Sunday, December 04, 2016
Book 85: The More Things Stay The Same, The More They Stay The Same.
The 1980s' as I think of it in the fantasy/scifi genre is marked by mostly lighthearted, or at least lighterhearted, stories, primarily stories of people who find themselves thrust into an adventure by chance -- but it turns out to be the kind of thing they've always longed for, even if they didn't know it. The protagonist might feel that he or she is something special, or might just long for something more than they have now, but their lives seem destined for nothingness until... lightning strikes.
In movies, it's Back To The Future and Star Wars and E.T. and The Last Starfighter that really feel 1980s to me; in books it's things like Spellsinger and the Split Infinity trilogy by Piers Anthony and this one by Terry Pratchett that seem to be the platonic ideals of the field.
It's interesting to think of it that way, that there's a specific kind of storytelling that feels 1980s, in a way that other types do not. Lord Of The Rings, for example, doesn't fit in because it's too serious and weighty. Some of the books I like a lot (like Footfall or Startide Rising) that came out roughly around that time also don't feel 1980s, even though they're good. They don't have the same feel to them that I described. Certain books that have come out since then have the 1980s feel to them -- Harry Potter does, for example.
You could, of course, blame it on Star Wars, especially since Star Wars is destined to go on to be the one thing that is remembered about the 20th century, and may well last as the only thing remembered about the 1000-1999s, making George Lucas the 30th Century's Shakespeare. Imagine: future progeny of mine will whine and say why do we have to learn The Empire Strikes Back anyway, all they do is talk funny. And Star Wars has a big part in shaping 1980s scifi & fantasy, but that begs the question of whether Star Wars created the 1980s feel or simply mirrored it as nearly perfectly as it can be; that is: did people particularly love Star Wars because it created something knew they hadn't known existed, or did they love it because it seemed to crystallize how they already felt? I suspect it's a little of both.
In terms of how the 1980s might spawn this particular genre, it needs to be deconstructed a bit, I think, by comparing similar works which fall on either side of the line. Like Harry Potter and the His Dark Materials trilogy. Both involve multiple-volume stories of an orphan with some sort of special destiny having to learn about the world and eventually take part in a war, but Harry Potter feels 1980s while Dark Materials doesn't. I think that might be because the latter is a more serious story; it feels like the author is trying to work through a point and examine things like religion and God and society; Harry Potter meanwhile just feels like it's telling a story, and any points are secondary.
Then consider Star Wars versus Battlestar Galactica, the latter of which doesn't feel 1980s to me; in part that's because there's no newcomer, no Skywalker, and in part its because the story is far more epic and serious (even in the cheesier first go-round for the series) than Star Wars; sure, Star Wars has the Death Star and the Empire and the like, but Battlestar had the last desperate remnants of humanity crammed into a ragtag fleet wandering through space, so the stakes were higher in Battlestar than in Star Wars. If Luke had never left Tatooine, the Death Star might still have been blown up or might not, but there would still be humans and they'd still live lives that might not be all bad.
(Still living a life that might not be all bad even if you're under the dominion of an evil empire is how we're all spending at least the next four years, and how we've spent 8 of the first sixteen years of this milennia, after all.)
So from those two examples, you get additional 1980s-ish things you need: the lone hero who longs for a greater destiny, a somewhat lighthearted feel, and a storyline that doesn't take on (explicitly) weighty issues and which doesn't make the stakes too high. As I think through things that feel 1980s I think that nails it.
From that perspective, Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold hits all its marks. Ben Holiday is a lawyer whose wife died 2 years ago in an accident, leaving him alone and drifting, lost-ish, through his late 30s, when one day he comes across an ad in a high-end Xmas gift catalog offering to let him buy a magic kingdom of his own to be king of; all it would cost is $1,000,000
The book came out in 1986, and out of curiosity I checked to see whether one million bucks was way more than I thought it might be worth back then; an inflation calendar says a million bucks back in 1986 is about $2,200,000 now, so: no, I correctly sussed it: a million bucks wasn't all that much back in 1986, relatively speaking.
Or was it? I checked to see how many millionaires there were in that decade, and found that the number of millionaires in the US soared during the 1980s; there were 4,414 millionaires in the United States in 1980, and 63,642 in 1990. (That linked article, from 1992, notes that Congress that year approved a tax on millionaires to pay for programs to fight child abuse and hunger; the same tax had been vetoed by Bush I earlier that year.) Just FYI, by 2010 that number had grown to 268,000, a number that was actually down from 2007.
A million dollars, it seems, is sort of the marathon of income; I noted a while back that given the rise of "Iron Man" competitions and other extreme endurance races, running a marathon alone doesn't seem to be the staggering feat it once did. Back when I could run without nearly dying, I ran some 5K races. Nobody does 5K any more. If you're not doing at least a marathon, you're nothing. And marathoners in 2016 are the 5Kers of 1991: bottom rung of runners. Millionaires are that for money makers; the top 1% of income earners make have average adjusted gross income of nearly $2,000,000 per year now.
