Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sparkling Wine and Cheese

Just like a diamond living statue crystallized predator. 
(Notation note: ‘Vampire’ capital ‘V’ refers to any of our ‘fictional counterparts.’ Lowercase ‘v’ refers to my people. It would be even more awkward otherwise.)

Trivia that will live in infamy: vampires in Twilight sparkle in the sunlight. People were talking about this back in 2005. Even after Breaking Dawn, which has its own rap sheet (Multiple counts of Mary Sue, Elusive Plot, Vandalism of the English Language, Harassment of a Minor…) I still don’t think that anything’s gotten more attention than the fact that Twilight Vampires secrete organic glitter-glue.

How the Hell Does the Sparkling Work?

This could have been the cover of Twilight!

Nah, that’s not it. Maybe it’s that they’re covered in a layer of diamonds ‘embedded into the surface,’ or disco-ball tiles that somehow simultaneously look like grains of shimmering glitter. That’s roughly what you get when you put the ‘sparkling’ descriptions together, anyway (seriously, almost all those phrases and adjectives were used at some point). Each description looks different, and we get all of them, even when Meyer’s talking about the same person. If you go by the movies, though, the Vampires look like they’re covered in dew with its own theme song.

I don’t know, the Vampires are supposed to have smooth skin (of course), so I guess their skin doesn’t sprout glittery stones, even though they’re supposed to be rock-people (I guess they’re not granite). But if they were solid mica, they’d just be shiny (which is why I don’t think they’re ‘sparkly like diamonds’); you need lots of different tiny uneven reflective surfaces to produce sparkling. Some areas are reflective; some aren’t. Shouldn’t they be rough?

Are the sparkly parts exactly even with the non-sparkly parts of their skin, so it feels smooth, in just the right way? That’s convenient. Even glitter feels a little rough to the touch if you wear enough of it, and if the glitter grains are big enough to catch as much light as here. Do they have some sort of smooth transparent film over the sparkles?

I don’t know how Meyer managed to describe this damn phenomenon so often in a way that still feels so insubstantial and unexplained. We don’t get the real physical explanation until the Twilight Illustrated Guide and it makes less sense than anything I thought the descriptions were talking about (see below). You’d think this was all misdirection, and someone involved with this project was distracting us from the absurdity of the Fool’s Gold Vampires at Tiffany’s. They failed.

Just Lie and Say it was a Parody

I heard about the sparkling before I read the book, and I figured that this just had to be a parody – and if so, it was brilliant.

Vampires being killed by the sun is fairly new: folkloric and early literary Vampires were usually only weakened by it, or else they were biologically or culturally nocturnal. The great Nosferatu helped push sunlight to lethal weapon level. Hell, that was actually to dodge the copyright on Dracula, who was also only ‘weakened’ by sunlight. If you were parodying this trope with the sparkling it could work at least one of two ways:

Question 1: Does sunlight weaken or bother you? Answer: Yeah. It makes me look ridiculous. Question 2: Will sunlight kill you? Answer: No. It’ll just make me look ridiculous.

Most of your audience will be on Question 2, since the casual modern Vampire fan is more familiar with it. Sometimes parodies are funniest when you take something dramatic and make it as absurd as possible: the more dramatic and more absurd, the better (Dr. Strangelove is a great example).

Being burned alive is pretty frigging dramatic. So everybody’s expecting that,and you give them frigging sparkling? Hilarious! I know I was cracking up when I read it. And we were all cracking up even louder in the theatre. Damn, they even gave Edward the funniest line they could have: “This is the skin of a killer, Bella.”

Lethal Lack of Self-Awareness 

It wasn’t a parody. As brilliant a parody as this would be – that’s how bad it becomes when you realize it was dead serious. There’s a reason almost every Twilight parody exaggerates nothing, or needs to. As is, how would you even parody the sparkling? I guess Edward could step into the sunlight, and a heavenly choir of angels could appear and anoint him with a celestial gloss of shimmering confetti, and Bella could pass out from an overload of awe. Then again, in Twilight she does literally faint when Edward kisses her, so you’re back to square one.

