There has been a constant need in Science Fiction for the ‘human touch’. One of the constant critiques levied against those who write SF – especially those of the ‘hard’ variety – has been that, most of the time, everything human, like characters and psychology, are put in service to the explication of ideas. Science Fiction writers of the ‘hard SF view’ look to the medium as a kind of game between the intellects. The aim of a hard SF writer is to try and write a fiction that other scientists would be fooled into believing as plausible. Yet, the result of such an ideal of Science Fiction is that the genre becomes a closed circle.
But, over time, many writers are stepping up to the challenge of delivering the human side, even at the cost of a rigor of ideas. Science Fiction seen in this way is viewed as a bridge between the two cultures. These writers act as ‘translators’ of the great but difficult scientific language – and even if the science is translated badly, the very act of spurring on the interest will develop a curiosity that leads to the proper exploration of such worlds. Science Fiction, in this form, acts as the mediator between the society that fears the advance of the New, and the scientists that are irritated at the misrepresentation of their profession.
I view the latter mode of Science Fiction as more potent, because the ideas of Science are in constant movement – and a book that relies merely on these ideas will be dated once the next paradigm comes around. On the other hand, Olaf Stapledon still remains strong because of his cosmic meditations on the largeness of space and the possibilities of lives – to the point where his books are more like poetic analyses of human smallness and human potential rather than a mere explication of ideas – and even if many of his ideas/predictions of history were proven wrong much much later.
I have always been searching for great authors of the latter variety – so it was with great surprise that I managed to find such a person on a small corner of the internet. In a long-forgotten thread on a Visual Novel forum, a user by the alias of ‘BesterBurgerz’ posted, entirely for free, his indie OELVN project entitled Our Lightest Years. He left no introduction or description and gave only a link.
Our Lightest Years is a 30-50 hour long Visual Novel that confesses to no rigorous knowledge of the sciences, but aims to impart that humanity so required of Science Fiction works. Rather, it approaches through abstract philosophical ideas manifested into novel technologies – and explores the impact of such on the world as a whole. Yet, it does this while focuses on a core cast of 5 main characters.
Somehow, after talking about how Art is still in its infancy – I saw this video from the Man himself.
Which led me to think – how does one really teach the idea that art is supposed to be communicative in its meaning rather than stuck to any technique or lame ideology? As in, how do you teach that Art is not just communicating about yourself, but has a general thrust that opens outwards beyond your own message – since the self is tailored by the world.
A term I picked up from Alex Sheremet was the difference between instructive art and great art. Instructive art is helpful because it teaches you due to how accessible it is – while not necessarily being great. On the other hand, not all great works of art are accessible. One example he gives is Heritage by Countee Cullen – because this poem is an extremely lyrical and simplistic sounding poem that is easy to process – but contains a large amount of depth to it. Getting into Countee Cullen places one on the road to perceiving others like Wallace Stevens or John Donne. In Art he calls Francis Bacon a more instructive artist than the complex Picasso.
How does one impart the idea that there are no rules – and that you can use whatever fits the mode of communication? Are there any works that are accessible enough to impart this while still containing something of a thrust that leads to the prospect of other works with great communicative intensity?
Quite frankly, of all the works that my small span of life has come into contact with so far – SCA-Ji Novels have been the most instructive as to the possibilities of the medium. This is because with a writer like SCA-Ji, despite neither being the most precise nor poetic writer, understands that the communicative gestalt rises above anything else – and he always makes sure to spell out his message clearly and unites all the other parts of the work in service of this message. He has grand ideas, and he violates genre all over the place, and he is fun, and he is still instructable because he is good at making large ideas simple. Of course, if I rate him away from my own biases, he is probably too ghetto-tized within the facets of the Otaku subculture, but his works uses the subculture as a foundation to imply an outwards thrust into life itself. In that way, I consider him the best Young Adult writer there ever is (and this is despite SubaHibi containing tons of fucked up NSFW shit) – and this is not a derogatory term (I’m not using it in the sense of how Western publishing industries uses it) – but merely to say that his works encapsulates that first step into the potential of art. It speaks to teen angst, budding sexuality, a love for the apocalyptic grotesque, a love for overwhelming extremes, a love for raw beauty, and a love for youthful vigor – while opening ways out of that mindset. It cherishes youth while providing the turn away. It is aware of its own artifice and celebrates that artifice – and the characters that populates his worlds are all archetypes and figures in a massive Platonic dialogue. And, the whole of Sakura no Uta in general is a refutation of artistic narrowness.
