Robot 6

SDCC ’10 | Carla Speed McNeil & Grant Morrison agree – let fiction be fictional

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:

from Carla Speed McNeil's Finder

from Carla Speed McNeil's Finder

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?

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29 Comments

No.

I think it depends.

I think that a writer has a duty to maintain a sort of scientific exactness WITHIN THE RULES OF THEIR OWN STORY (this part is important). If the creator sets up a series of rules that something should abide, then you should be able to rely on them for the purposes of speculation, etc., unless the author was deliberately misleading you.

I don’t really care about scientific exactness, but logical inconsistency bugs the hell out of me. Take Identity Crisis, for example – it was set in the “real world” and failed on that level, not because it was incorporating tons of deus ex machinae from the DC Universe but because it didn’t hold up as an atomic narrative.

I don’t demand that people do scientific research, but if they make up their own gobbledygook scientific rules and explanations, I think they should be held to them.

I strongly agree with Morrison and MacNeill; a mark of an amateur sci-fi writer is when they get so caught up in the world-building and having everything make sense that they forget to tell a compelling dramatic story.

That’s a major pet peeve of mine as well with the nerdier side of fandom. It’s like people are determined to take all the fun out of it. The only area in which I appreciate some level of “realism” (this is such a loaded word and I’m using it in the most generic/least theoretical way possible here) is when it comes to characterization. It’s nice for the emotional and psychological responses of characters to at least feel natural. But otherwise, I don’t care at all. I just want good stories.

You’re on-target. I’ve said this before: Super-hero stories are not about rules. They’re about flying.

Simon DelMonte

July 27, 2010 at 2:20 pm

I am confused, Mark. I thought they were about running real fast.

Mark Kardwell

July 27, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Jeepers, I just agreed with Sean T Collins.

Yes, Mark, they are about flying. BUT HOW! How do they fly? What are the mechanics of it? How can I replicate it? I want to fly! Why can’t I fly? Oh, wait. I can. In a plane…or better yet, I’ll write it.

I don’t think you’re off base at all.

I am curious as to this television show you mention, though.

I wanted to add something, but Uzumeri summed it up perfectly.
It’s fine to make up fantastical elements as long as there is a degree of consistency to rules one has set up and intellectual honesty.

And what if the only rule is “There are no rules”?

I kid, I kid. But only a little.

Wonder how much of this is an outgrowth of fantasy RPGs having dominated an awful lot of geek culture for the last however many years, where rules limit game interactions and keep them manageable. But games *are* *not* *fiction* and they have different needs and limitations. But they’ve bled over anyways.

And yes, I too suffer from the world-building virus, and if you let it, it will cripple your stories. Goodness knows I have.

I’m guessing no one here went to the “Abusing the Science of Science-Fiction” panel on Thursday?

There are two issues here: maintaining a consistent world, and explaining the mechanics.

Explaining the mechanics, unless that’s the whole point of the story, is rarely helpful beyond letting the audience know what to expect. They don’t need to know how Avatars work, only how they respond to the pilots and what happens to the pilots when they’re linked. Similarly, they don’t need to know how Captain America’s shield works, just what Cap can do with it.

Other than that, though, if you’re telling a *science-fiction* story, it might be worth doing some scientific research, just like if you’re writing a police procedural, you should research police procedures, or if you’re writing about sailing, you should research sailing, or if you’re going to set a Christmas story in a real-world city, you should check the city’s climate history so that you don’t have it snowing in Los Angeles.

I don’t like it when artists draw detailed treads on the bottom of superhero boots.

I’m not an absolutist, especially when it comes to fiction. You don’t have to have a scientific explanation for blatant fantasy concepts if you don’t want to, but by the same token… If you want that stuff, that’s okay, too. There’s room, and an audience, for both.

“it’s the internal insistence that fantastical stories become as real and serious as possible.”

Freakin BINGO. Comic fans are terrible.

