Essentialism in Science Fiction and Fantasy

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As a life-long fan of science-fiction and fantasy (SF/F), I see it as my duty to get my friends and family involved with books, movies, and TV shows they might ordinarily overlook.  The difficulty is that when I try to explain what makes something special and intriguing, I end up sounding like a bumbling fool.

This bumbling makes me think that there is something essential about SF/F that prevents it from being easily explained. “Essential” meaning that there is something inexplicable and unique in the essence of the work.

This essentialism is at the heart of all science-fiction and fantasy. Trying to convince a skeptic to watch or read SF/F is hard. No matter how well you describe the work, taking it out of its medium also removes the essential element or elements.

Take LOST, for instance, a show that began with a rabid, mainstream fanbase, but lost viewers as SF/F conventions were introduced in later seasons.  It is impossible not to sound like an idiot when relaying the series’ complicated plot. Hurley (played by Jorge Garcia) tried to explain everything that had happened up through season 5, in character, in the episode “The Lie.”  Even as a dedicated fan, I questioned his story.

Here’s my summary of the first five seasons of LOST (please bear with me):

A group of people whose plane crashes on an island starts getting kidnapped and fights with another group of people called the Others.  The Others have lived on the island forever and killed a scientific expedition called the Dharma Initiative who came to the island, then took over their nice, yellow houses while fending off a smoke monster that periodically attacks the people living on the island.  When anyone tries to leave the island by any means other than submarine, they end up going back no matter how far they travel.  There are, however, people who left the island, but cannot find a way back solely because they found a way to leave years ago.

Eventually they do find a way back to the island, but instead of going themselves, they send mercenaries to kill the everyone on the island, except for the leader of the Others, who is to be kidnapped.  Then, the survivors find a way home by blowing up the mercenaries’ boat, but they decide that the island has to stay a secret because there is a fake plane in an ocean trench filled with bodies that aren’t really its passengers’ bodies, and people think it is the original plan that crashed.  But it isn’t.

When the plane crash survivors go home anyway, they want to go back.  And the only way they can go back is to team up with the leader of the Others, who avoided being kidnapped by moving the island through time.  Half of them get thrown into 1977 to live with the Dharma Initiative before they get killed off, and the other half are in 2007, trying to find a way to stop the island’s time-travel and reunite with their friends and family.  Then the people who ended up leaving the island come back, and then they get split between ’77 and ’07 when their plane crashes for a second time.  Then the dead guy in the cargo hold comes back to life.

And that’s not even including the final season.

The show is well written and acted, but something just gets lost in translation when trying to explain what makes LOST so good. The story is engaging and witty, but that the above summary is just a jumbled mess.

So what is the essential quality that is missing? Is it seeing it in action? Is the show so character driven that it isn’t the plots that drive viewers, but the interactions of specific actor/character combinations? Maybe.

It’s more than that, though.  Not necessarily more complicated than that—just more.  It’s the essentialism inherent to the genre; it’s why some people adore SF/F while others abhor it.

clip_image001The same is true for Fringe, too. Fringe is one of my favorite new shows, but when I tried to explain to my friend what made the series pick up toward the end of the first season, the story came across as hokey and contrived, even to me.  Great care has to be taken with the ideas of parallel dimensions, alternate realities, and a brewing war with an anti-technology militia experimenting on children.

Fortunately, when actually watching Fringe, those ideas are a natural part of the universe.  Something is so essential about the show’s premise that I willingly suspend disbelief, believing for 43-minute segments that its fantastic conventions are plausible.  However, when the premise of the series is detached from the show itself, the concepts become laughable.

With these kinds of premises, is it any wonder that SF/F has a hard time gaining new audiences?

Take the Star Trek and/or Dungeons & Dragons fans we all knew (or were) back in high school or college. Sometimes there was nothing more fun than having a midnight roundtable argument about Kirk vs. Picard.  And other times, my DM had to punish me for having too much fun asking every PC and NPC I ran across in our D&D to take a card from my Deck of Many Things just to see what would happen.

But even typing this, I wonder about what an outsider might think on reading about these experiences which I fondly recall.  I’ve rolled my eyes at Trekkers speaking Klingon at conventions, and at people with personalized leather dice pouches, even though I keep my own dice in a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Bean bag.

