of “what not to submit” guidelines.
And I get that. It’s cute the first time you encounter it, but never again. But the point I’m working around to is that when someone reads it for the first time, it doesn’t matter that it’s trite or cliched — for them it’s fresh and clever. Maybe not that clever in this case, but it’s not just this case, it’s any case. The first time we read a detective story, a ghost story, a superhero story, watch a rom com it doesn’t matter that the tropes are hackneyed, assuming they’re done with a reasonable level of competence. As the late critic Pauline Kael said back in the 1990s, if you’re a teenager who doesn’t watch a lot of movies, Titanic really may have been the greatest movie you’d ever seen.
It’s very easy to overlook this as a critic. The mere fact you’re watching way more movies than the average person has an effect on your perceptions (I can speak from personal experience after all the watching I’ve done for my various film books). The cliches become more annoying; conversely, stuff that breaks genre convention may seem a lot fresher and better to you than it would to ordinary viewers. Writing Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan I included comments on several films that if it was the first haunted house film you’d ever seen (or cops-and-robots or Christmas fantasy comedy), it might be entertaining, conceding most people wouldn’t have my jaundiced viewpoint (I watched a shit-ton of Poltergeist knockoffs for that book!).
I suspect binge-watching can have the same effect: the Roger Moore Bond films came off much weaker when I watched them relatively quickly after watching all the Connery movies.
I sometimes see this creeping into writing too, particularly comics. The Emerald Dawn series retelling Green Lantern’s origin in the 1990s was a good example: the writer seemed to assume we knew all about the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians, we’d seen them in lots of stories and yeah, who cares any more, amiright? Zero attempt to infuse the story with the sense of wonder the early Green Lantern issues gave me. Conversely, the late Len Wein has said that in every Superman story he’d use the standard tropes such as “This looks like a job … for Superman!” because each story was probably someone’s first and the trope will be fresh.
It’s something to keep in mind as we write, perhaps. Are we writing for newbies? For people who read a lot of genre stuff but still enjoy the old tropes? Someone who wants something new within limited values of “new”? Or someone whose seen it all, written it all and desperately wants tropes questioned and metafictional commentary made? I suspect I’m writing to categories two and three in that list, mostly three. Not that any of them are unworthy to write too, but the same stories may not work for all four groups.
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