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October 5, 2005

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Joss Is My Co-Pilot


Odd taste thing with me: I love Gothic literature, but am mostly ambivalent about sci-fi*. The Handmaid’s Tale drove me nuts (in a bad way). I’m the kid who had to start “Harrison Bergeron” about five times before I made it through all five pages. I enjoyed Blade Runner and Akira and The Matrix, but none of them added any shattering revelation to my life. Dune = yawn. I know this is painful for many of my friends to hear, but for the most part, I parted ways with science fiction when Lovecraft left us.

The only reason I can offer for this is pretty crude — sci-fi often feels just too crowded with ideas for the story to work any magic on me. I find myself distractedly theorizing about the statement the fiction is making about our world, which tends to ruin my immersion in the world the fiction depicts. The stories work for me as essays, but not often as literature.

But of course, given that Joss Whedon’s my hero, I had to give Firefly a try. The show’s big sell for many fans was the way it played with the conventions of sci-fi, but of course, that didn’t work on me. What interested me was how the show played with the conventions of Whedon, treating religion, to take one example, with a completely different approach than Buffy or Angel did. Unlike his earlier shows, Firefly dealt less with allegory and much more with pure story, plot and character. It imparted the sense that Joss wasn’t driving towards one uber-climactic crowning moment, but had simply released these beloved figures into this space, as fascinated as we were with the narrative fractals their fictive lives produced.

I was sad to see it come to an end. But I was thrilled to hear Joss would be able to sink an enormous (compared to TV) amount of time and money into a two-hour masterwork.

Serenity didn’t add any shattering revelation to my life either. I didn’t expect it to; too many of its references went over my sci-fi-impoverished head. But I haven’t felt as happy to slip into the world of a film since the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended. The movie feels otherworldly in an organic way much of science fiction doesn’t. Aside from some pretty rudimentary politics, Joss seems not to be making much of a statement about our world, as much as he’s just letting this wacky new one exist on its own terms.

And at the same time, he rarely ever falls into the sci-fi trap of gleefully pointing out all the wicked-looking little gizmos and organisms he’s thought up (with the exception of the dialogue, which is beyond awesome for most of the film, but sometimes overdone). The best part about the world of Firefly is that although it feels so much like its own creation, it feels incredibly ordinary at the same time.

So that’s my plug for Serenity. I’d love to revisit this world yet again. Go buy a ticket.

*Note: I understand I’m painting a big-ass genre with a very broad brush here. There are works of inarguable science fiction to which most of this post doesn’t apply, like 2046. And folks could levy most of the same criticisms at the Gothic that I heap upon sci-fi in this post. A lot of Gothic works are pretty heavy-handed with their ideas as well. The difference for me is that the constant essay-like sense of precision that seems to characterize sci-fi just doesn’t work in the Gothic. Gothic stories are almost always way too unruly to be constrained by any high-falutin’ ideas their authors might have started out with (see, for example, Dracula). They get very, very out-of-hand in a way sci-fi stories never do, and I love that.

But of course, I live to be proven wrong. Give me some awesome, unruly sci-fi stories, and we’ll revisit all this.

Posted October 5, 2005 at 6:02 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Movies


Read anything by Stanislaw Lem? That guy is nothing, if not out of control. Also, if you haven't already, check out The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's the "sci-fi book for people who don't like sci-fi."

Joss really proved his big-screen chops with Serenity. To me, it's not really how he plays with sci-fi conventions, but how he plays with pop culture and speech. Firefly did this better than Serenity simply because it had more time. One of my favorite things that didn't come out very clearly in the film is that they curse in Chinese. That little detail just worked so well, and both provided comic relief as well as information about the world they inhabit.

Posted by: Metta on October 6, 2005 at 08:16 AM

A footnote, Matt: This may be changing for all I know, but in my generation those of us who love science fiction typically *hate* the term sci-fi. SF works fine. I'm just sayin'...

I was really struck by the formulation in the second paragraph of your post, Matt, b/c it is exactly mirrors an argument a college friend of mine used to make in favor of SF: "Science fiction is the literature of ideas," he used to say (roughly). "That's what I'm after -- new ideas. Not just stories... stories aren't enough."

It's funny that that's precisely what turns you off (or at least prevents maximal enjoyment).