From the fan’s point of view, I understand the desire for consistency and the pleasures of continuity, but if those things prevent you from enjoying good writing/art you have put the cart before the horse. Somewhere in the Book of Luke a disciple asks Jesus whether Barbara Gordon’s term as a Congresswoman is still in continuity and Jesus replies “The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Amen.

Sean, if I could get you right now, I’d be hugging you for this post.

What about the writer’s doody?

I’m not sure that I understand what you’re saying, so I apologize if I’ve misunderstood completely. But– some people like fantasy that involves careful, thought-out world-building. That first person seemed to be one of those people, who just unfortunately picked a property which didn’t reward their particular enthusiasm. But… I don’t know– as long as I’ve been nerdy, I’ve heard fans go on and on about how carefully Tolkien constructed Middle Earth, inventing languages, etc. None of that means anything to me because I don’t like that story, didn’t like the movies. But there’s a certain type of person who gets off on, you know, the fact they can believe in that world as a fictional space with its own internal logic. If it helps them with their escape from reality, you know, super..?

Or I know with Watchmen, one of the things that I re-read that book for, is the extrapolation of it– so many details are so particular, like the electric cars. I like that the details in that book are really not arbitrary– I think extrapolation was one of the book’s greatest and most ignored innovations. I don’t think I’m wrong to like that about the book. “How come there are pirate comics” has its own magic with respect that book, that focusing solely on the why’s of character and behavior doesn’t provide.

I liked the LOST finale. I like King City. I have my own peculiar set of preferences, and I imagine other people have theirs. Some people prefer Kim Stanley Robinson, you know, those books where he thinks out how people can go live on Mars someday or whatever. Some people LOVE those Marvel Handbooks– why are they wrong?

If you’re saying there’s some larger preference in geek culture that deserve’s condemnation– well, that’s true; there’s certainly a preference for the faux-serious that’s dull and sad. Superhero comics cloaked in contemporary politics, or whatever (unless you don’t like the political message, at which point all that’s the letterer’s fault). I can’t disagree with that. But I guess I just don’t know how that applies to these two particular examples as both seem like fairly reasonable questions to expect to hear at a comic book convention to me. (Well, it’d be nice if people could really spend 5 minutes and try to think of half-way decent questions for Grant Morrison, but… you know: if wishes were fishes, or whatever expression…)

You know: I never stopped reading a good comic to go “That wouldn’t work”– and I’ve read plenty of things that wouldn’t work in good comics. If people are complaining about things that don’t work– there’s probably more wrong than the science. Anyways, I think partly comic creators themselves are to blame– if they market and sell their comics as taking place in a coherent universe, and find ways to compel people to buy crossovers, and spin-offs, and one-shot promotional doo-whats, well… then hell, that should be a pretty damn coherent universe to justify it.

I’m just gonna argue semantics for a tiny bit, but I’d disagree with McNiel that Spider-Man is fantasy. A lot of Marvel’s universe of super heroes is set in a universe of “soft science-fiction.” Which most science-fiction is. They use scientific-y terms like “radiation” and “mutation” and “light speed” only as props to support the “soft sciences,” the social sciences.
But yeah, other than that minor quibble, I really liked the piece. I won’t name any names, but the first person I thought of when I read this post is an occasional commenter on this blog that often complains about the use of magic in Marvel and how Bendis doesn’t know how the rules of possession work in the MU and the first thing I thought was “WHAT RULES?!” I didn’t realize that there was a defined set of rules, but apparently, according to this guy, there is. He didn’t say what the rules were, just that Bendis broke them. And I’ve seen him go after other instances of magic use in the MU.
And it’s funny that I call this guy out on it, because I remember Bendis mentioning a year or so back about how he wants to clearly define the rules of magic in the MU too. And I can understand the reasoning behind wanting to do that when you have such a large fictional and sometimes contradictory universe, but really, I think it’s best to leave it alone. Let each story define itself. If a character can accomplish one thing with magic in a story, but can’t accomplish that same thing with magic in another series by a different writer, and both are good because of or despite both, then who cares?

