Glutton for Punishment: Hard SF vs Soft SF vs Fantasy

– by Gitabushi

There is a commercial running during NFL games by a satellite TV company, with the premise that there are some people who still like cable, but there are also some people who really like things that normal people hate, like painful, frustrating, or irritating things.

Well, I like igniting arguments over literature.

Let me put it up front in black and white: THERE IS NO VALUE JUDGMENT ATTACHED TO CLASSIFYING FICTION AS HARD SF, SOFT SF, OR FANTASY.  If you attach a value judgment, your problem is you, not me.

Some may retort: Why do we need to classify literature at all?  There is no benefit in creating divisions where none need exist!

I disagree. Let me explain. No, that would take too long, let me sum up. No, wait, when have I ever cared about talking too much? I’ll explain.

There are probably many reasons to classify our literature, and perhaps there are reasons to not classify our literature.  Offhand, I can think of two major reasons to do it, and just one to not.

First, the main reason to not classify literature is because in the end, it’s a story we enjoy, or not.  If a story is good, it doesn’t matter whether it is Fantasy, Hard SF, or Soft SF.  If I hand you Dragon’s Egg, I can tell you that it is one of the hardest SF stories out there, but that tells you nothing about whether it is a good story or not (I liked the concept, but the execution did not please teenager me. I stopped reading less than a third of the way through, and it left such a poor impression I’ve never picked it up again).  So perhaps the main reason to not classify stories/books along these lines is if someone does think there is a value judgment that makes Soft SF inferior to Hard SF in some way, or if a reader thinks there is an arrogance aspect to the Hard SF mantle, since it is all Fantastic Fiction in any case.

However, I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

I think there are two main advantages to classifying speculative fiction along these lines, one for the author, and one for the reader.  I will probably repeat some concepts, but I think I have some new ideas to add.

First, I think the main benefit is to the author. As a writer, you have to use skill and discipline to tell a good story.  You need to know what kind of story you are writing, because that will help determine how you develop the story.

What I mean is, Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  FTL travel is still pretty much magic, as is youth regeneration, storing personality in an electronic matrix, time travel, etc. Yet these are still mostly in the realm of Science Fiction, not Fantasy.  Why?

With that in mind, I would like to propose a new classification system for Science Fiction vs Fantasy.  Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things.  Oh, sure, I know there are a million examples that you could use to argue with me on this, but don’t.  Just accept it for now as you encounter fiction in the future.

In fantasy, you have people that have powers that don’t exist in the current world.  They can impact reality through will alone (sometimes with a device, sometimes with innate ability). But that ability to impact reality is limited.  No one else can use that ability, or can only do so by taking the magic device away.  And while the impact may be fantastic, their goals are usually mundane. In the end, Frodo was merely walking a distance and throwing an object into a fire.  Yes, it was a special object, a special fire, it was unimaginably difficult to arrive at his destination, and it saved the world. But the actions themselves were mundane.  When you have fantastic powers, you have to make the goals more mundane so that readers can relate.  The point of Speculative Fiction is to explore what it means to be human…the point of Fantasy is to show how power doesn’t really change basic human instincts, desires, and character.  The power tempts, and corrupts, and enables, but the feelings, desires, goals, aims, flaws, weaknesses, and temptations are always that of a normal human.  And if you are writing fantasy, there must be limits on the power, usually in the form of costs of using the  power.  Otherwise, you have a boring story.  The conflict that drives the story is the limitations on the power. That’s why the best Fantasy stories have a world with complex-but-knowable rules of how power is exercised.  One exception: The Lord of the Rings…but that was a story about normal individuals caught in power struggles beyond their ken.  The viewpoint and protagonist had no magic of his own, and the only magic he had access to was cursed/poisoned…each use brought him closer to full damnation.  Those were the limits of power that drove the narrative in the Lord of the Rings, and those limits were both clear and understandable to the reader. So there is some wiggle room in the restrictions I insist exist.  But again: know what you are writing, and why, and it will help you develop your story more effectively.

So if my assertion has utility, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things, and Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, why do we need a division between Hard and Soft SF?

