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Posts tagged “fantasy

The Principle of Genre Supremacy, Part I

There are some people with the belief that a story is a story is a story and that what makes a good story in one genre applies equally well to all types of fiction. Those people are wrong.

Genres are defined, largely, by the contents of their tropes. Fantasy stories have magick and fantastic creatures, and typically fantastic settings when we aren’t talking about urban fantasy or paranormal fiction which seek to depict the fantastic lurking in the shadowy corners of the “real world.” Science fiction stories centre on advanced technology and science, giving us tales of adventure on far-flung planets, or aboard distant starships or space stations. The degree to which a genre story is good depends on how well the author has made use of that genre’s tropes to create an interesting, compelling tale.

Now some will find that a shallow definition of genre. But the western genre best demonstrates this concept, the fragility of its foundation on tropes. A western is a story set in the Western United States, in the 19th century, typically revolving around characters, objects and tropes you would expect to find there, cowboys, Native Americans, firearms, prostitutes, trains, horses, outlaws, plots focused on revenge, a tendency to resolve conflicts through showdowns, etc. You can easily remove any one of these elements and still have a western but remove too many of these tropes and your story is no longer a western.

You can have a Sherlock Holmes story set in Victorian times, involving firearms with a plot based on revenge and it be in no way a western. But should a murderous outlaw flee Oklahoma for China and a relentless ex-lawman bent on avenging his fallen family pursue him there, we still have a western.

I had an acquaintance once whom I used to tease by saying that horror wasn’t a genre; it’s a mood. It’s an emotion. If the primary cumulative emotional effect of the film is to generate fear, or more accurately trepidation, in the viewer, then it’s a horror film. You can have a horror film without any supernatural elements whatsoever. There doesn’t need to be a demon or a doorway to hell for you to be telling a horror tale. Alien is clearly a science fiction film. There are astronauts, suspended animation, alien life forms, starships, advanced technology of all kinds, an overarching corporation dominating Humanity, etc., etc., etc. But we think of Alien primarily as a horror film.

That overlap of tropes is important, especially in the Alien series. While I would define Alien as a quintessential horror film as well as being a film of science fiction, I would define it’s sequel, Aliens, as being more an SF film than a horror film. There’s still the isolation of the characters, the danger presented by the alien lifeforms, and the struggle for survival, but the primarily military cast and their ability to defend themselves to some degree with force gives the film more of a “bug hunt” film than a “lone monster is picking us off one by one film.”

And so we see that genre is defined equally by tropes and by emotion. Each genre has a dominant feel to it, a dominant emotion or emotions conveyed by the bulk of its works. Horror is about fear. Fantasy is about wonder and a nostalgia for an imagined past. Science fiction is about exploring the possibilities of the future as expressed through science and technology. Wonder is a key emotion to much of sf as well but we can have a high-tech dystopia where wonder is absent and still have a work of science fiction. Westerns aren’t just about the Old West; they’re about expressing those emotions we tie to our cumulative cultural understanding of this now mythic setting. A love story with a purely interpersonal conflict between two lovers set in the Old West isn’t necessarily a Western. Such a love story, moved to a starship, isn’t science fiction.

Let me take the time to simply say “backdrops don’t count.” If genre elements are visible in a piece but they have no relevance to the story or the plot, they don’t count. If the story is about Bob’s inability to trust again impeding his new relationship with Joan, then it’s a love story; it’s romance, and it doesn’t matter if it takes place on a space station. That’s not good science fiction. Now there are some allowances to be made for individual chapters and episodes but if in a short story, the whole story could be moved to a new setting and nothing serious would have changed in the plot or characters, that’s bad writing. Backdrops don’t count.

So this is the first part of my argument, the first part of the Principle of Genre Supremacy — that good writing in any particular genre depends upon using several of its dominant tropes to achieve one or more of that genre’s dominant emotions in a story where the plot depends upon those tropes. The film Brazil is a terrifying look at the future, a retro-style bureaucratic dystopia, and yet, it is a science fiction film, not a horror film. Technology and our focus on the future is what its fear is built upon and so we class it as sf.