But you know what? If you put me in a room with any of them, watching Star Trek or LOST or Fringe or playing D&D, we’d be best friends for those few minutes or hours we shared as peers.

And that’s where essentialism’s place is in SF/F: the community.

To a greater degree than other genres, science-fiction and fantasy must create a community in which fans can fully entrench themselves. This is due to SF/F’s inherent nature of not representing the world as we know it, but speculating on the world as it could be, might be, or can never be.

Science fiction and fantasy’s speculation automatically alienates those looking for a strong tie to the everyday. SF/F rarely starts in medias res because of the necessity of worldbuilding—establishing the imaginary setting. Without establishing the setting (and potentially the premise) through worldbuilding, what then delineates SF/F from a magical realism suspense novel that takes place in a fictional village in the Congo?

On top of this, worldbuilding only has to be done once.  Fans then absorb the new world and premise as a part of their fan community, alienating those who have not been a part of that community from the beginning and making the essential quality almost inaccessible.

In LOST, a new viewer cannot sit down in the middle of Season 3 and understand the plot. The show is too serialized and essential to just pick up in the middle. The show will not allow viewers who come in medias res to participate in the narrative until they go back and watch the world being built from the beginning.  It is only then that the essential quality of the show is evident to the viewer because, without knowledge of the full concept of the show, the essence is intangible. There are no stand-alone episodes of LOST; its essential quality is only available when viewing the work as a whole and becoming a part of the fan community.

Only those viewers who have been a part of the fan community from the beginning (not necessarily the first air date, but the beginning of the narrative thanks to DVD sets) can really experience what makes the show distinct.

It is this kind of community-based essentialism that causes the Trekker and D&D geek stereotype to proliferate. The material seems inaccessible from the outside because those who are not included cannot experience the whole work. You can’t argue about Kirk and Picard without watching their respective Star Treks, nor can you describe the fun in rolling dice to simulate slaying dragons to someone who has never done it.

And while that sounds as though these communities are exclusive, they are not. Those involved want others to participate in and share what they love; however, without already being involved, skeptics can miss the essential quality that makes SF/F appealing.

clip_image002Fringe takes a less serialized approach to storytelling than LOST. There are stand-alone episodes of Fringe. Much like The X-Files, the mythology of the show is embedded within these stand-alones as subplots.  Only a handful of episodes each season are devoted entirely to mythology. This structure is deliberate in that it allows viewers to start watching at any point in the series without fear that they are missing something.

It also calls into question the essential nature of Fringe.  Even though its premise’s foundations were absurd when discussed on their own, the series is accessible to new viewers.  It does not try to be purposefully opaque.

However, there is still an amount of community-based essentialism in Fringe because if a person starts watching after the ZFT Manifesto has been introduced (see what I mean?), the overarching, serial narrative begins to exclude new viewers. The stand-alone episodes become rarer as the narrative ramps up toward the finale, illuminating the essential nature of the series’ SF/F base.

With that said, it is possible to watch Fringe and LOST without having participated in the entire narrative. Watching an episode or two in syndication will let a new viewer sample the quality of the acting, the writing, and overall production.  What will be missed, however, are the subtle nuances of character interaction and narrative.

In the end, those nuances and the fan community are what make science-fiction and fantasy essential. Anyone can pick up a d20 and roll, anyone can watch a few episodes of Star Trek (or LOST or Fringe), but the inherent nature of SF/F rewards those fans who stick with it.  Participate in it.

The essentialism in SF/F comes from the lasting effects on viewers and readers. Sometimes the narrative might be utterly incomprehensible without dedication, and other times, it may just be fragmented. Fair-weather fans might be able to join in on a conversation or a campaign, but they will never experience the essential.

SF/F essentialism rewards long-time followers with an emotional release.  When Frodo has his finger bitten off in Mount Doom, it matters because, for the fan who has followed his journey from The Shire, the entire experience hinges on his success at destroying the Ring. However, when Grissom figures out how to catch the killer-of-the-week on C.S.I. the payoff is mild because the victims and their situation is never made real for  the audience, even if the audience might have experienced a similar tragedy. There is no consequence to the viewer if the criminal is not caught.

