The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

My God, Steven Universe is Full of Stars!: SU and Golden Age Sci Fi

The most recent Stevenbomb introduces five episodes of golden age pulp sci fi adventure... but what does the recontextualization of old narrative techniques in this new interconnected narrative form say about golden age sci fi, about Steven Universe's quest for the truth, and... about the fandom's understanding of the show?









Imagine, if you will, a boy plagued by strange visions of an alien craft crashed and derelict on Earth. Imagine that this boy, despite dire warnings about the results of his quest for the truth, convinces his father to take him to find the place where an alien life was destroyed!... only to find that his visions emanated from a living alien, come to mourn her fallen comrade... and to mourn the oncoming retaliatory destruction of Earth! Discovering the boy's father, she decides to comfort herself... by preserving him as a specimen!

Or...

Imagine, if you will, a human rocketing through the depths of space... with a group of aliens! When the human accidentally activates the ship's gravity engine, it seems to destroy all his alien companions, much to his profound horror! They miraculously are reconstituted when the ship stops, however, and they reveal that their bodies are made of light and simply were disrupted by the ship's faster-than-light travel!

Or...

Imagine...

A Human Zoo!!

A Zoo... For Humans!! Not for animals but for human beings, for the entertainment... OF EXTRATERRESTRIALS!!

Imagine two new arrivals to this... Insidious Human Zoo!!... discover that to escape they must introduce their fellow captives to the concept of pain for the first time... the pain of romantic rejection!

Now imagine... that these plotlines come not from EC's weird science fiction comics or The Twilight Zone but from contemporary children's cartoon Steven Universe!!

IMAGINE IT!!

Yes, the recent (or uh upcoming I guess) so called "Steven Bomb"--a collection of episodes released all at once that usually, if Cartoon Network is doing its job properly, tend to be narratively or thematically connected--fits really interestingly within a particular long-established kind of science fiction storytelling. What's more, we can draw out some really interesting stuff from this Steven Bomb by looking at this context. This should be a familiar kind of game, if you're a longtime reader: I did this previously with Steven Universe, Meep Morp, and early 20th century art, for example. Here, I want to consider literary tropes and techniques common to what I'll sort of casually call golden age sci fi.

(I'm not going to really rigorously define this term because the strict delineation of speculative fiction's developmental history isn't something I have a huge amount of experience with and don't think is that terribly important to this analysis.)

What I'm really interested in here is science fiction that's highly driven by concepts, sci fi that takes a particular (typically technological) scenario and plays it out, sometimes with a twist that manipulates (seemingly) established rules to surprise the audience. One of the examples that comes most readily to mind is The Twilight Zone, a show that isn't necessarily always science fiction but that has examples of the kinds of narrative techniques I'm interested in here. Another might be pulp science fiction of the 50s in movies and comics, which might be seen related to the Twilight Zone but with even less interest in the plausible or in multiple sort of interpretive levels.

These sorts of connections are actually signaled at the start of this set of five episodes: the story begins with Steven and his father Greg watching a black and white alien abduction movie, which foreshadows Greg's own alien abduction which will drive the five-episode arc. From there the episode proceeds much like a classic twist ending sci fi story:

The narrative is launched when Steven starts having visions of the ruined palanquin of Pink Diamond, the Homeworld ruler who his mother, Rose Quartz, overthrew and killed in the process of liberating Earth from Gem control. Meanwhile Garnet, who has an ability to see potential futures, warns him off going, but also states that nothing she says can avert what's coming (which is pretty reminiscent of Frank Herbert's Dune, actually, while we're on the subject of classic sci fi). He convinces his dad to take him to see the palanquin instead, which leads to Blue Diamond's discovery of Greg and her decision to whisk him away to the Insidious Human Zoo, saving him as a reminder of Pink Diamond, who she still mourns.

