REVIEW – Wasted on the Young (2010)

THE ZONE has my review of an interesting Australian film by first-time director Ben C. Lucas. Wasted on the Young is stylishly shot high school mystery in very much the same tradition as Rian Johnson’s Brick. Aside from the intriguing plot and the deliciously chilly cinematography, what really grabbed me about this film was its attempt to get inside the head of contemporary teenagers whose every move is recorded by CCTV cameras and whose every thought is captured by social media:

 As William Gibson’s recent writings have suggested, there was a point when society changed and certain ideas ceased to be science fictional. Yesterday’s cyberpunk futurism is today’s kitchen sink realism. Similarly, many old realist touchstones appear to be little more than genre affectations tainted by reactionary nostalgia. We no longer live in a world where women can afford to be bored doctor’s wives. Virginia Wolfe once described George Elliott’s Middlemarch as one of the few British novels written for adults but when read today, the book appears about as realistic as a quest to destroy a magical ring. By borrowing elements from the hard-boiled and cyberpunk genres while simultaneously downplaying the fictional character of these elements, Lucas is attempting to capture what it feels like to grow up in a world with its own set of realist touchstones and its own set of worries and concerns.

Watching it I was reminded not only of the more recent works by William Gibson but also the short stories of Tim Maughan (some of which I reviewed a little while back). What unites these works is a realisation that, rather than simply adding to an already existing world, the internet and social media are changing the world by sculpting how young people learn to see and react to the world. Literary theorists have spent the last 100 years bemoaning the fact that we are now modern and as such have severed our ties to the gods of our forefathers. Similarly, transhumanists spend much of their time banging a drum for the change that will come with the arrival of the Singularity. The more I read and the more I think about today’s youth, the more I realise that there is no great Death of Pan or Birth of the Singularity… there’s just some old fucks dying and some young fucks taking their place. Society is in constant evolution and social media is one particular area of genetic drift. In 10 years (let alone 100), people will wander what it was like to live without the internet and so any work of art that does not engage with the social changes created by the internet must be seen as little more than a side-show.

Gibson’s decision to re-position himself as a mainstream writer rather than a genre writer is the product of two forms of change: Firstly, society has changed to the point where science-fictional ideas are now realistic ideas. Secondly, Gibson needed to leave genre because genre has no interest in writing about the world that we are currently making for ourselves. Wasted on the Young is yet more evidence that science fiction has run its course as both a literary tradition and a sub-culture as it is easily as cyberpunky as any of Gibson’s recent novels and yet it presents these scientific and social ideas as nothing more than grindingly mundane realism.


  1. Back when the original realist novels were written, they were intended as accurate descriptions of the way the world actually was. Neurotic upper-class women existed, they faced the kinds of issues you find in those kinds of novels and they felt the way that characters in those novels tend to feel.

    However, since those books were written, society has moved on. In fact, it has changed quite radically and so these ‘realist’ novels no longer accurately describe the world as it actually is. The essayist Paul Valery famously mocked realist novels by suggesting that they all began with the phrase ‘The Marquise went out at five o’clock’. At the time, that was pretty much a spot on parody but nowadays the line makes one think of a historical novel.

    If a work of fiction is not describing the world as it is then it is describing a world that does not exist. That’s fine but I see no reason to distinguish between fictional worlds… the world is no longer as it was described in Madame Bovary and so the novel is no longer ‘realistic’. Similarly, Tolkien’s novels do not describe the world as we know it so we would not think of labeling it as ‘realistic’. Why trust one form of non-realism over another?


  2. Let me see if I understand you correctly. You consider “realism” to be a binary attribute: either a novel is realistic, or it is not. In your view, there are no degrees of realism, and so all unrealistic novels are as unrealistic as each other. Is that a fair summary?


  3. I wouldn’t say that it was a binary so much as a sliding scale. Things can appear more or less ‘realistic’ and intend to be more or less realistic but ultimately, I think once you move beyond ‘realism’ as a primary aesthetic, the decline into outright fantasy is actually quite steep.

    Middlemarch et al were intended to be realistic and were presumably quite realistic at the time of their publication but the world they depict is no longer our own.


  4. Roughly where do you draw the line? Is a novel set in the year 1980 realistic? What about 1970?

    (I note that Middlemarch is set in 1830–2 but was published in 1874, so maybe it was never realistic at all?)


  5. Charles Stross also likes to point out that any literary fiction that accurately reflects contemporary life should read like dystopian cyberpunk. So much current film and literature that supposedly takes place in the modern world seems to exist in some alternate universe where mobile computing, ubiquitous surveillance and social media don’t exist.

    Literary fiction and art house film are genres that claim realism and social relevance as primary defining attributes. When they lack any resemblance to the world we actually live in and the issues we face, this claim is exposed as disingenuous. Often, I think authors in these genres work in meticulously-worldbuilt settings of cozy nostalgia where they can retreat from their own futureshock and distate for modernity.


