/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Thu, Sep 15 2016
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  • Welcome to Night Vale: scripts and notes from podcasting's eeriest drama

    Welcome to Night Vale: scripts and notes from podcasting's eeriest drama

    First, the amazing, creepy, weird and lovable podcast Welcome to Night Vale spawned a wonderful, improbable novel, and now, for book lovers who love Night Vale, there's two books of scripts and notes from the production team: Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 2 (I wrote the introduction to volume 1!).

    The new Night Vale books are filled with amazing, insightful forematter and marginalia, the story of each episode annotated by the writers, actors and production crew.

    I was privileged to write the introduction to the first volume (Maureen Johnson wrote the intro to book two), and the folks at Harpercollins and Night Vale have kindly given permission for me to reprint it here.

    Being weird and funny is easy. Being weird and funny and compelling is hard.

    We've all guffawed as some strange, surreal juxtaposition ("Two. One to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored machine tools"). You don't have to be stoned to crack up at a friend's fantastic, perfect non-sequitur. Stories that inspire hilarity and mystification are good fun, but they're not great stories.

    Stories become great by hacking your brain. Nothing that happens in fiction matters. The people in fiction are fictional so their triumphs and tragedies have literally no consequence. The death of the yogurt you doomed to a fiery death in your gut-acid this morning is infinitely more tragic than the "deaths" of Romeo and Juliette. The yogurt was a alive and then it died. Romeo and Juliette never lived in the first place.

    Stories trick your naive, empathic mind into resonating in sympathy (literally) with the plight of their imaginary people. Usually they do this by scrupulously avoiding any reminder that these are imaginary people. That "willing suspension of disbelief" is a bargain between the creator and the audience: the creator tells the tale and hews to something that is plausible (or at least consistent) and the audience member doesn't pinch herself and say, "Cut it out with the quickened heart, the leaking tears, the smiles of triumph, you dope, this is all made up!"

    This makes weird stories and great stories nearly incompatible. A story is a love affair on the last night of summer camp that depends on both parties not calling attention to the fact that the camp bus is coming in the morning, so they can pretend that the night could last forever. Weird stuff happening to the characters is a reminder that this is all made up, the ending is coming, and when it's done, these invisible people will disappear into the nonspace whence they came, so stop cheering them on or crying for them.

    Bringing me to Night Vale.

    The remarkable thing about the people of Night Vale isn't how delightfully weird they are. The remarkable thing is how moving they are. Cranor and Fink and co-writers and actors weave a world with haphazard internal consistency. When things are weird, they make them weirder. It's a good, meaty sort of weird, steering clear of cliche and venturing into fresh, imaginative territory -- but it's still undeniably weird.

    It shouldn't work. We shouldn't root for Cecil, cheer on his love affair with Carlos. Tamika Flynn and Intern Dana and even that guy with the deerskin suitcase full of flies (whose story was so beautifully told in the first Night Vale novel, a book that is, if anything even more improbable than these podcast scripts) -- they live through ridiculous events but they react to them with perfect aplomb. They manage to trip the empathic response that makes us care about their outcomes, despite their outlandish lives.

    This shouldn't work. In theory, it shouldn't work. Like Wikipedia and many other marvels of the Internet age, Welcome to Night Vale only works in practice. In theory, it's a disaster.

    I don't know how the Night Vale writers pull this off. I suspect they may be witches. I got some clues from reading the Night Vale novel in which I learned that in the writers' heads, these characters have completely credible internal lives that treat their weird lives as real. Somehow, though those internal lives usually stay internal in the podcast (the difference between drama and prose is that in drama, you only get what people say and do; in prose, you get what's going on inside their heads), they shine through the characters and their voices, ensnaring our empathy.

    The creators' notes you're about to read give a hint at how this alchemy takes place. Usually reading how writers write (or even how actors act) is like listening to stranger tell you about their boring dreams. Fink, Cranor, and their collaborators make the stories behind these stories fascinating, in part because of the light they shed on this most bizarre phenomenon.

    In short, there's moving stories, there's weird stories, and then, there's Night Vale. It's weirdly moving. Be prepared. Be mystified. Be delighted. Please don't burn the authors at the stake for their sorcery, no matter how tempting it may be.

    -Cory Doctorow, Los Angeles, 2016

    Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 [Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, foreword by Maureen Johnson/Harpercollins]

    The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 2 [Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, foreword by Cory Doctorow/Harpercollins]


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