The Secularization of the Undead

If you only know vampires, werewolves and zombies from modern fiction you won’t understand what I am about to say.  If you haven’t read Dracula by Bram Stoker this essay won’t mean much.  The origins of all the famous species of undead in fiction are shadowed in long forgotten myths.  They come from a time in human history were good and evil meant something very different than what it does today.  Primitive people saw reality created by two forces – the divine and evil.  The phrase the Devil made me do it wasn’t just some cop-out excuse for shirking responsibility.  People were either filled by the spirit of God or possessed by Satan.  To modern believers, God or Devil, at best influence people.  They bargain.  Even the most ardent feel they have free will to choose.  In the past that wasn’t always so.

dracula

As an atheist I don’t believe in the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see it everywhere in people’s minds.  In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires were pure evil, to be avoided at all costs – even to the point of committing suicide.  Whereas modern vampires are sex objects, and even the worse of them aren’t evil in the old sense.  As society moves away from religious beliefs, it is transforming its ancient symbols and myths.  This can be seen clearly by reading books about vampires in the 19th century, and then watching how the role of the vampire has changed through the 20th century and into the 21st.

A distinction we should make is between morality and ethics—the two main systems of determining right and wrong.  Legal systems are a strange hybrid of the two.  For most of history morality was defined by God and people were expect to follow his rules.  That’s the original definition of morality   As society became more secular people became philosophic, and right and wrong was hammered out with logic and rhetoric to eventually become ethics.  Ethics is the system by which humans decide what is right and wrong.  Many secular people still use the word morality, so it’s also being transformed.  There are even scientists who seek to find moral origins in biology and animal behavior.  But I’ll use morality in its original intent, as rules handed down by a divine being.

Vampires were immoral immortal creatures.  They were agents of Satan, and represented the flow of evil forces permeating the world.  Evil is seen as an absence of divine force, and its actions are in opposition to moral laws.  Modern vampires have become secularized so they are no longer evil or agents of evil, but they can be unethical.  We have also secularized the words good and evil.  Good used to mean the divine, and evil the lack of God, or the force of Satan.  Now good means many things, but it’s taken on a political correctness to mean what is socially acceptable.  Bad and evil, mean something different too.  Evil has taken on the connotation of something extremely bad, or extremely unethical.  Hitler was evil.  By the old definition of evil, that would have meant Hitler was an agent of Satan, working for the forces of evil.  By modern standards he was a psychopath that killed millions of people through his own intent and not the Devil’s.

There are philosophical problems here.  If God is all powerful, how can evil exist?  Does God allow Satan his domain in reality, or does Satan have his own power that God can not touch?  In Bram Stoker’s Dracula evil is darkness, without any goodness, that does have its own power.  Characters in the story protect themselves from evil by embracing God.  Thus the defensive power of the cross and holy water.

The undercurrent of Stoker’s Dracula is sex.  His Victorian novel was not allowed to be explicit, but it was obvious enough.  Evil conquers the virtuous through sex.  In modern stories, sex is still the major theme, but it’s been converted.  Sex is no longer evil, and neither is sex with a vampire.

Modern vampires can be good, and even seek to regain their souls, but this isn’t because divine forces won the war with the undead.  As women were emancipated in the 20th century and gained both political and sexual freedom, they no longer needed the protection of males, and they escaped the prison of being the icons of virtue.  Women writers refashioned vampires and the other undead minions for their own purposes.  Women writers have decided the undead are hot, and they have cleaned them up ethically, and made them into objects of sexual desire.  Stoker believed Victorian women should be protected from vampires.  Modern writers have made vampires into the ultimate bad boys of desire, very fuck-worthy, and perfectly suited to become Mr. Right.

Strangely, most modern male readers and writers would prefer that vampires stay ethically bad or even evil so it’s socially acceptable to kill as many as possible with no guilt.  We still like the Victorian attitude of the only good vampire is a staked vampire.  Action fiction demands a bad guy to be killed, so the soulless undead make great targets for first person shooters.  But even here, the undead have been secularized.  They are no longer agents of Satan, but just plain vanilla bad guys.  If the story was a morality tale it would require that the protagonists be moral, and the theme of the story would be morality, and that’s disappeared too.

Vampires were the first to become love objects, but slowly all the undead, even the gruesome looking zombie, are being transformed into protagonists of romantic interest.  It appears the whole pantheon of the undead have become symbolic figures in stories of teenage angst over sex and violence.  Any psychoanalysis of this fictional evolution would take book length studies requiring years of research.   For instance, one aspect to explore is immortality.  In the old days of God, immortality was conferred by the divine.  I doubt many believe in real vampires, but they do reflect a desire for another path to long life.  One where you keep your body and live a very long life on Earth.  Earthly life has become a secular heaven.

These stories have been further secularized by writers coming up with pseudo-scientific reasons to explain the undead and their powers.  But if we were a completely scientific society vampires, werewolves and zombies wouldn’t exist at all, even in fiction.  As an atheist I have little interest in the undead other than to see them as literary symbols.  It means as long as we have stories about the undead, then we have audiences and readers desiring aspects of the supernatural for some psychological reason or another.  We like to think it’s all childlike fun for goose-bumpy making tales but I worry that they are a kind of Freudian desire for things we can’t have.

JWH

What it Takes Personally to Write My Novel

I woke up early this morning and started fantasizing scenes from the story I hope to make into a novel.  I’ve been writing novels in my head for most of my life, but except for when I’m taking writing courses (with deadlines), I just don’t write fiction.  I should be honest with myself and admit I’m never going to write that novel.

But I can’t.

pugs-00015

All my work life I dreamed of having time to work on my novel, and now that I’m retired and have that time, I don’t.  That should emphatically tell me something too.

But I’m not listening.  I keep thinking I’ll change.  And herein lies the rub.  I need to change!  But can I change?  It will require a metamorphosis not as extreme as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, but pretty close.  I don’t need to become a six foot bug, but I do need to become something that’s not like me at all.

And the willpower for this change will be greater than even losing the weight to have a healthy body mass index – and I’ve never been able to lose weight either.

I know, I’ve whined about this many times before.  I’m sure I’m boring what few regular readers I have for this blog.  But I keep thinking, this time will be different.  This time I can write something that will convince myself to change.

Do you believe me?  I wouldn’t either.  But should I give up?

After breakfast I sat on my couch and thought about this.  What would it take for me to change?  Without being drastic, without going overboard, I figured all I need to do is alter some of my habits but keep most of them so I won’t freak out.   Currently, I like to write a blog post every morning, and that averages about a 1,000 words.  I’m usually through by noon.

Step one.  From now on I can only write fiction before noon.  I can do anything I want after noon, even write blogs, but before noon, I can only write fiction.  That should give me plenty of time to pursue all my favorite time-wasting activities, so I won’t feel deprived, but enough time to get some novel writing done.

