Friday, November 26, 2010

When fantasy gives reality a helping hand (or wand)?


Reality/Fantasy Hybrids?
I have always been in two minds about sci-fi and fantasy fiction; I like it but only when there's two realms which meet within the same story - a real world/fantasy world hybrid. I just can't get into the story if it's entirely dunked in some shiny space age cosmos or hurdygurdy, hobgoblin habitat. I first have to relate to the characters before I can enter into their adventures with them. It's easier to relate to characters who find themselves in familiar, or at least, plausible situations - ones which could happen in our own day to day lives. If, from the start, they have hoofed feet and live in a hole, it's harder to engage with the more testing situations in which they find themselves further down the line. Call me unimaginative but, actually, I do love fantasy when it comes face to face with reality; with the reality to which I am already gripped. I can suspend belief and revel in doing so when I already understand the trials and tribulations of the characters on our side of the parallel universe. Particularly, if their daily trials are ultra ordinary or hyper grim. A great example of this is the current UK series Misfits where the protagonists are ultimate anti-heros, chavtacularly cheeky young offenders doing probation work, who find themselves with superpowers.

Bill and Sookie, True Blood
Is sci-fi an easy way out and is the gothic cheesy?
I'm not trained in how to dissect narrative nuances in 'the novel' or 'the film' or 'the tv' but I like to think about the ways stories develop in all three of these mediums. I guess this questioning of secondary-living constitutes an inevitable part of our everyday lives. I once posed a couple of questions to two literature PhD students/lecturers - is the gothic cheesy and is sci-fi an easy way out of normative, narrative niggles? The latter issue struck me when I think I was watching A Scanner Darkly - wham-bam at the cinema - but I can't remember the specific context exactly. The gist was that, in sci-fi, if people have superpowers then they can sense things which are beyond the usual human's grasp (e.g. whether it be via time travel or special kinaesthetic traits) and therefore they just know things. We know already, as the audience, that they know these things and therefore the storyliner/writer doesn't have to go on a pedantic and pedestrian (un-wild) goosechase trying to sub-slot into the main plot how the characters find stuff out. For example, Superman has x-ray vision so he can see when an enemy is plotting against him behind a closed door and act upon it more quickly, thus moving the chain of events along at a more entertaining and action inducing pace. However, as the English lit scholars pointed out, this can make things more complex in other ways. The usual possibilities or inevitabilities are both tightened in terms of specific sci-lexicy and widenened in the sense that anything can happen and so when it does happen it is then open to a greater, further number of ramifications. There's also the empathy thing from the writer's perspective. It's harder to imagine how the characters may react to something which is impossible. So sci-fi is what it is - it's its own science of fiction, with its own methods of measuring and testing narrative which open up different, niche readings and interpretations. And the same goes for gothic fiction.

Yet with recurring tales of gothic castles containing gothic creatures over the past few centuries - vampires in particular - reaching back as far as (arguably it's further) Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), gothic fantasy fiction requires a particularly anticipated preferred reader. The reader has to be versed with the gothic story so that they have preconceptions of certain aspects of gothic narrative and gothic characterisation. The vampire doesn't die easily or go out in the day and they may be rather pale yet the non-vampires seem to find them alluring, hence the inevitable blood loss. If there's a full moon, the normal guy will change into a werewolf - a half-moon simply won't cut it even if the timing's more convenient because it won't clash with his suitor's ball - we get this. And so on. I mean if it's a sci-fi series then the same rules of learnt preconception may apply but, as it stands, the robot is relatively versatile. Robots may or may not be killer robots. Vampires always want human blood even if some of the more contemporary ones try to fight it  - such as Bill in True Blood and Edward in Twilight. So if gothic fiction is more predictable than sci-fi, does it make it any less literarily valid and are both types of fiction less worthy than the literary novel of Booker prize pedigree? Well, it depends on the way they're executed (no pun intended) and also on the intentions of the author. And this is a big question which I'm not qualified to answer. An easier question to consider may be: are sci-fi/fantasy/gothic stories any more 'literarily worthy' than other types of commercial, genre fiction?

