Each ship chooses a particular day that is in some way special and memorable in the history of that ship, and that fandom – having to do with how it came into being and what it means. In the case of Star Trek, for example, I recently witnessed “Space Husbands” day a couple of days ago, on the anniversary of the airing of “Amok Time” – the Star Trek episode in which Spock essentially has to have sex and die and then rolls around in the sand with Kirk (no, I’m not kidding). With that kind of homoeroticism (thanks, Theodore Sturgeon!), who can avoid shipping the two?
Well, September 18th is considered by the Supernatural fandom – or at least that contingent of it that loves Dean/Cas – to be Destiel day. It was on September 18th, 2008, that Castiel first walked onto the show and told Dean “I’m the one that gripped you tight and raised you from perdition.” Now, this obviously sounds pretty…suggestive, and their relationship didn’t get any less suggestive after that. Instead, it blossomed and flourished. Dean taught Castiel what it meant to be human, what it’s like to have choice and free will, why people and families and life matters more than paradise. And Castiel taught Dean how to change his worldview, how to trust, how to have faith, and how to believe in himself. The two of them went on a journey from being faithless to having faith, thanks to each other – but not faith in God or some other supreme being that washes his hands of the Apocalypse. They learned to have faith in each other, and together they formed what we call a “profound bond.” They changed each other’s worldview in so many ways, and what else could I ask for in a ship?
I could wax poetic about these two for paragraphs, post many a screencap, analyze the romantic tropes in their relationship, talk about the representation of queer characters, explore how the relationship of these two ties into the themes of the show. Unfortunately, that would take way too long, so my small paragraph of waxing poetic will just have to do as a celebration of the profound bond between an angel and a human. So instead, I’ll leave you with a quote from the first page that comes up when you good “The greatest love story ever told”:
The story of a man afraid of flying, and an angel afraid of falling, who somehow met in the middle. The man who denied the existence of angels came to love one. The angel who never felt began to feel. The man who was saved from an eternity in Hell by an angel. The angel who fell in every way imaginable for a man. The man, with a clear path to escape, decided instead to stay in Purgatory for a year, searching for his angel, praying to him every night. Begging. When he found him, he held him; he told him that he needed him, that he’d get him out, even if it killed them both. The angel rejected his faith, his family, his home, and everything he knew, so he could keep the man safe. They stay together despite fate, despite what they are, because they refuse to be pulled apart.
Yes, that’s the top definition of Greatest Love Story Ever Told on Urban Dictionary. It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google it. I rest my case.
A little belatedly (and by a little I mean a lot), here’s a write-up of the last day of the con (in two parts).
Sunday started off with a panel with Rachel Luttrell and Paul McGillion, which Rainbow Sun Francks promptly joined (and refused to leave, not that anyone minded). This is the first time I’ve seen Rachel at a Stargate con in four years of going – she’s always had other commitments; I must admit, on my first watchthrough, I wasn’t a big fan of Teyla, though that’s changing slightly as I rewatch Atlantis. Still, I feel that with Teyla, there was a gap between what the writers intended intended (a strong woman and leader) and what actually happened (a character who consistently made badly thought-out decisions without foresight because the writers didn’t know what to do with a strong woman….which is a problem they strangely didn’t have with Weir). Partly due to this motivation, I asked Rachel, Paul, and Rainbow whether there was anything they’d chance about how their character had been written (besides dying, I added jokingly, as that’s something that happened to Ford and Beckett). Rainbow nonetheless said dying, but Rachel gave a more interesting answer: she talked about how interesting it was that Teyla came from what seemed like a matriarchal society, in which she was unquestionably a leader, and that there was a lot to explore about that kind of society and her role into it that the writers didn’t delve into as much as they could’ve. It’s an answer I agreed with – I’d have liked to see more of Teyla’s society, and more of her being a competent leader. In addition to this interesting answer, Rachel also graced us with some of her beautiful singing:
After that, I devoted much of the day to getting autographs with various celebrities who were offering them (and pointedly avoiding the Stargate novels panel) – quite a number of the celebrity guests were offering their autographs directly, which meant that I got to chat with them quite a bit, and in fact, have some mini-sagas to tell via autographs.
The first autograph I got was from Andee Frizzell – the Wraith Queen. Andee had been hanging around the hotel the entire weekend, interacting with guests, and we shared a fun moment when I walked out of the elevator to discover her and a bunch of people pointing confusedly at a thong lying on the floor. It was just there – no explanation, but a leopard-printed thong. I quickly snapped a picture of Andee making the most hilarious confused face as she pointed at it, though it’s a photo Andee would rather I not share (she gave me a lengthy talk about enjoying the con “in the moment” rather than spending it all snapping photos. I might disagree, but it’s a picture of her, so I’ll respect her wishes in the matter). In any case, the “thong saga” continued as I asked Andee to autograph my Stargate: Atlantis DVD set, on which I’m collecting the entire cast’s autographs. She wrote me a little message:
Later, I went to get Rainbow Sun Francks’ autograph (which required standing in line behind a gentleman who had made the most amazing Stargate replica). I asked him to sign the same DVD set, since he’s an Atlantis cast member, and the only season DVD in that set that had Rainbow on it was the same one Andee had signed – conveniently. So, of course, I recounted the whole saga to Rainbow so that he would understand why Andee was asking about her undies. Rainbow, of course, was amused, and totally went with it, penning this as his autograph (fun fact: he has the most neat, careful handwriting I’ve ever seen, but which also takes forever to write because it’s so neat and careful, so I swear, I stood there for five minutes waiting to get that autograph!):
I later stopped by Andee’s table again to show her the results of what she’d started and Rainbow’s contribution, which she found utterly hilarious. And who knows? Perhaps next year they’ll have another Atlantis celebrity guest who will sign that same DVD and wonder what’s going on with those undies.
But for the moment….I guess the secret is out. I left my undies in Rainbow’s room. And a few other things, too….
I also stopped by to get autographs from Suanne Braun (as I mentioned in a previous post) and Peter Williams. The two of them were doing their own “impromptu” photo op – you and your Goul’d overlords, because Creation isn’t very good at thinking of clever photo op combos – and of course I jumped on the opportunity to take a photo with two stunning, sexy deities (even though I had made one of them kneel the day before). We snapped a few photos, though I unphotogenically turned out terrible in all of them (although Suanne and Peter were pretty picky about how they turned out, which is why we snapped three – until Suanne and Peter were satisfied with how they looked, them photogenic people. I let it go. Me looking good in a photo isn’t going to happen).
I also had time over the three days of the con to stop by the vendors’ room extensively, spending more money than I probably should’ve. In my defense, I bought certain items that were of academic interest to me, which I can therefore justify as ‘research materials’ (to myself, at least) – for example, I bought a lot of concept art for Atlantis, as I’m working on some research on cities and spaceships in science-fiction, and thus studying the thought process behind the creation of Atlantis could be a useful resource.
But I also bought some more fun things, like some science-fiction prints for my collection of sci-fi art (of which I try to buy a piece at every convention I attend):
I also snagged a couple control crystals that were used on the set of Stargate as props, purchased from Stitch’s Loft- the same awesome people who had uniform replicas and concept art. Unfortunately David Hewlett wasn’t at the convention to sign one of them for me, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll be at next year’s con so that Dr. Rodney McKay can sign one of my control crystals:
Then, it was time for the last couple panels of the day: Corin Nemec (with Cliff Simon, another con regular) and then Michael Shanks. I remember little from Corin’s panel, unfortunately, except that he was sweet and adorable. Michael’s panel was, of course, hilarious as always.
Michael Shanks is one of those actors that can evade questions like a politician while making you feel like he answered them, and simultaneously making everyone laugh so hard they’re crying (yes, it happened to me). Since Daniel Jackson is a really popular character who was around from the very beginning of SG-1, he’s obviously been doing cons and getting questions for a very long time – which means that he gets questions about miniscule details like “what was Daniel doing for the year he was ascended?” This led him to jokingly say “see, this is what happens when you have conventions for a show that’s been off the air for ten years!” Nonetheless, he answered the questions goodheartedly – even while fake-angrily asking “what am I, an expert on ascension?” when people wouldn’t stop asking him questions about ascension. And, of course, he used William Shatner’s trademark line of “you people need to get a life!” when it turned out that a good portion of the audience had seen Mega Snake, a TV movie that apparently was embarrassing enough that he doesn’t want to talk about it very much. (Of course, he meant it all goodheartedly, but his fake exasperation at some of the questions fans ask is just so much fun).
And that was the panels for the day! In my next, wrap-up, post I’ll talk about the photo ops I took that day, as well as some thoughts about actor-fan relationships in general.
A couple of days ago, I attended a panel at the Free Library of Philadelphia sponsored by Geekadelphia – Philadelphia’s geek blog. Gathering together local sci-fi authors, historians, and fans, the subject of the panel was the past, present, and future of science-fiction in Philadelphia, though the panel quickly evolved into a more broad discussion about the past, present, and future of the genre. Here’s a number of the interesting points raised at the panel, many of which bear further thinking about – and many of which, I think, have bearing on the various topics discussed on this blog.