I think we need the division because it all goes back to the reader.  For a reader to enjoy a story, they must be able to suspend their disbelief. They must care about the characters, and must be able to relate to them in some way.

How you handle the fantastic elements in your story has a huge impact on whether your readers can suspend their disbelief or not.

In Soft SF, pretty much anything goes.  Most of the normal laws of physics are suspended.  That gives you lots of freedom to play around with all the elements of the story.  But there is a double-edged sword there: with that level of freedom, you need to address so much more about the laws of your universe. If you don’t, your readers will feel cheated and dislike the story.

To explain, I must digress. I’ve been mentally chewing on a concept for several years now. Every story is really just a variation on limited knowledge/communication.  If all your characters knew everything that was going on, they would be in the right place and do the right thing, and the story would be over.  To add conflict to the story, your characters have to encounter limits on information, they have to not know the antagonist’s plan, or location, or powers, etc.  It is the quest to gain this understanding, and the obstacles they encounter in that quest, that makes the story interesting.  Or if not communication, then distance and transportation. As has been pointed out, if the Fellowship had used the Eagles to drop the ring into the volcano, the story would have been over quickly and much less interesting.

So in Science Fiction, the first thing you need to determine is: what is your transportation technology, and what is your information technology?

Faster-than-light needs to have some sort of cost…maybe the cost is in time, maybe in damage to health, but there must be some cost to help build interest in the story. Communication has to have some limits, as well.  Perhaps information is limited to those with resources, perhaps there is false information and the cost is having to sort through it all to find the real stuff.  But you can get a great deal of conflict out of limiting communication.  That’s why cell phones ruin horror movies, and one of the first things a writer does to create suspense is find a way to take away their phone service in a plausible manner.

In Soft SF, you make things easier on yourself by suspending/ignoring the laws of physics.  But you then make it harder on yourself because you have to explain what laws do still exist, what don’t, and perhaps why. Then you have to figure out how those impact your society and what it means to be human.  And then you have to be careful to not make the resolution of your story be the discovery of some aspect of your new rules that  anyone who grew up with those rules should have known.

For example, although the resolution of the story didn’t hinge on this cheat by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was ignoble of him to make John Carter be the first person on Barsoom to realize that if you treat an animal with care, it returns loyalty to you.  The entire story didn’t hinge on that point, but it did resolve an obstacle.  The thing is, this is an obvious point to anyone who isn’t a complete psychopath.  If *no one* on Barsoom understood this, then even Dejah Thoris is an evil bitch not worthy of love. Since that is obviously not true, then it was a cheap device ERB used to get John Carter out of a jam, and it made the story worse. The inability for Martians (Barsoomians?) to recognize the value of treating animals with care never has any other impact on the story.  This is not fair to the reader.

On the other hand, Hard SF makes many things easier on the writer and reader: the reader can assume that with the exception of one or two aspects not currently within our technological grasp, the fictional world is exactly like the world the reader inhabits.  The writer doesn’t have to explain all the differences. The reader doesn’t have to consider as many changes to life and decide whether to suspend disbelief or not.  The world *is* as it *is*, and that adds verisimilitude.  One thing that makes Jumper and Wildside so enjoyable is Steven Gould changes just one *little* thing. He gives his main character one tiny resource, and then does everything he can to fully explore the impact of that ability on the character and our world. Now, the nature of those resources is never really explained, and so could be considered Soft SF or even Fantasy.  After all, in Jumper, the main character is a person with a Fantastic ability, trying to do mundane things (escape an abusive father, find love/trust…the Do Great Things comes later in the story). But I think the approach is much more Hard SF: change as little as you can about the world and laws of physics, and then play out all the impacts of that change.

1006354

But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit: by putting Jumper and Wildside in Hard SF because of the approach, I am either destroying my thesis, or rendering the judgment fully subjective.

I want to argue for the latter.  Hard SF, Soft SF, and Fantasy might be a bookshelf categorization, but it has little utility there. In the end, they are three different approaches to writing a story, and the writer has to know what they are writing, and why, and then signal it to the reader, who will then be more able to enjoy the story on the basis of the system the writer put forth.

