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Projection and Empathy

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 07 2013 · 104 views

Essays, Not Rants! 090: Projection and Empathy
 
Every now and then I repurpose this blog to spitball various ideas for papers I have to write. These are usually not terribly coherent. I’m doing it again.
 
For my class on Melodrama (yes, it’s a thing) I want to write about video games, because I can. Particularly Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us and the different ways each game immerses the player to build drama.
 
In Mass Effect 3 you are Commander Shepard. You choose your first name, you choose how you look, you choose your backstory. Beyond that the game allows you, the player, to choose what Shepard does throughout the game. Say you’re faced with someone refusing to let you past. Are you going to try to talk him into it; or will you hold a gun to his head until he listens to you? The game gives you that choice.
 
Of course, a lot of Mass Effect is far more subtle than that. Your attachment to your crew is based on your own actions. How much time you spend getting to know them and whether or not you help them out with their side stories is entirely up to you. You’re never obligated to spend to interact with them. But then, the fate of your crew is up to you.
 
Say you decide to cure the genophage in order to have the warlike krogan on your side in the fight against the Reapers, though also allowing the krogan to become a major contender in the galaxy (and threaten a war), To do so, the scientist (and friend) who delivers the cure will die. He doesn’t have to, of course. You can lie to the krogan Battlemaster (and friend) and say that you tried to cure it while the scientist goes into hiding. Or you can order him not to go and renege on your deal. Or you can tell him to go up anyway, knowing he will die. And if you do, you know it was your choice. So his death (or your betrayal) hits harder because you know you had the choice.
 
The Last of Us gives you no choices. The player is constantly ushered and ordered along, never given a say in the events. You live out the story that unfolds. Now, The Last of Us owes a great deal of its drama to its deft writing and exceptional acting, but playing as Joel —and allowing his goals to become yours — drives home much of the emotional weight of the game.
 
One of the strongest examples appears early on (and I’ve mentioned it before) During the game’s opening you play as Joel as he tries to escape with his daughter, Sarah. For a few minutes you’re running through town as Infected close in behind you, Joel’s daughter in your arms. Your goal mirrors Joel’s throughout the scene, get Sarah to safety, which makes her death all the more painful.
 
After all, you finished the ‘level,’ you got to the checkpoint without dying. By right you should be safe, you should be clear. You should be safe. There’s no going back, there’s no way you can prevent her from dying. Furthemore, the affect of her death is intensified because you, the player, failed too. Your goal was to get Sarah to safety and you failed.
 
Unlike in Mass Effect 3, The Last of Us, immerses the player through empathy (rather than projection). The player does not direct the flow of the game, thereby becoming the protagonist in the process, rather the player’s mindset is molded to that of Joel’s. They’re two different ways of creating drama that, when used as well in these two games, really work.
 
Hey, wanna see a movie I made? Of course you do. Check it out here.


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Why I (seldom) Write About Ships

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 30 2013 · 163 views

Essays, Not Rants! 089: Why I (seldom) Write About Ships
 
I grew up on a ship. I also like writing.
 
Now, these two should go hand-in-hand. Write about living on a ship, it’s what you know! But then, who lives on a ship. No one would believe that. So I write science fiction. Because it’s easier to believe folks living on a spaceship than on a real ship. Less time explaining stuff. Also, I really like science fiction.
 
But, and I do get asked this, why don’t I write about a real ship instead? After all, then I can reap the prestige literary fiction. Why do I waste my talents/history on science fiction?
 
Because, surprisingly, living on a ship is actually quite boring. Yes, you travel, but that’s hardly unique (you could do the same in a bus or plane). The actual parts of living on a ship are terribly routine. You wake up, go to school (or work, but I went to school), come home, read, homework, video games, eat, whatever, sleep. Whether we were in Sierra Leone or Barbados, that’s what we did. Life is life.
 
So what is it then that makes living on a ship special? Relationships. Bonds. The sense of a weird sort of family formed by virtue of having no one else.
 
