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Sunday, 22 October 2017

Using a Genre; Straight, Satire, or Deconstruction - Part 2

In this series of blog posts, the first in some time due to a variety of factors, I've decided to focus on the three major ways people use genres in general; playing them straight, satirising them, and deconstructing them. Each has merits, and none are set in stone. That's what lovely about them!

This time we're looking at satire. What is satire? According to the definition provided by Wikipedia, satire is: "a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society". Well, that about sums it up. And by its very nature, satire can be hard to pin down as a single genre.

As with most aspects of fiction, satire is something which can be done right or wrong depending on whose reading it. Some people will of course be terribly offended, while others with clap with joy. The mixed reception is perhaps best exemplified by many works of French author and essayist Voltaire. An open critic of the then-prevalent Ancien Regime, his novella Candide provoked both support and criticism, and is considered a classic satire of the social norms of the time. Playing out as a picaresque novel, it lampoons the conventions of the adventure and saga genres while also making valid points about society in France at the time, which was heavily class divided and ruled through an absolute monarchy. I fully intend getting my own copy of Candide at some point.

Classical writers excelled at heavily critical works which can stray into the realms of satire; Horance pioneered it as popular entertainment, and later the Roman writer Juvenal (who became the inspiration for the word "juvenile" for obvious reasons) gave us. Other notable later writers include Alexander Pope with his parody of Homer The Dunciad (an attack on the society of Queen Charlotte, wife to George II thought by her critics as the monarchy's guiding hand), Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels (in its original pre-Disney form a scathing satire of the English political system in Georgian England), and several works by Mark Twain.

In modern times, satire has taken different forms and tackled issues of the time, a theme that runs through the entire body of satire as a genre convention. A notable example is Catch 22, a novel by Joseph Heller which refers to -- quoting Gilbert and Sullivan for a moment -- "a most ingenious paradox", or a double bind if you like. An airman wishes to get out of a dangerous mission by being declared mentally unfit, but their wish to be taken off that missions shows they have a rational wish for self-preservation and so can't be classified as mentally unfit.

Leaving the realm of the written text into things like opera, we find several satires there as well. Gilbert and Sullivan for one. Well, technically it was Gilbert who did all the satires. Sullivan didn't like it, which partially led to the pair splitting up. Gilbert's plots mocked many conventions of British life during the Victorian era through unlikely and unreasonable situations. Each opera sent up something different; The Mikado focused on the English political system, H.M.S. Pinafore lampooned the rigid class system, and The Pirates of Penzance made merry with the idea of apprenticeship and a sense of duty and loyalty to one's profession -- however much it may be abhorred.

Television satire comes in many forms, but the form I'll focus on here is Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. This television series ran during the late 1980s, and acted as a ruthless satire of the governments first of Margaret Thatcher and then of John Major. Main protagonist James Hacker M.P., later elected Prime Minister in a situation similar to the recent ascension of Theresa May following Cameron's resignation, is in a battle of wits and policies with the Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, watched and more than once engaged in on both sides by Hacker's Principle Private Secretary Bernard Woolley. The series' comedy stems from Hacker trying to make changes to the established governmental and ministerial systems, and Sir Humphrey's determined efforts to keep things static. It's wonderfully funny, but is like that because it's lampooning how the British political system actually works. Later, it goes into the role -- or perhaps lack thereof -- of the Prime Minister.

Movies also have their fair share of satire hidden among the blockbusters and art pieces. These can range from Terry Gilliam's darker absurdist movies such as Brazil; the adaptation of Starship Troopers, which combines its summer flick action scenes with scathing satire and criticism of both the American military and the use of war propaganda; or comedic affairs such as Murder by Death, which takes apart and parodies the accepted tropes of detective stories from both the British Golden Age and the American Crime Noir movement.

Satire in video games can transcend what other media can accomplish due to the interactivity inherent to gaming. Due to the relative youth of the medium, it's also much rarer than in literature, movies and television, and also end up making more potential missteps. A notable example of video game satire is The Stanley Parable. In this game, you -- the main character -- are guided through a short story scenario by the narrator. Even the slightest deviance from the path causes the narrator to comment on the situation and do everything from gently persuade to passively abuse you. It points out the convention of a guided path through games that many take for granted. Other games that call out such conventions include Drakengard 3 (through the snarky comments and the actions of main heroine Zero and her disciples) and Danganronpa V3 (the reasons of which I won't spoil here).

Well, that's all I wanted to talk about here. Now I've covered both playing a genre straight and satirising it, I'll move on to one of my favourite approaches when done right - deconstruction. Until next week, enjoy!

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