scribal_goddess: (scribbles)
Why Creative Writing Teachers Should Encourage Reading and Writing of Genre Fic

First off, literary fiction is a myth, and I mean that both figuratively and literally. The western tradition of writing comes not from what we think of as realism in the realm of literature, but from a mythical and allegorical understanding of the world. Some of the earliest literature that most students are exposed to is Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, (some students get to read Virgil’s Aneid and the Epic of Gilgamesh as well,) which contains magic, action, interpersonal relationships, contradictions, people’s political and philosophical thoughts, improbable adventures, romance, horror, gods, fate, and long sea voyages. It’s also one of the world’s best-known works of fanfiction. (After all, Homer did not invent the stories of Odysseus or Achilles any more than Hesiod invented all the stories of the Olympians. Homer is just who we attribute the composed and written versions to.)

Most “literary” fiction that is presented to students as a classic has similar elements, yet escapes being labeled as “genre” fic because it’s old, or written by famous people. Just going down my own high school required reading list – Frankenstein and Dracula are both in many ways horror and adventure novels, Great Expectations (actually, anything by Dickens) is a long, slice-of-life type soap opera with adventure, mystery, and supernatural elements, Romeo and Juliet is actually just a stage adaptation of a much older tragic romance, (Shakespeare is the world’s most famous author of fanfiction in the English language,) The Scarlet Letter is essentially a work of magical realism with some psychological horror, The Great Gatsby is yet another tragic romance with slice of life and soap opera tendencies, and Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 are all sci fi.

All of the above were not written to fit the specifications of “literary” fiction as imposed by English teachers: they were all written for the mass market of their day. Any teacher who insists that “fantasy,” doesn’t sell should be banned from teaching anything with magical or supernatural elements, such as Dracula, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and many works of Edgar Allen Poe, to name just a few staples of the middle and high school English curriculum. (They’re also living under a rock, since many of the best-selling franchises of the 90’s and the first decade of the 2000’s have been fantasy or sci fi, a genre which also includes superheroes somewhere along the spectrum.)

There is no one true literature, and here's how genre fiction makes you write better anyway )

 TLDR; If you teach "literary fiction" as being both completely seperate from and better than "genre fiction," you're doing it wrong. If you say that "It's that way because that's how literature is taught," you're committing a variety of logical fallacies, foremost among them being appeal to authority. If you say that my essay is essentially wrong because I have a degree in science instead of literature, you're technically launching an ad-hominem argument in conjunction with your appeal to presumed authority. And since anyone with access to wikipedia can sit here and play spot the fallacy as well as I can, it's time to start thinking critically about why people revere literary fiction so much (besides that they're taught to in school.)
scribal_goddess: (scribbles)
Right. This is part me rambling, part an episode review of the first three Star Trek (The Original Series) episodes excluding the pilot, and part steam being blown off at early sci-fi in general. Don’t take any of this too seriously: if I’m poking at an old favorite, chances are that I’ve read or watched it, and if I’ve read it all the way through, chances are that I enjoyed it on some level.

Spoilers for the first three episodes of TOS reside in this post. Fair warning.

In the first three episodes of Star Trek (The Man Trap, Charlie X, and Where No Man Has Gone Before,) have a pretty strong resemblance to each other. In all three, the ship is in danger due to individuals with powers that the crew cannot hope to match. The Man Trap is the only episode so far where this individual wasn’t human, and Charlie X is the only episode so far where that individual didn’t end up killed. Strangely, to me Charlie is one of the scarier threats, while the salt-eating-sucker-thing (Otherwise known as Nancy,) from The Man Trap is probably the most sympathetic. My unpopular opinion on Where No Man Has Gone Before is that it’s over-the top, unrealistic (yes, I know, 1960’s, but I’m talking about awareness of the human condition, not scientific knowledge,) and not very well fleshed out.