You can read more about the various people on the panel at the event page here. Before I begin, I must also note that the panel took place at one of my favorite places in Philadelphia – and one of the most science fiction-y: the central branch of the Free Library. Located on the Parkway, this beautiful building has rows upon rows of science fiction books, often boasts guests like Kate Mulgrew (Katherine Janeway) and Chris Hadfield (an astronaut), and has an amazing roof deck with a gorgeous view of the city and its skyscrapers (and for me, the twinkling lights of a large city always evoke a sense of possibility that science fiction also gives me). Here’s a photo, taken on my phone:
On that note, the panel fittingly began with a question about the way that Philadelphia’s past is linked to science fiction. The first, and most intriguing answer, came from historian Siobhan Carroll, who suggested that we’re living in the decayed version of William Penn’s utopia. He designed Philadelphia to be this perfect city, laid out on a grid, and of course we’re living in the dystopian version of it:
We talked about dystopias quite a bit, with someone bringing up an interesting point: if someone is writing about their real, contemporary experiences and they’re dystopian, does that count as science fiction, or does that fit somewhere else on the spectrum of genres? If the experience is “real,” can it still be sci-fi – or do we put it in the biography and memoir section? (a question that is increasingly relevant given the state of affairs in the U.S. today- a question I will return to in another post). This led to a joke about a new (and utterly terrifying) genre: dystopian non-fiction (a genre that likely already exists, in the satires of Stephen Colbert and the like, but which really could bear more academic exploration).
This, naturally, brought up the topic of the relationship between the present and the future in science fiction, since most dystopias are set in the future (despite the dystopian potential of contemporary life). A question and concern that the panelists especially tackled was how far in the future an author must go to write science fiction. Especially with the pace with which technology is advancing today, where yesterday’s sci-fi rapidly becomes today’s technology, how far ahead should you think when you write sci-fi and how far in the future should you set your story? If you set it in the near future, do you run the risk of reality outpacing you?
This led to a comment made by one of the panelists that technology is advancing so fast today that it’s hard to keep up with it as a sci-fi author- things are becoming reality faster. This, though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, is in line with a lot of thinking about technological advances: Ray Kurzweil and a number of transhumanist thinkers point out that technology advances at an exponential rate. That’s why they think we might eventually reach the Singularity – because of this exponential rise in technology, we’ll use technology to create better technology until we reach the Singularity. That, of course, places the sci fi author in a bit of a conundrum, because now there’s a shorter ‘timeline’ on the sci-fi things they write about and invent before they become “real.” Of course, as Michael Swanwick pointed out, even if you do thinking about inventions that then come to pass, your thinking wasn’t wasted, because science fiction is always about the implications and meaning of technology as much as the actual technology – and even if Google invents something before you write about it, those considerations will be valuable to your formation as a thinker and writer of science fiction.
This led to a funny story about William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame, of course), who attended a Worldcon sometime in the 70s or 80s and was given a card as the key to his room instead of an actual key. That was the moment, he insisted, at which he realized the stuff he was writing about was real.
Another thing we talked about is diversity – and, naturally, the ‘fiasco’ involving the Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and this year’s Hugo awards. (For a quick summary, go here). The consensus seemed to be that what’s changing is not who writes sci-fi and fantasy (people of color and women and queer people have always written in the genre), but who gets noticed – and what kinds of stories they write. People who aren’t white men are increasingly getting noticed as writers in the genre and getting recognition and awards (like the Hugos). That’s what the Puppies are fighting against: that recognition, but the very fact that it’s noticeable and something for them to fight against means that change is happening, and progress has been made already. A very important aspect of this is the fact that diversity is not a “trend,” as many like to call it today – it’s more the realization of the importance of that diversity and its recognition when it does exist.
And to finish up, here’s some more fun tidbits about other connections to Philadelphia:
- Philcon was apparently the first sci-fi convention and, naturally, took place in Philadelphia
- Asimov and Heinlein and Delaney all lived in Philadelphia
- They were all also part of sci-fi-esque government-related think tanks.
Saturday got off to an earlier start than I usually prefer (which is about noon), but if it’s Stargate, it’s worth getting up at the ungodly, coffee-less hour of, like, 10am. Thus, my second day of the convention started off with two back-to-back panels by two wonderful ladies: Andee Frizzell and Suanne Braun, both of whom were part of the cabaret last night, but who also took to the stage this morning to regale us with fun tales.
Andee usually makes a tradition of having each person who comes up to ask her a question tell her a fun story about a convention experience before they ask the question (or just tell her a story about a con experience). Unfortunately, most of my con stories that are memorable enough to tell are not PG (it’s not my fault Jason Momoa got very drunk last year and did unmentionable things!) so instead I sat back and enjoyed listening to other people’s con stories. I don’t remember many of them now, though a few were quite hilarious; all I remember is the “tutu for charity” – a tutu that a couple of fans brought to cons and asked celebrities to don. For every celebrity that put it on, they donated money to charity, and, of course, Andee heartily agreed (there’s few things she won’t do while at a Stargate con). The next day, Peter (Apophis) heartily donned the same tutu at the same moment I was walking by with my camera actually charged and on, so I snapped this serendipitous photo:
Next, Suanne Braun utterly charmed as all once again. She regaled us, in particular, of a story about how she was mistaken for Gillian Anderson, of X-Files fame. To be fair, Gillian was a redhead at the time, and the X-Files was filming in the same hotel she was staying in….and to make matters worse, she’d just gotten back from filming the “bath scene” in the Hathor episode, in which all the little plastic snakes they put in the tub with her melted from the hot water, making her reek. Meaning that there’s now a couple of very avid X-Files fans who think that Gillian Anderson smells very, very bad.
That’s, unfortunately, all I remember from these two ladies’ panels, but afterwards came the photo ops, and I got one with both of them. Andee and I faced off as Wraith queens – a pose inspired by the last time Andee had attended this convention, when she’d autographed a photo for me. I had told her my name is Anastasia, and she immediately made the connection with the Russian princess/grand duchess, addressing the photo to “the little princess” and signing it as “your queen salutes you!” In keeping with this idea of Andee as wraith queen and me as a rival ruler, Andee and I did a stare-down (she was unsure of quite the pose I wanted at first, but quickly caught on, and the result turned out quite well):
The absolute best photo op, though, was the one I took with Suanne. I thought it was rather short-sighted that in the episode, Hathor only seduced men, so I asked her if she would do me the honor of seducing me. (Clearly, I have a thing for the sexy ladies of SG-1, because a couple of years ago I asked Amanda Tapping to seduce me and “make my boyfriend jealous.” You can see the spectacular result below.) The result turned out pretty fantastically, with me looking really happy to be seduced by a gorgeous woman. When I got an autograph from Suanne the next day, I showed her how the photo turned out and we fell into discussing the gender dynamics of the episode a bit; essentially, she agreed with me that the fact that Hathor seduced only men was shortsighted, but was an inescapable product of the fact that the episode was filmed in 1997. Maybe if the same episode were done today, things would be different (with the right showrunners and network, of course).
I also got another photo op with Peter Williams, because I couldn’t resist; he, and everyone else, kept making jokes about how he really is a god and how you should bow and kneel before him (my friend Allison mentioned in her write-up of the con that she’d totally be his consort), so naturally I went “hmmm, a guy who acts like he’s a deity. Why don’t I make him kneel?” Which is a)typical Ana b)exactly what I did. Granted, he didn’t quite kneel – his knees didn’t actually touch the floor (I can see all through your antics, Apophis!) but with the angle of the photo, you almost can’t tell. So, behold, Apophis kneeling before the true deity:
After a break, during which I ran back and forth between the vendors’ room, my room, and autograph tables, as well as hunting for cash (because some people, lovely actors that they are, still haven’t figured out that in the 21st century no one carries cash), came Rainbow Sun Francks’ panel. This is the first con I’ve been to that he’s been at, so I was really excited to see his panel. Plus, I’d seen Rainbow hanging around the hotel for the past couple of days, chatting with other con-goers; he seemed really friendly, open, and down-to-earth (fun fact: he asked me what was going on during the karaoke and I explained that it was the karaoke without recognizing him, because, yes, I have a terrible memory for faces and it’s actually really embarrassing. I’ve probably walked past dozens of famous people I didn’t recognize. Think of all the autographs I probably could’ve gotten!)
His panel didn’t disappoint either, although at this point, I don’t remember much about it except that it was both fun and funny. I can also add, however, that Rainbow crashed pretty much everybody else’s panel at the entire convention, which absolutely nobody minded, The one thing I do remember from his panel is that he showed us a lot of exclusive pictures: he’d gone through his hard drive a few days previous and found a lot of photos from the shooting of Atlantis that he’d never shared with anybody, so we got to be the exclusive audience. He asked us not to take pictures of the pictures, and I respected his wishes, so although some of the photos were outright hilarious (mostly of David Hewlett and Paul McGillion looking as unattractive as these two beautiful people could manage). I later joked at Paul’s autograph that Rainbow should’ve printed out his utterly unflattering photos of Paul for him to sign. Rainbow, who turned out to be right there, (which it took me a while to notice, because I’m oblivious), asked me when he could’ve possibly had time to go to Kinko’s. I kindly offered to go to Kinko’s for him (“if you’re so busy, I’ll do it!”), but to which he pointed out that although I’m a lovely person, he doesn’t know me and isn’t about to hand me his entire hard drive. I suppose he had a point, but damn him, I wanted to be trusted by a guy named Rainbow!
