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Posts Tagged ‘fandom’

Fiction and Form

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

A note on this post: I’m going to be linking to a lot of fanfic below, not all of it appropriate for younger readers or work computers. Each link is followed by a rating in parentheses; please check the rating before you click. Teen+ ratings may be safe for work but may contain profanity or some sexual references; Explicit ratings contain explicit sexual material and may also contain violence and profanity.

Which, hey, if you’re looking for sex, violence, and profanity, does make your life easier, really.

A while back, there was a meme going around tumblr asking people to name ten books that have stuck with them, which eventually morphed into ten fanfics that have stuck with them. Maeglinhiei, who if my memory serves has been reading my stuff and hanging out in the cafe for quite a while, mentioned that one of my stories, Sublimation And The Snitch (Teen+), was on the list. In specific, one reason was “it’s the first time I encountered a fic not as ‘fic’ but in a different media, so to speak”, which is a lovely compliment, and got me thinking.

Sublimation And The Snitch is certainly not a traditional prose narrative; it’s framed as an essay about the application of Freudian and Jungian psychology to the game of Quidditch, and it uses that structure to explore relationships between students at Hogwarts school. The statement of it in that way — the first time someone encountered a story not as a story but as a narrative hung on a different framework — struck me as interesting. I remembered the first time I’d encountered fanfic that was outside the norm, and I thought about how fanfic continues to play with untraditional structures in a ratio that is far higher than published fiction.

I rarely encounter fiction written with the diversity of format that occurs in fanfic, and I think my experience in that sense is fairly common. Even so, the further out you go from the traditional Aristotelian dramatic arc, the more surprise you get. When readers encounter one of my other fanfics, A Partial Dictionary Of The 21st Century (Explicit), they usually comment on how difficult it must have been, because it is literally a story told as a series of vignettes attached to specific words. Having dicked around with fictional structures for twenty years at this point, it didn’t seem all that strange to me, but then I’d been dicking around with fictional structures for twenty years.

There are a ton of what might be called noncanonical structures in fanfic. My work in these areas is not the only work out there, but it’s reasonably representative: there are fanfics as essays and dictionaries, as collections of summaries and quotes (Teen+), as magazine articles (Teen+), as illustrated stories (Teen+), and with segmented structures (Teen+) — the “Five Times” or “Four Times And One Time” formats are a quite common genre at this point. I’ve read fanfics that are the same story told from two different points of view (Explicit). Fanfics exist as lists (Teen+) and as collage collections of social media (Teen+) or letters and postcards (Teen+) written by various characters involved.

Fanfic is safe for narrative experimentation because nobody is making a living at it — not the fanfic writer or their editor, not the people who run the archives where fanfic is posted. The reader pays nothing for it and usually, because it’s free and there, reads a lot more of it than your average reader of fiction reads in books. The risk in writing experimentally in fandom is extremely low; the worst consequence is a negative comment, and the much more common negative consequence is simply not much attention, which — while unpleasant — isn’t exactly punitive.

I have a distant hope that self-publishing, as it becomes more and more common, will perpetuate this low-risk environment for experimentation. At this point, because of print on demand services, self-publishing for the author is as low-risk as fanfic; there’s no upfront cash output, especially if you’re typesetting and cover-designing yourself, and most writers who get that far were writing for the pleasure of it anyway, not an imagined financial reward.

For the reader, self-publishing is a much more high-risk endeavor. Trying to find the diamonds amid the poorly-edited vanity novels and badly typset cookbooks can be a task. It’s the old gatekeeper problem again. But at least on the back end, the opportunity for experimentation is there.

I want to find a way to uplift the idea of the nontraditional narrative structure. I used some aspects of nontraditional structure in Charitable Getting and in The Dead Isle, and I’d like to use more. At this point I have a long list of books unwritten that I ought to be working on, so the nontraditional novel will probably have to wait its turn, but I feel like creating a space for these formats in original work is an important task, and one that deserves someone’s focus, whether it’s me or a reader elsewhere.

So if you know of books written with a nontraditional structure, or if you know of any sites about nontraditional structures, please let me know! Perhaps I’ll make some kind of compendium.

