Monthly Archives: October 2015

This is why we can’t have nice things, JEB!

I don’t really talk about politics on this blog…ever. Well, aside from, y’know, the historical or entries on diversity or women in fiction. But every now and then something shows up that’s nonpartisan enough but still related enough to what I usually write about for a good discussion.

An interview with Jeb Bush (Or JEB) has been making the rounds lately, wherein he’s asked who his favorite superhero is. This alone is worth noting because we’re at the point in where a presidential candidate can be asked about superheroes. Yes, this is a part of nerd culture becoming mainstream, but it’s also a reflection of superheroes forming a new mythology. They can be discussed as a cultural touchstone no matter who you are. Point is to say that the fact that he was even asked this question is remarkable in and of itself. Superheroes have become a new pantheron, to some extent; though decidedly fictional, they are a sort of example of humanity in all its forms  (which, y’know, is all the more the reason to have a more diverse lineup, but I digress). There’s probably a whole other paper in that idea, but not here.

Anyway, after mentioning that watching Marvel movies makes him wish that he owned the company — which I’m not even gonna touch here — he decides that Batman may be his favorite, albeit a dark choice. But he’s aware of Supergirl being a thing, courtesy of the new advertising blitz, and thinks she’s hot.

Okay. He could have answered the question one of a dozen very neutral, safe ways; but he chooses to bring Supergirl up… because she’s hot? Dude, no. It’s fun that this is the sort of question we can ask a presidential candidate, but at the same time, but why does one of the more serious presidential candidates think it’s okay to talk about her looks as a defining factor? Even if a question like this takes center stage, a female hero still gets the short end of the stick. Yes, she got mentioned — that’s great! But she gets mentioned only to be reduced down to a pretty face. He could have mentioned that she could fly — that’s in the marketing too! — but nope, she’s hot and that’s key.

“But Josh,” you say, “you’re making way too big a deal out of this, it’s just one guy’s opinion!” Well, straw man, remember what I said earlier about superheroes being a new mythology? It goes with it then, that the perception of them is a reflection of culture as a whole. And Jeb’s comments reflect a culture that still judges a woman by her appearance rather than her abilities.

Which is really frustrating, because there’s a steady cultural shift away from female superheroes defining characteristic being their looks and related attributes. Carol Danvers got a new outfit and is firmly regarded as Earth’s Mightiest Avenger. I can’t speak for the show (having not seen it), but it looks like Supergirl is doing something similar, for starters by giving her a costume that’s more practical than titillating. Going beyond the world of comics, Fury Road mad us like Furiosa because she was badass and capable, not because she was ‘hot.’ Furiosa, more so than Carol Danvers or Supergirl, has been recognized for this in a big way.

In the movie/TV world characters are idealized, and this means prettified, but while handsome male characters can still be interesting, the pretty women are often there just to be pretty. While kick ass grungy women are awesome, to really even out the gender imbalance we need to allow for attractive women to be interesting and valued for qualities beyond their looks. Because it’s not fair when a male character needs no justification, but a female one does — and it’s her looks.

In any case, we, as a culture, from presidential candidates on down, have gotta stop defining women — in fiction or not — by how attractive the are. In the meantime, we should at least talk a lot more about how hot the new Batman is. But especially the new Aquaman.

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The Honest Truth

A lot of stories aim to be real. Or as real as you can be while being a, y’know, story. The challenge here, of course, is figuring out what real is.

One interpretation of ‘real’ is realistic. No spaceships, because spaceships are far from commercial right now. No superpowers or superheroes, because those aren’t things. And no magic either. Y’know, realism.

So like Lost in Translation. It’s about two people in Japan, and just about there. There’s no monsters in this Japan; Godzilla’s not here to do its thing this time. It’s a story about people, being lost, and being understood. This isn’t communicated through metaphor or by using fanatical elements to play it up. Everything’s communicated through Bob and Charlotte’s interactions, it all feels real. For these two people out of their element, the mutual feeling of outsiderness brings them together. There’s this sensation that, yeah, you could be one of them. But Lost in Translation is still very romantic — and not in the lovey-dovey kind of way, but that of something being idealized. Tokyo itself is almost magical in Lost in Translation.

‘Realism,’ then, tends to be interpreted as gritty. Compare Game of Thrones to The Lord of The Rings. Despite both being very much fantasy, the former is more ‘realistic.’ In Westeros there’s political machinations, religious bickering, prostitution, and gory violence you don’t come back from. It’s realistic fantasy! It makes for a very different tone and world from Rings, but it works for the story the show is telling.

Mr. Robot also aims for realism. Now, one thing the show does really well is do hacking proper. No one hacks the mainframe by reversing the polarity of the hard drive; all the technobabble is real (which is great, let’s have more of that). Now, Mr. Robot also adds other things of ‘reality.’ There’s the grime of New York City, there are events outside of the characters’ control that sends the plots off the rails, there are these bibs and bobs that are all there to make the show seem more real, seem like an honest portrayal of the world.

