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August 29 2006

Jane Espenson's reaction to Serenity's Hugo. Former Buffy writer mentions her delight at Serenity's Hugo. And for the writers (like me!) there is mention of a brand new "drive" for stories!

I'm going to have to think about that for a while.
This is why she gets to sit in the writers' room - she is so perceptive. I couldn't put my finger on my feelings about Doctor Who (season 1, can't speak to season 2 yet) until I read this. It is story-driven. I enjoyed it the first time around but I am sorry I bought the DVD set because I have no desire to watch the episodes over and over. I know the story - and that's really all there is to see.

Meanwhile, idea-driven shows will grab me if and only if I find the idea interesting. But if I get intrigued, obsession begins!

And appropos of nothing, how hilarious that thinks we all want Hugo Boss perfume now.
They should sell Hugo Joss perfume.
jaynelovesvera: I'd buy it :-)
I like that Espenson cherished the meatball sub she had for lunch.
That was a very insightful post from Jane. A third definition does in fact make sense.
I bet there are fourth and fifth ways of looking at these scripts, too. If only I could think of them....

Going back, I think I realize that my favorite scripts are the ones that have all three. For example, "Out of Gas."

1. Plot driven cuz the ship is running out of air and everyone is about to die
2. Character driven when Mal realizes how much his ship and crew mean to him and, more importantly, how much he means to them.
3. Idea driven in showing how our past effects our present.

Good stuff!
Togos closed down in my neighborhood, and now there are no good sandwiches readily available. Jane is more fortunate than many.

I'm still kind of foundering on the "idea-driven" thing, though your comments may help, gingeriffic, if I'm going to eventually get it.
maybe it feels artificial to them, like a little puppet show

Is she knocking Smile Time? The nerve. Hey, that's the perfect name for the protagonist of the comic I haven't written yet because I couldn't come up with a name for the edgy hero. Thanks, Jane!
The third drive, as Jane puts it, is IMHO what is behind the entire genre of speculative fiction (generally encompassing sci-fi, fantasy, and horror) While not everything in the genre would fall under that "drive", and there are plenty of things outside that do, it is the entire concept of "how would _______ be different/the same if people/the world/etc were like ________" that for me really makes speculative fiction stand out.

Some people (myself and I would suspect many others here) enjoy seeing an old idea from a completely different perspective, while many (lazy?) people prefer reading or watching things that remain reasonably within the realm of their own experience. I think what really makes the genre stand out is that in many cases, you are required to think. For the story to really make sense, you have to remember and understand the new rules of the world. Very generally, the fewer rules/the closer to our reality a work is, the more acceptable it seems to be by the mainstream public, because there is less effort required to understand or enjoy it.

Or that's my theory, anyway. What were we talking about again?
I first fell in love with Firefly when 'Jaynestown' aired, because the metaphor was clear and interesting (and very funny), so I think I am definitely one of the people who looks for the idea driven stories (although I do want it all). I loved the movie 'Serenity' because it managed to have an exciting story, and allowed the characters to have a real arc, while still having a satirical commentary on our world today. Why settle for less?
I think by idea-driven she means episodes like "Hush", "The Wish", "Once More, With Feeling", "The Body", "Restless" or "Smile Time". However I think the definitions can often become tricky because, as with the blurring of genres within a lot of TV shows and films, particularly those Joss related, you can't always classify every episode so neatly.

"Hush" obviously began as a very "idea-driven" concept- what would happen if everyone in Sunnydale lost their voices? But in investigating this idea, Joss was able to expertly explore the characters and their interactions, much in the same way that OMWF evolved from being a mere musical episode (again beginning as an idea) into a brilliantly realised exploration of our characters and also developing several important story strands.

Generally I think the focus on Buffy and Angel was fairly well balanced between story and character, often with the plots serving to further develop each character. Sometimes an episode would focus very much on one style- comedy like "Triangle" or horror in "Hellbound", but often work towards several aims and managed to make us laugh even when we should be crying.