Step two.  I spend most of my reading time reading off the web with Zite, News360 and Flipboard, or reading nonfiction books, or nonfiction from magazines.  All of this nonfiction inspires me to write nonfiction blogs.  I need to read more short stories and novels.  I don’t think I can kick this nonfiction reading habit, but I’ll try to never read nonfiction before 3pm, and spend time after lunch reading and studying fiction.

Step three.  I should only read fiction that I wished I had written.  I need both inspiration and models.  I need to study what I like and figure out how it works.

Step four.  Let’s see if I can stick to these three baby steps until June 1st and see what happens.

p.s.  This means I might be posting fewer blogs.

JWH – 4/26/14

Aren’t Television Shows Just Short Stories for People Who Don’t Want to Read?

Many of my bookworm friends tell me they dislike reading short stories.  They claim short stories are too slight, not enough plot and character, to waste their reading time on.  Okay, I can buy that.  But isn’t a 22 minute episode of The Big Bang Theory just a short story?  Isn’t a 47 minute episode of Nashville, merely a novelette?  I’m currently listening to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James that runs 24 hours.  Most current TV shows have a season of 24 episodes.  So if they were collected as an audiobook, the entire season of 30 and 60 minute shows would still be shorter than one literary novel.  Doesn’t that sound like an anthology of stories?

In other words, don’t people still really love the short story?  Some people like to read, others to listen, but most love to watch!  Don’t most of us crave two or three stories a day?

playhouse-90-2

At one time the short story was very popular in America.  There were hundreds of short story only magazines for sale at newsstands, and some writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald were paid big bucks for a single story.  Even when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, most women’s and men’s magazines would contain at least couple short stories. 

Why did people stop reading short stories?  Why did they fall out of favor?  The obvious answer is they haven’t.  Pulp magazines just mutated into television shows.

How long have humans needed a daily diet of fiction?  Aren’t short stories just oral story telling in mass production?

It seems pretty logical to think folks just switched from reading a thirty minute story to watching one.  It’s also easy to assume that the half hour show is the short story, the hour show the novelette, and the movie is the novella.  But if we look deeper, I think there are some other concepts to consider, most notably the continuing character, the series, and the genre subject focus.

spicy-western-stories

At the beginning of the 20th century most magazines, even pulp magazines, were general purpose magazines for readers of all ages of both sexes.  But as the century progressed publishers created specialty subject magazines, some devoted to single characters, that catered to particularly reading tastes, and demographics.

If you read the latest volume of Best American Short Stories 2013, the annual anthology that collects the best of literary short fiction, you don’t see stories involving a continuing character, a series, or can easily be pigeon-holed into a micro-genre.  Now there are plenty of genre magazines devoted to the short story that do regularly publish this type of story, but their content seldom gets picked for the annual Best American Short Story collection.  For the last 50-75 years, publishers seem to be zeroing in on the continuing character novel, so that most mystery novels, and many science fiction and fantasy books, are now about popular characters involved in a series of adventures.  Doesn’t that sound like television?

doc savage

Television supplanted the pulp magazine, and is now inspiring how many writers write their books.  What happened to the slice of life short story, and the great American novel?  Writers prefer to develop a character and setting they stick to, like those in television shows.  It’s easier to sell, and sells better.

The best literary short stories are tiny slices of life, unique views of humanity.  Most novels from the early history of book publishing were always stand-alone tales, just longer slices of life, with highly detailed unique views.  In the early days of television there were many drama shows that featured a different story and cast of characters each week, the most famous at the time was Playhouse 90, but probably the most famous still somewhat seen via streaming, is The Twilight Zone.

The unique slice of life story was quickly supplanted by the continuing character show.  But that had already started in pulp magazines before the age of television.  I’m curious who the first continuing character was?  Sir John Falstaff appeared in three plays by Shakespeare.  And how many stories did Sherlock Holmes appear in?  Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer appeared in several books, and readers wouldn’t let Louisa May Alcott stop writing about Jo March.  If Louisa was alive and writing today, the March sisters would be a television series.

It seems most people love short stories, about favorite characters, in a setting and subject of particular interest to them.  Other people like stories stretched into novels.  While I love continuing character stories on TV, I avoid them in novels.  But I still love short, unique, slice-of-life stories, either written or dramatized.  I wonder why most people don’t.  I’ve been re-watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone, and some of them are very powerful.

Burgess-Meredith-Time-Enough-at-Last 

However, my brain quickly forgets them, or most of them.  In over fifty years I’ve never forgotten Henry Bemis, or the pig nose people.  If I had only seen one episode of The Big Bang Theory in my life, would I still remember it?  Maybe it’s memorable because I’ve stuck with it for seven years.  Apparently we crave long term relationships with our fictional friends.

Memorable novels are like short intense love affairs we never forget.  By that standard, it seems most people would rather have long term friendships.

JWH – 1/17/14

Why Were The Two Most Famous Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century Not Written By Science Fiction Authors?

The two most famous science fiction novels of last century were Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  Now I didn’t write that to generate a flame war among science fiction fans, or as a slight to genre writers, but because I believe it’s true, especially if you ask people who don’t normally read science fiction.  I’m actually wondering why the two biggest successes using science fiction as a writing technique weren’t penned by writers who specialized in writing science fiction?  Huxley and Orwell were straight ahead literary guys – total amateurs at speculative fiction.  They probably never heard of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell.

And, the two most famous science fiction novels of the 19th century, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, were not written by a genre writer either.  H. G. Wells existed before the science fiction genre was established.  Nor were his books written for the genre reader of his day, which did have a lot of science fiction, even though it lacked the label.  In the 21st century, when science fiction is a well established, and a well loved genre, it bizarrely seems that the people who aren’t science fiction writers have the biggest successes with the technique.  Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are two good recent examples.

What are these non-SF writers doing that SF genre writers aren’t?  I just got through rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four and I thought about this the whole time I was thoroughly enjoying the book.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is so different from the genre science fiction books I normally read that I’m tempted to say it’s not science fiction.  Many literary writers and English profs claim just that, but they would be wrong.  Insanely wrong.  George Orwell might not have written for Campbell’s Astounding, and probably never even read the famous pulp, but Nineteen Eighty-Four would have fit comfortably in that magazine as a serial.  No Astounding reader would have made one objection as to it not being science fiction.  And I’m quite sure readers would have voted it the best story of the issue, even if Heinlein had had a story in that issue too. 

Not long ago I reread Beyond This Horizon by Heinlein and I felt pretty sure that Heinlein wrote it hoping it would be another Brave New World.  Heinlein was savvy enough to know that Huxley’s book sold far more than pulp fiction, and at the time, very little science fiction was even being published in hardback, or that new format, the paperback.  Here’s an early paperback cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four – looks just like a science fiction novel, doesn’t it?