Gothic and Sci-fi Symbolism
Well, whilst commerical fiction tends to be genre-able (which is not nec a bad thing), 'genre' fiction may not always be written in a way which responds to its potential sellability. Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black and John Fowle's The Magus come to mind as they could be and possibly have been at times genred as supernatiral fiction but they're seen to be written by literary authors. Like with Henry James's Turn of the Screw, they do something interesting with their use of supernatural characteristics. They use them symbolically to refer to broader unresolved and unresolvable social issues, such as (and arguably) male promiscuity and the dilemmas of freewill (in The Magus), the witch as witch-hunted in a world which favours superficial beauty (Beyond Black) and female psycho-pathology and sexual repression (Turn of the Screw). It is often argued that the vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula represented the underrepresented, misunderstood and oppressed homo/bisexual element in draconian Victorian society. The violent and erotic act of drawing blood thus becomes a replacement metaphor for the exchange of bodily fluids during 'normal' intercourse but it also becomes a way of symbolically getting back at 'normal' society. There's also the notion of fin de siecle tension in gothic fiction; the fear of the unknown in terms of what the next century will or won't bring including armageddon. It's argued that authors such as Stoker and James picked up on these tensions and both addressed and utilised the zeitgest of fear via their gothic narratives. Similar critical analyses were made at the end of the 20th century when there seemed to be a spate of horrors and spoof-horrors and increased interest in supernatural beings with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer which had a devout cult and not-so-cult following. (Incidentally, I have a humourous tale relating to Buffy. My friend was given a lifesize cardboard cut-out Buffy as a present even though he wasn't a big fan. When his flatmates had a party they did a twist on 'stick the tale on the Donkey.' It was called 'stick the muff on buff'.) Anyhow, the point is, is that if writers are aware of the more covert and complex ways in which they are using narrative - does that make it more literary? An added issue with gothic fiction is that it is also often seen to be self-parodying. This means that however cheesy/corny/cliched it seems, it can be argued to be self-referentially comedic - or post-modern (even if it's just actually a bad, American daytime supernatural tv movie.) I don't think that the use of sci-fi narrative devices provide a get out clause for processing plot problems either. As I mentioned above, they can create new plot directions.This is currently particularly apparent in two of my favourite - where fantasy meets reality - TV shows; Being Erica and Misfits.

The Charms of Being Erica and Misfits
Being Erica, discussed in an earlier post, follows the life of a thirty something, likeable but 'underachieved' woman who ponders her life regrets and tries to fix them via time travel. When she returns to her past and changes something, the event has then changed for all the people involved - but the narrative never really focuses on this. It just focuses on it enough to avoid contradictions. At least in the main. Erica meets another time-traveller and potential lover, Kai, only he's from the future and trying to fix his past regrets too, so they share similar experiences of the time-space continuum. However, near the end of season two, Kai manages to alter his biggest regret which involves singing the correct, heartfelt and meaningful song at a gig - he's a future rockstar you see. After his performance it seems that he's managed to change the course of his past for the benefit of his future and in doing this, parts of his recent future are erased. Because these parts involved Erica, he no longer knows who she is when she congratulates him on his performance. She understands (and because this part of his past is her present, her past with him is still her past). This complexity in the sci-fi part of Being Erica's narrative worked here and it worked with poignancy. However, if one of Erica's friends had been standing next to her, it wouldn't have. They would have said, "huh, why doesn't Kai recognise you any more?" It's a problem for potential sub-plot developments when it's only the protagonists who time travel. Sometimes I think this weakens the use of fantastical narrative devices but sometimes I believe that their complexities stretch the writer's thinking processes and, as a consequence, help to weave an impressively super-golden thread of texture to the story.

It is difficult to tell if the tools of fantasy/sci-fi fiction give the scaffolding of reality fiction a helping hand because if the writers have chosen to mix the two then we don't know how the story would have turned out had it been one thing or the other. Being Erica may have turned out to be pure, chic lit Bridgett Jones-esque TV drama and Misits may have been a probation sit-com, a bit like Porridge only grittier and with reference to ASBOs. They could have been more entertaining and they could have been more naturalistically nuanced but they may have been less distinctive or textured. Fantasy worlds are fun because we can escape into them but when they get too obscure, too far removed to relate to, there's always the safety-net of realism to bounce back into. At least there is with real world/fantasy world hybrid fiction.

Erica and Kai, Being Erica

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