Because Postman by David Brin was a disappointment to me.  It started off merely as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel.  A normal guy is transformed by merely adopting the trappings of minor authority of bygone days.  That’s Hard SF, and good Hard SF: there is nothing that violates any laws of physics, the world is merely changed by the use of currently-existing weapons. But then two-thirds of the way through the book, it changes.  The author introduces technology that doesn’t currently exist.  Even worse, it seems to be technology that *can’t* exist, pushing it into the realm of Fantasy…but that’s not where Brin started the story. It feels like a betrayal, and made me stop caring how the book turned out.

Don’t do that to your readers. And if you are a reader, don’t accept that from your writers.

One final note: Based on this system, I have to consider John Carter to be Fantasy, not Soft SF.  Then again, I still insist that the classifications are subjective, so if you disagree, that is the correct classification for you.

Advertisements

Frustrations with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been reading more slowly lately. Life, plus an obsession with a mobile game* as a stress reliever.

I am really trying to like Pulp. There is much to like about Pulp. But there is also much to dislike about Pulp.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) provides some good examples of both.

I’ve read enough of ERB and Robert E. Howard that I can get into a pulp mindset where I turn off my writing critic and just enjoy the story.  And *still* ERB annoys with some of his poor plotting mechanics.

I have to conclude that ERB was great at coming up with an amazing archetype of a hero, and then just writing about his bad-ass character. His fame comes from being the first to have such a bad-ass character, rather than from actual writing talent.

Maybe that’s harsh. I know it’s going to irritate some people. But look, I’ve read The Monster Men (which was one of ERB’s later works, and an attempt to be more literary), and while it still had some problems, it was actually a fairly well-written book, with some twists, some character complexity, proper foreshadowing, etc.

But I’m still in the midst of slogging through Gods of Mars, and there are just so many examples of poor writing.

I feel like nearly every 3-4 pages there’s an example of poor writing that jars me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Sometimes it is having incredible luck that saves John Carter from failure/death or otherwise continue the narrative. One would be irritating, but there have been at least 10 so far…way too many.  Examples: How was it John Carter to Barsoom returned just in time to encounter Tars Tarkas? How was it Tars Tarkas wasn’t the Green Warrior surprised by the unexpected jumping tactics of the Plant Men? How did Thuvia and Tars happen to be right at the location where the damaged air car of John Carter, Xodar, and Carthoris comes to ground?  Why does Thuvia have the ability of nearly perfect telepathy with beasts? Is this something other Barsoomians have? The answer seems to be that ERB needed something to get the characters through a nearly-impossible situation, so he just pulled something out of the air and ran with it.

Or the characters encounter an obstacle, and what do you know, they just happen to have the ability/item they need, right at that moment, but ERB just forgot to mention it before then! This is probably the most irritating, because it gives an impression of first draft writing: if your writing leads you to put your characters into a difficult situation, you go back and add the solution earlier in the work, at a time that it won’t seem unusual or significant.  Call it effective foreshadowing, call it effective preparation to  avoid a deus ex machina, I don’t really know the right way to put it. But ERB completely misses the mark for this in A Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars.

One that bothers me even more, however, is when ERB is inconsistent with the world and the rules of the world he himself set up.  In A Princess of Mars, he explains at length that the Green Men have rifles capable of amazing long distance accuracy, and the marksmanship skills to use them at incredible ranges. Yet when the Green Men would reasonably use that advantage in a way that might hurt the main characters, the Green Men conviently forget to use them.  A prime example of this (which I just read, and pushed me over the edge to needing to write this complaint) is when the Warhoons are chasing John Carter’s band after he rescued Tars Tarkas, but the Warhoons merely pursue them instead of shooting their mounts from underneath them. Another example is several pages earlier when John Carter merely follows Tars’ escorting guards through the dungeon, intead of attacking them immediately to free Tars. And immediately following when John Carter regretfully feels forced to ambush Tars’ guards, clearly feeling it was not up to his standards of fairness.  This bothers me because John Carter had not hesitated to attack far more than just four Green Men warriors previously, and he had killed one with a single blow from his fist before. Why would he hesitate in this situation, and why would he finally decide on a somewhat-dishonorable ambush? Inconsistency.

