Friday, July 19, 2013

Bells and Whistles: Is this all Science Fiction is?

I love science fiction: hard, soft, military, drama, mixed with fantasy, you name it.  My mom, on the other hand, isn’t the biggest fan.
I remember one time way back when I was in middle school, I asked her why she didn't like sci-fi.  She responded that it was because sci-fi would take a story and throw a few "bells and whistles" at it and call it something new; the story would have been able to function on its own without the fancy gadgetry.
At first I thought that was a little unfair.  In my mind I was trying to think about how Star Wars could be a functional story if you did take away all the spaceships and lasers and Death Stars.  It didn't seem like it could.  Later, I would realized that was her point. My mom likes Star Wars.  Star Wars is a story that can't function without the "bells and whistles," thus turning them into "gears and motors" instead, turning the story from cheesy schlock into a full course meal.
I actually didn't go through Star Wars to get to this point.  I went through Halo.  I was thinking over the different games and how well the stories and characters were developed.  In my head I was praising Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 3 for their grand-scale stories and Halo 2 and 4 for their character-focused stories.  Part way down this track, my thoughts stopped at a station containing Halo Reach, Halo ODST, and Halo Wars, the games that don't follow the main storyline of Master Chief.  I started flipping through them to really see what I thought of those stories: were they more character- or plot-focused?   I stopped at ODST and peered at it. This one was odd.
    It was a character-focused story.  It had all the bells and whistles of Halo - the aliens, the technology, the two military powers of the future, even a fan-favorite character from the other games - but it felt so disconnected from the Halo Universe.  That's when I remembered my mother’s comment.  In ODST, the gears and motors of the Halo 'Verse had been demoted to bells and whistles.
    The war story, the love story, the team story, all could make sense outside of Halo.  The stories in the other tales needed essentials of the universe to exist.  An example is below; an example that does not disregard key plot points in ODST or elaborate Halo 4's.  I did my best to boil them down to simply the basics.

  • Halo ODST's love story is about two soldiers.  The woman never answered the question of "Will you marry me?”  Now they are on a team together.  She's his superior officer and keeps secrets from him, which causes friction during the mission.
  • Halo 4's love* story is about an A.I. and a super soldier.  Since he was trained since he was six, he acts like a machine.  Since she is an A.I. made from a human clone, she helps keep him human and has for years.  She begins to deteriorate, causing them both to confront their own humanity and mortality.

You can see that ODST's story could be easily removed and placed elsewhere.  4's could not unless it was placed within a universe that established the same or similar parameters.  ODST easily had the weakest story out of all the Halo games because it had to take time out from the character’s story to explain the "bells and whistles" instead of having the "gears and motors" drive it forward**.
This unfortunately happens a lot in sci-fi***.  Want a space-romp?  Let's take this tale everyone likes and slap lasers, starships, and aliens on there and those nerds will eat it right up.  Well, thank you for that vote of confidence in our mental capacity, I mutter at the publishers between bites of the most recent schlock.
That sort of meal is behind me now, as I understand my mother’s dislike for the bells and whistles, and I agree with her.
At least until I get a hankering for cheese.  Anyone for up for Fantastic Four?

*In this case it was more agape than eros.  Another discussion for another time.
**I think I should note that I like ODST  and the characters within, and the "tale within a tale" that is Sadie's Story is flat out beautiful and powerful.
***Isaac Asimov wrote a rather entertaining poem that could apply to this situation called "The Author's Ordeal." (Complete Stories Vol. 1.)

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