1984_pulp3

While reading Nineteen Eighty-Four this time I was blown-away by Orwell’s world building genius.  World building is an essential feature of SF/F, which books like Dune and The Lord of the Ring illustrate.  J. K. Rowling is a billionaire for her world building, and deservedly so.  Does that mean Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world is just better painted than all the other genre stories working with the same idea?  Does The Handmaid’s Tale just out dystopian run of the mill SF writers?  Maybe so, but why?

It’s pretty obvious that more people on Earth can understand what the implications of Big Brother are over philosophical implications of Arrakis.  Too many hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century encountered a totalitarian state first hand, or fought against them in wars, or spent years hearing about them in the news, not to understand the brilliant portrayal of Big Brother and the savage criticism of them with the creation of Newspeak.

The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are so well known in the 20th century is they describe so clearly the quintessential fears of the 20th century.  All stories set in the future are about the present, and I guess the better they are about exploring the present, the more copies they will sell, and the better chance they will be part of the curricula in high schools and colleges.

The entire time I spent reading Nineteen Eighty-Four off my Kindle I was amazed by how relevant this book written in 1948 was to 2013.  To write that Orwell was brilliant is an undeserving understatement.  We live in a society that worships freedom, yet we live with constant NSA surveillance, continuous war, Homeland Security, and the sun never sets on our drone airspace.  Our paranoia knows knows no bounds.  In terms of political psychology and insight into the human heart, Orwell runs away with the prize for applying science fiction techniques for writing about the future to say so much about now.  Nor has any science fiction writer ever attempted to explore the linguistic territory of Newspeak, which is the real science that makes Nineteen Eighty-Four great science fiction.

brave-new-world1

I haven’t reread Brave New World recently, but I plan to.  Brave New World was written in 1931 and I just finished a book,  One Summer: American 1927 by Bill Bryson that is the perfect companion to the Huxley book, because it explained the world Huxley was living in when he wrote his classic.  It’s a time when many U.S. governors and mayors belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, where many prominent Americans publically espoused beliefs in eugenics and extreme racism, where many states had passed eugenic laws, and racism was the law of the land.  The twenties was the decade that mass production and mass communication really got massive.  It was a decade where America began the Americanization of the world.  That scared Huxley.  Huxley was afraid of America in 1930, and Orwell was afraid of Russia in 1948.

Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are true dystopian novels – they are anti utopian, written in response to intellectuals promoting utopian solutions to world problems.  Huxley and Orwell understood the world in which they lived, and wrote books that showed off that knowledge in deeply insightful ways.  They both used science fiction as a literary device to philosophize about ideas if written as nonfiction would have been entertaining to few, and boring to many, but because of those techniques, wowed millions.  Readers still study and reference their work.  And those novels would not have had the impact they did without the science fiction. 

Huxley and Orwell, and other literary writers, use science fiction to bring political, ethical and scientific ideas to the masses.  Why don’t more genre writers attempt this?  Heinlein tried, especially with Stranger in a Strange Land, his most ambitious novel.  So, why did he fail?  I think for two reasons.  First, it included ESP, or PSI powers, that aren’t scientific or believable, and second, it promoted his personal ideas about freedom, especially sexual freedom, nudity, and group sex, which few people beside the hippies of the 1960s shared.

Ray Bradbury hit one out of the park with Fahrenheit 451, but it’s never achieved the popular acclaim that Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four has.  Maybe because it wasn’t nearly as ambitious as those two.  And dare I say it, maybe the target, those people who would give up reading for mindless television, were insulted rather than inspired to canonize literacy?

John Brunner also tried several novels of this type, using science fiction to make political statements, especially Stand on Zanzibar.  Zanzibar was an experimental tour de force that was hard to comprehend or read by the general reader, but dazzled the exceptional reader.  It should have been a contender.  It should be better remembered.  Both Fahrenheit 451  and Stand on Zanzibar are shining examples of what pulp writers can do when they aim high.

I think the genre writer that comes closest in writing ambitious science fiction for the non science fiction reading masses was Orson Scott Card and his book Ender’s Game.  It was obvious targeted at genre readers, but it was widely read outside of the genre.  It was never as sophisticated as Huxley and Orwell’s books, and didn’t deal with broad contemporary issues, but it dealt with xenocide in a way that made it relevant to the average reader who could translate it into commentary on genocide, or commentary on science fiction.  Unfortunately, the recent movie version of the story targets Ender’s Game at the lowest common denominator video game player, whose kill anything that moves instinct means they have deaf ears for the ethical insights.

The 2014 Earth is just as fucked up as the 1948 Earth, even more so, so why aren’t we reading novels that targets our political, social and ethical failures like modern science fictional smart bombs that are literary descendants of Huxley and Orwell?  Is it because serious thinkers no longer believe that science fiction is the proper tool?  Has decades of fun science fiction dulled the edge of sharp science fiction?  Or maybe we don’t have political and social thinkers like Orwell or Huxley anymore, because those writers work for the New York Times or Fox News.  Let’s hope it’s not that times aren’t bad enough yet to be muses for such writers.

JWH – 12/31/13

The Addiction to Fiction

Have you ever wondered about the nature of fiction?

Reality is what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, feel with our hands, taste with our mouth and smell with our nose.  Fiction is the way we fool our senses into thinking we’re perceiving another reality, one that isn’t there, but one we want to temporarily inhabit.  Fiction is our effort to create virtual realities without computers, using just the power of our minds, or the illusion of television/movie screens.

From amoebas to chimpanzees, we’re probably the only creature on Earth that spend so much time rejecting reality.  Why?  Have we evolve more brain power than we need to live, so we use the excess to imagine?  Or is sitting around in trees eating grubs just not enough to keep our brains busy?  We created civilization after civilization trying to find the right alternative to nature, but we’re never happy.  We always want more.

Or did our addiction to fiction start with “Once upon a time” when were were so very little?

I have met people who lived their lives without fiction, but they were usually graduate students from Asian countries whose ambitions didn’t allow for them to waste time on books, movies, television, comics and video games.  Busy people, especially those who go on to make billions, usually don’t waste time with fiction.  Which makes me wonder if I hadn’t had my lifelong addiction to fiction if I would have been busier, more creative and productive?  Or is it, if we don’t find exciting lives to live, we read about them instead?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not regretting my addiction.  I am not trying to talk myself into going cold turkey.  I am too far gone to ever contemplate giving up my addiction.

I want to understand the nature of fiction so I can seek more powerful fictional highs. 

Most bookworms are beer drinkers and marijuana tokers, merely satisfied with using one genre their entire life.  I’m not sure any mystery or science fiction novel ever gets beyond the buzz of beer or the high of grass – for the real opium and heroin level highs you have to move on to literary writers.  And that’s so hilarious, because the most addictive fiction, the hardest of the hard stuff, are those books that get the closest to writing about reality.