Right after Rainbow’s panel was that of David Blue. He plays the title character of Stargate: Universe, and at that point I’d seen exactly one episode of Stargate: Universe, but I decided to stay for the panel anyway, and I’m glad I did, because David also turned out to be really fun. It turns out that he’s a geek like us, and he talked happily about games and TV shows he liked and pretty much outright admitted that he’s a geek. He even brought up slash fiction (yes, he went there!). Rainbow, who was in the room at the time (crashing everyone’s panels, as always) had no idea what that meant…I think David declined to explain, but the ensuing situation was hilarious! David also said that he was told by one of the SGU producers exactly where season three would have gone…but refused to tell us the slightest detail about it, in case there was still that 1% chance that a third season would get made in some way, somehow, somewhere. Seduction didn’t work in coaxing this secret out of him, unfortunately, so I had to leave it be. Granted, I haven’t gotten to the season two cliffhanger yet, so he could’ve told me absolutely anything and I wouldn’t have been able to argue with him, but still….
Next came the highlight of Saturday: Joe Flanigan’s panel. Joe’s pretty much a staple at Stargate conventions – I have yet to attend one that he hasn’t been at, which also pretty much means that I’m rolling in Joe Flanigan autographs at this point (perhaps I’ll do a sweepstakes one of these days). Joe’s always a joy to have onstage, because he’s really well-spoken and educated and says really interesting things about television and the media. He’s also a bit shy (as far as I can tell), so this is the first time he’s actually done a solo panel. It didn’t disappoint: he said a lot of really interesting things, many of which I livetweeted so I wouldn’t forget. For me, the most intriguing tidbit he mentioned was about television today: he said that we’re in the “Golden Era” of television for viewers – something that David Hewlett and Torri Higginson also mentioned to me at their meet and greet a couple of years ago. It seems to be the consensus that when it comes to storytelling and quality, television is slowly replacing movies. Joe did add that that doesn’t mean it’s a golden era for actors – he mentioned in particular that there’s a huge disparity in how actors get paid, in that some make millions while others probably make what’s barely above a graduate student salary (for me, this was a really intriguing insight into how the media I consume is made). Which, I guess, puts us viewers on the glamorous side of the screen (for a change!) I mentioned to Joe at autographs that I thought what he said about TV today was really interesting; I only had a few seconds to say it, because as usual, autographs were very rushed, so he didn’t have much of a chance to respond – but I’m still glad I got to thank him for the wonderful insights that he, as usual, provided behind the scenes. Joe also talked about how TV characters have changed: traditionally, he said, TV show characters would be “people you’d want in your living room,” whatever that means, while these days that may not necessarily be the case. (As someone tweeted, I’ll take Joe in my living room any day).
Another interesting insight Joe gave is into his character. Someone asked him if he could change anything about the way Sheppard was written, and the only answer Joe came up with (as far as I recall, anyway), is that he didn’t like it that they wrote Sheppard to be a genius and a MENSA candidate – he didn’t think that was the right way for the character to go. I personally loved that Sheppard’s a genius who took a completely different life path from McKay (or, rather, I love it on most days), but I didn’t always. An ensuing question was why Sheppard refused to be in MENSA after he tested into it, and Joe suggested it’s because MENSA has too many rules, and Sheppard doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who likes rules. (No, really?)
Other than that, a large part of Joe’s panel entailed him waxing poetic about Iceland, where he recently vacationed (and tweeted about) and where he apparently ate whale…thus making eating whale a recurring joke throughout the panel. Not quite sure what’s so funny about that myself, but then again, I’m a Trekkie. Save the whales! And that, alas, is all I remember from Joe’s panel. Which is really just a clue that I should write up these con write-ups right after the con, and not two weeks afterwards (being a procrastinating perfectionist is the worst, and not just because of the tacky alliteration).
The evening ended with a couple of events: a costume competition, where there were some fantastic costumes on display, and autographs with Joe and Paul, and the gold dessert party – which wasn’t particularly exciting (it never is). I enjoyed walking around and taking photos of all the centerpieces, some of which were utterly gorgeous, and a couple of the celebrities (Andee and Suanne) did come by our table, but for the most part the celebrity presence was rather lacking at our table. We did have a lot of fun dancing to silly pop music with Andee and Sharon, however, so there’s that.
And after that, shenanigans probably ensued, but I, like a responsible adult who wanted to be awake for the next morning’s panels, actually headed up to bed at a reasonable time. Because I’m a killjoy like that.
A few days ago, I received some heartbreaking news:
All good things must come to an end unfortunately, so no more polls and such, this is the absolute last time we’re presenting The Official STARGATE SG-1/Atlantis/Universe Convention.
Okay, so no one died, there was no plane crash or nuclear disaster, but if you’re a Stargate fan, it’s pretty much the geek equivalent of such a disaster. Stargate is one of those shows that had a long and successful run (the entire franchise adds up to 17 seasons of content) before every single show in said franchise was unfortunately cancelled by SyFy – thus going the way of other landmark shows, like Star Trek, which were excellent but were axed by the network for a variety of financial reasons. Like Star Trek, Stargate was thought-provoking and funny, profound and lighthearted, entertaining and touching at the same time. It was the best of both worlds when it comes to sci-fi: it gave you hope and made you think. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for SyFy, and these days, there’s almost no new Stargate content out there. A few tie-in novels (which, as I hear, are terrible) and a game here or there is all that gets released. But for all intents and purposes, the franchise is more or less dead.
Except for when it’s not. It still remains alive in the hearts of its fans, who love it even years after cancellation and rewatch it, and it stays alive in new fans who discover the franchise every day. But most importantly, to me, it also stays alive at the Chicago Stargate convention – the only remaining convention dedicated to Stargate in the world. It is a convention I attend every year, and it is a truly magical experience each time. In the four years I’ve been going, this convention, and the people who attend it, have done some amazing things:
- forging friendships: I can’t count the number of amazing friends I’ve made from all over the world in years of going.
- creating life-long connections: it was at this convention that I befriended someone who is now one of my very close friends, James – at whose wedding I will be a bridesmaid next year!
- marriage: two people who met at this convention and started a relationship are now engaged to be married (at the convention itself) after a proposal that happened at the convention itself (I wrote about it in my last post).
- saving lives: once again, I can’t count the number of Stargate fans I’ve been who struggle with depression, anxiety, and all sorts of other mental issues, for whom this show and this convention has literally been a lifeline. The show and its characters keep them going, while the convention itself is the highlight of their year, a time they spend with friends and like-minded fans, celebrating the show they love. For many, it is this one weekend a year that keeps them going the other 51 weeks of the year.
- raising money for charity: every Thursday night, before the con, a wonderful fan named Kimberly organizes a charity auction. Everyone donates Stargate-y and geeky items that get bid on, and we always raise thousands of dollars for medical research.
- shenanigans: need I say more? Often, the celebrities at the convention join the fans to hang out, and lifelong memories are created. Ah, the stories I could tell!
And this is just a handful of things that this particular con accomplishes. I’ve been posting all about the convention this week, with more posts to come, and if you want a small glimpse into just how fun and amazing this convention is, give them a read! Stargate may have been off the air for years, but it continues to truly make an impact in people’s lives. I can’t overstate the significance of a show, and its convention, that literally saves lives and creates families. In addition, the Stargate fandom is one of the most welcoming and uplifting fandoms I’ve been in – just like the show itself. It’s difficult to find a group of fans that are that open and open-minded, no matter how far and wide you look, and we can’t let that die out.
And yet, Creation Entertainment insists that next year’s Stargate convention will be the last one. Despite all the life-changing things this convention is responsible for, Creation doesn’t want it to keep going. I’m not sure why – perhaps their profit margin isn’t high enough compared to something as lucrative as Supernatural. But Stargate is about more than just the money: it’s about meaningful relationships, life-long memories, and life-changing actions. This convention is one of the few remaining places where fans of this amazing show can come together, celebrate their show, and accomplish these wonderful things.
We can’t let that end. To that end, I’m beginning a campaign to beg Creation to continue these conventions. 2017 will be the 20th anniversary of the television franchise, and it would be a shame to pass up having a convention that year – or the years following. I know many are heartbroken that next year is the last. I know many fans who have been saving up to go to a con and would like to have more than a year to do so. I know fans who are saddened that they won’t have this touchstone in their lives anymore. So, please join me in keeping this convention going.
There’s several things you can do at the moment: LIKE the Facebook page, share it, invite your friends, and post your stories, memories, and photos on the page so that others can see how meaningful this con has been. Publicize this post and the Facebook page as much as you can. Tweet, instagram, and use whatever other social media platform you’re on. Once we get enough traction, and enough likes, we’ll start taking more actions, such as contacting Creation directly. But for now, the most significant thing you can do for this convention, and for the people who love it, is to spread the word.
This post is more lighthearted and less academic than my usual fare; rather than picking apart the workings of science fiction, I’ll instead be blogging about my fantastic time at the 2015 Stargate convention in Chicago – though, rest assured, there’ll be a few academic-y bits here and there as I talk about the significance of Stargate as a science fiction show.
