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Category Archives: Q Lovin

The Problem of Thor

There are those who do not watch, there are those who watch only casually, and then there are those who consume to the very depths of their souls.

But whether you make the distinction between geeks and nerds or nerds and dorks, that third category is divided into two types of superfans—and the difference between us what I call the Problem of Thor.

When the first Thor movie came out in 2011, there were two types of people who had problems with it.

Well, that’s not true. There were actually a lot of things about that movie that were, shall we say, problematic. But as far as stupid things, fan-based objections, there seem to be two distinct camps. And one of those camps seems to have only one member:

Me.

You see, a lot of the fans of the comics—no, I am being unfair. A lot of assholes who happen to identify as fans of the comics objected to the fact that Heimdall (played by his most excellency Idris Elba) is a Norse God, and Norsemen are explicitly and definitely not black.

I didn’t care about that, though. Partly, this is because I try my best not to be a racist asshole and, considering the Asgardians’ extraterrestrial origins, it’s kind of surprising they don’t have more diversity in their ranks; but mostly, I kept my eyes rolling on the subject of Heimdall because I had a more important issue to worry about: Sif.

Sif, in the Norse mythology, is described as Thor’s wife. She doesn’t seem to be portrayed as any kind of warrior, particularly, that I recall—although I suppose that could be a Christianization, I don’t know. But what disturbed me was her hair-color.

Sif, you see, is blonde.

“No, she’s not!” protest fans of the comics when I bring the matter up. “Just look how she’s drawn! Jamie Alexander is actually pretty much perfect as far as her looks.”

Guess what, though: Marvel did not invent these characters. Yet even people I know who are proficient in Mythologizing don’t seem to mind that those inattentive mud-breeders changed the color of Sif’s fucking hair.

Now, I know, I know, I’m being “difficult”, I’m “whining”, because “Who cares?” and if it stopped there, I would probably shut up and not even have to “grin and bear it”. But it doesn’t stop there, you see, because Sif is not just “a blonde”. Sif is the blonde.

The Goddess Sif is so feathermucking blonde that when Loki steals her hair one time, crops fail. And do you know why crops fail? Because that’s how feathermucking blonde Sif is. Her hair literally symbolizes wheat.

But apparently, I’m the only one dorky enough to care when Norse Myth is being fucked over, and not to care that Marvel’s carefully curated brand should be respected despite getting it wrong the first time.

This is, unfortunately, a lonely attitude to indulge it. As such, your prayers for an end to my suffering are welcome.

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Superman Is Real

One of the early Sci-Fi writers (I can’t remember if it was Doc Smith or A.E. van Vogt or whoever it was) talked about growing up thinking of Sci-Fi as a game between the reader and the writer, the writer trying to make their extravagant and outlandish inventions as scientifically grounded as possible, the readers trying to still poke holes in them.

They needn’t have bothered.

So, it’s an apocryphal story—actually not even that, more like anecdotal. All right, all right, it’s something my dad keeps talking about.

A little kid writes a letter to the editors and writers of Superman comics complaining that something or other that Superman did in Issue X violated the law of relativity or something. The editor’s response is simple: “Relativity is just a theory, son—but Superman is real.”

Right? What a douchey thing to say. Of all the self-congratulatory propaganda you could possiby—

Here’s why the editor is right.

Science is not a force of nature. I know it’s sometimes portrayed that way in Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, as something that can “break down” like a senile mainframe. But science isn’t a physical reality, it’s an intellectual process. Science is the collective human intelligence trying to understand the world around it, to make sense of it in order to better our position within it.

If you see something happen in the actual world and you think “That can’t happen, it’s against the laws of science,” you are guilty of cognitive dissonance. Because if you are unable to accept the evidence of your senses, you cannot science. Because it wouldn’t be true. It wouldn’t fit the facts.

Superman does not, as far as we know, exist in an actual world. He is a fictional character and, as such, he exists in a fictional universe which automatically operates under rules different from the science of our own.

So if you’re looking at something that Superman is doing and you go “That’s not possible!” that, too, my dear boy (or girl, or person—whatever), is cognitive dissonance. Now, it might not necessarily be your fault—it could be indicative of problems in the story’s narrative contract, but that’s a whole other thing.

The point is, the rules of a fictional reality are decided entirely by the author of said fiction. Our “science”, the laws of the forces of nature in our world, don’t apply. This doesn’t mean that science doesn’t apply because again, science is an intellectual process, rather than a set of rules. But it does mean that our world’s science cannot be used as a weapon to discredit fiction.

