Posts tagged fiction
I haven’t been blogging much, despite an abundance of bloggable media in the last few months. More of my free time has been alloted to creating geek culture rather than just consuming it.
I started submitting query letters for my New Weird Superheroes novel
- Shield & Crocus
this summer, and recently started a new novel, which is currently known as
- Codename: Metaphysical Fencing Academy
In the meantime, I’ve sold my short story “Kachikachi Yama” to the Escape Pod fiction podcast. Once the story goes live, I will link it directly.
For now, watch
- The Event
and make sure you see
- The Social Network
When I first heard about Defying Gravity, I was surprised to see another space show, following the dead-in-the-water Virtuality which went from pilot to TV-movie backdoor pilot to TV-movie that everyone knew wasn’t going to become a series.
Defying Gravity had a number of similarities to Virtuality – ensemble-sized crew on multi-year mission deep into space, their efforts being made into a reality show for people back on Earth, driving off of interpersonal conflict exacerbated by the enclosed space and mission stress.
However, Defying Gravity has a far milder version of the ‘reality show’ aspect, and lacks the virtual reality material featured in Virtuality. As a result, the show is much more focused — it’s serial SF with episodic interpersonal plot — originally pitched as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” — the show released on ABC over the late summer, but was only aired for episodes before it dropped off of the schedule — ABC has stated that they they are looking for the best time to air the remaining episodes — meanwhile, the episodes have been airing elsewhere, due to the show’s status as a multi-country, multi-network production.
I hope to see the remainder of the season on television, but I have doubts about the show getting picked up. It’s likely rather expensive given the sets and FX required, and the show’s ratings were lukewarm when aired — though that’s far from unexpected from a relatively un-advertised mid-summer show with a high concept. Depending on how its ratings fare elsewhere, it’s possible that even if ABC drops its support, it might continue on.
Here’s why Defying Gravity is cool, for me: It’s probably the best new straight-up SF show (recently) on television. The show addresses advanced speculative elements (deep-space missions, plus other SF-inal spoilery things that are very intriguing). It also sustains and develops strong interpersonal drama, throws in good doses of comedy, and includes the best use of flashbacks since LOST, using a parallel structure depicting the mission crew and other personnel in the years-long training that served as the characters’ introduction to one another and informs their relationship with one another in the ‘now’ segments.
Unlike LOST, the characters are deeply interconnected with one another throughut their flashbacks, meaning that instead of revealing a ‘small world’ setting where disparate characters were more connected than they suspected, the crew of Defying Gravity are shown working through years of interpersonal relationships — it’s two stories that are one and would theoretically come together by the end of the series, when the flashbacks lead up to the start of the ‘now’ part of the show and provide (10-11) years of contiguous storyline.
Back to the title of my post: Why this show needs to not get canceled — Defying Gravity depicts a future where space exploration brings us into a larger universe, valuing both science for science’s sake; also the love of exploration. It also introduces and explains SF-inal elements unseen in television, if well established in SF literature. The SF writing world talks about how film/TV is two decades behind prose. The ideas get investigated in prose, and go from brilliant innovation to discussed and debated trope, and once well known enough, if the materials that lead into the trope are established in the popular imagination, then it can reach a broad audience to be digested. Shows like LOST took several years to build up to and introduce SF elements, and Fringe is popularizing parallel/alternate universe theory. Dollhouse is a possibly-too-complex-for-tv meditation on the possibilities of interfacing with and modifying memories through technology.
It’s all well and good for the SF community to investigate ideas and develop discussion, but it’s a small world, and for those ideas to reach the majority of the populace, either you need a massively popular novel on the level of Stephen King or Dan Brown, or you probably need to make a movie/TV show. And if shows that further the collective understanding of the culture-shaping ideas that SF produces keep getting canceled, it serves as a barrier to that dissemination of ideas.
For these reasons and because I think it’s engaging on an interpersonal level with strong performances by a fairly-ethnically diverse cast, I would really like Defying Gravity to continue long enough to tell its story, to convey its speculation about a possible future.
Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects [...] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.
On February 13th, we will be introduced to Joss Whedon’s newest television series, Dollhouse.