Right. For those of you who want to know, The Man Trap is an episode where the Enterprise makes a pit stop on a desolate world in order to allow the sole inhabitants, an archaeologist and his wife, a medical checkup and to bring them supplies. While they’re there, a crewman dies unexpectedly, his face covered in circular red marks, and when they bring him back to the ship for an autopsy, McCoy determines that he had all of the salt sucked out of his body. Turns out that the archaeologist’s wife, Nancy, is actually a salt-eating-sucker-thing that drains the salt out of living beings in order to survive, and did so to the original Nancy. She’s not drained the archaeologist because he’s been giving her his supply of salt tablets.

Nancy is the last of her kind, probably because she doesn’t appear to be able to suck salt out of the rocks and sand where it would naturally be, and because her salt consumption is enormous. If a person’s body is about 70% water by weight, and the salinity of cytoplasm is about 135 to 145 moles per liter, blood salinity is about 1% and River Tam says that there are about five liters of blood in the body… hang on, let me crunch this…

At a loose calculation, Nancy would consume about 50 milliliters of salt per person, about 1.75 grams assuming pretty high salt-sucking efficiency. (That’s assuming that McCoy can only test the blood, and he did state that he found absolutely no salt in the blood.) Nancy as the hairy-salt-sucker looks about the same size as McCoy, slightly stocky, so we’re going to estimate her body weight as close to the average human male, a bit under 80 kilograms. (80,000 grams.) Nancy eats less than one hundredth of a percent of her weight in salt per person she kills with her suckers. During the episode, which I estimate took about two days, she kills four people. And she’s still ravenous, so her daily necessary salt intake is at least double the amount that can be found in a human body: I’m going to estimate it at about four people a day, plus the salt tablets she consumed, which look to be about three or four grams apiece. I can only assume that with the 25 pounds (11 kilograms,) plus Nancy prime that she consumed of salt before the Enterprise showed up, over the course of a year, she was starving to death, though far more slowly than she had been before, due to the archaeologists bringing along salt tablets as well as being tasty snacks.

(Yeah, I did the math. At a conservative estimate of more than 20 grams a day, the 11 kg of salt should have lasted about 550 days, or about a year and a half. It’s safe to say, since there wasn’t that much salt left even though they were clearly rationing it, that her salt intake actually needs to be higher than that.)

Despite starving to death, Nancy clearly learned on her own to communicate with the Archaeologist, and refrains from attacking and eating his salty, salty blood because otherwise she’ll be alone again in the universe.

In summary: Nancy is clearly capable of feeling some inter-species empathy (for the archaeologist), probably has the ability to read minds (there is no other way she would have known about Nancy Prime and McCoy’s past involvement, or have appeared to Uhura as somebody that she used to know,) tries to keep the archaeologist happy by taking on the form of his dead wife, and appears to be not only the last of her kind, but the only non-plant organism surviving on her planet. She’s at least as sympathetic as most vampires, despite having less reason to feel kinship with the crew of the enterprise. Sure, her problems could have been solved by massive shipments of salt, rather than eating the crew, but it’s debatable how much she understood about humanity with just the archaeologist for company.

Charlie X is what happens to the Enterprise when another ship delivers them a castaway, who apparently survived on a desolate planet after being shipwrecked there at the age of three. (There are legends that the planet is inhabited by a race of psychic, immaterial beings.) Charlie is now seventeen and they’re trying to deliver him to a human colony where he can learn to be a normal human.

Charlie was given psychic powers by the green immaterial psychic things so that he could manifest himself food, because otherwise he would have starved. The immaterial psychic things could not otherwise take care of him, but they did all that they could to rescue him, with the side effect being that he has no knowledge of human society and is spoiled as all hell by the age of seventeen, when he is picked up by a friendly human ship.

The scary thing about Charlie is that he doesn’t seem to have any conception of consequences (possibly, when his adoptive species don’t have bodies, there really aren’t that many if he has a fit at home – it might not be possible for him to harm them by disappearing them or changing the forms of things,) and therefore he is, in effect, a two-year-old with psychic powers in an adolescent’s body. As such, he could be kind of sympathetic… except for the fact that he blew up an entire ship because the crew was uncomfortable around him and wasn’t “nice” to him, which by his definition is telling him no or refusing to give him what he wants.

