Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dynamic Exposition: Or, Whedon's Universes Annoy Me

Whenever somebody writes fiction, they create a new world, a new universe in which the events of their fiction take place. Sometimes the world is nigh-indistinguishable from ours (the novels of John Grisham spring to mind), and sometimes it's not (Discworld, I'm lookin' at you). Either way, the created universe of any work of fiction is, at some level, distinct from our own.

I recently finished The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. It's near-future science fiction, and it won some awards. What attracted me to it was the completeness of its universe; Bacigalupi weaves together issues of race, politics, religion, industry, sexuality, substance abuse, and more, to create a whole, believable universe. There seems to be no detail left unvarnished. Air travel? Handled. Disease? Discussed. A genetically engineered breed of elephant? Megadonts.

In contrast is what I call Whedon Syndrome. Joss Whedon has a different approach to the concept of universe-creating. He seems to be more concerned about what happens in his universe rather than how it can happen. He creates his universe by discovery from the narrative.

Whedon's famously short-lived TV show Firefly provides an example. We get a glimpse into the technology the Serenity's crew uses; we even get some jargon from Kaylee; but do we ever really see the inner workings of the 'Verse? Mal uses a Moses Brothers Self-Defense Engine Frontier Model B; but Moses Brothers is nothing more than a name. In the 'Verse, there is no Moses Brothers Armaments. Whedon doesn't need it. For all Whedon cares, Mal's gun could be the only gun Moses Brothers Armaments ever produced.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn't need exposition as such; whatever exposition is necessary arises organically from the narrative. We gradually come to learn more about the Buffyverse as the series progresses, but again, the information comes indirectly, at a slant. And the knowledge we gain is never because Whedon wants to fill us in on his universe. Rather, exposition serves to justify narrative hijinks.

Part of my problem with this backhanded exposition is that I feel shortchanged. I feel that the universe being created does not actually exist the same way ours does. When a creator is allowed to tack on a scientific law here, a bit of history there, racial tension over in that corner--how can I feel comfortable? How can I accept that I have comprehended this universe? Why should I care about these new rules? They might be negated or made moot in a few months because of another, larger, manufactured scientific law.

Whenever I encounter a creator who is satisfied with this organic, haphazard exposition, it raises doubts in my mind about the completeness of the universe in the mind of the creator. Does the creator have a strong mental image of the universe being created? Or is the creator doing his work of creation as he constructs the narrative?

Part of the reason The Lord of the Rings is so compelling is that J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have had a fairly concrete conception of the universe he was creating, before he created it. Middle-Earth was by no means complete in his mind, but his creation of The Hobbit and, more importantly, The Silmarillion, meant that he was writing about a place that already existed, in his mind. Rather than creating as he wrote, he created first, then set characters into that creation.

Universe-creating is a tricky business. It varies across medium and genre--I'm sure part of Whedon's aversion to flat-out exposition is necessitated by the time constraints imposed by television. And there's something to be said for the dynamic nature of indirect exposition: it's intriguing, it draws viewers in. Me, I like seeing the bones of an universe. I like taking the cover off of the watch and seeing gears and springs interacting. I like knowing how things work, not just knowing that they work.

Long live nine lives!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Adventure of the Janeist Horror

Warning: this post might alienate some of you gender-neutral nouns.

I have a friend who recently discovered Jane Austen. I respect this friend very much, so when she began to express her heartfelt adoration for Ms. Austen's works, I grimaced mentally. I was hearing Janeist words coming out of her mouth. I don't like Janeism one bit. To my mind, my friend's enthusiasm for Ms. Austen's works was hurting her credibility.

(We talked it out. She's not a Janeist. Our friendship is intact.)

For some reason, I really don't like Fans as a demographic subset. You know--the ones who find a way to turn every literary conversation back to the Brontë sisters. The ones who can recite Timon of Athens in Klingon. The ones who can and do fill you in on the socio-evolutionary history of the Tusken Raiders. The ones who can tell you the batting average of the Mets' third baseman in 1977. The ones who hotly debate the quality of David Bowie's later material compared to his earlier years.

I have friends who are Fans. Some of my closest friends are Fans, in fact. Just because I hate Fandom doesn't mean I hate individual fans. I dislike the adjective, not the noun.

