Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Over on the CBR mothership, Pam Auditore has a report on Finder writer/artist Carla Speed McNeil’s spotlight panel. McNeil talks about her move to Dark Horse, her long history of self-publishing, and a variety of other topics, but it was the following passage that struck me:
One fan was interested in how much “science” was in her science fiction, stating, “I guess I’m sort of interested in where the line between science and science fiction breaks with rules of science and reality.”
Laughing, McNeil answered, “Most of us don’t know the rules of science. Most of us are not actual scientists, I hate to burst the bubble.”
The young man persisted, responding, “But I know you’re breaking rules. We know people can’t fly. Do you say to yourself, ‘Well, I know that can’t happen in the real world, but I need it to happen to fit the story’? What do you do?”
In reply McNeil said, “Well, I generally follow the rule of cool – if something is exciting to you as a story element, it doesn’t matter if its about a person’s relationship or their job prospects. It’s not different. Whether or not a layered dome city, which is what I have in ‘Finder,’ is impractical [doesn’t matter]. It’s whether or not it seems like it makes for something cool in the story. Something that gives you an emotional aspect to the environment that people are living in. It took me a quite a long time to realize that super-heroes are not actually science fiction. From the time I was eeny-weeny, I thought they were, because they used ‘sciencey’ sort of terms. It wasn’t until I saw the first Spider-Man movie and having come back out having had a good time and never having liked Spider-Man to begin with, but I enjoyed it and it occurred to me, “It’s a personal fantasy narrative that’s been smacked on the head with a science stick till it sounds ‘sciencey,’ but in fact isn’t.
“Basically, almost all stories that are not hard SF have that core in them that you are taking, well one hopes, the emotional realities of a situation, and you’re sort of embroidering them with scientific fact,” McNeil continued.
If all that sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’ve come across this widely quoted, similarly themed passage from Batman Inc. writer Grant Morrison’s panel:
Of course, the floor soon opened up for a lengthy fan Q&A where the first question drew out “Grant Morrison: Fiction Theorist” as a young man asked how old characters like Bruce Wayne and the various Robins were supposed to be. “It doesn’t matter. You must understand these people aren’t real,” Morrison said to laughter. “Batman is a mythical figure. I’m being funny, but I’m not being funny. They don’t live in the real world. It’s like this theory I’ve been developing – you know what they always say about kids? That kids can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. And that’s actually bullshit. When a kid’s watching ‘The Little Mermaid,’ the kids knows that those crabs that are singing and talking aren’t really like the crabs on the beach that don’t talk. A kid really knows the difference.
“Then you’ve got an adult, and adults can not tell the difference between fantasy and reality. You bring them fantasy, and the first thing they say is ‘How did he get that way? Why does he dress like that? How did that happen?’ It’s not real. And beyond that, when you’re dealing with characters, they exist on paper. They’re real in that context. I always say they’re much more real than we are because they have much longer lives and more people know about them. But we get people reading superhero comics and going, ‘How does that power work? And why does Scott Summers shoot those beams? And what’s the size of that?’ It’s not real! There is no science. The science is the science of ‘Anything can happen in fiction and paper’ and we can do anything.
“We’ve already got the real world. Why would you want fiction to be like the real world? Fiction can do anything, so why do people always want to say, ‘Let’s ground this’ or ‘Let’s make this realistic.’ You can’t make it realistic because it’s not. So basically Batman is 75 years old, and Robin is 74 years old. They don’t grow old because they’re different from us. They’re paper people.”
If I had to pinpoint a personal pet peeve with contemporary “nerd culture,” it’s not the external infiltration by Hollywood, irksome as that can sometimes be, it’s the internal insistence that fantastical stories become as real and serious as possible. It’s a sort of aesthetic conservatism whereby a “scientific explanation” is deemed inherently superior to a mystical one, let alone to no explanation at all, and where even magic must have as many clear-cut rules as a professional team sport — nevermind the fact that most of the time, the science being invoked is pseudoscientific gobbledygook and the magic is losing all its mystery. Nanotechnology of the sort that would explain, say, the antagonist on a certain recent popular genre television program isn’t any more or less “realistic” than a magic glowing cave, you know what I mean? Or to put it another way, a D&D rules manual or a Marvel handbook or a DC encyclopedia are all means to the end of telling an entertaining story, not ends in themselves. When you get caught up in the cold mechanics of “how,” you lose the magic of “why.” Am I way off base here?