The television series Angel, despite having a main character who is a vampire and a host of other horror tropes, such as demons and magick, is more of an urban fantasy than a horror series. Demons, for example, in the series, are much more like aliens than implacable forces of evil. Joss Whedon uses the trope of demons as a cypher for those individuals who don’t fit into society. They look strange to our eyes. They have strange manners and customs, but ultimately, Angel portrays rank-and-file demons just as people trying to get along like the rest of us, with no greater propensity for evil than any human. They may have strange powers but they aren’t defined by them. As people, they have goals and lives and many of them simply wish to be left alone. This isn’t a horror series, it’s an urban fantasy that uses a lot of modified horror tropes.

I have a friend who postulates a theory that technologies need not be detailed in stories of science fiction. His theory is that we don’t go on about the details of cellphones or laptops or cars; we simply use them. We don’t say, “And now, I’ll get to the docks using my mechanised horseless carriage which uses tiny detonations of atomised incendiary fluid to drive pistons whose motion is transferred via gears to the wheels.” Although, such a statement might actually be fitting for a steampunk story. No. In the modern setting, the user and the reader are both acquainted with the technology in question and so there is no need for such detail.

I disagree with this theory because science fiction is all about new technologies and developments of science and these are technologies we as readers and viewers aren’t intimate with. We need the author to go on about his fictional technologies in detail because we need to know the rules of his universe for the story to make sense. We also need that detail because that’s a large part of what the audience is here for — to read about mile-long starships being flung by fusion power through hyperspace from world to world. While the character may be jaded and uninterested in the details of his craft’s propulsion, we should feel quite cheated as readers if all we ever get of the starship’s technology from the author is “and Bob went to Proxima Centauri.”

It’s necessary to develop these world-building technological details in science fiction, at least a little, in order to prepare the way for their use as plot elements. Space Battleship Yamato has a scene I remember about their space warping technology. Space Battleship Yamato, known in the States as Star Blazers, had two different FTL systems, one, the wave motion engine, an FTL drive that allowed the ship to “fly” through space at superluminal speeds, and space warping, where large distances were traversed instantaneously. In one scene, the ship and crew get into trouble and Wildstar (known as Kodai in Space Battleship Yamato) asks, “Why don’t we space warp?” I remember this scene particularly because I had asked the question out loud word for word a few seconds before Wildstar did. Sandor, the ship’s science officer, responds “Think you’re a cowboy, Wildstar?” He then proceeds to explain that space warping requires the synchronization of the ship with certain ambient waves traversing space (be they gravitic or tachyon in nature, I don’t recall) and that this is a delicate matter requiring precise calculation and it can’t be done in a hurried rush. Thus we get useful world-building which reinforces the general mood that we are dealing with realistic-sounding technologies in a realistic future. (“Realistic” as a word has limited utility when talking about Space Battleship Yamato. It is a series about a space-going WWII battleship after all.) We also get the plot utility of an explanation of why this plot element that can be used to help explain how our heroes are going to cover 180,000 light years of distance in just one Earth year can’t be used to get them out of every fight. And that’s incredibly important.

The point I’m raising is that we can remove one or more of the key tropes of science fiction from any particular sf story but if we remove too many of them or we fail to include one of its dominant emotions, wonder/hope for the future, fear/trepidation of what may occur in the future, we no longer have good sf, but something other. Remove too much technical detail and we get science fantasy rather than science fiction. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if you’re trying to write science fiction. If you’re trying to write fantasy, then you should write fantasy. Scientific or even “realistic” definitions of magick usually fall flat on their face. We need to know the rules that magick generally follows but Lucas’ attempt to explain the Force with midichlorians was contrived, unnecessary and silly. Again, there is no list of mandatory tropes and explanations we need for any particular genre, just enough presence of its dominant tropes being utilized to generate one or more of its dominant moods. And Star Wars is far more about action and adventure than it is about serious science or technological detail.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.
All content copyright © Brandon Black

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On Logic and Internal Consistency in Speculative Fiction

Science fiction and fantasy are genres in which, in great part, the quality of the story depends upon the internal consistency of the piece. This is primarily due to the fact that nearly anything can happen. This is true more of fantasy and science fantasy than true science fiction but even in science fiction, the author is granted the ability to introduce and explore One Big Lie.