We weren’t just supposed to take the sparkling seriously; we were supposed to take that whole damned scene seriously. It was a prelude to Edward revealing that he’s a murderer, and Bella revealing she doesn’t frigging care, apparently because he’s so beautiful. Body glitter is silly looking at the best of times. Here, it’s awesome enough to redeem murderers.

I should tell all my anti-capital punishment buddies about that: maybe during the appeals process convicts will help their cases by applying body glitter. At least they’d have a better chance at insanity pleas.

None of the characters respond the way the audience does to the sparkling, or, really, the way any normal person would. Even in the book, Bella sees Edward like this and gushes about how gorgeous he is: she’s literally awe-inspired. Oh, he isn’t just figuratively awesome, he’s literally fucking awesome. Then he lists every way he could brutally murder her, and she’s still dazzled and awe-inspired. That’s how most characters of widely differing personalities in the series react to the Vampires: awed at beautiful creatures, especially when they glitter.

It’s like a fantasy world where everyone has the same standard of physical attractiveness, and beauty is something that people literally worship. This would be great if this was supposed to be creepy, but as it stands, it seems to reflect the way Meyer believes real people behave.

The Cullens seem to take the sparkling pretty seriously. They live in a glass-walled house so they can ‘be themselves,’ and in Midnight Sun, Rosalie gets in a good whine about how in cloudy places like Forks, they can be ‘normal.’ The sparkling seems to be part of their identities.

What Could Have Been

Edward, at least in the first movie, sets up the sparkling as dramatic and horrifying. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have been expecting him to turn into some hideous monster. Why didn’t he?

Meyer gushes about how gorgeous her Vampires are, and they avoid the sunlight. So make them turn ugly or monstrous in the sun! That has a cool dark fairytale feel to it. It also fits with the usual folkloric notion of the ‘light showing your true nature’ or perceived true nature. It has a social commentary vibe, and would be the perfect setup for Meyer’s attempted ‘love conquers all’ theme.

More importantly, it gives the Twilight Vampires a real drawback to their condition. It could also create some real plot conflict: say a certain level of sunlight is necessary to initiate the change, and they’re in public and the weather changes? You could construct a pretty dramatic scene around that – which Meyer does.

It Gets Sillier

She constructs a very dramatic scene around Edward exposing himself in public to sparkle, and then he’s in trouble with the Volturi and we get our climax toNew Moon. Apparently, seeing a guy flash a parade and sparkle at the color guard reveals the existence of Vampires. Imagine what would happen if he were also doing the chicken dance and wearing a feather boa. He’s a witch!

That’s part of the reason I can’t just ignore the sparkling, as superficial as it initially looks: it’s a plot point and a character point. It’s the reason the Cullen kids and Carlisle the medical Doctor miss work. It dictates their movements during the main plot action, at least whenever Meyer remembers it. It helps determine where they live, and apparently grates highly on their self-esteem.

They live in frigging Forks because they fell hook, line, and sinker for the stereotype about the Pacific Northwest being perpetually cloudy. I’m assuming these guys need more than partial cloud cover, since it shouldn’t take too much sunlight to trigger the sparkling. But you get plenty of heavy cloud cover in the Great Lakes region, too. Even the cloudiest (three quarters of cloud cover plus) cities are only cloudy between fifty to sixty percent of the year. The top of the list, Seattle, beats out Buffalo, New York by only five cloudy days. I don’t know how these guys function.

So why Forks? Why Forks, where their alleged and unjustified arch enemies the werewolves live? Why did they come back after only seventy years? There were probably survivors who would have recognized them. Why don’t they live in Seattle, or Buffalo, or, you know, a city?  If the Cullens were so worried about the ‘secret’ they’d be better off in a big, anonymous, individualistic city then a stereotyped small town like Forks where everyone knows everyone. Why is sparkling their first priority, and why haven’t they even thought it through?