Like in Firefly. I’ve found that show to be the most honest take on life on a ship. Sure, my ship was lacking in the fugitive doctors and smuggling part, but there was certainly that sense of community. On the show Jayne may antagonize Kaylee, but when the chips are down he’s as ready to protect her as the captain. Serenity’s crew has a decided “we’re in this together no matter what” mentality. Sometimes it touches on the idea of family, but, as cemented by Mal’s speech at the end of Serenity, it’s about making a home. You want a story about life on a ship? About what makes life on the ship special? Look at Firefly and Serenity.
 
But that feels pretty obvious, y’know, Serenity is a ship, of course it’s going to have parallels. What about when there’s no ship?
Well, this might explain one of the many reasons why I love Chuck. Over the series, Team Bartowski and the other characters slowly come together to form, well, a crew of sorts. Even though the lot of them don’t always get along, they’ve formed a sort of family. Yeah, it’s very similar to my example from Firefly above, but it’s that idea again. For much of the series Casey doesn’t even like Chuck, but again, will come through for him when it counts; as will the others for him. Everyone has this forged bond with each other. That’s the essence of life on a ship.
 
Sure, there’s the incredible sublime feeling of being in the middle of the ocean at night, the ship’s running lights extended less than a stone’s throw away; but it’s nothing that can’t be transported elsewhere or substituted. Because that’s just setting, it’s not the interesting part.
 
I suppose that’s one reason I love writing science fiction; it gives me liberty. If I want to explore the idea of home I can add a plot device that threatens it. Could be, say, a mysterious box that shows an alternate world. Wanna stress the bond between the Captain and his Bosun? Arrest one of them. There’s a great freedom in a world where you get to make the rules.
Not to say I don’t put everything in science fiction. One of my short stories I’m the most proud of is set in a small town (though there’s a ship in a character’s past) and the screenplay I’m working on with my brother is set in the real world, though on a boat. But the former is about coming home and the latter is about an adventure. Writing about a ship in and of itself is boring. It’d like be writing about everyday life in the suburbs or a city or anywhere.
 
But writing about home, about family, about leaving? That’s interesting. So I seldom set my writing aboard an actual ship; but I always write about life on a ship.
 
 
Writer’s Note: Yeah, did something this week. Something almost...bloggy. Stuff in this vein may show up again.


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Little Things

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 23 2013 · 125 views

Essays, Not Rants! 088: Little Things
 
The biggest difference between fiction and reality is that the former is not real. Duh. Ergo, one of the greatest challenges of fiction is making it seem real. Doesn’t matter if it’s Star Wars, Pacific Rim, or Chuck; it’s gotta feel realistic. Lived in, real.
 
The crew behind Star Wars, Pacific Rim, and the film adaption of The Lord of the Rings achieved this through set design. There are tiny, almost unnoticeable details all over the movie. The ships in Star Wars are old and worn; the Jaegers in Pacific Rim show signs of years of use. Compare to being told that the heroes in Pacific Rim had been fighting the Kaiju for over a decade but everything looked bright as new. We wouldn’t buy the history nearly as well as when we can see it for ourselves. It’s the same principle as in writing: show, don’t tell.
 
Take the simple example of the presence of the kill markings on some of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim. We don’t have any context for that, just that Striker Eureka has seen its share of combat prior to the film. It’s never elaborated on, nor is attention ever directed at it; it’s just there for the audience to see. It’s a little detail that gives a great deal of history and context for the story. Hardly anything would be lost without details like that, but its presence belies much.
 
The same thing can be found in characters’ dialogue. Sure, the world may be (partially or entirely) fictional for us, but not for the characters. Unlike us, they know the world, and, as such, should talk about it as if they do. Some of my favorite examples of this comes from the original Star Wars. When we first meet Han Solo he boasts about making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. What the heck is a Kessel Run? We don’t know, but Han does (and Luke the farmboy acts like he does too). At one point Leia mentions Dantooine, Obi Wan says something about some ‘Clone Wars.’ What I love is that we don’t know what any of these things are, but the characters talk about them fluidly, as well as someone in our world would discuss London or Atlanta. It makes it all feel that much more real.
 