Not that it does anything. Look, I wasn’t impressed by Mr. Robot, and I know I’m ragging on it; but for all its attempts to construct a very ‘real’ place, the characters and events don’t resonate. It doesn’t matter how real the world is, if we don’t care for the characters, we don’t care for the story. Even if we’re angry at the characters, that’s still feeling something.

There’s nothing inherently added by including the gritty details of life. Fiction, despite being a well-crafted lie, relies on honesty. The reason something like Star Wars resonates so well is because the characters feel true; Luke’s wanting to be more than a farm boy on Tatooine is something all far too recognizable. Both Thrones and Rings have characters with tangible motivations and responses. We understand Tyrion’s hatred of his family and Boromir’s desire to bring honor to Gondor. Beneath the dragons and Elves there’s an actual honest emotional truth. Lost in Translation is built entirely on that emotional honesty; it’s an exercise in empathy. The stories that really work, work so well because they feel true, even they aren’t.

Postscript, because I absolutely have to mention this:

Hardcore realism can have a role in fiction, minutiae can work. It just has to be incredibly well done. Like in Ulysses, by James Joyce, which has all the ins and outs and dirty humanity of a normal day (plus or minus a little bit of oddness here and there). Ulysses works, though, because of the honesty within it. Bloom is still haunted by the death of his infant son and we, as readers, are invited to try and understand what it’s like to go through your day like that. There’s a verisimilitude to it that lends it the honesty that makes it successful.

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The Right Hook

So I’m using this blog to spitball ideas for a paper. And no, it’s not on boxing.

What gets us hooked on a tv show? As in, what is it that makes you keep coming back? What was it about the shows we’re discussing in class — Sherlock, Mr. Robot, Firefly, and Daredevil — that made them stick (or not?).

Sherlock is an interesting case. Each episode nears the length of a feature length film, making it an odd hybrid of film and television. But the show hooks you early in the first episode. Partly because of the familiarity we as a culture have with the mythos of Sherlock Holmes and thus there’s the inherent intrigue in seeing in reinterpreted in a more modern setting. That alone wouldn’t necessarily be enough; fortunately it’s augmented by the incredibly interesting characters of both Sherlock and John. John’s characterized quickly as a war vet looking for a way to make life livable; Sherlock’s an insufferable genius. Because the characters are so darn interesting, you can’t help but to be interested in finding out what will happen next to them. Really well defined protagonists, plus plots that keep pushing them makes it irresistible. 

Which Mr. Robot tried valiantly. You’ve got a character who’s somewhat Holmes-ian: freakishly good at something, socially un-adapted, something of a drug habit, insufferably, etc. But where Sherlock of Sherlock has various normal characters to balance him out, everyone in Mr. Robot is off their rocker to one degree or another, making protagonist Elliot seem, well, negligible. That and the fact that the show relies on really lazy storytelling techniques (creepy Scandinavians, diabolical Chinese, killing women for manpain, killing/threatening women because edgy) and mistakes shock value for actually value makes it much harder to get into, or to invest in to the extent that you can in Sherlock.

Investment then, like in banking, is key. It’s not so much as being hooked by a show as getting invested in it. Get invested enough and the sunk cost fallacy will keep you yearning to find out who the mother is even if the quality deteriorates. A lot of the time, this comes down to one of two things: Character and Premise.

Daredevil’s premise trumps its characters. Not to say that Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk aren’t developed characters: they’re incredibly rich and compelling. Understanding them and who they are is a great part of the show. But the set up, that of a vigilante fighting to defend his slice of New York against crime, is what gets you. That and the whole superhero aspect of it all. You wanna see how this battle of good versus evil is going to play out and what twists are gonna happen as it goes along. In a sense, it’s a lot like Mr. Robot, only with better defined characters and the ability to actually tell a good story. Now, without its excellent characterization, Daredevil wouldn’t be as exceptional as it is; but it’s the premise that hooks us.

For Firefly, however, it’s all about the characters. Having nine well defined characters means you have someone to latch onto off the bat. Could be Mal ‘cause he’s hot, or Zoë ‘cause she kicks ass, or any of the others for a myriad of other reasons. It’s the characters that anchor you through the bizarre space western setting that’s interesting and all, but primarily serves as a backing for the inter-personal drama that develops. It’s set on a ship (which is a great place to set stories, by the way), forcing each nine to interact no matter what. Every plot is done to facilitate either character growth or conflict: let’s see how Wash responds in an action capacity! Showrunner Joss Whedon himself describes it as  “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” We get hooked on the characters and want to see what will happen next.

So what, then? Good television is a balance between premise and characters. You can’t have one without the other and shows that do it really well (Daredevil, Sherlock, and Firefly) have great staying power. There’s a hook, and you’re stuck on it.