The essential nature of SF/F facilitates high emotional resonance, even though the subject matter is unrealistic, because the fan must go above and beyond to become personally invested in both the narrative and the world.

Nikki Stafford gives an example of how one seemingly far-fetched premise from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer can elicit an emotional response from viewers in her blog “In Defense of Juliet…”.  She says:

“Have you seen the Buffy episode, “The Wish”? It’s an alternate universe where Buffy never came to Sunnydale, Willow and Xander are vampires, Oz and Giles are vampire hunters, and when they begin staking and killing each other, not really caring what’s going on, our hearts break. We’ve seen what they were when they were closest friends, so this alternate reality where they aren’t even aware of each other’s existences actually hurts to watch.”

clip_image003Her response to Buffy shows that even though a series might exist entirely in the realm of the supernatural, there are elements that can garner viewers’ sympathies, strengthening the bond the viewer is willing to build with the series.  It doesn’t matter that these are alternate versions of the characters being killed because fans have become so invested in the idea of those characters.

So next time you want to get your naysayer friends to watch or read something SF/F, don’t bother telling them what it’s about.   Find a way that you can get them interested by just giving them glimpses of the highlights.  My wife was introduced to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer through a marathon that hit the highlights of all seven seasons in a single day. By the end of that summer, she had seen all seven seasons in their entirety.  The same thing happened to me with LOST.  I knew people who were obsessed with it, and they told me I would love it, too.  But when they described it, I rolled my eyes.  When I eventually caved and watched the pilot, I finished the first three seasons in just under four days. Days!

There was something about LOST that just pulled me in, and that same something pulled my wife into Buffy.  I still don’t know exactly what it was that made us fall in love with these series.  I just know it’s there.  And that’s enough for me.

Comments

  1. Nikki Stafford

    Excellent post! I agree with you completely. Now that I have kids I often find myself thrown together with other parents where I have nothing in common with them other than… we’re parents. But if one of them watches Lost or Buffy or a show I watch — particularly the SFF stuff — we’re set. We will be the parents talking non-stop in the corner of the playground while the other parents are staring at the sky and wondering how to chit-chat with each other. 🙂 There really is something about these shows that bring people together.

  2. Jennifer

    Wonderful insights, Beej. I especially like the idea that the reason non-fans (of a show, game, etc.) see fans as silly is that they exist outside of the essentialism of that show, game, etc.

    I think that you can apply these ideas even in cases where a person is arguably deserving of ridicule–that is, when a person is so immersed in a fantasy world that he or she actually loses touch with reality and shuns responsibilities. Because even then, what is being ridiculed is the person’s refusal to live in the reality that the ridiculer recognizes as valid. Or maybe it can be broken down simply to differing lifestyles, and none of us can see the appeal of another’s lifestyle because we haven’t experience it, and therefore do not recognize what is so essential to it. Walk a mile in another’s shoes, indeed.

  3. J.Ayers

    I think the “outsider looking in” scenerio can really hold true on anything, we just become more prone to it as the SFF community because we are the “geeks” or the “nerds.”

    Being the lesser makes it more obvious when subjected to greater rather than vice versa, but both situations do occur.

    Think about it though. How often do we as SFFers look at the “normal” audience watching something like freaking Rock of Love, or any other random VH1 debacle of a reality show and go, “ew?”

    It never freaking fails, Libbi watches one of those brain-numbing wastes of time, I sit down because there is nothing else to do, and before it’s over I’m saying, “oh that nappy bitch,” just like she is.

  4. Beej

    I agree, John; I do the same thing. I get stuck on VH1 way more often than I would like to admit. It was just the other day that “Charm School” sucked an hour from me.

    My main point of contention comes in, however, that it’s generally more of a willed “I am going to like this show” when it comes to SFF than just sitting down and watching part of it. Part of the magic of SFF is being involved with a larger narrative; it takes effort on the viewers’ behalf to become invested, while a show like “Rock of Love” caters to a more common demographic which allows almost anyone inclusion at almost any point.

