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Monday, August 10, 2009

(This is a rewrite of an earlier post that Lisa felt was nit-picky and unconstructive.)

I watched the BLADE series pilot. When I'm watching a show with mythology, I'm looking for two things. One is true for any show: I want convincing, compelling characters involved in entertaining, moving stories.

The other is particular to genre shows. I want a consistent, coherent mythology that rings true, and I want the stories to bring insights into that mythology.

So, for example, TWILIGHT had a consistent, coherent mythology that did not ring true for me. If all vamps do in sunlight is sparkle, then Edward is not a scary predator, he's just Bella's big sparkly pony. It's fine for teenage girl wish fulfillment; girls need stories about big, powerful ponies that will obey them. But he's not a vampire. Because to me, the vampire mythos is about the power of death, and the seductiveness of evil, and if he can go out in the sun and doesn't have to kill people, then his undeadness lacks all thematic punch. He's not a vampire, he's a "vampire."

What I love is when a genre story takes itself seriously and really examines what people would do, and who they would be, in a world in which technology is more advanced or different, or magic or fantastical critters exist. So for example, I loved the difference between the Sarah Connor of TERMINATOR and the Sarah Connor of TERMINATOR II. In the first, she's nearly killed by a scary robot from a hell future. A lesser writer might have pretended that she'd try to put that horrible experience behind her, like characters in horror movie sequels. But the truth is, if you've nearly been terminated by a scary robot from a hell future, you become someone different. You remake yourself into a badass killer yourself. You learn how to use guns and explosives. And you probably come off to other people like a paranoid schizophrenic. James Cameron had the courage to pursue the logic of his science fictional universe.

On the other hand I had a bit of trouble with THE LISTENER because I felt their world wasn't self-consistent. The Listener exists in our world. He's a paramedic who can read thoughts. A paramedic? Really? Not a professional poker player, or a spy? Ditto Anna Paquin's waitress in TRUE BLOOD. What's she doing waiting tables? How about working for the FBI? Or the CIA? Or some bigshot negotiator? I mean, the guy in LIE TO ME has a whole business telling whether people are lying or not, and he doesn't even have superpowers.

By contrast, in MEDIUM, Patricia Arquette plays a mom who has visions that come true. So what does she do? Work for the police as a psychic. That makes sense. Oh, and she can't control the visions or always understand them. So she can't go playing the stock market.

I love when a genre story adds to or convincingly change canon. Canonical vampires are undead, drink human blood, and can't go out in the sun. Optionally, they fear crosses, holy water burns them, and they dislike garlic. In Stoker, as in the Buffyverse, every vamp victim becomes a vamp, but simple math shows that's implausible: there would quickly be a vamp population explosion. So, in Rice, vamps only make vamps by draining their victim and then getting the victim to drink vamp blood. That was a logical improvement to the canon; it made it easier for me to believe that vamps secretly exist in my universe. [UPDATE: I stand corrected about the Buffyverse -- it follows Rice Rules.]

And the BLADE movies introduced the daywalker: half human, half vamp, alive but fighting his blood thirst. Very cool.

I wasn't blown away by the first few BLADE: THE SERIES eps, though readers say it gets better. Sticky Fingaz, you are no Wesley Snipes, sir. But I did dig the idea of "ashers" -- human junkies who snort vamp ash, which makes them briefly vamp strong and vamp fast.

If you're working in genre, first, please, make sure you're thinking it through. What would real people do in this situation. Be brave. Pursue the ramifications as far as you can. For vamps to exist in our world without our knowing it, what would the rules of their existence have to be? How are they suppressing our knowledge of their existence? Are they showing up for the first time, as Dracula did in DRACULA -- so, in that case, no one knew about vamps because there hadn't been any in Britain. Do they cut a deal with human society -- do the rich and powerful know that they exist but they're hiding it from us? And so forth.

What would a world be like in which there were regular zombie breakouts. Well, we'd stop burying our dead, that's for sure. We'd burn them. And battlefields would be a lot scarier.

The fun of genre is in the thematic ramifications, and in the "what-if?" But don't stretch the theme so far that the human characters stop behaving like real people -- find the fun in real reactions to the outlandish circumstances. Take that all the way, and you won't be able to help yourself coming up with something convincing and fresh.

