Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Illusionists vs. Trekkies

A few days ago, Gary and I went to see The Illusionist. It's a gorgeous movie, and we really enjoyed it until the last ten minutes, when it turned into one of those "now we're going to explain how nothing you saw was what you thought you were seeing" movies. This kind of narrative has become very popular lately: The Sixth Sense did the same thing, and the Harry Potter books make a similar move. Rowling's novels tend to feature thirty-page denouements in which one character explains what was really happening during the preceding 600 pages; what was really happening is invariably very different from what the reader has been led to believe.

This kind of ending annoys me. It makes me feel that my faith as a viewer or reader has been betrayed; it leaves me feeling tricked, rather than entertained. This is why I discourage "surprise ending" stories in the writing workshops I teach. I tell my students that their job as writers is to create trust in the story they're telling, not to showcase their own cleverness by breaking that trust.

When we got home from seeing The Illusionist, I had e-mail from a friend who'd been taken in by one of the latest cases of Munchausen by Internet, and who was very distraught about it. Someone had told a long, elaborate story about personal tragedy, and my friend -- and others -- had believed it and been affected by it, only to discover at the end that it was all a lie, that the people and tragedies they'd been mourning had never existed at all. My friend's comment was, "The lesson here is that no one's what they seem to be."

I answered by saying that most people are what they seem to be, and that fraudulent narratives do their greatest damage by destroying our trust in everything, by creating the nagging fear that maybe nothing we see or hear is really what it claims to be. This isn't just an Internet phenomenon: a few years ago, my parish was thrown into turmoil when we learned that a trusted leader had been behaving unethically, and lying to close friends and church officials about that behavior, for months -- or maybe years. The people who'd been closest to him repeatedly said things like, "Now I wonder if I ever really knew him at all."

This kind of deception destroys our faith in everything. It makes us feel as if we can't trust the ground we're standing on. It makes us wonder if anything is what it seems to be.

Now, granted, films and novels are fictions, "untrue" stories. We all know that. But I don't think the proper job of fiction is to encourage us to doubt reality. I think the job of fiction is to give us new ways to understand and engage with the real. Some of the most culturally persistent fictions give us hope that reality can be different, that we can work to change the world around us, or at least that we can have a positive effect on that reality. These fictions, no matter how seemingly outlandish, create trust and faith rather than demolishing them.

Enter science fiction and fantasy. I talk here about some of the reasons academics are uncomfortable with these genres, and especially with the world-changing aspects of them. I've written here about my own life-altering history with Star Trek. The Lord of the Rings has had a similar effect on people. This article by Chris Mooney includes a poignant anecdote about Tolkien's effect on the real:
In 1972, when Greenpeace leader David McTaggart sailed into a French nuclear testing area -- thereby triggering the launch of the organization -- he wrote in his journal: "I have been reading The Lord of the Rings. I could not avoid thinking about the parallels between our own little fellowship and the long journey of the Hobbits into the volcano-haunted land of Mordor...."
In my freshman-comp course this semester, I'll be showing GalaxyQuest, one of my favorite stories about belief in story. The Thermians in the movie mistake fiction for reality, and proceed to make the fiction reality by patterning themselves after it.

As an introduction to GalaxyQuest, yesterday I gave my students this article by Ronald Moore, the writer for Battlestar Galactica, about how Star Trek changed his life. Then I showed the first half of Trekkies, the documentary about Trek fandom. (This turned out to be a good move, since many of my students are completely unfamiliar with Star Trek. Wow, I feel old!) The film profiles some very hardcore fans, including Barbara Adams, the Star Trek juror.

My students responded with hilarity and astonishment. Many of them thought the fans in the film were just too weird for words. "These people have a problem. They think the show's real!"

One student disagreed: "They know it's not real. They're doing this for fun."

It seems clear to me that most of the fans, including Barbara Adams, do know that the show's not real; at the same time, though, they want the values of the Star Trek universe to be real, and they're going about the project of making those values real by living them out in the world. Their fandom goes beyond mere fun, as valuable as that can be; they're making a statement of faith. They believe in the values upheld by the story. They also believe in the real world. They believe that they can change the real world for the better by acting in accordance with the story. For some of them, that includes wearing very colorful costumes in courtrooms and at the supermarket.

There are obvious parallels to more conventional faith communities.

The Trekkie approach will earn you a lot more mockery than existential doubt and dread will. But if I have to choose between an Illusionist and a Trekkie, I'll take the Trekkie any day.


