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.
It’s, as usual, been a while since my last post. In the past few months, I”ve had the good fortune to begin graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, which has been amazing, rewarding, educational, and wonderful – I’ve had a chance to learn so much about so many of my interests, including a number that I post about here. HOWEVER, it also meant that all of my time was eaten up, so all those blog posts that I have saved on my computer that are about 90% done? Yeah, no chance of finishing those. Now that I”m on vacation, the situation is similar- I have a pile of final papers to write, barely any room to breathe, and no time whatsoever. Nonetheless, I’m hoping that I can carve out some time during my holiday vacation to finish up those almost-finished posts and post them here, so, hopefully, stay tuned!
Recently, Supernatural aired its 200th episode, and as it was a metafictional episode dealing with fandom, fan fiction, transformative works, and the interaction between show and fandom, it resulted in a rather lengthy review from me, where I explore some of my thoughts on the interaction between Supernatural and its fandom, and the interaction between show and viewer in general. Read the review below; originally published on Blogcritics.
On Tuesday night, Supernatural aired its 200th episode. It’s a landmark that few shows achieve, and many celebrate the achievement with a very special episode (Stargate, for example, made fun of every sci-fi show known to man, including itself). Supernatural chose to celebrate the occasion by doing something that’s become its trademark over the years: a metafictional episode that’s so meta it makes your head hurt.
This time, the meta madness took the form of an all-girls school putting on a Supernatural play (well, after 10 seasons, at least someone clued in the writers that most of the fandom is female. It took a while!) based on the in-canon Carver Edlund books (otherwise known as the Winchester gospels), and adding some of their own….interpretations. After all, Chuck stopped writing after “Swan Song,” so it was up to these fictional fans to tell their own story of events – which apparently includes robots and tentacles.
Conveniently, there’s also a case in the same town that brings the Winchesters there; unsurprisingly, it turns out that the play and the case are related, and not for the first time, the Winchesters run into their own lives, with their usual trademark faces of astonishment mixed with annoyance. It turns out that the play is haunted, and the culprit is Calliope, the Muse, who helps a work of literature be brought to completion, then eats the author (maybe it’s the literary grad student in me, but there was a wry voice of humor in my head whispering “Death of the Author.” Thanks, Barthes). The only way to catch Calliope and defeat her? Well, that requires getting her to show up, and that means putting on the show and believing in with all their heart.
It’s an obvious and transparent culmination to the story: the only way to save the day and defeat the monster is to stage the story, to believe in Supernatural with all of your heart, and to remember everything that made you fall in love with the story in the first place. It means acting the hell out of the story, “putting all the sub in that text,” as Dean puts it, and making the show go on. This episode’s been billed as a “love letter to the fans” for the past few weeks, and it’s obvious why: because it’s not just the show, but the fans’ love of it, that quite literally saves the day. That’s pretty inspiring.
At the same time, though, it wouldn’t be a 200th episode without a celebration of the show itself that we’ve all fallen in love with, and that’s where it all fell apart for me. It didn’t feel like a celebration of the show I had come to love and the community I had come to be a part of. I mean, sure, Robbie Thompson (the show’s resident meta episode writer) got a lot of things right: the fandom’s still lamenting that Adam’s in Hell with a sort of wry humor, the drama teacher’s comment about there being “too much drama” is a pretty perfect description of the Supernatural fandom, and all the monikers the fandom comes up with, from “Samulet” all the ship names such as “Destiel” and “Samstiel” (for the uninitiated, “shipping” the romantic pairing of fictional characters by fans). The episode had some great funny moments – including Thompson taking the mickey out of the show’s own storyline by having the fans react to it and call it really awful fan fiction. And it also had some touching moments: one of the ending scenes, for example, had the entire cast singing a cover of “Carry On Wayward Son” with Sam and Dean watching, visibly touched – and it brought back all those feelings I had as I feel in love with this show and listened to this song on repeat.
And yet, I didn’t see a celebration of what made Supernatural so great and what made me fall head over heels in love with it. I wanted to be moved and touched by this episode, because this show has meant the world to me – but somehow, that show didn’t quite understand what makes it so special. In fact, it seems like the show’s vision of what makes the show so special is “two brothers against the world.” That’s the heart-felt “boy melodrama” moment that Sam and Dean watch towards the end of the episode, as the fictional Sam and Dean drive away together in the Impala, reveling that it’s “the two of us against the world.” The episode itself ends with that exact scene: Sam and Dean driving away together in the Impala, the two of them against the world, as Dean hangs a replica of the Samulet in the mirror. It’s pretty clear: we fell in love with the story of two boys who made their own family.