Yup, that’s right folks: in the first three episodes of TOS, the person with the highest death count is the only one that the captain and crew decide that they can’t harm and that more chances should be given to. Their plan when he actually takes over their starship and could blow them up at any time is still “let’s sedate him for the rest of the trip and let him loose in a human colony!” Kirk even argues with Charlie’s foster species when they come to pick him up after his ship-wide people-disappearing, leg-breaking tantrum, saying that he should be with his own kind. Despite, you know, the fact that he regularly gets rid of people who disagree with him, treats everyone that he comes across as objects, and has clear anger issues. He’s also a compulsive liar, (he lied right off the bat coming onto the enterprise about how he survived on the planet, and even if it was to protect the secret of his powers he later had no qualms about showing them off, and he lied about how he learned his “card trick,” which he had no reason to do,) doesn’t seem to understand why the crew of the enterprise reacts to him admitting that he blew up another ship, and he demonstrates random cruelty to the crew. (He turns a girl into a lizard for saying one cross word to him, disappears a crew member for laughing when he’s sparring with Kirk, he makes Uhura choke because she teases him, and he casually breaks Spock’s legs with his psychic powers when Kirk and Spock are trying to restrain him.)

Oh, and he has tantrums like Annakin Skywalker.

You could probably argue that since his green intangible guardians “reset” everything at the end of the episode, and since they have the ability to take over and keep his powers in check, he’s less dangerous than say, Gary Mitchell. But that would be forgetting the Antares, which they couldn’t bring back because it had been blown up rather than disappeared. My only guess for why he was given more of a chance by Kirk and co. than Nancy or Mitchell is the fact that he was a kid, was better at hiding his true intentions, and still looked very human. In fact, part of Kirk and Spock’s later response to Mitchell’s attempt to take over the enterprise is probably due to the fact that they’d just gone there with this kid and were only saved by an application of guardians ex machina. Come to think of it, the immaterial psychic things are pretty darn scary to begin with: after all, they raised this little monster.

On the subject of Gary Mitchell and psychic powers, I’m going to have to log my disappointment with Where No Man Has Gone Before. I know it’s something of a fan favorite, and I can see why to a certain extent: there’s a major amount of feels for Kirk watching an old friend descend into madness, and the electric shocks that Kirk and Spock get zapped with look like they hurt. (Also, what is it with this show and hitting Spock with something? First episode, he gets clocked by Nancy in search of salt and is mildly concussed, second episode Charlie breaks his legs [and puts them right again, but that’s beside the point here], and in this episode Mitchell shocks him a lot harder than Kirk and McCoy has to drag him back to the Enterprise. It’s almost as bad as Firefly’s “how many times can someone punch Simon Tam in the face?” counter. Judging by fandom and the 2009 movie, I’d thought that everything in the known universe wanted to kill Kirk.)
For the record, the setup of this episode is an old cliché: man runs into an unusual force, assimilates its powers, goes mad in the “a god am I,” pattern. I’m fine with the fact that it randomly introduces ESP, but am highly disappointed by the fact that the application of ESP dropped all coherency afterwards, especially when compared to Charlie X, where Charlie’s powers were somewhat limited and given a working description of a) transporting things elsewhere and changing their shape, usually in a small way, b) flinging things about, and c) mucking about with electronics. But what really steams me about this episode, besides the whole geometric progression of Psychic powers, is that ESP is conflated with some sort of superintelligence, and portrayed as a bad thing before any reason for fear is ever brought up. In fact, the entire reason that Kirk and Spock decide that Mitchell is dangerous, while he is still acting like himself, is that the ship whose trajectory they followed into the glowy purple cloud of doom was blown up by its own captain, who had been looking for information on ESP. That’s it. There’s no consideration given to the possibility that the captain was doing research on ESP in hopes that Esper crewmembers might save them by fixing their junked engines, the possibility that he just wanted to know if a crewmember whose ESP subjected them to an attack by the glowy purple cloud would be all right, or the fact that Mitchell was acting completely normal at the time. They also seem afraid of Mitchell’s increased reading speed, comprehension, and retention.

Mr. Spock, it is not logical to jump to conclusions. Maybe there was more on the tape, but we didn’t get to hear it out here in the audience. In addition, every single change in Mitchell’s condition happens after Kirk and Spock come to the conclusion that it will happen. Yes, they were right that he would go crazy and decide that he was above them all, but weird glowy eyes are not a diagnostic symptom of a psychotic breakdown.