I’ll be watching it, for my own interest as a general fan of his work, but also to discover if Whedon is able to get out of his rut. I’ve been a fan since the first season of Buffy, continued on with Angel, and am one of approximately 37 members of the Original Flock (also known as people who watched Firefly on FOX during its original run). The Church of Firefly now sports many thousand devotees, whose rankings might as well be determined by the number of DVD-loaning-genertions one is removed from the original TV run). I’m a Whedon fan through-and-through. But it is a natural part of subcultural fandom to critique that which we love. One could say that Indie Rock fan culture is entirely composed of such critique (or that might just be my intense reading of Questionable Content speaking).
In addition to developing a reputation as one of the poets laurate for Geek Culture, Joss Whedon, writer of witty banter, producer of an ongoing line of bad-ass skinny super-powered adolescents/young adults, has become painfully predictable in his approach to romantic relationships.
Whedon’s ouvre spans over a dozen seasons of television, dozens of issues of comics, several films, and a troublesome through-line.
In Joss Whedon’s universe, happiness in romantic relationships is inevitably followed by catastrophic death/dismemberment/disaster.
Let’s do a quick roll-call of Whedon’s Greatest Relationship Hits — I won’t be pulling any spoiler punches here, so stand ready:
Buffy/Angel — Fated Doomed Lovers. A Slayer and a Vampire, it really is poetic. And ended the first time with Buffy stabbing Angel through the heart and shoving him into a hell dimension just as his soul was restored to him. Ended the second time when Angel moped off to LA to get his own show. Failed to start again when Buffy fell in love with Spike.
Xander/Anya — A strange-but-stable relationship ended by cold feet and then kept from re-uniting by a random death in the Buffy finale because, from a dramatic standpoint, a heroic finale isn’t powerful enough unless someone dies.
Zoe/Wash — Happily married, not without their issues, but those issues proved that you can portray a happy long-term relationship realistically and still have it be interesting. Or it did, until Wash took a Reaver-spear through the middle after having his Big Damn Hero moment.
Colossus/Shadowcat — Pete comes back from the dead and Kitty comes back from being a bartender so they can have a joyous reunion, only so that Kitty can be killed off in the Only-Uncle-Ben-Stays-Dead Marvel universe.
Cordy/Angel — Cordelia Chase, who wins the award for Buffyverse character who has the greatest amount of actual character development (barely beating out Wesley), finally achieves something resembling a happy relationship with Angel before being possessed, killed, returned, then ascending, only to return to bid farewell to Angel.
Fred/Wesley — The sexy and badass nerds of Angel finally get together, only to have Fred hollowed out by a Hell Goddess and used as a vessel. Strangely, the romance continues with Illyria messing with Wesley’s head in ways that alternate between poignant and sadistic.
Dr. Horrible/Penny — Not that it was hard to see this one coming, given the whole Supervillain thing, but Penny’s death serves as a almost self-referential response to criticism of Whedon’s tendencies.
Most if not all of these dramatic twists make sense within the context of their narratives. What is troubling is not that any one of those romances ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA! instead of Happily Ever After, but that Whedon’s ouvre seems to intimate that PAINDEATHDRAMA is the inevitable fate of any and all romances.
Certainly, we have a proponderance of narratives that pat us on the head and say ‘Everything will be alright, you’ll meet the right person and it will be beautiful!’, but appreciating and recommending Whedon’s work is harder to do when you take his Love Interest in Refrigerators approach to writing romance. In discussions of his own work, Whedon is fairly clear that he prefers to show the nuance and darkness in the world, wrapping darkness in a comfy hoodie of whimsy and witty one-liners, but it’s making him into a three-trick pony — and one of those tricks involves the rider getting thrown and stomped to death.
The result of this prediliction is that any savvy viewer/reader would have to approach all of his stories knowing “No matter how much I want these people to get together, if they do, it will probably in one of them getting killed/possessed/turned evil/mauled” — which induces a level of self-aware viewing that can work at counter-purposes with immersing yourself in a show and enjoying it on its own terms.
It’s gotten to the point where the ending of any given romance in a Whedon property seems to have become predictable, which is not something that an artist devoted to developing their art wants to be. Ask M. Night Shyamalan, who has watched his star fade as he delivers “twist” endings one after another.