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11 Comments:

Are you sure about Buffy? The only instance I remember in which we're actually shown a human to vampire transformation is Angel, and he definitely drinks from Darla before that happens. I'd always assumed the Buffyverse worked like the, uhh, Riceverse.

By OpenID roryparle, at 1:24 PM  

I'm not sure, but you did seem to have assorted ND vamp victims coming alive in the morgue, e.g. in The Body.

And in the movie I am pretty sure you had the geometric population explosion problem, in which Sunnydale High was overrun by vamps.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:46 PM  

I am positive that in Buffy the show, you had to drink to become a vamp. When Harmony, for instance, showed up as a vampire in season 4, fans complained about the retcon because her death in season 3's finale, as shot, didn't have her driinking any blood. (Some fans presumably also complained simply because Harmony was annoying.)

I liked this post and I agree with its main point. One reason I like China Mieville's novels is that he thinks deeply about what the politics of a society with the kind of monsters and technology he's inventing would be.

By Blogger wrigleyfield, at 3:24 PM  

Not to nit-pick, but I'm almost positive Alex is right. I recall many instances of vampires being created just from being bitten.

As for True Blood, I haven't actually watched a full episode, but my wife loves the show. And from what I've seen, Anna Paquin's character doesn't like people to know she can read people's thoughts, so it's logical to believe she wouldn't want to go into a profession that highlights that. Just because people have a power, doesn't mean they like to use it, or want other people to know about it.

By Blogger Tim W., at 7:01 PM  

If we're to believe the pilot of Buffy, Joss Whedon at least originally intended that humans had to drink the vamp's blood as well, as Buffy and Giles explain to each other in their second library scene. Plus, later on, in Angel, a character tries to make herself a vampire by telling another vampire that she'll need to drink his blood. Of this I am soiten.

By Blogger Thomas, at 7:14 PM  

Actually, in Stoker, the vamp had to feed on the victim three times, over a succession of days.

So a single feeding would not create a vampire.

And Stoker also had the day-walking vampire. Dracula was, if memory serves, "only" as strong as ten men, during daylight. And he couldn't change form.

By Blogger James Patrick Joyce, at 7:36 PM  

I see a few others have beat me to it, but I'll chime in:

RE: Making vampires.

Although Buffy/Angel may not be consistent on this, I do recall a line of Buffy's, "To make a vampire they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It's like a whole big sucking thing."

Re: Twilight

I think the sun-non-issue makes them more dangerous. More like Apocalypse Ponies.
According to the books, the only thing that can kill a vampire is to be literally ripped to pieces (whether you need to stomp on the bits until they stop moving isn't clear).
So, if vamps are basically invulnerable, don't need to sleep, are superfast, tough and have none of the classic vampire weaknesses why don't they rule the Earth already? Why hide? With that kind of power, I'd think there'd be a huge temptation to just take whatever they want from whoever they want, whenever they want. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Why not make a whole army of sparkly minions and take over?

As Vampire Willow said, "In my world, there are people in chains, and we can ride them like ponies."

By Blogger Gmajor, at 10:31 PM  

The explanation for why Anna Paquin's telepathic waitress is not working for the CIA/FBI/etc is that she's a redneck living in a small redneck town where no one would ever think of actually doing something like that. The fact that she's just a waitress and doesn't think to use her power for anything worthwhile is consistent with the character.

And of course, she ends up using her power for personal profit, but that's initiated by the vampires, who are clearly much, much more cunning than she is.

By Blogger Nima Yousefi, at 8:57 PM  

I got rednecks in my family, @Nima. They know about poker. And rednecks are more likely to volunteer for the FBI than y'all latte-drinkers.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:36 PM  

Well, I follow you mostly, but I don't think I get the issue with The Listener. (Not familiar with True Blood other than what I've read about it.) But the listener is essentially an ordinary dude with heroic tendencies even when people want him to stay out of it, which I think is a valid and ancient genre. (Die Hard.) And that's the genre it's using the rules of. Doesn't work if he's already getting paid to do the extraordinary. JMO.

By Blogger nadia*, at 1:17 AM  

Your comments explain what bothered me so much about Early Edition. If I got the newspaper from the day before, I would be playing the stock market and sports gambling like crazy.

By Blogger Amy (Al-Sindi) Leake, at 4:05 PM  

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