The “One Big Lie” concept holds that in a short story, a science fiction author can establish one great divergence in his or her universe from what we know of physics and the operations of the cosmos. A story can establish the existence of psionics, or faster-than-light travel or some such. And often, an sf author chooses to have several big lies rather than one.

The point is that these lies, these departures from the norm, have to be spelled out and explored in depth by the author even if not all those explorations and details are presented in the work in question. To do otherwise is to produce poor speculative fiction.

Fiction set in the ‘real world’ doesn’t have this problem. We have an unspoken understanding of what can and can’t be done in real life. We know how books and cars function so we don’t have to wonder why the hero didn’t pass the test by sleeping with the textbook under his pillow and absorbing its knowledge or wonder why the heroine didn’t get to the hospital in time by using her Honda’s teleportation drive. Books and cars just don’t work that way.

Even in genres that stretch that somewhat like action films we still have a pretty common understanding of the way the universe works. When the hero fires a million shots from a revolver and doesn’t reload, we notice that. When the hero jumps from off the top of a high-rise office building and survives, we notice that and we all groan. That’s clearly just bad writing. But in general, fundamental things like the way the universe works and how certain technologies or spells function don’t have to be explored outside of speculative fiction, lightening the author’s burden.

And it is the author’s burden we’re talking about here. Lazy writing is bad writing, period. If you introduce a technology we don’t have in the real world and fail to account for obvious social and economic implications of it, that’s just plain bad writing. Even Dungeons and Dragons manages to bring up monetization of healing magick, for example.

This doesn’t even touch upon bad science. I mean really, the transporter splitting Kirk into good and evil versions of himself, both with the same mass as the original? Was he split into his goodons and evilons? And then merging the two back into a single person of the same mass as the original? An interesting philosophical study to be sure but bad science fiction.

The obvious point has to be raised that you and I may have different views of what constitutes poor science fiction or poor fantasy. You may enjoy a “lighter” piece and be willing to just go along for the ride and not require much in the way of explanation. I get that. It’s pretty much why there is science fantasy such as Star Wars and the Fifth Element. I’d even go so far as to argue that Fifth Element isn’t even science fantasy, it’s French surrealist fantasy.

I would however argue that Fifth Element, for example, is appallingly bad science fiction. A person is reconstituted by an organic 3D printer from a surviving piece, her arm I believe. No part of her brain was recovered and so, how could any of her memories, knowledge, personality, etc. survive reconstitution intact? This isn’t explored by the film.

The flying car sequence demonstrates exactly why you’d never see human-operated flying vehicles in such density in a city. When the police open fire on the flying taxi — they miss. Those bullets are going somewhere. Office buildings, schools, churches, pedestrian walkways, coffee shops, outdoor restaurants — all those hundreds of rounds are going to wind up somewhere. When the hero tries to evade the police by diving his flying taxi through the extremely dense corridors of flying car traffic, there was the potential there for him to have caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. And so, without an explanation, we are left wondering why any society would permit such.

At the end of the film, when the unspecified Great Evil draws near, the heroes have to activate the Device with the Five Elements. This device is used once every thousand years and if it isn’t, some untold catastrophe will occur costing possibly billions of lives. The film creates tension first by the lack of instructions or a big red button and so the heroes have to figure out how to use the weapon and then by the need of the hero to create fire. He only has a single match and its already been used. He manages to re-ignite it and the day is saved. If he hadn’t had that, everyone would have been doomed. Who would build a weapon like that?