Learning From Television

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I think magical realism may be the next thing. Like how vampires and post-apocalyptic dystopias are a thing. I think maybe magical realism is next.

There have been a growing number of television shows in particular which incorporate elements of magical realism, whether intentionally or otherwise. I’m always leery of attributing magical realism to things that weren’t written that way intentionally, in part because they’re usually written by white men who already had a lot of cultural pull, but it’s hard to deny that the TV show Hannibal has a lot of visual elements of magical realism, and apparently the show True Detective, another new hit, incorporates aspects of it as well.

I get a little conflicted over it. On the one hand it would be great for the genre. Magical Realism is notoriously difficult, and difficult stories taking center stage are good for the literary development of culture. If nothing else, a story too difficult to read teaches us what not to do, and a story that people just think is too difficult to read opens a lot of dialogue about prose structure and technique. On the other hand, if it does take off, I’ll have been the loser who liked it before it was cool and still couldn’t make much money off it. I try to detach the personal, but it’s difficult.

Then again, perhaps the sheer challenge of reading magical realism will prevent the genre from ever gaining a wide audience. Not that I think people can’t cope with it, but a lot of people don’t want to, and why should they? Some days I don’t have the mental bandwidth for Jorge Luis Borges either.

But it’s not just that understanding some stories in magical realism is a struggle — it’s also that it’s difficult, in literary form, to employ it and still allow for action, for the parts that make most books interesting to read. There’s a lot of exposition that goes on in magical realism, and I’m still trying to work out why it’s so necessary, but I think in part it’s because it’s hard to have characters talking about something unusual without expressing how unusual it is. A staple of magical realism is that nobody acknowledges that what’s going on is super fucking weird.

For example, at one point in the show Hannibal, a character in prison temporarily grows antlers. We don’t know if this is meant to really be happening, if it’s a hallucination he’s having, if it’s a visual representation of what his internal feelings are, or if it’s something we’re being shown in order to indicate his state of mind without him having any thought of it. The ambiguity is intriguing and it makes you think carefully about how to read it. But it’s very difficult to write that scene in a novel — to just say, “He sat in his cell, and his antlers grew, black and twisted, towards the ceiling.”

You can do it. Obviously, because I just did. But you want to include all this other exposition about how the antlers were linked to his feelings or what his feelings were or the rest of it. And that is why magical realism often seems tedious despite being a genre essentially filled with strangeness and delight: there’s a shitload of exposition.

It’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot as I’ve tried to write more in the genre — attempting to break away from the exposition-heavy forms that it comes from and write something that is more similar in shape to popular literature. I’m still struggling with it, but perhaps if there are more stories out there like what I want to write — magical, surreal, and popular — I can learn from others who have done it better than I have.

I’m learning a lot from the television, anyway, and that’s a rare and interesting thing.

I Regret Nothing

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

That post title is a bit of a lie, but it’s also an excellent opening thesis statement. At least, I regret nothing vital.

I am catching up on about three months of back-reading, and my latest read is “The Author Sends Her Regrets” by Elizabeth Minkel, one of many reactions to JK Rowling’s recent remarks about what she might have done differently in her books. Minkel’s article echoed a lot of thoughts I had about Rowling’s remarks, but more importantly, it moved on to showcase five “Authorial Regrets” — mistakes that five great authors in history made, and how they dealt with them later.

I was charmed by Charles Dickens about-facing, even if only partially, on his portrayal of Jews; a person capable of stepping outside of their accultured prejudices in Victorian England wasn’t exactly common. And I recognized F. Scott Fitzgerald’s efforts to quantify what did and did not work about a failing novel, though I haven’t read either version of Tender is the Night and can’t actually say whether he fixed what was broken. Anthony Burgess and JD Salinger I have less sympathy for; if your biggest regret is that a book you weren’t that fond of made you famous, I have a hard time really empathizing. Ray Bradbury I have an even more difficult time sympathising with, because I am well documented in thinking he was a dick, so perhaps the less said there the better.

But the upshot is that it got me thinking about what I regret, in terms of being a writer, and the answer is not much. I am potentially a lot less complicated than the people the article talked about, in great part because I’m not as famous, but even in terms of fanfic — well, for example.