The trap comes when people take the content of those messages as an end rather than a beginning. For example, take the fact that people are keen to describe Sakura no Uta as a story that depicts/is daily life – when the daily life depicted in SnU is an idealized artificial form that skims the best bits – taken to an extreme through the use of techniques honed in Slice of Life works. This is no knock against Sakura no Uta – because SnU is aware of its own artifice but uses it in service of the communicative intensity. It’s similar to how the ‘daily life’ in a Yasujiro Ozu film might be too slow and sparse, or the ‘daily life’ in a Scorcese/Cassavetes film might be too hyperactive – but it still commentates something on life itself because it condenses rather than misrepresents. Art is communication in how it translates reality to service its message – and Sakura no Uta’s representation of a beautiful daily life is a translation of reality no different from Ozu’s solemn/elegiac daily life.
But it is important not to forget that it is artistry that is behind Sakura no Uta – that is – the bits and pieces of reality (human reality, which includes its ideals, myths, and simulations – and not just material reality) arranged in a specific format to ground the communicative thrust of the work. And SCA-Ji’s work is instructive because it communicates the question while providing several outs for the human mind to cling onto with no definite answer. Yet, beyond the mere message – it imparts this through artistic intuition – the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’ – and this is why the work as a whole is a greater criticism of artistic narrowness than the individual moments where it directly states those messages.
After experiencing Sakura no Uta, there might be those who are wondering what the next step is. Where is that artist that acknowledges that Art is both an intersection of the human and the world – and seeks to communicate both Heaven and Earth? That cherishes daily life while standing firm with an eye to the higher vision? Do I really need to answer that question…?
(Reminds you of a certain type of philosophy doesn’t it?)
Recently I watched Mean Streets by Scorcese, and it blew me away as to how powerfully all the threads in the film fit together, despite being so ‘seemingly’ meandering – and furthermore, that this was one of his first few works as a director is an astounding thing.
Amazing, for example, is how the very first appearances of every character grounds all of their respective worldviews and carries it through all the way to the very end. Charlie as the self-loathing Catholic. Johnny as the reckless infant. Michael as the ‘mook’ who thinks he’s tougher & smarter than what he is. Tony as the guy who’s looking to ‘protect’ his spot from the outside – the neutral.
Every character is caught in this personality cycle, and the film goes on to show how each character deals with their problems from within this cycle – while the other characters and poetic images serves to deepen the internal worlds of the main quartet – but also leaves a communicative leaning-outwards to tell us, the viewer, about the greater reality that is contrasted against the smallness of these character’s interiors.
The ending is probably the best example of this – with Charlie & Johnny going on an escapist joyride, while the cinematography tells us something about how they might be feeling – before crashing into a violence of images as Johnny gets shot by the vengeful Michael. But then, even with this dramatic scene, the film ends with a slow montage of the trio being saved by paramedics interspersed with the daily life of all the other characters – everything returning back to reality.
What Mean Streets reinforced within me was the idea that, as always – whatever works… just works. The film is completely non-linear, experimental, and uses all sorts of techniques. There is no aesthetic code that can direct us to how something works – because aesthetic codes, like Rule of Thirds and all that, can only direct us towards how certain emotional states or responses might be obtained – but communicating meaning can be done with ugly and dissonant things as well. All that matters is that the dissonance works with the message.
Aesthetics, in that sense, is a lot like Common Law in that there is a slow building up of ‘cases’ as to what creates what effect or does not create what effect – and how these things are put together and what threads can be followed. But, ultimately, there has to be a bit of intuition on the side of the perceiver rather than relying solely on those cases – especially when critics can chase smaller things in some cases without viewing the bigger picture – or turn into conspiracy theorists from threads that are too distant to be communicative to most people, but are communicative to you because you happen to have experiences that fill in the blanks. Usually, such experiences develop Empathy – but they don’t exert a pull from that standpoint beyond it. As Woody Allen’s numerous films (especially Manhattan) proves – Empathy can just be another toolkit in the message of the artist to make you attach yourself to characters who are probably horrible people, while the artist also leaves the counterpoint within the work – such that only those who are more receptive to those associations will understand that the work goes beyond Empathy and seeks to criticize the myths of those who Empathize.