Now, there's a lot of ideas sort of piled on top of each other here. The heavy reliance on ideas, though typically not this many at once, is a staple of this sort of storytelling, and this is a narrative that follows a relatively straightforward arc driven largely by the conceptual: character gets a prophecy, tries to understand the prophecy, and in the process causes the dark future timeline to take place. This is a solid kind of pulp sci fi structure, adopted from Greek tragedy, and it fits well with both the alien abduction nod at the beginning and the overall pulp feel of phrases like "Pink Diamond's Insidious Human Zoo." While the individual characters impact the action here, it's also a plot that can work with stock characters as a manipulation purely of the notions of set up and surprising reversal.

This operation of the narrative on the level of a kind of imagination puzzle is core to the golden age aesthetic. If EC and The Twilight Zone are one strand of this tradition, the other, less focused on twist endings and direct shock, is cerebral sci fi from writers like Isaac Asimov. Asimov to my mind kind of exemplifies this golden age tendency. If you look at I, Robot, for example, what you have there is a set of three laws governing robot behavior which, when applied to various situations, form paradoxes, contradictions, and problems... the problems that make up the core of Asimov's stories. The interest here is not in psychological realism but in exploring a thought experiment. Sometimes these puzzles can be heavily grounded in contemporary science; other times the mechanics of the thought experiment can run on handwaved alien technology, as exemplified by Arthur C Clarke's famous law that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The important thing, either way, is the way these stories urge the reader to imagine a particular scenario.

Actually, the Clarke reference fits particularly well here, since I think another of the visual nods in this set of episodes is to 2001 A Space Odyssey, whose narrative he originally penned. Steven, his face lit by strange colors by the faster-than-light travel, seems like a direct nod to a similar famous scene in 2001, and the show has some of the same willingness to hand wave the details of how Gem technology, like the black monolith which kickstarts human evolution in 2001, actually works, in order to get to the ideas the creators are trying to delve into (the effect of FTL travel on light-composed beings, for example, or malevolent artificial intelligence and human destiny).

In a lot of this stuff, the characters are broad archetypes more than particularly differentiated humans. There's not a whole lot to, say, I, Robot's often central character Dr Calvin, robopsychologist. We can read between the lines a bit and pull out a character for her, but the primary focus is on the three laws of robots and their collision with various scenarios that Asimov envisions.

This set of episodes is... actually not really like that. 

That's a big departure point for the series. As much as these episodes tangle with things like space and time and speed and light and so on, at their core they're really about the relationship between characters. 

Consider the third example of golden age plotting. The Insidious Human Zoo itself is part of a long tradition of seeming-utopias with a dark twist ("There's always a catch with these utopias," Greg opines mournfully at one point). Of course, the dark twist here is that the humans in the zoo are joined together in breeding pairs by the Gems, and Greg... doesn't really want to be paired with anyone but Rose. He's seemingly somewhat ambivalent about the Zoo but his faithfulness to Rose is something he won't compromise on.

This is lodged within a sci fi kind of narrative--in the end Greg and Steven get out by inciting a small riot because all the humans decide they're in love with Greg and, having never experienced rejection or hurt before, freak out when he doesn't reciprocate their affections--but it's a sci fi narrative deeply driven by Greg's individual personality and history. It becomes much more difficult to separate out the narrative beats and apply them to any interchangeable cipher of a character.

This change allows for a kind of critique of golden age science fiction embedded within the narrative. There's a kind of thematic throughline in these episodes of Steven being desperate for answers and information. This fits the golden age sci fi aesthetic--the search for truth and knowledge and so on. Here though this golden age sci fi stuff exists not so much for its own sake, not to play with ideas, but to propose that this kind of search for answers, this focus on abstracted information, is maybe sort of... missing the point.

Now, this has been an ongoing sticking point for Steven, and not an unreasonable one I'd say. Steven feels entitled to know more about the war his mother started, as so much of his life is a direct result of that conflict. But this set of episodes suggests that pushing for this information isn't necessarily a fulfilling path and that in fact in some ways it might be of lower actual emotional importance than the present-day relationships in Steven's life. After all, seeking after The Truth gets Greg abducted by aliens, so, that's not a great track record there.