There are other things to like about the book, but this isn’t really a book review. I like it better than the Land that Time Forgot, because when I put The Gods of Mars down, I do want to pick it up again.  But it isn’t compelling me to reach the finish like The Monster Men did.

I’m not saying the book sucks.  But it does spur contemplation on the nature of successful writing. Should I sacrifice quality for speed in writing? Should I just come up with a great character and not stress plot and consistency?  Why does the best of SFF pulp have this many problems, but the best of Western and Detective Noir do not?

Okay, come at me.

* Kingdom Rush. My obsession is finishing every level without using any of the one-time use special abilities you can purchase with diamonds.  I’m almost done. I’m stressed because the new job I mentioned on Twitter as getting hired for FIVE MONTHS AGO still hasn’t given me a start date. Long story there.

MUST READ SFF: Replay, by Ken Grimwood

  • by Gitabushi

It should be no surprise by now that I like books with good stories, good characters, and ideas that challenge me.  Who doesn’t want to be entertained?  But there are so many options for entertainment, so when I read, I want my mind to get a workout.

51c+mzM27jL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

This book does that.

To be honest, this book may be generation-locked.  The main character was born in the 1940s, and so is in college in the 1960s, and the culture of the 1960s has an impact on the plot. Growing up in the 1970s myself, I didn’t live 1960s culture…but most of the books I had available growing up were written in the 1960s or early 1970s, and set in the late 1950s and 1960s, so I was familiar with the culture.  For someone who never had to dial a rotary phone or never lived before there was cable TV or microwaves, maybe the book will lack some impact.  I don’t know. If you are one such reader, try it out and let me know.

However, Grimwood does an excellent job capturing the normality of those early times.  The protagonist goes back to his youth, but brings his adult sensibilities with him. And if you can imagine how society has changed just from the introduction of widespread use of the birth control pill, you can imagine how his mature assumptions clash with the culture and society of his youth.

The entire book is written with bedrock-solid descriptions of mainstream life in the United States. It feels real. The characters actions and reactions seem real. The author thinks of aspects I didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) and plays them to the hilt. The result is a book that makes it extremely easy to willingly suspend disbelief. It is easy to get drawn in, to care about the protagonists, what they want to do, and why.

It is also intersting to see things fall apart when the main character gets to experience one of the most common wishes of humankind: “If I knew then what I know now.”  Jeff gets several lifetimes of that wish fulfillment, and it still never turns out like he expects.

From that point of view, the book can be seen as a comfort: you are already doing pretty much the best  you can. More knowledge wouldn’t make your life better, it would just move you along to encounter new problems. Life is life. Stop pining for how things could be different, and start appreciating what you actually have.

In the end, you may get a “Groundhog Day” vibe out of this book, but rest assured: this preceded Groundhog Day by several years.

In fact, I would like to challenge all writers: Take the premise of this book, or Groundhog Day, or Flash Forward, and write your own stories. We have endless takes on zombies, vampires, young adult dystopias. Enough!  These three formats are crying out for additional exploration.

But first, you have to read this. Find it and read it. Let me know if you think I steered you wrong, but I think you’ll love it as much as I did.

Oh, and give me a review of the review. Did it make you want to read the book? If not, what else should I have included to help persuade you?

Replay Radar

 

Writing: Three Elements

  • by Gitabushi

Here are three elements of writing I haven’t seen discussed much before, but are currently at the forefront of my mind.