Don’t even get me started on including an artificially created person as a part of a weapon system and then giving her the capacity to feel bad about war.

The most recent J. J. Abrams Star Trek film is an even worse violator. The film introduces transporters that can function across star systems removing the need for starships altogether but this is never dealt with. It introduces “super-blood” which can resurrect people from the dead but this medical miracle is not dealt with in any way other than a one-time use to save the hero.

This is how you write bad science fiction.

Yes, these films were both popular which, by definition, means someone, somewhere, actually enjoyed them. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re appallingly bad science fiction. “I’m trying to reach a mainstream audience” shouldn’t be a cypher for “I’m a lazy writer who doesn’t mind producing crap.”

The best, the greatest works of science fiction have been those stories which explored not only the internal consistency of the wonders introduced by the author, they also took the time to work out the socio-economic implications of the introduced technologies. When MIT students crunched the numbers and revealed that Larry Niven’s Ringworld was unstable without attitude jets, Niven worked that revelation in the plot of his sequel, the Ringworld Engineers. Star Trek: The Next Generation dealt with the issue of holo-addiction: if you have the ability to create life-like worlds of your own choosing that follow your precise commands, why would you ever want to leave?

Truly great works of science fiction deal with the implications of the technologies introduced in ways that logically follow suit from the circumstances of their introduction yet those implications aren’t something the reader or viewer is readily aware of until the author makes the point. Those revelations are golden and part of why we enjoy the best the genre has to offer. “The Cold Equations” is a great example.

That said, it does have to be acknowledged that some ideas need to be nebulous and mysterious in order to function properly. Magick given in infinite repeatable detail is just science by another name. Midichlorians were just a bad idea. The Force (by virtue of its very name) needs to be nebulous and mysterious. It needs to be only partially understood. Trying to give it a scientific explanation only leads to our wondering why people don’t routinely try to manipulate it with technology, which is what technology is for and what people do. If midichlorians are microscopic lifeforms that connect people to the Force, why not breed them in petri dishes by the millions and inject them in people to make Force users? And if you think that’s silly, remember the Classic Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” where Dr. McCoy pretty much does exactly that. The locals dominate Kirk and company with their telekinetic powers, Spock and McCoy work out there’s some substance on the planet that gives them their powers and McCoy injects Kirk with a bigger dose than any of the bad guys have and the day is saved. To make a fair criticism, though, this incredibly useful ability is never seen again. It would be easy, however, to simply establish that the substance in question is both exceedingly rare and exceedingly difficult to replicate. Many of these problems can be dealt with if the author isn’t lazy and just telling his readers “to shut up and go along for the ride.”

My point is that I acknowledge that there’s a need for some things to be kept mysterious, that not every question needs to be answered. But glaring plot holes need to be fixed or we can’t count those stories as being good ones. Plot holes are a flaw.

This need to provide explanation is in large part to avoid deux ex machinas. A story is not satisfying when someone or something just shows up out of the blue as an attempt by the author to resolve the conflict. Hence much of fantasy having some sort of agreed upon limits as to what divine entities can or cannot do. Otherwise, we risk having the tension of the story drained away by Zeus just saving the hero in the end.

Furthermore, anything that takes us out of the experiential realm of a work of fiction is bad. If instead of enjoying the piece, you spend your time scratching your head asking “why did they do that,” or “why didn’t they just use this thing they introduced earlier in the story,” or “what in the world government would allow THAT to be legal,” then the story isn’t working for you. I freely acknowledge that a story might work for you that doesn’t work for me but I also think we can agree that the best stories have as few of these jarring moments as possible.

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Fantasy, science fiction and steampunk author Brandon Black is the editor of New Orleans By Gaslight, a first of its kind anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fantasy poetry and fiction set in Victorian-era New Orleans. Brandon is also the web content manager for the Week in Geek, New Orleans’ favourite fantasy and science fiction themed radio talk show, every Saturday at 1 pm CST on WGSO 990 AM. Click here to check out Brandon’s ever-expanding list of published works.