I think maybe there's a connection between the seeking after Deep Lore--the ideas that underpin the show's universe, and to an extent getting more information that allows us to imagine the course of the gem war and the nature of Homeworld and so on--and golden age sci fi's focus on setting up particular rules and then imagining particular resultant scenarios. And if there is, this positions this Steven Bomb as a kind of critique of golden age sci fi.

Like I noted earlier, golden age sci fi characters are broad archetypes. Many of them are rugged science heroes who come up with inventive, rational solutions to problems but who don't really have much going on psychologically beyond their rugged science heroism. When we get to contemporary science fiction--which, just to be clear here, contemporary means like... half a century old, starting around the 70s--there's a shift away from this kind of abstraction towards greater focus on both sociological questions 

Something like LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness is in one sense about imagining an alien planet where the people shift between different gender states, but it's also about the political realities of that planet and the way the outsider narrator's prejudices and assumptions about gender give him an unreliable perspective on that planet. It's about positionality, presumption, and the personal as much as it is about cosmic, sweeping ideas.

None of this is to say that this mode of storytelling is sort of intrinsically bad. In fact it's a really useful mode of storytelling for Steven Universe as a show. I'm currently reading through The Last War in Albion, Phil Sandifer's latest release exploring comics history through the lens of the wizard duel between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, and one of the things it notes, which I hadn't really considered, is that the twist ending is a pretty useful way, when writing short pulp comics, of cramming in a reasonable amount of development in a very small space. 

Defending Moore's use of the structure, Sandifer writes:

The claim that Future Shocks trade on twist endings is often repeated, and it’s certainly true that they appear a lot. But in Moore’s best work the twist ending is not the point of the exercise, instead providing a narrative resolution to a story that is otherwise about exploring other ideas. For a short story of only four or five pages, a twist ending is a natural fit—the length is almost exactly long enough to reasonably develop an idea, but not really long enough to develop a second one. And so the natural structure is to develop the idea, take it in a surprising direction, and then stop without having to worry about the consequences of that change.

That's what we see in these episodes. The three episodes I pulled out as having strongly golden age sci fi feeling plots are relatively self contained, standing on their own a bit better, and work with a structure like these pulp stories: introduce an idea, then take it in a surprising direction. I.e.: visions of an old, ruined spacecraft lead to a new, second spacecraft which flies off with one of the characters; a seeming space disaster turns out to be merely a mild side effect of a FTL engine on radically alien bodies; the greatest pain for a bunch of humans who have never experienced hurt turns out to be the pain of romantic rejection. 

And, like in Moore's work as the quote suggests, the point here is not the twist itself, the point is not just the idea taken in an interesting direction, but the actual consequence of that new direction and the way it interacts with a series of established characters. Since these episodes are part of an ongoing series, and released in a chunk of five episodes portrayed as a united system, they can do things like talk about the emotional reality of the characters experiencing these plots. They can worry about "the consequences of that change," in other words.

This allows them to do things like draw Greg and Blue Diamond, a working class human dad and a ruler of an interstellar empire, in parallel in their grief. Or to bring up this notion of grappling with the past in the form of the Diamonds debating over how best to respond emotionally to the death of one of their number, millennia ago. This implies a connection between the Crystal Gems wanting to move beyond the past and Yellow Diamond wanting the same thing, though her idea of "moving on" does, notably, involve multiple genocides and the destruction of an entire planet.

And perhaps it might even allow for a parallel to be drawn between golden age sci fi, Steven's quest for knowledge, and the fandom's desperate need for more lore.

This set of episodes takes the tropes and narrative techniques of golden age sci fi but ultimately has them serve a deeper psychological exploration and an assertion that what's really important is not a deep dive into the lore but the relationships between characters. It doesn't take much of a leap, I think, to read that within the context of a backstory-ravenous fanbase as a gentle nudge, a reminder that what's important here isn't the backstory, isn't the golden age sci fi imagining of elaborate scenarios, but the way these characters relate to one another, Steven and the Crystal Gems and Greg, and even the way they relate to the gems guarding the Insidious Human Zoo, who seem deeply ambivalent about their place in the empire and ultimately befriend Amethyst and let the Crystal Gems go free, or to turncoats like Peridot and Lapis Lazuli on earth, or to Greg's extended family...