Except that that’s not what I fell in love with. It’s only a small piece. I didn’t just fall in love with the boys – I fell in love with a story about family, and family “don’t end with blood,” as Bobby said. I fell in love with Castiel and Bobby Singer. I fell in love with Team Free Will taking on the world together – and yet this landmark episode didn’t even include Misha Collins, who plays Castiel. That’s despite the fact that every time the “two brothers against the world” storyline started getting old (notably, seasons three and seven), it was Collins who resuscitated the show. In season seven, when Supernatural tried to go back to the two brothers format and get rid of every other character, ratings plummeted like a roller coaster, before shooting up again when Castiel returned. Both Castiel and Misha have been part of the family for years, with Castiel being so popular that a character originally contracted for a handful of episodes stayed around for six years. And yet, despite Collins’ requests, he didn’t even get to be included in the episode. So much for family.
Sure, the first few seasons were about the Winchesters against the world – and those Winchesters managed to single-handedly start the Apocalypse, which they ended because they branched out on their concept of family, including Bobby and Castiel and Ellen and Jo. At first it was just two brothers fighting monsters – but then the story got so much bigger. I recently rewatched “Lucifer Rising,” which I believe to be one of the masterpieces of Supernatural, and I was reminded all over again what I fell in love with: two brothers and an angel who fought for Free Will and humanity and made an epic story out of it. Dean and Sam and Castiel standing up and rebelling for what they believed in. And I saw so little of that being celebrated in “Fan Fiction.”
And to me, this was indicative of a much larger problem that, as a member of the Supernatural fandom, I’ve felt brewing for a while now: a fundamental disconnect between show and fandom. And this episode? It just felt like a pretty damn heavy reinforcement of that disconnect.
After all, the episode is a pretty thinly veiled allegory of the interaction between show and fandom. There’s the Winchesters, who are writing their own life story, and who represent the writers and producers, and then there’s the fans, who write fan fiction, have their own interpretations, and read into the subtext. And, as Dean says, pretty obviously, towards the middle of the episode: “You have your version, and we have ours.” The message the writers are sending is pretty obvious: it’s okay, fandom. Keep shipping, Keep reading into it. Keep finding that subtext and keep enjoying it. But it’s just subtext. It’s your version – and it’s pretty different from our version.
The problem? It’s that the line between the fandom version and the show is pretty damn messy. It’s that the subtext that the fans can interpret into their own version was intentionally included in the show by the writers, and yet keeps being denied. “Fan Fiction” was full of references to subtextual romance and “shipping,” with the writer/producer of the play itself admitting that they explore the “Destiel subtext” in Act Two. Dean encourages it to save the day: “You keep putting the sub in that text,” he says directly to the actress playing Castiel, encouraging her to play up the “profound bond” between Dean and Castiel. Go for it – as long as you recognize it’s only subtext, of course. Play it up as much as you like – but only because it’s your version, not ours.
But that doesn’t change the fact that our interpretation doesn’t come out of a void; it emerges from the things that the writers intentionally write into the show – and then deny. It doesn’t change the fact that Robbie Thompson tweeted “Destiel isn’t canon?” – and then went on to delete that tweet the day the episode aired. It doesn’t change the fact that a lot of us started shipping Destiel because there are scenes in Supernatural that almost literally came out of The Notebook – and now we’re told that we’re fans with our own “interpretations” of the “subtext.” It doesn’t change the fact that Dean and Cas have the exact same conversation as an explicitly romantic couple on the same show – which makes telling us “we have our version, and you have yours” an incredibly frustrating denial of the romantic aspects that the writers explicitly put into the show (that is, barring the possibility that they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing). The whole dynamic screams some pretty ugly words that I won’t get into – but to summarize, it feels like the episode puts any queer or romantic readings of the show squarely on the fans’ shoulders – without taking responsibility for the mile-long list of romantic TV Tropes in Dean and Cas’ relationship.