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More Thoughts on Destiny’s Story

So with my Rationale out of the way, I picked up Destiny’s expansion-sequel The Taken King and put… many… hours into it. It’s a huge improvement on the base game and, for a change, feels like a complete game with stuff like story and what not. Which is great, because Destiny had world building in spades, and now The Taken King is building on it and giving characters actual personalities.

These personalities are revealed through some newfound conflict beyond the original good guy Guardians versus the vague-but-evil Darkness. It’s still good versus evil, but now some of the good guys bicker. Zavala disapproves of Cayde-6’s flippancy who in turn thinks Eris takes things way too seriously. Little things, to be sure, but they add a depth that was sorely lacking in the game’s first year. Story is character, after all, and character gets revealed through conflict. Points to Destiny for finally showing an understanding of how that works.

That said, the game’s always been brimming with narrative architecture. The world is rife with details that hint at a great history behind everything. There are names like Toland and Alpha Lupi that show up in gear descriptions and bits of lore that hint at so much more. Oryx, a name that shows up here and there in the first year is the titular antagonist of Taken King, making a bunch of pieces finally fall into place. Plus, Destiny’s lore is incredibly diverse: the Guardians in gear description are woman, Chinese, and Indian. There’s a variety in the background.

But does this work?

The first year of Destiny seems to point to no. One of the biggest criticisms of the Destiny was its lack of story and no amount of world building can compensate for a disappointing narrative (I’m looking at you Elysium). Halo’s story worked in part because of Cortana’s commentary on Chief’s missions and discussions with various allies about what to do next. In Taken King, Bungie imitates their older games and gives context to the gameplay. Now there’s a more tangible reason for why you’re running, shooting, and punching villains. By making the Vanguard and Ghost interesting characters with personality too, there’s a sense of being part of something larger than just the mission at hand.

More interestingly, in Taken King a lot of small tidbits are given a larger purchase. Recordings of Toland play a small role in the story and make the prior mentions resonate all the more. Because now Toland’s not just a mythical name, he’s a mythical name with a connection to a character that affects how the story plays out. There’s a reason and a why to the details that color the world.

But then, there’s no indications as to what the Kessel Run is in Star Wars except that Han Solo made it in less than 12 parsecs. Yet it adds such a sense of texture to the film — it works in Star Wars. Maybe the overabundance of details wasn’t Destiny’s big problem, maybe it really was the lack of an appropriately substantial story.

Well, there it is. Ya gotta have story.

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When Science Dreams

The Martian is an intelligent film. Or at least it expects its viewers to be smart. Within ten minutes the titular astronaut is stranded on Mars and the science fun begins. Unlike another recent movie with Kate Mara as a scientist, it doesn’t take long at all for the movie to get started and we get to watch Matt Damon pull a Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

It’s cool, and there’s a lot of science happening that’s remarkably coherent for the most part. What’s funny though, is that less than a week before this movie came out, scientists found signs of actual water on Mars. Which, if it actually works out, will already render The Martian mildly scientifically out-of-date. Like the mention of the missing data-tapes in Star Wars, time marches on.

But a lot of it is extensions of what we know now or what we’re expected to do. The habitat on Mars makes a lot of sense, as does the Hermes ship. It’s science we have, are planning on, or are talking about. And science we want.

It’s very much old-fashioned science fiction, in the sense of dreaming big about what could be. Heck, it’s where the genre started. Questions like “What if we had rockets that could do stuff?” or, more classically, “What if we could go to the center of the earth?” Stories were built around these ideas and then, bam, genre.

Look, I really like science fiction. And it does bug me that a lot of older science fiction is more about the tech than the people, but there’s a sense of wonderment. There are these cool ideas about science and how it will make things different, how radar might actually be a thing, or how communication could be made so easy. Science fiction, of the Asimov and old pulp-fiction variety, is very much about what could be.

Which can be oddly prescient. Star Trek communicators are everywhere, only we call them cell phones and they do so much more than Roddenberry and crew could have imagined. Teleporters and warp drives may not be real, but 3D printers are more than a little like replicators. It’s the sort of thing that would have seemed ridiculous not too long ago (printing physical objects, what?), but now it’s possible. At home.

Not to say science fiction always gets it right. Orson Scott Card had blogging in his vision of the future in Ender’s Game. He may have beaten reality (and a lot of fiction) to the concept of Web 2.0, but, as xkcd points out, reality isn’t quite the same as fiction. Though it would only take a rewrite or two to make the Locke and Demosthenes plot work.

Science fiction does a lot: it can work as a great metaphor, it can create a capacity for new events, and it can dream up cool ideas. The latter is something that’s more or less exclusive to science fiction — nothing else consistently invents for its stories.

So I want science fiction to dream bigger, to come up with newer, weirder, more out there ideas. Because now that we’ve seen pictures of Charon and can more or less confirm that it is not a Mass Effect Relay encased in ice, we’ve gotta think of some new way to explore space.

Or at least get to Mars already.

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