Monthly Archives: July 2015

Seriality, Patternicity, and Science in Literary Studies

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.

Magic vs. Science: A Matter of Perspective

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, Michio Kaku:

“It is our destiny to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared.”

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