Worth noting -- a great example of straight-up SF-as-ideas is Cory Doctorow's novella-in-progress at Salon. I'm enjoying it a lot, but mostly for the future scenario it presents -- not for the characters or the plot. In fact it barely has a plot. It's just brain-candy for nerds.

P.S. Hey Howard, why is it that people don't like the 'sci-fi' label? Is it just because it sounds diminuitive (a la 'Trekkies') or is there some deeper reason?

I think it's just an insiders' convention, Robin, like some kind of secret handshake. I can't remember when I learned that it was verboten, but it feels like I have always known it ... (I should note that although I have read a lot of sf and fantasy, I am not a fan in the sense that I grew up in Alaska and never went to conventions or knew lots of others who were into it ...)

This explanation is from a roundtable discussion on a science fiction writers' website:

"Angie Penrose: In my experience, you can (usually) tell how active or connected to others a fan is by whether or not they use "sci-fi" with a straight face. [...] Media celebs who are trying to identify themselves as SF fans, usually for purposes of getting us to buy something from them, use "sci-fi" in an attempt to pretend to be one of us. Well, the fact is that 1) using a word doesn't make you a fan, and 2) most real fans don't use the word any more, although it was common twenty years ago.

"It doesn't bother me so much when someone I know is actually a fan uses it, although I'll think they're a touch odd. Usually it's someone who's seriously into science fiction, but doesn't have contact with other fans; that's just a matter of being out of touch. It really annoys me, though, when the fake-fans use it. From them, it's not only ignorant, it's patronizing, and that really turns me off."

And, of course, lots of other sf writers disagree with her on precisely this point.

About your observation re ideas v. stories: Is it possible to introduce an idea WITHOUT a story?

maybe it's similar to the way BMW owners will frown upon you snootily you if you write it "beamer" since obviously the correct way to spell [the written form of this spoken and unofficial nickname] is "bimmer".

Duly noted, Howard, thank you! My neural pathways see the letters "SF" and refuse to think anything but "San Francisco."

Robin, I guess I should have made clearer as a proviso to this thing that science fiction really does work for me from the ideas perspective. I think the genre's full of wonderfully interesting, world-changing ideas. Hence my ambivalence, and not outright dislike. As literature, it usually fails me. I tend to find myself at least as interested in the interviews and essays of science fiction authors as in their stories.

Another note: I love 1984, which is totally cluttered with ideas. I mean, I love 1984. I love the language of it, and all the characters (even O'Brien), and the mood of it. I can't coherently identify what it is I love about 1984 that most other science fiction doesn't give me. But there it is.

Patrick Gallagher (if I got your source right, Rob) might think science fiction is all about ideas, but with science fiction, like most genre fiction, what usually qualifies it as such are the details, the bells and whistles. In science fiction, it's usually some kind of nonexistent technology: spaceships or robots or cloning or whatever. In fantasy, it's magic or dragons or elves, in westerns it's guns and hats and horses, and so on. Each of the genres also have their own languages, conventions, source texts, and so on.

Now, for at least some fans of these genres, these signature aspects are what principally appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities. Some people who like superhero comic books get really into the possibilities of sequential art or into the kinds of psychological or moral issues that get put into play, while others just think the idea of super powers is really cool. But chances are that if you're not into the idea of super powers at least a little bit, the ideas or graphics or whatever aren't going to move you unless they're put in some other context if at all. You might end up getting interested by the ideas, but if you aren't into the details, you'll never get there. (I never understood why Gallagher thought science fiction was the sole or best source for ideas. What, westerns don't have ideas?)

1984, for example, taps into some of the conventions of science fiction -- a pessimistic alternate vision of human society -- but (and please correct me if I'm wrong) nonexistent technology doesn't play that big of a part in the development of the story -- it's basically WWII Europe stretched into the perpetual future. So you don't need to be interested (or distracted) by that aspect in the same way that you need to in Philip K. Dick, for example. It's a speculative counterfactual, but the horror of 1984 is political, not technological.

Maybe this is why science fiction may not be the best label for EPIC 2014/5. You guys aren't really positing any new technologies -- just a different conceptual and economic configuration of those technologies that crystallizes a tendency that already exists in how we obtain and use information. You know, until the Google Grid starts reading the information in our embedded brain microchips to make its search results more relevant or something.

Does anyone know of any data on writing fiction to change the world for the better? I don't want the help of a therapist. They good at scamming others as I've heard.

Posted by: P.J. Quirino on November 18, 2007 at 03:57 PM
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