But what am I saying? The Volturi and the Cullens each treat the sparkling itself as a bigger security threat than the trail of bodies both groups have left behind, which law enforcement officials would trace back to them in any honest version of this series. Just after the Volturi posture and threaten Edward about his public New Moon sparkling incident (and create a much bigger scene while doing it), we get to listen as they brutally slaughter a group of forty innocent people they lured into their dungeons, and still the penny refuses to drop. Why? Why would anyone see a guy sparkling and think something supernatural was going on? It’s an effect easily simulated with two-dollar makeup.

Why would anyone connect it to Vampires? It’d be one thing if it was established in-universe to look for sparkly guys when hunting Vampires, but that seems to be something that only the werewolves know about. Humans in Twilight only know about the tropes everyone in our culture knows (e.g., the ones Meyer heard of, since she didn’t do any research).  Sparkling is a new trope in universe and out of universe, so they’d react the way the audience would and it sure wouldn’t be any kind of dramatic climax.

Is there some unmentioned supernatural explanation for why Vampires can’t just use full-body foundation to cover the sparkling? Hell, you wouldn’t even need full-body: putting it on your face, hands, and neck would be enough with the right amount of clothing, meaning you’re got a slightly more involved makeup job than many Americans before coffee.

You’d need touch-ups throughout the day, of course, because otherwise, god forbid, people would think you were wearing glitter, and nothing’s scarier then someone like me thinking you have bad taste. Hey, I hate wearing make-up, but I don’t let it rule my life. Rosalie and Alice don’t hate makeup, so I can’t even come close to justifying this. I like looking for an in-universe justification for a plot hole: it’s more fun than the real answer. Here, I’ve got nothing.


Now, if you threw me into the sun, if the anaphylactic shock didn’t kill me, the off-the-charts adrenaline surge would. And vampires have long since ruled out any simple solutions to the problem. So here I am, seeing these Cullens let a horrific non-problem control their lives in a way I’ve actually experienced.

Humans will wax poetic about how vampires never see the sunrise, but that’s the least of your worries: the real problem is your schedule is now completely inverted, and you’re terminally dependent on artificial microclimates for at least half the day. It limits your job opportunities, dictates where you live, your actions, how you get your blood, how you survive from one day to the next. It’s a factor in nearly every decision you make for the rest of your life, and it’s a permanent long-term threat to your existence. Well, the Cullens and Volturi seem to feel this way about the sparkling.

You can’t have your characters react so dramatically and so substantially to an easily resolved practically non-existent problem without making them look like they haven’t even lived in their own worlds.

Really, How the Hell Does the Sparkling Work?

While we’re on the subject, why do they only sparkle in the sun? Ultraviolet light is different from visible light. You don’t get cancer from visible light because it’s low-energy on the electromagnetic spectrum, and it’s higher energy radiation like ultraviolet that’s carcinogenic. As for allergies, well, as my people know all too well, you can be allergic to almost anything, even if some allergies are rare. But why would visible light and ultraviolet light react to glittery skin any differently?

Why wouldn’t sparkling happen in dim sunlight on cloudy days, or in bright enough artificial light? For that matter, what the hell kind of adaptation is this? What function does it serve? How much prettier do the pretty people need to be to attract prey with no physical advantages and no real defensive ability? It’s not like nature knew humans would develop explosives.

What the Hell is the Sparkling Supposed to Mean?

One of these days, we'll see good Vampires who look more like this. 

The sparkling doesn’t just fail on a logistical, character, and plot level, but on a thematic one. Nocturnal Folkloric Vampires were a symptom of the primal fear of darkness. In literature, ‘Light equals weakness or death’ was an overly literal interpretation of sinners being afraid of the holy light, or of elusive beings’ fear of the truth. In my fiction, I’ve occasionally used darkness as a metaphor for ignorance, so light basically means ‘enlightenment.’ Here, um, I guess it means that pretty people can look even prettier in the right light. It’s a theme worthy of a fashion model.

And it gets worse. When Vampires are good guys, usually you’re using a ‘dark is not evil’ motif. Hell, yeah. Well, Edward is always melodramatically calling himself a monster, and Bella’s usually reassuring him, herself, and the audience that he isn’t. You have Carlisle giving the usual Christian speech about how he’s trying to do his best even if he’s ‘damned.’ So, at the minimum, Meyer was going for ‘dark is not necessarily evil.’ Hey, she told us so!