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange and said,

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about…

Now, I have read A Clockwork Orange, and after reading it I saw the film, and I don’t necessarily disagree with him about the latter — although I will say that, while flawed, the film very pointedly expresses the institutionalized brutality of the society in which Alex is incubated. But whether or not the film was any good seems somewhat irrelevant to me because the book was so spectacular — brutal and cruel, but amazingly executed as a pointed critique of British culture at the time and written in a language that bore only about a two-thirds resemblance to modern English. But Burgess calls it a jeu d’esprit, which when I googled that it turned out to be “a lighthearted display of cleverness”. He thinks the book’s a lightweight, and he wrote it in three weeks, for the money. If I could write a book half as good and iconic as A Clockwork Orange in twice the time, I’d feel pretty fucking great about myself.

Here’s the story as I love to tell it: a few years ago I was riding the train home when I got an idea for a fanfic set in the fictional universe of the television show Torchwood. It would be about the alien-hunting cast of Torchwood discovering an alien that looked exactly like a small grey cat, who only communicated in the kind of language you see in the LOLCat meme. I roughed out the story on the train, polished it when I got home, and posted it the next day. And it exploded. It got featured on a couple of well-known literary websites, even (which alas did not lead to networking opportunities for its author).

I wrote the damn thing on the train. And it will probably end up on my tombstone. (HE COULD HAS FANFIKSHUN.)

But for all I complain about the fame of “The LOLCat Fic“, I’m laughing while I do it — shaking my head over fate, but unashamed of it, because I know that within certain parameters it was the best work I could do. If I was going to write a story about LOLcats, by God, it was going to be the best, funniest, most interesting story I could possibly make it. I don’t regret it; I’d be a fool to regret something that has made others laugh and brought a certain measure of fame to me personally, at no cost to my dignity (not that I’ve ever had much to begin with, but I was creating something with intent, it’s not like I’m making an ass of myself on national television).

Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange for the money, and I get why if that’s the case it might not be his best work, or at any rate he might not think it is. And sometimes you do have to work for the money rather than to please oneself. But that’s why I have a day job — so that I can always be sure the stories I tell, even if I’m not as prolific as a full-time writer, are fully the best work I can provide.

I may have regrets in life, I’m sure everyone has a few (perhaps too few to mention?) but I find it hard to regret even the errors I made when I was younger: they were part of a learning curve, and at the time they were the best work I could produce.

Rewriting Firefly

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked when I was soliciting discussion topics for this site came from Ailelie on Dreamwidth (thanks Ailelie!) and read as follows:

How would you have written [X] had it been your idea/task? For X, sub The Jungle, Firefly, Emma, etc. And why?

So let’s talk a little about Firefly. Or a lot; this essay ran long.

I saw Firefly when it aired, because at the time I was a huge Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, so I’d heard the buzz about Joss Whedon’s new show. I was looking forward to it, and while I’m aware the show was aired out of order, I actually enjoyed that. The first Firefly episode that aired was the second episode which was supposed to air, The Train Job, and I thought it was super-gutsy to jump into the action that way, without spending a long time introducing any of the characters. What an innovative pilot, I thought.

But while I appreciated the show structurally, I ended up drifting away after a few episodes, disinterested and distracted by other things. I understand intellectually why it gained such a cult following, it’s just always been one of those shows I’ve never found much appeal in.

Part of the problem was how uncomfortable I found the show’s chosen theme, a Science Fiction and Western pastiche. There’s a reason you don’t see Westerns much on television anymore, and that is because they were a flawed, misogynist, racist genre to begin with; their central purpose has usually been to justify and legitimize the genocidal colonialism of Manifest Destiny.

I also personally just don’t find the Wild West that interesting, which could be a contributing factor.

I find it perfectly acceptable that the “pioneers” of space would be the same tough survivalist types as those that colonized the American West. I believe that oral history and folk arts would be exceptionally important, and a certain level of lawlessness would be the norm. But I think there are better ways to bring the Western into a postmodern viewpoint, which is necessary for the kind of metacommentary that the show seemed to want to make. When I rewatched the series and the film a few years back (which is when the bulk of this essay was written) I often felt as though the show left holes not only in the plot but in internal logic, for the sake of “the Western”. I’m okay with there being plot holes, but these seemed to serve the gimmick of the Western rather than any cohesive narrative.

