Michael R. Underwood. The Shootout Solution: Genrenauts Episode 1. New York: Tor.com, 2015.
Advanced review copy provided by the author.
Genrenauts is a geek empowerment fantasy, and while the first episode plays with the Western genre, it’s rooted in references to science fiction and fantasy books, television shows and movies. This is one of the niches Mike Underwood has carved out for himself among many, thematically related to his Ree Reyes series and to Ernest Cline’s brand of 80s nostalgia mining—related enough that Underwood has been singled out alongside Cline for accusations of pandering. To my mind, that pairing is a bit unfair: Underwood’s writing is more skilled than Cline’s, and he’s more interested in his characters and the implications of storytelling than the unthinking celebration of trivia and early computer geek culture found in Ready Player One. As for pandering, well…that’s inevitable here. Underwood constructs a premise wherein a character who consumes a lot of chosen media, here, genre fiction, all of the sudden finds that knowledge, once mocked and derided, is so important it can save the world. Admittedly, I’m more sympathetic when the skill set is having read a lot of books instead of growing up in the 1980s and playing Pac-Man, but the guiding principal is the same.
Episode One: The Shootout Solution sets up the geek empowerment premise. In Genrenauts, the various genres of popular literature are all real places tied to Earth Prime; those other worlds run specifically according to the rules of the genres as determined in stories told here, but the relationship is also symbiotic: the events in those worlds also influence the stories we tell and the cultural effect they exert. Disruptions in the other worlds therefore have real-world effects. In the case of this episode, a disruption of a narrative on the “Western world”* leads to a spike in violence somewhere on Earth Prime. A team known as the Genrenauts, all savvy in the ways of formula fiction, police the worlds to stop those disruptions from getting out of hand.
This is the multiverse conceit that can make for a great deal of fun; I used a spin on it for Zeppelins are What Dreams are Made of, and it bears a direct relationship with stories of time travellers trying to stop the past timeline from going awry. The boundary constraints are different though, and Genrenauts uses the setting specifically to empower the protagonist, Leah Tang, a down-on-her luck comedian who is also, as you might have guessed, a big geek.
The Shootout Solution structurally acts like the pilot of a TV series more than the traditional lead-in to a set of stories, which is an obvious choice as serialized novels and novellas are increasingly falling into the pattern of trying to imitate television writing with seasons and arcs instead of self-contained narratives. We meet our protagonist, see her recruited into the Genrenauts where she meets her team, and then we’re dumped into the first adventure. It’s the Western genre, this time, all dusty deserts, bandits, cowboys and pistols.
Unfortunately, this is where the premise started to lose me: Underwood treats Western world specifically as a place to explore stereotypes and narrative motifs drawn right out of John G. Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture.** The problem is—bar one or two minor twists—the story, characters and setting the Genrenauts encounter are, well, generic. The story world’s characters are described as living real lives beyond their narrative performance and yet have almost no depth, and the frontier town has even less flavour: a bank, a hotel, a street, a whorehouse, cut off from any sense of an outside world. Which is clearly the point, creating a place with foundational archetypes unpopulated by individual storytelling inventions, and yet I find what makes Westerns enjoyable, above all, isn’t the set formulas but in the specificity of the setting. Louis L’Amour’s stories and novels have a strong sense of place, a canvas of untamed wilderness and boundless desert on which epic struggles unfold. The Shootout Solution doesn’t try for that richness of “the West” as a fundamental American myth; it’s a lightly sketched pastiche that evokes the mechanics of the genre but not the unique markers of its most popular writers and filmmakers or the imaginative landscape which holds the Western’s greatest appeal.
That leads into a more serious issue on a purely abstract level. The Genrenauts’ job is to fix story breaches, that is, stop narratives from going too far off-formula in order to prevent breaks in the norm from carrying over into our world. This puts them on the side of traditional heroes but also on the side of maintaining status quo. Given that the series seems to point towards the idea that stories, even formula fiction, can have a powerful effect on how people behave (an idea I fully believe in), this suggests that shaking up the story worlds could also have positive effects on society in Earth Prime by planting new myths into the shared cultural landscape to counter some of the more toxic ones. Not only do we have a situation where the heroes have the task of keeping fresh or unexpected elements from entering stories, we also have one where they seem burdened with supporting existing structures and hierarchies that might not be beneficial for all. That doesn’t come up in The Shootout Solution. The Genrenauts are undoubtedly “good guys”, and we’re only given a small hint at the end that the High Council which regulates the Genrenauts might not be entirely benign. Perhaps future episodes might have more to say on the topic.
There’s something clever and entirely (post) modern in writing genre fiction (science fiction, in this case) that comments on genre fiction (Westerns). However, the novella’s length and the amount Underwood wants to cover in a short space means the frame narrative around the Western isn’t much more detailed: a lot of characters are introduced in the “team”, but there isn’t much to them beyond one or two descriptors, and it sticks so close to a TV pilot I only got to catch glimpses of more interesting concepts at work. Lastly, there’s the pandering: there are many, many references to contemporary media, which might make for some fun intertextual antics, but I more often found them tedious.
I can see this really appealing to readers who are into browsing TV Tropes, or who liked Ready Player One but want a more satisfying experience. I’m neither, but it gave me some things to think about, at least.
The Shootout Solution comes out on November 17.
* The other implication of this name is never mentioned.
** I don’t know if Underwood has read Cawelti; I do know Cawelti would make one hell of a genrenaut.