This particular convention has been a tradition for me for years now: I attended my first one in 2012, back when I still lived in Chicago and a couple of months after I’d discovered Stargate (literally. I hadn’t even watched all of it). My fellow Gaters, however, took one look at my passion for Stargate: Atlantis (and Rodney McKay) and welcomed me with open arms, and my life hasn’t been the same since. In keeping with that tradition, I arrived in my beloved city of Chicago on Thursday, after spending my time on the train reading Felicia Day’s geeky new book (in case I needed to get into more of a geeky mindset for the con), to attend the annual pre-con party, organized by a number of fellow con-goers and Gater friends. The pre-party included food, hanging out, and a charity auction, where we raised more than $5000 for research on dysautonomia. It was a wonderful start to the con, showcasing the good-heartedness and generosity of this fandom and putting us all in a good mood for the con to come.
Everything really got started on Friday, though. I spent the morning enjoying my beloved city of Chicago, going down to my favorite neighborhood (Damen) to visit The Wormhole (the geeky café with a Delorean that is totally fitting for a Stargate convention weekend) and Myopic Books, where I bought a pile of sci-fi books. I took my favorite line of the Elevated Train, or El as the natives call it (The Blue Line, and yes, I have a favorite public transportation line) to get there and back; it’s the line I used to take to attend the convention back when I still lived in Chicago and lived on the South Side, so it’s full of memories. I got back to the con hotel just in time for the first panel of the day: Sharon Taylor.
Sharon had a number of minor roles in Stargate: Atlantis, and was also on Supernatural and Smallville, both shows I love, and she talked about her participation in all of these. On Supernatural, she had the good (bad?) fortune to not be pranked by Jared and Jensen, as she spent most of her time filming with Jim Beaver. She also talked at length about her black belt in karate, which she’s had a chance to use in her television career, where the creators took advantage of her skills and wrote them into the script. She even demonstrated some self-defense moves for us. Later, at autographs, I told her that at the next con she should totally lead a self-defense workshop – I’d sign up! She seemed pretty excited by the idea.
The next panel was that of Gary Jones, who is pretty much a Stargate con regular – this is the third time I’ve seen him, and he was, as always, entertaining. He likes to reminisce about Don S. Davis, a fantastic actor (and man) who played Hammond and passed too soon. A favorite thing of Gary’s to do is to make fun (in a friendly way) of Don’s Texas accent, which turns “Open the iris!” into “Open the arse!” and “Airman” into “Harruman” (which is how Jones’ character got his name). He joked about the one time he forgot to memorize an entire paragraph of lines, so he started just making up planet names (all of which run something along the lines of P3X-790 – lots of letters and numbers). At around the fifth take, the script supervisor noticed that he was making up these planet names and told him, angrily, “We go there! You can’t just make him up!” Because of course a paid actor can’t just show up and say “I forgot to learn my lines,” so clearly making them up is the best approach. Basically, as usual, Gary was a riot – there’s a reason he’s part of the cabaret show every Friday night!
The last panel of the day was Peter Williams, who plays Apophis. Apophis has never been one of my favorite characters (or villains) – he seemed pretty one dimensional to me – but as happens so often at these conventions, the actor won me over by being a thousand times more interesting than his character! Aside from being adorable, Peter has an incredibly sexy accent and a very fantastic Apophis persona – he’s very good at pretending to be a god, and during the panel that’s a riot! He made a joke that I don’t recall too well about how he rather enjoyed the human form that Apophis choice to take (it was basically an “I have a sexy body” joke), and talked a little bit about acting the role of the poor guy whose body Apophis had taken. This led to, in my photo op with Peter Williams, me asking whether we could do a pose in which I’m “admiring” the human form he took. Peter seemed a bit confused, but went with it, and put on an “I’m so awesome” face while I touched his pecs with a supremely satisfied look on my face. (They were nice pecs, but nothing like Jason Momoa’s, which I touched last year while my boyfriend looked on with sad puppy eyes).
Friday was also the day that the convention had a very important event: a proposal! A year ago, at this very same convention, two amazing fans, Danny and Brianne, met over a costuming question. They soon entered a relationship, and today, before all our eyes, at that very same convention, with the aid of Peter Williams and Gary Jones, the wonderful young man asked his girlfriend to the stage. He told all of us the story of how they’d met at this very convention and been brought together by their love of Stargate – and then proposed! The answer, of course, was a resounding yes, and everyone snapped a ridiculous amount of photos as the two, wearing matching SG-1 jackets, held hands. It was a truly heartening event at a convention that already regularly brings tears to my eyes (even if some are of laughter): it’s a testament to the way that Stargate has been, and continues to be, so important in our lives.Even a decade after being off the air, it still brings people together, possibly for life. Forging relationships, friendships – and families. It’s something that I never want to lose (which is why I’m working a campaign to stop the 2016 convention from being the last one).
Following that touching event was the “Celebrity Cabaret,” which is a Friday-night tradition of this convention; each year, Creation gathers a number of the celebrity guests from the convention that weekend to perform for a cabaret in various ways: they sing, tell stories, jokes, and anecdotes, or perform in other ways. A few years ago, Robert Picardo sang some fantastic opera as the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, and Tony Amendola told some very not child-appropriate jokes and stories. This year, the cabaret performers included Gary Jones, Andee Frizzell, and Suanne Braun. I don’t recall much of Gary’s performance – though a few years ago he told a hilarious story about having a heart attack (yes, the story was funny; yes, it was about a heart attack). The general trend of this celebrity cabaret is that it’s at least PG-13 rated, and Andee Frizzell followed in that vein, telling a story about the time she asked her friend Steve to help her change the wiring in her house and attach a new lighting fixture. She gave him rubber footies, rubber gloves….and yet he still thought he was being electrocuted when his phone went off (on vibrate). “My dick’s being fried!!” he shouted, to which Andee cleverly responded – “I should’ve given him a condom!” (Get it? Get it? I thought it was hilarious). Last on stage was Suanne Braun, who played Hathor in the first season of SG-1. Now, while the first season of SG-1 isn’t particularly memorable (except for how cheesy it was), this is another of those cases where the star brings so many layers to the character (and is so fun) that it makes you love those cheesy episodes anyway.
Besides, when a beautiful woman who plays the goddess of sex and beauty gets up onstage, how do you not pay attention? And Suanne is indeed quite the goddess- she has this aura of femininity and power that really gets to you. At the cabaret, she told a fantastic story about her honeymoon to Egypt. She and her husband visited lots of ancient sites in which Hathor was depicted in various ways, and every time Suanne would point and tell her husband “look! It’s me!” When she had to explain this to the tour guide, however, the guide was unimpressed (she’d never heard of Stargate). When Suanne explained that she played Hathor, the tour guide went “in her human form or her goddess form?” Upon admitting that she plays Hathor in her human form, Suanne was informed that Hathor’s human form was….a cow. “You play a cow, yes?” That night, though, that particular episode of SG-1 was on TV, which changed things for the rest of the trip….
Of course, my summaries don’t do the cabaret justice; part of humor and anecdotes is the delivery, and these stars are actors –meaning they can do humor, voices, accents (oh, don’t get me started on Suanne’s accents! They are fantastic) – and they really bring to life these stories in a way that a blog post can’t. Nevertheless, I write them down for the fantastic memories they elicit.
Finally, the evening ended, as does every Friday evening at every Stargate convention, with karaoke. Suanne led into this by singing fantastic renditions of a couple of songs, including “Mamma Mia!” – to which yours truly unashamedly danced. (The videos of a couple of these are on my YouTube channel) Afterwards, it was the fans that started singing, which is the when the craziness started as I gathered with my fantastic group of friends for late night shenanigans. And I’m afraid that this is where the story must end with a …., because I really don’t remember much of the rest of that evening. ;)
A couple of months ago, I attended a fantastic conference at Cornell University on “Seriality.” The conference was just what it sounds like: academics gathering together to discuss serialized narratives, television, sequels, and any other art, literature, or culture in which we can see “series.” But, as it dawned on me, the conference had a larger theme to it. It was, essentially, a conference on patterns: how and why they exist in the products of the human imagination, and how they regulate the way we relate to the fiction in question. And ever since that conference, I’ve been seeing patterns everywhere.
Partly, that’s because the patterns are there to be seen. From time immemorial, art and storytelling have existed in a variety of serialized formats that suggest such patterns: television shows are obviously serialized, movies constantly spawn sequels, novels used to be published in serialized form, and books today still have chapters or form parts of larger series, photographs and paintings are often done in series (triptychs, paintings of the four seasons, Andy Warhol’s repetitive portraits and other such “series” fill the art museums in Europe), epics are usually made up of “books” of roughly the same number of lines, and myths and fairy tales often repeat the same plot patterns. In short, repetition in a way that is recognizable enough to form a pattern underlies our storytelling, no matter what format it’s in.
The fact that so much storytelling exists in series or patterns, either “real” or perceived, has a very good biological explanation: human beings are wired by evolution to be pattern-seeking animals. This was necessary for us to survive: if there was danger, we needed to be able to notice the pattern of when it occurred and create a pattern of behavior to avoid it. Noticing patterns was beneficial to our survival, and so we notice them when they exist – and often when they don’t. And I think that’s why there’s always patterns and forms of serialization in our narratives – because as beings wired by evolution to find patterns, I think we find it a natural next step to create those patterns ourselves whenever we create art or fiction.