Television and movies are more like crack highs that become all consuming.  Which makes video games the crystal meth of fiction.

I like to rationalize that fiction represents the greatest form of communication.  In real life we can listen to each other chatter on for minutes at a time at most, but when we read a book, some of those communiqués last for thirty or forty hours.  How many people would listen to their friends if they talked as long as Tolstoy, Proust or even Stephen King?  And is Anna Karenina or War and Peace escapism, or capsule summaries of 19th century life?

JWH – 11/18/13 

Gravity–Riveting Story Set In Space

[Don’t read this review if you haven’t seen Gravity.  But when you have, because you should, come back here and let’s talk.]

Television watchers are experiencing a renaissance in storytelling.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, The Newsroom, have taken the art of storytelling to new heights.  By carefully focusing on character, writers have developed new techniques to create highly addictive forms of fiction.  This has revolutionized television.  Character driven storytelling has always been preeminent in novels, and prominent in movies, but television was always seen as a vast wasteland of lowbrow entertainment.  Now I like television better than movies, or even books.

So what is television doing that movies aren’t?  Movies often seem like a vast wasteland of teenage schlock.  CGI unreality, over the top action, Three Stooges type violence, and silly premises that should insult grade school kids.   But most of all, the characters are unbelievable.  Movies aren’t about things I could actually experience.  I don’t relate to their stories.  Maybe kids can love superhero characters because they haven’t yet learned there aren’t any superheroes.

A week ago when watching the final episode of Breaking Bad I wondered what I would have to watch next Sunday.  I remember mentally wishing I could find something that surpassed Breaking Bad in storytelling intensity.  Well, I got my wish, because on Sunday night I saw Gravity, the new film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.   The previews brought me to the theater with great expectations, but I wasn’t prepared by how blown away I would be by the film.  While the credits were rolling I thought how Gravity set a new standard for science fiction movies.

This space story seem real.  The characters felt like they could be real people.  The special effects were wonderful, but not the story.  This movie had the attributes of what make the current great television so much better than the movies.  But what are those attributes? For one thing, there’s not a superhero in sight.  Nobody is saving the world.  Even though the characters are involved with extraordinary situations, they are ordinary people.  Maybe we aren’t rooting for the little guy, but we are resonating with characters that are closer to ourselves.

GRAVITY

Don’t get me wrong, Gravity isn’t literary or deep.  And although Bullock and Clooney give amazing performances, their characters were almost clichés.  How Gravity amazes is through simply gripping storytelling.  It is a story of survival, beating tremendous odds in a harsh environment.  And although Gravity wasn’t very scientific, Gravity felt very realistic.  Gravity was brilliantly science fiction in the same way Gattaca had been years ago, it was about a individual overcoming tremendous adversity in a science related setting.

Although in the last couple of decades we have had more and more female action heroes, I felt while watching Sandra Bullock that Gravity represented a paradigm shift, transforming story hero from male to female.  It didn’t feel like a gimmick that Ryan was a woman.

For the first hundred years of of filmmaking Ryan Stone would have been played by a male actor.  Ripley set the precedent, but when Ryan pulls herself out of the muck and stands, with the camera angle from the ground looking up at her towering figure, it felt that women had finally surpassed men at their own game.    It was much like Vincent beating the genetically enhanced humans when he took off into space at the end of Gattaca.

George Clooney plays the ultra-cocky space jock to a tee.  Matt Kowalski is perfectly at home in a vacuum.  Kowalski has the science down cold.  But more than that, he is mature way beyond his boyish antics.  He is an alpha male passing the baton to a female saying with total confidence, you can do this.  I know most viewers won’t see this film as a feminist statement.  Most girls won’t think twice about Sandra Bullock being the lead character.  But in real life and in movie life, things have changed a lot in my lifetime, but not nearly enough.

The message is clear, women can fly the fighters, drive the tanks, pilot the spacecraft, command the ships, shoot the M-16s, control the telescopes, construct the skyscrapers, etc., but it’s sad that so many women have MTV ambitions, like Miley Cyrus, to wear skimpy outfits and twerk.  Movies and television, the most heavy-duty of pop cultural social programming, sends the message that women can now do anything.  But will they?  And will we accept it?

If you think I’m making a pointless issue, then think about this.  What if our two actors were cast against type.  Would you have liked Sandra Bullock as the veteran space jock, and George Clooney as the mission specialist rookie?  We’re still brainwashed to think George Clooney should have played Matt.

Yes, we have made women into action heroes that can shoot and kill, but action heroes aren’t believable characters, they are cartoon characters.  How often are complex male roles given to female actors?  Would you have believed Sandra Bullock as Matt Kowalski?

Let’s put it another way.  I work at a university and the majority of the engineering and computer science students are male, and the majority of the teacher education and nursing students are female.

The role of Ryan Stone calls for a rookie, and most rookie astronauts are still male.  Picking a female to play Ryan is an intentional decision to make the character to appear more helpless because we’re still conditioned to think of women as helpless, or of needing help.  Gravity shows us we’re wrong. But being helpless is good in this movie, because good storytelling is about getting the audience to identify with the main character, and we’d all be essentially helpless in space.

Picking the name Ryan is an intentional choice too – Sandra Bullock is to stand in for a man.  I think that was a perfect choice by the writers of Gravity.  We’re cheering the stand-in for everyman who also happens to be everywoman.  Not only that, we’re all identifying with her, guys and gals.  While watching the movie I totally identified with Ryan Stone and not Matt Kowalski.  I never had the Right Stuff, but I might could have been Ryan Stone.

Maybe next time when they make a film like Gravity, the veteran space jock will be a woman, and it will be as natural as our need for air, but for now Sandra Bullock was perfect in this role.  Whatever is the magic formula for modern storytelling, Breaking Bad and Gravity have it down as well as Walter White cooks meth.

- – -

By the way, many people are nitpicking Gravity for scientific issues.  That’s cool.  But don’t let it keep you from seeing and enjoying an amazing film.  I was really disappointed with Neil DeGrasse Tyson because his complaints were rather lame compared to the problem of orbital mechanics.  Here are some things to read, but don’t get too hung up about them.  Gravity is a triumph of storytelling.  Like preconceived gender roles, we still want fiction with far more excitement than actual reality.  It’s hard to embrace perfect realism.

I expect gender roles to continue to evolve, and I expect incorporating realism into popular fiction to evolve too.  Breaking Bad was far more realistic than such a show would have been ten years ago, but in ten years, writers who will surpass the talents of the Breaking Bad team, will create a series about cooking meth that is far more realistic.  Gravity could have been just as exciting if it had been 100% scientifically accurate.  And I’m not dinging it for its scientific faults.  I’m just pointing out that we’re moving towards a kind of absolute realism in fiction, and that includes gender roles too.