It’s all okay, say the writers. Keep shipping. Keep putting the sub in that text – in your version, that is. In the end, it’s pretty much an entire episode dedicated to validating the fans in their fan-fiction writing, in their shipping, and in their interpreting. In the final scene, Chuck Shurley (who everybody decided long ago is God, and is also the writer of the novels about the Winchesters’ lives) comes to the play as the author, and, in answer to “What do you think of our version?” says “Not bad.” Well, that’s pretty validating.
But in the end, that comes as pretty damn condescending. Fans – readers – are going to have their own interpretations no matter what. They’re going to imagine what their favorite characters had for breakfast, fill in the blanks that the author didn’t get in, and wonder about the possibilities, because that’s in the very nature of fiction. That’s how it works. Virgil didn’t need Homer’s permission to write fan fiction about Aeneas, and Milton certainly didn’t ask God for permission to write a twelve-book fan fic about Satan. Thanks for your blessing, Supernatural, but in the end, we really don’t need it. As Barthes put it a while ago, the Author is Dead, and the readers will see the story as they do.
What we’d rather have than this validation that we can have our fan fiction and you can have your story is recognition that there’s a relationship between the two. We’d like you to acknowledge that a lot of us ship Destiel because of the damn romantic scenes that you wrote. We’d like you to recognize that what you push onto us as “reading into the subtext” feels like some pretty damn intentional writing on your part that you just refuse to acknowledge. What I’d like to have, for once, is a meta episode of Supernaturalwhere the fans get something right instead of having “our own version.”
The Supernatural fandom’s pretty evenly divided down the middle right now, with some people loving this episode and some being incredibly disappointed. I’m not sure which camp to be in – because I love Robbie Thompson’s episodes, because he clearly did want to write a love letter to the fans, because it was clearly good natured – but at the same time, I’m really, really tired of the same song and dance of subtextual suggestion and then denial. And the place that leaves me is the same cynicism I’ve had in regard to this show for the past year or so.
Well, it’s been a while.
I may have been rather a delinquent in terms of writing posts on this blog, but fear not, I’ve been consuming copious amounts of media, and do have a rather lengthy list of blog posts that are just waiting a finishing touch before they’ll see the light of day.
My latest show – one of those passing obsessions that’ll flit away as soon as I’ve finished all three seasons, no doubt – is Revenge, about which I want to write a few words today.
Revenge is, quite simply, a genderbent modernization of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Count of Monte Cristo, in case my kind readers require a quick refresher, is pretty much the story of revenge in the Western canon. It’s the tale of Edmond Dantes, who is falsely imprisoned for treason because his “friends” covet his beloved, Mercedes, and/or want to make a name for themselves by betraying him and thus rising through the ranks. Eventually, Dantes escapes, undergoes a transformation into the wealthy and erudite Count of Monte Cristo under the tutelage of a man named Abbe Faria, and returns to wreak revenge on those who wronged him – in dastardly, manipulative ways.
In this modernization, the role of the Count of Monte Cristo is taken on by Emily Thorne, a woman whose family was framed for murder when she was young, and who’s come back to orchestrate her revenge. Though the adaptation is quite loose, there’s some parallels and allusions that are hard to miss. Aside from the very obvious and prominently placed copy of The Count of Monte Cristo on a bookshelf in a scene, there’s Emily Thorne herself – originally Amanda Clarke, she’s changed her name and identity and acquired the wealth and knowledge necessary to orchestrate her enemies’ downfall. She has a mentor named Takeda – her modern day Abbe Faria, and even a beloved she left behind named Jack Porter.
The show itself, as might be evident from its title, Revenge, skips over the beginning and ending of The Count of Monte Cristo (the conspiracy against Emily’s family is told in flashbacks, and the “meaning of life” stuff that makes Dumas’ novel so excellent is passed over as well). Instead, it draws on the meaty middle portion of the novel: the manipulations, skullduggery, backstabbing, and intricate plotting that form the revenge plot itself.
