Stargate: SG-1 and What Sci-Fi Can’t Do

August 10, 2010

I noticed today that my three most recent posts have not been posts at all, in fact, and have instead just been links to other sites. I’ll attempt to rectify that now, and more so, with a rather epically long discussion of the show I’ve been watching most recently – Stargate: SG-1, which ran for 10 seasons and spun off two series, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, as well as two direct-to-DVD movies. I haven’t seen any of it but SG-1 itself and a few episodes of Atlantis, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what the Stargate universe is like.

Before I begin, though, you should read this article: Seeing the truth of the world through science fiction. It’s a good description of what some say sci-fi aspires to, and what I myself have said sci-fi is about on occasion. It reveals to us our own limitations, our inability to find the Ding-an-sich, and the necessity of the attempt to do so. It helps us to understand ourselves. Or, at the Teal’c look-alike at the end of the comical SG-1 episode “200″ says,

Science fiction is an existential metaphor that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”

This is what some say sci-fi tries to do. But… is this really what sci-fi is all about?

SG-1, as I said, went on for ten seasons. For the first eight of them, the central theme of the show was the struggle against an obviously evil race of technologically advanced beings who impersonated gods from ancient mythology. In the last two seasons they go up against a race of evil energy beings of arbitrarily great power who demand everyone worship them. Are they gods or not? What is a god, exactly? How do you decide what deserves worship? These are all interesting questions one would feel compelled to explore coming up against either the Goa’uld or the Ori. All of them are alluded to. None of them are ever really addressed in any meaningful way.

Instead, the show, and the characters, assume that the Goa’uld and Ori are not gods, that they do not deserve worship, that they are instead hostile forces bent on destroying human civilization as we know it. As it turns out, these assumptions are pretty much correct. The Goa’uld are evil, the Ori are evil, end of story. But this isn’t demonstrated by the fact that they’re claiming to be gods deserving worship when they’re really corporeal beings (the Ori aren’t even corporeal… kinda), it’s demonstrated by the fact that they’re mass murderers. The question of whether the claim to be a god in and of itself is ever justifiable is never addressed. This is the question that the “existential metaphor” actually raises, but for the most part it is ignored, though always in the back of the viewer’s mind.

The audience lets the show get away with ignoring this because they’re not worried about the existential questions raised; they’re more interested in the complex mythology being built up around the show. We don’t really stop to think about the nature of godhood; instead, we learn about the society of the Jaffa, and the different Goa’uld System Lords that pose a danger to the Tau’ri, and the different technologies the Ancients left behind to be discovered. The philosophical questions are never at the fore. My conversations with by brothers are never about whether humans or robots, or what it is to be a god, or even whether or not it was ethical to do what a certain character did in a certain situation; instead, we talk about whether there was really a scientific explanation for what happened, or what we think the bad guy will do next, or what a piece of technology discovered in the episode is really capable of.

In other words: if we want to say that the philosophical, existential queries being posed are the important part, and the rest just a way of communicating those queries, then the show is clearly a failure, because what we focus on is invariably the fluff, not the substance. I don’t judge SG-1 by its philosophy (if I did, it would fail) but by its characters, its plotlines, and its worldbuilding/mythopoeia — only the last of which is distinct to science fiction.

Now much of this ability to mythopoeticize comes from the long-form narrative modern television takes. SG-1, like many modern shows, has story arcs running through and even across entire seasons, with various alien civilizations introduced, fleshed out, fought with, defeated, over the course of years of in-world time and dozens of hours of on-screen material. This allows for the material to be explored in great detail, every possible factual question about the in-show universe can be asked and answered — but doing so brings us no closer to unpacking the “existential metaphor.” That metaphor is just as thoroughly explored in a single episode of The Twilight Zone. But I don’t watch The Twilight Zone nearly as much as I do SG-1, or BSG, or Buffy, or Angel. (Those last two are fantasy, but in this post I’m talking less about sci-fi specifically than speculative fiction in general.) I do truly believe that, while The Twilight Zone is in many ways brilliant, it is not as good as these others — but this judgment is clearly not based on the shows’ relative ability to metaphorically moralize.

What, then, can’t science fiction do? It cannot, except in a very limited sense, actually offer those existential metaphors that its proponents so often say is what redeems it. The fictional world sci-fi presents to us can indeed offer to us a metaphor worth considering — but after the initial presentation, it is not giving us with that metaphor, it is ornamenting the world used to create it and creating complex mythologies around it and making us care about people and civilizations that have never existed and will never exist. That activity of ornamentation is something very different, and it, not the existential metaphor itself, is what lies at the heart of sci-fi and fantasy.

