Genre Fic: Escape Into Reality

One of my best friends introduced me to Babylon 5 (1994-1998) this weekend. For weeks, my friend’s been hyping this series. “The plot! It’s five seasons of the best storytelling I’ve ever seen! Everything matters! Every episode matters!!!” This is the same friend who introduced me to Star Trek Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), the sci fi drama I’m currently in love with (no matter how slowly I’m wading through the seven seasons on Netflix).Babylon 5 would have to be great.

I’ll let the intro credits introduce B5:

It was the dawn of the third age of mankind. Ten years after the Earth Minbari war. The Babylon project was dream giving form. It’s goal to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully […] The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Season 1 cast of Babylon 5
Season 1 cast of Babylon 5

The intro alone tells of a fully realized galactic setting, an intricate political landscape and an immediate philosophical question: can peace be achieved? I adore these complex story lines and watching a plot unfurl. Plot driven stories mean no filler-episodes which means strong storytelling, foreshadowing and pacing.

But I couldn’t get invested in B5. It was too plot heavy. My friend and I watched episodes from Season 1 and Season 2 and I didn’t care about the characters. Often, the main cast reacted to plot points, instead of acting to make them happen.

For me, B5 was too plot-heavy without enough character. But that’s the main definition of (and criticism against)  genre fiction: that it’s low-brow entertainment. That it hits certain elements solely to match readers’ expectations of what that genre comprises. Plot first, characters second. Technically, you can’t have plot without character–someone has to be doing the actions–but the difference is where readers or viewers are meant to focus our attention.For example, if a story is full of explosions, plot driven stories care more that the explosions  happen and that the story moves forward. Character driven stories care about who’s behind the explosion, why are they doing it, and who it will effect.

Steven Petite took the definitions of genre one step further in his article for the Huffington Post in 2014. “The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality.”

Yes, I want to be entertained by my sci fi, but genre isn’t about escape. It’s about immersion.

It’s drawing parallels to our world. These parallels come about through character and plot.  I will know those character so intimately as people that whatever plot conventions or subversions writers throw at them, I am with those characters every moment. Stories feel new because the characters are new and compelling and so like us.

Genre does not close off your senses to the world. It opens up your senses to a new way of seeing and experiencing reality. It’s a new angle. It’s an empathy we can’t get anywhere else: in what other stories but genre are we asked to sympathize and see ourselves as creatures who are literally not like us (not human)?

B5 was not the show for me. That doesn’t mean it’s not good writing or an incredibly plotted story. And even though I wasn’t hooked, remember all that political intricacy I mentioned earlier? That’s commentary on our politics. That’s plot driven fiction drawing viewers closer to reality.