(Title inspired by the song from High School Musical. Two discussions of the status quo follow)
Sticking to the status quo is an understandable impulse, especially in any sort of series. If you write about a single PI who beds a different woman each book, marrying him off can kill off audience interest (case in point, Carter Brown’s various swinger protagonists). When the creators have a set-up that involves sexual/romantic tension — will they or won’t they go to bed? Will Superman ever tell Lois his identity? — they often worry that resolving the big issue will have the same effect. If the urban fantasy premise requires magic fly under the radar in a secret war, you don’t want it going public.
Trouble is, this can easily lead writers to cheat. Superman II, for example, has Lois finally discover Clark’s identity; he renounces his powers to be with her, but then he has to take them back to stop the bad guy. At the end, Clark resolves the conflict by kissing her and wiping her memory that he’s Superman. Everything back to normal, cue Superman III (which wound up not using Lois). Only … how the hell does he do it? Sure, Superman has powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals, but they aren’t magic; he can’t just induce amnesia with a kiss because the plot calls for it. And it didn’t really call for it (even given Lois was kind of upset and confused about the situation), it was the long-term future of the franchise that did (this was years before the comics and Lois and Clark proved he could unmask and they could get married and the series wouldn’t die).
Likewise after a certain point straining to keep sexual tension up by throwing new obstacles in their path just gets ridiculous. While I wasn’t a fan of the 1990s sitcom Anything But Love, I give the creators top marks for ending the sexual tension after about a season rather than keeping it frozen. As one of the producers said, having a relationship actually happen doesn’t mean everything gets easy or no obstacles crop up
It’s really frustrating in comics. I’ve read stories of several creators who made changes during their run, then promptly undid them so that the next writer would have the same options and characters available they did. I mean, what’s the point of that? Or the countless examples of creators going back years later and unmaking changes to the status quo. Barry Allen replaces Wally West and becomes the Flash again. Spider-Man’s marriage gets erased. And so on. People in the industry talk a lot about how fans don’t want change, just “the illusion of change,” but it’s far more the writers. Sometimes I wish they’d just take the pieces on the board and play from there instead of starting the game over.
For another take on the status quo we have a thread by mystery novelist Laura Lippman complaining that the whole point of mystery fiction is to restore the status quo: catch the killer, solve the crime, restore order. And this “presumes the status quo is worth restoring.” Instead writers should think whether the protagonist’s job is “to restore the old order or create a new one.” (Barbara Ross has some thoughts in response). It strikes me the same could be said about a lot of SF: in a 1950s monster movie/alien invasion story, the typical response is that things are OK once the monster is destroyed. But society still goes on its merry way, with racism, sexism, etc. unchanged.
It’s certainly possible to do a novel where the protagonist does more. Day of the Triffids is very much about the chance to start the world over, though Wyndham isn’t very clear how that will work out. Impossible Takes a Little Longer will end with KC hopefully making some serious changes. And I’ve seen a blacksploitation movie or two that shows the protagonist making the system at least a little fairer, pushing back against the white powers that be. Swashbucklers are all about creating a more just society, albeit in most cases by putting a good king on the throne rather than a bad king. Zen Cho manages it well in Sorcerer to the Crown and I do love that it focuses on systemic change for women, not just changing things for the female lead.
But as a general rule … I don’t buy it. Most protagonists aren’t in a position to reform the status quo or create a new order beyond toppling a corrupt official or two. It wouldn’t be believable beyond a certain point if they tried — if there’s one thing the past few years have demonstrated, making sweeping changes is hard. As journalist David Rieff says, sometimes applying a bandage is all you can do. Even in a book like Lovecraft Country, which deals with systemic racism, the most the good guys can do is break free from the control of one particular racist — they can’t make the system fairer (it is, after all, the “real” 1950s, so we know Jim Crow segregation ain’t going away yet). In SF it’s possible — we can assume that the protagonists in the Star Wars universe do make things better for everyone (then again, does defeating the Empire end anti-droid prejudice?) — but the closer it gets to reality, the harder a sell I think it is.
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