Mainstream Stories and a Metaphorical Science Fiction/Fantasy Dichotomy

June 13th, 2010

I was thinking about the movie 300,  Nnedi Okorafor’a detractors, and this recent blog post and comments therein.   Thoughtful people get upset by art, whether it is a book, movie, or just about anything.   I think there are good reasons and bad reasons to get upset.   A good reason is when you’re disappointed because something had the potential to be great and it had fatal flaws that kept it from reaching that potential.   A bad reason is when you’re biased, close-minded, and think that there’s an anti-something agenda in everything you see.

First, let me say that all fiction is fantasy.   Historical fantasy, the hardest of hard science fiction, true crime stories, reality shows, everything.   This point is easy to see when you think about it.   To make any story, even reality-based stories, you edit.   You cut out parts that are slow or boring.   You change the dialogue to make it clear and easy to follow compared to how people really talk.   You choose a perspective, how to display the story.

That’s all fine.   That’s what makes writing stories art.

But then you can do even more.   You can depart from reality as we know it.   You can have the magic of fantasy.   You can have the future predictions of science fiction.   You can have unreliable narrators lying or omitting key information.   You can have subtitles in movies.   You can exaggerate, whether it is a string of amazing coincidences that move the story forward, stunts that subtly defy the laws of physics, business that defies economics, etc.

What is so clever about 300 is that it is an intentional exaggeration.   Frank Miller isn’t trying to be true to history.   He’s intentionally exaggerating.   The evil priests have open oozing sores.   The creatures are monstrous.   The enemy looks like orcs.   Their king is 10 feet tall.   It’s MAINSTREAM FANTASY.   Likewise with a movie like Charlie’s Angels, Shoot Em Up, or Crank.   Everything is done with a wink and a nod as impossible stunt follows impossible stunt.   They are not to be taken as literal reality at all, whether they’re messing with history, physics, whatever.   They’re a form of fantasy.

So what then about mainstream science fiction?   These are the stories that try to play by certain rules, whether they are reality based or only based on the story’s own internal self-consistency.   Take CSI, for example.   They try to abide by the rules of reality, but there are sums of money in that lab that are never seen by real labs, and there always seems to be a forensic clue that helps lead the investigators to a conviction.   In any individual story, there’s no problem, but a pattern develops that isn’t our reality.   Maybe the failed cases have been edited out, and never shown.   Still, in the shows on tv the deck is always stacked in their favor.   Juries now have unrealistic expectations about the quality and quantity of forensic evidence.   Similarly with a show like House.   In principle every story could happen, but House gets away with things time after time that he shouldn’t (medically, socially, economically, legally), and they pretty much always save the patient.   Medical shows in general have much higher success rates for CPR than reality, leading to people having unrealistic expectations.   These shows try hard to portray reality, but they don’t, and in an interesting way that makes me call it MAINSTREAM SCIENCE FICTION.   Detective stories, medical stories, even lawyer stories, tend to fall into this category for me.

This is akin to the reason that I call Star Trek science fiction, and criticize the bad science it sometimes has, and give Star Wars a pass.   Star Wars is a fantasy even though it has spaceships and robots.   Star Wars isn’t trying to reflect reality in any way whatsoever.   Even though it fails regularly enough, Star Trek does try.   I’ll get upset with Star Wars for bad acting, stupid characters, etc., but not over the science.   Star Trek, I’ll criticize the science.

A story like 300, I would say, beyond being mainstream fantasy, is not exactly a historical story.   It’s inspired by a historical story, and has become it’s own version of that history without trying to be accurate in any specific reality-based manner.   You can’t lump it in with science fiction or fantasy either, as it isn’t an alternate history like Inglourius Basterds.   It’s an over-the-top stylized version of historical events, mainstream fantasy.

I think I’ll come up with lists of other examples over the next few days. Anyone want to suggest some?

Anyway, I think it’s inappropriate to criticize the history or politics of 300 the same way it is inappropriate to criticize the science of Star Wars.   It’s just not that kind of story.   It’s inspired by history, but it has its own version of it that is the story’s own reality.   There are plenty of other stories that try to get everything right, even though it is impossible, and those should get the criticism.


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