“Squeecore” and the Cartoon Mode in SF/F

The podcast RiteGud recently did an episode called “A Guide to Squeecore” that’s been causing quite a bit of buzz in SF/F circles. It touches on a number of topics and makes some good points about the uglier aspects of the contemporary genre establishment: behind the pride flags and celebrations of diversity, the authors wealthy enough to afford expensive writing workshops are the ones who make valuable connections while real outsiders remain on the outside. At the same time, a climate of complacency has led to such incidents as last month’s Hugo Awards being sponsored by Raytheon.

But the main focus of the podcast is the assertion that this cliquishness has led to a single aesthetic dominating modern SF/F, which the speakers Raquel S. Benedict and J.R. Bolt dub “squeecore”. They decide against naming any specific works that fit this aesthetic until some brief comments at the very end, however, which muddies their efforts to define squeecore.

I have nothing substantial to add to the podcast’s observations about backroom politics, so this post will concentrate on the question of the squeecore aesthetic. I’d also like to stress that none of the observations in this post should necessarily be taken as criticisms or objections: while the podcast is heavily critical of squeecore (even the chosen label is derisory) if the aesthetic exists, there’s room for it to be discussed in neutral terms.

The podcast cites the Hugo Award stories as examples of squeecore, which makes a good starting point. Casting my mind back to the Hugo finalists of recent years, I can recall stories with the following protagonists:

  • A lethal cyborg who prefers watching TV to hurting people.
  • A teenage lesbian necromancer who likes comic books and porn mags.
  • Cowgirl librarians secretly fighting against an oppressive future government.
  • IKEA staff who find a portal to another world in their store.
  • Alternate-reality doppelgangers of the story’s author, who get picked off one-by-one in a murder mystery.
  • A girl from a land made of cakes and candy, who now lives alongside undead teenagers in an orphanage.
  • Badass moms in the zombie apocalypse.

What words come to mind upon reading the following descriptions? I suspect that many readers would answer with some combination of quirky, funny, cute, colourful, clever. Adjectives that, it has to be said, could also be included in a definition of “squee”. One word that comes to my mind, meanwhile, is cartoonish. The above descriptions are all ideas that could be used as taglines for webcomics, or elevator pitches for Pixar films (well, if you removed the porn mags and murder).

I should clarify what I mean when I talk about cartoonish fiction. I don’t mean that in the literal-minded sense of, say, novels about talking animals dropping anvils on each other (although such a novel would definitely fit the mode I’m referring to). I’m talking about silhouettes.

There’s an old rule in animation that a cartoon character should have a readily-identifiable silhouette — think of Mickey Mouse’s ears or Bart Simpson’s spiky hair. In the strongest examples these silhouettes incorporate not only the character’s body and/or clothes but also a posture that tells us something of their personality: Bugs Bunny casually leaning back as he chomps on a carrot; Spongebob excitedly waving his arms about. This is a visual counterpart to the old rule in writing that says you should hook the reader with the first line.

With that in mind, take a look at the opening line to Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, the novel about the teenage lesbian necromancer who likes comic books and porn mags:

In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!— Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

Succinct, funny, comprehensible in a flash — this is the prose equivalent of a cartoon character’s silhouette.

Can these stories, as wholes, be described as cartoonish? That’s more debatable. The purest examples of the aesthetic I’m talking about are in short stories like Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “Fandom for Robots” and “A Guide For Working Breeds” or Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please”, each of which uses its cartoon-character-silhouette as the basis for its entire narrative trajectory. This is harder to sustain in a full-length novel. There are novels built wholly around the cartoon mode, but they fit into a narrow genre of giddy, goofy comedies (David Wong’s Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick is a good example).

Gideon the Ninth and its sequel Harrow the Ninth may have a cartoon silhouette as their hook, but their characters are not the sorts who can bounce back physically and mentally from every injury like Wile E. Coyote or Kenny. In terms of narrative structure and psychological depth, I think it would be misleadingly reductive to label them cartoonish novels.

Even here, though, I should mention a caveat. Tamsyn Muir’s novels are not as far from cartoons as they might initially appear.

Gideon and its sequel handle the subjects of death and the grief, guilt and trauma that follows. Such material is not entirely absent from cartoons, even children’s cartoons. Simba in The Lion King deals with the guilt of believing himself responsible for his father’s death, and a famous episode of Gargoyles involved a character coping with the remorse of having accidentally shot and injured hsi friend. Granted, these were both aimed squarely at kids and therefore restricted (Gargoyles fans who point to the series’ paedagogical moments as proof that it has something to offer older audiences have missed the forest for the trees). A story for adults will have infinitely more freedom to explore heavier themes. The seeds are nonetheless planted, and a novel in the cartoon mode can articulate what an actual children’s cartoon can only gesture towards.

The missing link here, of course, is fanfiction, that disreputable playground where any character from any source can be endlessly recontextualised in ways that their corporate IP holder would never have greenlit in a million years — as anyone who stumbled across a Pokémon rape fanfic at the age of twelve can testify (I’m speaking from experience here; it was called “We All Have Needs” and it’s still online, if you’re morbidly curious). In some cases the more extreme examples will be ironic subversions of the source material; but many are doubtless written in all sincerity, the authors honestly believing that even the most outwardly simplistic cartoon characters are infinitely flexible in their narrative and psychological possibilities.

Which brings us back to Tamsyn Muir, who — before she was a professional author — wrote fanfics for the webcomic Homestuck. One of these stories went to such dark places that it provoked a backlash against Muir later in her career, so much so that she felt obliged to acknowledge the matter in an interview. I’ll admit that I’m not familiar enough with Homestuck to gauge exactly how much Muir’s fanfic clashes with the source material, but the fact that it was controversial (where so much other Homestuck-derived work wasn’t) indicates that it belongs to the more extreme sphere of cartoon fanfics. Yet, even when the characters are given a drastically new context, the silhouettes are typically still visible.

To tie all of this back to the squeecore debate, I believe that there’s a trend in contemporary SF/F towards the cartoon mode I’ve described above: the usage of a punchy, cutesy character-and-premise combo that, yes, will perhaps make the readers go squee. But as the fanfic scene demonstrates, that mode has a history of being stretched far further than might be imagined.

Do Tamsyn Muir’s novels constitute “squeecore”? This is hard to say, partly because the label is so nebulous. Two of the squeecore traits brought up by RiteGud are a focus on young protagonists (suggesting the influence of YA novels) and a writing style with heavy use of quips, comical asides and pop culture references (suggesting the influence of Joss Whedon). Both of these traits can be found in Muir’s work. However, other supposed squeecore traits — avoidance of conflict, over-tidy resolutions — are alien to the trauma-wracked world of Gideon and Harrow.

If squeecore exists, it’s something that has already been re-shaped and distorted in the same way that fanfic culture has reworked countless beloved children’s cartoons.

(Of course, one of the other objections raised by RiteGud is the negative influence of fanfics on modern SF/F… but that can be a topic for another time).

One thought on ““Squeecore” and the Cartoon Mode in SF/F”

  1. I haven’t listened to the podcast episode in question so take this with a grain of salt, but I think this is a pretty nuanced attempt at grappling with “squeecore” and you have gestured at a lot of possibilities that the polarized responses I’ve seen haven’t. (For example, could one recast “squeecore” as neutral– or positive– rather than as an aesthetic pejorative? And how much does it actually exhibit the limitations in subject matter that Benedict and Bolt associate with it?) Good thoughts.

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