In a larger sense, I think this is part of a human need to put everything into categories as a way to understand the world around us better. We live, after all, in a constantly changing world – and the thing that has ensured our survival, from a scientific point of view, is our ability to adapt. Put another way, it is our ability to mediate between the familiar and the new – and here, patterns help once again. (I have to admit that at this point I’m just extrapolating from what I know of science). As the world changes around us, we create patterns to understand and explain that change. We’re consistently seeking the familiar in the new, by applying familiar patterns to new events – or creating patterns that we can use to explain new events and make them familiar.
In short, to quote Michael Crichton (a new literary favorite of mine) and his brilliant-but-cynical scientist figure Ian Malcolm, life exists on the edge of chaos: we need change or we stagnate and die. But we also need stability, because too much change is dangerous and can kill us because we can’t adapt. In order to survive, we have to live between the familiar and the unfamiliar – in all respects of our lives. Patterns are part of this- they’re literally a way to navigate the thin line on the edge of chaos, the thin line between change and stagnation. Patterns allow us to comprehend the unfamiliar in familiar ways. And even today, in a highly modernized society in which evolution no longer exerts the same pressures, things are still constantly changing; technology, for one, is evolving at an exponential rate. And in that kind of world, we all need something familiar to cling to, and here our reptile brains probably help us out. They give us ways to think about the world, patterns to see (even if those patterns don’t exist in reality). Of course, this has a downside, in that we can form – and cling to- preconceptions about the world that are difficult to let go of.
However, what I find most interesting about this particular topic is how this biological drive, which has ensured our survival, also deeply affects the way we tell stories and create art. Because pattern-seeking was so fundamental to us being selected-for by evolution, it became a fundamental part of our existence – and so even today, we literally need patterns to interact with the world around us.
And that need for patterns, I think, extends to fiction. I mentioned above that part of our pattern-seeking nature involves finding the familiar in the unfamiliar – or creating the familiar in the unfamiliar. This is also the “mantra,” so to speak, of Adaptation Studies – a field of academia which examines the way that stories get adapted into new mediums and in new social and cultural contexts, and the way that social and cultural “pressures” change these stories the way that evolutionary pressures provide change. The study of adaptation, according to Linda Hutcheon’s seminal book, is the study of repetition without replication – or, in other words, the familiar in a different context, or the unfamiliar in a familiar shape.
This balance of familiar and unfamiliar (this fictional edge of chaos, so to speak), exists at every level of narrative. When we write fiction, we expect certain story structures: plot with a rising action, a climax, and a resolution, character development, setting. But we also expect new things: different plots, different resolutions, different characters and settings. Any writer has to strike a delicate balance between giving the reader something (s)he hasn’t seen before (otherwise, the story ends up being a cliché), but familiar enough that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable (it is rather comforting for the reader to be able to place something in a genre, for example; that’s why TV networks aren’t big on picking up shows that aren’t easily classified according to their categories). This also explains movements like modernism and the avant-garde, which seek to upend any notion of the familiar and play with our expectations of literature- for example, books written with words only using the vowel e, entirely blank canvases called art, fiction with no punctuation, Joycian stream-of-consciousness writing. These kinds of artistic experiments only work because we have pre-established expectations of literature in our heads – that is, familiar patterns that we expect from fiction, and which every fiction elaborates on or, in the case of modernism, rejects.
That’s why even my dad, who is a computer programmer and not a literary/humanities person, can often predict the endings of TV shows and movies we watch together. He doesn’t read a lot of books these days because he’s usually so busy inventing computer languages, but, being a software engineer, he thinks in terms of patterns and algorithms. And for him fiction – especially serialized narratives like television – are algorithms, and because he’s watched so much TV and bad action flicks, he can predict the endings because he knows the algorithms. We’re on the seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation right now, and I’d guess that he’s predicted the endings of about half the episodes.
In short, once you start looking at literature as something that constantly makes use of patterns, it makes so much more sense. And once you understand the human need for patterns and series, then pretty much any kind of entertainment (including the formulaic and serialized kind) takes on meaning, so that you no longer wonder “why would anyone watch something so boring/repetitive/formulaic?” They watch it because it’s formulaic, and that formula is comfortable. Formulas and patterns make the world make sense- and the same is true of CSI.
In essence, humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and I’m going to take a step forward and say that we don’t just search for patterns- we get a sense of pleasure from finding them. Now, I don’t exactly have scientific proof to back up this latter claim, so it’s just speculation on my part. However, based on my own experiences, as well as the scientific data I have quoted, it seems like the obvious conclusion. If we’re wired by evolution to find patterns, and if, as Ilana pointed out in her talk, some people watch for the formulas, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a certain kind of pleasure derived from discovering the formula and fitting each new episode to one’s understanding of the algorithm that was used to create it.
This is something talked about by Ilana Emmett at the aforementioned conference, who referenced a critic (his name has, alas, slipped through my note) who theorized about the way that television creates patterns. Serialized television is essentially based on patterns and algorithms – especially shows with standalone episodes like crime shows, procedurals, and medical shows. Each episode follows a certain pattern: solving a murder, producing a medical diagnosis, figuring out and killing the “monster of the week.” A lot of these shows – CSI, ER, NCIS – are often written off as “formulaic” – because they are.
But that very formulaic nature is what makes them fascinating from a literary-scientific point of view, because they reveal the way in which our fiction relies on patterns – essentially formulas, hence the description of TV shows as “formulaic– to create viewer investment. In fact, as Ilana mentioned, some people essentially watch for the formulas. Thus, in addition to the pleasure of watching the plot of an episode unfold in itself – i.e. solving the murder along with the on-screen detectives- there is the pleasure of noticing the pattern as you consume more and more episodes. That’s where the investment of a lot of episodic shows comes from: not just the setting, characters, and writing, but also the sense of acquiring and building a pattern through watching multiple episodes. The more episodes you watch, you more clearly you see the pattern, and there is a distinct pleasure in noticing that pattern. For example, about a season into Castle, I realized that the first suspect they talk to is usually the person that did it. This is almost invariable. One would think that this takes away some of the magic, and in a way it does – but in another way, there is a sense of pleasure at “earning” something once one uncovers this formula.
That’s why we watch serialized television – because it gives us the familiar, in terms of characters, but also a familiar plot formula – but changes it just enough each week to feel fresh and interesting. Repetition without replication, indeed- repeat something enough that a formula can be found, but do not replicate it lest boredom ensues. So much of television is serialized in an episodic way (i.e., each episode works as a “standalone” and episodes can be watched in any order) because the distinct pleasure is in watching this large number of short stories, each of which follows a specific pattern, and finding that pattern. That’s why the word “formulaic” is not necessary derogatory when applies to fiction – formulaic is precisely what it aims for, when fiction is looked at the right way. Literature needs to be formulaic to a certain extent in order to be successful – because as human beings ,we need that sense of the familiar, of a pattern, in order to derive pleasure from fiction.
This post has used an approach to fiction that combines literary analysis with, essentially, neuroscience – two fields that aren’t exactly combined very often. As I’ll write about in an upcoming post, I think combining science and the humanities in ways like this could be immensely productive in academia, and I’d like to see it explored more.
Every time I attend a science fiction and fantasy convention, I inevitably end up at a panel on a topic such as “Science and Magic,” which explores the relationship between things like mythology, legend, magic, and science in speculative fiction. In fact, the topic is pretty much a staple at such conventions, and with the inevitability of a physical law, someone on the panel always brings up Clarke’s dictum, also known as Clarke’s Third Law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
What I want to do in this post is to look at this relationship between technology (or science) and magic as an issue of perspective (by which I mean, the level of evolution and development of a human society and its technological/scientific knowledge). In a sequel post, and building on these issues, I’ll look at this relationship between science and magic as a literary device in speculative fiction. In both posts, however, I’m going to draw on fiction to explain and elucidate, because, being a literature scholar and all, fiction tends to be the way that I navigate reality.
Taking a long and broad look at speculative fiction, Clarke’s dictum is easy to accept, because magical equivalents for advanced technology abound in fantasy – and in science fiction, the stuff of fantasy is often explained via technology. For example, in Star Trek, a Replicator can manifest food and other items out of thin air – rather like magicians in pretty much every fantasy book, including Harry Potter, can make things appear and disappear. Transporters can make people appear and disappear similarly – just like wizards in Harry Potter can (Dis)Apparate. Technology that can erase or alter memories abounds in Star Trek and Stargate – rather like, say, Memory Charms in Harry Potter. In Stargate, the characters can become “invisible” by going out of phase – just like Harry Potter can put on an invisibility cloak or Frodo can put on The Ring. In any number of fantasy novels, including Harry Potter, there are prophets and prophecies – and in Stargate, there’s similarly a Seer who can see the future. In Star Trek, Stargate, and Michael Crichton novels, time travel is possible via the intricacies of quantum mechanics, spatial anomalies, and gravitational fields. In Supernatural, the same is possible because angels can magically send characters back in time.
In short, what is a piece of technology in one work of fiction is magic in another- and the consequence is my point: that the distinction between science and magic is a matter of perspective. Just as much of the technology in Stargate and Star Trek can seem like magic to us, the technologies we have today (cell phones, airplanes, remote controls, Siri) would appear to be magic to human beings thousands of years ago. And yet, so much of the seemingly magical technology from futuristic science fiction is technically scientifically possible. Making items appear out of thin air? Well, we’re not quite there yet, but scientists are talking about 3D printers as the forerunners of replicators. Technology that can erase/alter memories? Scientists have managed to implant false memories in mice, a feat that can likely be taken even further. Prophets and prophecies? Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, but quantum physics (in which the regular sequence of cause and effect does not apply) and probability can provide predictive models that mess with your mind (check out, for example, Michael Crichton’s Timeline).