  1. Wow, Susan! Thanks for the insight. I am a huge SciFi fan and also an ex Englsh major. One of the senior level courses I took was on American SciFi authors. This was back in the late 70's so some of the stuff we read then is now old hat. Still, it was eye opening to me. The teacher pointed out one day that the first science fiction story was probably Frankenstien and that this book had been a social commentary. That delighted me no end. I had never thought of myself as a reader of meaningful literature. Now I could.(g) Apparently I didn't take that idea far enough. I am glad to know that my friends who try to act out some of these values are not just over excited by the stuff they watch and read.

    Then again, Science Fiction is pure fun. One of my friends actually speaks Klingon. I heard her speaking it with another friend. LOL One of my vacation fantasies is to go to Toronto and attend one of the huge SciFi conventions they hold every year. What are some of your favorite conventions and activities when you go?


  2. Hi, Lee!

    Once an English major, always an English major!

    The Trekkies documentary includes a clip from the Klingon Language Institute. You should rent the film from Netflix; you'd probably enjoy it!

    As for conventions, I go to WisCon every year, but that's the only one I get to. The World Science Fiction Convention and the World FAntasy Convention -- held every Labor Day weekend and weekend closest to Halloween, respectively -- come at very bad times for me, since I'm an academic and our classes start before Labor Day. WisCon's held on Memorial Day weekend, so my spring classes have always already ended by then.

    I used to love World Fantasy Cons when I could get to them; the best one I went to was in London, and I spent a week in Edinburgh afterwards. That was a treat! The SF WorldCons were always too huge and overwhelming for me. WisCon is nice because it's small.

    Readercons are fun, too, but those are on the East Coast, and too difficult for me to get to these days.

  3. :-) Thanks for the good info on possible alternatives to conventions. I might want to do that London one. England is another place I've always wanted to visit.

    What do you like to do when you go to a convention? Attend lectures? Shop for art? Meet other authors? I was thrilled to meet the author and get signed a copy of a book which was a hugo nominee when I attended the World Con in San Antonio back in the 90's. A friend got me a signed set of the Kushiel books at the Aggie Con a year ago. I also like to keep up with what my favorite fantasy artists are doing. Sadly, I got to the World Con too late to see the painting by Michael Whalen that was up for auction.

  4. Maybe because SciFi was the first place where "my world" was reflected that I don't have a problem drawing the parallels between the "science fiction" parts of the story with its "real life" cultural commentaries. Plus what was once SciFi is now common place. One of the beauties of SciFi is that going somewhere else and seeing the possibilities in today's world.

    The "my world" comment is based on my sexuality (and at the time - there was no Will & Grace, no National Coming Out Day). SciFi was the first place for me were I could see myself without all the negative social commentary. SciFi was my first incling that different is not only ok it is the norm.

    Go SciFi!!

  5. Lee: World Fantasy Con, like WorldCon, moves around. WFC was in London in 1988, but it's usually -- or at least often -- in the States.

    jsd: Yes, many people report having seen their sexuality represented in SF before it was acceptable in the "real world." One of the Bible courses I took talked about prophetic writing (the Book of Revelation, etc.) as "coded speech," as a metaphorical representation, not of the future, but of an oppressive present, portrayed in symbolic language the oppressors wouldn't recognize. I think SF often functions the same way.

  6. I've been to 2 World SF cons - in Brighton and Glasgow (and Cathie tells me we are going to Denver in 2008) I have also been to one World Fantasy con - London in '88!

    Mind you, all I wanted to do was sit at the feet of Jonathan Carroll and gaze up in adoration. I was old enough to know better too.

    I could be on my way to the UK National Fantasy con in Nottingham this weekend, but the rest of the family going to the Whitby Goth weekend soon means that money is at a premium. I'll be there in my head.

    Cons are great, but they can be intimidating, and the greater the con the greater the intimidation, and the less chance of speaking to people you know. I didn't get to speak to Terry Pratchett once in Glasgow and he was pro at a week long workshop I attended. He even allows me to buy him drinks and discuss displacement activities!

  7. Hey, Martyn! So we were at the same WFC in 1988! Small world!

    I spent that con sitting at the feet of Geoff Ryman and gazing up in admiration. He's still one of my writing heroes, and I'll always be proud of the fact that he gave a glowing blurb on my first novel.

    The week I spent in Edinburgh was pretty neat, too; I'd been planning to stay in a hotel, but Ellen Kushner was there, or had just been there, doing research for Thomas the Rhymer, and she told me to call Jane Yolen and her husband, and I wound up staying at their house instead. Among other things, that meant that I got to read The Devil's Arithmetic in manuscript (sobbing like a baby, of course).

    That was definitely my most memorable convention trip!


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