So, as I sometimes do when dissatisfied, I started watching a story in my head, and I found it much more satisfying. I’m not saying this is better than what Whedon did. But this is what I wanted to see, and what I didn’t get.

Some of the problems that led to my rewrites may have been fixed if Firefly had stayed on the air. I know this, but it’s hard to find that a legitimate excuse, because none of what I’m suggesting couldn’t have come in right from the start. And, perhaps in part because it wasn’t fixed…Firefly didn’t stay on the air.

Firefly Redux

One of the biggest problems I had with the general ‘verse of Firefly is the war. The scenes set during the war are very evocative and they’re an excellent portrait of the brutality of battle. But…why was this war fought planetside? We’ve seen that they have space weapons, so was the Alliance taking each planet individually? Were the browncoats in space at all, or just planetary defense forces loosely organized under one umbrella? The Alliance is visibly ruthless; why not just bomb them into submission from the air? A galactic revolution that does not involve the majority of the battles being fought in space doesn’t work for me. So while I appreciate the scenes as works of art, and I understand their presence as driving forces in the lives of Mal and Zoe in particular, I can’t really incorporate them into the show logically.

What I wouldn’t give for a universe in which projectile weapons were only available inside a planet’s atmosphere, and other methods were used in space. Humanity of the future have obviously become masters of gravity, since they have ships with artificial grav that doesn’t appear to involve centrifugal force. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a space battle fought with gravity hooks and physics? I think so. I’m tired of PEW PEW PEW.

I understand that the Alliance in Firefly is supposed to be evil: corrupt, inefficient bureaucrats who plunder the pioneer planets of their natural resources and cheap labor. But we have no contrast to go by — we don’t know what the situation was like before the Feds came in. I really wish we’d been shown something pre-Unification so that we could judge better whether Mal was a hero defending freedom or a whiny asshole who didn’t want to get caught being a crook. We don’t get to see some of the Alliance ineffectiveness until several episodes in, which makes it harder to sympathize with the crew’s hatred of it. Especially when Inara said she voted for the Alliance, implying that not only was there a choice, but many rational people, if not the majority (was the “vote” fixed?) chose Unification. It’s hard to find the Alliance all that much more evil than recent American domestic policy, at least until we find out about Pax in the film. At that point we begin to understand the lengths to which they were willing to go to subjugate people, but to what end? And whose benefit? They already have a practical slave-labor force in the Indentureds. And considering how accepting society was of the concept of indenture, I’m guessing that pre-Alliance society wasn’t exactly a ball.

Cast of Characters

Firefly‘s crew were witty, but they failed to engage me on a level any deeper than “that was a funny quote”. I didn’t care about most of them. I wanted so much more meat.

In my head, I made Wash a severe agoraphobic. Possibly he steals downers from whatever medication they’re smuggling on any given trip, so that he can get through the times when they make planetfall. I think it would have been interesting to see how entire generations being born and raised on ships and stations would impact how we view wide open spaces, and Wash is a great doorway for that.

I think it would be fascinating to explore the idea of new religion in space, and I think Wash, as a pilot, is an ideal vehicle for this as well. Why shouldn’t he belong to a religious outfit of some kind? Most people do. I would love to see a group like the Church of Christ Cosmonaut from Rendezvous with Rama, who believe that deity came from the stars. Imagine that the crew contracts to carry a wealthy Spacer to their burial grounds: a huge field of caskets in an empty stretch of space, where signal beacons act as gravestones blasting out messages to the stars, awaiting the day the last man leaves the last planet so that all may be resurrected as stars themselves. It’s a great image and an easy plot; the crew vs. the grave robbers. I’d like to see that.

