Qualities of Experience and Logical Consistency

Bruce Baugh:

I’m catching up with Battlestar Galactica and Heroes from the last few weeks, and reading some weblog and forum comments on them. I’m struck by how disconnected I feel from what it is that seems to most concern the posting fans. Specifically, I find that I genuinely just don’t care how well some things hold up under an allegedly dispassionate logical analysis. I’m really interested in qualities of experience: fascinating places, intense emotions, struggles and epiphanies, the tangible world and the internal growth and changes of interesting characters thrust into the midst of it.

Yoon Ha Lee:

This explains why I have such a tumultuous relationship with Whedon’s creations:

From Angel, it’s all about the emotions, stupid. Joss just hammered into all of us that ultimately, if you had to choose between logic and emotion, then go with emotion. You want to build as logical a show as possible, but if there’s no emotion, people won’t care. That was a profound influence on me, and I’ve forced that on people I’ve been involved with since then.
from an interview with Jeff Bell [LA Times]


I’ve been noodling at this topic during my spare time today. For those of you who aren’t big fans of SF/fantasy, us fans have a habit of tearing apart the logic of shows and books and the like. Inside most every fan is the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, ready to point out minutiae and grumble about “obvious” plot holes.

TV shows are especially fertile ground for this sort of thing. As John Rogers says in explaining the term “fridge logic,”

TV is a very tight little medium time-wise, with an enormous amount of hand-waving to begin with. Often a logic problem that seems to smack you in the face because you’ve had the time to read the script, reread it, give notes, break it down, etc. is going to fly by your average — and hopefully emotionally engaged — viewer.

When a show engages me, I glide right past plot holes. I’m actively participating in keeping my belief suspended. As I stop being engaged, though, I become more and more annoyed by inconsistencies. Eventually I reach the point of kicking holes in the story’s walls out of frustration and grumbling about its physics.

Trouble arises when you get a bunch of fans like me together. We all have different set-points where we are no longer engaged. We have different buttons to be pushed or left alone. There is no consensus; there is only disharmony. And in such an atmosphere, negative comments tend to amplify each other until all you hear is a standing wave of disapproval.

And look! The Internet has a large population of SF/F fans, removes geographic barriers to discussion, and tends to archive discussions for posterity. The result is an environment that fosters the worst of our group’s tendencies.

Critical analysis can be fun. I’ve spent a lot of time teasing apart the threads of shows like Heroes with friends. “What do you think that meant?” “Who’s Claire’s dad taking orders from?” “I wonder what the extent of Peter’s powers are?” It can be instructive. It can even be entertaining in and of itself. In watching Jericho, I’ve enjoyed the ludicrousness of it all. But there’s a point where you cross over into bullying by way of snobbery. You actively look for reasons to be disappointed in a story, and can’t believe anyone actually enjoys that dreck. You elevate matters of opinion to statements of fact and use them as cudgels with which to smite the unbelievers.

There’s not a bright line dividing good from bad here. I enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000, which has a nougaty center of mocking bad movies. I read recaps at Television Without Pity, most of which point out numerous plot holes. Negative criticism is not a priori bad criticism. But at some point it passes a nebulous threshold and the only solution is for all involved in the discussion to step back, take deep breaths, and move on to something else.

It took me a while to come up with my own coping mechanism for dealing with the dark side of SF/F Fandom. For works that I like, I’ll gladly obsess over tiny details with others and further my enjoyment through what amounts to collaborative study. For most any story or show I’ll discuss what I thought worked and what didn’t. But if Fans are carving up something I like and are throwing the leftover bits at people like me while hooting their derision, I will smile politely and walk away. You can shove your anger towards me all you want. I will not take it from your hand.

3 thoughts on “Qualities of Experience and Logical Consistency

  1. I’m definitely in the emotion-over-plot camp, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like analyzing plot-level details when they work well. Heroes is especially good for that, because it’s so tightly knitted, unlike BSG, which is a big sloppy mess. But I connect much more deeply with the messed-up and damaged BSG characters than with shiny-faced Claire and floppy-haired Peter (but mmm, floppy hair).

    Sometimes I do find myself veering off into endless complaininess, but it’s rarely because the writers violated some law of thermodynamics. More often it’s because I feel they made a mistake in storytelling — they diminished my emotional connection to the show in some way. The best example I have is one I was just, in fact, complaining about to some friends: Spike’s appearance on Angel totally ruined (for me) his “finale” on Buffy, by lessening his sacrifice. I can only imagine it was for the sake of engaging Spike’s fans (and thus increase ratings), which is another way in which fandom often goes wrong: sometimes the best thing to do with a story is let it go.

  2. See, I can get behind that kind of complaininess, especially when it doesn’t come with the explicit or implicit rider of “and how dare you think otherwise?”

  3. You elevate matters of opinion to statements of fact and use them as cudgels with which to smite the unbelievers.

    Ah yes. That’s become a pet peeve of mine lately, and when it happens, I get … very angry. [Which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes do it, because I do.]

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