Fact Checking Gravity

JWH  – 10/11/13

The Visual Limitations of Novels

This week I read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles first published in 1949, and then I watched the 1990 film version by Bernardo Bertolucci with Debra Winger and John Malkovich.  I found the novel a stunning example of writing, and the movie a stunning example of cinematography, which only made it obvious that novels are severely limited in evoking the visual world.  Reading the novel, the world of Port and Kit Moresby felt claustrophobic and small,  but seeing the same couple on screen, showed them living in a vast panoramic vista.

sheltering-sky

In mind, I knew Kit and Port were traveling across Algeria in the late 1940s, after WWII, so the sky should have been getting bigger and brighter as they got closer to the Sahara, but instead it got darker.  That’s because the story was getting psychologically darker.  In fact, their world as I imagined it, was often dark, with few people and buildings.  The book so reminded me of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, that I thought Bowles must have used it as a model.  In the film version of The Sheltering Sky, the streets were crowded with people, and the cities and villages were sprawling with buildings with narrow maze like streets, and everything was bright, colorful and beautiful.  The gorgeous visuals overwhelmed the dark brooding characters.

It was jarring to watch the film right after reading the book because it looked nothing like what I imagined, but obviously the film looked like the world Bowles wrote about and lived in.

Reading The Sheltering Sky and then watching its film version made me see the difference in the two art forms.  And it’s not because Bowles didn’t give me the information to visualize.

When she was hungry, she rose, picked up her bag, and walked among the rocks along a path of sorts, probably made by goats, which ran parallel to the walls of the town. The sun had risen; already she felt its heat on the back of her neck. She raised the hood of her haïk. In the distance were the sounds of the town: voices crying out and dogs barking. Presently she passed beneath one of the flat-arched gates and was again in the city. No one noticed her. The market was full of black women in white robes. She went up to one of the women and took a jar of buttermilk out of her hand. When she had drunk it, the woman stood waiting to be paid. Kit frowned and stooped to open her bag. A few other women, some carrying babies at their backs, stopped to watch. She pulled a thousand-franc note out of the pile and offered it. But the woman stared at the paper and made a gesture of refusal. Kit still held it forth. Once the other had understood that no different money was to be given her, she set up a great cry and began to call for the police. The laughing women crowded in eagerly, and some of them took the proffered note, examining it with curiosity, and finally handing it back to Kit. Their language was soft and unfamiliar. A white horse trotted past; astride it sat a tall Negro in a khaki uniform, his face decorated with deep cicatrizations like a carved wooden mask. Kit broke away from the women and raised her arms toward him, expecting him to lift her up, but he looked at her askance and rode off. Several men joined the group of onlookers, and stood somewhat apart from the women, grinning. One of them, spotting the bill in her hand, stepped nearer and began to examine her and the valise with increasing interest. Like the others, he was tall, thin and very black, and he wore a ragged burnous slung across his shoulders, but his costume included a pair of dirty white European trousers instead of the long native undergarment. Approaching her, he tapped her on the arm and said something to her in Arabic; she did not understand. Then he said: “Toi parles français?” She did not move; she did not know what to do. “Oui,” she replied at length.

There is much visual detail in this passage, but I never saw it in my mind’s eye.  I never “saw” Algeria like I saw it in the film.  Now that I’m reading passages from the book after seeing the movie, I’m “reading” it differently, and seeing it differently in my mind.  This might be a clue to always see the movie first.  I find the Harry Potter movies fantastic illustrations of the books, but poor substitutes for them.

Just look at this film clip and then imagine how to describe in it words.  Does the words camel, caravan and desert even come close to evoking what we see?

While watching the movie I felt the soul of the novel had disappeared.  The experience of reading and viewing beautifully illustrated the difference between the visual medium of film, and the world of black and white letters that are decoded inside our head.  The novel is rich in details I can’t see, and can’t be filmed.  Or can they? 

Movies seldom have narrative commentary.  One example I can think of is the theatrical release of Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford provided a film noir detective voice over.  I’ve always preferred the theatrical release over Ridley Scott’s director’s cut.  I wish movie makers would experiment with unseen narrators to see if they could get closer to filming classic books.  There is an aspect to books that is neither dialog or description, that is always left out of movies.

I also read Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear this week and it begs for a movie treatment, or at least a graphic novel adaption.  Bear describes a world that is as visually bizarre as Oz, and a spaceship with three hulls.  I have no way of visualizing this story.  And the novel, Hull Zero Three is written like an action film, so it feels like the soul of a novel is left out.

I wonder what my reading experience of The Sheltering Sky would have been like if Paul Bowles had included National Geographic like photographs of all the locations Port and Kit visited on their trip?  I know of one book that did this, Time and Again by Jack Finney, a time travel novel about 19th century New York City.  The book included 19th century photographs of the city.  It made a huge difference to the story.  I wonder how I would have experienced Hull Zero Three differently if Bear had commissioned illustrations for his book?

I assume writers expect readers to do all the mental cinematography themselves, but I don’t think it would hurt if they provided a few seed images.  I’ve talked to many readers who claim to hate movies of their favorite stories because it ruins their own mental images they have created.  I think my problem is I don’t visualize books as I read them, and illustrations and photographs would be helpful crutches for people like me.

I recommend creating your own experiments to test the visual powers of novels.  Would the monster hit TV show Downton Abbey be as popular if it was just a novel, without all the beautiful visuals?  And think about all the many visual interpretations of Sherlock Holmes?  There are many film versions of classic books Little Women and Pride and Prejudice.  Try reading the books before or after seeing the movies and see for yourself the visual limitations of novels.

JWH – 3/23/13

The Shelf Life of Nonfiction

I buy books faster than I can read them, and some books go stale before I get around to consuming them.  Fiction is often timeless, but for nonfiction, most books have a shelf life.  A ten to twenty year old science book is usually not worth reading.  Books about politics and economics go bad even quicker.  And books about current events and pop culture have practically no shelf life at all.

Yesterday I started reading Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas From the Computer Age by Paul Graham, published in 2004.  When this book came out, the back of the dust cover had seven high praising blurbs, but I think time has tarnished the luster of its big ideas.  I’m not singling out Paul Graham for criticism, but using his book as an example of what time does to nonfiction, and to compare it to how fiction holds up better over time.

Hackers_&_Painters

For example Graham writes about nerds and geeks and speculates on the nature of popularity and how it appears that being smart is a good thing before and after high school, but not during.  Eight years later, this essay seems dated because the topic has been well covered since.  However, when I think of great stories about nerds and geeks, I think of King Dork, a 2006 book by Frank Portman, Sixteen Candles, a John Hughes film from 1984, and Freaks and Geeks, a TV show from the 1999-2000 season.  Graham’s nonfiction essay has few reporting details, other than some vague personal memories.  Graham was abstractly talking about the reputation of being smart among high school students, and if you were clued into his message it might have felt insightful in 2004.  It doesn’t in 2013.