A more intent presence of faith in the narrative would give Book a function other than Being Mysterious, too. Shepherd Book was an interesting character — older than most of the crew and a man of the cloth, not just a religious man. I’d have loved to see some real commentary on religion using him. I joked with my friends that Book is “The space pope!” but really, why shouldn’t he be? After all, we know he has quite a bit of authority, thought we don’t ever find out why. There are also accusations amongst some critics that Book is the “magical negro” of the story, and while I don’t agree with that entirely, I can see where they’re coming from enough to be uncomfortable with it.

I would like Book to be the last eminent Catholic pope, the great leader of a dying cult. Faiths grow and flower and die — that’s not theology, it’s history. So I would like to see Shepherd Book, a respected theologian of a fading faith, on a pilgrimage to find a way to revitalise his religion — or at least keep its history from falling to dust. And how great would it be to see Book lead a Catholic Outer Space Tent Revival? I would love to see that.

I wish we saw more implication that Simon and River‘s parents knew exactly what would happen to her when they sent her away. I wanted to see a River who was rebellious, smarter than her parents, someone they couldn’t control — someone who intimidated them in a way their servile son never would, so that they’d send her away to be broken. I want for them to have sent her away believing that she would be tamed, lobotomised, so that they could have their nice gentle daughter and their good obedient son. It’s the only way their apathy makes sense, and their fury at Simon’s behavior. Suddenly their doormat good-boy isn’t, and it’s still River’s fault. I wanted River to be a survivor because she was a rebel first; that would be a biting indictment of the treatment of women in our culture today, where we are only fifty years out (if that) from institutionalizing women who didn’t bow to the patriarchy.

This also isolates Simon and River fully, because they become two brilliant children whose parents wanted to brutalise them into what they “should” be instead of what they could be. I want River to have an arc where she overcomes what people want from her to be who she is, and I want Simon to struggle with her process in that too, because he also has an idea of what he wants her to be.

I love the idea of the money-driven Jayne, but I wish he were more like Kyouya Ohtori from Ouran High School Host Club, who isn’t actively malicious unless there’s concrete benefit for him. I’d like to see a Jayne with a personal moral code, albeit a code completely detached from society’s. I’d like to see hired muscle that isn’t blatantly misogynist, hired muscle that can also think for itself: when the Alliance searched the ship, I wanted them to find his false wall, and then his false wall of guns, and a huge collection of contraband books on philosophy and sociology and religion behind that. And I want to see them burn the books, because then a money-driven man has a reason to hate, and we get to see just what kinds of assholes the Feds really are.

Most of the essay you’re reading today was written directly after my rewatch, several years ago, and when I read through it, I realized I’d basically left out Mal, Zoe, and Kaylee. There is some reasoning behind this, which is basically that I adore Zoe and Kaylee and I had no notes for them. I loved them and I wish I saw more of them. Because the thing I’ve noticed about Joss Whedon is that while his shows aren’t always as feminist as we’d like (or as people think), the women in them are often spectacular.

Mal is a bit more of a cypher, in part because he’s such an easy target. He’s the straight white male lead. It’s like he’s got a bullseye painted on. But there’s a lot you can do with Mal; for one, I started out wishing he was played by someone of African descent, because African-Americans had a huge role in the colonization of the American West, a role that has been largely erased. They were cowboys, soldiers, settlers, and everything in between, in large numbers, and rarely are their voices heard or their faces seen in modern history of the era. So I say yes to Mal Reynolds, Black Space Cowboy. But you know who else was hugely present in the American west of the time?

CHINESE IMMIGRANTS.

This was the perfect, most beautiful opportunity to put at least one Chinese character into the show and to give Mal some real meat to wrestle with — a Chinese man who disagrees with a culture he came from, an outsider both to his own people and to the people he finds himself among. It also reduces the Invisible Chinese Hegemony by making the bad guys an oppressing class, rather than an oppressing race. (More on this later.)

I’m going to talk about Mal some more, but I’m going to do it in relation to Inara. There are so many clouds of fail around Inara, so let’s work through a few and see how they might be fixed.

