Jane Espenson on a certain species of SF & Fantasy, and me in major bitch-mode

Jane Espenson is one of a (far too small) number of good television writers that is actually known by name to (at least a portion) of her audience. She’s written for BS:G, various Joss Whedon enterprises and my favorite fantasy series of all time: The Gilmore Girls.

She’s got a brief article on the New Republic website about “the secret of selling Sci-Fi.”

It strikes me (sorry to say) that this article is dead accurate.

Well, in truth, I found one overreaching statement …

The people who don’t like Harry Potter seem to be the ones who haven’t tried it yet.”

… which I refute by my own experience. I tried it (two whole books). I don’t begrudge anyone their Harry Potter, and if J.K. Rowling ordered me to fly to her estate on my own dime and clean her toilets for the rest of my life I would obey, so great is the debt that any writer today owes her for turning a generation on to the pleasures of reading in this (supposedly) post-literate, ADD age.

I also will add what should go without saying, but since the internet is an ugly, ugly place, can’t. As the great art-forger Elmir (sp?) says in Orson Welles’ F for Fake (I paraphrase): “There should never exist in the world this situation where one person can say what is good and what is bad. Never. Not ever. No.”

But my preference is (most of the time) for another kind of story.

That is why I say I’m sorry Espenson’s assessment of how to write wildly popular entertainment is so very correct. The modern templates are George Lucas’ Campbellian (errr, Joseph Campbellian, that is) Star Wars trilogy squared, and LOTR. If you read more than four books a year (or even four in a lifetime) you most likely can recreate the template yourself: boy (usually a boy) born in obscurity, full of questioning and mysterious longing, discovers he has a special destiny. Along the way, he doesn’t get the girl. The other guy usually does. But the Boy is too busy for love anyway. He is the one. Excuse me. The ONE. Espenson names contemporary examples, the big three: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Buffy Summers. She overlooks (maybe another example is redundant) the other ONE, the Neo, the Keanu, from the excreable Matrix movies. Anyway, this ur-story, as J.E. reminds us, appeals to a vastly wider section of the story-hungry than do, say, the ratings challenged series Firefly, BSG, and (though she doesn’t mention it) Farscape.

Farscape, like Firefly is right up my street. People fuck. They break up. They get back together. (They are even attracted to two different people at once! Possibly for the first time in televised SF.) They get richer. They get poor. They are friends. Then they don’t speak for a year. They disappoint one another. They keep secrets. They can’t keep secrets.

Execution matters too of course. I like Buffy because Whedon’s universe is so lively. He upends the old archetypes with unexpected humor and a sense of awareness that like The Worm Ouroboros, the story goes on and on. In an second (?) season episode of Angel, the titular Vampire-with-a-Soul is given a warning that the apocalypse in near. He battles through many layers of hell. Reaching the depths at last, he steps out of an elevator to battle the ultimate evil, only to find himself back on the Santa Monica Pier, crowded with families and young couples walking in the cool evening air, enjoying ice cream while intermingling with (and hardly seeing) L.A.’s homeless. “What happened to the Apocalypse?” Angel asks. “The apocalypse?” responds a Wulfram & Hart senior associate. “Oh yes, I think we did have one scheduled for today.” And then he instructs Angel to just take a good look at the world around him if he wants to find heaven and hell.

Or the late season BtVS episode where Buffy is found locked in a mental institution, her mother apparently alive, her father not absent (for the only time in the series). Is she under a demon’s spell — or, as her doctor insists, has she retreated into a fantasy world of her own? One where she is the Chosen One. Where, in contest after contest the stakes are raised, where she battles stronger and stronger demons each week — even gods. Whedon is smart, and smart enough to believe other people might actually be smart too, so just juice the pump and get out of the way. I’m beginning to see that that is an all too rare quality in a story teller. The willingness to trust the audience, to refuse to condescend, rare in creators, is even rarer in gatekeepers: editors, agents, producers, etc.

