Where fantasy literature was once written as fantasy, no need for pretense, in the contemporary glut of such fiction a self-awareness has appeared (some would say ‘natch’). An author can no longer write of dragons or princesses without a century’s worth of stories using the same tropes tagging along behind, often in intentionally conspicuous fashion. Given Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution (2015), the glut has reached a point where even the commonality of the tropes themselves can be the subject of fiction. (Can everybody else see the writing on the wall?)
Leah Tang is a struggling comedian who identifies herself through the fiction she reads, namely mainstream fantasy novels. Ostracized by jocks while on stage one night, after the show a mysterious bystander makes her an offer seemingly too good to be true: to join a team of genrenauts who make excursions into genre settings, yes, to save the world (the real world, just in case you were confused) from destruction. Her first assignment Wild West Land, Leah heads off to adventures unknown… Actually, all too well-known given it is stereotypical wild west...
Underwood asks the reader to swallow a lot of disbelief, which is quite normal for a fantasy novel. The largest bit, however, may be the idea that the deterioration of quality of life in genre worlds somehow bleeds over into the real world, causing our quality of life to diminish, as well. Hmm… Another morsel Underwood asks the reader to swallow is that the story being told is intended as character development, rather than pure escapism. Were the maturity level assumed of the reader beyond middle school, the development might have taken root, but as it stands is rather immature. At one point Leah utters the line: “These stories made me believe in myself. That’s what fantasy is”, and at another, “My Fantasy is less about the whips and the PVC, more about self-actualization and hope. And you know what? That’s just as sexy to me.” Neither J.D. Salinger or W. Somerset Maugham could have said it better. Overall, characters in Underwood’s real world are almost as stereotypical as the characters in the narrative immersion worlds, which does no favors to the intention of representing real humanity.
As such, “The Shootout Solution” reminds me of the work of Lavie Tidhar: it tries so hard to bridge the gap between escapist fiction and relevant literature. It wants to use the classic tropes of pulpish, mainstream speculative fiction to literary affect, but only partially succeeds. In Underwood’s case, the success is in being aware of the product he is creating, but does not extend much further. The human elements—elements one might argue are key to bridging said gap, are sketchily outlined. The main character is sent to a two-dimensional genre world, but remains two-dimensional herself. Simply, not enough was done developing the Tang’s character for the humanity of the novella to have the desired impact.