Thursday, July 19, 2007

The myth of the fantasy genre

Sometimes viewpoints that are dead wrong can provide a starting point for insightful discussions. I feel that way about Christian opponents of the Harry Potter series. They think it's bad to expose children to stories depicting witchcraft in a positive light. Fans respond that Harry Potter is fantasy, and that these books are a healthy tool for stimulating a child's imagination.

"Fantasy" is a funny name for a genre. The word suggests make-believe. All fiction is make-believe, but fantasy deals specifically with events that not only didn't happen, but couldn't happen. We, the readers, allow our minds to enter a universe that we know could never exist. The books tap into some part of our subconscious where rationality has not penetrated, and for a brief period of time we "believe" in magic. The genre is not about exploring possibilities, as science fiction does, but about losing ourselves in impossibilities. As Orson Scott Card puts it in his 1990 book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, "science fiction is about what could be but isn't; fantasy is about what couldn't be" (p. 22).

But that raises a problem. If we designate all supernatural stories as fantasy, as is the common practice, we're implying that there's no such thing as the supernatural. I presume that Card, as a Mormon, would resist that implication. Yet he doesn't appear bothered by it: "As rational people, we know that magic doesn't work and superstitions are meaningless" (p. 22). True, but what about the miracles of the Bible? What about God and the afterlife?

The fantasy genre avoids this dilemma because it rarely deals with religion. Magic may be rooted in pagan belief, but most fantasies do not feature pagan deities. Two important pioneers of the genre--J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis--were devout Christians. (J.K. Rowling is, too, but let that pass.) I once saw someone make the following clueless remark about Harry Potter: "Why do the kids celebrate Christmas if they practice witchcraft?" But that's just the point. The magic in Harry Potter isn't a religion; it is an alternative series of natural laws. It has about as much to do with ancient occult practice as Westerns have to do with the real Old West. And it has about as much to do with Satan worship as armadillos have to do with Swiss cheese.

The fantasy genre, in any case, centers on things that almost everyone agrees are imaginary, like elves and dragons. Religiously rooted supernatural fiction, like The Exorcist, usually ends up in the horror section of a bookstore. People may call it fantasy, but that's not the publishing category. Fantasy, despite its religious origins, is essentially a very secular genre. Individual works like C.S. Lewis's Narnia series may express religious ideas, but mostly through metaphor.

Does a book even need magic to be considered fantasy? The Princess Bride has no obvious magical elements, unless you consider a volcanic swamp populated by ferocious capybaras to be magical. As for Miracle Max, he's an herbalist, not a sorcerer, and he doesn't show up until quite late in the story. Yet everybody thinks of The Princess Bride as a fantasy, largely because it has all the trappings of one.

The matter gets even fuzzier with books that deal with the afterlife, like Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come, which I discussed in a previous post. Wikipedia classifies such novels as "bangsian fantasy," after an author named John Kendrick Bangs. But the thing is, Matheson actually believed in what he wrote. He based his depiction of afterlife on extensive research into near-death experiences and the visions of mystics. To him, and to many readers, his book is surely not "fantasy."

Card hints that the genre designation does have something to do with what people actually believe about the world. For example, are The Iliad and The Odyssey fantasies? No, says Card, because they were written at a time when most people believed in such stuff. What about the Bible or Paradise Lost? Card prudently remarks that even today many people "would be outraged to hear of either being classified as fantasy" (p. 18).

Even science fiction isn't immune to this dilemma. I have heard George Lucas described as a "modern mythmaker." But myths are what a culture actually believes in. People do not go to Star Wars to see a world they believe is real. Rather, Lucas takes the myths of the past and spins them into entertainment which modern audiences accept on a purely symbolic level. In a sense, that's what all fantasy writers do. If we could see what future societies will think of our own, we might be surprised at what they consider our myths and our fantasies.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Clever translations

When visiting Israel a few years ago, I purchased a Modern Hebrew translation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the fifth in the series, and the source of the latest movie). My Hebrew skills are at a level where I can understand snippets of dialogue, while having much more trouble with the general text. But what interested me was comparing it with the English version. I quickly learned that the translator must exercise some imagination in conveying ideas that can't be understood through literal translation.

The first question that occurred to me was how the translator handled puns. Because puns exploit word pairs that sound alike but have different meanings, they usually are language-specific. Therefore, they cannot be translated directly. Take the following passage from Chapter Seven:
"And don't take too long, Weasley, the delay on that firelegs report held our investigation up for a month."

