On "Robot of Sherwood" or What It Means to Be from the Land of Fiction

(spoilers ahead)

In the new Doctor Who episode, the Doctor meets Robin Hood, and it's very clearly Robin Hood as he is known in modern media, specifically an Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks-style Robin Hood. (Errol Flynn even gets name-checked, and there's a fun part where the Doctor is reviewing stories about Robin Hood and we see the actor who played the second Doctor, Patrick Traughton, from the 1950's TV show "The Adventures of Robin Hood".) Which is exactly why the Doctor doesn't believe he's really Robin Hood for most of the episode and thinks he must be an impostor.

When it turns out he IS Robin Hood, it's not actually the show saying that this is who the historical Robin Hood was, because that's clearly malarky. The Robin Hood of the original ballads was not this person, and even those were from long after Robin was supposed to have lived and grew out of a very particular folk hero tradition. No, what Doctor Who is saying is that the television show Doctor Who doesn't actually travel to the past at all, but travels to popular impressions of the past, the past as it is imagined. The past as a genre, as a narrative trope that Doctor Who can then crash into, interrogate and subvert. Which is why Robin Hood tells the Doctor "Remember, I'm just as real as you are."

Which is essentially a call-back to a second Doctor adventure called the "The Mind Robber" (1968), where the Doctor and his companions get lost in the Land of Fiction, a world populated by fictional characters. And one of the storybook characters tells the Doctor that he's a "traitor" to the Land of Fiction. As if he was a part of it that rebelled. (See also Philip Sandifer's brilliant analysis of "The Mind Robber".) At the end, it's not even clear that they ever really escaped the Land of Fiction.

Thus Doctor Who becomes a show aware of it's status as a work of fiction. Doctor Who always gave us the Doctor crashing into one or more other genres, but "The Mind Robber" gave that fact context. And so, much as Tarantino makes a WWII movie that's less about WWII and more about how WWII has been portrayed in popular culture, Doctor Who makes an episode about Robin Hood that doesn't pretend to be about the historical Robin Hood but instead is about interrogating what Robin Hood means to us and about rescuing us from our cynicism towards heroes. Because for someone from the Land of Fiction, believing in Robin Hood has nothing to do with history and everything to do with what Robin Hood means to us.

This isn't to say this is the greatest episode of Doctor Who, but it's one I enjoyed a lot. And anyone complaining that this isn't historically accurate doesn't understand this show.

PS. Yes, the shooting the golden arrow into the literal bulls-eye on the ship is silly. It's a silly show. The Doctor fights Robin Hood with a spoon. Get over it.

Star Trek is Not Progressive

Star Trek (the Original Series) has been mythologized as being about a hopeful, positive, Utopian future in which class differences have evaporated, war between peoples of the Federation is unknown, racism and sexism extinguished and money is a curiosity of the past, thus showing a way forward for humanity. However, actually looking at the content of the Original Series quickly belies these ideas.

Sexism is rampant on the show, perhaps nowhere worse than in “The Enemy Within” when it’s suggested that Yeoman Rand enjoyed nearly being sexually assaulted by evil Captain Kirk. (Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who played Rand, specifically called this out in her memoir as being truly horrible, so let’s be clear that any claim that this is “of its time” is actually saying “of the sexist men running Star Trek of its time”.) As for racism, yes, Uhura is on the bridge (albeit as a glorified switchboard operator) and Sulu is at the helm, but as almost every story revolves around the 3 white men of Kirk, Spock and Bones, and as these other characters tend to get less than a handful of lines between them, it seems less progressive than tokenism. (And one version of the creation of Star Trek indicates that it was DesiLu Studios that dictated the multiracial crew, not Gene Roddenberry, who would have been happy with the far whiter crew from the original pilot “The Cage”.)

But most importantly, far from showing a path to a better future, again and again Star Trek ridicules and skewers progressive ideals or the idea that people could reach a place of material social progress without it becoming a dystopian nightmare or autocratic dictatorship. The numerous examples include “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Space Seed”.

Nowhere is this point clearer, though, than in the episode most often lauded as the “best” episode in all of the the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The climax revolves around the idea that Kirk must let Edith Keeler die because if she doesn’t she’ll start a pacifism movement that will lead to America not entering World War II and Hitler conquering the world.

