The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives

In the summer of 2016 everyone started telling me that I had to watch a show called Stranger Things. I was reluctant. The reluctance came from the way it was sold: the entire series was one large nostalgia fest for ‘80s Spielberg, Stephen King novels, and Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s not that I don’t like Stephen King or Indiana Jones or battling bugbears. But I had just finished consuming two pieces of media that banked heavily on nostalgia and ham-fisted homages: the show Mr. Robot and the novel Ready Player One.

A poster for the upcoming Ready Player One, which this is not a review of.

I had walked away from both Mr. Robot and Ready Player One with a general uneasiness, a queasiness, the stomach ache that comes from too much of any one sweet thing. In the case of both of these, that one thing was the overdose of both

  1. knowing that I had consumed something whose originality was constantly undermined by heavy doses of allusion and homage and
  2. knowing that I had consumed something for which I, a heterosexual white millennial male with an English degree and a penchant for science fiction and a job in digital marketing, was the target demographic.

When I finally did watch Stranger Things, it did not disappoint me in the way that Mr. Robot and Ready Player One both had. Sure, the entire thing has major IT and The Body vibes and there was even a moment where a character is reading Stephen King’s Cujo. The entire thing is, as Stephen King himself said, crowded with Stephen King easter eggs and nods:

But there’s something different about Stranger Things. Something deeper. More tactful, subdued, and thoughtful.

(Stranger Things is not the only nostalgic work that works. FX’s Fargo, crowded with references to O. Henry and Samuel Beckett and, naturally, the Coen Brothers, is a good example of another show that executes where others fail.)

What is it that made Stranger Things work while Ready Player One and Mr. Robot both, in this blogger’s opinion, come up short? It’s a very fine line, but also a bell that, once crossed, is hard to unring, regardless of whom it tolls for.

The Re-appropriated Narrative

Mr. Robot revealed, at the end of its first season, that the entire narrative was little more than an extended take on Fight Club. From Project Mayhem to a “two characters are really one” twist to a cover of “Where Is My Mind?”, Mr. Robot failed to be much more than fan fiction.

Here was my response, written in the summer of 2016, about the distinction I saw between these two television shows:

But in the case of Mr. Robot’s homages and allusions, it seems that it never goes behind the quick reference. There is no pay-off, no reward. At times, it feels less like a reference and more like cheap fan fiction. Unlike Stranger Things, which begins with homage but builds into something worthwhile and whole, Mr Robot never materializes into something independent and awake.

It was particularly frustrating with Mr. Robot, as this nostalgic reference was packaged in, of all things, a twist ending. It had been dishonest in its nostalgia, pulling us into something only to reveal that we’d seen it all before.

The second season of the show takes it a step further. While the storylines lifted from Fight Club continue, Mr. Robot now introduced the element of characters reciting poetry, unprompted and unapologetic. A villain jumps into Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” while another spits out Billy C. Williams’ “so much depends” while weeping in the rain. These moments do not further character development, do not reveal anything other than “this guy read Shakespeare”.

For a different use of character’s reciting poetry, consider the use of “Ozymandias” in the film Alien: Covenant. I’ll make no claim that the latest Alien film was anything but flawed and muddled, but its use of “Ozymandias” ultimately established a layer of dramatic irony and character development.

One of the Fassbenders in Alien: Covenant.

And on that note…

And for what? A little bit of nostalgia?

The issue with Ready Player One is a horse of a very similar color to that of Mr. Robot. The novel’s plot and characters, while fairly standard and boilerplate, are not directly lifted from another work in the same way that Mr Robot’s are. What is absent are recitations of poetry or Pixies covers. Instead, we have an endless bombardment of “hey, remember _______ ?”

A footnote in the first chapter of Ready Player One sums up the issue with both that novel and other works like it, describing the setting of Anorak’s Invitation, the catalyzing video of the novel:

“His surroundings are actually from a scene in the 1989 film Heathers. Halliday appears to have digitally re-created the funeral parlor set and then inserted himself into it.”

This one throwaway footnote serves as a perfect metaphor for the limits of Ready Player One and other works like it. We aren’t taken to new horizons in our imaginations but instead are sent to visit those we’ve seen before.

Now, for a meta moment of self-reflection

It’s worth pausing and taking note of something potentially very ironic: the author of the blog post you’re reading right now wrote a novel called The Moonborn: or, Moby-Dick on the Moon. Who am I to preach about originality, one might ask, when I’ve created a repurposed, allusion-heavy narrative of my own?

Without turning this into a promotion for The Moonborn, my argument for what makes my own work different is, in my hope at least, that I took strides to avoid the weaknesses I saw in other nostalgia-first narratives. I won’t take the argument further than that, at least not here and now.

I will also point out that I do not consider there to be anything inherently wrong with reboots, sequels, prequels, and extended universes. Because hey, if it worked for Shakespeare and Dumas and Faulkner, then no reason it shouldn’t work today.

The Logan Test

In a blog post written last year, about the failings of dark-n-gritty reboots and the rise of compelling superhero narratives, I suggested a new test that echoes those of Bechdel and Plinkett:

If you strip away the costumes and the special effects, the familiar names and faces, is this a story worth telling?

See FX’s Legion for a work that passes the test with flying colors.

This is a test to apply to sequels and adaptations, particularly of the superhero variety, but it works just as well with nostalgia. Stranger Things gives us a group of children thrust into an adventure far above their maturity levels. Fargo shows us tales of violence and madness derailing the lives of ordinary Americans. True Detective’s first season might lean heavily on the Cthulu mythos but it’s much more than Lovecraft fan fiction. It’s about the characters and their stories, not the author and audience having a shared love of Lovecraft. (Many fans are not even aware of the Lovecraft allusions.)

What matters is that a narrative can stand on its own when all the Pixies covers and Indiana Jones hats are taken away.

Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

This could seem like nothing more than a demand for another season of Stranger Things. And sure, it’s definitely that.

But part of why this matters so much is that there are some amazing aspects of both Ready Player One and Mr. Robot, which makes the whole thing so much worse when the narratives fail to stand on their own.

The greatest issue with Ready Player One is that its best elements are lost in the flood of nostalgia pervading the narrative. The novel presents a horrifying reality, in which Americans live in stacked trailers, indentured servitude has returned, and bodies atrophy while brains disappear into alternate realities, is lost in the flood of nostalgia that pervades the narrative. The frightening dystopian future it presents is far more compelling than “hey, remember The Matrix?”

Repeat the Past
Thanks, Google.

And the trouble is that the novel Ready Player One—just like the television show Mr. Robot but unlike Stranger Things—is that it spends time spinning it wheels and playing the remember when game when it could be continuing worldbuilding and character arcs. It drags itself into the past, reaching for that green light, when its best aspects are what it shows us of the future. Its world even seems to suggest that not a single new or original film worth celebrating came out between the fourth Indiana Jones and the year 2044.

And perhaps therein lies the scariest aspect: are we headed into a future where our technologies do nothing more than allow us to return to an imagined past?

Or, as Ready Player One’s nostalgia-obsession suggests, are we already living in such a world?

Enjoy the above? Check out D. F. Lovett’s The Moonborn!

Couldn’t help it. Had to sneak that self-promotion in here again. Learn more about The Moonborn here. Thanks for reading!


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