I think that an idea-driven story on it's own can sometimes work, as you admire the creation and realisation of a great idea, but often you need to be able to connect with the characters involved emotionally or become gripped by a story otherwise the idea itself can leave you empty. It's smart, but unengaging. The great thing about Joss is that he can start off with an idea- a dream episode, or a musical, or a trip into an alternate reality, and make it meaningful by making it part of the ongoing saga and by affecting the characters involved, which means that it succeeds both as a concept and as part of a series.
On the incisive Ms. E's point regarding idea-driven stories as fables with morals, Webster's defines fable as "a narration intended to enforce a useful truth," and gives as synonyms: Falsehood, Lie.

Which suggests further grounds for viewer rebellion/rejection.
TV and movies are pretty good for character-driven works. Actors already have a resemblance of a human beings and they only need to emote a bit, and voilá, you have a character. With writing you need lots of text and difficult descriptions to make the same effect.

With ideas it is opposite: what you can just tell in writing must be shown, especially with television, where everything must be forced to the world of middle-sized physical objects -- if possible everyday middle-sized objects (they're cheaper). Buffy's monsters-as-metaphors found a funny way of doing this, but usually the effect seems forced. Tv scifi is so full of one-idea planets, where some idea is forced to be a locale or persons or problem to solve. Buffy avoided this by every conveyor of an idea having very human agendas and traits self-reflecting and messing up the metaphor. Think about The Mayor, for example.
I like that Espenson cherished the meatball sub she had for lunch.

I like that also. Her comment is revealing of her character. I can't imagine Jane in some H'wood mogul stereotype, yelling at the delivery boy (person) over a mixed-up order. On the contrary, she'd take a moment to thank him for his efforts and make sure he knows the sandwich will be appreciated. What a sweetheart! She must have learned some healthy ways to deal with stress.
Well, i'm not sure that's quite it Razor. I think she means more abstract ideas than 'what if Buffy was invisible ?' or 'what if Xander was split in two ?' since 'what if' is pretty much the basis of all fiction though idea-driven fiction can start at those points. E.g. the invisible Buffy episode raised questions about identity, inherent natures and accountability that were also touched on in Wells' 'The Invisible Man' and even 'Hollow Man' before that devolved into a standard stalk and slash picture.

As mentioned above by Lady Brick pretty much all spec-fic is idea based though i'd say usually the more abstract metaphysical ideas are approached more often by science-fiction rather than fantasy. There are brilliant exceptions (e.g. Jorge Luis Borges and i'm sure others) but guys like Greg Egan, Ted Chiang, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov etc. have been talking about the 'big ideas' for donkey's years in sci-fi (though a common and often justified complaint has been that they haven't created compelling characters, being too caught up in examining the idea, I think that's not as true in the more modern idea-fiction).

The best of them make you care about the idea by first making you care about the characters involved but ultimately the idea is the focus. In Buffy I think the idea/metaphor was important but not as important as how the characters related to it and to each other (Angel maybe spent more time asking abstract questions but still not a huge amount). Joss uses ideas to get us to think about people, authors like Egan use people to get us to think about ideas.

(a couple of days ago Jane talked in her blog about meeting Melinda Snodgrass at WorldCon who wrote the classic Star Trek:TNG episode 'The Measure of a Man' an excellent example of what she, IMO, means by idea-driven fiction since it takes the plot-point of Data's sentience being questioned and uses it to ask 'What is sentience anyway ?' and 'Why do sentient beings still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea ?'. Only not the watch thing ;)

Personally, I love both kinds of fiction but if I had to choose just one i'd go with the idea driven stuff (so long as it also has well drawn characters and it was from now on so I could keep Buffy should the show fall on the wrong side of the totally arbitrary line of demarcation ;). Nothing quite matches the sense of wonder evoked by a truly mind-bending new perspective on the world and i've felt that way since I was a wee lad, nose stuck in the pages of an Asimov or Fred Pohl or Poul Anderson book (or even Arthur Clarke, dry as I might find his stuff now).

(wow, seems like Joss' Hugo acceptance speech has stirred a few decades old dormant neurons to life. Poul Anderson ? ;)
Saje, I used to have Winter of the World; interesting book. Oh, and I also used to have Brain Wave (come to think of it, I also used to have lowercase brain waves).