That alone shows what changed in the 1980s: a million dollars in the 1980s was more than just a million dollars: it was an extreme; only 4,000 people in the entire country made a million dollars a year in 1980.
It wasn't until 1957 that an actor was paid a million bucks for making one movie. (It was William Holden, for Bridge on the River Kwai). By the early 1980s, Jane Fonda was making $2,000,000 to costar in 9 To 5; Brad Pitt's pay for Fight Club was roughly 17 times what movie stars made back in the 1950s.
In 1968, the four Beatles' combined worth was about a million pounds, which I think is roughly $2,000,000. Adele is reportedly worth $125,000,000 right now.
There might have been lots of reasons why incomes took off (reasons beyond Reaganomics, which I think we can all agree have been disastrous for society) like that, why there would be 63,000 people making a million bucks a year as we went into the 1990s, things ranging from the advent of cable TV and VCRs (and thus a new income stream for movies and sports) to changes in how stars operate (the studio system slowly lost control) to the start of free agency in sports to the Internet allowing people to retain control of their creative output and hence the money, too, but it looks like it was the 1980s when everything just began to spring free, and maybe Reaganomics was the sole reason for that; it certainly seems that nowadays it's anathema to consider any limitations on income via taxes, and where the government regulates it does so in an extremely limited way: consider the interventionism of Obamacare versus the creation of Social Security. I wonder if we could get Social Security created today? I doubt it.
Horatio Alger's 'rags to riches' stories grew prominent in The Gilded Age; his stories were marked by a stroke of luck which befell the protagonist, raising him up to middle class status (with some hard work, of course, because: America.) There's something similar at work in the Star Wars, 1980s-feel books and movies, as I noted. The hero longs for something more, and that something usually drops into his or her lap by chance: R2D2 crashed on Tatooine and was bought by Luke; Ben Holiday gets a gift catalog that his wife used to like.
Ben, of course, buys the kingdom, only to find out that it's nothing like he imagined; it's magical, sure, but it's falling apart and nobody respects him as the king, in part because the sale is intended to be a scam: the seller, the son of the 'old king', is selling the throne to people he figures will fail so that he can get rich in another world. Ben, though, seems to be more than the loser the scammers pegged him for, and sets out to hold on to his throne and save the kingdom -- but he has to learn how to control the magic and eventually face off against the "Iron Mark," a demon who lives in a netherworld and covets the kingdom himself.
You can see the same familiar arc of that story in numerous 1980s works: the loser (or so-called loser) who has to face a personal challenge embodied by something external: Bif is Marty McFly's lack of confidence, Voldemort is Harry Potter's insecurity about his background, and the Iron Mark is Ben Holiday's fear of failure. (On a literary note, that fear of failure seems to jump out of nowhere. At the outset, Ben's major reason for buying the kingdom is that his life seems empty and drifting without his wife; midway through the book we're told that Ben has this mortal fear of failure or something like it, but it's hard to see that in the Ben we first meet, one who has built a successful law firm and is a millionaire, after all, expertise and money gained from suing companies on behalf of individuals).
(And as I re-read this book and realized that, I wondered if my own choice of careers was affected by my memories of Ben Holiday back when I was 17 or so?)
There' s no secret why I like the 1980s style; I was raised on it, after all; my entire ethos has been shaped by the way stories unfolded in the 1980s, and just as 80s music feels right to me, the 1980s story feels right to me, too.
But what's sad is that, as it turns out, all those 1980s victories were a bit hollow, weren't they? Elliott went back to his old regular life; ET never came back. Harry Potter, as I understand it, has a cursed child and wizards are still hidden. After Luke helped blow up the second Death Star, it turns out the Empire never went away and in fact might be stronger than ever. That's the dark underbelly of the 1980s stories: they don't, ultimately, mean anything. In Battlestar they found Earth. In His Dark Materials they saved (literally) the entire set of universes, forever. But in Star Wars there's always another Death Star.
Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold! ends with Ben Holiday celebrating [spoiler alert I guess?] his victory over the Iron Mark, but noting that there was still a lot of work to be done and that things weren't even close to perfect yet. It's something to think about, if you go re-watch Star Wars: as they're marching up those steps to get their medals, off on the other side of the galaxy Vader's getting onto his Star Destroyer, dusting himself off, and just coming right back at them.
After the Gilded Age, we got unions and worker safety rules and a 40 hour workweek (which was invented by a rich industrialist; he wanted his workers to have time off so they would buy his products and use them). After the Great Depression we got Social Security. After World War II we got Medicaid and Civil Rights. After the 1980s we got...
I'm not going to finish that thought.