But that's just the world. Characters have history too. They know people, and they know people a certain way. Let’s look at Chuck, because I love that show and am rewatching it. Whenever Chuck refers to his old friend Bryce, it’s most commonly as ‘Bryce Larkin from Connecticut.’ Let’s look at the fact that ‘from Connecticut’ is in it. It’s just two added words, but all of a sudden Bryce is given a home and we learn that he’s from somewhere. It also gives us a measure of context, seeing as it implies that Bryce was from outside Chuck’s usual world (that is, California).
 
You can see this in The Avengers, when Black Widow and Hawkeye mention Budapest, or Summer’s exes in (500) Days of Summer. The usage of specifics (Budapest, Charlie) lend credence to their past and make it more real.
 
These little things in movies (and television, books, video games; everything, really) wouldn’t really be missed if they weren’t there, but when they are they help immensely.


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Good Female Protagonists Revisited

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 16 2013 · 158 views

Essays, Not Rants! 087: Good Female Protagonists Revisited
 
This blog's inception came about a year-and-a-half ago due to an essay (not a rant) about Katniss of The Hunger Games and other strong female characters. In light of the fact that we're once again a week away from the release of a movie about Katniss Everdeen, I figure, hey, let's look at this subject yet again. And again.
 
Strong female characters are strong characters. Period. There's no special checklist that needs to be applied to women characters. There aren't any set of traits that a female character must or cannot embody, just as there aren't for male characters. To suggest otherwise is not only kinda dumb, but also robs characters of the incredible depth that real people have.
 
So, essentially, a woman in fiction doesn't have to be out kicking butt to be a strong character. I think this is something we get mixed up a lot. We suspect that Katniss is stronger than Bella Swan because Katniss can shoot stuff with a bow when, as I've said before, it's rather because Katniss has agency and is active in pursuing her goals.
 
Firefly is another strong example of this. Compare Zoë and Kaylee. Zoë's ex-military and frequently joins the captain in fighting bad guys. Kaylee is a mechanic and freezes up when she's handed a gun. Gut reaction could be to say that Kaylee is a dull, cliché character. Yet anyone who’s watched the show will quickly realize that Kaylee is as well developed as Zoë.
 
How? Because Kaylee’s an interesting person, plain and simple. As a character she has her own quirks, she has her own agency, she’s her own person. What makes Kaylee interesting is that she’s a layered, developed character. She’s someone you feel like you could have a full conversation with, even if taken out of her setting.
 
Agents of SHIELD is another great example of this. I talked about this a few weeks ago, though with regards to non-combatant characters in general being given their moment. It excels with its female characters too. Skye and Simmons are both fleshed out and interesting enough characters, even though they aren’t out actively fighting. Furthermore, they aren’t treated patronizingly. They aren’t those moments where the plot almost conspires to create a situation where the character would be proven right or put in a very I-told-you-so moment, almost elevating her above the others. (It’s interesting to note that while Skye falls victim to patronization on occasion, it’s due to her hacktavist nature rather than based on her being a woman)
 
A lot of the women in Game of Thrones are also well-developed, even the ones who aren’t swinging swords. Sansa Stark, who’s basically a prisoner-of-war, would be very easy to come off as being very damsel-y. Yet she’s still a cool character, we can see that she’s not meekly complying with everything but instead has her own agenda, however powerless she can be.
 
So what’s the point of this? Shockingly, women are people too. A strong female character doesn’t have to be out kicking butt (see Salt for evidence of how it can go wrong), just be an interesting person. For every Katniss and Black Widow we need a Sansa and Simmons. Keep things interesting, y’know?


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Once Again on SHIELD

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 09 2013 · 135 views

Essays, Not Rants! 086: Once Again On SHIELD
 
Yep. I’m talking about this show again. Because it’s great and I don’t have much time to watch new movies (besides The Dark World) or read or play much video games. So we’re talking about Agents of SHIELD again.
 
The show started strong and since then has steadily improved in itself. Characters have been fleshed out, dynamics enhanced, and it's proved itself capable with taking on different sorts of plots. What's even better is that all of this is usually done together, rather than individually.
 
See, it's easy to do these one at a time. When How I Met Your Mother does a high-concept episode it's usually at the expense of characterization. This isn't necessarily bad, there's nothing wrong with a plot-powered episode in a show that's usually very character driven. Shows like Community and Lost occasionally mix new concepts with character growth (see “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “The Constant”), but beyond that mixes are few and far between.
 
SHIELD is one of them. The most recent, "F.Z.Z.T.," dispenses with the usual good-guys-fighting-bad-guys typical of shows like this in favor of a far more internal conflict, one that can't be shot at. What's remarkable is that the writers take this in stride, maintaining high tension throughout an episode where the action could be described as "they science stuff."
 
Not only was it well done, but the plot allowed for some fantastic character moments. With the conflict science based, we were able to see Ward grapple with being powerless. Similarly, it allowed the show to further explore the dynamic of Fitz and Simmons. Prior they'd been presented as two parts of a whole, albeit two parts with a few contrasts. "F.Z.Z.T." explored those contrasts, really highlighting not only what makes them individuals, but also why they work together. It's a character study facilitated by a shift in the nature of the conflict.
 
The best character moment, however, is probably Coulson's. With a relatively quiet threat, we're able to see more of Coulson's character. When he comforts a firefighter we begin to see the consequences his death had on him. When Simmons is at risk we his his steadfast devotion to saving his team. And lastly, his own doubts about himself show is another side of him. He becomes far more deep and we, as an audience, are informed that there is baggage there to be worked out. And baggage makes for good television.
 
"F.Z.Z.T." is another step forward for Agents of SHIELD for so many reasons. Characters are stronger, humor hits more, and the drama's more dramatic. I was excited when the show first aired, now I'm thrilled with where this show is going.
 


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Two More Hours

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 02 2013 · 199 views

Essays, Not Rants! 085: Two More Hours
 
The book Ender's Game is near to my heart. I listed it as my favorite book on my college apps years ago (in lieu of The Lord of the Rings — too cliché). I've read it at three different stages of my life: in high school, in the army (during basic training and later as a corporal), and for class during my freshman year of university. What I'm saying is I love the book. Not just because it's about kid-soldiers saving the world, but because it explores questions of warfare, empathy, and trauma.
 
See, Ender's Game is a two-headed beast. You have the story of Ender, the child chosen to save the world. The novel follows him from earth through his trials at Battle School and on to Command School. We see him grow and excel in this environment, triumphing despite the odds being stacked catastrophically against him.
Alongside that it’s a story about a boy forced to deal with isolation and detachment; Ender never has the luxury of friends. Ender’s Game is also about a boy being molded into the weapon at the cost of his psyche and the effect it has on him and those around him. As the novel comes to a close it becomes a story about PTSD and atonement.
 
So it was with cautious hope that I saw the film of the book Thursday night. It wasn't bad; it touched on the themes and hit on many of the book's highlights. But it was too short. It’s really hard to condense all of that into a single movie. Which brings me to the greats flaw of the film of Ender’s Game: It needed two movies.
 
The movie desperately needed more time, another beat in Battle School, another beat in Command School, and another at the end. Ender’s Game is on of the few books that really needed two movies to tell its story.
 
That’s the main criticism I can levy against the film. The cast was exceptional, Harrison Ford as Graff in particular. Some of the script was a little wonky, but never enough to drag down the rest. The visuals were beautiful (though I would have done something different camera-wise in the Battle Room). The movie was great, just too short.
 
Which just might make it that much more painful. It’s easy to hate a movie that’s just plain shoddy (See: The Last Airbender) or fails to capture the spirit of the book (See: BBC’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe). Then it’s easy; the movie felt nothing like the book, missed the point, and sucked. In those cases you laugh off the movie figuring, hey, they tried, whatever.
 
Ender’s Game came so close as a movie. It had all the pieces it needed for a great adaption. Everything was freaking there, the movie had it all. And it was great, for that. But it needed the chance to breathe. It needed the time to get into Ender’s isolation, to explore Dragon Army, to explore the consequences of his decisions. We needed two movies!
 
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the movie. I almost cheered when we met Bean and later Petra. Every one of Graff’s scenes was an absolute blast (Ford was able to capture Graff’s severity and warmth like no other). It was great; it just needed more time. What makes it more painful is that if someone ever tries again in the future, the parts will no longer be here. We won’t be able to have Harrison Ford as Graff again nor many of the other people involved.
 
Ender’s Game is by no means a bad movie, great even; but it came this close to being incredible. Movie’s worth a watch, but definitely read the book.


