Breaking Conventions: Scholarly Research in a Social Environment
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is an expert at breaking conventions. When the book that defined his career was published in 1979, it was an instant success, and its popularity spread to all parts of the world. The key to Douglas’ success is the way he was able to break the conventions of the genre he was writing in while showing an understanding and appreciation for the same unspoken rules he was breaking. The result was an unforgettable galactic comedy. His success at this can be measured in the fact that these stories have been adapted for radio, book, audiobook, TV, movies and even a play. Douglas skill at the craft shines through in all formats, and his fans all over the Internet agree that no one can successfully imitate the way he writes.
There are certain unspoken rules in any genre that all readers pick up on implicitly which, without conscious thought, they use to compare a work with others and therefore determine its value. So, when Adam’s takes an unexpected turn right before satisfying the unspoken conventions his readers are waiting to find, we find it funny because we are pleasantly surprised. Douglas tips his hat to the same convention he laughs at, and we are in on the joke.
One character that meets conventions while breaking them is Marvin the Paranoid Android. Reading blogs and fansites online, I’ve seen that he is a favorite of many Adams fans. A chronically depressed robot who can’t stand humans or other robots, and is constantly complaining, “Life, don’t talk to me about life.” Who wouldn’t laugh? We find value in Marvin as a comical character because he meets one important convention of the Science Fiction genre. Most science fiction include androids in some way in their stories. Quite often these androids are super intelligent and are dealing in some sense with the ability to act and feel emotionally like a human. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is one popular example of this. Classic examples in literature are Asmiov’s Robot series, beginning with I Robot and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? All of these address the issue of combining robot intelligence with human characteristics such as emotion. We love Marvin because he fits this category. Marvin has the largest “brain” in the galaxy and calculates complicated problems lightning-fast--when he feels up to it. Douglas breaks conventions by parodying this idea and showing what the most pathetic of human emotions would look like in a robot. We, the readers, like this because we see ourselves and don’t have to worry about intelligent and emotionally stable robots.
Breaking conventions can be a risky business if someone wants their work to be taken seriously, especially when dealing with long-standing traditions like the Science Fiction genre or even scholarly research and writing. It is, if I may be permitted to mix metaphors, like walking a tightrope that is over thin ice. One misstep and you fall through. If writers move too far away from the conventions of their genre, they run the risk of not being taken seriously or appearing to be careless in their craft. On the other hand, those who play it too safe compromise their initial purpose to create something fresh and new. To successfully break conventions, it is necessary to show a mastery of those same rules you are breaking. Douglas did this perfectly in his writing. There is no doubt his jokes are carefully crafted to address convention and turn it on its head. By meeting the requirements his readers expected he was able to break them with greater impunity. Nevertheless, Adam’s books are not often seen as literature worth studying and writing about in schools or scholarly works. The question remains, How do you break conventions while creating something that can be taken seriously in scholarly reasearch and writing?