To put it a different way; sci-fi is at its heart concerned not with black and white, but with color. Existential metaphors are black and white. They reveal stark truths about the nature of the human condition. They are also amazingly simple. We are reading The Road in my American Literature class right now. It’s a sublime book. Perhaps it’s a work of science fiction in some vague almost meaningless sense, but at its heart it is no different from his other work, none of which can be called sci-fi, or from even more obviously non-sci-fi fiction. Yes, I suppose it’s set in post-apocalyptic America. But it’s not at all interested in exploring the new make-up of the world, in politics or society or biology. Those are all dead. It is interested in Life and Death and Love and arriving the essence of those things. And it takes place in a world devoid of color. (The Twilight Zone, I note, was shot in black and white, and I seriously doubt a color version would have been an improvement.) It contains elements of sci-fi – primarily the descriptions of how people survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland – but apart from that there is no world-building going on, no interest in the exterior world — rather the exterior has been reduced to the interior.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is interested primarily in color. Specifically in colors never before seen. Sci-fi isn’t black and white; it tries to show us colors that don’t exist except in our imagination. Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space. A meteor crashes that is made of a material that is not red, blue, green, yellow, nor any color known to man. It sticks around for a while, causes problems, then vanishes. That, not The Road, is science fiction boiled down to its essence — an encounter with the never before seen. Though of course since part of the essence of sci-fi is its baroque density such a boiling down fails to really illustrate by example. This is not to say that works of science fiction can’t be serious, nor that sci-fi cannot reduce the world to black and white. It is rather to say that this is not the essence of sci-fi.

So what exactly is my point? Why does it matter what the essence of sci-fi truly is? Because the nature of sci-fi’s essence determines how we defend it to those who discount its true worth. I want us (“us” meaning those of us who love speculative fiction) to realize that the usual defense of it, that it functions as a metaphor for real life that can reveal things not easily seen in ordinary fiction, does not really hold up under scrutiny. Something else is going on.

What that is, I’m not sure exactly. As I said, I think it has something to do with discovering new colors. But is that really worthwhile? Is that a legitimate endeavor? It may just be ornament for ornament’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake, the act of subcreation as an exploration of the power of the human imagination. That sounds to me incurably romantic, and I’m not sure it makes for a good defense. But exploring this question will have to wait for another day. I’ve already gotten too far off-topic from my original idea for this post, which was to rant about how naive SG-1 often is. Perhaps another time.


Thoughts on Blood Meridian

July 23, 2010

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

It’s also an amazing book. It’s like Moby-Dick, but more nihilistic, with whaling replaced by scalp-hunting, and Moby-Dick made a member of Ahab’s crew (i.e. Glanton’s gang) in the form of Judge Holden. The Judge is perhaps the most disturbing example of the sublime ever; a giant of a man, hairless, and pure white, he kills for pleasure and desires to possess all knowledge in the universe so that he can control (and destroy) the universe. To that end carries around a notebook in which he makes detailed scientific observations before destroying the things he is observing. He may be a pedophile. He claims that “War is god.” He seems some sort of Gnostic deity, though he cannot be traced back to any “atavistic egg.” Perhaps he represents Death. He is a skilled dancer.

I have a hard time saying more than this about the novel. This is partially because it’s so overwhelming on a first reading – it’s like Moby-Dick in this regard as well – that I am completely aware that I do not understand it, at all. The Judge is by far the most fascinating character, but the rest of the gang are interesting as well — the captain, the expriest, Toadvine, the Delawares (are they like Fedallah and his men?), the kid himself, who never receives a name. One gets the feeling each of them can be examined individually in much the same way as Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Ishmael. But I have not done so yet.

I did wonder, while reading the book, whether or not Cormac McCarthy is capable of describing anything as being red without comparing it to fire or blood. It’s an effective descriptive technique, but every once in a while I sat back and said, really? Again? The sunset is bloodred. Is it ever any other color?

I’ve also read recently that there are plans to make it into a movie. Now, three of McCarthy’s books have already been filmed – All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old  Men, and The Road – but those are children’s books compared to Blood Meridian. It would be completely impossible to show all the violence described in the book without getting an NC-17 rating. And omitting the violence somewhat defeats the point. So, to say the least, I’m skeptical, though I’m willing to give it a chance.

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

Huck Finn, or, What Makes for a Great Book?

July 20, 2010

I’m currently re-reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and am trying to understand what leads some people to call it “the great American novel.” It is a good book, certainly; entertaining, a witty satire, and not entirely devoid of morality. But I don’t see what would lead one to call it great.

My main argument against it, I suppose, that it’s not particularly complex. A book like Moby-Dick can provoke endless hours of discussion, but there doesn’t seem to be that much to discuss about Huck Finn. The central conflict (regarding whether Jim ought to be freed) is fairly simple, and it’s quite clear which side of it Twain’s on. And that’s about the only thing there is to talk about. The satire is funny, and he makes some valid points about antebellum Southern society and about how gullible people are in general, but once you say “so he’s satirizing antebellum Southern society and point out how gullible people are in general,” what more is there to say?

