Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Could, Would, Does

Can't remember where I saw the article -- maybe in an old Best of TREK paperback, maybe in The Physics of Star Trek -- but it stated flat out that the transporter represented technology so advanced, it didn't even fit with what the 23rd Century otherwise showed was possible. In other words, going by the rest of the Federation, Klingons, etc., technological achievements, none of them should even be close to having a working matter-transportation system.

And yet there it is, like the proverbial bee that physics says can't fly.

This may end up being a half-formed post full of half-baked ideas, but I'm on a sugar high from Easter candy. Buckle up, folks:

Are there only three kinds of superhero stories?

Any superhero story involves at least one idea that separates it from what we consider the real world. Accordingly, any superhero story makes a case for how a given Concept X either a) could work, b) would work, or c) does work.

“Could” stories include most retcons, but they also include stories which rely on a lot of “realistic” jargon. “The Anatomy Lesson” is a classic Could story, as is Alan Moore’s explanation for including the ‘50s Marvelman stories in his revamp. However, those Chuck Dixon Batman stories that tell you the costumes are made of Nomex and Kevlar are also Could stories. Basically, a Could story says that Concept X is workable on its face, but flawed in its execution. The Could approach says that Swamp Thing can have Alec Holland’s memories, and Mickey Moran can have ‘50s adventures, but they need these retcons to do so. Likewise, Batman would be ventilated like a breezeway without that Nomex and Kevlar. Superhero comics today rely heavily upon the Could approach. Batman Begins is a very Could movie.

The pinnacle of all “Would” stories, at least for superheroes, is Watchmen. Would stories are declarative and definitive. Civil War is a Would story. Miracleman Book 3 (where he confronts Margaret Thatcher and ends up ruling the world) is a Would story. Ruins, where the spider bite gives Peter Parker cancer (right? didn’t read it) is a Would story. Supreme Power is a Would story. Would stories are generally depressing.

However, in a sense, the early Marvel superhero titles are also Would stories, because by and large, they allow a generous amount of real-world influence. Peter Parker takes his Spider-Man act to TV, much like the JMS-flavored Blur becomes a product pitchman. The Fantastic Four likewise become celebrities, and their public identities give them a new set of problems. The Hulk is pursued by the Army. Even Captain America is taken wholesale from the last days of World War II and plopped into the 1960s. Early Marvel was doing riffs not just on DC-style superheroes, but also on its own pre-superhero comics, using those disparate ancestors to say that its new superheroes “would” act differently, and specifically more “realistically.”

Once a superhero universe gets established, though, it starts to make its own rules, and therein lie the potential for divergences. “Flash Of Two Worlds” was a Could story. Dick Grayson leaving for college in “One Bullet Too Many!” was a Would story, but the eventual Robin/Nightwing succession was a Could story. It all comes down to the extent to which reality influences the fantastic. The most obvious real-world influence is the passage of time, and its acknowledgment is at the heart of both the Multiverse and the Dick-to-Jason transition. (It’s also at the core of DC’s problems with Captain Marvel, but that’s a topic for another day.)

That leaves the Does stories. All-Star Superman is a Does title, as is most of Morrison’s superhero work. By implication, then, the Mort Weisinger Superman of the Silver Age, and the Jack Schiff Batman of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, are Does stories. Instead of starting with the real world and incorporating the superheroes, they start with the superheroes and incorporate the real world. Hogwarts is a Does environment. Calvin and Hobbes was a Does strip. The Does stories are, at least theoretically, the most fun, but they put the burden most squarely on the creators.

See, the Could stories work from the outside in, relying on a knowledge base that is fairly public. It’s like fan fiction (to my fanfic-untrained eye): both extrapolate, or interpolate, based on identifiable bits of continuity. When we say Reed Richards is acting out of character, we are saying that our extrapolation/interpolation doesn’t match up with JMS’ or Millar’s. In that event, we need a Dwayne McDuffie to insert another knowledge bit -- another variable that “makes the math work” (allusion intended).

In that respect, the Could stories and fanfic are two sides of the same approach. Both look at the deficiencies in Concept X and try to fix them with real-world rules. By contrast, the Does stories attempt to identify the “rules” of a fantastic/superheroic world and construct their stories around those rules -- which may be, and probably should be, somewhat different.

Accordingly, the Does stories are the most vital, because they appear to be the only avenues for generating raw story material. Both the Could and the Would stories can put new spins on old material, but the Does stories provide the grist for the Could and Would mills. The Does stories are special for this reason, because almost by definition they are not predictable.

Now, this is not to say the Does stories are perfect. Plok reminded me in an e-mail that I already effectively labeled "Spock's Brain" a Does story. It was in a comment on Jim Roeg's blog back when Civil War ended:

...I imagine Data or Bashir or the Doctor cornering Admiral McCoy at some cocktail party and asking some winking question about "...so, you really got it reattached?" and rather than getting some remodulated Treknomedibabble answer, just having Bones shrug and smile. Oh well, these things happen. You don't have to explain everything, because once you do, you're limited by the explanation.
Obviously we're talking about the willing suspension of disbelief here, and the degrees to which we can accept those suspensions. "Spock's Brain" is pushing it, but the point is, it's something new. It's grist for the mill. You can't construct a retcon around it if it doesn't exist in the first place.