  6. Gareth — At this point I’d say that novels set in the 70s and 80s are historical novels. Particularly if they’re written now. The problem is that the term ‘realism’ originally had its roots in the idea of psychological (rather than social) realism and so unless human nature radically changed, Middlemarch and Madame Bovary remained ‘realistic’. I think a different yardstick is needed as it strikes me as completely absurd that a novel written in 1832 should still be considered a work of realist fiction


  7. Mark — In cinematic circles, the term ‘realism’ tends to be quite heavily politicised and is generally associated with the drive to make films about the lives of the poor and dispossessed. While I think that there are a good number of art house films that do exactly that, I do not think that it applies to all art house films and I think most art house filmmakers would use the term with a degree more precaution than you credit them with.

    If there is an issue surrounding the ‘realism’ of art house film it is at the level of access. For example, Cristian Mungiu (the guy who directed 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) recently hit out at Romania on the grounds that Romanian audiences have no culture and so his films never get released there despite his works being about the lives of normal Romanian people.

    The problem here is that there is definitely a european art house genre. This genre has evolved since the 1960s and it spans borders and cultures to the extent that european art house films regularly get made all over the world. The problem is that in order to enjoy these types of films, you have to learn to read them and that tends to be the sole preserve of wealthy, educated Westerners.

    On the one hand, I’m inclined to sympathise with Mungiu as his films are ‘realistic’ in the sense that they do try to capture what it is like to grow up in Romania. On the other hand, it is interesting that cinematic realism a) requires a learning curve and b) has a learning curve that is quite independent of the culture that produces the films. Indeed, how realistic can Mungiu’s films be when the barrier to entry is not being able to read Romanian society but rather being able to read European art house films.


  8. Point well taken that I made a sweeping generalization about artists whose motivations and methods are necessarily quite diverse. I should qualify that statement by directing it specifically to the subset who posture about engaging with current cultural concerns of the West (the only kind I’m qualified to proof), but then dig into the genre toolkit to find the safer, easier way out (middle shots of actors staring off into the distance, or “what it means to be human” in SF).

    As you’ve pointed out, art house and literary fiction are genres created to be read by informed audiences with a shared semiotic vocabulary, the same as fantasy or crime noir. Freed from the need to cry “we’re still relevant!” and represent real people functioning in the real world, genre can function unfettered as allegory. It just needs to be able to let go, and acknowledge that if one really wants to hold a mirror up to the world one must leave genre behind. I don’t have a structural issue with art house or any other particular genre so much as I’m annoyed by authors who work within those structures while professing to be doing something they’re not. (I just gave the first issue of the new “forward-looking” SF zine Arc a chance, and was impressed by the worthlessness of the whole endeavor.)


  9. Mark — Allegory is an entirely legitimate means of exploring the real world and so I don’t accept the binary you propose. However, The City & The City is a good example of a pure allegory in the sense that it is an allegorical infrastructure without any relevance to anything outside of itself. It’s an amalgam of ideas and theoretical themes but that allegory never serves any purpose other than simply existing. Alternately, many works of genre (like Kiernan’s Red Tree and Reynolds’ Terminal City) are now primarily allegories of themselves in that they are works of genre that are about genre. Again… very clever but utterly pointless and entirely self-indulgent.

    Allegories should help us to understand the world around us and SF is uniquely positioned to use its techniques and history to provide us with allegories that will help us to make sense of our ever-changing world. However, rather than doing this, SF seems quite content to pander to its existing fans by writing about either about them (Old Man’s War, Among Others), genre itself or nothing in particular. That is why SF has never been so completely and utterly irrelevant.

    I dunno… I watch a lot of films and read a lot of books and the more culture I consume, the more I become convinced that art exists either to distract us from the world or to help us to understand the world. The problem is that, when it comes to providing distractions, few works come anywhere close to being as effective as porn, anime and the films of Michael Bay. If you can’t compete with them then you might as well be writing about the real world and yet SF appears to have no interest in doing so. There are plenty of works of art house cinema that are just as bad but I don’t think the problems with art house film are anywhere near as deeply ingrained as the problems with SF.

    The Straw that broke the camel’s back was Connie Willis’s recent Hugo. Proof that SF fans are far more interested in being pandered to than they are in engaging with the world.


  10. I do hope you’re not implying anime can have no purpose other than distraction? As anime as an art form covers everything fro SF to horror to porn to kitchen-sink drama, that would seem odd – as does comparing the form to porn and Bay films.

    Small niggle amongst otherwise pretty much agreeing with you.


  11. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with distractions. My problem is with works that function as distractions but present themselves as something else. I think genre has that problem a lot of the time… rather than engaging with the world, it’s mostly interested in pandering to people’s preferences and fantasies.

    The reason why I mentioned anime is not because I think all anime is distraction (I really rate the social engagement of series like Welcome to the NHK) but because the anime that does set out to distract its fans does so better than practically any other artistic form.

    John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a highly effective piece of fan-pandering as it is effectively a power fantasy targeted at the over-60 Americans who dominate Worldcon. Old Man’s War is as nothing compared to the pandering that goes on in many anime series. The use of sex and violence combined with generic themes and viewer-insert characters you get in anime raises fan pandering to a whole new level.

    My concern is that, by choosing to look inward to existing fans rather than outward to new fans, written genre will become like anime in that the aim the game will cease to be the production of great art and become pandering to the prejudices and escapist fantasies of that existing fanbase.


Comments are closed.