Appearances can be deceiving.
Most of Meyer’s Vampires are evil, even if we exclude her ‘good’ guys. But are they ‘dark?’ Are Vampires ‘dark’ by default, even if they’re diurnal supermodels with no fangs and not even a hint of otherness? The whole point of the exercise is light and dark not necessarily corresponding to good and evil, and at its root, the concept is all about challenging preconceived notions and cognitive biases and saying ‘weird people aren’t always dangerous.’ A moral version of Count Orlock would be ‘dark is not evil.’ Even Joss Whedon's 'Angel' counts. Glinda from Wizard of Oz sure doesn’t, and that’s what we have here.

Meyer tries justifying their beauty by saying that they need it to attract humans and kill them. Basically, they’re ‘beautiful but deadly.’ That inverts the motif altogether, making it ‘light is not good.’ That would work better if her Vampires were exclusively intended as villains and it was a classic story of the dangers of the forbidden. So with the Cullens (and the Denali sisters, but who cares about them? Meyer sure doesn’t) you’re supposed to be taking away the ‘deadly’ part, making them – beautiful. Awesome. I guess the motif is: ‘light is good, except when it’s not.’

Go towards the light; your brain is shutting down. 

The Science and Un-science of Sparkling

Finally, the real honest-to-gosh explanation for sparkling doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard to justify something as simple as a skin condition, but Meyer wasn’t content to make the sparkling ‘just one of those things.’ She made the sparkling a huge part of the Vampires’ general biology.

Now, I love it when authors give scientific explanations for anything in speculative fiction, but it’s fine if they don’t, as long as the authors don’t try to spin that into an anti-science message.  Designing fictional science is just another way of using your imagination, and working within scientific parameters can actually create new plot and character opportunities. Given how important this fictional science was to the story and how much research Meyer obviously didn’t do, I don’t see why she even bothered.

I think she threw this idea together after skimming some Internet cell biology she was looking up for Bella and Edward’s biology class scene. Or else, it’s a half-remembered terminology bit from a class she had twenty years ago gussied up with some last-minute improvisation. I’d understand if this was a public meeting and she was unprepared for a hardcore fan question, but this was in the frigging Twilight Illustrated Guide.

Such a fount of clarifying detail. 

She said Vampires’ plasma membranes are not semi-permeable, unlike every other plant and animal on the planet, but crystalline. And that’s what creates the sparkling. Yes, they sparkle at the cellular level. She didn’t say whether this applied to all their cells' plasma membranes. Is it just skin cells?

She did say the ‘crystalline cell membrane’ is why they’re so strong, so I’m guessing that means if I flayed them, I’d see sparkling exposed muscles. Unless she thought that giving people tough skin would also give them the equivalent of super- muscle strength, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Is their venom sparkly? How about if I cut open their heads – do they have sparkly brains?

She seems to be using ‘analogy’ reasoning here: our cell membranes are semi-permeable and we’re weak, so Strong Vampires should have nice hard crystalline membranes.  Except strength is the result of major interactions between whole tissues, surface to body ratio, ability to handle physical stress, et cetera, and animals ranging from bears to birds all have semi-permeable cell membranes, which are actually quite solid.

‘Semi-permeable’ is about controlling which particles pass through the membrane, not about squishiness. I don’t see how anything could get through a non-porous crystalline membrane, so that means the cells wouldn’t function, and they’d take the rest of the organism with it. Then they’d really be rock-people.

Photo by Sebastian Kaulitzki

It is true that plant cells have cell walls, thickened and strengthened by cellulose fibrils. It’s the reason plants aren’t piles of sludge and it’s hard to make them burst. Vampires have cell walls, apparently. They’re rock-people and plant-people. Are their cells plant-like in other ways? Do they have big vacuoles? I guess Vampires can’t photosynthesize, since they’re not green. Well, they’re the worst plant-people ever.