Abhay: I don’t think anyone is saying it’s wrong to want a detailed, consistent, even explained universe, just that not all stories are about that. McNeil and Morrison’s comments certainly apply, IMO, to their work in particular, but of course become problematic when applied to fantastic fiction in general. There are many “right” ways to do this stuff.

Superheroes are, in the vast majority of cases, created to be ongoing, perpetual protagonists. They aren’t designed to grow, change, or end. They only change as a function of increasing sales, not as a function of good storytelling, as in novels. I’m not saying that’s inherently good or bad, it’s just the nature of the genre. If I’m reading hard SF, of course I expect the science to be sound, but if I’m reading Adam Strange, I don’t. Most of the time we implicitly understand this and adjust our expectations. But sometimes we don’t, and I’m not sure why.

I suspect that most fans, even the ones who point out the unrealistic passage of time, don’t actually want all Batman comics to adhere to a reality in which Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are either dead or in their 80s and 90s (along with most of the favorite villains). Nor do we want Star Wars stories without lightsabers, despite how unrealistic they are. Nor, for the most part, do we want cop shows, or doctor or lawyer shows, to reflect the reality of those occupations; instead we want highly dramatized versions. In that sense I think Morrison is entirely correct in saying that many of these details don’t matter for the genre in question.

And I agree with you 100% on the problem of creators/publishers advertising their work as super-connected, one-big-story and all that, then not following through. Especially in a system where people are pre-ordering, committing to buy something before they see it, truthful advertising is very important to maintaining trust between buyer and seller.

>If you’re saying there’s some larger preference in geek culture that deserves condemnation– well, that’s true; there’s certainly a preference for the faux-serious that’s dull and sad. Superhero comics cloaked in contemporary politics, or whatever <

Also, amen to this.

Joe H: Wasn’t a plot point of disassembled how we, the reader, should have understood that the Scarlet Witch had always been using her mutant powers because her actions broke the rules of chaos magic or something like that? It’s been a while, but I remember thinking at the time that having rules for how chaos worked was a flawed premise.

Steven R. Stahl

July 28, 2010 at 9:30 am

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?

Yes, you are. As people have been noting, internal consistency — internal logic — is vital to a story. If a character’s power has certain effects and specific limits imposed on it, the power should work on page 110 as it did on page 10, or in issue #110 as it did in issue #10.

Going from the real world to a fantasy world doesn’t mean that since it’s a fantasy world, anything can happen at any time. The world differs from the real world in specific ways; the important ways are described to the reader.

Have people already forgotten Straczynski’s comments re “One More Day” and Fantasy 101?

Hard SF isn’t limited to scientific fact. A story starts with a premise connected to scientific fact and then extrapolates systematically. Niven’s Ringworld doesn’t exist and probably never will, but people can figure out what materials would be required to build it.

Studies have indicated that a minority of the population is scientifically literate. Being scientifically illiterate doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t think logically or doesn’t value logic, but if he wants to write fantasy stories and is scientifically illiterate, he’ll tend to have the attitude that science isn’t important in a fantasy story.

It’s common to scorn a fantasy or sci-fi movie as being all special effects, without a real story. A person might enjoy the special effects while they’re on the screen and forget about the movie a minute after leaving the multiplex, or leave before the movie finishes. In either case, the special effects don’t compensate for the lack of story substance. Comics writers shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that a story’s artwork makes internal logic and limits unnecessary.

SRS

Detail isn’t the same as over-explaining, or showing of your D&D module writing skills, or making lapses in the marvel Universe handbook the basis for a four-issue mini-series (okay, exaggerating on the last point). Moore doesn’t spend time explaining how the electric cars work in Watchmen. His world is intricate and detailed and believable, it isn’t picked apart and dissected in lieu of telling the story.

