Unbearably Ubiquitous

Humans are defined in part by their tools. We’re pretty good at the whole business, to the point that our tools sometimes occupy too large a part in our stories.

Good storytelling should not be about tools, whatever their purpose. If they take too large a role, the entire narrative can be about nothing but access to tools.

Consider the Big Two. Guns and smartphones.

First, shootin’ irons. The gun culture that pervades media, especially American television and movies, has spawned a few cliches that have become as unbearable as they are ubiquitous. Three come to mind easily. 

The first is that in any conflict, they who are simply better armed, who have greater access to firepower, win. Dull. Predictable (same as dull) and lazy. It’s as if people crave that idea that the solution to big problems is as simple as Ronald Reagan thought when he said, “We should declare war on North Vietnam. We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.” 

Making no judgements about how he dehumanized millions of people and their country (of COURSE I am), that sort of simplicity is unforgivable in a fictional narrative. Even in the relatively uncomplicated good vs. bad world of Star Wars, George Lucas had the cute little Ewoks in The Return of the Jedi kick the tar out of Imperial walkers. Devoted space-opera nerds didn’t like it, but it wasn’t lazy.

The second tiresome trope is the reveal of said firepower. It has gone from a custom-built case and a three-piece rifle to a storage locker full of a grab-bag of gun-metal black automatic assault weapons, to a full-blown walk-in closet packed with ordnance, enough to arm a small army. And directors deal with it like it’s the reveal of treasure. 

“Ooooooooooh,” we’re supposed to say when we see it. “Y-a-w-n,” is more like it.

The third is more subtle. Bad guys, good guys, everybody seems to keep a pistol on the table, and the last thing they do before leaving a room is pick it up and shove it in their waistband behind their backs. We can’t go anywhere unarmed, right, so that makes sense. Guns are tools that, in American film, no self-respecting criminal or cop can do without.

Today, now, there is a newer tool, and another cue for writers or actors and directors to follow as they make transitions. It’s the smartphone. In film, the smartphone is out everywhere – at home, in the restaurant, in the car, in the bathroom, and the last thing anyone does is to pick it up, pocket it, or tuck it somewhere.

The smartphone is the new pistol. You can’t go out without one. Losing it is almost a death sentence. A newer, bigger one is likely to get you out of jams the older ones could not. Like a pistol, the smartphone adds a layer of complexity while at the same time making things too simple. As a gun undoubtedly does, a smartphone changes a power dynamic, but does so in a different way, by providing information almost immediately. Its narrative flaw is that it can make discovering an important fact or idea far too easy. In the same way, a gun waved in someone’s face simplifies a relationship between characters to the point of boredom.

For the writer of novels, the smartphone presents huge opportunities and pitfalls. A smartphone can be wielded by anyone, even those characters for whom guns would be anathema. Now characters must be disarmed from time to time, having batteries run out or coverage unavailable just to force them to use their wits. Someone can be intimidated, stalked, even terrorized using smartphone communication, but so long as that thing is connected to a network, help is available.

An easy fix is to write historical novels. A wired telephone could not be carried out of a room in a waistband. In the 1960s, you had to leave it behind when you went out to investigate that curious heavy breathing in the back garden. Even better, in the good ol’ days telegraphs had to be hand delivered. In some places you had to tip the messenger boy. And it was one-way communication written with as few words as possible, which always introduced a pleasing ambiguity of interpretation. More fodder for the reader’s imagination and the protagonist’s perceptive powers.

Perhaps if we go further back, new possibilities might arise. More than 5000 years ago, Gilgamesh the King, fashioned by the gods to be one-third like them, builds the walls of Uruk. One sunny day (they had WAY too many of those, by the way) Goddess of love and war, Innana, is really pissed off because the temple priests have been skimming more than their share of sacrifices for themselves. Our hero Akadi, which is a name I made up just now, must summon help before the whole city is destroyed by the goddess’s wrath. He uses his cuneus to press 𒀂𒀇𒀧𒀳𒀸𒁐 into a tablet of wet clay and then throws it over the city wall. The tablet lands in the middle of a beach volleyball match between Gilgamesh and his stalwart friend Enkidu (they only play each other, as no one can beat them singly let alone when they play as a team). Anyway, Gilgamesh sweeps his long hair off of his chiselled cheekbones and reads Akadi’s dire warning.

Let the narrative begin! 

I know, my ancient Sumerian sucks. But Gilgamesh has a friend, not a gun, and wits, not a smartphone, but even if he had both and even though he is one third god, the two thirds part that is human will either save the day or not. The flow of the story, the inevitability of the resolution will come from him.

As it has been written, so shall it continue to be done. Even when 10G hits, and we’re communicating with chips that High Leader Elon has implanted in our brains for $459.99 per month ($549.99 for no commercials). 

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