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Genre Blending

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 31 2013 · 82 views

Essays, Not Rants! 084: Genre Blending
Originally posted October 25th 2013
 
Remember when superhero movies were just becoming a thing? They usually fell into the same pattern: someone gets powers and saves the world. Fairly straight forward, right? Sure, there were different approaches to the idea: X-Men drew on themes of discrimination and Spider-Man was about a hero trying to balance life and superheroing. The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and The Incredibles deconstructed several tropes associated with the genre, and Iron Man and The Incredibles reconstructed a deal of them (yep, The Incredibles did both). But at the end of the day, all of them were, for the most part, variations on a theme.
 
Then Thor rolled around. While, yes, it was still about a superhero saving the world, the film and character were approached like a fantasy film in the vein of The Lord of the Rings rather than an out-and-out ‘superhero film.’ The result was a movie that felt very different from, say, Iron Man. Suddenly the superhero genre had expanded. Thor wasn’t just about a normal guy getting powers; it was about a fantastical superhuman progressing through the hero’s journey in a blend of fantasy and reality.
 
A few months later Captain America: The First Avenger came out, transplanting a superhero movie into a period piece (like The Incredibles!). Unlike The Incredibles, though, The First Avenger fully embraced its time period: World War II. Just as Thor crossed into fantasy, this film blended the a war movie with superhero tropes. Yes, The First Avenger still has all the hallmarks of the superhero film, but it’s hardly a strict superhero movie. We have a superhero who’s more like a commando (or is it the other way round?). Similarly, X-Men: First Class (also released in the Summer of 2011) took place in the ‘60s, keeping its discrimination subtext and mixing it with Cold War imagery.
 
Which brings me to The Winter Soldier, the trailer of which just dropped (if you haven’t seen it, go now!). The new Captain America movie seems to be, like The First Avenger before it, dispensing with a lot of ‘classic’ superhero tropes. If anything, The Winter Soldier is shaping up to be more like a political thriller in the vein of Patriot Games or The Bourne Identity rather than Iron Man. Yes, it’s still a movie about Captain America and there is an evil looking villain; but Blade Runner has androids and it’s not Star Wars. It’s not solely a film of one genre.
 
As a genre, superhero movies, like science fiction and fantasy before it, are rapidly becoming far more diverse with their subject matter. The Avengers drew some aspects from war movies, Man Of Steel focused its central theme not on Superman vs Zod but on the question of Superman’s identity. Of course, this doesn’t always go so well; Green Lantern tried to create a space opera and, well, failed miserably. So what did Green Lantern do wrong? Does space opera simply not work with superheroes? No, Green Lantern was a reminder that blending genres isn’t enough: you always need a good story.
Fun thing is, this trend shows no sign of stopping. Upcoming Thor: The Dark World is still a fantasy (directed by some Game of Thrones alum, no less), Guardians of the Galaxy is looking to be Marvel’s attempt at a space opera, and Ant-Man is gonna be an Edgar Wright film. Why is this so important? Folks, we’re watching a genre develop.
 
Short post? Yes. Why? I’m working on a short film this weekend. I’m busy. Heck, I hardly have time to go out and watch movies.


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Awesome Non-Combatants

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 31 2013 · 72 views

Essays, Not Rants! 083: Awesome Non-Combatants
Originally published October 18th 2013
 
During my idle perusal of the vast wastes of internet I came across a review of this past week’s episode of Agents of SHIELD. What caught my interest was one of the reviewer’s criticisms: there were still too many techie-type characters who couldn’t fight. And that that was lame and frustrating.
 
Now, besides wrong, I find this criticism fascinating. Because yes, it is interesting to see an action-orientated show where half of the main cast aren’t able to actively fight bad guys. What often happens instead is we get only one of these characters who gets overshadowed by everyone else. When done poorly, this can get to the point that we wonder why they’re even one of the main characters. Yet there’s an obligation to have these sorts in a story. After all, not everyone in real life runs around guns blazing. Paramilitary groups and ships’ crews need their support teams. So they’re there, and that’s about it. But when written well, like I think Fitz and Simmons of SHIELD are, they can become great, interesting characters in their own right and add another dynamic to their story.
 