  1. Tropes. You are writing within a genre. As Daddy Warpig said, genre can be defined by a collection of tropes. You don’t need (or want!) all of them, but you need enough of them to set some parameters for your reader. Your task is then to balance your use of tropes (formulas) against innovation.  Too many tropes, and your work will seem hackneyed, derivative, and boring, and your reader will no longer be willing to Suspend Disbelief.  Too much innovation, and your reader will feel jarred, cheated, and will no longer be wiling to suspend disbelief. I’m still trying to work on how to know if you’ve over- or under-used tropes.
  2. Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Get it from your readers. With it, and you can have plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc. But plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc., destroy your readers’ willingness to Suspend Disbelief.  Make it easier for them to Suspend and stay Suspended: perfect your craft.
  3. Provide a satisfying ending to everything you write. Make every work be self-contained. Even if you plan on writing a trilogy, make each book have its own arc that resolves most of the issues.  See “Chuck” or “The Man in the High Castle” (not until the end of the 2nd season, but we’ll grant them this one) for excellent examples of how to do this.

Discuss

CyberdyneT800-580x358

MUST WATCH SFF Television Show: Chuck

  • by Gitabushi

chuck

tl;dr: “Chuck” is quite simply the best television show in recent history. Maybe in television history, but that is a little more subjective.

Okay, let’s get into it: I hate incomplete stories. Hate hate hate hate.

I know stories are fiction.  But once I suspend my disbelief to start to enjoy a story, I want it to end.  In the interest of extending this introduction, let me point out that I hated the ending of Wayne’s World, because giving multiple possible endings left me feeling like it didn’t actually end at all.  And I hated reading The Princess Bride, too, because of the book ending subverting the typical fairy tale storybook tropes.  Bah.  Bah, I say!

But I understand that the television business is a rough world.  You have a great premise, but you can’t pay writers until you have a contract.  So you often don’t know for sure how closely the actual filming will stay with the originally-planned storyline, even during the first season. And since subsequent seasons aren’t a sure thing unless the series gets renewed, future storylines aren’t even planned out, and maybe not even considered.

One way to keep your television series on the air is to, just like in writing, raise the stakes.

You already have the premise. People are hooked. Now start complicating things. They are invested in the characters, so put the characters through hell. Set up cliffhangers, particularly about the most popular characters. Leave your audience begging for resolution.

But don’t make it so complicated your audience gives up and ratings plummet.

You can add more and more spinning plates. Kick the resolution down the road.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.

The problem with this short-term thinking?  Sometimes stories never get finished. When things get too complicated, there is no satisfying way to wrap up all the issues, the audience leaves, and the show gets cancelled.  It happened with the X-Files (I’m *so* happy I never started with that). It happened, to an extent, with Lost. It is happening with Game of Thrones, although George R. R. Martin has apparently given an outline to the showrunners so they can finish the story that he can’t seem to.

These sorts of things leave me unsatisfied.

The way to resolve it is to have story arcs. Each episode should be self-contained, for the most part, with an arc that completes at the end of the episode. The season should also have a story arc that wraps up the issues introduced at the beginning of the season and were developed throughout that year.  And then you have an overall series arc, bookended with a resolution.

“Chuck” did those things.  It might have been by accident; I certainly don’t think “Chuck” was able to hire writers significantly better than anyone else in Hollywood. It might have been because they were always hovering at the brink of cancellation, so they felt less at liberty to introduce elements that couldn’t be resolved within one season.

In any case, “Chuck” is a true rarity in American television: a story-based show with nested arcs that actually wraps things up tightly.

The show starts with Chuck having failed at life, having been thrown out of Stanford, dumped by his girl, working at a Big Box store that is beneath his abilities, and lonely. It ends with him accomplished, having developed his many different talents and abilities, retained his humanity despite difficult circumstances, and with the love of his life by his side.

It even bookends locations, (sorta). It doesn’t end at the same location it begins, but the final scene of the last show is at the same location as the final scene of the first show, and for similar reasons.  It was actually masterfully done.

The fact that “Chuck” completes the story is reason enough to watch it.  Writers should study it for structure, characterization, foreshadowing, etc.

But that isn’t all “Chuck” is.

It is a science fiction story: a guy has a supercomputer downloaded into his brain. It’s a comedy: there are some great laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a love story. It’s one of the better assembly-cast works out there: the side characters add so much depth and interest to the story, to include Casey, Morgan, Jeffster, Captain Awesome, and others. It’s a character-growth story: all the characters grow and develop throughout the series.