I could go on, obviously, but the point should be fairly obvious: this is a series about these connections, with the golden age sci fi structures acting as a scaffolding holding this primary narrative priority upright.

Now I don't know that this is always successful. After all, it's totally fair that Steven should want to know about the war that his mother started, felt bad about, and ultimately maybe was so tormented by that she decided to pass on her powers to Steven rather than continue to exist in her own form! And I think it's reasonable for the fans to want to know more as well. And uh also there's points where these episodes do kind of feel a little... well... Crying Breakfast Friends-esque? Take a deep breath people, sheesh. But at the same time the show never becomes outright sort of poundingly obvious with its morals. If the message is "maybe it's best to let the past go" it's worth noting at the very least that this point is argued most clearly by a being who thinks nothing of blowing up whole planets. That should give us some pause, I think.

What we see here, then, is something that can be read in a multitude of ways, and it can do so because it fuses golden age storytelling techniques and preoccupations with a longer form narrative arc. While it might serve in some ways as a critique of the limitations of golden age sci fi and its focus on abstraction, it also freely capitalizes on the most useful techniques of that period. This is what really makes Steven Universe remarkable as a show: it's constantly reflecting upon and engaging with the traditions it's a part of in order to produce a new narrative, one that is resolutely complex and willing to explore possible parallels and symmetries between seemingly disparate things. In this way, the show pulls from the big idea tradition while compelling us to imagine everything through the lens of the personal.




Fearsome Selfsimilarity

In this bonus essay: can an old Alan Moore pulp sci fi comic reach its sinister coils out to ensnare reader, critic, and publisher alike?

Crazy Noisy Bizarre Town

Mob Psycho 100, like comicker One's previous work One Punch Man, has a premise that seems to undermine core aspects of Shonen narratives... or even action narratives in general. Coincidentally, the current arc of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Diamond Is Unbreakable, has developed in ways that also disrupt traditional storytelling. Might we call these two works post-Shonen? And what can a 1961 short story by Kurt Vonnegut tell us about what these shows are trying to do?

Why Is Yuri On Ice's Soundtrack So Weak?

The homoerotic skating anime Yuri On Ice places great importance on the choice of music for performance. But can its soundtrack live up to its own implicit standards? And what does that say about the rest of the show's creative direction?

Special Book Vote!

What book should I work on next? Vote now on Patreon!

You'd Think A SU Pun With The Twilight Zone Would Be Easier To Come Up With

On this week's Storming the Ivory Tower Podcast: Science Fiction! Twilight Zone Jokes! Gay Alien Moms That Solve Crime!

Across the Steven Universe

Check out the draft version of this week's article here!

If The Train Stops We All Die

An experimental Twine essay free to ALL Patreon subscribers on 2016, Snowpiercer, .clipping, and oblivion.

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities

Essays on Homestuck and Form, an ebook on the history of hypercomics and the formal revolution Homestuck started.

1 comment:

  1. Before I go off on a tangent, I want to say that I bloody love this piece, and for that matter the last Steven Universe piece you wrote. Hell between this piece and your stuff on Supergirl and Arrow, you've pretty much given me the words to explain why I feel that, in spite of so much nerd adjacent tv being called "character driven", Steven Universe is one of the few I feel actually is.

    Now the tangent: this Stevenbomb ended up reawakening my interest in a marxist text I read in university. Have you ever ran into "Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance" by James C. Scott? To give a rough outline, its about various forms of passive resistance that allow people to defend themselves from those with power over them without actively challenging the power structure at large: stuff like false compliance, pilfering, slander and occasional sabotage.

    I am bringing it up because that it precisely what the Quartzes from "And That Will Be All" keep bringing to mind. They put on an appearance of being loyal to the Diamonds and compliant to Holly Blue, but in practice they seem to be on a constant undeclared industrial action along the lines of work-to-rule. Though they aren't actively rebelling, they have so little respect for a system that actively despises them that they're only to happy to turn a blind eye to the Crystal Gems infiltrating the facility and actively cheer when Pearl humiliates Holly Blue.

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