I’m not going to give you a history of imperialism, orientalism, and the fetishism of the exotic, but Inara represents all of these things. Whedon has openly said that Inara represents “Eastern” religion and culture, in a contrast to Mal’s representation of Western culture. What this means, in the text, is that some of the oldest and most complex cultures on on Earth, cultures which are still generally misunderstood by Eurocentrists or fetishised in Western media, design, and sexuality as exotic, are bundled up together into the generic “East” and represented by a prostitute.

And before we get into the whole “Companions are respected!” thing, please. If a union card is all that apparently separates a Companion from a regular and/or illegal sex worker, and Mal (who seems very much a product of his environment, and thus indicates that environment) doesn’t respect a Companion and definitely doesn’t respect sex work in general, I find it hard to believe that Companions are more than barely socially legitimate. People might smile at Inara and find it acceptable for men and women to ask for her services, but behind their hands they whisper about the kind of person who chooses a life like that. Given that she represents a generic Eastern Cultural Ideal, and she engages in what is generally shown to be a dubious pastime on the screen and is a criminalized, stigmatized act in our culture today, fail. So right off the bat, you have to strip Inara of the weird Eastern Fetish thing that’s going on with her. You stop exoticising her. Comparing Eastern and Western cultures can be interesting, I guess, but when it’s coming from a Western position it is generally inappropriate at best.

But above and beyond that, there’s something amazing you can do with her: you can make her a man. I promise this is not as crazy or misogynist as it sounds, and at least this makes Mal’s stupid “I want you but I won’t chase you” thing much more interesting.

I’m not suggesting that making Inara a man legitimizes her position as a sex worker. I’m suggesting that we start by acknowledging the real lack of legitimacy she already has; if you make Companions visibly straddle an uncomfortable line, then you’re actually exploring cultural attitudes towards sex, instead of pretending to, and making your audience think about their own judgments in that regard. Why should, for example, the prostitutes from The Episode Of The Besieged Bordello be so cheerful? Sexual servitude might be a fun kink if you’re into that but it’s hardly a good way of life if it wasn’t freely chosen. I’m not intimately familiar with the history of sex work, but I’m pretty sure if women chose to become sex workers in any culture at any point in history, it was most frequently because the alternative was worse. Why not acknowledge that?

So you remove the veneer of legitimacy, which was never more than cosmetic in any case, and then you present Inara as something other than modern-day heteronormative. (I don’t count the one woman we see Inara with, because it’s a creepy lesbian porn gag.) Women are commonly exploited for sex on television; men very rarely. On the few occasions you do see a male prostitute on your tv screen, they’re usually being murdered in a forensic crime drama. If Inara is a male prostitute, he is no longer safe or familiar or acceptable-in-spite-of-his-job to the viewer.

Make Inara a man, and leave Mal’s attraction to him intact. Homosexuality is still obviously somewhat contested if not taboo in this culture of the future. The foundation of social unease that began with a delegitimized sex worker begins to extend to sexuality and the nature of attraction. Yes, it could be considered fanservicey, and yes, I realize Firefly aired at a time when queer sexuality was even less acceptable on network television than it is now. But wouldn’t it also be more interesting to have the designated lead character attracted to a man? That means that either we have to witness Mal repressing his wants, or we have to witness him working out what his attraction to Inara means to him in terms of identity.

I realise that this drops a woman from our cast, but I have a fix for that. I want to introduce a new character: The Professor.

I began formulating this character after the crew’s first encounter with the Reavers, and while the film demystified the Reavers that actually only increased the legitimacy of this character in my eyes. So in order to talk about the Professor, let’s talk about the Reavers.

The Reavers

I was never that put off or frightened by the Reavers. In part, I think, because they came too early and showed too sudden. They were great as a myth, as a silent ship floating in the darkness, as a story to scare children with…but super-aggressive bicycle messengers? For me, when we first saw a Reaver he ranked as slightly less scary than the Futurekind from Doctor Who a few years back. And they were not that scary.

I liked the idea of the Reavers as ghosts in vicious, impenetrable ships, encountered in person only late in the series, and rarely seen even then. I liked the idea of them leaving blood spatters and bodies so hideously disfigured that all we saw were the crew’s reactions. And then I had to fix that too, because I realized that in the “cowboys and indians” universe of Firefly, the Reavers are the Indians. And I had a real “what the hell?” moment.