Thus, to quote another esteemed scientist who also often gets brought up at “Science and Magic” panels,
“It is our destiny to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared.” (Michio Kaku)
That is, if we take the view that science and technology are constantly progressing and developing (a positivist, progressivist view of science that I subscribe to), then we are constantly creating technology that is newer, better, faster – possibly even at an exponential rate (and maybe one day our technology will be so complex that it’ll become sentient, but that’s a discussion for another day). Given this constant progress and invention, and enough time, the things we invent will seem like magic in relation to the technologies we used to have. Science and magic are a sort of continuum, a constant process through which magic becomes science. And in this case, Kaku’s statement provides a description of the normal state of human society: constantly progressing and creating new technology and becoming gods, again and again, in relation to our past selves.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m advocating some kind of mythical or religious attitude towards technology. I don’t think the robots are going to evolve and destroy us by raining down divine fury (despite what, like, every movie ever made has said). I don’t think we’ll destroy ourselves by creating technology that dehumanizes us. I certainly don’t think we should treat technology as some kind of divine, incomprehensible force that we cannot control. I think technology, like anything created through human ingenuity, simply deserves a healthy amount of respect – respect for the fact that we, as humans with vivid imaginations, will continue to create things that once seemed liked magic, and that those things can give us great power. In this way, the things we see as magic (as opposed to scientifically explainable phenomena) is a function of the level of development of a human society – such that, as we evolve and advance as a race and come up with new inventions, technology and scientific explanations will replace the things we once saw as magic and myth. Thus, to say that the distinction between magic and science is a distinction of perspective is another way of saying that it’s a distinction between the levels of advancement a human society can achieve. A human society at a certain state of development will have a drastically different outlook on the world than that same society years in the past or future. As a society advances, we understand the world better, and the things which we saw as magic, we will see as science; the things we explained via myth, we’ll be able to explain via physical law. And so what was once magic will continuously become science as society develops.
There is a particular Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that, I think, illustrates this fact perfectly. “Sub Rosa” is an episode which, until the last five minutes, seems to be a fantasy Gothic story: Beverly Crusher returns to her family’s home planet, which is inspired by and looks exactly like 17th century Scotland, where she’s haunted by a ghost who has haunted all the women of her family, and brought misfortune upon them. He is attached to a particular family relic (a glowing candle) and appears only to the members of her family. Now, in a progressive science-fiction show, that kind of story might seem extremely out of place: ghosts? Hauntings? Omens? Those things don’t exist in Star Trek’s positivist universe. But I recall not being phased by it in the last- partly because, at the time, I was in this mindset of thinking about science and magic as the same thing (literary device), and partly because the following conversation between astrophysicist Jane Foster and her advisor in Thor came to mind:
Jane Foster: Well, “magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.” Arthur C. Clarke.
Erik Selvig: Who wrote science fiction.
Jane Foster: a precursor to science fact!
Clarke is an excellent choice here, not only because of the aforementioned Clarke’s dictum (a version of which Jane presents here), but because Clarke was an author of hard science fiction who pretty much invented the geosynchronous satellite. He created fantastic (in the loose sense of the word) stories based on science, making the larger point that “magic” is just advanced science we don’t understand yet. That’s what makes a ghost story possible on a science fiction television show. And sure enough, it turns out that the ‘ghost’ is a non-corporeal creature made of energy, that is kept alive by the plasma energy from a candle passed down through the women in Beverly Crusher’s family – a form of energy which can have a negative effect on the human body and affect the planet’s weather control system (thus causing all those dark and stormy nights).
In fact, the episode itself is like an elaborate version of an Ann Radcliffe Gothic novel – significant here because, according to science fiction scholar Eric Rabkin, Radcliffe is one of the precursors of science fiction. Jumping onto the 18th century trend of writing Gothic fiction (involving castles, hauntings, curses, magic, and mayhem), she added a twist: at the end of her novels, all the magical and supernatural stuff was explained rationally. Disappearances were explained by secret passages, ghosts and hauntings were just plays of light and voices from behind walls, and so on. As Rabkin argued, what science fiction really does is take this move – this scientific explanation of the apparently fantastical – and move it from the end of the story (where it’s found in Radcliffe’s Gothic tales) to the beginning or the foundation of the story.
And this becomes a perfect illustration of the fact that the difference between magic and science is a matter of perspective. In the case of Star Trek, the story starts out as a Gothic tale, forcing us into the perspective of a viewer of fantasy watching a haunted house story, but intersperses it with suggestions that there is a scientific explanation. At the end, like in a Radcliffe novel, the scientific explanation is revealed, and all the Gothic trappings have rational explanations. From a literary point of view, it’s a masterfully created episode because it forces the viewer into two simultaneous perspectives: a fantasy one (drawing on the aesthetics and tropes we associate with fantasy and the Gothic, such as ghosts and haunted houses) and a science fiction one (based on our knowledge that Star Trek is a positivist science fiction show). Without the final ten minutes, the episode could function as a Gothic tale – with them, it becomes an episode of science fiction. This juxtaposition is illuminating, because it reveals that the distinction between science and magic is one of perspective. To a 17th century individual, it would be perfectly possible to take this kind of story at face value, with magic and haunting being actually what’s going on. To a 21st (or 24th) century individual, however, such an explanation is harder to accept, and to someone watching Star Trek, it’s natural to seek the scientific explanation. And, at the end, this rational, Radcliffian explanation is provided- showing that the same story, told in two centuries (or, really, three- the 17th, 20th, and 24th), changes genre, from fantasy to science fiction, as the plot device behind the story moves from magic to science. And in the process, the connection between magic and science is revealed: a connection that is a matter of perspective. For as a reader of one century, we would see as magic what as the viewer of another century would see (and accept) as having a scientific explanation.
It is a literal illustration of both the nature of science fiction and of Clarke’s law – that magic and science are connected on a spectrum, and it is our development, our place in our own history of humanity, in relation to this technology, that determines whether what we see is perceived by us as science or magic. This means that, technically, you could probably rewrite most science fiction stories using magic, and most fantasy stories using science. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, seems like quintessential sword and sorcery: knights, king and queens, castles, magic, prophecies, dragons… but what if Westeros just exists on another planet, which has a different kind of orbit, and thus the long winters and summers of that world, where a combination of evolution and different environmental pressures created creatures such as dragons and humanoid (as opposed to human) people?
This might not be a useful way to think about Westeros, but it does demonstrate that, in some ways, we only perceive the stories as fantasy (as opposed to science fiction) because of a perspective, given to us by the author, that tells us the story is fantasy – a perspective completely in line with the feudal society of Westeros and its level of technological development. We’re seeing the story, after all, from the viewpoints of Westerosi characters – to whom the occurrences of their world would be magic. But to a more advanced society (us, I’d like to think) perhaps there could be a scientific explanation. That doesn’t mean we should start looking for it, or start reading Game of Thrones as a work of science fiction – it is, unequivocally, a work of fantasy (especially in its focus on a feudal society), but it is an interesting exercise.
This science-magic spectrum also explains, I think, the talent with which certain science fiction shows manage to blend science and magic (or mythology, and religion), thematizing this issue of perspective and development I’ve focused on. Three shows come to mind as excellent examples here.
In Stargate and Star Trek, a common plotline involves demonstrating that the source of myths and religions, both on Earth and other planets, is just really advanced technology. The entirety of Stargate is premised on liberating the galaxy from the Goul’d, who are worshipped as gods by most of the Milky Way, but who simply use incredibly advanced technology to dominate other planets and convince them of their divinity. These Goul’d are behind most Earth mythology: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and it later turns out that other aliens (the Asgard and the Ancients) are behind a number of Earth’s other myths (Nordic and Arthurian). This artful blend of myth and science, in addition to creating great worldbuilding, shows how this whole thing is an issue of perspective. Wizards like Merlin, who can disappear at will, are explained by beaming technology; non-corporeal beings are really just a really advanced race who has evolved to become energy. Telekinesis and healing powers are a function of the super-evolved brains of other races. In short, any trope that has ever been part of any Earth mythology finds in Stargate some kind of interplanetary, evolutionary, or technological explanation. To pre-modern civilizations, these things seemed like magic, which is why the Goul’d were worshipped as gods by the ancient Egyptians. To our stalwart modern heroes, though, it’s just technology that they can take apart and use- so that, inevitably, a handful of pre-evolved civilizations on other planets end up thinking that they’re some kind of divinity.
In fact, to return to the aforementioned Thor, which Kyle Munkittrich compares to Stargate in a pretty fantastic article, Marvel’s Thor appears like a god to us just like the Goul’d did to the ancient Egyptians, because they’re both using technology so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic. And this juxtaposition of Thor and Stargate makes evident that it’s all a matter of perspective –in relation to the Goul’d, we see science, but in relation to Thor and the Asgardians, we see magic. In one story, we’re the advanced beings who can take apart the technology and figure out how it works – and in another, we’re wowed by beings that seem like gods. But, in both cases, there really is a rational explanation – and at some point, our society does (or will) evolve enough to figure it out.
