31 December 2010

Fringe Screens Well, with a Demographic of One

Fringe, currently surging along in its third season, is one of the best shows I have seen, ever, and certainly the best on US television in ages. Its dominance is not universal; indeed, I enjoy it so much because it provokes within me the same warm fuzzies that I get from some of the better anime series...but don't let that sell anything short. Fringe is a series that rewards my particular brand of obsession with ever-increasing levels of conspiracy, science-fiction-ish-ness, and drama.

My comparison to anime is well-advised. The great downfall of the serious American drama series has been, to my lights, an utter failure at long-term story arcs. Star Trek never managed more than a half-hearted effort, even given DS-9's workmanlike writing, and X-Files (Fringe's closest relative) muddled itself so badly that it was worth watching for the one-off Monster Of The Week episodes alone. Anime, however, has served as a refuge for those who like their melodrama serious and long-form, not dependent on making each week a self-contained triumph. Fringe looks to this method, building slowly in the first season what later is utilized in the second and third, and hardly ever resorting to a pure MOTW episode.

Anime conventions don't overwhelm the show; in fact, they don't manifest much at all outside of the use of serious drama and a story arc. The relationship drama, as a matter of fact, is all-american, and surprisingly subtle in places, avoiding Unresolved Sexual Tension and mostly steering clear of feeling forced. Ultimately, as many conventions are avoided as embraced. Character-building is consistent, with only a few minor derailments here and there, and interfaces well with the story.

Ah--the story. Classic SF themes, with genetic monsters, space things, time travel, and, most importantly, alternate universes. It's complex and usually subtle, and even the laughably conventional parts are handled with aplomb, concentrated as they are in MOTW sequences. A little consistency goes a long ways, though, and here is the strength of the series, iron at the core of a story that could suffer immesurably without proper attention. The logic is consistent, the handwaves consistent, the characters consistent--all combine to make a series that I consider to be a new pinnacle.

All that said, though--the series isn't over with. It could end poorly, it could be canceled and THEN end poorly, it could be canceled and end well, or, worst of all, it could be canceled and just stop with an unresolved cliffhanger. I've almost caught up to this season, and it lose track would be terrible.

As an aside, post script, whatever...this ain't Lost. It's not a single season of action spread out over as many as could possibly be justified, it's not a show that depends on obfuscation to seem mysterious, and it certainly isn't an extended analogy for death and purgatory.

17 November 2010

Change: Our Concept of It, and It's Relationship With Science Fiction

As the title may reveal, the concept of change and its complex interrelationship with Science Fiction is a topic worthy of a dissertation in Literature or Psychology.

On the one hand, we know from psychology and cognitive science that the human mind perceives change oddly. Such lacuna as Change Blindness and our terrible faculty for perceiving the passage of time (1, 2, 3) suggest that we are not particularly good at it.

This has huge implications for Science Fiction, a genre having to do with change and produced by creatures who perceive it so selectively. The difference between the present we live in and the future we write about is a function of the change that we predict will take place in the space of time between then and now. 

One of the consequences of our peculiar biases is already well-noted by some within the science fiction community: that stories which predict the very distant future are difficult write. Cognitive Science explains this phenomenon: because we are poor judges of the passage of time, we have an inferior faculty for judging precisely how long certain changes will take to occur. Some measurements, like Moore's Law, help us to overcome certain aspects of our psyche's bias, but in order for such measurements to be found they must be based on current and past trends. Future change that is emergent, that arises out of the continued iteration of present circumstance as it reaches a tipping point, can be imagined, but not measured empirically. You might be able to measure it to a degree, by comparing it to an analogous event that happened at some point in the past and which is measurable, but no analogy is as good as the real thing, as it were. Thus predictions about changes in the future which have not even begun yet are bound to be made very inaccurately by beings who have a poor sense of the time it takes for changes to occur - namely, human authors. The further into the future a story tries to go, the more emergent changes will accumulate, and the further off-base the prediction will go. 

There have been several narrative responses to this difficulty. One seems to be a proliferation of stories about apocalyptic futures, where a single catastrophic event makes everything simple because it reduces the future to a state in which the world has essentially been before, such as the dark ages. Because of the length of time historically involved in bootstrapping human civilization out of such a condition (thousands to tens of thousands of years), this narrative strategy allows writers to recreate the world in a new image and yet simultaneously as a plausible future. The downside to the strategy is that it does not allow us to see where humanity will go if we manage to stay the present course.

The knee-jerk reaction has been to refocus the lens of SF's glass onto near-future and even past-future events via the proliferation of Cyberpunk, Steampunk, and other, similar subgenres. This reaction was largely beneficial, because it has made it clear that near-future prediction carries its own dangers (also possibly rooted in the nature of the human psyche, but that requires another article) while simultaneously spotlighting the potential usefulness of successful SF predictions to the general public in a short amount of time.

Other responses include writing about other worlds and species instead of humanity, attempting mid-distance prediction that, through its plot, intends to focus on only a certain part of humanity's future (such as warfare or the future of a certain colony), or focusing exclusively on craft (character development, plot, style, etc. at the expense of actual prediction). None of these are detrimental to the genre; they expand its horizons, provide unfocused peeks into the future, and improve the subject's standards. They are all, however, methods of hiding from what was once one of the primary functions of the genre - the prediction of the distant future.  

The inability of writers past and present to reliably predict more distant futures points to an essential lacuna in our abilities of foresight that we cannot overcome simply through a clever plot device or statistical reasoning. I believe the question that this poses - should we even try to predict what we cannot predict well? - should be answered in the affirmative, however. 

What methods then, should a writer choose to tackle his own brain's weakness head-on, are to be employed? In ballistics, when accuracy is not possible, the solution may be found in the size or number of rounds thrown down range. A larger round - or a more expansive, sweeping story - may provide such robust results that even a near miss effectively hits the target. Scattershot - or more stories in general - ensure that at least one of the rounds is likely to succeed in touching the bull's-eye. 

So, the relationship between our concept of change and the genre of science fiction seems to be obvious: to overcome our inherent weaknesses, writers will need to write more boldly, and write more, than authors of other genres. The debate will continue to center around where to give in quality to make up for this higher requirement. Much of modern SF believes that quality has won; that the reader wants a good story more than a good prediction. But to believe that is to ignore that the reason a person reads science fiction is because they want a good story about the future. Prediction is required, and so the conflict is intrinsic to the genre and thus irreconcilable. Indeed, the genre's nature may well be defined by this fundamental conflict.     

26 October 2010

10 Great but Forgotten SF Films

This doesn't exactly mesh with what I want this blog to be about, but it's been quite a while since I've had time to post something, and I think this might generate some discussion topics for future blog posts. The reason being is that these films stand out to me in one way or another, yet are not so lauded by the public at large (even when compensating for their status as sci-fi movies, which tends to limit social awareness to begin with in my subjective appraisal).
Without further ado, the list, in no particular order:
Enhanced by Zemanta