A while ago, I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A couple of days later, I finally got around to finishing Stranger Things. It’s an interesting pairing, a coincidence that actually reveals a lot of what I like about genre fiction, and how I approach writing it myself.
To start, I loved The Ocean. It’s a deft insertion of a traditional English fairy story – an ordinary child discovers an enchanting but dangerous land under the surface of his world – into a contemporary setting. The story is set as the narrator returning to his childhood home and remembering, as if he had forgotten for a long time, an adventure from his seventh year – 1974.
|As evocative as the imagery of Stranger Things can be, there doesn't seem to|
be much to those images than the images themselves. Their meanings and
suggestions stay at the superficial, and open no thought to anything
deeper or stranger.
It’s told with a depth of detail and forethought that’s typical of Gaiman’s world-building powers – He’s worked out a complex machinery for the physics and nature of this hidden world. But we don’t get it laid out explicitly, as such pummelling exposition would be torture to read.
Instead, the story plays out according to its mechanics, and we see it as the seven-year-old narrator would have. There are enough allusions to the popular understanding of ideas in modern physics – the multiverse, dark matter, speculative alien ecology – that the story is woven from science-fictional entities into a more traditional fantastic* narrative style.
* I say ‘fantastic’ instead of ‘fantasy’ because of how ‘fantasy’ as a term has been popularly co-opted by a very specific genre – dense, continuity-heavy, multiple-volume book cycles with narrowly Tolkien-esque building blocks. Frankly, it’s become a very boring genre. So much so that even a purposely subversive series like Game of Thrones has buckled into the stereotypes it once tried to explode.
Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the propulsion of exploring this world for the first time, seeing it in only glimpses. But every detail of the narrator’s experience in this fantastic world depends on some specific aspect of this world. As readers, it takes an act of thinking, memory as we read, to figure out how that world works.
It’s never explained to you explicitly, but it’s revealed through the acts of the story itself. I built the storyline of Under the Trees, Eaten according to the same principle. And the few people who’ve read it tell me it was quite a success. I just wish I had managed a publisher for it who actually had a marketing budget.
Going through Stranger Things at the same time as I read Gaiman’s book only made the Duffer Brothers’ series feel more paltry in comparison. The world Joyce, Mike and the boys, Jonathan, Nancy, and Hopper discover underneath our own is far more menacing and openly violent than Gaiman’s.**
** Though the ecology of Gaiman’s hidden world is, if anything, more merciless in its brutal logic than anything in Netflix’s extended Stephen King riff.
But it isn’t really thought through as an ecology. At one point, the characters settle on “The Upside-Down” as their name for the parallel world where Will is trapped. It’s based on a moment where Elle turns a D&D board upside-down, and places a monster figure in the centre of its blankness.
When we go to the Upside-Down, we see everything in our own world – houses, cars, forests, and roads – but coated in grotesque webbing and with constantly flurrying toxic snowflakes in the air. How was this parallel universe created? What’s its relationship with our own? Because there’s clearly a relationship.
And why is there a horrifying monster in this world? What does it eat in its own ecology?
We don’t need to have any of this explained to us openly. That would hurt the story, just like any extended riff of exposition divorced from any character or narrative development. But reading Gaiman at the same time led me to focus on this problem.
Gaiman’s story was of an ordinary person slowly discovering a world whose nature the author had conceived to the small cosmological details. The Duffers never developed their parallel universe beyond scary shit and the basic metaphor of ‘upside-down.’
|In this darkness, there's vastness, multiplicity, and wonder.|
Gaiman told a very simple, beautiful story. It was about one young boy, his family, his friend the immortal pan-dimensional being from the dawn of time, and his evil babysitter a shapeshifting flea-demon from parallel universe. But he really thought through the world of that story as a world. Not only did it improve the story itself, but it gave him (and maybe others) the ability to tell more stories with those worldly mechanics.
I think the next (and any future) seasons of Stranger Things will run into a problem, precisely because their science-fictional world isn’t really complete. It’s still suggestions, but I don’t think there’s any world beyond the suggestions.
There are more characters, and a realist tone and style pioneered by Stephen King and very popular. Its characters – sometimes for critically important reasons and sometimes inexplicably – have connected with many people. But I think it’s going to drift into aimlessness because there just isn’t enough substance to its world.
There's a moment in The Ocean when the narrator steps into an ocean that's carried to him in a bucket. Submerged, he communes with existence itself, and understands all the fundamental principles of reality's complex, ongoing assemblage.
It's a beautiful moment, and when it's over, he steps back onto land and his knowledge disappears. But that comprehensive vision runs under the whole story, creating a stimulating enchantment of human imagination in the experience of reading. At its best, that's what science-fiction and all art can do.