This is a theme that also consistently pops up in Star Trek (the episode that comes to mind is “Who Mourns for Adonais?”), where it turns out that the gods of Earth mythology are just really evolved beings – – and Kirk, as a representation of an enlightened humanity, knows and proves this by the end of each episode.
I think that’s what’s so appealing to me about the fifth Star Trek movie (my favorite) – because it deals precisely with this issue about the line between the scientific and the mythical. Following in the footsteps of Radcliffe (who rationally explained magical occurrences) and Sherlock Holmes (who endeavored to disprove the supernatural on a regular basis), Kirk and Spock set out on a scientific quest: to discover whether God exists. It sounds like an oxymoron, because the nature of the Judeo-Christian God is precisely that you have to take his existence on faith. But, like the heroes of Stargate, what Kirk sets out to do is to discover whether “God” is just a story, an incredibly evolved entity like the Q continuum – or an actual omnipotent being that transcends scientific explanations and the laws of the physical universe as we know it.
In short, it’s the confrontation between a fantasy universe and a science fiction universe. If magic and science are a spectrum, a function of a race’s development, then what Kirk sets out to prove is literally Clarke’s dictum: that there is nothing inherently magical about the most magical of things – God himself – but that, like everything else that we have understood as myth and legend, it has a rational explanation. And, this being Star Trek, it predictably turns out that there is a rational explanation, involving a powerful, evolved, but still flawed entity that wants the Enterprise. And along with proving Clarke’s law, Kirk also proves Kaku’s statement that we become the gods we worshipped and feared – or, if not us, then some other alien civilization will evolve enough to become “God.” And if this alien being (or civilization) can, then perhaps humans can, too. In fact, with its positivist bent, Star Trek consistently seems to subscribe to the idea that any kind of “God” is just the product of evolution– highly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s “The Final Question,” in which humanity collectively evolves to become “God.” It’s the ultimate representation of magic just being really advanced science – and the claim that there is nothing beyond that advanced science.
In contrast to Stargate and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica provides an interesting juxtaposition. As far as I can tell on the basis of having watched slightly over two seasons, divinity and religion in the show is not about the level of development of a certain technology – it is, instead, about things like faith itself (as in, say, Supernatural). Throughout the show, as humanity attempts to figure out its past, find Earth, and determine if God exists, they’re not on a quest to find a scientific explanation for God, or write probabilistic models to explain all the coincidences that make Roslin seem like a prophet. They’re a pretty advanced society, technologically – they have spaceships that can travel in hyperspace and they did kind of create a sentient robot race- but their approach to religion is much more “primitive” (for lack of a better word) than that of Stargate or Star Trek: it’s the good old-fashioned debate of “we have no concrete proof that God exists, but also a Hell of a lot of near-impossible coincidences. Could God exist?” It’s a far cry from Star Trek’s “Let’s take the Enterprise into a black hole and use our sensors to see if an omnipotent being exists.”
Thus, I think that these kinds of stories – Sherlock Holmes confronting the supernatural, the heroes of Stargate or Star Trek finding technological explanations for myths and religions, etc – is kind of a metaphor for our own development as a species. As humans, we create myths to explain the world around us – Helios drives his chariot across the sky to make night and day, Hades kidnaps Persephone, which results in the seasons – and so forth. These are magical explanations, but as humans evolve and society develops, we understand more about the world around us (the Copernican theory, for example, which explains the sun and the seasons) and come up with scientific explanations and technological means for the stuff of myth. Thus, the natural development of humanity is, I think, a constant shift in perspective from magic to science – and these fictions are metaphors for, or literal incarnations of – that shift. Quantum physics explains how you can become invisible and travel through time, beaming technology lets you appear and disappear, and suddenly all these things the gods of myth used to be able to do can be done by evolved and developed mortal beings. Whether it’s the Goul’d, the Q continuum, or some other being, the humans of the story always discover that it is nothing more than just another being – that the magical, mythical world has a rational, scientific explanation. Which is something humanity is constantly discovering about the world around us.
Further reading: my write-up of the science vs. magic panel at Detcon 1
I’ve made it no secret that, since relocating to Philadelphia, I haven’t been the biggest fan of the city. But there is one place in this wannabe Metropolis that is my paradise, my guilty pleasure: f.y.e., or, as I call it, the Geek Emporium. It’s stuffed full of DVDs and Blu-Rays of my favorite TV shows, soundtracks, action figures, posters, decals, and all sorts of other geeky crap that just makes you want to spend all your money because they have all your favorite geeky stuff. The best part? They have used DVDs and excellent sales on them, so that I”m slowly accumulating a collection of my favorite TV shows.
And that, my friends, is why I have not been posting (well, that and the horror and hell that is graduate school). I’ve been binge watching everything, because there is just so much amazing stuff out there. But, as I’ve been spending time at the Geek Emporium or streaming on Amazon, I find myself confronted with questions that I”m sure have been written about endlessly ever since streaming sites came about:
Is it worth buying DVDs or Blu-Rays in the first place, when almost everything can be watched via streaming on Netflix or Hulu? Should I purchase DVDs for those few shows that aren’t on streaming sites, or for those rare times when I don’t have internet access? Having a DVD collection is difficult for someone who travels so much, so should I buy new copies with digital versions rather than used copies that require me to physically carry DVDs everywhere? And most importantly, what is the hype about Blu-Rays and why can’t I stick with good old DVDs? Am I going to have to update my DVD collection in 10 years because my Blu-Ray player won’t read DVDs? In short, with all the myriad ways to watch your favorite TV shows, which is the most rational and cost effective from a purely logical and economic point of view? (Am I overthinking this? Should I just buy shows I enjoy?)
That, my friends, is the dilemma for today. Keep your fingers crossed for me as I finish up the semester, after which I promise a whole onslaught of new posts about a dozen different shows that I’ve binge-watched in the attempts to get through grad school. I have lots of ideas and lots of thoughts on what Foucault said about power and sexuality, and I hope to use the summer to relax, watch more shows, and write up all those thoughts that grad school doesn’t leave me time for.
A few months ago (and by a few I mean almost a year, because it’s only now that I have time to finish up this piece), I had the good fortune of attending my local comic con: Motor City Comic Con. Even though it’s been some time, I felt the need to write up my thoughts and experiences, especially because this convention (and most comic cons in general, I’d guess) has been a completely different convention experience from any other I’ve had, and I wanted to explore what those differences might be – in terms of fan interactions, in terms of what it is that we look for at conventions, and in terms of what brings groups of people together at conventions like this. That is, this is a bit of a sociological post, with observations and thoughts on conventions as a form of social interaction.
The past conventions I’ve gone two have fallen into two types: they’ve either been centered around a particular franchise (Supernatural, Stargate, Star Trek), or more academic conventions (such as the World Science Fiction and Fantasy convention) full of panels and discussions rather than autographs and entertainers.
Conventions centered around a specific franchise (usually run by Creation Entertainment), are a very special experience: you crowd hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people all obsessed with the same thing into one hotel for three days, and every single star is from that franchise and has worked on it some way. Sure, many of them have been on other franchises and of course there’s overlap, but mostly everybody’s there for one particular fictional universe (as an example, I’ll use Stargate, since most of my experiences have been with that franchise).
The thing with conventions like this is that, crowded into a hall with hundreds of people who love the same stories and characters as you do, there’s an indescribable sense of connection and kinship. There’s jokes and quotes and trivia constantly exchanged. There’s a trivia contest for that particular show/set of shows. There’s arguments over which scientist is the most attractive one (Rodney McKay). There’s a costume contest focused on that series. And when you’re all crowded into a hall together, the venue starts playing the theme song from that show, an actor/actress comes out, and you all cheer together – it’s an amazing experience. There’s this sense of wild enthusiasm of being a part of something big, of just loving this show so damn much and being with a bunch of people who share that enthusiastic, almost spiritual love for this amazing show that damn well deserves this adoration. Honestly, my first convention was a bit of a spiritual experience. I had, in internet-speak, “feels” about loving Stargate so much and about so many people loving Stargate.
The other type of convention, the conference sort of convention, I go to a lot less; I’ve been to a small handful,, and presented at one. This really is like academic conference: there were literally hundreds of panels on different semi-academic topics, from the portrayal of aliens in sci-fi to violence and fantasy and the portrayal of gender. A lot of authors were on these panels, but so were academics, bloggers, and fans. Sure, there were autograph sessions with a few particularly well-known authors (such as George R.R. Martin), but the majority of the convention (at least in my experience), happened in these panels. Here, there wasn’t quite the same sense of “we all love the same thing so much.” Sure, a lot of us shared love for things like Star Wars and Firefly and could reference it, but rather than a sort of spiritual enthusiasm, it was a much more academic enthusiasm that was in these panels. It seemed to me to be a lot more about getting to the bottom of some very important questions, albeit in a fun way, than about love and adoration and enthusiasm.
And then there’s Comic Con type conventions, which, as I discovered, work totally differently from the other kinds of conventions I’ve been to.