In essence, my beef with the scripting of this episode breaks down to  1) the assumption that Mitchell, having gained comic-book style super-intelligence, must necessarily become arrogant and psychotic, 2) that Mitchell’s fate was decided upon (gee, thanks, Spock) before he showed any symptoms of anything other than a knock to the head and glowing eyes, 3) that more was made of his psychic creation powers and “superintelligence” being a problem than the fact that he was no longer acting like himself, and 4) that somebody on the writing team decided that there was no hope for somebody who had previously been a functional, empathetic member of the Enterprise crew once his ESP was activated or turbocharged or whatever by crossing the edge of the galaxy. Apparently, any change from neurotypical behavior automatically removes human empathy and all past connections from the equation.

Additionally, there were many sensible solutions to the episode that didn’t lead to death, and they just kept skipping over them or chopping them down, making Mitchell as psychotic as possible. The first was that hey, maybe it’s not imperative that people who suddenly gain ESP and super-intelligence develop a god complex at the same time? The second (when Mitchell started acting threatening and playing with the ship controls,) would be to give him something to do and let him re-acquaint with crew-members who he remembers fondly. It might have gotten them some help with their burned-out engine, and maybe a little dose of hey, you’re smart enough to scan the engine by yourself, go you could have gone a long way towards preventing a psychotic breakdown. The third, which was totally on Mitchell and no one else, would be to remember that nobody outside his head knew what was going on, and to maybe actually be nice to them and stop playing with the ship controls out in deep space. The fourth, which would have been a logical and understanding response on Mitchell’s part to the whole Delta Vega marooning, would be “Okay, I feel kind of betrayed that you’re marooning me on this planet, but it’s livable and I’m slowly developing the powers that can make me manifest anything, so it’s not really a great hardship for me. I recognize that I scare the shit out of the crew and can’t be trusted not to play with the ship controls, so maybe advise someone to pick me up after I’ve gotten this ESP thing under control?” But the writers of this particular episode chose to take a formerly functional person and insist that the addition of super-intelligence or psychic powers made them into a monster that had to be killed for the good of humanity.

I disliked Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966) for some of the same reasons that I disliked the end of Flowers for Algernon (1958), am ambivalent about the entire premise of Understand by Ted Chiang (1991) and was bored to death by Limitless (movie 2011, adapted from the short story The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, which I will have to read under the assumption that it’s better than the movie.) First, I could pick holes all day in the decisions of any of the characters whose intelligence was augmented, who all gain unusual intelligence coupled with psychic powers, which tells me that my armchair reasoning skills are better than their decision-making skills or just the scriptwriting. (The protagonist of Flowers for Algernon is excused to some degree because he has literally zero life experience, being severely cognitively disabled prior to his treatment. I also like Flowers for Algernon because it’s well written, the protagonist wants to do good with his newfound intelligence, and because it’s a tragedy due to lost potential rather than “everyone here is a moron” syndrome, as in Romeo and Juliet. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to tear the ending’s hair out, but sometimes those are the best ones.) Second, except for Flowers for Algernon, they portray intelligence above the norm as dangerous to everyone within spitting distance.

All of the above works suffer from what I like to call Algernon Syndrome, with Flowers for Algernon being, of course, the originator of the idea. In essence, a character’s intelligence is dramatically augmented, usually allowing him access to some other skill not actually correlated to intelligence or not actually known to exist, such as ESP (Where No Man Has Gone Before,) Gestalts and the manipulation thereof  (Understand,) or an eidetic memory (Limitless/The Dark Fields.) The character discovers that his newfound intelligence is impermanent, (all of the above save for Where No Man Has Gone Before,) damaging to his sanity, (Understand and Where No Man…) erodes his morals, or making him psychotic (Where No Man… and Understand), an arrogant jackass, (all of the above but Algernon) or leading him to believe he’s above it all and above everyone else (again, all but Algernon.) Additionally, the characters start playing with other people’s lives (not in Algernon, have I mentioned that I love that story even though I hate the ending?) and become unwilling to accept anyone else’s options or opinions.