And that, I think, is the chance one takes by stepping out on that limb marked "Brain And Brain..." or postulating that a device can disassemble someone on a quantum level and reassemble him -- body, mind, and spirit, remember -- thousands of kilometers away. The transporter was born out of budgetary necessity (much like "SB's" invisible alien ship, come to think of it), because it made the series work regardless of whether it worked within the context of the series.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly how I feel about the Does stories, because ultimately, I just appreciate the creativity on display. Again, the Could and the Would stories are predictable to various degrees because they rely upon real-world rules. Readers are comfortable with them because they trust the rules of this world. The Does stories require the reader to put his trust in the creative team, and sometimes when you're talking about the fantastic that's not as comforting. It can be hard to embrace these kinds of stories, because to a certain extent that can involve choosing fantasy over reality, and that can be an awful choice....

... so instead we bring the real world into the fantastic, and we end up with the Coulds and the Woulds.

I dunno. I could go on for a little while longer about how "protomatter" represents the fudge factor of creativity, but I'm getting tired and you probably are as well. The point is, we readers (and writers, more often than not) keep trying to solve the mysteries of these universes, when their mysteries are their raisons d'etre.

What do you think?


plok said...

I'll be back to comment shortly, Tom! Think this could stand a Part II, though, definitely.

Tom Bondurant said...

I agree about Part II -- just need to get it organized.

plok said...

Still not "back"...must go mow a lawn tomorrow...but it occurs to me that you could say the "Does" stories establish a simple rule about how new story material is incorporated into the existing story framework. A simple rule, meaning as intuitively easy as possible..."there's another universe where the Federation is a brutal Empire, and the people all savages in it...another dark side to the human/technology "progress problem" of SF, only this time not the one where human nature gets buried by progress, but its opposite instead, where human nature is unmediated by it...the transporter beam gets hit by lightning or something, and there they are, looking into a new mirror." Pretty simple.

When you start looking for an in-show scientific rationale for the mirror universe's difference, though...you're in Could-town.

As I said, I'm not really here yet, or I'd go on and on a bit more, and maybe even bring in superheroes...see you when I get back! But, one more thought: the aggressive Treknobabble of the later series seems to me to be Would-oriented.

plok said...

Oh yes, almost forgot..."when the mysteries are their raison d'etre", exactly, couldn't agree more...each new piece of story material is of course also new, and so the simple rule doesn't integrate it into what's gone before, but makes the universe bigger instead. And integrating and rationalizing things more tightly kind of makes the universe smaller, I figure.

But, that probably goes without saying.

Okay! Lawn prep! Looking forward to Part II!

Tom Bondurant said...

By the way, I deliberately didn't mention any of the fine Trek examples from your email (including, for everyone else's edification, the Mirror Universe), because I figured it was your privilege to bring 'em up in public.

Anyway, I'm with you about the progress of the Mirror Universe from Does-ville to Could-town. It makes me wonder -- can the "Does" stuff be described as "high concept?" If so, when you try to make it a little less so, aren't you're going down the Could road?

The Mirror Universe's origins were traced back to First Contact twice. First, in the "Shatnerverse" novels where Judy and Gar Reeves-Stevens basically put Shatner's ideas on paper, the divergence proceeds from an alternate timeline created by the Borg attack. Cochrane is made even more suspicious and cynical by the Borg attack, so the humans don't go out into the galaxy all altruistic and open-minded. Many years later, when "Enterprise" did its Mirror episodes, it suggested that Cochrane was already looking out for number one (so to speak) when he blows away the Vulcan landing party. So not necessarily a "scientific" reason for the differences, unless I've missed some bit of Treknobabble from DS9.

And as for the Treknobabble being Would-oriented, I'm not so sure, mainly because I think the Would paradigm depends on the rules of our real world. For example, the fine Eugenics Wars novels are Could stories because they say that those events actually happened, but nobody paid any attention to them until the history books were written many years later. Likewise, the real-world physical laws have forced the Trek science advisers to construct their warp theories around warping space and/or using subspace so the speed of light is never really exceeded. That's not a Would, even though it is pretty declarative by now, because those rules can themselves be further retconned in ways that the real world's rules cannot.

By the way, the irony is not lost on me that I am trying to categorize, and apply rules to, a genre that disillusions me with its rulemaking....

plok said...

Just one more thing, Tom: I once got in a conversation with a guy in a bar who was asking me "does the transporter disassemble Kirk and then recreate him someplace else, essentially "killing" him, or does it just convert him into "energy" and then reconvert him back to matter?" My answer was "it converts him." And why do you say that, he wanted to know? Because, I replied, who wants to watch a show where the hero gets killed three times an episode?

The quantum-reassembling thing (and it was in "The Physics Of Star Trek", as I recall) just doesn't fly. However! If the teleporter was more of a discovery than an invention...well then, it can just work, and Kirk doesn't have to commit suicide everytime he goes down to a planet.

My own theory? They just found that ship. Well, they obviously don't know how to work anything on it...!