So that’s my Buffy Hero-with-a-Thousand-Faces defense. And here’s my Battlestar:Galactica complaint. That show is simply not good. The first season was a bit stronger I felt, but then someone over there decided that they were in possession of something SPECIAL and something IMPORTANT. BS:G is all too often Star Trek with better art direction. Oh, Adama might order Starbuck to kill the captain of the Excelsior Pegasus for the good of the fleet, but never fear, he will rescind the order, he’s the good guy. You can ALWAYS trust your captain, soldier. The writers will then contrive to eliminate said captain in battle. This happens all too frequently, writes jumping in to resolve a conflict they couldn’t bear to sacrifice their characters to resolve. And reset. Roslyn will always be president again, because that is what it says in the show bible. Cancer goes away, politicians rig elections, but then think better of it and give back the stolen votes. I’m sure that happens all the time. Or never once in the history of elections. And characters aren’t really consistent, but blur to justify the plot points of the week. Remember when Roslyn needed Starbuck to return to Caprica for the magic (or not) Arrow of Apollo? She appealed to Starbuck’s deep religous faith. The deep religous faith that is never demonstrated in any episode before or since. Remember how Lee just decided he wanted to die and one point? And then he — I guess — undecided. And remember how the Six model snapped a baby’s neck on Caprica in the pilot episode. She’s a lot nicer now. Snapped a baby’s neck. Now if Dr. House snapped a baby’s neck how many episodes would it take before we could smile at his curmudgeonly antics again? Six’s spine also glowed during sex in the pilot episode which means that there was never a need for half a dozen episodes devoted to Baltar NOT inventing a Cylon detector device. One already exists. Or maybe the twelve colonies hadn’t discovered doggie-style. There’s the whole historically-impossible borrowing of the Greek pantheon (which got switched to the Roman Pantheon at least as far as Zeus becoming Jupiter mid-last season — though not on the closed-captioning, I’m told). That might be explained with the introduction a of really cheesy MOR rock cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” which is supposed to be something in the zeitgeist, something that Dylan picked up from the MUSE in our world, and some other songwriter tapped into on Caprica. Well it strikes me as a bunch of new age bullshit, and mostly made up as they have gone along. Also, in SF we really need the following rule: no more than one (and most of the time not even one) of the characters should live in another character’s head, seen by and spoken to by him or her. These may be all little things, but it is by the thousand little things that a story lives or dies. This one has lost me. And they killed Starbuck, changing her character and stealing her strength, and her dignity and her spirit in order to work that into the story, then they brought her back as a spirit guide. It is on to The Bionic Woman for me.

As I say, it’s mostly the non-Hero’s non-journey of no Plan with a capital Pee for me. I like to read working-stiff fantasy. You can keep your Frodos, your Bilbos: significant Hobbits of Destiny. Give me Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser any day and every day of the week: a couple of guys trying to make a dishonest buck, and hoping to avoid getting turned into turtles by the local Wizard-King. Sure, Fritz Leiber is known only to approximately one one-millionth of Tolkien or Lucas fans: but that is their loss, the loss of the millions, the multitudes loss. Not mine.

I know there is a theory the all stories are versions of the Hero’s Journey, but I don’t subscribe to it. It’s too reductive for my purposes. It’s like saying that all women are one woman, which is another thing people say. It has a symmetry easily mistaken for profundity, but it’s just noise. Like those SF con panels where the definition of science fiction is discussed endlessly. One panel eventually settles on the idea that only Hal Clement is true SF, while the panel across the hall discovers that everything ever written by anyone is SF.

I’d pray from Espenson to come back from the Darkside: to not write “The Chosen One” across the top of her notebook before a brainstorming session, but I can’t, because I know a secret. Not the Oprah Secret, there is no THE secret (which is part of the secret). A secret that Fritz Leiber taught me, and Chandler, and Graham Greene, and Shakespeare, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, John D. MacDonald, Malamud, and Chekov, Borges, Tolstoy, even Wodehouse, David Milch and Amy Sherman Palladino, and a hundred other names (the varying critical and commercial reputations of these individuals being entirely irrelevant, we know). Namely, that, for story-telling purposes, it’s mostly just people.

Furthermore, no helpful mountain ranges delineate The Light from The Dark, there is no Dark side of the map, in fact there is no accurate map, and no wise old guide exists to dole out cryptic prophecy at the act break. What exists is us, just us, bumping into one another in interesting ways.

Now I will finish with my own overreaching statement: even when you were six, Darth Vader was not really scary. Not the least little bit.

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Update: I’ve decided to close comments now, because of all that spam this post has attracted!

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3 thoughts on “Jane Espenson on a certain species of SF & Fantasy, and me in major bitch-mode

  1. michael says:

    Okay, Canfield, rants like this justify listening to you even when you are less oracular.Totally right— I give not a rip for the grand pursuits of kings, except where they interfere with the poor working stiff who has to fight and kill and die for his whims— in fact I like better the working stiff who mostly doesn’t think about what princes are doing at all. Gemmel was great with this. I want to be.Great post Mike.

  2. Anonymous says:

    My trouble wit fantasy is that I keep wanting to mix ghetto speak wit lame-ass Shakespeare. S’blood, I fear it will never work. Fun to think about, though.Just chillin’ sometimes I don’t say the ‘g’. Did you watch the Dmetetri Martin wine movie? He is my hero.Fred

  3. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous said… I don’t know where to start on this one. I liked the comments a lot. I’m one of those late blooming Potter people. I’m only reading it b/c everyone else likes it. Have to follow the lemmings. I love the idea of so many people excited about an author. It’s like Rawlings is like a rock star or something. I love it. I realized early on when reading the book that it does something I promised myself never to do again once I became a born again buddhist and decided to join the entertainment industry. Never insult your audience. Note in her book, we are all–well most of us, I’m not sure about some regular con-goers–muggles. Her book goes on and on about what shit heads muggles are. So I’m a loser. Thanks, Potter. We all can’t have super-powered parents. I know that the secret, superior parents bit is part of the whole hero/quest thingie. The quest template makes writing a novel a breeze, I must add. On the other hand, I am now going to break all the rules, take chances, and still make it home for dinner. Fred

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