Let’s think for a second about this. This episode aired in 1967, while protesters were out on the White House lawn chanting “Hey Hey LBJ how many kids you kill today”. In other words, the subtext here is expressly against the anti-war movements of the 1960s and in favor of those who felt that we had to fight in Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union. Pacifism, Star Trek is telling us in the midst of Vietnam, is an idea whose time has not come and is in fact dangerous in the present. Far from being a show in touch with the youth and representing the unbridled optimism of the 60s, this is a show that’s actively telling the youth to shut up and let the old hawks run things.

And yes, by the time we get to the movies and the Next Generation the mythologized version of Star Trek’s ethos was in ingrained in the fabric of the Star Trek Universe, to the point where we get Star Trek IV where the crew are basically idealistic hippies wandering around Reagan’s America and pointing out how horrible all the crass commercialism and commodification is and how they’re destroying the environment. This doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Original Series is a fundamentally reactionary mess.

On Vocabulary and Fiction

There is a faction in the world of writing that would advise you to avoid words that would be unfamiliar to most readers— that is, big vocabulary words. The argument usually goes something like this: when a reader encounters a word they are not familiar with it makes them stop and realize they are reading something, taking them out of the story. That is, you want the reader to be completely absorbed, forget their reading at all, and not break the “vivid and continuous dream” (John Gardner’s phrase) of the narrative.

There are a few problems with this notion. The first is that particular words carry particular meanings that often simplifying them just won’t accomplish. If I call someone “indolent” that’s different than if I just called them “lazy”. Secondly, often a word will have a meaning that isn’t covered by any other. When I say the sun’s rays were “crepuscular", I would have to get a lot more verbose to describe that effect any other way.

More importantly, big words might be entirely appropriate for a particular character or style. For a character, using erudite words might be a way for her to show off her erudition. For a story written about the upper class in the late 19th century, for example, using words common to that class and time are a way to convey the setting besides mere description. Words are the tools with which prose narrative is created, and certain tools have certain functions. This is where I think most writers should come down on the subject: you use the vocabulary appropriate for what you’re writing.

But finally and most decisively for me, I actually don’t give a fuck about disrupting some reader’s precious “vivid and continuous dream”. For me, part of the joy of reading is the awareness of the prose, awareness of the techniques and tools and conventions being used to convey a particular kind of story, and I don’t mind it—in fact really enjoy it—when, as in many post-modernist works, you have an architecture with the ducts exposed and blueprints laid bare, as it were. I like books that are fully aware of and in possession of the fact that they are book, and not some suppositional “movie” going on in your head. (If I wanted to make movies, I’d be making movies.) Far from taking me out of a story, a well chosen unfamiliar word makes me more absorbed, more aware—by forcing me to think about a word, to look it up or intuit its meaning—of the kind of effect the writer is trying to create by using it.

You might not feel this way, you may prefer your vivid and continuous dream metaphor. That’s fine. There isn’t only one way to enjoy fiction, and there’s definitely more than one way to make it.

Revision as archeology

Archeologists often intentionally leave parts of sites unexcavated. They leave them for future archeologists, knowing they will have better tools, be able to uncover more, damage less.

Often, when I'm revising, especially something I wrote a long time ago, I feel like a future archeologist. This scene, this character, this dialog was pulled from the ground of my consciousness with poor tools, dragged from the tar and cleared off with eyebrow-scorching boiling vinegar. Now I have better tools. Now patiently, deliberately, I can uncover the monster. Clean it from the muck.

And in the future, I'll have better tools. My faith as sure as that of the archeologists, pining for unimagined machinery.

San Francisco is a science fantasy city

On roller coaster streets that dive into mist shrouded hills crusted with candy colored houses, a one armed guitarist distorts rivers of sound that paints the walls of the old poet’s shop, made weird and etherial it bleeds across the boundary between worlds and above helicopters watch drones play in the park. A wrong turn takes you to an arterial hub of vegetable delivery trucks in insectile ranks, dress white and at attention flanked by forgotten industrial machinery. In the valley the code of pimply faced boys mutates through the real estate like an entitled virus and climate-controlled garages keep self-driving cars waiting for their oncoming disruption. San Francisco is a science fantasy city.