Let’s look at Fitz and Simmons further for a second. No, they don’t fight, in fact, they’re pretty adamant about avoiding combat. They’re scientists! Yet the show still keeps them vital to the team. In the pilot it was Fitz who engineered Coulson’s nonlethal third option, for example. Skye too, the other non-combatant, holds her own too, be it through hacking or sweet-talking. Point is, they do stuff! They’re cool! And, rather than having one Science Guy to do all the sciencing we have a team of three splitting the load.
 
We see the idea of vital non-combatants in another show Joss Whedon worked on: Firefly. Kaylee, Simon, and some of the others don’t do much fighting, but they’re still made to feel useful through how they’re written. The show’s plots aren’t always (and seldom solely) of the “we’re in a tight spot, let’s shoot our way out” variety. Instead, we’re given a variety of plots where sometimes mechanicing or doctoring is the best solution. Yeah, it’s harder to write, but when it works it makes each character feel that much more needed.
 
Pacific Rim did it too, with the scientist characters of Newt and Gottlieb. They’re interesting enough as they are, clearly, and they also want to help with the cancellation of the apocalypse. No, they aren’t pilot Jaegers and fighting Kaiju firsthand, but, as Newt puts it, he wants to be a rockstar. And later on he and Gottlieb are given their chance and proceed to get the information needed to save the day. The film’s written well enough that their moment doesn’t feel awkwardly worked in or just tacked on. Furthermore, it ties in to the movie’s theme of everyone having a part to play in saving the world, even the nerds.
There’s an interesting misconception that a strong character has to be a fighter. Ergo a strong female character has to be out doing something adventurous and can’t be one who stays home. Yet a character like that can still be terribly boring (see: Salt) and a character can be stay in the castle yet still be terribly interesting (see: Cersei Lannister). The strength of a character isn’t judged by the amount of butt they can kick but that they’re both interesting and vital. It’s up to good writing to ensure that characters feel needed and interesting throughout a story.
 
So by all means, keep Fitz, Simmons, and Skye inept at combat, just keep writing them as interesting, legitimate characters.


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Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 31 2013 · 34 views

Essays, Not Rants! 082: Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity
Originally published October 11th 2013
 
Yes, I’m still on my science fiction apologetics kick. As I’ve established over and over again, as a genre, science fiction can say a lot that normal fiction can’t, or say it in ways it can’t. Gravity is a fine example of this. Because like it or not, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece is science fiction. If Super 8 and Moon are science fiction, then so is Gravity.
 
Super 8, like E.T. before it, is fundamentally a movie about growing up and moving on. Moon isn’t about Sam Rockwell mining Helium-3 so much as it questions ideas about what it means to be human. Pacific Rim is as much about togetherness as it is about canceling apocalypses. Similarly, Gravity is a movie about faith,the will to live and what exactly being alive means. All these movies use the trappings of science fiction as the backdrop for their stories and to tell stories that could not be told otherwise.
 
Pacific Rim communicates its refusal to settle for the world we’re given though Jaegers and Kaiju. We’re presented personifications of fear and devastation and then told a story where those beasts can be stood up to and defeated. The movie’s centered around this idea, with other themes wound into it. It’s the clear-cut line of all of humanity against the invaders that allow it to be conveyed so clearly and yet so artfully. It plain works.
 
Moon uses its lunar setting to heighten the feeling of isolation that permeates the film. It also uses its twenty-minutes-into-the-future time period to address its central issue in a unique way. Duncan Jones’ film gives physicality to the question of identity and humanity; rather than having characters discuss it they’re forced to confront it. We, as an audience, don’t choke on the philosophizing, instead it’s presented to us through the story. Through the use of science fiction, storytellers are able to smoothly communicate themes and ideas that, in another setting, could feel heavy handed or just plain out of place. Gravity does this magnificently.
 