"If you had read my report you would know that the term is 'firearms,'" said Mr. Weasley coolly.
This exchange depends on the double meaning of arms. Unfortunately, Hebrew has no word that means both weapons and limbs. What the translation does is make Mr. Weasley's report about ekdichay yad (אקדחי יד), or handguns, and the confused wizard calls them ekdichay regel (אקדחי רגל): "footguns." This gets the same point across as in the original--the wizard's ignorance of technology--and creates an equally outlandish image. But it doesn't involve the same level of wordplay.

In other instances, the translation does manage to retain the wordplay of the original book. For example, in the English version Hermione starts a club called Society for the Promotion of Elf Welfare, or S.P.E.W. The Hebrew translation gets lucky on this one, rendering the club's name almost word for word, with the resulting acronym sounding very close to the the Hebrew word for "allergy"!

At least the Hebrew version preserves most of the character names from the original. Many other Harry Potter translations don't. When I posted the "footguns" example on a language list, someone wrote back to me that the Norwegian version changes Dumbledore's name to Humlesnurr. The reason given is that the name Dumbledore comes from a British dialect word for "bumblebee," and humle is Norwegian for "bumblebee," while snurr means "to whirr."

I have no idea how often translators find sensible solutions to these kinds of problems. Puns and wordplay are only the beginning of the challenges. Good translations stand on their own as works in their own right. But they may overstep their boundaries by improving on the original work. One Israeli teenager told Haaretz that he considers the Hebrew version of Order of the Phoenix superior to the English version. That is not necessarily a compliment.

Friday, July 06, 2007

I post, therefore I am

You're walking down the street, and a scrawny young man approaches you. He has acne and wears braces. He can't be more than seventeen. He says to you, "I'm George, a 52-year-old surgeon." A moment later, he says, "And I'm Clara, a 26-year-old law student."

As absurd as this scenario sounds, many people are acting this way for real, not because they are psychotic, but because the Internet enables them to get away with this sort of behavior. In most online discussion areas, users can adopt whatever name they want and say just about anything without facing the consequences that would result from similar behavior in the real world. Many use this anonymity to their advantage, making up facts about themselves to intimidate others and empower themselves. They also may pretend to be more than one person by posting under more than one name. In extreme circumstances people can be traced to their real identities, but this rarely happens except when law enforcement is tracking criminals. There are other, limited ways of counteracting the problem, none of them foolproof.

It is therefore important to be cautious before accepting claims that people online make about themselves. I'm not saying that you should go around calling people liars, but you should be cognizant about the way people in Internet discussions can use their anonymity to manipulate the situation.

I have had several apparent encounters with such individuals. I say "apparent" because I never was able to prove my suspicions. The earliest was in 1997, on the Excite message boards, which happened to be my first experience with message boards. A fellow started a board entitled "HOMESCHOOLERS ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO TEACH!!!!!!"

He took every opportunity to insult anyone who challenged his views. His main argument was based on personal experience: he wrote that he knew several homeschooled children who were "all lacking in social behavior, adjusting to their surroundings and general knowledge." I asked him to clarify what exactly he had seen, pointing out that his observations may have been too limited to draw general conclusions. He replied that he had encountered numerous homeschooled kids in his jobs as an interviewer and a college instructor, and they were "all blown away by others who had attended formal education."

A fairly well-known homeschooling advocate named Karl Bunday, who has made a side career interviewing homeschooling families, joined the board and asked for permission to interview some of those kids. The person replied, "you expect me to just cough up names of my students so that some nutcase can come to their house to evaluate them?!? That is hardly confidential or professional." The question, then, was why he would base his arguments on information that others could not verify. For all we knew, he could have made it all up. Even if he hadn't, his judgment of those kids may have been less than fair. That was a distinct possibility considering how quick he was to insult complete strangers.

When I raised these points, he said that questioning his claims was unreasonable since the purpose of these boards was to "share experiences." He then attempted to put his experiences on the same level as the documented evidence of homeschooling success I had presented: "I guess I could compile my studies and call it research refuting homeschooling as being effective."

