Monday, 28 November 2016

One F or two, two

Or The Sorcerers versus Nanny MacPhee.

The other night I had the pleasure of catching The Sorcerers.  Barely long enough to count as a feature - how pleasurable given the number of bloated movies dong the rounds - I had the distinct feeling that I'd seen it before, decades ago.  Like deja vu all over again.

Wikipedia describes it as science fiction/horror and I'm happy with that, as this post doesn't really work without that premise.  And I think we can agree that Nanny MacPhee is fantasy, and children's fantasy at that.

So, they're at the opposite ends of the SFF spectrum.  But, like a Venn diagram, there's a degree of overlap.  Primarily, for my purposes, both stories involve mind control; the conceit being the Sorcerers' fulcrum to the plot, whereas it's incidental to Nanny MacPhee, where it's merely used to bring the errant children to heel by turing them on each other, thus demonstrating Ms MacPhee's power.

What makes The Sorcerers science fiction, not fantasy?  It seems to come down to the eponymous sorcerers being scientists with a clinical white room full of bank of switches and dials controlling some psychedelic mind-bending headwear that Ian Ogilvy is invited to insert himself into.  Quite why he agrees to do so is taken at a gallop by the plot-donkeys, so quickly that you forget to question it.  But it's clearly the product of science, a practical demonstration of a scientific hypothesis, that allows them to control Ogilvy's mind.  So it's science fiction.  QED.

Hold on.  Not so fast.  We're told their scientists, but we see them carrying out no experiments in a formal sense, recording no data.  After locking into Ogilvy's mind through lots of spinning and flashing lights, they control it by sitting around a table, grinning and gurning.  The room of shiny boxes may as well be a wand, or Nanny MacPhee's eyebrow, it's just a device to move the story on: do 'A' and 'X' happens.  Never has Arthur C Clarke's comment that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" been so unwittingly illustrated.

Consider the wand, the traditional tool of fantasy versus a remote control device, like your TV remote, but one that gave you mind control.  That would be a sci-fi trope, right?  What if the remote had no buttons, but was voice activated?  Still sci-fi.  You want those voice activation commands to be very specific, so as to avoid accidental triggering.  Good idea to put them in a special language, like a Hogwarts-stye magic spell.  And what if it were shaped like a simple pointing device, a sort-of stick.  Like a wand.  Still sci-fi?

Or what if all the wands in the fantasy storyverse were replaced with black boxes with dials and switches, would all those fantasy tales suddenly become science fiction?  Or, if wands could have some backstory explaining their construction - more than just Rowling's Olivander's construction methods - with some pseudo-scientific principles, some fancily-monikered theory? 'It looks like a magician's wand, but it uses Avinder's Principle of Universal Mitigation to rearrange the molecules of the liquid', rather than, kazaam, and the water is turned into wine.  Still fantasy?

As for Nanny MacPhee, she doesn't even have a wand.  Her mechanism of choice is just an arch of the eyebrow and, presumably, an internally muttered spell, if it can be called a mechanism at all.  Magic reductio'd to its absurdum.

So is it that sci-fi has an explicable mechanism behind its workings, whereas fantasy is all just, well... magic?  But, hold on.  The science is utterly pseudo science, pure hokum Which we're happy to swallow.  There's nothing in the wand, but there's nothing in the remote control either, except a storyteller is telling us that we should believe that there is.  Perhaps the true difference between fantasy and sci-fi is where the bollocks lies - do you want to believe in magic and fairies, or in science that isn't true?

Is that all there is to it?  A pseudo explanation?  Choose a funny name out the phone book and put 'Principle' after it?  Dress it up in futuristic clothes and avoid tossing any dwarfs and, yes, I think you do have a recipe for turning base fantasy into shiny science fiction.

PS - And don't get me started on where comedy crosses the line into horror - Nanny MacPhee making the kids rub their bruised heads is one thing, but what if she were to make them feel for the ice-pick sticking out of their temple?  I think I'll let somebody else examine the blurring of the two...

No comments:

Post a Comment