In short, Revenge is, like a large portion of The Count of Monte Cristo, a soap opera, full of plot twists, complicated relationships, and cliffhangers. In fact, what’s interesting is the way that this show modernizes The Count of Monte Cristo’s story of revenge; after all, bringing down a rich CEO or destroying a politician’s career are much more relatable to the modern viewer than revealing a character’s treasonous ties to Napoleon Bonaparte or his role in the French sacking of a Middle Eastern city. I’m a big believer in timeless stories – but I do also believe that sometimes a modernized adaptation can speak loads about the original and put it into perspective – and this is one case where modernizing the story just makes it more interesting.
What I find even more interesting about this show, though, is the “genderbent” part of it. Genderbent is a fandom term that refers to switching the gender of a character on a television show – usually by making certain characters from a largely male cast female. In this case, it is The Count of Monte Cristo himself, the protagonist who’s returned for revenge, who’s transformed into a woman – Emily Thorne.
I actually think this is huge, for the one reason that Emily Thorne isn’t really a hero. She’s an antihero. She’s a character who’s constantly struggling between her dark side (her desire for revenge, her hate and her ruthlessness) and her good side (her conscience, her love for her childhood sweetheart, her friendship with partner Nolan Ross, and the temptation to let go of her revenge and just live happily ever after with someone she loves).
In short, she’s a pretty morally grey character – framing someone for murder one episode and wholeheartedly comforting someone she cares about over the death of their dog the next.
This is huge because women in the media tend to get relegated into one of two camps: the prize/sexy lamp/plot device for the male character, or the villain. They get to be either the innocent victim, or, if they show manipulation, independence, ambition, and (god forbid) sexuality, the irredeemable villain. Male villains get moral grey area and compassion (for an excellent example, see Loki from the Marvel Universe. He’s literally a mass murderer and all the fandom can talk about is how his feelings got hurt. Or look at Crowley from Supernatural. He’s another mass murderer, so why are our protagonists still hanging out with him?) Female villains? Well, those tend to get unceremoniously killed because they can’t have redeeming features. It’s a double standard shared by Hollywood and fandom itself.
And here we have Emily Thorne. She’s hell-bent on revenge. She’s ruthless. She’s manipulative. She’s deadly. She has ruined people’s lives and orchestrated their downfalls. She’s struggling between her quest for revenge and her humanity.
And she’s the main character. We’re supposed to cheer for her.
You know who usually gets to be the antihero who struggles with their good and evil sides, the morally grey character we’re supposed to have compassion for?
Damon Salvatore. Severus Snape. Lucifer. Han Solo. From a certain point of view, Sam and Dean Winchester.They get to be dark, brooding, sexy, and male.
You know who doesn’t get to be the antihero, struggling between their good intentions and their evil actions, who gets to be pinned down into an irredeemably evil role?
Female characters. Like pretty much every single woman on Supernatural.
And here you have a female antihero. A brilliant, manipulative, ruthless woman who is also the protagonist.
In fact, this show seems to turn the Count of Monte Cristo – and its whole gender paradigm – on its head. It’s the revenge-bent protagonist who’s female, while the beloved that this protagonist leaves behind, the beloved that represents love and humanity and conscience? His name is Jack Porter, and he’s a guy, and he really, really doesn’t get to do much except be a foil for Emily.
And it is so, so refreshing to see a female character who has so much evil to her, who has so many crises of conscience and struggles over her humanity – and who’s the female character that we cheer for. It’s so refreshing to get a female character that gets to escape the usual gender paradigm of the media, where women are either victims or irredeemable villains.
So far, I’ve only seen one season of Revenge – but I get the sense that much isn’t going to change. After all, so far Emily Thorne has demonstrated an ability to beat up people twice her size, orchestrate the arrest of an innocent man, trick a businessman into going bankrupt, broken into a countless number of houses and buildings, blackmailed a number of characters, and not gotten caught one single time. Sometimes it’s so refreshing to have a female character who’s actually, like, competent.
I know it’s been a while since I last updated. I’ve got a number of posts in my drafts folder, but, me being the perfectionist that I am, I keep waiting until that moment when the writing has reached the status of perfection (possibly an unreachable goal, and a goal I should work on being less obsessive about). In any case, I wanted to make a quick post to say that I’m still updating this blog, and have a number of posts waiting to see the light of day – including thoughts on Torchwood, Star Trek, and Motor City Comic Con. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, feel free to check out my writing over at Blogcritics or at Den of Geek, where I”ve been posting a number of reviews. One of my reviews has also recently been published on io9 (a fact about which I”m ecstatic!), and since this makes quite a lengthy list of places I’ve been published, you can see them all in a more organized form at my other blog.
While thinking through a new article idea today (about Sherlock Holmes, of course, and yes, I have about five of those), I started thinking about detective fiction, detecting, and the process of reading. While there’s still much thinking to be done before I come to a thesis on that particular topic, I did remember a piece I’d written on the subject a few years ago. I thought it’d be relevant to dig it out and repost it, as I do quite like the piece. It is entitled, as one might surmise…
The Sherlock Holmes Method of Literary Analysis
It was at some point during the twenty-four-hour cycle we call “the day,” and the line between night and morning was becoming just as blurry as the text before my eyes. The play count of several select songs on my iTunes had increased significantly, contributing largely to my feeling of accomplishment, copious amounts of graphite had been left on the pages of a well-worn book in the form of notes and underlining, and I was almost finished with my essay on Wilde’s artistic philosophy as presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It was in that bleary-eyed state that I went for a stroll through the utterly deserted Hyde Park in Chicago. As a part of my brain wondered whether there was another human being left on the planet – hardly likely, it seemed in that complete and utter emptiness – the rest of it considered how well some of Sherlock Holmes’ statements about crime solving applied to literary study.
Of course, that idea is nothing new. That’s what the whole idea of playing “The Game” is about.
If you don’t know what “The Game” is, allow me to explain.
“The game is afoot!” figures among those famous Sherlockian quotes that pop up ubiquitously along with “elementary” and “you see, but you do not observe.” To Sherlock Holmes, that phrase meant that there was a crime to be solved, a challenge to be faced. To us Sherlockians, the notoriously obsessed, it also means that there’s a mystery to unravel. It means pretending that Sherlock Holmes was real and applying his sleuthing skills to fill in the gaps in the Canon. Gaps such as trying to figure out what happened to Holmes’ cocaine habit after The Final Problem, or finding the location of Watson’s strangely mobile war wound.
But what occurred to me during those early morning hours is that those sleuthing skills apply not simply to speculating about how many times Watson was married (between two and six, depending on whom you ask). They apply to writing the kind of literary criticism that the aforementioned essay on The Picture of Dorian Gray involved.
“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” Holmes states in A Scandal in Bohemia.
The above quote embodies the first rule of the study of literature. One does not come up with a thesis and then look for evidence to support that thesis in the book. One lets the book speak. Each quote, symbol, image, color, literary reference, each word, really, is one piece of data. All the pieces of data must be weighed and examined. Then (in my case, at least), lots of logorrhea must ensue, during which thoughts become theories and theories are refined and perfected. And then a thesis emerges. Which makes it sound, of course, like throwing a bunch of pieces of data into a brain-machine, cranking it up, and coming out with a thesis. That’s not inaccurate: Holmes is described by Watson as a reasoning machine, and I like to be able to immodestly say that I emulate his methodical process.
But the ability to reason like a machine is not the only important one. In The Sign of Four,Holmes outlines “three qualities necessary for the ideal detective.” They are: “the power of observation, the [power] of deduction, knowledge.” The literary critic is also a sort of detective, searching for Truth (or a publishable thesis, as the case may be), and those three qualities are invaluable.
Observation: to know what to look for, to notice themes and images and be able to pick out the significant phrases from a text. To notice the imagery of light in a text dealing with knowledge, or in a science fiction novel – such as the fire at the end of Frankenstein. Knowledge – the knowledge of what those themes and images mean, of literary history and context and the influence of both upon the text in general, of what the author knew and how that could have influenced him or her. The knowledge that light is a metaphor for knowledge, for example, or that the word “miracle” comes from the Latin word “to look.” Deduction – the ability to apply knowledge to observations and make deductions. To deduce, for example, that Frankenstein’s death in a fire at the end of the novel symbolizes his destruction through knowledge.
All of that makes it sound, of course, as if books have one clear, unarguable message; that each classic contains one Truth that is as impossible to contradict as the results of Sherlock Holmes’ hemoglobin test. Which just really isn’t true. Literature does have wrong answers, I would argue, but it doesn’t have one right answer. It has right answers. It’s the search for those answers, and what they mean to us, that makes literature meaningful. A wonderful teacher once said to me that when you come up with a thesis that applies to a work of literature, it “clicks.” Really, I think this is true. There will be certain theories about literature that will feel “right.” They will feel like the truth, even if it’s the truth of one’s subjective world, and Sherlock Holmes just might have had something to do with finding that truth.
Anyone who’s known me over the past few years can testify to my growing love of science fiction. Though I’d dabbled in the genre previously, it’s only over the last few years that I truly began to realize its potential – and this interest, I think, came to a culmination with my love of Star Trek. It’s what truly revealed to me that science fiction was the literature of ideas, more so, I think, than any other genre.
But, for the longest time, I struggled to understand why this was; to come up with a general, unifying principle for what quality of science fiction gave it the depth and perspicacity to explore ideas and possibilities so well. I began to get a small inkling with Star Trek: The Original Series, and the way it constantly used myth, metaphor, and allegory, such that the story transcended the events of the narrative to reach a greater height of symbolism and allegory that made it meaningful on several levels at once. That’s particularly evident in episodes such as “The Enemy Within,” where a transporter accident divides Kirk into two halves, good and evil. In a Jekyll and Hyde sort of story, the plot itself centers around putting Kirk back together, because he needs both his good and evil sides in order to function; but on another level, it serves as a sort of metaphorical examination of the good and evil in every human being, as a product of our human complexity.
But this, too, I didn’t feel truly capture the possibilities of science fiction, or what made it so good at probing the depths of really complex ideas. Seeing plot as metaphor and allegory is all very well, but it didn’t feel like the full extent of what I was looking for.
Yesterday, I had a bit of a eureka moment. I figured out how science fiction works.
I’m aware that what I’m doing here is reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There’s been a lot of theorizing done on science fiction already, and some preliminary research has led me to find the words – and the theoretical framework – for what I came up with myself. So, this post is not in any way a claim to innovation; it is rather my own attempt to work through these ideas for myself. I’m aware that I have a lot of reading ahead of me on these topics, and I would hazard a guess that much of what I’ll say here will coincide with that reading. Still, I’d like to offer these thoughts for what they are – a simplified version, perhaps, of an already existing theoretical framework. I’d also like to, in keeping with the theme of this blog, apply that theoretical framework to a few of the shows I’m devoting this blog to, as a way to comment on certain episodes as well as to illustrate what I mean.
So…drumroll….the way I conceive of science fiction as working, the fundamental, driving force behind it, is, in my view, the concept of defamiliarization. It likely applies equally well to fantasy, which, along with science fiction, forms a genre I like to call speculative fiction; in fact, I see much of fantasy doing with magic what science fiction does with science and technology, but this is both a point of contention for some people and a bit peripheral to my argument.
Defamiliarization – or, in the original Russian, ostranenie – was a concept first theorized about by a Russian formalist critic named Shklotsky. It is exactly what it sounds like – the process of making the familiar unfamiliar in order to reveal something about it. Of course, Shlotsky himself wasn’t talking about science fiction, and he limited his theory to things like poetry and drama. He was interested in the political possibilities for social critique that this offered, and he focused mostly on things like language and style as ways to make something unfamiliar. But, despite the limited application he seemed to see for these ideas, I think it’s one of the most brilliant concepts in literary theory. Only by taking something that we’re intimately familiar with – so familiar that we can’t really see it and comprehend it for what it is – and making it strange and unfamiliar, portraying it from a different perspective, can we really learn something new. An incredibly simplistic analogy would be the idea that one must step back from a work of art to really see it; however, here it’s not really a process of stepping back so much as fundamentally re-orienting the direction from which one sees the work of art in order to see it in a new way.
Science fiction, I think, expands this possibility of making the familiar unfamiliar so much further than Shklotsky originally envisioned, precisely because the possibilities and tools offered by science fiction to make something unfamiliar range so far beyond things like style and language. Science fiction opens up, literally, a universe (or more) of possibilities. Anything can be made unfamiliar not simply from being described in a different way, but from being portrayed in a completely different setting. Things we’re familiar with on earth can be displaced onto other planets, human characteristics can be projected onto alien races, things like gender, sexuality, and race can become aspects of alien civilizations in order to appear strange or alien, anachronism can about as the civilizations of other planets develop different from ours, and the scope of possibilities – all of time and space – is simply astounding.
That is not to say that “literary fiction” doesn’t have its values (I guess literary fiction is the term for things that aren’t genre fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, but don’t even get me started on categorizing fiction). There’s certainly validity in realistically, believably describing characters, events, and historical (or contemporary settings). An intimate psychological portrait of a character or an incredibly perceptive description of a historical or physical setting can be incredibly revealing, and certainly science fiction, too, strives to be psychologically believable and realistic in its worldbuilding. But, no matter how detailed, and perceptive, and accurate and well-written the stories of literary fiction are, we are going to inevitably be insiders to them. We’re going to come with pre-conceived notions about a historical setting or figure, a culture or nationality, class or race, gender or sexuality or profession, or any number of things. They’re going to come to us attached to current political debates or ideological and political histories that we simply cannot escape.
Science fiction gets rid of that. It offers us a completely new perspective, removing many of our political, social, and cultural preconceptions, because while we can project those prejudices and preconceptions onto the familiar, it’s a lot harder to project them onto the unfamiliar.
For example, a novel such as War and Peace is historically detailed and psychologically intense, and in so doing, reveals things like the nature of war and the structure of society and social relationships. It’s revealing because it’s intensely descriptive and psychologically perceptive, but any reader reading it will still come to the novel with preconceptions – about the Napoleonic Wars (which we’ve all studied in history class), about nineteenth century social institutions, about Russian culture (if one is an American reader), about realism in the Russian novel. We’ll have a certain familiarity with the content and certain categories to think through it – we’ll understand it through the lens of the European history we’ve learned, through our understanding of social institutions, through our conception of how gender was understood in the nineteenth century.
But what science fiction does is remove a lot of those categories and that framework, so that we can think about some of the same issues (for example, the nature of war, or social institutions, or psychology and gender) without the cultural and historical and political baggage that is inevitably going to be attached from setting something in a “real,” familiar world.
The most poignant example I can think of this is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “First Contact” – the episode from which this blog derives both its name and its theme. The episode shows the Enterprise trying to do exactly what the name implies – make first contact with an alien civilization, the Malcorians. They monitor the Malcorians’ media, go undercover to try to understand their culture, and finally, they make contact. The Malcorians are just on the verge of discovering warp travel (which seems to be Star Trek’s criterion for making first contact), and while some parts of their society are excited by the possibility of going out into space and meeting new cultures, there are other factions that are frightened and confused, both by the technology involved and by venturing out into space. We learn that Malcorian culture is founded on the belief that they are superior beings in the galaxy, and naturally there are factions who believe in a better use of resources than venturing into space. Some characters are portrayed fairly steadfastly anti-technology in the first place.
Of course, from the viewer’s perspective, it’s incredibly easy to judge the Malcorians. After all, we’re invested in watching a show that’s about “going where no one has gone before.” We’re emotionally attached to the concept of exploration and the wonder of discovery and of other civilizations, which Star Trek is based around. Of course we’re going to sympathize with the Enterprise crew rather than the more judgmental opinions of the Malcorians.
But that’s precisely what makes this episode so brilliant – because the Malcorians are a reflection of us. The point takes a while to hit home, but eventually it becomes evident. After all, humanity itself is a pretty self-centered species. It took us until the Renaissance to figure out that the Earth went around the sun – and, consequently, that our little planet was not the center of the universe. It caused a lot of controversy at the time. Even today (and, presumably more so in Roddenberry’s day), there are still people (even in countries with access to very good education) that insist that the Earth does not go around the sun. In my experience living in the United States, that’s more true, perhaps, than in other countries; despite out much-lauded first amendment, our culture is still pervaded with religion and anti-scientific rhetoric. We’re constantly arguing about how much money we should give to NASA. There’s a very American belief that we’re the best country in the world (despite statistics to the contrary), and if we did go to space we’d presumably carry that belief with us. The first thing we did when landing on the moon, after all, is stick an American flag there. We’re used to conceiving of ourselves as the only beings in the galaxy, of our planet as the be-all and end-all. Which really kind of makes me shudder about what would happen if we ever did meet an alien civilization – humanity doesn’t exactly have a good track record with meeting the new cultures they discover.
