Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Off Topic: SyFy

Warning: I switch between Sci Fi and SyFy quite often in this post, and it may be confusing. It's not helped by the sci fi genre, also often mentioned. To assist in your navigation, I say Sci Fi when it makes sense to me to refer to the channel that was, and SyFy when I mean the channel that is. I use standard capitalization on both, so that the sci fi genre is distinguished from the network. It may be that the network would have been better off imitating the world of sci fi publishing, with names like Tor or Tachyon, or something else that begins with a T. It could not have been less awesome than SyFy, after all.

It may also be that this explanation strikes you as unnecessary and dorky. As is explained later, I am aware of and comfortable with my dorkiness.


I've waited a long time to have my say on this, so you've probably heard - the Sci Fi channel has changed its name to SyFy. They've matched this new name with a fairly lame new slogan - "Imagine Greater" - and the most bland and unattractive web site to come out of web 2.0.

I mean really. Look at that logo. It's as if they were trying to do something retro like a 60s science fiction TV show title, only without being awesome.

So why this change?

According to the VP of the channel in an article in Wired.com
, SyFy can be trademarked and branded, and sci fi cannot because it is a genre.

According to the President of the channel in an article in TVWeek.com
, the old name reminds people that they don't like science fiction, although they really do, they just don't know it. Quoting the article directly:

Mr. Brooks said that when people who say they don’t like science fiction enjoy a film like “Star Wars,” they don’t think it’s science fiction; they think it’s a good movie.

The president of a network that was once called the Sci Fi Channel believes that people watching Star Wars don't think they are watching science fiction. Oh, the implications of this statement. For starters, I don't recall ever seeing anything as classic and popular on the Sci Fi Channel as Star Wars. But then, it's not like playing a Star Wars marathon would be groundbreaking programming, and would not exactly win them a devoted audience. The statement reveals a tremendous misunderstanding and disrespect for their audience, that ranges from "they don't know what science fiction is" to "people like good movies, not science fiction". As if sci fi and good movies are mutually exclusive.

I present to you, the highest grossing films of all time. The vast majority of these films are sci fi or fantasy, a genre divide that I think we should overlook considering that the Sci Fi Channel often did. Obviously, this list is no representation of whether these films are good or not, but it does represent what sells - something that I think SyFy is much more interested in. It would seem that either SyFy is out of touch with what is popular, or just incapable of delivering it. Considering how few hits they've had, I'd say both.

Further evidence that they don't understand the audience they should be marketing directly too is this direct quote from the SyFy president, also from TVWeek.com:

The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular.

Oh, the many things I could rage about, where to begin? That video games are a thriving mainstream business? That "geek" has become a word so over-adopted by hipsters that people who bore the title before it was cool make feeble attempts at reclaiming their cred (not to mention their community) by crying out "but you were POPULAR in high school!"

Or perhaps, that sci fi has plenty of female fans, of which I am one, blogging about sci fi novels? OK, this activity does not really put me in the mainstream of female sci fi fans. But what about the tons of women I see at sci fi conventions, their numbers equaling or exceeding those of the men? Women who are not just the sci fi women that the president of SyFy is thinking of. Most of them are young, attractive women, the type who will gladly make out girls-gone-wild style for the attention of slobbering men. Those women you see at your local bar on ladies night? They are also at the sci fi cons. Don't these women represent the very demographic that they think they are missing?

In the end, I think the best explanation for why Sci Fi became SyFy was described in the TWiT podcast, episode 207: that Sci Fi is too specific, and in order to justify showing non-sci fi programming while also telling their audience to quit their whining about the non-sci fi programming, they must change their name. Sci fi fans do tend to be sticklers for details, and we are more likely to complain - far more likely than the viewers of AMC when they show films that are not really movie classics. This post is part of that.

Of course, they could have tried something really wild, like acquiring better original programs instead of the occasional hit, thus permitting them to keep their focus on science fiction and keep their old name. But that's just crazy talk.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The one's I've already read: the Alice books

So, it will take me a while to finish Dune. I knew this when I started it; I have a lot of preparations to make for DragonCon, and so I have less time to read right now. Also, a friend of mine confirmed that Dune is a slow read. This made me feel better, because I've frequently re-read paragraphs to try and figure out what all was just said. It's nice to know that it's not just me.

But until I finish Dune, I will try to keep the blog going with a few more of these posts about the books I'd read before I started the blog.

So here's a way in which I'm a bit of a hypocrite - I did not like the free love in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Meanwhile, I love Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Of course, the Alice stories have no sex in them, but it is believed by many scholars that Lewis Carroll was most likely a pedophile - although a pedophile who didn't act on his desires.

It's a debatable topic. There's information that his family removed and marked out of his diaries. but that information may not be what we think it is. There are the nude photos of girls - but they were taken with the permission of the girls' mothers, and given to the families rather than kept by Carroll. But they are creepy to the modern eye. But there was a trend of photographing nude children at the time, as a theme of innocence. But still, they are creepy photos. I've seen them, and they make me want to wash my brain.