Maybe it's the Fan's narrowness of focus. I used to be a Lord of the Rings Fan. I could sort of write Khuzdul. I had firm and well-developed opinions on the spiritual-symbolic nature of the mallyrn trees in Laurelindórenan. I could recite most of the Hobbitic poetry from Fellowship.

Somewhere along the line, that went away, and I began to see myself as having more eclectic tastes. Maybe I got lazy (because being a Fan does require quite a bit of hard work and dedication), or maybe I actually did find out that there's a lot of cool stuff out there. My point is this: I began to see myself as the anti-Fan. Someone with opinions on everything, rather than on only one thing. Broad-minded, that's what I was. A man of the world. Conversant in many different arenas.

Truth is, though, I'm not. I'm still a Fan. Want proof? Look here. If that's not a Fan's post, I'll eat my hat. That's not the post of a Cinema Fan, or an Avengers Fan, or a Criticism Fan. It's...

Well, first, another example. A shorter one, this time. Again: that's not a Bond Fan talking, or a History Fan's something else.

Oh, wait, I already blogged about this. I am a Words Fan. I like them broken into codey little shards. I like them re-assembled from those shards, humming with latent potency. I like them swimming into schools of organized poetic flash. I like them making worlds and galaxies and universes and gods and sins and death, and I like them making me cry.

So I guess I can't really look down on the Janeists. I can't despise the Trekkies or the Browncoats or the Ringers, because even though their Fandom is more focused, more limited, they're still the same as me. We're all Fans. Somewhere deep in every human heart there is a spark. Something that, given the right fuel, will kindle such a blaze of devotion and dedication and Fandom that other people stop to say, "Look at that weird dude who grew his mustache specifically to look like Rollie Fingers'!"

I'm a Fan. And I'm sorry, my gender-neutral nouns, if I ever ridiculed your Fandom.

(Except for Nickelback Fans. I am entirely prepared to burn them with flamethrowers next time I see them.)

Long live restitution.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Three times in the last four days, I've heard the following, give or take phrasing:

"Thanks so much! I owe you..."

And every time it's been said, I've mentally writhed a little bit. Because that's not how I operate. I don't like the thought of owing. I owe money to the US Department of Education for helping me pay for my education; it's terrible, it's annoying, it's nasty. I am not friends with the DoE. I am business partners with the DoE. They provided a service and now I'm reimbursing them for that service.

That's not how friendship works. At least, in my mind--that's not how friendship works. One of my favorite Calvin&Hobbes mini-arcs is the Contract Arc. These:

The last one is relevant to our discussion, but I wanted to include the whole arc just because it's awesome. "People are friends because they WANT to be." There shouldn't be some sort of bookkeeping on friendship.

I Corinthians 13 is Paul's famous discourse on love, and it contains one of my personal favorite verses-to-live-by, 5d: "[love] keeps no record of wrongs." How much better would our world be if more people didn't keep record of wrongs? But that's not the focus of this blog post.

See, I believe the flip-side too. Something along the lines of "love keeps no record of rights." Something to the effect that true friendship accepts kindness/help/pampering/love/whatever without immediately thinking "omigosh, what can i do to reciprocate?"

Friendship isn't business. We don't do transactions. I don't bring you Jimmy Johns and then you have to give me a foot massage and then I have to paint you a picture and then you have to send me your secret recipe for delicious puttanesca sauce. Now, we may choose to have that exchange--it can be voluntary. But the "it's my turn" mindset is against the tenets of friendship.

I am a friend because I want to be. I serve because I want to. Owing has no place in my philosophy.

(Except for the Department of Education. I do owe them.)

Long live indignation!

Monday, June 18, 2012


I'm moving, you know.

Moving necessitates packing one's belongings into boxes, bags, crates, or boxes. I like moving, but I hate packing, in part because packing requires me to actually look at all of my belongings and ask myself, "Why do I still own this thing?"

I'm doing a lot of throwing-away. A lot. Black trash bags are my good friend right now.

One genre of item that I am NOT throwing away is books. Oddly enough, I own a lot of books. Too many? Probably. But I'm not throwing any of them away.

I am looking at them, though, and I'm realizing just how dependent I am on others for my reading habits.

I read authors, you see, and the authors most frequently represented on my shelves are all recommendations. Friends have said, "oh, you ever read this guy? He's great! Checkim out!" And then I do. And a lot of times I get hooked.