Cell walls are located outside the cell membrane, though. Plants have semi-permeable cell membranes, too. Actually, the cell wall is porous. Animals have skeletons for structure: we don’t need cell walls, and they wouldn’t help us with strength, because our structure is completely different. I’m not even sure an animal with cell walls could move. Meyer keeps calling the Vampires living statues, but I think they were at least intended as living action figures.

The animal/plant cell wall distinction is one of the principle differences between the two. And I know Meyer probably knew that, and wanted her Vampires to be an exception. Yes, they must be Mary Sues down to the cellular level, and as with most Mary Sue tropes, it must defy the laws of reality.

Vampiric plasma membranes harden as part of the transformation process. Sounds like a loss of plasma membrane integrity to me, or in other words, cell necrosis and dead frigging tissue. Was that Meyer cleverly trying to justify the Undead Fallacy? Well, the Vampires sure don’t look like they’re covered in gangrene.

The worst part? Cell membranes are microscopic. If sparkling occurs at the cellular level, we shouldn’t be able to see it. 100 micrometers or less is microscopic and cell walls are 10 micrometers thick at most. Animal cell membranes are only .008 micrometers (you can’t even see them with light microscopes). I wonder if Forks High has an electron microscope? Maybe he and Bella should have had a scene looking at Edward’s cells, a follow-up to their bio class scene –that I’d like to see.

Writing fictional science is difficult, even if you have a science background. You design a fictional humanoid and take something out or put in something foreign, it usually has consequences you have to account for, which can be hard to foresee. Fair enough, and again, I do applaud any writer, regardless of background, for making an effort. Even with these results.

One fictional science writing method is taking the physical characteristic you’re thinking of applying to your non-human, seeing if it has some precedence in nature, seeing how it works in that animal, and trying to apply it to a humanoid in a way that’s justifiable within general anatomy. Okay, what are some animals that sparkle? Fish! Make the Vampires scaly!

If you want them to be smooth and scaly, put a transparent film over the scales. You can make it a pretty pattern of tiny scales if you want. Say the film was some kind of protective adaptation, and say that whatever it is that causes vampirism has a recent marine-based evolutionary history. What’s wrong with that?

C’mon, Meyer, scales are sexy! There’s a whole ‘scaly’ subculture now, right up there with the furries. And look at mer-people! Everybody loves mer-people, and they don’t have to be fifty/fifty fish-human hybrids. Vampire mers, or vampires who are slightly mer-ish or vice versa? Awesome! It worked for Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

Meyer, are you prejudiced against mer-people? I hope not, what with you working on a mermaid book, and all. You’ve said that you’re obsessed with mermaids, and I can quote you. But your books are filled with prejudice against werewolves, V/vampires, and humans, so I’ll not be giving you the benefit of the doubt about the mer-people.


You know, all the way through these books, I kept on asking the question: why? Nobody involved in this project knew enough science? Nobody had a cousin who knew enough science? Nobody said ‘if no one’s doing the research, we shouldn’t bother with the science?’ Nobody pointed out any of the overwhelming problems with the sparkling concept? The original working title of Twilight was Forks, after the setting, and Meyer’s agent got her to change that. She had that much power, and she didn’t take down the sparkle? Her editor didn’t, either?

The thing is, they must have taken issue with it. I don’t even think most of the fans like the sparkling; they tolerate it and defend it, but I don’t think it would have been their first choice. And yet the sparkling seems to become more prominent in every book, going from a vague plot device and a few bad descriptions in the first book to being the arguable inciting incident in the Short Second Life of Bree Tanner and a huge part of Vampire general biology.

I think Meyer got fixated on the sparkling, for some reason. She was met with all the opposition you’d expect, defended it as vigorously as she could, and we get to watch the sparkling get a more prominent role much in the way that arguments escalate between people: someone defends his/her side to the point where it descends into madness. We’ve all been in this situation, it’s just that most of us aren’t bestselling writers whose fixations go public, to receive all the praise and scorn the public can muster. And you should never underestimate the public, or conflict escalation, or fixation. Even on a meta-level, you don’t need to exaggerate when it comes to the Twilight series.

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