It just occured to me: if Poul Anderson had married Frederick Pohl, He'd be Poul Pohl. They could name the kids North and South. On that low note, I'm outta here.
He'd be Poul Pohl. They could name the kids North and South.

Is that a Pohl-ish joke? *ducks and leaves fast* ;-)
Funny buggers the pair of you ;-)

(the post wedding boogie might be called a 'Pohl dance'. Ahem ;)

The only books of Anderson's I can remember much of are 'Tau Zero' (pretty good) and 'The Star Fox' (not his best). Might have to search some of his stuff out and remind myself. I re-read 'Man Plus' by Fred Pohl a few years back though and it actually held up pretty well.
If Poul and Pohl went skiing alone, how many poles would there be? Answer: six.
Saje said: "As mentioned above by Lady Brick pretty much all spec-fic is idea based though i'd say usually the more abstract metaphysical ideas are approached more often by science-fiction rather than fantasy."

I would agree with that... I took two very interesting sci-fi lit classes while in school, and I don't remember any similar fantasy classes being offered (though they may have been.) I managed to dig up the course description from the grad class:

"Science Fiction: The Colonizing Impulse in Science Fiction

Unlike other genres Science Fiction allows for the explicit exploration and representation of important social and cultural ideas. An informing theme of much Science Fiction is that of contact between mutually incomprehensible beings (BEMs to galactic empires to "gods and goddesses"). It might be said that the basis for this quintessentially American genre is found in the myths and colonial past of the U.S.A. Of course, the strategies and social conditions of colonialism can also be read metaphorically, and we will do so. We will study Science Fiction in which the settling of a world and interactions between "alien" societies is portrayed against an extrapolated backdrop."

That was also the class where I learned the term "speculative fiction," after we spent over an hour trying to define the difference between sci-fi and fantasy. Good times.
I'm glad Jane shows some Ray Bradbury love. Stories like Downwind from Gettysburg, Uncle Einar, The Small Assassin and so many more are so perfect they're beyond description. It's a shame no one, IMO, has ever successfully brought any of his stories to life on the screen. Truffaut had a near miss, but most other adaptations have been abysmal.
Doris Lessing, no slouch in the world of ideas, wrote this:

"Space or science fiction has become a dialect for our time."

and this:

"In the last 20 years, we have gone to the moon; we have looked back and seen this earth as a kind of soap bubble; we send voyages out to the edge of our solar system; our scientists talk of solar and lunar influences on us, and we're beginning to think in terms of influences from other galaxies. Every schoolchild thinks in terms of millions of years of human evolution. This is how we now think, so this is how as a writer I am now writing. I find it strange that other people think it strange, since this is now our world." -- Doris Lessing in "Doris Lessing on Feminism, Communism and 'Space Fiction' " by Lesley Hazelton, NYTimes, July 25, 1982

I'm not sure about "every schoolchild," but that's a subject for another day. What I like is that an author previously (prior to her Canopus stuff, etc.) considered "serious" or "literary" took up scifi fiction, the red-headed stepchild of the literary world, in her search for a broader canvas on which to paint her stories, ideas, and ideas-of-stories.

For me, any kind of book/tv/film, etc. fiction production rings my bell when it delivers on all three aspects: character, story/plot and overarching concept. (Almost all of Joss's stuff did that for me.)

For folks that love scifi or spec lit or this rose by whatever name, enjoy these resources: The Internet Speculative Fiction Database and Locus Online.

(For more on Doris Lessing, go to this site.)
Ursula K. LeGuin took the ultimate "what if" idea aand made it live through character in the Left Hand of Darkness. It wouldn't have worked if you hadn't been drawn in by the characters even though you can argue whether it is about gender or, as LeGuin has said, a novel about betrayal.
But then, I guess you have all 3 strands, don't you. The idea of gender, the strong characterization and the plot of betrayal.
Oooh, lookit what I found -- sci-fi related and some words on nerds:

"TIME: Let's talk about your respective fan bases. A lot of them self-identify as kind of on the geeky side...

JOSS: Especially, I think, living in any fantasy or science fiction world means really understanding what you're seeing and reading really densely on a level that a lot of people don't bother to read. So yes, I think it's kind of the same thing.