So instead of thinking “Superman shouldn’t be able to lift that building because it would collapse under its own weight,” I would urge you instead to accept the evidence presented as fact; and if you really must science about it, use your science to figure out how Superman could lift that building. Sci-Fi is a lot more fun if you say yes to it.


The Sportsball Metaphor

In the two-party system of American politics, we like to think of everything as though it’s a team sport. The goal is the presidency and the ball, which must be handled with such specific care, is the electorate.

But much as this might be a good model for how things are (how they are presented) it is a terrible representation of how things ought to be.

So imagine this instead: the players are the politicians (in a true democracy, this should mean that the electorate gets to play, too) and the ball is an issue. Take, for example, because it’s so controversial, abortion. One goal is allowing it, the other is making it punishable. (Prevention is, of course, a whole other ballgame.)

What team you are on depends entirely on how you feel about that particular issue.

But that is not the only ball in play. Say there is another ball—the first was a basketball, this one’s for soccer—only this one represents building a wall between our country and the one next door. One goal represents building it, the other represents doing something more useful with our cash.

The problem is, though, the teams aren’t necessarily the same. One person who hates abortion might crave a wall, but another might be disadvantaged because of it. A third might have no opinion at all—if passed the ball, she might shrug it off and pretend she’s not playing. The same is true of the other side, because there is nothing about these two bills that suggests the one flows from the other, besides a pernicious fiction that one set of priorities is “good” as a whole and the other is “evil”.

We’ve been trying to yoke all of the goals together by party and now we are surprised that more and more players hate our two-party system and are refusing to vote.


What We Know (and What We Don’t) about How the World Works

Our understanding of the world is based our perceptions of it, based on the physical evidence perceived with our senses. Beyond that, we also rely a lot on hearsay about things that accepted science has ascertained, whatever the method to procure it may be.

When you’re reading a story, the conventional expectation is that the events that happen inside the story are going to follow the same rules that are found in the actual world. If they do not, if things are allowed to happen within the story that are not allowed in the actual world (or vice versa, though that is rare) then the story in question is deemed “speculative” for the purpose of communicating with the audience.

We think of speculative fiction as having two distinct traditions and, to a certain extent, we are correct in this assumption. On the one hand, we have “Science Fiction” and on the other we have “Fantasy”. Both present things that do not happen in the world as we know it. But only one of them sets out with the express intent to show things that cannot happen.

The idea behind Science Fiction is expressly to present things that, according to science as we understand it now, could happen (or, in the case of the subgenre of Alternative History, could have happened, had historical circumstances been different). In fact, there have been cases in which a technology originally introduced as science fictional has become a reality; the most famous example is probably Jules Verne, with his submarines and moon rockets.

When someone sets out to write a work of Fantasy, though, there is no expectation of this. While it is possible that Dragons, in some way or other, might have existed at some point in Earth’s past, it would be a stretch to assume any connection between the kind of sympathetic magic often depicted in works of Fantasy, and the actual world we inhabit of agreed-upon science.

I once brought a script I’d written to a conference and showed it to an agent. The script was set in a world in which dragons and robots coexisted, and even—in an extended scene I am especially proud of—fought against each other. I had had some interest from other people who begged off on the basis that the script would be too expensive, but this particular agent said that she didn’t get it. “You’ve got dragons, you’ve got robots,” she decreed. “You don’t mix those. Audiences get confused.”

The idea that Science Fiction and Fantasy can’t coexist in the same story, is based on the theory that the traditions are incompatible. In essence, she was saying that when an audience departs from reality, they can go into one of two worlds, one of which is Science Fictional, the other Fantastical.

But the reality is that both Fantasy and Science Fiction are both extensions of reality. You’re always going to start off from something resembling our world in some way, shape or form. But Science Fiction is expressly not meant to be a different reality with different rules—it is a reality that obeys laws that we don’t have yet. This makes it an extension of our actual world.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is a contradiction of our actual world, presenting as it does things that cannot happen—could not, even in a Science Fictional set-up. So if Fantasy is going to contradict our world anyway, why not have the world it contradicts be a world that features science that we haven’t found yet. Magic (being defined here as anything Fantastical that doesn’t exist in the actual world) is an addition to reality on top of whatever Fictional Science has been provided.

And then of course we oughtn’t forget the fact that Dragons vs. Robots is just objectively cool. What audience in their right mind would turn that down, no matter what the supposed “contradictions”?


Metaphors and Similes

I don’t like the way that people teach about Metaphors vs. Similes. I don’t like the way that the difference is defined.