  5. Jennifer

    I would substitute “common demographic” with “lowest common denominator.” But you know how I feel about those shows 🙂

  6. Might I suggest that this sort of… “immersion”… is also a reason that gamers have a hard time explaining the appeal of something like an MMO? 😉

    • It’s true. I can’t explain what the fun is of getting on my Priest or my Paladin and killing dragons is to someone else. My wife even gave WoW a shot for a few minutes–;)–but hated the idea of it. She saw no point in the persistent world. To me, though, that’s what makes it better than games she likes, like Kingdom Hearts, but until it’s experienced as a community, I can understand the big “so what?”

  7. My own thinking on it is that it’s effectively a religious experience we’re sharing in SF. Not a ‘top of the mountain epiphany’ kind of thing, but more a churchgoing kind of experience. We forge relationships and views based on stories that are not set in the real world, many of which have a deliberate moral core. We natter on about what they mean, contradictions, resolutions between the contradictions, and a lot of us tend to pick one franchise – or church – over another, and get really defensive and evangelical about how great it is and how every thing else sucks.

    Religions survive because they fulfil a very important niche in our social and psychological lives, and our intelectual/theoretical lives as well. If we live in an increasingly irreligious society, we will naturaly attempt to find groups that will fulfil the religious functions for us.

    Thus Trekies sing filk hymns to the Great Bird of the Galaxy with titles like “Born Again Trek,” and have a canon of official ‘scripture’ (episodes) and no end of deuterocanonical stuff (Comics, novels, the cartoon series, etc). Other ‘denominations’ of fen do it too, but not as ubiquitously as the Trekies do.

  8. I’ve noticed that much of SF/F features the Heroic Journey. For some series, the Hero is Called to Adventure and finds an Other Place, a Special Place where the “rules of reality” are different. Battles are lost and won, a Boon is obtained, and this Boon leads to Healing. Narnia, Oz, Lost, Buck Rogers, Fringe, Harry Potter… “one of us” goes someplace else.

    For other series, the entire story takes place in the Other World, such as Star Trek, Babylon 5, BSG, Pern — they don’t actually begin in our own world, though they may refer to it at some point or another. In this case, “each of us” makes a Heroic Journey in learning about the Special Place and what it takes to survive, live and thrive there.

    You describe how the communities that engage with Other World fiction become “othered” as well. Is the essence, then, nothing other than Otherness?

  9. A lot of it is simply audience identification, too. If you say “It’s a show about football players in high school,” everyone instantly gets that and knows what it means, how it works, it’s easily digestible, and relevant to the lives of the viewers because it’s a real aspect of their real lives. If, on the other hand, you say “It’s a show about a mythical paramilitary organization three hundred years in the future that involves a horse-faced alien with pointy ears and a bowl-cut, who wears green eyeshadow…oh, and everyone wears velour” then it’s really got no relationship with people’s lives (Excepting maybe easily-confused transvestites, but they’re going to be quickly disappointed), and as such people lack a framework to deal with it.

    This is why, I think, the Stargate franchise does so well: It takes place in the hear and now, uses a real military organization, etc. It’s the unknown, but it’s sandwiched into a very recognizable frame of reference.

  10. Paul

    Ken McLeod made a point at http://kenmacleod.blogspot.com/2010/10/science-fiction-is-first-human.html , that “Science fiction is the first human literature” in that it deals with what is unique about humans rather than other animals. It’s well argued and worth a look. I have never been quite as overwhelmed with ideas as when I read Stross’ “Accelerando”, but TV & Hollywood rarely have that kind of complexity, and it tends to be Science Fiction sans science.

  11. I think one needs to be very cautious in accepting what outsiders say the genre is. For instance, I have had a number of run-ins with well-educated people who have no exposure to the genre who believe the job of SF is to predict the future. I had dealings with a religious writer’s group a few years back who strongly believed that writing about aliens and space exploration and time travel and whatnot was “Unlawful” and that the genre should concentrate on cautionary tales about dystopic futures. I’ve known people who claim that SF is simply a patriarchal excuse to further subordinate women, or that it’s just candy for people with Aspergers who can’t fit into real life.

    All of that, obviously, is nonsense. I’m not saying fen are capable of being objective about what the genre is, but I shy away from placing too much stock in what “Childless Child Counselors” opinions are.