See also: Barcelona is a fantasy city

A Request for Clarification

Eric Rosenfield, I just got an email that you had rated James S.A. Corey's space opera novel Leviathan Wakes at 5 stars on goodreads.com

I need to know if this is hyperbole. As you are no doubt aware, the only truly perfect space opera ever to appear in literature are the Culture novels by the lamented and late Iain Banks. Perfect space opera in other media are certainly almost as rare. Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, Firefly and Serenity, Farscape minus a handful of clunky episodes, 70% of the first season of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Ice Pirates, The middle 60 minutes ofTitan AE... There may be others, but they are few and far between and as far as the printed word is concerned, very little comes close. Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy possibly approaches that quality, but tends to collapse under its own weight and bizarre theological weirdness.

By rating Corey 5 stars, you have signaled to me and to every other right thinking person that Corey is in the same rank as Banks, and that is high praise to the point of stretching its credibility.

Please explain yourself.

Review: MediaEntity #6

Over at the comiXology Tumblr, I review a fascinating comic called MediaEntity which uses the digital medium to create elliptical, filmic effects to tell a story that I describe as somewhere between a taught thriller and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Take a gander.

Interview with Neil Gaiman

In this interview, Neil Gaiman discusses book publicity, his new book Chu's First Day of School and the American Gods television show. Enjoy!

The interview happened because the sifu at my kung fu school happens to be friends with a director of book trailers. He sent me a Twitter message that Neal Stephenson was going to be filming one at the school and if I happened to be there at the same time I might be able to meet him. I showed up, Neal Stephenson novel in hand to be signed, only to discover Sifu had gotten the writer wrong. "It'd be really funny if you got him to sign that," said the director when he saw my well-worn copy of The Diamond Age.

I've met Neil Gaiman before, briefly and even more briefly interviewed him, but he's one of my favorite writers so I rushed out to a local bookstore, picked up a copy of a book I hadn't read yet for him to sign (The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and rushed back.

Why Amazon Wins

Remember not so long ago I complained about Amazon's ebook download links disappearing? Well, they're back; I can download my Kindle books form the website again, just in time for my employer to be purchased by that etailing monolith. Soon, I will be an Amazon employee, a curious turn of events considering how we've occasionally pilloried them on this site. Granted, the most vocal pillorer (pillorizer? pilliorian?) has been Quackenbush, but I'm hardly innocent.

Here's the thing: My first ebook reader was a Palm Pilot in the late 90's, and I loved it. Later, when Palm sank, I bought a Sony Reader, the first real dedicated e-reader. When the first Kindle was released, I joined the choruses laughing at its hideous design and fearing Amazon's fomenting reach and power.

However, it wasn't long before it became clear that Sony wasn't really going to compete in hardware or software. Reluctantly, I switched to the Nook. And I was happy for a while. But now Barnes and Noble has fired its hardware engineering staff and looks to be eager to offload the whole platform as a money-loser and a failure. Meanwhile, on hardware and features, the Kindle is constantly improving, and is now better by every possible measure to any of its competitors.

Four TV Shows That Are Better Than Doctor Who

A few months back, Eric wrote a lengthy piece about why Doctor Who is the best television show ever. I think he's terribly wrong in that Doctor Who more or less encompasses everything I hate about TV.

Don't get me wrong, now, I like Doctor Who. There's a fair amount of it that I find to be hugely enjoyable. And there are certainly much worse shows than Doctor Who. There's a reason that the character has had the staying power he has, and not the least of it is because of exactly what Eric talked about in it being able to be anything it wants to be. There's something to be said for a show that can be a historical melodrama one week and a space opera odyssey the next. But I think one can get too wrapped up in that sort of thinking as well. After all, after 50 years and a limitless expanse of space-time to explore, one would hope for a few more recurring villains than just The Master, The Daleks, and the Cybermen, which the rebooted series keeps going back to the well for rather than trying to ever break new ground. And the few times they have strayed from that formula, such as with the Weeping Angels, they've never really been able to sustain them as anything more than a creepified CGI version of the monster under the bed.

So, no, as charming and fun as it often is, there is much better television to be had than Doctor Who. Here are four examples: