More on Strangeness in Fiction

August 17, 2010

A topic that has interested me of late (well, it’s always interested me, but recently I posted about it) is, what exactly is it speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, etc), attempts to do? What is the point of the unfaithfulness to reality?

There’s an article today on the Atlantic website called Telling Tales, and while it’s not about spec-fic, it is about the nature of the imagination and the proper way of writing — i.e. don’t be boring. While it’s not amazing it’s worth reading if you have five minutes to spare. Enjoy.


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.


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.


Numbering AIs

June 22, 2010

I’ve been watching Stargate: SG-1 recently, and came across something interesting halfway through season 6 (episode 12: “Natural Selection”). One of the enemy races in the Stargate universe is the “replicators,” who are basically self-replicating machines with artificial intelligence that look like legos and re-arrange themselves to form various useful shapes, often insect-like in appearance. In this episode, for assorted reasons, the replicators have created humanoid variants – still machines, mind you, but to every appearance human. And they’re numbered. There are six of them, though they’re making more; the first one is “first,” the second “second,” and so on.

What does this remind me of? Battlestar Galactica, of course. BSG has the humanoid Cylons, who go by the order in which they were created – “number one,” “number two,” etc. But wait, it gets better. In SG1, “first” is a dignified old man who is also ruthless and completely devoted to what his programming tells him to do, replicate. It’s only a later model, “fifth,” who has emotions (which has good and bad consequences). In BSG, “number one” is a dignified old man who claims to be an atheist and whose only desire is to take over the universe and eliminate all traces of his humanity. Many of the other models end up siding with the humans, but “number one” is devoted to the machine cause till the end.

I’m wondering if this was coincidence, or if the writers of BSG took a bit of inspiration from SG1; the SG1 episode came out in 2002, and the BSG miniseries was in 2003, so it’s possible. But there also seems to be just a natural impulse to make number one in a set of numbered characters be evil, and to make artificial intelligences not get names, and thus go by the order of their creation. I’m thinking of the movie 9 (not a very good movie, sadly), which has nine ragdoll-robots that go by “1,” “2,” etc. In it, “1” isn’t exactly evil (since the ragdolls are the good guys), but he is the least sympathetic character, in theory (I actually liked him more than some of the other ones), and he’s an obvious stand-in for dogmatic religion.

I wonder if TvTropes.org has anything to say about this. I didn’t see anything on the BSG page.


To Look Out Upon the Sea

March 27, 2010

(I will now offer a string of analogies, without explanation or defense, and then a pair of allegories written by two men much more intelligent than I am.)

First:

Logic:Grammar:Rhetoric
::Syntax:Signification:Speech
::Form:Content:Poetry
::Mathematics:Philosophy:Literature
::Epistemology:Metaphysics:Ethics,Aesthetics
::True:Good:Beautiful
::Faith:Hope:Love

Second:

Or, –to change the metaphor,–there are immense quarries of fine marble; but how to get it out; how to chisel it; how to construct any temple? Youth must wholly quit, then, the quarry, for awhile; and not only go forth, and get tools to use in the quarry, but must go and thoroughly study architecture. Now the quarry-discoverer is long before the stone-cutter, and the stone-cutter is long before the temple; for the temple is the crown of the world.
— Herman Melville, from Pierre

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their bulding material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, from “The Monsters and the Critics”

Third:

What is the meaning of all of this?

Put simply, I want to expound a theory of the nature of abstract intellectual endeavors, the liberal arts, broadly speaking. Hence my beginning with the Trivium – logic, grammar, rhetoric.

In this model, there are three possible activities, each of which is necessary in its own way:

The quarry-finder. This is the philosopher, the metaphysician. He chooses what stone to use; thus, he examines the nature of the stone, determines what the stone is. He tries to bridge the gap between us and the transcendent, tries to understand the meaning of words like God, Man, Good, True, Beautiful, Purpose, Form.

The stone-cutter. This is the mathematician, the logician. He cuts the stone into the proper shape for the architect; thus, he examines how the stones fit together, fitting them together in a puzzle. He is interested solely in structure, not in content; he does not care what words mean, only how they fit together. But it is he who shows how to rhyme, how to alliterate, how to construct parallelisms; he does not know what they mean, but he makes them possible.

