Archive for the ‘Memes’ Category

mysteryThe patriarch of an ancient manor house is found stabbed, face-down in his turtle soup! Luckily, a detective is taking a holiday in the village! Was it the overprotective nurse? The shifty-looking scientist? The debt-ridden daughter with Communist tendencies?  No! It was the actress’s friend who is actually the illegitimate son and heir, and incidentally also the leader of a notorious band of jewel thieves!

Golden Age detective fiction (1920-1950) straddled a weird time in English society. Hemlines were up! The stock market was up! Minorities and women…existed! And the genre of the murder mystery was still trying to figure itself out. It was certainly a different flavor of fish from the Victorian detective thriller of 30 years earlier.  Read today, many Sherlock Holmes mysteries are actually adventure stories, or even straight-up novels, with solutions that rely on facts hidden from the reader until the big reveal. They are plot-driven, not problem-driven. I mean, the ghost is actually a dog painted in phosphorus? When phosphorus has never been mentioned before? Really? By modern standards it’s all very Scooby Doo.

So Golden Age fiction stories occupied a strange in-between time period. They weren’t quite adventure stories with daring rooftop chases and duels, but they weren’t just sentimental novels where lovers defied all odds for a chaste embrace. And they weren’t supernatural thrillers (although occasionally they became the opposite, morphing into dry mental puzzles with cryptography and word games). Authors like Christie, Sayers, and Allingham tried a mix of everything, and by the mid-20’s a genre had emerged.  It wasn’t Noir, it wasn’t Romance, it wasn’t Action Adventure, it wasn’t Horror – it was Mystery.

Golden Age mysteries have a specific, predictable template that allows readers to expect a specific predictable rhythm (this is pulp fiction after all – enjoyable, disposable, repeatable). A group of upper-class people come together.  A body is found.  The suspects react with horror.  One-by-one they’re all discovered to have motives and opportunity. Then the prime suspect is proved to be a red herring (usually when a second body is found).  Finally, the detective has a big reveal.

And then…the 50’s happened.  The rise of post-WW2 technological advancement and social change made the classic murder mystery impractical.  So many of the tropes it relied upon just didn’t make sense anymore – they required an audience steeped in turn-of-the century stereotypes for their ‘gotcha’ moment.  It was the end of an age.

Any mention of someone having been an actor in their past automatically means they’re not who they claim.

The Victorian stigma against entertainers made a convenient excuse why someone would keep their past ‘on the stage’ a secret, while still providing a hint that they might successfully impersonate another character. But by the 1950’s, Hollywood glamor had confused the occupation’s class sigma, and this one stopped making sense.

A corpse with the face smashed in means someone is attempting to conceal the victim’s identity

Bad car accident, a fire, a fall where the body just happens to land on its face…An unrecognizable or missing head automatically means an attempt to disguise identity.  But with the rise of blood-typing, fingerprinting, and later DNA testing, this just stopped being a thing.

Dentists.  Any mention of a dentist means the victim’s identity isn’t what the reader thinks it is

Like ‘corpse with the face smashed in’,  it always means that dental records for two people have been switched to conceal the identity of a victim. So…this just is no longer relevant.

Stopped clocks always show an incorrect time of death

A smashed clock is a great way for the plodding local police to incorrectly establish time of death, clearing the way for the detective to point out that the time has been re-set to confuse authorities. The end of hand-wound clocks finished this trope fast enough. Also, as upper-level policing became more white-collar it became less acceptable to portray them as being so dumb.

Foreigners are always red herrings
Golden Age mysteries love to use the reader’s own racism against them. One common plot is to make a German or Chinese character the prime suspect, with exotic political or religious motivations, and then prove that they were actually set up by some blue-blood Englishman doing it for the sordid cash payout.  The rise of a more global community ended this one when people started realizing it was just as racist to believe that only the British were capable of crimes.

Cliche: Communists are silly

As characters, Golden Age Communists are usually spiteful, pimply young men, under-educated and eaten up with sour grapes, using their racy politics in an attempt to impress the daughter of the manor. Then the Cold War kicked in, and suddenly everyone started taking Communists a lot more seriously.

Fingerprints don’t exist

It’s not that Golden Age detectives don’t know about fingerprinting – by the 20’s it was a standard part of police procedure – it’s just that there never are any.  “It was wiped clean” is the refrain in every single novel ever.  Or the weapon was dropped in a pool.  Or the fingerprints were added afterwords to make it look like suicide.  Or the texture was wrong. Or…but you get the idea.  I suspect by the 1950’s the public may have realized it was unlikely that not a single useful fingerprint had ever been found, anywhere, ever, and gave this one up.