I like the idea of the Reavers, the mythical madmen from the edge of the Black. But the links between the old stereotypical barbarian Western Injuns and the Reavers are there, which is racist and hugely disconcerting. If you are going to take an incredibly racist trope and insert it into a postmodern pastiche, you can’t just say they’re monsters created by a drug and then let the tiny white girl kill them all. That’s not good enough.

So I came up with the Professor.

She is a defrocked academic, an anthropologist who became interested in the mythology surrounding the Reavers. The Alliance naturally didn’t want anyone poking too deeply, so she was eventually dismissed from teaching. She is a genteel fugitive — the Feds want to find her, but she’s low on their hit list. She spends much of her time tracking down myths about the Reavers and trying to work out their social structure without ever having encountered them. (The Reavers have to have a social structure: there are too many things that don’t work if they don’t, as many arguments about Firefly down the years have proved.)

The Professor fears the Reavers, but is the only one who sees more than fear in them. She wants to know about their culture: How do they determine social rank? How do they build weapons? Flying a spaceship is complicated, and I don’t buy that mindless rage-filled cannibal rapists could do it if they didn’t have some sort of social structure. How do they raise children? How do they engage with one another?

Some of these questions, of course, are mooted by the discoveries made in the film, but others are raised by those discoveries. At least, if we have the Professor, someone in the crew is capable of feeling sorrow for the Reavers, who are also innocent victims of Pax. In earlier episodes, when we first see their handiwork, there’s the potential for a wonderful crisis of faith: oh God, this is what I’ve been pursuing? Am I able to follow it any further?

So I personally think that The Professor would be a great addition to the cast.

Fixing the Alliance

Having talked about the racism of the Reavers, let’s move on to talking about the racism of appropriating Chinese culture. You guys know how this goes; one of the most common statements about Firefly is: “For a universe where China is a dominant cultural influence, you sure don’t see many Chinese people.”

There is a reason for this: Joss Whedon isn’t interested in China, at least not in Firefly. Firefly isn’t about multi- or inter- culturalism, not about introducing Eurocentrists to Chinese culture — religion, food, language, customs, any of it. The Chinese presence in Firefly is about two things:

1. A unique design concept
2. Being able to swear without getting beeped out.

And probably more 2 than 1.

There is a long history of this in comic books and even in other science fiction television shows, notably Red Dwarf, which invented the dumbest swear word ever: smeg. It pops up in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, and in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I will give points to the show for not making up words that the actors would feel stupid saying. Using Chinese is a relatively aesthetic way to go about it. But it also takes some pretty intense cultural appropriation to get there.

The theory is that Chinese culture rose to dominance in the handwave between now and the future where the show is set. It’s a reasonable idea, given the population of China and its growing economic power. But the result, in Whedon’s universe, is a bunch of white people who say Chinese words, a dominant Chinese class that is never seen, and some decorative arts that may or may not have been thoroughly researched. The fact that there are no Chinese people in Firefly is pretty bad, but also irrelevant to the fact that the cast speaks Chinese, because they don’t speak Chinese in order to incorporate Chinese culture into the show. It’s about the swearing.

To  fix this, you can of course recast many of the characters both lead and supporting with Chinese actors, and write scenes where Chinese culture is more than light-some-incense-oh-wait-it’s-a-bomb-fuse. But, as I discussed in the section on Mal, you can also diffuse the idea of “Us versus the Chinese” by setting up the Alliance not as an ethnic hegemony but as an economic one.

It is totally possible and actually really interesting to predict a future where China became the global superpower. But even if that were to be the case, China is no more unified or homogenous than any other country, and exploring the idea that not every Chinese person is an invisible moneyed oligarch responsible for the current dystopia takes a lot of the racism out of the subtext of the show. If you show Chinese people being oppressed alongside other races, it becomes less us-against-China and more poor-against-rich, which gives you a wide swathe of material for actual, meaningful social commentary.

The Problem

This show would never get produced.