But I also think there's a bit of misconception with that. Everybody who labels themselves a nerd isn't some giant person locked in a cubbyhole who's never seen the opposite sex. Especially with the way the Internet is now, I think that definition is getting a little more diffuse." -- Joss Whedon, "Interview: Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon" with Lev Grossman,, Sept. 25, 2005

Science Fiction: The Colonizing Impulse in Science Fiction

That sounds like a pretty interesting course Lady Brick though i'm not 100 % convinced about sci-fi being 'quintessentially American'. I agree that it's very much about frontiers (of which America has one of the more recent examples) and expansionism which on Earth has often meant a clash of cultures (again paralleling the US experience) and i'd probably say that modern science fiction has been largely framed by US authors for that reason (recency, I mean) but I also feel it's very much universal (everywhere on the planet has been colonised or invaded at one time or another). It's related to curiosity and the exploratory instinct I reckon and that's just a human thing (e.g. one of my favourite examples, 'War of the Worlds', is also about imperialism but British imperialism, trying to give Victorian Britons an idea of what it must be like to be on the other end of a colonising power).

And as we've been discussing, the best stuff asks the big questions which aren't (obviously ;) unique to the American experience (though the temporally condensed nature of the American expansion along with the key elements, frontiers and culture-clashes, do, IMO, make the mindset well suited to sci-fi since, rather than being distant history, all these things are basically still going on in the US e.g. there's still a large wilderness, still cultures that remember clashing in the form of native American populations, African-Americans etc.).
Yeah Saje, I agree with you about the course description, especially since we did primarily discuss BRITISH expansionism. I think it was just a quickie e-mail sent by the prof, since most of his writing was better than that.

Amusingly enough, we didn't read War Of The Worlds in THAT class, but we did in my undergrad class, which focused on alien life forms.
Everybody who labels themselves a nerd isn't some giant person locked in a cubbyhole who's never seen the opposite sex.

I'm worried now. I am a giant person, typing in a cubicle at work, where there are 4x as many men as women. Help, I'm a stereotype!
Well, I this JE has hit a point there, but I don't know if it clears up everything though. I met these "Uh-oh, I don't like SF, go away" -people, (in fact my boyfriend's one) and the evident dichotomy between the very vocal declaration of dislike without reasons given and the actual having no dislike of the genre if put to the test with a specific example (I.e. Serenity :)), still continues to puzzle me.

The explanation of being ideas-driven as a third category is quite ingenious, and is certainly the reason why I personally was always drawn towards SF & Fantasy. And there we have my bone of contention with JE's theory: SF hardly has a patent on being ideas-driven, nor do we call a story SF because it is.

I don't really want to bring Shakespeare into it because I'm not an expert, but is "The Tempest" idea-driven or what? You can go even back further, what about Aesop's fables? Any allegory or fairy tale or folk tale would fit the bill in fact.

Science Fiction as a term has a very certain meaning: A story (the "fiction" part) set in a probable extrapolation (the "science" part) of the "Now". If the extrapolation is improbable we call it fantasy. To what end the story is used is up to the writer. And the origins of the SF genre were certainly mostly ideas-driven. But that is no longer the case.

So where does the unfounded "I hate all SF"-sentiment come from?
It seems as if it also has to do with a certain world view or philosophy. As far as I've been able to observe a general dislike of all things science helps, but mostly it is an aversion to being thrown into cold water without knowing if you're able to swim.


OK, I'll explain what I mean by that. All SF, books as well as movies, have the problem to do an exposition of their respective world(s) without boring or confusing the reader, and still let the protagonists of the story take it all for granted. Now some people like puzzling it out and delight in discovering little things about this new world (or new extrapolation of the now), and if the writer does his job well, the story doesn't suffer from it, but gets enhanced instead. If it is done very well, you get to see some of todays problems/joys in a new light.

Other people just don't see the point of entering a new world, having to learn a new "language", and especially not having to go through all of this to get told something they didn't want to know in the first place (like: the world is overpopulated or: tolerance is necessary).

just my 2 cents.

Oh, but what JE said about tailoring your spec to the category of the show holds of course regardless of the SF debate.

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