Moral murderers all have lethal diseases that will kill them in a matter of months

Was the murder a revenge for the horrible crime that the victim themselves committed twenty years earlier?  Was the murder done to stop the victim from ruining the life of an innocent young beauty through their dastardly blackmail? Well then, you can bet that the murderer just happens to have been given only a few months left to live in any case, thus relieving the detective of the responsibility of exposing them. But the simple morality of the 20’s didn’t last into the more complicated world of the 50’s and 60’s. Good and bad suddenly became less clear-cut.

Media of today could learn a valuable lesson from Golden Age detective fiction:  holding on to the tropes and stereotypes from an earlier age always hamstrings the story.  At the very least it makes the writers seem out of touch with their readership.  That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to turn every piece of literature into a whirlwind tour of the latest inventions and moral philosophy, but it does mean staying true to what the characters might actually be feeling and doing. Tropes are helpful building blocks for fitting a piece of media into a specific genre, but too often they turn into a lazy writer’s shorthand.   Might I suggest reconsidering the following common tropes in media.

Answering machines that record incoming messages out loud

Yes, it’s a great way for the wrong person to overhear a private message, but who actually owns an answering machine? Is it likely your hip young 20-something characters would? Really? The kind that records on tape, out loud to an empty house?  While it’s true that about half of US homes still have old-fashioned landlines, that number is very heavily skewed towards the elderly. Unless your screenplay is about geriatric patients whose kids set up their answering system in the late 80’s, ditch it.

No one has a cellphone.

They left it at home.  It’s out of battery.  It’s out of minutes.  It’s out of range. They refuse to buy one. They dropped it in a toilet.  Or in extreme cases, the monster just happens to emit a cellphone signal-dampening field (funny how that happens).  If you’re writing about characters who would probably have a working cellphone, give them a bloody working cellphone. If its existence messes up your modern-day plot, there’s something wrong with the plot.

Cliche: Teenagers watching a TV news broadcast

In days gone by this was a great method of exposition – the TV in the background would just happen to run a piece about the escaped criminal who would attack our hero in the next scene.  A majority of Americans do still get some news from the TV, but who are they? Probably not anyone under 35. In fact, do they even watch broadcast TV?  If they have a Netflix account, chances are no. If your hero is a teenager, reconsider.

Finding an incriminating scrapbook of newspaper articles related to a crime

First of all, did anyone ever do this?  Save every scrap of information about something horrible they’re trying desperately to forget?  Probably not, but at least up until the year 2000 it was technically conceivable as a plot device. This isn’t a thing anymore.  Someone stumbling across an incriminating Google News search history, maybe.  Paper news, nope.

Scientists must be punished for their hubris

In the 80’s, science or technology was shorthand for the soulless progress that would soon destroy our souls. In fact, ‘spirituality beats science’ was a real favorite for a solid decade there. In this trope, a scientist  tries to attempt something new and cool, then is is immediately killed by their creation.  Usually in an ironic way, after saying something like “I have become an invincible god!!!11!”.  It’s true that anti-intellectualism is still a thing, but in today’s STEM-desperate academia, it’s hard to imagine those poor scientists with any power at all.  Between the politics of tenure and bloody battles for a dwindling funding supply, there just isn’t time to take over the world.  Our stereotype of a power-mad megalomaniac would be much better embodied through a mad banker or crazy start-up dude.

When a genre times out, there’s nothing to do but update it and move on. In time the more thrilling Golden Age mystery works turned into spy fiction, and the more cerebral became police procedurals. Both are totally legit forms of literature, and both will probably give way in turn as their own tropes become irrelevant.

Already we can see some of it happening. It would be great to think that the police give 200% like the Detectives of CSI, sacrificing their personal lives, challenging their superiors and putting their reputations on the line against an uncaring bureaucracy for what they know is right every time…but that’s just not the way the system is set up.  Nor would it really be realistic for them to do so. The medical procedural, a literary offshoot of the police procedural, suffers from the same problem: Modern medical law and insurance policy just can’t realistically reward, or often even allow, the type of above-and-beyond compassion and medical largess we see on shows like House.

These tropes haven’t timed out just yet, but they will given time. And when they do, we have to be willing to leave them and move on.  The murderer can’t always be the debonaire heir to the family fortune.  We must admit, at least to ourselves, that sometimes the guilty party really is a Communist German sympathizer with an accidentally smashed watch. And a working cellphone.


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18408619-brain-on-the-plate-with-fork-and-knifeWhat better funereal tribute could there be for a dearly beloved aunt than to eat her brains? If the cause of death is an ill-timed antelope stampede, or a disagreement with the chief over who makes the sharpest spears, then go right ahead! Let her memory be preserved, at least for a couple of hours, through the digestion of her venerated noggin.