Of the ten or so in my Favorite Authors List (yes I have one, no you may not see it), I discovered only two for myself: Gregory Maguire and Neil Gaiman.

Am I, then, a sheep? Do I have critical preferences of my own, or do I just consume, vacuum-like, whatever is recommended at me?

I'd appreciate your ethereal input, imaginary readers. How many of your Favorite Authors (or, if you read by series or some other commonality, that thing) are yours--and how many are hand-me-downs?

Long live consideration!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Knocking At Your Door

This past week has been a whirlwind of responsibility for me, thus:

I went alone to the DMV all by myself and I, Ian the Pontificator, registered my car, personally. And got new license plates, on my own initiative and under my own power. (I'm celebrating my individuality.)

Then I took a required training course, mandatory before I begin TAing in fall. It was about FERPA. I got it done well before the deadline.

And over the past week, at my coffee shop, I shouldered a chunk of the burden of work resulting from the owners being on vacation.

All of my life, I've yearned for responsibility, because it denotes respect. If people respect you, they'll rely on you. Right? I want to be relied on; I want to be leaned on; I want the respect implied by responsibility.

What I discovered this week is that responsibility is not a privilege; it is a necessity.

Responsibility, both the act of being responsible and the act of fulfilling the expectations of those who rely upon one, is nothing special. It's part of adult life. Fulfilling expectations is duty, not some sort of special awesome success story yayz. It's what you do. There were no congratulatory parades as I walked out of the DMV with my new license plates, no Extry Bonus Cash for remembering to pay my bills every month. I just do these things, and I continue living without being arrested or fined or pulled over.

In a way, this is disappointing. Responsibility doesn't seem to get me ahead; hard work and reliability just reinforce the status quo. All the swimming in the world won't get me farther upstream.

Well, that's not true. I am certainly farther upstream than I was when I graduated college. Perhaps I should yearn for patience rather than responsibility.

Also, I'm hungry for fish now.

Long live the ramble.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Electing An Idea

Unless you live a) under a rock or b) somewhere other than Wisconsin (which, seriously, are pretty much the same thing, lol, amirite? Okay, I'll stop that now.)--

Unless you satisfy one of those two criteria, you'll know, dear reader, that tomorrow is a special election for Wisconsin's governor. The sitting governor, Scott Walker, is contending with the man he defeated to win last time, Tom Barrett.

It's funny, because this race hasn't really been about Mr. Barrett at all. In fact, it's my belief that Mr. Barrett is a placeholder, an avatar, a blank; because Gov. Walker is running against an idea. This is a clash of ideologies.

Now, that hyperbole gets thrown around a lot any time there's a particularly vicious political campaign. But I think it's true this time, for one reason.

How many I SUPPORT TOM BARRETT signs have you seen, dear reader? There are some out there, sure, but not many. But here, there, and everywhere one sees RECALL WALKER. Why?

Because what matters to those who voted to recall Gov. Walker--and those who will be voting for Mr. Barrett--is not electing Mr. Barrett. What matters to them is ousting Gov. Walker. Their votes are not votes cast for a candidate: they're votes cast for an ideal.

That ideal, of course, is Not-Walker.

And on the other side, you have the Standers, those stalwarts who seem somehow to be a collective consciousness of conservatism. Superficially, they may be casting their votes for Walker, but not as an official: they vote for Walker as an ideal, as Yes-Walker. 

What those ideals are--what Not-Walker and Yes-Walker entail, specifically--is not within the purview of this blog: and not really that interesting to me, either. What does interest me is that in tomorrow's recall election, Gov. Walker's opponent is not Tom Barrett, Mayor of Milwaukee; Gov. Walker's opponent is a concept, an idea: Not-Walker.

I don't think that's how it's supposed to work. This idea, this mindset that problem-solving doesn't involve providing a solution, is flawed, I think. There are three steps to fixing a problem: IDENTIFY the problem, REMOVE the problem, IMPLEMENT the solution. The Wisconsin recall election seems to have ignored the third step (as is common in politics). That being said, I understand the Recallers' conviction (even if I disagree with it) that Gov. Walker is a significant threat to Wisconsin's future; they think they have to remove him as fast as possible to stop the damage.

That's all, then.