People observing the debate told me I handled myself well, but I felt I was being suckered too easily by this person's antics. He was clearly exploiting his anonymity to win the argument, by relying on "data" that could never be investigated. I acted flustered at times, and he seized on that weakness. (The good news is that I successfully changed the mind of someone else on the board, a person who actually listened to my arguments instead of just trying to fight me.)

Years later, I got a new opportunity to deal with this sort of situation. In 2005, after taking a course in which my final paper examined the movie Fight Club, I went to the Internet Movie Database's message board for that film, eager to share my insights. I soon found myself in a heated argument with two posters. If I take what they said at face value, they consisted of a middle-aged psychology professor and a young female fan. Personally, I suspect both of them were in fact one person. How do I know? I don't. I found clues, to be sure, like the fact that they frequently posted just minutes apart from each other, and that their writing styles (particularly spelling errors) were similar. But I mostly based my suspicions on my familiarity with this sort of situation.

The argument started when the "professor" posted an analysis of the protagonist's mental condition. He ridiculed all the laymen (which he spelled "laimen") who had addressed the issue. Having researched this topic, I found many errors in his post, and I pointed out that the filmmakers were themselves laymen. I hinted not too subtly that I doubted he was a real professor.

He and the "girl" erupted into insults. Here is a sample (pardon the strong language, but this is what they said): "Stop being a little bitch crying because you don't like that someone here has experience and truly knows what they're talking about." "If you ever have something to say, do yourself a favor and just shut up." "YOU were the only retard unable to comprehend me, you think it's my fault. That's your mom's fault." "Being the arrogant asshole you are, I'm sure you're not done yet, so go ahead and prove me right again by posting another whiney bitch post."

Does any of this sound like the words of a typical professor? I asked him for proof of his credentials. He replied that they had been "proven to TRUSTED people on this board, aka NOT YOU." Of course I respected his privacy; however, as long as he was flaunting his credentials, it was ridiculous that he should expect everyone to believe him without verification. Any anonymous user can claim to be a professor. It doesn't prove anything.

For a working professor, he sure seemed to spend a lot of time on the board. He had established a club called the "Space Monkeys" (modeled after the film), and board members who wanted to join he would initiate into it. He started a new thread inviting his Space Monkeys to attack me. There, they each provided me with brilliant kernels of wit, such as the following (I'm not making this up): "Kylopod is stupid and his logic is stupid and the reason he is stupid is because the opposite of smart is Kylopod." Afterwards, the "professor" praised the intelligence of these comments.

I had a chance to get angry and join in the abuse. But I decided to restrain myself from such an emotional reaction. That's one of the advantages of message boards as opposed to real-life encounters. You get some time to think before posting a reply. Here is a passage from one of my posts:
I want to thank you.

Now, I'm sure you're thinking I mean that only in a sarcastic way, and maybe you're right. But I'm actually trying to be quite honest now. I really am thankful for the insight you've provided me with your latest posts, though I realize my gratitude is of a kind that you're not likely to appreciate.

You see, I've always been fascinated by multiple-identity trolls such as yourself. What makes you tick? I've had my theories, but it's largely impossible to confirm any of them. Trolls are elusive almost by definition. All I can deduce about you is that you're pretending to be a professor, and that you are assuming at least two identities on this forum. Other than that, I know very little about you. I assume you are young, but I don't know how young--you could be anywhere from teens to twenties. Perhaps you actually are older; I really can't say for sure.

But your two latest posts have helped me understand the troll mindset better than I ever have before.
Despite his/her/their attempts to portray me as an "attacker," I adopted a cool, detached tone when replying to their rants. I acted completely unruffled by their insults. I gave the impression that I was coldly analyzing them and reacting to their attacks only with quiet amusement. As one observer put it to me in an email, "you calmly and coolly handed them their asses time and again, and you did it without swearing at them. I am humbled by your patience."

I could have simply walked away as soon as they started attacking me. That would probably have been the most sensible approach. But I've always had the weakness that I enjoy deflating bullies. In this case, I was being passive-aggressive, a quality I don't normally display in the real world. I'm usually very direct with people. But because this was a message board, I had the opportunity to try a different strategy, and I was pleased by the results.

I may have improved in my ability to handle this sort of situation, but I'm still perplexed by what it all means. I have made actual friends online. But the lack of accountability remains a problem with Internet communication. I know I'm for real, but I often cannot be sure that someone else is. There's something positively solipsistic about this situation, where the reality of everyone else's life can only be accepted on trust.