But if her method of decease was almost anything else – sickness, poisoning, more sickness (there are so many interesting ways to get sick), then that is precisely what you won’t do. Neurological body bits are where many of the toxins that can cause death are densest, and passing them along in culinary form is one of the fastest ways to create a vicious spiral of grey-matter munchies. The diseased brain is consumed, which spells the end of the eater, who is then consumed as part of her own mourning rituals, which then causes…but you get the idea.

Outside of cannibalism, the only other area I’m aware of affected by this issue is the pet food industry, which routinely buys euthanized animals from shelters and zoos to mix into Fluffy’s dinner. However, Fluffy’s consequential mess on the floor might never be connected with the penguin who passed away a year ago at the Baltimore Aquarium, whereas surely, we assume, someone would notice if half the community suddenly goes the way of our beloved aunt. Surely someone would say “Hey, maybe just this once, let’s eat the toes instead“.

Not so, says the law of negative memes! One study noted that a negative meme can wipe out 70% of a population before someone questions its underlying validity. But here it becomes more complicated because it’s not just a blindness to facts that must be overcome. Without an understanding of germ theory, we can imagine our poor cannibals mulling over the issue of a population die-off, and after many long days of pondering, coming to this conclusion: “We are all dying! The gods must be angry with us! Quick, pacify them by eating more brains!”

An interesting natural experiment of just this phenomenon is occurring in Japan as we speak, and no one has to eat anyone. Since the 60’s, Japan’s anti-feminist culture has been playing havoc with their population prospects. While men and women receive the same education and early professional pressures, women are often let go after marriage, and professional ladies with children can expect to be stigmatized as “devil wives” (at least one female CEO recently visiting Japan was forced to re-title herself as a secretary to her male subordinates in order to attend her own meetings).

With almost no tradition of daycare, and, do forgive me, no system of child-brides or slavery in place to counteract female unwillingness, it’s not a surprise to find that a huge percentage of the lady population has chosen to opt out of relationships. And not only them – lots of men are rejecting the monetary pressures of keeping a spouse in a society that won’t allow them to share the stress of being sole breadwinner. Celibacy in this sort of climate is one route to freedom and equality, and as a result, the Japanese population will soon be losing a million people every year. Current trends place its complete extinction sometime in the next century. Which, to use a scientific phrase, would just suck full of suck.

As a western-raised feminist white Jewish liberal short lady (I’ve been assured the shortness has a lot to do with it) it’s very easy to point the accusing finger of righteousness and demand, how hard would it be to just to pass a couple little equal rights concessions? Offer a couple daycare tax breaks? Maybe even, dare I say it,  full-pay maternity leave like that offered by that bastion of women’s rights Iran (yep, even Iran has better protection for working moms than Japan. Full disclosure, they have better protection than the US as well, so.) And yet, such risque proposals haven’t made much headway.

Like our unfortunate cannibal friends, when a negative meme is firmly entrenched there can be a lot of confusion about where the problem really comes from. Many of Japan’s conservative LDP party would argue that the true issue is not Japan’s anti-feminism, it’s that Japan has not been anti-feminist enough. If only women (and increasingly, men) would adhere more closely to their traditional pre-world War II roles the problem would be solved! As of yet there have been no dystopian-style attempts to criminalize female employment or enforce a one-child-per ovary policy, but it seems imaginable as the situation becomes more dire. The true power of a negative meme is hidden and subtle: the meme offers a solution to the problems it causes by propagating the meme even more strongly. Our people are dying! Quick, eat more brains!

This all sounds really depressing, but the good news is that negative memes, the truly virulent ones that can take down an entire population, are usually self-correcting. Here’s a good metaphor: the absolutely pants-wettingly terrifying super-virus Ebola. Ebola can rip through an entire population in weeks. It’s intensely contagious and can survive outside of the human body for years, a combination that should have turned the world into a scene from Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ decades ago.

And yet, we’re still alive to spout social science at each other. The key is in its extreme virulence – the virus is so deadly, and kills so quickly, that there’s rarely enough time for the victims to spread it beyond the immediate vicinity. Ebola’s very toxicity acts like a natural quarantine – in a small, immobile village population, the virus perishes with the last available host.

Now consider the case of Krokodil. Like Ebola, Krokodil turned up in the 70’s, this time in Russia, as a quicker, cheaper, more addictive alternative to heroine. Krokodil is the crack to heroine’s cocaine, the Ebola to heroine’s mild flu. It will also kill you stone dead in a particularly gruesome fashion, by rotting your skin off from the inside, but that’s almost beside the point. Krokodil is relatively easy to manufacture – any number of websites will give you the instructions on how to stir up the codeine/iodine/phosphorus mix. And yet, so far, the streets are not full of rotting zombie corpse people.