Which is precisely what makes this episode so effective – this process of defamiliarization. Malcorian culture is fundamentally similar to ours – from the fear and unwillingness to venture out into a universe of which we might not be the center, in some factions, to a love of discovery in other groups of people. And yet, at the same time, the Malcorians are just different enough, just unfamiliar enough, that we feel, to a certain extent, removed. We’ve never heard of the Malcorians. Their appearance is different from ours. Their physiology is different, a point brought home in the beginning, when Malcorian doctors attempt to treat Riker and find his heart “in his digestive tract.” Their technology is different – they’re on the verge of warp capability, which alienates them from us humans in the real world (presumably NASA hasn’t built that warp drive yet) as well as from the humans we’ve come to love in Starfleet. They live on a planet we’ve never seen. In essence, the Malcorians are fundamentally different – and yet not. And that’s what causes this defamiliarization, this double-take when the viewer realizes they’re at the same time familiar and unfamiliar, like us and yet not us.
And, given this unfamiliarity, we can take these issues for what they are, removed from our preconceptions. We can see the issues that plague our humanity while removing all the cultural, religious, and political baggage that such an issue would inevitably raise in our society. The issue of our place in the universe, of humanity venturing out into space, of how we would view alien civilizations – is removed from the problems of how big a budget we can afford to give NASA, or the limitations of Earth’s resources and economy, or the religious rhetoric that’s inevitably going to trickle in when we discuss the nature of the universe. The whole issue that is so important to humanity is addressed, and yet taken completely out of its context, made unfamiliar, so that we can reconceive of the way we see ourselves and address these problems. As a viewer, we’re set up to judge the Malcorians, to some extent, to disagree with the anti-scientific rhetoric of some members of its society and feel pride at their discovery of the warp drive – and then, upon seeing ourselves in the Malcorians, reflect upon ourselves. The episode sets us up to almost judge ourselves, us humans, in the same way we’ve judged this alien civilization, to see our own pride, egotism, fear, and hesitation, and reconceive these flaws and our priorities as a race of beings.
And, hopefully, we become inspired to do better, to venture out into the stars after getting rid of the conception that we’re better than everyone else that might exist in the galaxy. The episode ends with the Malcorians deciding to put off going out into space, to dedicate more money to education, to make the youth of their civilization understand the marvels of science and technology and the possibilities in the universe that lies beyond. And perhaps that’s what this episode is telling the viewer, too, in a more subtle way – that perhaps we should embrace science and technology more, become more open minded, learn about the universe out there from down here on the planet – before we dare venture out. We need to grow up as human beings before we can explore what’s out there, and the episode tells us that precisely by taking everything out of context.
Many of Star Trek’s episodes use precisely this process of defamiliarization to address a variety of issues; this approach pervades the series. This episode is only one of hundreds of examples, perhaps one of the best ones because it’s so relevant to the core themes of Star Trek and how the show affects us as humans. But this approach is evident everywhere – not just in the plots, but also in the characters. For example, each Star Trek series has a non-human character as part of the main cast, a character who reflects our humanity to us precisely by not being human (Spock on TOS, Data on TNG, Seven of Nine on Voyager…). In these characters, our humanity is so often defamiliarized by being projected onto another. Spock, though a logical Vulcan, is constantly attempting to reconcile his Vulcan and human sides, reflecting back to us our own conflicts between reason and emotions. Data, though not human and incapable of feeling, constantly seeks to be human and do what humans do – he dates, creates a child, forms friendships, has sex, and tries to make jokes, all in the name of understanding these aspects of being human. But he comes to them from an outsider’s perspective – in dating, he has to write protocols for his conduct within the relationship; he’s not capable of feeling amusement, and so tries to make jokes though he cannot actually experience the concept of humor; he creates a child by making a copy of his positronic brain because he cannot truly reproduce, but seeks to recreate himself. These things lead us to question why we value all these activities, why they make us human, what it is that we value about them. And, taken out of their context, approached in different ways (such as reproducing through, quite literally, copying one’s brain), it asks us, for example, why we want to reproduce. What is it about our humanity that we want to perpetuate every time we have a child? Why do we laugh? Why do we need humor?
These questions are endless – as endless as the universe itself (which, according to Bill Nye, “fucktuples in size” every second or so), and so is science fiction’s ability to address them.
And now that I’ve briefed you all, do excuse me. I have a distant planet to visit.