Another reason to watch is just all the little Easter Eggs and references to past works. There are references to Dune, Spies Like Us, The Terminator, Die Hard, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Charade, and more.

And the Guest Stars! Scott Bakula, Linda Hamilton, Brandon Routh, Summer Glau, Kristin Kreuk, Dolph Lundgren, Richard Chamberlain, Tony Hale, Chevy Chase, Robert Englund, Carrie-Anne Moss, Reginald VelJohnson (in a Die-Hard-ish episode), Bruce Boxleitner, Christopher Lloyd, Morgan Fairchild, Robin Givens, Rachel Bilson, Gary Cole, Nicole Richie, Armand Assante, John Larroquette, Steve Austin, James Hong, “Louis Litt” from “Suits”, Robert Patrick, Fred Willard, Craig Kilborn, Cheryl Ladd, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Richter, Mark Hamill…

Okay, now even I’m getting bored of the list.

I was also impressed by how the show surprised me at times. Chuck was a bumbling dork in the first few episodes, but even very early on, the writers were actually able to have some surprisingly good problem resolutions, where Chuck did something intelligent and innovative to solve a problem that didn’t involve his Intersect ability, but merely his native cleverness.  The resolution in the circumstances I’m thinking of were foreshadowed earlier in the episode, but perfectly set up: they seemed like throwaway humor points, yet Chuck was able to apply them perfectly to win the day.  Little moments of skillful writing like that go a long way to earning my Willful Suspension of Disbelief at other moments.

And it does need your Willful Suspension of Disbelief.  It isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a perfect series.  It’s merely the best one humanity has ever produced to date.  But that still isn’t perfect.

Still, I urge you to stream it, or better yet, purchase the entire collection from Amazon.  It’s worth it. It’s a great show.

Don’t believe me? Read this review:

Chuck is the most entertaining show on TV. It’s shot well and the writing is smart and quick. The acting is superb from the extras to the main characters.The story is dramatic and visionary where the character dynamics can be turned on a dime. Love and romance, an agent searching for a good fight, an average guy tossed into the world of espionage; this show has it all.

You will laugh and cry, rejoice and be frustrated because of character depth and great acting. All the characters are lovable and relatable.

NBC has found a hero in Chuck, who as a typical guy, inspires us to be better. The creed of the show is to take care of your family and friends. Simply Chuck calls to do right even in tough times.

It’s certainly a show that will keep you on your toes throughout. Without a doubt this is the best show I’ve ever seen.

At first I was skeptical but after two or three episodes I was hooked because its funny and exciting with a great story to it. I implore you to take a chance on Chuck, trust me its worth it. Regardless of anything else there is nothing else on TV like it.

And no, that wasn’t me that wrote it.  But it captures the show perfectly.

MUST WATCH SFF Television Show: Flash Forward

  • by Gitabushi

An unheralded television show aired on ABC back in 2009.  It was cancelled after just one season in the spring of 2010.  I somehow managed to get a copy of the DVD without knowing anything about it, and my teenage kids and I fell in love with it when we randomly picked it out of the backlog stack and gave it a try.

Premise: The entire world falls unconscious for 137 seconds, for unknown reasons. This causes all sorts of pandemonium, like car crashes, planes falling out of the sky, and other disasters you might expect from such an event.

As the world is coping with the massive loss of life, people begin comparing notes of the dreams they had while unconscious.  In doing so, they discover coincidences that cannot be explained as anything other than visions of a moment six months in the future.  For instance, someone has a vision of being in a meeting with someone they have never met before, but there is enough identifying information from the vision that the other individual can be tracked down. When contact is established, the other individual reveals they had the exact same vision, including the same actions, conversation, etc. Enough visions include looking at a calendar, clock, etc., that the moment of the vision of the future can be established, and all visions with such time-based details all agree with each other.

This causes all sorts of crises, including visions of being intimate with someone not your spouse, dealing with the aftermath of killing someone, discovering that someone you thought was dead is actually still alive.  Worse, perhaps, is the people who do not have visions: the understand rapidly spreads that these people will be dead before the Flash Forward moment.