The architect. This is the author. He chooses what the temple or tower will be like; he guides its construction throughout, from the quarrying to the stone-cutting to the placement of the final brick. He does it all with his final purpose in mind: to ascend the tower and look out upon the sea. And yet the temple is not his alone; it is the crown of the world.

Fourth:

A final thought. I have been speaking all along as if the building were the work of art, as if the artist occupied some ontologically distinct position from the rest of mankind. I don’t believe this to be true. The work of art is not the tower; it is merely the blueprint offered to the world. Each of us must be all of these, quarry-finder, stone-cutter, and architect, each building our own towers, hoping that they can look out upon the sea (which is the Beatific Vision).


Art and Sub-creation

March 16, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily (whose RSS feed is well worth subscribing to, incidentally) was better today than it usually is. It linked to two quite interesting articles. The first was “Addiction and Freedom,” which discusses (among other things) the strange substance dualism implicit in how people seem to equate showing that something is linked to a certain activity of the brain with showing that it cannot be a free choice.

The second was “Avatar and the Flight from Reality,” which used the movie Avatar as a springboard for an argument that true art is mimetic, and works such as Avatar that attempt to create an alternate reality that “alludes” to our own, rather than imitating it, are egocentric and not artistic. He argues that the Western tradition has always consisted of art that attempts to describe the world, and the modern fantasy and sci-fi genres are radical breaks from tradition, however traditionalist Tolkien and Lewis might have thought they were.

It’s an interesting thesis, though one I disagree with. Did Homer really believe in the gods he describes? (Perhaps – the article argues he did.) What about Shakespeare and “A Midnight Summer’s Dream” or “The Tempest”? Are those entirely mimetic?

But I think he does make a valid point when he says that the idea of creating entirely new worlds – rather than just modifications to our own – is relatively new, and indeed a break with tradition. There’s  a reason Tolkien insisted that Middle-Earth is not a fantasy world, it is Earth – because that means he’s writing (fictional) mythology/history, not creating his own entirely distinct world with no relation to our own. Of course, most sci-fi is set in Earth’s future, and fantasy often connects the created world to our own (e.g. Earth children can visit Narnia).

But sci-fi and fantasy do, at heart, promise new realities, one different from our own. Is this a bad thing? Is it as radical a break as the article suggests? I’m going to try to write something about these questions in the near future, but for now I won’t draw any definite conclusions. But I do advise people to read the article and think about it – it’s worth your time, even if you disagree, as I do, with its conclusions.


Book Review: Outcast of Redwall

March 11, 2010

Two years ago I re-read Martin the Warrior over Spring Break (and reviewed it here). Now, I have always considered Martin to be the best of the Redwall books, but I’ve often heard that Outcast of Redwall could be considered a rival to that title; thus, this year, I decided to spend some time over Spring Break re-reading Outcast (which I haven’t touched for at least six years, probably longer) in order to pass judgment on that claim.

Conclusion: Those making that claim were wrong. Martin the Warrior is far superior to Outcast of Redwall. Furthermore, I think I can see in Outcast the beginning of the end of the Redwall series; that is, I think the book contains hints that Brian Jacques, while writing it, had an authorial crisis; he chose, rather than to bring Redwall in a more mature direction, to continue just spinning fun yarns. And it was this that resulted in the recycling of plots and general lack of creativity in the later part of the series (which has now gone on for longer than the earlier part – Martin was #6, Outcast was #8, and now he’s up to #20).

The book begins by introducing several interesting characters. Sunflash is a fairly relatable badger lord, with his desire to be a peaceful intellectual, and Skarlath makes a nice addition – a bird character who is not completely one-dimensional (not that he’s all that complex). Swartt Sixclaw is one of the more competent villains, though I find it hard to believe that his repeated poisonings of his rivals would work. Nightshade also adds a nice touch of mystery, and she is fairly sympathetic, as villains go; she feels fated to follow her lord to the bitter end.

