Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thoughts On the 40-Year Gap

A brief aside, before I return to what I've learned from other people telling bad stories. There's an old idea that SF writing lags about 40 years behind literature in terms of form and structure. The relevant quote is from Gary Westfahl:

"Thus, we find that science fiction readers of the 1960s were shocked and sometimes appalled when writers dared to try writing like James Joyce and John Dos Passos in the 1920s, and one reason that Neuromancer so stunned those readers in the 1980s was that William Gibson boldly and innovatively imported into science fiction the attitudes and style of the Raymond Chandler detective stories of the 1940s."

And I was just re-reading that and thinking, hey, I know, I can totally jump the curve by seeing what sort of SF will be coming out in about five years! It would be like the literature from the early 70s! Then I remembered, wait, what's my favorite bit of nominally "proper" literature? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Published in 1972. So...I just spent a few minutes looking back and forth, back and forth, between Thompson's writing and my own, and the phrase "pale imitation" keeps bouncing around in my head. I'm a science fiction author lifting from literary styles that are almost exactly 40 years old.

Curses! Foiled again. Or I'm a genius. I'm not sure. No, I think it's just kind of sad and funny.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sci-Fi Jack

Since my computer has gone kaput I've been drawing on my mother's computer. (Thanks, Mom!) This, coupled with my completing of several series on Netflix and thus needing new TV to fill the howling void in my soul that science fiction alone can fill, means that I've watched a lot of bad television over the past few weeks.

This is good. Good television--Mad Men, The Wire--mostly just makes me feel bad about my own meager talents. But bad TV, especially bad sci-fi, fills me with a combination of puerile jealousy (not so helpful) and analytical curiosity (very helpful). Examining some of these bad shows, and how they fail as art and entertainment, helps me with my own work.

Eureka was a hilarious bust, one of those shows that I had high hopes for until, let's say, 30 seconds into the pilot. However, it's also an essay in long-form about how to produce mediocre television. The funny thing is it took me weeks of analysis and the help of Kirsten to realize that I was viewing "family entertainment," and that's why it was so tepid, dull, condescending, and unimaginative. That was a depressing realization: how out-of-touch I am with market reality, even as I pride myself on my awareness of genre tropes. In that light, it feels almost unfair to analyze the show as even the sorriest attempt at speculative fiction: I'd might as well rake Wiggles over the coals for not generating an adequate secondary world in the sense Tolkien uses the term.

Still, it was an engrossingly stupid show, and helped me clarify one of the elements I've seen in a lot of televised science fiction. I've taken to calling this element Sci-Fi Jack.

Sci-Fi Jack--who is, weirdly enough, often named Jack, or John--is the viewpoint-character for most middling science fiction shows. Think Stargate, Eureka, Farscape, The Invisible Man (the 2000 series), even, to some degree, G vs. E (an otherwise very good show). Sci-Fi Jack is stupid, crass, "common," and simple--even if he technically has an advanced degree or should otherwise have no business being the "salt of the Earth" type. However, he's not an old codger. Sci-Fi Jack is dim, yet virile, a man's man, a creature of action rather than thought. His only nod to intelligence is a sort of low, smarmy wit, which is used to sneer at the other characters, who may be intellectuals, bureaucrats, or ball-busting women (the ball-busting woman is almost always paired with a Sci-Fi Jack, because bickering looks like cleverness, I suppose). Sci-Fi Jack drifts through the show as the audience surrogate for anyone ashamed, at some level, of all the goings-on in these silly sci-fi shows, what with the robots and the independently-rotating gyroscopes. He sneers, he smirks, and in the end, he wins due to his vigor, street smarts, and know-how.

Now, the Sci-Fi Jack phenomenon is fascinating for a couple of reasons from my position as a writer of speculative fiction, since it seems so easy to fall into the trap--especially for me, with my fondness for Whedon. A bit of flipness (a disease that afflicts me), a bit of anti-intellectualism (which emphatically does not--at least in general--but I still worry), and I'm duplicating the sneering, glib condescension of Sci-Fi Jack. It's a bit unnerving how easy it is, and I spend a lot of time staring at my comic making sure that I don't slink into that little hole. The worst part is how close Sci-Fi Jack is to a lot of excellent SF characters. The winking arrogance of Robert Downey, Jr's Tony Stark is a hair's-breadth from Sci-Fi Jack, yet Stark is one of the best-realized movie protagonists of the past few years.

The difference between the two is narrow, but it's there, in two areas. First, there's the willingness of the character to engage in the assumptions of the setting. Stark engages the genre. Sci-Fi Jack rejects, condemns, and sneers at the genre. Second, there's the simple matter of good humor. One of the most arresting parts of Eureka, to me, was how thoroughly unlikeable all the main characters were. (By contrast, I think of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show with dreadful plots and pacing that was saved, more often than not, by the likability of the cast.) Eureka's main characters are a smirking know-nothing, a ball-busting woman, and a snotty little kid. Tony pulls us in: his "No gang signs, please" when the soldier riding with him throws up a peace sign forces us to like the guy, with his combination of self-deprecation and absurd humor. He's a likable character--not a likable person, in the same way that Dr. House isn't a likable person--but as a character, he makes you like him.

And it's good to realize that, and to appreciate the idea that funny characters--especially funny protagonists, and especially "darkly" funny protagonists--are dangerous. Do well and you have a great, likable, funny character, someone who can carry a whole series. Screw it up by making the character reject or sneer at the genre assumptions, or just by making him an annoying git who's more of a bully than a comedian, and you're on your way to Sci-Fi Jack or some other form of botched protagonist.

Next week: what I've learned from the mistakes in Carnivale and Dark Angel.