So I’ll be watching Dollhouse, but I might as well put my money on Dushku and Penikett’s character’s getting together and then something horrible coming along like clockwork to end the relationship and/or Penikett’s character’s life. And any relationships between secondary characters are not only just as likely to end in PAIN, but they’re also fairly likely to end in character death.
I’d love for Whedon to prove me wrong. I’d enjoy his work even more, then, which is saying a lot, because he speaks loud-and-clear to my aesthetic.
Young Reader fiction has the distinct advantage of trending towards short. This facilitates marathon-style reading, which is one of the great literary pleasures. The speed at which I breezed through the novel is also a testament to the book’s readability.
The Lightning Thief arrived in 2005, and is the first in an ongoing series (three books in the series are available already, with the fourth arriving in May of 2009.
The series’ hero is Perseus “Percy” Jackson, a 12-year old son of an Olympian God (the identity of said god is revealed in the book, but does constitute a notable spoiler) who joins other Half-God children at a camp/training ground for demigod children. His heroic companions (because that’s how heroes roll) are Grover Underwood (no relation), an earnest but clumsy satyr, and Annabeth Chase, brainiac daughter of Athena. Percy is impetuous (a good plot device, and explained as being part of his divine heritage), but he is also fiercely loyal to his mother, which provides much of the other motivation for Percy’s actions in the book.
Riordan shows a great faculty for bringing the Greek myths to life in new ways, re-casting the Furies, Medusa, Procrustes, and more into a contemporary context. He has a decent excuse for moving the pantheon to America, and provides the best sourcebooks/inspiration for White Wolf’s Scion that I’ve seen so far.
The whole book has the feel of Bronze Age, 21st century-style. Young readers coming to the book with only a vague background in classics will be able to learn the history through an accessible lens, as Riordan gives various mythological figures’ original stories to contrast their contemporary incarnations. Riordan’s re-interpretations are clever, if not brilliant, and there’s a great sense of fun to the whole book which goes hand-in-hand with Percy’s age and the old saying that the real Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.
It’s a quick read, and if you’re a Classics Geek at all, it’s certainly worth your (short) time. I’m looking forward to the later books, but there’s a Mieville ARC on my counter that demands my attention.
Ever since my seminar on aesthetics, I’ve been thinking about awesomeness. Awesomeness as its own aesthetic, a distinct artistic urge/dao that is often slavishly followed, draws huge attention, and yet hasn’t really been examined in a way that makes me happy — or if it has, I haven’t seen it.
I’ve been talking about how I’m going to write an article called “On the Aesthetic of Awesomeness” — so here are some notes for me to start with, as building blocks. This is intended to be a work in progress, a making public of my academic process for the purposes of discussion and self-reflection. I’m aware in this discussion of the inherent silliness of talking seriously about awesomeness, but I think there are important points not being explored here.
What do I mean by Awesomeness?
Awesomeness is an aesthetic agenda associated what we call in the speculative fiction field the ‘Sense of Wonder’ — The sense of wonder is revelatory, the amazement that comes from being confronted with something new and striking. I’d say that the Sense of Wonder is one of the modes of the aesthetic of awesomeness.
Other notable moves/moments that would count as Awesome:
- The lobby scene in The Matrix
- Your first glimpse of Iron Man in the 2008 Iron Man.
- Watching Optimus Prime transform in Transformers.
And more generally:
- Stuff Blowing Up Real Good (TM).
- Breathtaking visuals (esp. special effects — practical or digital). The Pod race in Star Wars Episode I, the battle of Pelennor Fields in the film ofThe Return of the King — this is where the Sense of Wonder comes up.
Awesomeness is about potency, strength, competence in action, it’s the stuff that makes you go ‘whoah’ in varying degrees of Keanu Reeves-itude.
Awesomeness vs. ‘literary merit’
Just because something has what people argue over as literary/artistic merit doesn’t mean it’s awesome. Awesomeness has been ignored in aesthetic considerations (and no, it’s not the sublime, though the original meaning of the word awesome would suggest as much.)
‘Awesome’ has experienced a cultural linguistic renaissance in the last few years, with notable champions in popular culture such as How I Met Your Mother, “Captain Awesome” in Chuck, and others.
Often times, films will get horrible reviews in terms of their narrative, thematic, dramatic chops, but are still well-received/popular. Why does this happen? There are a number of explanations, and Awesomeness is one of them.