Does this mean that for a novel to be great it must be ambivalent, undecided, like Moby-Dick is so much of the time? I don’t think so. I think writers who are certain in their beliefs are often just as good, if not better, than writers who are eternally questioning. But confident writers still must acknowledge the other side of the argument, not just preach their own view as obviously right and anyone who disagrees with it as obviously wrong. I find that works that do this sort of glossing over usually do it because they don’t want to address the complications in their worldview. Mark Twain said the moral of Huck Finn was intended to be, “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and indeed, anyone coming away from the book probably has arrived at that conclusion. The problem is, insofar as its true, it’s obviously true (that statement is un-disagreeable-with), but it ignores the question, “what makes for a sound heart?” In doing so, it doesn’t make itself a bad book, but it makes itself not a great book.

This isn’t to detract from what is great about Huck Finn. It’s brilliantly executed; great characterization, great representation of dialects, funny when it ought to be funny, serious when it ought to be serious. Good for it. But that doesn’t make it a great work, in my mind. Certainly not “the great American novel.”

(Note: I argued a few weeks ago that this is what is wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t want to say the same thing about Huck Finn; I’m not saying it’s a bad book, or even not a good book. I think it deserves most of the acclaim it gets. I just don’t see why it’s considered among the greatest.)


Style Detection

July 14, 2010

I came across a link recently to iwl.me, a site that claims to statistically analyze your writing style and tell you what famous writer your writing style resembles. I tried it out by plugging a few posts from this blog into it.

I didn’t get exactly consistent results. My most recent post, the one about Cormac McCarthy, reported “H.P. Lovecraft.” The one about AIs reported”Isaac Asimov.” The one about Andrew Bird, the one about Robert Lowell, and the one about Wallace Stevens all gave “David Foster Wallace.” Four of my unpublished short stories gave me “Neil Gaiman,” “Margaret Mitchell,” “Kurt Vonnegut,” and “Arthur Conan Doyle.”

This all makes a certain sense; something on existential horror is by Lovecraft, something about AIs by Asimov, a story with an analytic main character is by Doyle. But this is a correlation in subject matter, not style. Which defeats the entire point of the site. I don’t write like these people, I just write about the same things. That’s far from equivalent.

Nevertheless, the repeated result of “David Foster Wallace” intrigues me. I think I know what it means — I write long, sometimes overly long, sentences with precise grammar but still casual in appearance. That’s a primarily feature of the styles of both Wallace and Lovecraft. Indeed, my style here does tend to be, long complex sentences that try to flow easily into each other. My fiction writing is considerably different though. I wonder if it wouldn’t flow easier if I wrote it like I write these posts. It probably would; it would probably be worse though.

I also wondered about what author this post would claim to resemble. The site gave “Dan Brown.” Which I find, I suppose, somewhat insulting. Ah well.


Book Review: The Border Trilogy

July 14, 2010

Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” which consists of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). I highly recommend all three, though the second is the best of the three and the third not as good as the other two. McCarthy really is the Melville and Faulkner of the American Southwest, and these three books are among his best.

Now, the three books form a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word; they’re self-contained novels, the first and second having nothing to do with each other and the third taking the two main characters from the first two and having them both play a central role in it. I would like to be able to make something of the structure of the trilogy as a whole — the John Grady->Billy Parham->both order for the books I find suggestive — but I can’t make much of it, so I won’t try. There are, however, themes which run throughout all three, including the loss of innocence and passing away of the romantic worldview; the impossibility of free will and its phenomenological necessity; and the revelatory nature of violence, a McCarthy favorite.

An interesting aspect of all three books is their division into four sections, rather than three or five. I’ve been finding four a more and more interesting number lately; three suggests beginning, middle, end, and five suggests an act structure like a Shakespearean tragedy, but four, I think, suggests a presentation of the world, a meditation, rather than a dramatic narrative arc. There is no rising action, climax, falling action, but rather a gradual transformation of worldview. And indeed, all three of the books are quite episodic in nature (though Cities of the Plain less so than the other two). All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both consist of the main characters wandering somewhat aimlessly (though always with a proximate goal in mind) around Mexico and the borderlands of the United States, finding themselves at the end in a similar state as when they began, but with a transformed understanding of it.

A fascinating example of this can be seen in The Crossing, where in each section can be found a long narrative told to the main character by outcast figures. In the first, the crazed old hunter whose family is all dead; in the second, the priest living alone in a deserted village; in the third, the blind man whose eyes were plucked out during the Revolution (another theme running throughout the trilogy is the Mexican Revolution, which I unfortunately know too little about to comment); and in the fourth, the gypsy transporting the crashed plane. Each of these touches upon existential themes and presents a slightly different understanding of the existential quandary man finds himself in, and there is clearly some sort of progression between them (though I have not fully formulated what it is). All four are fascinating reading; they resemble the “Grand Inquisitor” short story in The Brothers Karamazov in a lot of ways. What’s interesting is that there is no obvious movement between them; the focus is on the four different states of mind, not on how one changes into the other. The same applies to the novels as a whole; the focus is on the journey, not the turning points.