Gravity could be called Life of Pi in space without a tiger. Like Yann Martel’s novel, Gravity centers itself around people trying to survive where people aren’t supposed to survive. Also like the book, it examines the meaning of life, insofar as what’s the point of being alive? Gravity explores this theme through its two astronauts drifting in space, dying to survive. Where better to ponder God then miles above the atmosphere? Where else to examine humanity’s need for connection than in the isolation of space? By setting Gravity in space as opposed to in the middle of the ocean, a desert, or vacant island, Cuarón can hone his film to what he wants to address and mask it beautifully in a sublime story about survival. There’s little preachifying, instead its message is communicated through the story and characters.
 
Science fiction, like fantasy, can be a parable. Within its lack of limits we’re able to personify evil itself or present a helplessness beyond the scope of anything we know. Within it lies the capability to eloquently communicate a message unique to itself. Does all science fiction explore the depth its afforded? No. But then does all non-genre fiction?


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Genre as Literature

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Oct 31 2013 · 45 views

Essays, Not Rants! 081: Genre as Literature
Originally published October 4th 2013
 
I love science fiction. I’ve said that before on this blog, and I’ll say it again. I like spaceships. I like a world that’s a little more than ours. But when it comes to literary value science fiction almost always gets written off as being science fiction. Fantasy gets the same treatment. Why? Because it’s genre. Here’s the thing, though: science fiction can be as literary as it can be pulpy. Just like any other genre.
 
First off, let’s look up what exactly literary means. Wikipedia sources Joyce Saricks and defines literary fiction as “serious,” “critically acclaimed,” and “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.” Most interestingly, the term ‘literary’ fell into common usage in the 60’s. Why? To differentiate ‘serious’ fiction from genre. Which doesn’t make sense.
 
For example, look at The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. The former (published in 1969) deals with questions of gender and politics as well as being an outsider. There are layers and layers of this in The Left Hand of Darkness; some of it implicit and others not quite clear until after later thought. The Dispossessed (published 1974), on the other hand, looks at anarchy vs capitalism, individualism vs collectivism, and the tension when a person from one worldview visits a world where the opposite is practiced. So far, these seem to be pretty universal — and topical — themes. Both books are also extremely serious and have both been critically acclaimed (they won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, two annual science fiction accolades). So far this sounds very literary to me.
 
What about Ender’s Game; does Orson Scott Card’s novel fall under Saricks’ definition of literary? First glance would imply not; after all it’s just about children saving the world from aliens. Only it’s not. Ender’s Game is, at it’s core, a novel about empathy. Throughout the book Ender struggles with the tension between hate and love. Can you still hate someone, even your tormenter, after you understand them completely? What happens if this capacity for empathy is used as a weapon? And what if you’re institutionally ostracized from everyone else into becoming a weapon? Here lies the focus of Ender’s Game, not in killing aliens (whether the upcoming film keeps these themes is another issue). Like LeGuin’s novels, Ender is also critically acclaimed and, arguably, quite serious.
 
We can easily apply this lens to cinema as well. Underneath its slick action sequences, Inception asks questions about the nature of filmmaking and reality. Would you stay in a world where things were perfect, even if it wasn’t real? District 9 explores similar themes to Ender, albeit with regards to racism. Moon questions the meaning of identity in ways normal literature cannot.
Granted, a lot of genre fiction can be bad. Pulp novels from the early 1900’s tend to lack any sort of depth (though they set a lot of genre conventions still observed today). But then, can’t ‘normal,’ ‘non-genre’ fiction be lousy You can find lousy detective novels, lousy historical fiction, lousy adventures, lousy fanfiction, lousy thrillers, and, redundant as it sounds, lousy romance novels. Why is some of it lousy? Because some of it is good; really good. Some might even be ‘literary.’
 
So why was a term like ‘paraliterature’ coined to differentiate popular or commercial fiction from consecrated ‘literature?’ Does having the presence of anything outside the realms of normalcy instantly lousy a piece of fiction? Way I see it, there shouldn’t be a divide: genre can be literary. Video games can be literary, look at The Last of Us! Comics can be literary (Watchmen). The problem with setting up a hard and fast guideline about where the line between literature and genre/paraliterature is that, like it or not, some of what you’re trying to keep out will inevitably slip through the cracks. Even if a criteria is as subjective as ‘serious.’ The alternate would be completely arbitrary decision making which, frankly, is just plain stupid.






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josh

twenty-one

grew up on a ship

studies Storytelling

at New York University

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