The Lesson of Gonzo

The semantics of sub-genres are iffy. To some, gonzo implies a wild-style, ‘everything goes!’, kitchen sink madness full of cybernetic lizardmen breakdancing while naked wizards throw exploding jelly beans at city-sized butt-demons. Some gonzo really does embrace that chaos, often with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. It’s not my cup of tea; it’s too disjointed, it’s too fourth-wall-breaking, and it’s too inconsistent about its own internal logic. I find that when gonzo incorporates everything it gets no flavor from anything, because there’s always something wackier, something more absurd, right around the corner. Gonzo-fatigue sets in when every element of the world seems to be there just to out-awesome and out-weird the other elements.

That’s not to say there aren’t useful lessons to learn from gonzo. Quite the contrary. I think gonzo ideas and aesthetics tell us something fundamental about creativity. If we peel away the layers of airbrushed-on-the-side-of-a-van aesthetics of the most outrageous gonzo material, the concept of gonzo in essence revolves around taking two (or more) things we don’t immediately imagine as compatible, and then smashing them together.

In On Writing, Stephen King discusses one of his ‘cheat codes’ for getting a story idea: simply taking two seemingly unrelated concepts and bashing them together. Apparently, he conceived of Carrie after reading a newspaper article about high school girl cliques after having seen a TV program on psychic powers. Bam! That’s gonzo as hell, and the result is glorious.

I used to hate the proto-gonzo of Expedition for Barrier Peaks for ‘bringing spaceships into my fantasy!’ Today, I implore everyone to crash a spaceship or two in their campaign setting!

The less cognitive fatigue the initial premise demands, the easier buy-in is, and the easier it will be to expand the weirdness down the line rather than front-loading it. Gonzo should in imagination vitamins, and it should be punchy. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (which, honestly, should be regulated as a form of psychedelic drug) is brimming with strangeness, but its initial premise is understandable, if odd. Tolkien used the relatively palatable idea of pastoral communities of kind hobbits to lead us into a story of walking trees, fire-demons and resurrecting wizards. Gonzo. As. Hell. Kevin Crawford’s Godbound rulebook has an example setting absolutely bursting with gonzo ideas, from mecha-tsars to monster-eating bounty hunters and a hyper-atheistic ‘theocracy’ secretly ruled by vengeful angels. Gonzo. As. ALL. HELL.

Traditional gonzo stumbles when it wears its juxtaposing nature on its sleeves. When constant attention is brought to its thematically disparate elements, the whole does not become more than the sum of its parts. It just becomes clashing parts. With the right tongue-in-cheek attitude, this can be fun in and of itself (and fun is nothing to scoff at), at the cost of a coherent universe.

The lesson, I think, is that we don’t need to overdesign or overemphasize a setting’s contrasting elements to reap the benefits of gonzo. Cool ideas emerge from the combination of constituent parts. Traditional gonzo flagrantly and flamboyantly teaches us to throw things in the creative blender and press the button. We might not like all the results, and that’s fine. It’s a part of the creative process. I, for one, tip my hat to the wizards on spaceships, the cyber-dinosaurs and the three-headed mutant halflings with uzis. Your weirdness is part of what keeps our weird hobby from creative atrophy.

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