There is an upwards spiral of instruction – and it’s confusing in the same way that Meditation-writer Daniel Ingram talked about how there are people who act enlightened after achieving their first view bouts of nirvana but don’t realize that they’re actually much ‘lower’ on the ladder than they think.
There is no way to properly convince people of the communicative gestalt that greater works achieve as compared to lesser works – except to show discrepancies between two works – and show one that somehow communicates more on one thing, while the other communicates less. And even after explanation, they have to feel it intuitively (or at least parse it intellectually) as the work itself progresses.
Even harder is to gauge whether something is purposefully ambiguous or just quirky and meandering. For example, stream of consciousness in Joyce might try to show the ‘undercurrent’ of mythology and culture that seeps into daily life, or, opposingly, to show how daily life might be pushed up to mythic qualities – but the way Joyce goes about doing it comes from infinite tangents that might communicate that but do so with frustration and laziness. I can feel this now because I’ve come into contact with A Norwegian in the Family – and that novel kind of does the same thing through long excerpts and mythological references in some parts… but simply never meanders because of how much it makes sure that everything fits and communicates. It does so many things at once. It understands that sometimes poetry and beautiful prose might be detrimental to the message. You process pulp fiction plots & prose faster than poetry, and Dan uses that pulp fiction ‘speed’ in some scenes to condense time so that parts that are huge masses of words & psychological information somehow manages to read faster. In other parts, he goes into his high poetic mode to deepen reality – but just long enough that you get the point and it doesn’t become over-excessive. It is a masterclass of informational pacing – and it definitely conveys and communicates more per page than a whole bunch of other writers. Even though I haven’t completed it – I cannot help but feel that this is probably the greatest thing that has ever been produced thus far in human history – Quantum Objectively. Combined with the fact that Dan interconnects his oeuvre such that all of the books seem to make reference to each other (I haven’t read his other books, but there are within A Norwegian in the Family to the greater Daniverse) – the combined output of Dan Schneider might be the greatest achievement ever achieved by a single human being.
Even though it is a frequent postmodern pronouncement that Literature is Dead – reading A Norwegian in the Family has made me realize that we’re only just beginning. The entire past of Literature feels like a kind of adolescence – where people were concerned about petty things like making pompous references to Classical works, or writing lyrical prose for its own sake, or spending too much time on descriptions, or being limited to some kind of lesser theme of race or culture or subculture (being content to merely describe the phenomena without analysing it in a deeper way and attaching it to deeper humanity). A Norwegian in the Family manages to achieve all of the above – references, lyrical prose, descriptions, and commentaries on race or subculture – but it does so much more. It is a Gripping Conspiratorial Crime Novel + Character Study + Historical Fiction + Philosophical Rumination on Evil + Homage to the History of Literature + Slice of Life Novel + Slapstick Black Comedy Satire etc…
It is not merely objectively great – it is now the Objective. Aim your hearts towards it gentlemen – there are no Rules but only Tools – the Process of Art is just beginning…
For fun, I translated some of the first part of C+C. This translation contains the original translation & the original Japanese + commentary. In fact, I’m gonna show the original first – not necessarily to attack Ixrec’s work (although I think he got rid of 90% of the sarcasm & humor & poesy) but just to put everything out clearly for people to compare. The commentary is just my own thoughts on the prose – and they aren’t necessarily anything definitive. But anyway – Enjoy!
As always, this is just another exercise for me to try and synthesize the style of the master into my own and so I care more about tempering my own prose, but if any of you find any mistakes in my translation, kindly flag it up. Thanks!
(13/04/17 – rereading it, I feel like I pushed too far in the tone and the comedic timing went off… but, you get the point – just go read the original!)
Having to constantly create new characters is a drag – isn’t it? With every new book or story – you have to mould a whole new quirky cast of characters and map out how these characters will interact with one another. Usually, what I do is I carry over some traits – but twist them into a different personality. But, even then, you have to think of a significant background and all that kind of thing.