With a radical anti-Capitalist (or at least anti-rich) philosophy built into the universe, a Chinese lead who may or may not be queer, a pansexual male sex worker, a Pope with only a few thousand followers, and a firm, intellectual voice continually reminding viewers of the attempted genocide of America’s indigenous peoples, there is no way this show gets made ten years ago. There is no way this show gets made now.

But, twenty years ago, there is also no way my voice describing this particular show gets heard by thousands of people, either, and right now, at this moment in time, it does. We are moving towards a society that is more capable of suggesting these things on a broad band, making them legitimate and normal, making them acceptable and hopefully, one day, desirable. One of the reasons I work in self-publishing is that I could write a queer communist novel full of people of color, and I can put a cover on it and sell it to you, and nobody can stop me.

As fun as this exercise was, the actual rewrite isn’t the event; it’s collateral. Firefly is just the trimmings on the big, mind-blowing fact that if I do commit the act, I can share it with the world, and hopefully the word will get passed on and on.

Because the one thing I would never change about Firefly is that you can’t stop the signal.

Embarrassments of my Youth

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am

There is a popular saying which goes something like this: Once it’s on the internet, it’s on the internet forever. I happen to know this isn’t true; in 2008 my main online journal, Copperbadge on LiveJournal, was hacked and completely erased. Five years of journal entries and their comments were deleted. Using various caching services I managed to reconstruct about 80% of the journal posts, but some were gone forever, and most of the comments were as well.

One of the fortunate things I had done before this took place was to shift all of my fanfic, including fanfic that had been posted on my main journal, to a separate archive on a second LiveJournal account, Sam_Storyteller (this archive is now housed under the same name at Dreamwidth). So all my fanfic was preserved. I say this is fortunate, but in retrospect, I’m not entirely sure it was.

My archive houses work that began in 2003 and runs up to the current day; I just posted a story there last week, and will be posting a few more in the coming weeks. I’ve been adding these stories to my Archive Of Our Own account (I can be found at AO3 under the username Copperbadge), because it offers features like better tagging systems and the ability to download the stories as PDF files.

The problem I’m coming up against, now that I’ve added most of the stuff I’m really proud of, is what to do with the stuff that I’m…less than proud of. There are various reasons for not wanting to add certain stories. Some, by my standards now, are not very well written, though most hold up surprisingly well to the test of time. Some just don’t seem to be that entertaining. Some are so short I don’t feel I ought to bother.

And the question becomes, what do I do with these stories? I’m not especially sentimental about my work in the general sense; I’d be happy to remove them from all archives everywhere. On the other hand, it seems wrong to keep them on one archive and not on another. I know in the past I’ve gone looking for stories I really liked only to find the account deleted or the story locked, and I don’t want to deprive anyone of a story they like, even if I no longer think it’s very good. We all have different tastes, after all.

In a larger sense, there’s a question of completism, and of owning the work I did which was less, for whatever reason, than the work I do now. Is it correct to erase what I’m no longer fond of or proud of?

This is a question professionally published writers face, to be sure. Writers have tried to disown their work, or have publicly said they hated something quite popular with the reading public.  Sometimes a story comes out of a trauma or a situation that the writer would prefer to keep in the past, and the story haunts them with the memory. Sometimes they just don’t think it’s any good. Once in a while it’s a question of shifting ideology; Maurine Watkins, who wrote the play that inspired Chicago, later became a born-again Christian and spent years paying fees to prevent the production of the play because she felt guilty about making money from the stories of real-life murders. Anne Rice has never renounced any of her books, but questions about her views on her past work have arisen in the course of her public struggles with her faith.

My own dilemmas are less dramatic. I’m proud of my original work and I only put my name to work I feel is the best I could possibly do — which happily means that even if I find in later years it’s not very good, I know I was doing my best at the time. With fanfic, it’s different. Some stories I wrote just to entertain friends, or on stupid ideas that in retrospect don’t work as well as I thought they would.

I don’t really have an answer yet. For professionally published writers, the story is out there, and they can’t just pretend it isn’t. For me, I have to work out whether I want to continue to claim this work, or quietly tuck it away, or simply not move it over to the new archive, letting it languish in the convoluted navigational web of the current one.

How do you solve a problem like a Fall Out Boy/Heroes crossover? I’m still working on that one.