Also — Internal logic and consistency are not tossed out of the window just because you don’t want to explain the electric cars, or pinpoint how many tons Ben Grimm can lift, or what have you. It’s not an either-or.

Sometimes it’s fascinating to be fed a lot of background information, sometimes it’s necessary, such as in a hard SF bit or a mystery. Too often its just a lot of information, or someone showing off their research. Personally, I never wanted to know how much character x could lift, or their exact height, or yadda yadda yadda. I think those kinds of exact details have hindered superhero comics, as has the need for “realism” in a genre where “realism” just doesn’t work and only leads to opened cans of worms and painters trapped within corners.

When I played D&D, my friends and I tossed some cumbersome rules out to let the game progress and not get bogged down in details that dragged play. I think the better writers, in general, lay the groundwork for their worlds and settings as things happen, and don’t hit you over the head with their notebook material. Lord of the Rings is a long book, like it or not, Tolkien has a lot of space to set things up. So many young writers toss maps and atlases and world histories at you as if you care about their characters and lands as much as they do. You have to earn that care, and explore the world with those characters.

Generally speaking.

In my opinion.

May wants to hug Collins. Me? I want to hug Dorkin.

Steven R. Stahl

July 29, 2010 at 1:04 am

Also — Internal logic and consistency are not tossed out of the window just because you don’t want to explain the electric cars, or pinpoint how many tons Ben Grimm can lift, or what have you. It’s not an either-or.

That’s a straw man argument. Criticism of stories isn’t based on minor details like a hero’s numeric strength level, unless a supposedly climactic moment misrepresents the nature of his power.

What makes fans upset or angry are such things as retcons that conflict with past stories in specific or general ways. Bendis’s Illuminati, for example — the group suited his preferences for writing about conspiracies and paranoia, but it would have never existed in the ’70s, when the heroes had secret identities, and Dr. Strange would never have considered joining it. The Illuminati is an example of false realism.

CHILDREN’S CRUSADE is an example of a retcon of a retcon that’s a fiasco as a storyline because Heinberg failed to notice the flaws in the premise and plot of the first retcon, then produced a retcon with its own flaws. Meanwhile, the original storyline that produced the children, which didn’t have flaws, is sitting there ignored by practically everyone because readers can’t deal with the idea that a flawed premise ruins the entire storyline.

M-Day is an example of material that shouldn’t be handled by people who don’t know anything about genetics, because treatments of genes are inherently scientific. Any geneticist would have told Marvel Editorial that the premise of M-Day was farcical because the existing X-genes could easily be sequenced and copied, even produced in mass quantities if desired. Scientifically illiterate writers (and editors) shouldn’t assume that their readers are illiterate as well.

The people most unwilling to consider internal consistency important are likely those who lack the ability to write an internally consistent fantasy.

SRS

Are you seeing and calling my supposed straw man argument with general statements? Because your last sentence is some pretty smug stuff, there, with the “likely” qualifier barely keeping it out of blowhard territory. Kind of like, if I said, people who get “angry and upset” over their comic books are likely idiots. See? Isn’t that annoying?

Either way, I can’t argue this stuff with you if you’re gonna get Marvel Encyclopedia on me. I haven’t read those comics, and I’m not saying that makes me a better person than anyone else. I have no idea what The Children’s Crusade storyline is, or who is on the Avengers team. Those comics stopped working for me about two decades ago, even though I was a severe fanboy for the capes and cowls. Enough bad service and I stop going to the restaurant, no matter how long I went there while it was fun.

Sort of like this discussion.

“I think that a writer has a duty to maintain a sort of scientific exactness WITHIN THE RULES OF THEIR OWN STORY (this part is important).”

Yes, David, yes. From 0 to 100, whatever works. All that matters, in the end, is the story itself.

Look at Moby Dick. Now look at me. Look at Moby Dick. Now look at Jaws.

Both work.

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