Unfortunately, Part II adds several rather unlikable characters, including the absurdly romantic/idealistic Bryony and the whiny titular character, Veil. Now, Veil is a morally complex character, but he’s not sympathetically morally complex; whenever he does something bad, the reader’s reaction is to condemn him and wish the author  would stop talking about him, rather than to feel sorry for him and wish he would stop doing bad things. I realize one of the supposed strengths of the book is its moral complexity (relative to the other Redwall books, at least), but I thought it could have been much more convincing.

Plot-wise, there was a nice dramatic unity to each of the two plot threads (the Sunflash-Swartt rivalry on the one hand, Bryony’s struggle for Veil’s soul on the other), though they had little overlap. I found the Sunflash-Swartt one consistently more interesting, and I really liked the use of Nightshade the Seer (the fox prophets in Redwall are always good characters, actually) and how it came full circle at the end, everything coming back to where it began. At times, though, particularly in the middle section, the book seemed somewhat rambling, and the jump forward in time wasn’t as smooth as it could have been (I still don’t see how it took maybe years for Swartt to travel a distance other characters cover in a few weeks).

There was also a strange tendency, which I don’t remember in any other Redwall books, of plot threads being built up for a confrontation but then anticlimactically ending in a few pages. Yes, even in the original Redwall we see Redtooth try to usurp Cluny’s authority and be swiftly eliminated, but the book has more than just a few red herrings. Before the time-jump, we have Bowfleg, Wildag, Krakulat, Shang Damsontongue, Balefur; each is a threat to Swartt’s power, each is instantly eliminated (and interestingly, leads directly to the next threat). After the jump, Zigu appears, has a bit of character development, and dies in battle to a minor hare character. Obviously nothing can interfere with the the Sunflash-Swartt confrontation – Nightshade did predict it would happen, after all.

The last red herring is The Wraith, whom Swartt hires to kill Sunflash. Of course, genre-savvy Redwall readers know by now that assassins never work; thus it is no surprise when he fails mid-mission. But his failure is spectacular – not only does he not kill Sunflash, he doesn’t kill anyone, instantly falling to his death on being hit with a pie in the face. And after the number of failed diversions already appearing in the book, I couldn’t help but notice the absurdity of it all. It began to feel like a deconstruction of Salamandastron, #5 in the Redwall canon.

Indeed, I think Jacques was, perhaps self-consciously but probably not, performing a deconstruction of previous Redwall stories; thus the moral complexity of the Bryony-Veil plot line (ill-executed as it was) made perfect sense. I got the impression while reading that Jacques was realizing some of the absurdities of his universe, with its species-based morality and predictable plot lines, and decided to explore them – what happens if a vermin is raised by Redwallers? Is he still evil? How inevitable is the final confrontation between Hero (Sunflash) and Villain (Swartt)?

But then… Jacques doesn’t do anything interesting with it. The Nightshade/prophecies aspect of the Sunflash-Swartt plot line vanishes after Nightshade’s death, leaving the status (fated or not?) of their rivalry not only unanswered, but unaddressed. I don’t mind leaving something unanswered, but I think authors have a duty to at least address the issue and suggest a resolution, even an imperfect one.

Then there’s the final resolution of the Bryony-Veil plot line. It really bothers me. Jacques, speaking through Bella the badger-mum, seems to say that all of the moral ambiguity we thought he had been discussing had been illusory, and in fact morality is black-and-white after all.

So Jacques begins to deconstruct his world – but then stops, goes back on what he’s said, and then writes a bunch more Redwall books – twelve (and counting). Did he decide the issues he’d brought up didn’t actually need addressing? Did he think he had addressed them? Did he not realize there were issues? I don’t quite know. But it definitely seems that Jacques began a deconstruction but never attempted a reconstruction.

The later entries in the series were never as good as the ones preceding Outcast, and I think this is why. Jacques kept writing what he had been writing, but he had realized some of the absurdities of it, on some level at least, and decided not to address them. Thus they moved from innocence to immaturity.

I realize this is a harsh criticism, and I don’t mean for it to be taken as entirely accurate. I overstate my case; the books were not perfect up until Outcast, Outcast is a decent book, and they were not uniformly abysmal following it. But I do think Outcast serves as a good turning point in the series towards the worse, and that the above is a good part of the reason why.


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