Nevertheless, there is change over the course of each book, as the main characters discover their true nature and the true nature of the world. They begin idealistically, wanting to go be cowboys because they think cowboy life to be the perfect life, the best life imaginable; they discover that cowboy life, like all life, is primarily a prelude to death. That leads to another interesting question – is Cormac McCarthy a nihilist? I think the answer is no. Certainly not in The Road; probably not in No Country for Old Men; and, I think, not in the Border Trilogy either. But it’s a hard argument to make, and in the end I’d say that, though he’s not a nihilist, he comes close. Certainly he leans existentialist. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian, the book that preceded All the Pretty Horses and which Harold Bloom calls the best novel by a living author; we’ll see whether I think McCarthy’s a nihilist after I read that.


Three Items of Note

July 7, 2010

I don’t often post links to articles rather than writing my own essays, but over the last few weeks I haven’t had a chance to write up anything and I’ve ran into two articles I find interesting, so I think I’ll make an exception.

First,  a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently the book’s 50th anniversary is July 11th. I’ve never liked the book, and this article does a decent, though incomplete, job of explaining why. I like what Flannery O’Connor has to say about TKAM: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

Second, an explanation of the problems with veganism. This article is written, from what I can tell, from a liberal, atheist, perspective – the guy likes Peter Singer – but it still recognizes the inherent problem with believing it morally wrong to use animal products: “Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer.” I don’t mind people being vegans, but I do find it rather silly for them to think I am acting immorally by not adopting their eating habits.

Finally, while on vacation I had a strange dream about the nature of speculative fiction and wrote a poem about it. It’s intended to be humorous, and I certainly don’t pretend it’s great poetry. Enjoy.


    Lowell, Bishop, and Confessional Poetry

    June 4, 2010

    I was going to make posts about each of the rest of the books of poetry we read in my 20thc.  poetry class (Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Jorie Graham’s Erosion, and Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things), but then my computer started freaking out and I spent most of my free time the last week trying to figure out what was wrong with it. The class is over now, and I don’t want to go back and talk about each book individually, but I do want to briefly compare two of them.

    Both Lowell and Bishop have been called “confessional poets.” This means, roughly, that their poetry includes details from their personal life and sometimes has a “tell-all” feeing to it that can make it kind of awkward to read. I’m fairly skeptical about the idea of confessional poetry, but neither Lowell nor Bishop can be entirely characterized as confessional, and I find something worthwhile in both of them.

    But strangely, though on the surface Lowell is the more confessional of the two, I prefer him to Bishop. I’ve been thinking about it, and I now have a theory as to why that is. Lowell at his worst makes references to events in his life we have no way of knowing about and no reason to care about, and expects us to find that meaningful in and of itself. But at his best, he ties in personal experience to broader philosophical, ethical, and political questions. Bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t give us as much irrelevant detail from her life, but nevertheless, every poem she writes is about herself, and the reader is supposed to accept her as an everyman.

    The best way to illuminate the contrast is to look at their different uses of location. Lowell will mention place-names and allow the names themselves to carry weight. He’ll set a poem in Washington DC, or Maine, or Boston, or Rome, and in doing so make the poem be about  a wider historical issue. The poems “For the Union Dead” and “July in Washington” are clearly about the idea of America; the poem “The Neo-Classical Urn” is a response to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and is about nature v. artifice; “Beyond the Alps” is set in Rome and is about Catholicism.

    But Bishop, though her book is called Geography III, doesn’t set poems in places we all know. She has a poem about the objects sitting on her desk; she has a poem about sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room; most indicatively, she has a poem with the complex setting of “on a bus going from Canada to Maine at night when all the passengers are falling asleep and then they stop because there’s a moose in the road.” She doesn’t give us a setting that makes the poem immediately have meaning beyond just the anecdote; she gives a setting with no meaning of its own, and thus the anecdote itself is the only source of meaning.

    I think Bishop does this mostly because she’s actually less interested in what’s in the places she writes about than in how people interact with them. She’s interested in the idea of liminality, but not in what it is that one shares a border with. Lowell, on the other hand, is greatly interested in place, in time, in history, in the world.

    So why do I prefer Lowell? It’s not because I think Bishop’s too abstract. I love abstraction. It’s because neither of them is abstract – both write primarily about themselves – and if you’re not going to be abstract I think it’s better to talk about things everyone can talk about than to talk about things only you know about because only you have experienced them.


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