But when I read the stories, I don't find myself thinking about the biographical details. In my mind, the Alice stories exist outside of the seedier details of Carroll's life. Instead, I see his love of math, and games, of language and puns. He doesn't appear to have an agenda, and that allows me to forgive his personal flaws.

With Stranger in a Strange Land, on the other hand, I felt like I was being told that life would be better if we learned what the Man from Mars knew. I felt preached to (the long, speechy style did not help), and therefore I felt compelled to review the novel in terms of the flaws I perceived in the lesson. Likewise, Chronicles of Narnia. It's preachy at times. It evokes a response against preachiness in me.

Having said that, I am not a scholar on any of these works. I did not like Stranger in a Strange Land, but it's considered a sci fi classic. I disagree, and I can think of books that I liked a lot more which would be a good replacement on the list. But the list-makers are entitled to their opinions. This is the thing about reading books on a list - you won't like it all, and that's alright. These genres were not created strictly for my tastes. It gives me the opportunity to shape a sense of what I like in the genres, and choose directions from that. For instance, this list has made me into a Philip K Dick fan, and that's a good thing. It's nice to have things to read, but it's also nice to gain a sense of direction in my reading.

I'd also like to add that at the time in my life when I was surrounded by people who took illegal and recreational drugs, I spent many days amongst the druggies watching Disney's Alice in Wonderland. The druggies liked to speculate that anyone involved in something this weird must have been on drugs. Lewis Carroll must have been on drugs while writing Alice in Wonderland. The Disney animators must have been on drugs while they were creating this film - which is a ridiculous and laughable assumption for many reasons. Primarily, it just seems very unlikely that Disney employees were getting high at work. Not to mention, making an animated film is a very difficult and technical process, and back then they did the whole business by hand. I sincerely doubt anyone could carry this off under the influence of hallucinogens.

Lewis Carroll may have taken opium. It certainly was available, although it seems there is little to support the rumors of his opium addiction. Even if he did, I sincerely doubt he wrote under the influence. It was my observation during those years amongst the druggies that none of them ever did anything creative, or even productive.

Sure, there are artists and musicians who are both exceptionally creative and drug users - the 60s as a collective whole prove this. But those people were talented to begin with. Drugs don't create talent.

I feel a little regret that this post has very little to do with these actual novels. But this blog isn't about reviewing each novel, it's about the experience of the novels. My experience with Alice is complicated.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jekyll and Hyde: The dual nature

There's a popular question: if you could choose a super power, would you choose flight, or invisibility? The question is deceptive, because it's not just about entering the world of comic book heroes. It's about why you want that power. People who want to fly want to get someplace quickly, want to stop paying for transportation, and want to show off. In an episode of This American Life, one man specifically says that all the girls would want to sleep with the flying guy. People who want to be invisible want to get into movies for free, spy on people, and steal clothing - assuming anything that they are wearing is also invisible. No one would use their powers to fight crime (which is reasonable, because they do not have super strength, or immortality).

I thought of this question and its moral implications while reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Dr. Jekyll believes that all humans are divided creatures, split between good and evil. He wishes that the human mind could be freed from the struggle to reconcile the two, and so he uses his medical knowledge of drugs and their side effects to make a compound that will divide the low from the high. He feels as if doing this will allow him to become two separate people, and even creates a name for his darker self. But he soon learns that he cannot be free from the crimes of Mr. Hyde, which were far darker than he predicted.

I liked this story a lot, and recommend it. It's good to read a well-known classic and see how it was originally presented, free from the various adaptations. I like that, while it is essentially a horror story, it has an element of science fiction, with Jekyll's reference to experimenting with drugs that have known side effects. I was delighted that it is not revealed that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person until you are well into the novel, which seems to me an especially Victorian element. It's smartly written with an effort towards timelessness - Hyde goes out at night and does evil things. We don't know what - it is left to us to imagine what he does, to adjust his crimes to our own sense of evil.

According to some reading I've done on the novel's meaning, the Victorian interpretation was that good and evil exist in everyone, and attempts to repress your darker nature will cause it to erupt, and will cause great outbursts of evil. In my own reading of the novel, I perceive that Jekyll was more evil than he admits before dividing his soul. He wished that he could live without the struggle between his evil nature and Victorian morality, and his desire to free his evil side is the goal, not an effort to create a personality of pure goodness. At his transformation, he delights in the feeling of losing the reservations of morality. Only in fear for his life does he regret what he has done. The true horror of the tale is that he is a man without remorse throughout.
Next up is Dune by Frank L. Herbert. It comes highly recommended by a few fans of the novel. It is also difficult to find at the library; the library search engine is not designed to provide simple results for a simple search. When you type in "Dune", it pulls up an entire page of various novels in the Dune series, putting them in no logical order, so that you have to move on to the second page of results just to locate the first novel in the series. And of course, then you have to keep searching to find copies that are available at your local library. I think the catalog divides them between distinct editions of books, because a search for one novel may turn up several different results which are all the same novel, along with a few books about Dune, a book on dune buggies, and a children's book about deserts.
This is not meant as a complaint on my local libraries, which are excellent. I just wish some local benevolent tech genius would donate a new search engine to the library.