And as the world is dealing with this realization, the FBI discovers that the event may have been triggered deliberately by unknown, non-government entities. Moreover, closed-circuit television captures at least one person moving during the blackout: the blackout wasn’t, in fact, universal.

Then they discover that you can actually take actions to prevent your vision from coming true, in drastic fashion.

I think you can immediately think of multiple philosophical issues that arise from these various aspects and examples, and the television show doesn’t shy away from exploring them.  My children and I always had plenty to discuss for more than an hour after watching each episode. There were plot twists to discuss, of course, but also the philosophical and psychological ramifications of events and developments.  We had some discussions of fate, comparing/contrasting the actions of those who chose to prevent their future vision and how they did it with those who actually caused their vision to come about via their efforts to avoid it.

Particularly poignant was the relationship between the main protagonist (there are a lot of people you care about in the show) and his wife (also a protagonist) who had a vision of being intimate with a man she didn’t currently know.  At the point of the blackout, they had a strong relationship and were both faithful.  The knowledge of the apparent unfaithfulness did seem to both contribute to it coming about, but also seemed to supply motivation that might help prevent it. Watching the couple struggle through jealousy, guilt, and distress was extremely interesting, and it gave me several launching points for talking to my kids about marriage, love, trust, integrity, desire, dissatisfaction, and proper/improper ways of dealing with marital difficulties.

One person, an FBI agent who would be dead in six months, was engaged to be married.  How does he tell his fiancee he will be dead?  Particularly when her vision is of the wedding ceremony they planned?  How can both their visions be real?

These stories both subvert and play straight the notion of Fate: can it be stopped?  Does fighting it bring it about? The answer to both is Yes, and it seems to conclude that the future is in a box with Schroedinger’s Cat: you don’t know what happens until you get there and open it up. And the story was the better for it.

This is not a television show to binge watch.  Nor is it a show to watch alone.  This is one of the better “what would *I* do if…?” stories I’ve seen.  Watch an episode, and then take a few days to let it sink in, to discuss it with the friends and family you watched it with. Then watch the next episode and have your mind blown.  Rinse and repeat.

The show had declining viewership, and I really don’t see why.  Of course, there were some very depressing points as the season went on, and confusing aspects, and developments we didn’t like.  But we had the whole disc, so it was easy to continue watching.  From that perspective, I guess I could see looking at the next episode coming up and deciding you have better things to do with your time.  It is also true that the episodes were so dense with information that if you missed one, it would be nearly impossible to have any interest or ability to catch up with what was going on.  This was in 2010, so I don’t think there were options to watch the shows online to actually see what you missed.  So I guess I do see why, but I think a bunch of people missed out on an excellent story, and since it resulted in the series being cancelled, I think we are all the poorer for it.

The declining viewership meant the show was cancelled. The season finale was written and filmed before the cancellation, however, and this creates two problems: one, there is a cliffhanger over whether a character survives or not; two, there is a completely new set of intriguing Flash Forward visions, but this time 20 years in the future instead of just 6 months.  I would like to have seen how they handled a 20-year gap.

But the series remains watchable.  For as much love as Firefly got for its single season, I think this is better. The cast is large, and yet you actually know the characters more deeply than on Firefly. Firefly introduces a bunch of elements (particularly regarding River) that change the very nature of the series (making it really all about River); nothing like that happens in Flash Forward. In fact, the season doesn’t just stop, it concludes and wraps up almost all the stories.  It is a pause. It is the end of the first act, but good enough to let you go on with your life without burning questions.  Flash Forward ends like Star Wars: sure, you don’t know what happened to Darth Vader, and the Rebellion hasn’t won, but you get enough of the threads wrapped up that you don’t feel dissatisfied. Firefly is like what you would feel like if they never filmed The Return of the Jedi: imagine never knowing what happened to Han.

So if Firefly can get so much love and attention from just one season, Flash Forward deserves equal treatment.  Find it and watch it.  Let me know if you think I led you wrong.

But my bottom line judgment is: THIS television show is what speculative fiction is and should be: a “What If?” tale that challenges you, teaches you, and still lets you teach yourself.  I can’t imagine watching Flash Forward without growing as a person. And it is also entertaining. What more could you ask?

