Do you ever stop and think “man, our world would be so much cooler if ___ but it was still mostly the same”? Because I know I do. There’s a lot of things I like about our current existence – advanced medicine, the internet, slowly but surely progressing civil rights, ice cream sandwiches, all sorts of good stuff. But sometimes it can get a little bit boring. Sometimes I want all of these wonderful facets of modern life, but you know… also magic, or teleportation, or aliens, or unicorns. I can’t be the only one who feels this way, and I say this because of the prevalence of what I call “embellished reality”.
I touched on it briefly during my post about kitchen sink universes, when I talked about “basically our world plus one other thing”. That is not necessarily what I would call embellished reality, though. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood are basically “our world but also vampires exist”, but I’d classify them much more as urban fantasy because the stories focus so heavily on the existence of the vampires. If the fantastic element is alluded to, but never strictly defined or stated, it might be magic realism. Don’t get me wrong, I love both of those genres; I’m not here to trash them.
Embellished reality, however, is more like there’s this fantastic thing, but it’s commonplace and everyone knows about it and the plot doesn’t center on its existence. TVTropes calls it “mundane fantastic”. To quote them, it’s “the complete mesh of fantastic and realistic elements into a universe nonetheless treated as mundane for the most part.”*
One of my favorite and most clear examples of this is the webcomic Questionable Content. It takes place in the real world in the modern day, but there’s also advanced robotic AIs available as consumer products and companions! And Hannelore’s dad lives on his own space station! And Steve was a secret agent that one time! But for the most part, probably 95% of the time, the story focuses on this group of 20-something hipsters living in Northampton and their interpersonal drama. I love that because not only can I seriously relate to being a 20-something hipster with a lot of personal drama, but also I want to be able to sign a contract of companionship with an adorable robotic AI who will hang around and be my robot friend.
Another good example is the Scott Pilgrim series of comics and the subsequent movie based on them. There’s all this crazy video game action happening, but the story is really about Scott and Ramona, not “oh my god why are there points and flashing lights and coins everywhere”. Jonathan Coulton’s music uses this a lot; you can see it in Hayao Miyazaki’s films; one of my favorite Dreamworks movies, Megamind, has elements of it (I know the plot technically revolves around the existence of superheroes, but reeeaaaallly it’s a love story between two people).
So why is this such a popular device? Well part of it I think is just the rule of cool – would it be cool if we had magic and everyone knew about it and we could just use it in our daily lives? Yeah, it would. I think another part of it is the ability to suspend disbelief. We know our world exists and it works and we don’t actually have to really “believe” in our daily lives. Some people have no problem suspending disbelief in most if not all circumstances; they can feel absorbed in a fantastic story without their minds questioning the fantasy. Others find this more difficult, and they find it easier to play along with fewer fantastic elements mingled with more realistic ones that they don’t have to disbelieve. There’s nothing wrong with either viewpoint; I’m sure there’s pros and cons to both.
The last reason I think it can be a great style is mainly in comparison to more traditional science fiction and fantasy. It’s not exactly a stretch to say that pure sci-fi and fantasy is used to comment on our present day world. A common criticism I feel about some “classics” of speculative fiction is that they’re “preachy”, which is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes these morality tales and scathing satires of the world as we know it are wonderful, sometimes it’s exactly what you need to read. Other times, though, you just want a simpler story wrapped up in speculative fiction dressings. Not every story has to have a grand, sweeping message about the nature of humanity. More intimate stories about smaller groups of people, and the things that happen to them can have even more impact than the “bigger” stories.
Going back to my first example, Questionable Content, there’s a lot of nice stories in this bigger arc about friendship, family, and life that have nothing to do with the more fantastic elements of the world. But sometimes the author, Jeph Jacques, comes out with a strip about the ethics of artificial intelligence, the friendship between robots and humans, and the implications of commonplace robotic personalities, and they’re touchingly heartwarming just as often as they’re hilariously funny. This strip (and the larger speech he wrote about it) literally brought me to tears. I definitely started reading the webcomic having been promised a lighthearted fun story about hipsters working in a coffee shop, so this was a serious departure of tone and content, though not an unwelcome one. A week later, Jacques was back to making jokes about accidentally drinking expired milk.
A work that’s versatile enough to make lighthearted jokes about butts and deeply sentimental lessons about the nature of sentience is a work that has my heart. Because in the end, that’s what the real world is too – serious life lessons wrapped up in a lot of weird, surreal things and jokes about poopin’.
*I don’t link to TVTropes because I value your time and I know you don’t want to get sucked in to the neverending vortex of pop culture trivia, as I so frequently am