Most of the essays are still somewhat appealing, but were probably much fresher as blog or magazine pieces at the time.  You can read them here, and in particular, “Why Nerds are Unpopular.”  I think the fictional accounts I mention above clearly show why nerds are unpopular, and these art forms have lasting power.  Now, this isn’t meant to criticize Graham’s essays.  I write the same kind of essays myself for this blog, and I often wonder if my ideas wouldn’t be better presented as fiction.  Social commentary often works better shown not told.

I wonder if 1981’s The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder would hold up to rereading today?  It won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1982.  Tracy used an abundance of actual details, and reported on the lives of engineers designing the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 minicomputer.  No one cares about that minicomputer today.  I found the book riveting at the time, but would I now?  Readers today might care about the history of the subculture that built it, but it would be an esoteric read.  I need to get a copy of The Soul of a New Machine and reread it to see how well it holds up 30+ years later.   Few people will ever read The Soul of a New Machine today, but many will keep watching movies like The Social Network (2010) long into the future.

Sure, some nonfiction books do have lasting power.  People still read On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin from 1859 and Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau from 1854.  Would more people understand these books if they were made into movies?

When I pulled Hackers & Painters off the shelf to read last week, I also pulled Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007) by Edward Humes, Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir (1999) by Jerry M. Linenger, and Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931) by Edmund Wilson.  The Wilson book is the most famous, but only known to literary theory historians probably.

These books are all worth reading, but do they really hold up?  Off the Planet offers the gritty details of being an astronaut and is far more realistic than any science fiction book.  And think about that.  Few people read about real space travel, and millions embrace highly unbelievable space opera in books, comics and movies.  For the most part people just prefer fiction to fact.

Monkey Girl is a serious book.  It’s an important book.  It’s about the teaching of evolution in schools and the legal actions against it.  A subject always in the news.  Monkey Girl is brilliant reporting on reality, with thousands of details and ideas to chew on.  I think that’s a clue to the success of nonfiction lasting.  Nonfiction must report details, not speculation.  A book like Eden’s Outcast, John Matteson’s 2007 biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott is timeless – until another biographer puts in more work that overshadows it.

I’m slowly moving from being a fiction bookworm to a nonfiction bookworm.  We’ve always cherished and judged great novels as art, but I think we need to apply the same attention to nonfiction.  Most nonfiction published is no more lasting than a newspaper, but some nonfiction books do have a long shelf life and we need to consider them as art too.

Yet, why does fiction have so much more lasting power than nonfiction?  I’m reading South Wind by Paul Douglas, a fictionalize account of British expats living on the island of Capri published in 1971.  Would a nonfiction travel book written at the time be more informative?  Before that I read Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick, a fictionalize account of 1959 life in Marin County, California.  I found it totally compelling.

What does fiction have that nonfiction doesn’t to make it enduring?  How is it we often find fiction more educational about the past than nonfiction books?

Writing nonfiction that’s powerful and lasting, should contain an abundance of facts that our collective soul won’t want to forget.  Either from research or reporting, nonfiction that’s as powerful as fiction must contain an overwhelming collection of vivid details about life in another time.  Strangely enough, it’s the accumulation of significant creative details that make fiction powerful.  Fiction can be lies that last for centuries.  Few nonfiction books last very long.  They are always superseded by books with better facts, but some nonfiction books do last.  We need to identify and think about them.

Here is Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books.  There are many wonderful books on this list, but most of them just don’t convey the concept of classics to me.  I’ve only read nine of them, and read parts of a few others.  I often reread great fictional novels, but rarely reread a nonfiction book.  Why?

That’s another kind of shelf life.  I keep my favorite novels, but I give away the nonfiction I admire.

JWH – 1/22/13

Life of Pi–Is God the Better Story?

Director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee have done an excellent job of adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi to film.  When I read the book back in 2004 I thought at the time it would never be made into a film because the novel was too cerebral, too narrative heavy, plus, how could anyone get a tiger to do all that acting?

bengal-tiger

Life of Pi the film covered a surprising amount of the content of Life of Pi the book.  So far I can think of just three scenes I missed.  First, story of Pi’s family running into Pi’s three religious leaders.  Second, showing how Pi used turtles to survive, and finally, the scene where Pi is blind and hears people in another life raft.

Still, Lee and Magee beautifully succeeded with capturing the philosophical heart of the novel.  If you loved the book, go see the film, you’ll be surprised by how well it was filmed.

Is God the Better Story?

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, don’t read beyond this point if you plan do either, because I’m going to analyze the philosophical statement of the book and it will spoil the story.

In the main story, a boy from India, Piscine Molitor Patel,  who wants to be called Pi, is shipwreck in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena and a tiger named Richard Parker.  Martel tells us this story very realistically and we are expected to believe it happened. But along the way, Martel takes us through scenes that are very hard to believe, like the carnivorous island with the meerkats.

Yann Martel has crafted a Zen kōan into a novel.  Most kōans are short, “What is the sound of one hand clapping.”   Yann Martel essentially asks, “Is God the better story?”

At the beginning of the novel and movie, in a pseudo introduction, the author is told by an older Pi, that he can tell the author a story that will make him believe in God.  Yann Martel creates two stories, one very long, elaborate, fantastic, awe inspiring – and brutal, and a second that is short and brutal.  We are asked which one we prefer.  Martel is right, everyone, including realists like me, will pick the story with Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.

So where does God come in?  How can this story make us believe in God?  Analyzing fiction for symbolism is tricky, but for me, Richard Parker represents God though analogy.  At the end of the film and novel, when Pi has told his long fabulist story to two Japanese insurance investigators they refuse to believe him.  So Pi tells a shorter, ugly version that we know is true, but hate to believe.  Then Pi asks the investigators which story they prefer.

We all want to believe in the story where Richard Parker existed because it’s a better story than the one of madness, murder and cannibalism.

So what about the prediction at the beginning, that the story will make us believe in God?  I believe Yann Martel uses the desire to believe in Richard Parker as a stand in for God, creating an analogy, that the readers and audience must make on their own.  Pi desperately wants to believe in God.  Pi asks us to believe in Richard Parker because the story of surviving in a lifeboat with a tiger is a better story than going mad and surviving alone.

The whole point of the novel is to trick the reader into the question:  Which story do you prefer.  Of course everyone prefers Richard Parker to be real.  By transference, we’re ask to accept that belief in God is the better story, just like how we want to believe that Richard Parker existed.  We’re never explicitly told that wanting to believe in Richard Parker is the same as wanting to believe in God, but I feel it’s obvious.

Yann Martel tells us people prefer religion over reality because the story of God is a better story than reality.  And I ask:  “Is this why people refuse to accept the fact of evolution because they prefer the story with Richard Parker – oh, I mean God?”

