Roger Zelazny, in discussing why he liked to write science fiction, referred to Northrop Frye’s theory of modes. In Zelazny’s interpretation, Frye described characters in fiction in four modes:
- The mythic mode is stories about gods.
- The high mimetic mode is stories about heroes, people who are better than ordinary humans.
- The low mimetic mode is stories about ordinary people.
- The ironic mode is stories about people who are worse than ordinary people–criminals, buffoons.
(Frye also talked about a romantic mode but Zelazny doesn’t mention it.)
Zelazny said that he liked science fiction because it let him write literature in the mythic or high mimetic mode. Certainly many of his stories are about gods or people with great powers. Zelazny argued that literature today outside of science fiction is mainly confined to the low mimetic and the ironic mode. There are many superb stories about ordinary people. There are few stories about remarkable people which are not history and are not genre stories like science fiction or romances.
This started me thinking about other areas where stories are told in the high mimetic mode. Superhero comics are obviously told entirely in that mode. Another place we see it is a certain set of action movies: James Bond, for example, is a high mimetic mode character. But these stories, while enjoyable, rarely rise to the level of good literature.
An exception is The Hurt Locker. This excellent movie, which well deserved the Oscars it just won, is a straight-up action movie. It passed one of the acid tests of the action movie: I saw it twice, and I didn’t see anything the second time around that I missed the first time. With artistic movies I often get a new perspective on a second viewing; with action movies I rarely do. The movie also operates in the high mimetic mode: the protagonist, William James, is a heroic character. He is not a perfect human being, but he is exceptionally capable and brave.
But despite the high mimetic mode character, the movie does not operate as a standard hero’s journey, there is no evil mastermind or any identified antagonist. The movie is simply a collection of relatively unrelated incidents which reveal the characters. James does come to understand himself better during the movie—or, since we really only hear his inner thoughts in one scene, perhaps he understood himself all along. The combination of literary techniques with high mimetic mode make this a genuinely exceptional movie.
Zelazny, of course, used the same approach throughout his career, with varying degrees of success.