Pulpit Fiction: Art, Cause, and Bad Writing

Discussion in 'Art & Culture' started by Tiassa, Sep 3, 2019.

  1. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

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    Fighting fantasy with science: It ought to sound exciting.

    Among the forgettable anime running on one or another streaming service was one with Chinese-derived symbology and some sort of postapocalyptic mecha-tech, as a reclusive scientist close to the heart of humanity's downfall re-emerges from obscurity with a chance for redemption in saving the world from his excess and error. What brings the show to mind is a scene in which that hero shares a moment with a former colleague, reflecting on megalomania; for the most part, it's thematically common stuff in the genre.

    That scene occurred to me as I watched the Cartoon Network debut of Dr. Stone, in which a mysterious event has somehow turned every person, and any number of birds, on the planet into stone. Except they're not. Over 3,700 years later, the stone breaks as if a shell, and a struggling human is freed back into life. The early character set is two high school boys, one a scientist and the other a dumb-jock, brutish oaf type; the girl the oaf was confessing his love to when everyone turned to stone will eventually be part of the story, as well, as near as we can tell from the OP and ED sequences.

    The first episode leapt quickly into the plot, but that was its main redemption. And there might be a mixed reward, as well, in the show's focus on "science" as if it was a cause or character.

    The idolization of science kind of fits the narrative, even if the English-language version of the oaf is the sort of thing that will get annoying quickly; there is an old, American cartoon take on Steinbeck as comedic fodder, and try it with a green-haired, post-emo wannabe mad scientist and his overenthusiastic Japanese jock stereotype best friend. But a market trend in anime, these days, is including some tidbit of tantalizing information; e.g., every episode of Food Wars, despite its other faults, includes real culinary information. Dr. Stone included a brief chemistry lesson to explain how to free stone-encased survivors, and it's real chemistry even if the biology is impossible. But that's the thing about suspension of disbelief, right?

    Except ....

    Unless ....

    Here is the problem: It slips by at first because, well, it's anime, and we expect a certain amount of weakness in the script, so the clumsy bit with what science can't explain, and angrily explaining the difference later, can read like a writer preaching in the script or, well, good ol' fashioned bad writing. At the end of the episode, though, having succeeded at understanding how to overcome the stone, our hero pledges to save the world with science—"I'm going to beat fantasy, with science as my only weapon."

    Now, it is, admittedly, easy to get snagged up on the point that the story is a fantasy to begin with, but here we come back to suspension of disbelief: If you are the character in the story, then this is really happening to you; as such, it is unclear what fantasy our hero is referring to. Toward the question of preaching or bad writing, we are reminded that it need not be merely one or the other. The line about fantasy does not, at least in English, fit the character and circumstance, but it does seem to make more sense as an editorial comment from outside the story, as if from writer or director or producer.

    Or ...

    ... I suppose it could be something like Professor Membrane, from Invader Zim, a character simply dismissing as unreal whatever happens around him that he cannot comprehend according to his idea of science.

    That would, for Dr. Stone, be an interesting pretense, but it's rather quite unlikely; I suppose I could go grab the tankobon and find out, but part of the serial-television experience is to go in order, so skipping to the end just doesn't seem right.

    In a larger question, though, there is actually a weird presentation of science as a cultish idol or icon taking place in recent years. It seems part of a generational transition in storytelling, but that could easily be the wrong way of looking at it; this could also be a market shift reflecting financial sources. That latter is a larger question, though I can think of a particularly blatant example in a recent series about a video game, which in turn is not an unrelated consideration; those strange narrative elements are frequent influences in a streaming-service pseudogenre called "for Gamers". Still, though, if both Guillermo del Toro (Tales of Arcadia) and the Tsukishimas (Ingress) can figure something out about video games, the one story reflects on aspects of reality while the other projects political arguments; and while the one story is a comedic adventure, we might endure the dystopian antisociality of the other by simply laughing off the requisite naïveté as to be confused by such basic notions of right and wrong. Then again, everything about the other really does seem to reflect its market sector.

    As to Dr. Stone, the first episode suggests a nicely-drawn storytelling disaster occasionally punctuated by recognizable comedic tropes, which, in turn, is not an unusual result for the students-save-the-world variation on the postapocalyptic reclamation subgenre. For a while, it's been easy to pick on one particular distribution source, but Dr. Stone isn't from that set; nor does this weird whiff reflect that other source.

    If Catholics and Jews, for instance, decided Witch Hunter Robin was worth complaining about for its treatment of Judeo-Christian history, I would probably tell them to leave it alone, that this is what it looks like when there isn't any politicking behind the expropriation. By contrast, if I ever decide to actually boycott the Chipmunks, it probably won't have anything to do with getting their start singing "Witch Doctor", and, besides, kind of like Chik-Fil-A, it is problematic to declare a boycott against something I don't consume, anyway. To be clear, I don't watch the Chipmunks because I find them tiresome and annoying. More directly, the sixty year-old novelty pop classic is far more denigrating of "witch doctors" than a post-Catholic teenage witch-nun who uses a fake Sefer Yetzirah, among other tools, to hunt other witches who aren't part of the Church organization in Rome.

    And that comparison? Well, consider people we might know, even some here at Sciforums, who have much to say about the scientific method, and in defense of science; and we might also be familiar with oppositional currents pretending science is some sort of conspiratorial cult to deceive humanity. What we have in the Dr. Stone juxtaposition of science and fantasy appears, prima facie, very much akin to the cultish accusations we might get from anti-scientific critics. The strangeness, of course, is its apparent place in advocacy and support of science.

    Of course, the same writer who taught me so directly against this aspect or appearance of preaching in fictional narrative is also the one who grinned when I asked him about a short story, called it one of his favorites, and then schooled me in the art of writing into and out of a self-made hole. Dr. Stone has the rest of its run to dig itself out. And that's the upside: If this was anything other than a sneeze of really bad writing amid indistinct, blasé writing, they will need to pull out some really good writing, and that would be worth sticking around to see.

    To the other, they led the second episode with the line. They really like it.

    †​

    Along the way I found Austen Goslin's↱ review of the show for Polygon, circa July; the headline runs, "Dr. Stone is an isekai anime with all of the exposition and none of the magic", but at one point was slugged, "Dr. Stone is an isekai anime that struggles to sell us on reality". The subhead explains, "The first two episodes of the anime would probably be better off without any of the dialog".

    At any rate, that was worth mentioning. It's hard to explain just how bad that line about fantasy and science was.
    ____________________

    Notes:

    Goslin, Austen. "Dr. Stone is an isekai anime with all of the exposition and none of the magic". Polygon. 15 July 2019. Polygon.com. 2 September 2019. http://bit.ly/2kpOxOy
     
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  3. Seattle Valued Senior Member

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    Is this a thread or a review of a children's cartoon show?
     
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  5. Tiassa Let us not launch the boat ... Valued Senior Member

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    Adolescent.
     
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