“A simile,” they say, “Is where you say that the man was like a wolf as he approached the young woman. A metaphor is when you say that the man was a wolf.” As if the mere presence or absence of the word “like” made a difference in the sentence.

But the presence or absence of the word “like” is an accident of language. The real determination must be found in a semiotic distinction.

In semiotics, we define the difference between a “signifier” and what is “signified”, the symbol and what the symbol stands for. What the symbol stands for should be considered the “real” thing, which is signified in a symbol. In this case, the actant in the sentence is a man (“signified”), he is really a man, but he is represented by the symbol of a wolf (“signifier”).

You can leave out the word “like” in this sentence and it really isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference. Not when it comes to how the audience perceives it. Because in both cases, we are introduced to an actant who is a man, and then we are told he is a wolf. We know that no one can be both wolf and man at the same time, so regardless of the presence or absence of that magical word that’s supposed to turn gold into simile, we have to consider the actant as a man who is being compared (the actual meaning of “simile”) to a wolf.

“The man then lunged at her. He was a (like) wolf, tearing at her clothes to get at the flesh beneath.”

Whether or not we include the word, there is really only one way to read that.

So compare this sentence:

“The wolf stepped out of the bushes and spoke to the little girl.”

Let us be very clear about this: wolves, in our external reality, are not capable of speech. Therefore, we must assume while we’re doing a literal reading of this bit of text, that the wolf isn’t actually a wolf, that he is a stand-in for a man who will later devour her until she can be rescued by a woodsman.

However, this reading is not supported by the text, it is merely allowed. Only the signifier is present in the sentence, leaving any theoretical signified object to cast its shadow upon our imaginations. We can read the line as a metaphor, but the text does not compel us to.

That, to me, is the true difference between a metaphor and a simile. A simile tells us exactly what is going on and then provides an image we can compare it to. A metaphor just tells a story and leaves any hidden meaning to our collective imaginations.


Realitivity

“Reality” is a big word. I wouldn’t care to use it lightly. The feelings that we have are real. Our dreams are real, and our fears. Our suspicions are real, and our fantasies. I don’t know that I can say that everything is real. But I will say that anything can be.

This is why we in the multiple-worlds business like the word “actual”. An English-speaker might look at that word and think “That just means the same thing as ‘real’.” But when my American parents first got to Brussels, they got a map with supposedly English-language instructions that claimed to be an “actual map!”

“What?” said my father, “as opposed to an imaginary map?” It was some time before they put it together that the French word “actuel” (As well as the less frequent Dutch “actueel”) means something more like “current” or “up-to-date”.

Because of the connection between this word and the idea of relatively recent events, French and francophile ontologists, narratologists and (presumably) theoretical physicists have adopted the term to refer to events which “actually” happen in the continuity and diegesis the speaker occupies, as opposed to some subjunctive secondary or tertiary creation.

Where this gets messy is when we talk about worlds that are already “imaginary”: things that happen within the world of a story have to be things that “actually” happen there, too, else how could we distinguish between those events and others that are (only) imagined by the characters?

But again, just because something doesn’t actually happen in the actual world, that doesn’t make the event (or its impact on the human psyche) any less real.


Subjunctivitis

I’ve talked about Subjunctive Scenes before, but I’d like to say a few words now about the things that they can do to a person.

A Subjunctive Scene is, by definition, a scene that isn’t “really” happening, a scene that doesn’t take place in a story, but would or could or should or might, if circumstances were different. The contention seems to be that these scenes are to be avoided, but that is only because they are dangerous scenes.

They are to be treated as dangerous because they can result in infection and even inflammation, under certain circumstances. This inflammation can present itself in one of two opposing forms:

Type 1 Subjunctivitis occurs when the audience ignores the impact of the scene completely, claiming that it didn’t matter at all to the narrative because it “didn’t really happen”. This can present as a side-effect among small numbers of the intended audience, in which case it is possible it’s due to a personal misreading of the text as these audience members may be subject to market forces that are statistically negligible, but if too much of the audience sustains this reaction, the efficacy of the device in this instance should be questioned.

Type 2 Subjunctivitis, however, occurs when the audience or readership does not realize that the subjunctive event was fictional, or occurred outside of the agreed-upon diegesis. This can be a risky effect to present—if done well, it can keep the audience engaged and on their toes through the use of “twists” in the tale. But if left unchecked, it can mire readership in a miasma of semantic discontinuity, uncertain of the reality of any of the presented elements.

In some extreme cases, this uncertainty has been known to translate to the actual world of the audience, whereupon they can then no longer even be certain of that.