The novel is an elaborate metaphor to explain why people believe in God.  It doesn’t say that God exists.  Nor do we know what Yann Martel believes.  It just says people prefers belief in God because it’s a better story than how we see reality directly.

What the novel is tricking us into confessing is that the belief in God, no matter how unbelievable that story might be, that it’s a better story than reality.  That when we’re pushed to the ends of our physical and mental limits, we want God even if he’s cruel, vicious and indifferent.  That the belief in God is what gets us through this life.

Has Yann Martel stacked the deck?  Is God the better story?  Yes, reality does sometime involve madness, murder and cannibalism.  And even in the God story, people die, animals are cruelly killed and eaten, people suffer.  If the audience was given the Richard Parker story, and a documentary about the evolution of the universe with cosmology and the evolution of life on Earth with evolutionary biology, is God still the better story.  I don’t think so.  Richard Parker is like a magician’s diversion.  If you could watch this movie and blot out the tiger, the reality of Earth is magnificent!  Richard Parker and God divert our attention to our fantastic reality.

God is only the better story when you don’t understand reality.  Richard Parker is ferocious, terrifying, cruel, indifferent and doesn’t answer prayers.  No matter how much Pi loves Richard Parker and wants his recognition, Richard Parker ultimately refuses to acknowledge Pi’s existence.

So why is God the better story if Richard Parker just walks away from us?  I know many people who have long given up religion but haven’t given up on God.  They say that God must have created us but walked away from the universe and is no longer involved.  Personally, I’m confident there is no God and the size, age and origin of reality is beyond our understanding.  I find it far more comforting to know the rules of our local universe and not feel the need to blame a superior being for bad things or beg for good things.  If a bacteria, shark, drunk driver hurts me badly, I just accept it was the luck of the draw and not a judgmental deity deciding I had done something wrong.

Where the metaphor of Richard Parker breaks down is Pi can see Richard Parker, and we never see God.  It’s actually easier to believe in Richard Parker than it is to believe on God.  Life of Pi is a wonderful novel.  I’ve read I twice now.  And each time I want to believe the Richard Parker story, even though I know the truth is the story about cannibalism.  How many times will I have to read this book before the realistic story is the better story?

What if the novel and movie had been about a boy that survived 227 days on the ocean and had endured the incident with cannibalism and madness and survived.  No tiger, no zebra, no hyena, no orangutan, just Pi, his mom, the Frenchman and the Buddhist sailor?  It would have been brutal, but the success of Pi surviving the ordeal would have been just as magnificent.

Why do we want a better story?  Santa Claus is a better story than parents buying kids Christmas gifts from Target.  The tooth fairy is a better story than throwing milk teeth in the garbage.  Heaven is a better story than dying.  But why is God a better story than reality?  Is God a better story than evolution?  If you understood evolution and cosmology, God isn’t the better story.  God is a simpler story, and God’s story is endlessly confusing and contradictory.  It’s just God is fantastically powerful like Richard Parker.

Even though I disagree with Yann Martel’s assertion, I love his fiction.  See, that’s the real revelation in this.  Fiction is the better story, and Life of Pi is very good fiction.  Humans embraces fiction with an intense passion.  Richard Parker is a better character than a cannibalistic Frenchman.  And for many people, all the stories about God, are a better story than the brutal aspects of reality.  However, there is nothing in fiction that comes within light years of evolution.  All stories about God are just crude children stories compared to the complexity and beauty of evolution.  Evolution is just as brutal as the Old Testament God – it’s just not personal.

Here’s the final kōan:  Did Yann Martel write this story to make us atheists or make us believers in fiction?

JWH – 11/28/12

Defining Science Fiction by Analyzing NBC’s New Show Revolution

It’s very hard to define the term “science fiction,” a topic often discussed in my science fiction book club.  Searching the web reveals endless essays on the topic.  It’s not possible to come up with a one-size-fits all definition for science fiction.  I’m going to take another approach.  I’m going to analyze the new show Revolution point by point, and say which parts I think are science fiction and which I think are fantasy.

revolution

Revolution is about a family thrown into a dark world of a collapsed civilization.  The show begins 15 years after a worldwide blackout with a father dying, a son being kidnapped and the daughter seeking her long lost uncle Miles to help her rescue her brother.  The daughter, Charlie Matheson, played by Tracy Spiridakos is a kind of less hard, less savvy, Katniss Everdeen, so the story carries on the current vogue of girl action heroes.  Miles Matheson is played by Billy Burke and he’s your standard action guy.  This is why I loved Breaking Bad so much, none of the characters were cookie cutter clichés.

Strangely enough, the medium level bad guy in Revolution is Giancarlo Espositio playing Tom Neville, a ruthless, but sometimes coldly kind, captain of a militia, who previously played a ground breaking character in Breaking Bad, Gustavo “Gus” Fring, who was also ruthless with a strange tinge of cold kindness.  You’d think Espositio would have tipped the Revolution writers not to go for the obvious, and make him different.  I fear such a wonderful actor will get typecast.

Premise

Revolution pictures our world without electrical power or electronic gadgets – a powerful “What if…” scenario.  We’re all so depended on computers and electricity that it’s an intellectual adventure to pretend to live in a time of 18th century technology.   Revolution hints that some kind of force field is capable of dampening all electronics, and even electricity production.  Science knows solid state electronics are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses (EMP) that are generated as a byproduct of nuclear explosions.  However, mechanical turbines should continue to work, and even old fashioned tube electronics might continue to work with EMP fields.

There is no science to suggest that such a energy dampening force field is possible.  It’s just a writer’s gimmick to advance the story.  Does that make Revolution a fantasy?  It’s a damn cool idea, but so is a school for wizards.  In other words, I have to say the premise of Revolution is fantasy.

In Revolution, there is a reason why and how the power got turned off. Revolution’s creators are holding that back as a mystery, like the mystery of the island in Lost. Mystery is one of the prime movers of fiction, so you can’t blame them for holding back, but I’m worried I’m going to be disappointed, like I did with Lost. Unless they come up with other mysteries, I doubt I’ll keep watching.  Bad Robot Productions, the company that made Lost, and produces Revolution, does have a track record for upping the mystery ante every week.

The mystery of who has killed off the power isn’t very science fictional to me. For it to be really science fictional, it has to be plausible, so we think, “Could this really happen?” When Jules Verne and H. G. Wells wrote stories about men traveling to the Moon, people did think, “Hey, that might be possible, what will it be like, and how will they do it?” That’s science fiction.

Contrast Revolution with The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is set in the 22nd century after fossil fuels have been used up, after global warming has changed every thing, and after crop monoculture and genetically modified agriculture has failed.  In The Windup Girl Bacigalupi develops kinetic energy machines using springs.  This same technology would work in the world of Revolution, but so far we haven’t seen any ideas like this, and I’m not sure the Bad Robot people think this way.