Artistic paragons of awesomeness who have been critiqued for their lack of artistic merit could include but not be limited to Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, The Rock), Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Carribean, Top Gun, Black Hawk Down), The Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy, the new Speed Racer), and George Lucas (Star Wars, et al.) These creators make immensely commercially successful works that are often panned by cultural critics/gatekeepers such as reviewers, literary critics, etc. Such films are called ‘childish/immature’ — as their primary aesthetic (awesomeness) doesn’t fit into established and accepted artistic parameters.
Here’s another thing — for most summer blockbusters, the primary intent of the film is to impress the audience, to take their breath away, make them clap and shout. Summer Blockbusters play a simple but potent game of pulling on heartstrings and pushing buttons. Really, the primary aesthetic agenda of the Summer Blockbuster genre is Awesomeness.
This is not to say that a narrative cannot be both awesome and dramatically compelling, beautiful, grotesque, or any other aesthetic. Mostly I just want to identify a chunk of the aesthetic field we’ve been ignoring/spurning.
Thoughts for further investigation
- A more specific articulation of the sense of experiencing awesomeness
- The overlap between awesomeness and other aesthetics
- The negotiation and appreciation of awesomeness in fan communities.
This is one of several reviews essays that I’m re-posting from my personal blog, since they are directly of interest to the mission of 21st Century Geeks.
Internet-ly famous blogger/writer/digital culture activist Cory Doctorow’s first YA novel Little Brother posits a near future San Francisco that suffers a terrorist attack, leading to a mega DHS crackdown. Our protagonist is Marcus aka W1n5t0n, who is an ex-LARPer turned computer geek and Alternate Reality Gamer. Marcus is detained by the DHS and treated as an enemy combatant, and then declares war on the DHS after being released. In interviews and podcasts, Doctorow has explicitly stated that the book is intended to be pedagogical, with anti-surveilance/DHS techniques, technologies, and ideas spread liberally throughout the book, as well as general techie life-hacks. These educational asides are both a strength and a weakness. Marcus’ voice blends with Doctorow’s own in those explanatory passages, but they usually fall on the near side of being trying. The geeky romance subplot is solid, and fairly adorable.
The world of Little Brother is a few years ahead of our own, but it’s easy to imagine every single thing in the novel coming to pass, right down to the DHS turning a post-terrorist-attack city into a police state, surveilance and profiling gone mad to the point where our own government causes us more terror than faceless nameless terrorists from Otherplacia. I think some people already live in Doctorow’s future, and more are going all the time. There’s a cultural current in the USA (and to a lesser extent in some other Western/Northern developed coutnries) which Doctorow is pointing out. It’s part warning and part polemic rallying cry. Freedom of information as well as of speech.
One of the taglines of the novel is ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25′ — a modification of the older ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30′ from the Vietnam era. Well, I’m 25. The novel is in some ways a rallying cry to Generation Y/the Millenials, a group which most generation dileniations would count me as a part. I grew up with computers in the house, and I can simultaneously remember getting a computer and not really remember not having one. Generation Y is also sometimes called the 9/11 generation — I was a freshman in college when the towers went down, and all of the years of my legal adulthood thusfar have been in W’s America. Little Brother is about being young enough to still have fire under your ass, about being idealistic enough to stick it to a corrupt system and arrogant enough to think that you can personally do something about it.
I loved it, but I don’t think the book was really written for me. There’s a lot of stuff about personal rights and privacy that I already knew, but a fifteen year old nascent geek might not. I think that Little Brother will be the kind of novel that will be the right story at the right time for a great many young people, the exact thing that’s needed to cast back the curtains, to shine a light on the ugly truth behind the USA’s desire to ‘protect’ us.
Balancing our needs for Individual Rights (Privacy, etc.) vs. Security is a question we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves this century, as technology develops at a breakneck pace and international stresses make the rapidly-shrinking and vanishing resource world seem like tight quarters. I won’t be surprised if it gets banned in a number of districts, if it’s the kind of book that teachers risk their jobs by trying to get it onto the curriculum. I intend to teach it when I can, as long as it stays relevant. Maybe if we’re lucky, by the time I could teach it, I won’t need to. Sadly I don’t think that’s likely.
So go read it. Learn how to hack your computer and your life. Then pass the book on to a young person and see what happens.