This is what a comic con type convention looks like, in general:
It’s a great big hall, mostly full of vendors selling everything from comic books to action figures to autographed portraits. Inside this great big hall, there’s also booths for all of the celebrity, comic, and wrestling guests, who spend most of their time (when they’re not doing panels and photo ops) signing autographs at these booths. There’s also one photo op booth, with different stars doing photo ops at different times, and, outside the main hall, several smaller rooms where the biggest stars (in this case, William Shatner, John Barrowman, etc…) held hour-long panels (for these you have to line up way ahead of time and let me tell you, that is stressful). There’s also a handful of other attractions in this big hall, including costume displays, replicas (such as R2D2), cars (the Ghostbusters car, for example), and a number of organizations such as the 501st Legion who have tables/displays/demonstrations. It’s like a big huge geek museum with lots of stuff for sale and lots of celebrities.
As cool as this is, though, what it means is that this isn’t a convention focused on a particular franchise. There are stars from everything, from television to film, and writers and artists. Are you a fan of Wonder Woman and the Swamp Thing? There’ll be something for you there. Star Wars? Check. Any TV show from soap operas to Star Trek? Check. As someone who’s previously mostly attended conventions dedicated to a specific franchise – conventions where everyone there was united by their love for one specific thing – I found this plethora of different stars and interests incredibly disorienting. We were all here because we’re all geeks who lead a certain lifestyle, collect autographs, want to meet the people behind our favorite franchises, and make room in our life for our geekiness – but every single person there wasn’t connected by their huge and immense love for just one thing. There was no wave of love washing over the entire hall for just one thing. There was definitely something for everyone, but you had to dig through a little for it: going through many of the vendors, you had to search for the posters and figurines you wanted. When I was standing in line, interacting with, and talking to people, there was always that initial period of trying to figure out what they were fans of, looking for that connection. I usually found it – after all, if you’re in the same photo op line, chances are you have something in common, some fandom, some place to start talking and connecting. But there was no automatic connection or point of reference to the things you loved the most. Going from star to star to get autographs and photo ops, you constantly had to switch from franchise to franchise – one minute you’re flirting with John Barrowman and having Torchwood feelings, and the next you’re telling William Shatner how damn much you love Captain Kirk. The second you work up enthusiasm for one particular actor or character, you’re already getting ready to stand in line for something else, for a completely different franchise, which evokes in you a completely different set of feelings. Perhaps that’s a personal quirk of mine, but I found it utterly strange to switch from passion to passion like this.
And then, of course, the question remains: how do you connect? Conventions are, after all, a form of interaction, a way to meet fellow geeks, a way to be at home with people who understand you, but when it’s a hall crowded with thousands of people who might all love different things, how do you make connections? What’s the appeal of a convention like this when everybody’s so different, sometimes united by nothing more than their identity of being a geek? And certainly “geek” is an identity in itself – one I proudly wear, despite whatever the Big Bang Theory has to say; certainly the people at this convention were “my people,” the ones who got what it’s like to be obsessed with something, but it’s not quite the same as being at a Stargate convention.
One of the answers to that question, I suppose, is cosplay. I never really got cosplay before. I knew what it was, of course, and I’d half-heartedly donned a uniform of some sort in the past, but most of the Stargate and Star Trek conventions I’d gone to didn’t have too many cosplayers, and it’s not too hard to cosplay Supernatural unless you don’t own any plaid. But here, there were incredibly elaborate (and I mean really elaborate), detailed, and sometimes very huge and heavy costumes. I saw dozens of stormtroopers and Jedi, a Darth Vader, several incarnations of the Doctor, a handful of Daenerys Targaryens, a few Castiels (Supernatural), a handful of Starfleet officers, and dozens of other superheroes, robots, and steampunk costumes that I did not recognize. These people wander around, crowding the hall, checking out the vendors, getting autographs and photo ops, and it’s pretty amazing to be crowded by fictional characters like that.
But most amazing is the way that cosplay serves as a form of connection. My first day, I donned a Starfleet uniform (a science officer from the original series, carrying the rank of commander, which I suppose would make me a first officer as well). I had the costume made on Etsy, and invested a good portion of money in it. Coupled with some knee-high boots, if I do say so myself, I looked pretty believable – and I had several people come up to me and request to take photos with me, and a handful more compliment me on my outfit (including William Shatner!) My second day, I threw on some denim and plaid to cosplay Dean Winchester, and ran into a Gabriel and a few Castiels from Supernatural, whom I took photos with as well. This all seems unremarkable except when you realize that in a hall crowded with thousands of people obsessed with hundreds of different fictional worlds, cosplay becomes that sort of connection. It becomes a way of proclaiming “this is what I’m a fan of!” and finding like-minded people in a huge hall. Most of all, however, cosplay becomes a sort of identity, that lets you identify people who have similar identities and connect through that.
Speaking of identity – there’s a lot of academic though about how identity is all just performance (Goffman and Judith Butler both write about this quite a bit), and a number of academics in the field of fandom studies have started applying this kind of theorizing about identity to cosplay as well. It seems to make sense: after all, when you don a costume, you, to some extent, don a personality; you make some sort of claim about who you are and what character means enough to you to dress up as them. You express your identity through fiction by making that fiction into reality. Whether you want to call it mimesis or performance, you take a piece of something that’s inspired your imagination and you create a physical product that allows others to see who you are and to relate to that identity. And again, in a hall crowded with thousands of people, this ability to wear your identity on your sleeve – and to use that identity to connect with others by using a common, fictional reference point, is pretty handy and pretty fascinating.
Plus, have I mentioned how cool it is to wander a convention hall and run into fictional characters? A number of the costumes were so elaborate that it felt like Darth Vader was actually strolling through the hall or that a Stormtrooper was following you. Especially if their faces were hidden, it really felt like fiction came to life, in, say, the form of a group of Jedi on secret Jedi business. It was like a number of fictional worlds had all come to life at the same time, and all the fictional characters were dumped into one place to walk around. I can’t explain just how amazing and breathtaking it is to see all these fictional characters become real and just sort of…wander around, just like you do, buying stuff and talking to people. Part of the charm, I think, is not just cosplaying yourself, but in creating that atmosphere where the fictional worlds come to life for the people around you, who feel like the things they’re invested in exist, that they’re somehow real because look, there’s Jedi and stormtroopers walking around, so it clearly must be Tatooine.
Which leads me to my next point about what brings people to conventions. Why do people come if they don’t come for that kind of uniting love of one franchise? Of course, they come to take photos with stars and get autographs and buy stuff and ask questions. But I think all of this – as well as all the cosplay and all the fictional worlds coming to life – all hint at a deeper need. One that I think William Shatner hit upon pretty brilliantly in his panel: it’s a sort of ritual.
Shatner spoke of science fiction in itself as a sort of mythology. Normally, mythology attempts to explain how the world works – which is why there were gods of the sea and weather and fire and rain and whatnot, and Prometheus myths, and giants. Nowadays, we’ve explained the sun and the moon, but there are still mysteries in the universe – so much we don’t know. What’s out there? How much don’t we know about what we don’t know? Science fiction, to some extent, fulfills that mythological need – it attempts to explain what might be out there, gives us ideas and possibilities, and makes us think about them. It doesn’t always provide answers, but it does provide perspectives. Star Trek was particularly great at this, taking us to other planets and other cultures and helping us to understand what might be out there and how the universe might work. And conventions are – well, responses to that sort of mythology. They’re a way for us to find answers and enchantment in a more modern world, where science and reason play a role in that mythmaking but where there’s still wonder.
And indeed, there seems to be a form of ritual about these conventions, where people are brought together by this sort of modern mythology in ways that are, in some ways, ritualized.
In a book on audiences and performance, two authors (Abercrombie and Longhurst) point out the ritual, almost sacred nature that is involved in being a “simple” audience – that is, in attending the theatre, or a concert, where there are certain unspoken rules of etiquette, certain actions that are always followed, certain scripts according to which the audience behaves, which gives the entire endeavor a sort of ritualized, and therefore sacred, experience. They also point out the way that theatre was often tied to the sacred in the past – from the theatre of ancient Greece to the medieval church plays – and indeed, I agree with them that there is something ritualized and sacred about going to the theatre, about going to see a performance – or about going to see a panel and interacting with an actor or artist as one would in a theatre.
I think this form of the sacred, and of ritual, extends much further, though. Without going too academic on all of this, I think there’s an element of seeking out the sacred in collecting autographs or comics our figurines (artifacts, really), a certain element of ritual in the way that encounters with stars happen (photo op and autograph etiquette is usually the same at every convention, and there are certain very strict rules in how you can approach and interact with someone, who’s placed on a pedestal by virtue of being a celebrity). These celebrities, rather than being representatives of a religion, are to some extent representatives of a mythology – the mythology of science fiction, of comics, of geekdom, that William Shatner talked about – and our interactions with these people are highly controlled, highly ritualized because of it (you can do this, you can’t do that), which gives it all a character of the almost sacred (“William Shatner signed my Enterprise! John Barrowman touched my butt!” kind of sounds like “this saint laid his hands on me!”)
So I think, inadvertently, Mr. William Shatner hit upon something that it might behoove academics of fandom and of popular culture to study – the way that science fiction, popular culture, and geekdom, are a form of mythology and a form of the sacred in our modern day culture, and the way that conventions are not only a manifestation of “worship” (in a loose sense of the word) of the sacred, but also the way that people connect through their investment in this mythology (for, like it or not, religion has to a certain extent often been a way for people to connect, even as it’s been the source of religious wars and sects).
And that finishes up my post as an aca-fan, as a geek who’s also an academic, who enjoys reveling in the wonder of meeting Captain Kirk but who also likes to think about the processes involved in this interaction.