The key seems to be in Krokodil’s very virulence – even though any kid with access to a CVS and her mom’s stove can saute up a batch, who would want to? Like biological pandemics, memes survive through repetitive propagation – the passing of a piece of information from mind to mind, or in this case, victim to victim. But while someone could technically take Krokodil for a year or two before checking out, they usually succumb to a gory list of secondary infections long before then.

There is no peer pressure to sample Krokodil because no one lives long enough to pass the meme along. No one is saying, “Hey, I just tried this stuff and it’s awesome and you should too” because, not to put too fine a point on it, that would require still having a mouth, and anyway, who would take advice from someone who looks like they’ve taken Krokodil? Despite its persistent availability, Krokodil as a meme is just too nasty to spread beyond isolated outbreaks here and there.

Krokodil is back in the news this month thanks to a scattering of reported incidents in Illinois, none of which have come up conclusive. Let me repeat that – without even a single verified case, that is to say, not one person who has actually tested positive, media outlet after media outlet has spent the last two weeks seeking to outdo each other in righteous condemnation and gory pictures. This isn’t yellow journalism, or at least, it isn’t just yellow journalism. This is what a negative meme is up against: society’s immune system is extremely clumsy in its targets, but it can be fantastically powerful in its effects.

For example, in a different section of these same outlets earlier this year many sites devoted a few paragraphs to “Gallon Smashing”, that brief-lived prank which saw teenagers walk into grocery stores and stage a massive pratfall while carrying (breakable) containers of dairy. Like many pranks, a forgiving viewer might view this as a sly social commentary: the action loses money for a large corporation and inconveniences it by the necessity of cleaning up the mess. All while the stores’ wrath is hamstrung by their own customer service policies and existing social mores: it looks goshdarn mean to take out your wraith on a kid who just metaphorically wet themselves in public.

Now, that feeling of control over a large institution, even when it’s through an act of self-humiliation, has a lot of appeal. The high-minded might attempt a parallel to the passive protests during the civil rights era, when workers who could not outright rebel nonetheless protested by pretending to be more stupid or clumsy than they actually were. That’s the idealistic view of it. In reality, let’s be honest, this was just unbelievably dumb. Grocery stores are often locally owned, and the wage slaves forced to clean up might easily be classmates of the perpetrators. A long-term propagation of this meme might have meant damage to the nearby economy, the complete collapse of the national dairy industry, mass calcium deficiencies, plagues of hungry kittens everywhere

News outlets duly wrote up the Gallon Smashing phenomenon, with many a ‘crying over spilled milk’ pun, as the new Harlem Shake. The elements weren’t that dissimilar – the same ritualized humiliation and the same sly anti-authoritarianism (part of the fun of Harlem Shake videos lies in witnessing a sedate office environment transformed into…whatever). And yet days went by, and the internet reacted to Gallon Smashing, not through a loud outcry of support or condemnation, but through the worst possible punishment that can be meted out, to ignore it. Despite high viewing numbers – in the same class as early Harlem Shake videos, milk spilling videos received just a fraction of the Harlem Shake’s comments. Very few clips, meme-wise, were actually ever made, and even fewer once perpetrators began to get arrested. Eight months later there are less than 38,000 spill clips on youTube. That might sound high, but for comparison, even a year after the Harlem Shake broke there remain more than 4,640,000 clips, and every single one is hilaaaaaarius.

We’re well-aware of the ugly side of social pressure – the side that advocates on behalf of established social standards against the rights of the individual. The Oscars love nothing more than the story about a hero’s valiant struggle against a fiendish societal presumption, and rightly so. But it’s easy to forget that social pressure has another duty: to nip negative memes in the bud before they get going. This is social pressure at its very best. In a way it’s what social pressure is for. When a meme goes wrong, the white blood cells of our disapproval swing into action – whether it’s to prevent an epidemic of zombies, or just a little spilled milk.

Low grade negative meme-infections surround us all the time- in fact, fighting them is an important part of a healthy society, and it gives socially awkward undergrads a reason to get excited and meet new people, which is also of vital importance. I’m looking at you, me­­­­ of 1998. Japan is a rare opportunity to witness a negative meme so subtle that it has managed to use a society’s own natural defense system against itself. What sort of inoculation might jump-start Japan’s baby-friendly antibodies is anyone’s guess.  Speaking as an outsider, all I can say is, whatever you do, stay away from the brains.

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