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William Shatner and LeVar Burton Talk Science, Mythology, and Sci-Fi

With the exact date of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary coming up shortly on September 8th, celebrations of what started as a strange little show with low ratings are in full swing. Star Trek: Mission New York promises to take over Labor Day weekend with a slew of panels, screenings, autographs, and other festivities, and this past weekend, Cherry Hill hosted a Star Trek 50 year mission tour convention.

Though much of the aforementioned convention was based around entertainment (with celebrity Q and A’s, a Rat Pack performance on Friday night, and karaoke), there was also intellectual stimulation to be had for the sci-fi nerd, including panels on Women in Star Trek, Star Trek and Shakespeare, and a discussion of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. Two actor appearances – William Shatner and LeVar Burton – also stood out; both spoke passionately about science fiction and science, speaking of its potential and of its influence.

William Shatner began his panel by talking about what projects he’s been working on lately, but this quickly segued into a short talk about the nature of science itself. His most recent project – titled The Truth is in Our Stars, and slated for release in December – is a series of interviews with scientists influenced by Star Trek, including Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking (whom he interviewed just last week). Shatner spoke with great passion about the questions science asks – what are we all doing here? What are we? What the hell does it all mean? These are the same questions that mythology attempts to answer: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And science fiction, as he has so often previously stated, is deeply mythological, in taking these metaphysical questions and giving them realistic answers.  He made some short quips about the answers to all these questions – “we’re all vibrating!” he summarized, after snarkily suggesting that scientists talk for fifteen minutes but have no better answer to the above questions than anyone else.

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William Shatner speaks passionately about science and science fiction

But this snark was quickly replaced by deep seriousness. He looked almost enraptured as he spoke about his experience with Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, telling the story of how, once, when he was speaking about the mathematical beauty of music with Michio, he asked him, “Kaku, what instrument do you play?” Michio pointed to his head, his brain – which, almost ecstatically, Shatner suggested was an instrument like any other, capable of touching the beauty of the universe in some way. He spoke also of Stephen Hawking, who lives in a body that doesn’t work – but his mind does. He had similarly asked Hawking once, “what instrument do you use?” to receive a similar answer – his mind.

Shatner also spoke about the very real impact of – and crosspollination between – Star Trek and real science, and, in particular, space exploration. He went back to the late 60s, when, he claimed, the achievements of the space program brought in ratings to Star Trek. These ratings, in turn, inspired scientists and the continuation of the space program. He even suggested (citing an unmentioned source) that it was the influence of Star Trek that caused Congress to vote for funding for the space program, calling Star Trek “instrumental” in getting money allocated for the space program. (as a side note, William Shatner is what one might consider a primary source on the topic, given that he was at the center of things during the Space Age of the 1960s; at the same time, I have no written sources at this time to back up his claims).

In short, my admiration of William Shatner (which was already great) has grown even more with this conversation. He seems to have a deep respect for both Star Trek (whose ideas and philosophy he said he admired, even producing a moral/political reading of Star Trek’s funniest episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and science (whose potential he spoke about with visible admiration, ending his appearance with words of admiration for the brilliant young scientists currently working at NASA that he’s interviewing for his project).

In short, when he claimed “I’m Captain Kirk!” halfway through the panel, he wasn’t joking – he seems to have James T. Kirk’s openmindedness and sense of wonder about both the world around us and the fiction that describes it.

This influence, which Star Trek had on so many lives, also touched LeVar Burton, who played Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. While Shatner had mentioned more abstractly the various influences Trek had had on scientists, inspiring them to pursue science, LeVar spoke of the way that the Original Series (of which he was a huge fan) showed him that he had opportunities as a young black kid- something he loved incarnating in Geordi, a character with a disability who is still able to pursue his passion.

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LeVar talks about the inspiration of Star Trek and the power of science fiction

He also wholeheartedly admitted that he’s a science fiction nerd, because science fiction invites us to contemplate “what if” – which, he said, are two of the most powerful words in language. He also called imagination a superpower- a thought process that essentially enables us to travel through time and space in a way that no other species can. And storytelling is what connects us to the imagination, that brings it to life. In short, though he didn’t say it in those words exactly, he spoke of science fiction as similarly mythological: just like Shatner suggested that sci-fi lets us answer the question of “what’s out there?”, LeVar suggested that it lets us ask “What if?” (LeVar also mentioned as I was getting his autograph, on the very same isolinear chip that he refused to fix for me, that his favorite science fiction author is Octavia Butler).

They both spoke about a topic that’s been of deep interest to me in my research: the relationship between storytelling and science, as well as the way that our penchant for narrative extends beyond the obvious – literature. Over the summer, I had the chance to read The Storytelling Animal, which suggests that storytelling – that is, the ability to ask “what if” and work out the consequences of potential scenarios – is not only programmed into our brains, it’s how we have survived as a species. That is, not only is the imagination a superpower, it is a fundamental survival skill of our species. And science fiction, in its incorporation of science, is particularly apt at working out those consequences and projecting hypothetical scenarios, giving it the power to answer not only “what if?” but also the more mythological question of “What for?”

In short, LeVar and Shatner both spoke with amazing understanding about a topic that I’ve been focusing on as an academic for some time now; at the same time, they gave these talks at a venue that more than proved them right: a 50th anniversary celebration of Star Trek. Star Trek really does showcase the mythological, magical power of storytelling in general and science fiction in particular.

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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

Motor City Comic Con: The Belated Thoughts of an Aca-Fan

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.

Star Wars display in the con's huge hall

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.

My cosplay and photo op with William Shatner

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!”)

My sacred relic/autographed Enterprise

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.