This is a bad thing because it perpetuates the idea that geniuses are at best, arrogant snobs who look down on the general population and can’t be bothered to make their own toast, and at worst, psychotic nutjobs who manipulate people for shits and giggles. In Understand and Limitless the assholeish behavior was somewhat explained by drug dependence and the fact that both of the protagonists were kind of jerks to begin with. But it’s still an annoying trend, just like the decision to portray Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory as non-functional without the support of his friends makes sense for the show, but is annoying when you consider that television and literature almost never portray a believable genius who is capable of basic social interaction and isn’t an asshole. It seems to me to indicate that people who write these types of geniuses are either afraid or resentful of great intelligence, so they either write megalomaniacs or assholes.

The problem I have with this being the introduction to ESP for the series runs somewhat along the same lines. The episode takes ESP, which is explained in the episode as a harmless little neurological quirk that makes people a bit better at card games, and makes it the pathway into cackling, megalomaniacal, ominicidal assholery. If Star Trek wasn’t so famous for pushing the envelope on race, gender, and other societal issues through text and thinly veiled symbolism, I probably wouldn’t be putting so much thought into this, but as it is, I have something to say.

What did the 1960’s have against the neuro-atypical?


TLDR; Scribbles now watches Star Trek the Original Series, and really needs an off switch for her brain. Also, this is the second time in the last few months that I've apparently named a trend only to find out that there is a near-identical TV trope of the same name. I think I might be plugged into the internet a bit too much of late...
scribal_goddess: (Default)
I remember being five years old and listening to trees, the slow creak of the water rushing through them, buried deep under the bark, matching the sea-sound heartbeat in my ears. On windy days I would hold tight to the corners of my open jean jacket, and let the wind blow me back half a step, convinced that I would be lifted, kitelike, along the cement. Every note made by running a stick along the tall wrought-iron fence was different. I wasn't quite six yet when the thoughts came.

They might have come before, but the first time I can really remember is standing in the backyard, staring at the tiny strawberry that I had picked, and knowing that it was alive and so was I and that the world was huge around me, hearing the cars and the other people and knowing that none of them besides me could see the second where the strawberry had come off the stem, no one besides me could see the green-bruised snap when I picked daisies out of the lawn, and that I couldn't explain the soft, talcum-powder textured sound of the sink running at it's lowest flow when my mom washed my strawberry.

In later years I discovered that I was the only one I knew who the thoughts came to, opening up boxes upon boxes and spilling all the world into my head, snapping off one-two-three like popcorn, filling me up beyond my ability to speak or draw or write them down. I could hold great fistfuls of them in my head, swimming about like fishes, as if my brain were my dad's computer slowly loading up the internet while he typed. I remember talking to other six year olds about electrons running in wires, not being able to turn around, about the orange color in carrots that turned your teeth yellowish after you bit into them, about the fact that different trees had different heartbeats and people having different-flavored names. I remember being incredulous that no one else knew how a butterfly turned liquid inside it's chrysalis and put itself back together again, a wing here and a leg there, maybe a bit of an eye. Worms were an endless fascination, slimy against my fingertips and their tiny veins reminding me of the heartbeat of the trees.

Today I watched in my head as the theoretical molecules were pulled apart and bounced between magnets to determine how much they weighed, electrons screaming across empty space, and I realized that the popcorn thoughts, which were popping up a story and a method for separating soap and dirt while I watched, weren't going on behind my professor's eyes. She didn't know about the popcorn thoughts, and it made me sad to know that the thoughts didn't come to her, the electrons didn't sing for her, even though she loves the beautiful too large too small world and she watches the student-mind click over to realization every day. But she's watching the slow tick, not the jump and snap of the popcorn thoughts, and it would be rude to tell her to fast-forward.

To this day, I have met three people who I see the popcorn thoughts jumping in. I've met a few more who I can see a few boxes opening up in, pouring things out, and I've come to realize that aside from the unfolding in the heartbeat of the trees, the popcorn thoughts are essentially a lonely thing.

So - who else out there has had the thoughts come to them?

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