 

Objective Judgment of Art

  • By Gitabushi

tl,dr: The use of Tropes may be the key to being a successful author.  There is a fine line between playing it so safe you lose your audience to boredom, and forging so far afield that you leave your audience behind.  Find that sweet spot and stay there.

There was a pretty good, wide-ranging discussion regarding Objectivity regarding Art on Twitter today, if you know the right people.

I’m taking credit for kicking it off with this tweet:

I mean, it certainly is true that I didn’t start that tweet thread, but it had died a natural death before I came along and breathed new life into it.  Or, at least, that is my claim and you can try to prove me wrong.

Anyway, a bunch of points were made, and as I was on a slow system earlier, and then on my cellphone later, I didn’t feel like either enabled me to provide the full scope of my thoughts on Art and Objective Judgments.  So here they are.

As I said at one point in the thread (have fun trying to follow all the different branches), I said that while there is valid, objective pronouncement of “This is clearly good” or “This is clearly bad” (because in every case, there is someone who will disagree with the pronouncement and have reasons for doing so they can back up), I do believe there are objective skills that can be identified and evaluated.  From there, the judgment as to whether a work is “good” or “bad” is personal.

Let me get extremely bogged down in analogies, mainly with music.

If you compared my skills as a guitarist to Joe Satriani, he is clearly a better guitarist.  Even if you don’t particularly like Satriani, he can simply do so much more with confidence that it should be obvious to even someone unfamiliar with guitar playing that he is better than me.

Now, does he have more talent than me?  You don’t know.   Perhaps I have more talent, and can play better for my given hours spent practicing than he could at an equivalent point.

But “talent” is not the point at stake.

Now, is Eric Clapton better than Joe Satriani?  Is Steve Vai better than Joe Satriani?

That is clearly subjective.  Everyone will have their own opinion, and that’s okay.

Because the thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about professionals who are several standard deviations above the mean, and so the collection of skills that make up their overall gestalt of skill is simply beyond objective measurement.

When playing guitar, you have to consider: not choice, picking technique, scale/chord knowledge, feel, speed, fluidity, span of styles able to improvise in, innovation, confidence, flash, etc.

For a writer, there is dialogue, characterization, plot, pacing, theme, message, description, escalation of stakes, foreshadowing, subplots, etc.

Any one artist will have different strengths and weaknesses.  They will learn the rules, and know the rules intimately…and break the rules. But they will do so for reasons, and the breaking of rules will almost always be for a specific effect.

This applies to writers, as well.

So a writer can do badly at some aspects, yet still be a good writer.  A book can be weak in some areas, and still be good. A writer can break some rules without being careful or knowledgeable about how they are breaking the rules, and everything can still be okay.

But those are objective signs of being a “worse” writer than someone else.

A good example, from the book I’m reading now: “Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu:

time-salvager-wesley-chu

At one point, the protagonist, who is equipped with superhuman skill devices, has to fight another person equipped with equal devices.  Chu explains as the fight is about to begin that the protagonist will win, because he has experience fighting in the spaceship graveyard region against pirates equipped with similar devices, while his opponent is a neophyte.

Why is this bad?

Because in the first few pages, Chu introduced the spaceship graveyard region as a place that was difficult to navigate through, and that’s it. No mention of the possibility of encountering pirates. No foreshadowing.

But when the protagonist needs to win a fight easily, up pops the information. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you this, but…”

Lame. And yet, the book is engaging, interesting, and I can’t wait to see how the fight turns out.

That is clearly a fumbled introduction of an element. I’d maybe call it a sort of deus ex machina? It didn’t have to be, though, if the author had properly foreshadowed it.

Now, some readers won’t care.  Other readers will shake their heads and put down the book for good, never to pick it up again. Me? I”m in the middle. It jars me, but it doesn’t jar me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Readers will often give you a lot of leeway. That doesn’t mean you should just ignore the rules and do what you want. As a writer, you are a guest in their imagination. Be a good guest, and close all the plot holes and avoid as many of the jarring rules breakings as you can.