If the Bad Robot Production people had been truly creative, they would have taken the same scenario and come up with a totally new post apocalyptic society – one without electricity, but very creative.  They would have envisioned new forms of mechanical power, the return of sailing ships and dirigibles, funky new bicycles, rocket powered airships, and new forms of animal power.  They could have had computers like Babbage dreamed about, and new art forms not depended on digital media.  That’s what science fiction is about.  What they gave us is Mad Max Lite.

Post Apocalyptic World

Post apocalyptic fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction, and for two reasons.  First, I love how an author imagines people surviving the collapse of civilization.  Second, thinking about how to rebuild civilization offers countless intellectual puzzles for my mind.  Now that’s some good clean science fictional fun.

Revolution is just a post apocalyptic fantasy that allows guys to fight with swords.  At least so far.  Why are guns rare but swords plentiful?  How did they gear up for sword production so fast?  I know I’ve only seen two episodes and the science fiction world building has been slight – mostly using stock after-the-collapse imagery.  In fact, they seem to have gotten most of their imagery from Life Without People.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has a very long history which Revolution must be judged against.  When I saw the show announced this summer I had hoped for a television version of Earth Abides or The Day of the Triffids, or the British TV series SurvivorsRevolution is closer to The Postman by David Brin, more about adventure and less about the details of survival, or efforts to rebuild civilization.  Both feature a ruthless militia leader trying to start a post-civilization empire.

Now, this political subject is a honest science fictional topic.  Rebuilding our society after we’ve mined all the easily available resources is a scientific challenge worthy of much speculation.  However, in the first two episodes, Revolution hasn’t dealt with scarcity.  At one point Charlie’s Uncle Miles, tries to bribe someone with a small chunk of metal, which I assume we’re to think of as gold.  Gold nuggets are very rare, what gold we mine nowadays is molecules of gold processed from tons of ore.

What people use for money in Revolution’s apocalyptic world is a fascinating idea to explore, but so far the show ignores the issue, other than this one transaction with a tiny lump of yellow metal.  Good science fiction will explore all aspects of a possible future.  Revolution takes a Indiana Jones approach to the story, using slight of hand on facts, and diverting viewer’s mind with action and violence.

We have to ask ourselves:  Is a story science fiction if it’s set in a science fictional setting?  I don’t think so.  We are told Miles Matheson is a man who is good at killing people.  Miles’ abilities to fight are so unbelievable that they remind me of the recent Sylvester Stallone action flick, The Expendables 2.  That makes me think Revolution is more inspired by video games than science fiction books.  It’s appeal is to would-be first person shooters than folks who like to read speculative fiction about possible futures.

I wish Revolution’s level of violence was more like Breaking Bad’s, and it focused more on clever plots with interesting science fiction speculation.

Population Dying Off

If the power went off all over our world, how long could we support 7 billion people?  Revolution doesn’t even try to answer that question.  It skips 15 years immediately.  There’s some flashbacks, but no explanations.  The starting point of most collapse of civilization stories are a plague that kills off most of the population, or nuclear war that kills off most of the population, or aliens from space that kill off most of the people, or some kind of natural or cosmic calamity that kills off most everyone.  Revolution looks like the population took a major beating, but we’re not shown how.

I’m currently reading The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, another literary look at the end of the world, much like The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Now this is real science fiction in my mind.  The Dog Stars is serious, philosophical, speculative, and worthy to be called science fiction in my book.  Revolution is decent fun without any real thinking involved.  That’s a shame.  For a story to kill off billions of people there should be more details.

In Revolution most of the population has disappeared and we don’t know why.  The writers obviously wanted a low population Earth for the story but hasn’t explained how everyone died.  In other words, after the collapse stories are so common in the mundane world that the producers don’t even feel the need to explain.  They are using a post apocalyptic world as a setting, just like Star Wars used a galactic empire as a setting.  There’s no science fiction speculation in either, so just accept the premise.  Revolution is an action adventure story set in a realistic but unscientific world.

Surviving the Collapse

I’m disappointed with Revolution because it makes no effort to show people surviving.  Everyone has plenty to eat, clean clothes without having to wash them, there’s no worry about diseases or bad water.  After 15 years, how good will clothes look?  There’s no effort to show how people make new clothes.  I don’t expect Mad Max fashions, but the show should speculate some, at least.

The plot is driven by Danny Matheson’s kidnapping.  Our characters don’t seemed challenged by any other problem.  The two episodes involved plots to set the stage so Miles can kill a bunch of people, and convince Charlie that killing is the way to operate.  The only survival going on is whether the audience won’t be killed off watching Billy Burke kill a dozen tough guys every episode.

Cliché Science Fiction

Whenever I read a new science fiction novel, or watch a new science fiction show I hope to discover a new idea or perspective. It’s hard to come up with a totally original idea nowadays. There just are too many fiction factories out there.  Barring originality I look for creative style – if you can’t deliver a new idea, at least present a mash-up old ideas in a new way.

Science fiction has become as formulaic as a murder mystery. I believe most SF fans find comfort by embracing their favorite sub-genres so writers cater to ever more baroque presentations of the same old ideas, creating Über-clichés. Revolution is merely the current incarnation of a long line of stories about the breakdown of civilization. Some reviewers call it dystopian, but I disagree. The original meaning of dystopia was an anti-utopia. In modern parlance dystopian has come to mean any unpleasant future. That’s a corruption of the original intent of the world. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a dystopian novel because the government of Big Brother was suppose to represent a view of communism, which before Stalin was seen by many intellectuals as a utopian ideal, but Orwell speculated communism would be hell instead of heaven.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was dystopian because it was anti-utopian. Revolution isn’t anti anything. Revolution uses a cliché science fictional setting to create an action adventure story. Collapsed civilizations are a good way to create a setting for rationalized violence, like westerns.  Post apocalyptic stories are good for creating situations where your character can kill a lot of people.  Audiences can’t seem to get enough of that kind of violence.

The proper categorization of Revolution is post-apocalyptic science fiction, which covers stories about the aftermath of collapse of our current civilization.  A common cliché within apocalyptic fiction is freemen versus brutal militias.   So Revolution is a sub-sub-genre.

To further complicate the problem all new fictional creations must compete with the most creative works at the moment. Taking on a new TV show for me, means finding something to watch that competes with my recent favorites, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights and Glee.

Watching the first episode of Revolution was a big letdown for me. Oh, it still has possibilities. But most great shows have fantastic first episodes, and Revolution’s was just ho-hum.  I did watch the 2nd episode and will watch the 3rd.  I have hope.  Revolution does have possibilities.

On the big screen they usually go for bigger and bigger action, usually involving saving the world. That’s an expensive proposition for a TV show, but Revolution has a very large scope.  There’s room for lots of action and speculation.  Let’s hope there is less of the former and more of the latter.

JWH – 9/25/12

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,189 other followers