CULTURE & ARTS
01/06/2017 08:55 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2017

Great Science Fiction Isn’t Just About Facts. It’s About Imagination.

“The OA” is emotional, spiritual, and humanistic. That doesn’t make it bunk.
Netflix

Warning: if you haven’t watched “The OA” but plan to, we don’t recommend spoiling it by reading this post.

When Andy Weir first self-published The Martian ― a book that troubles itself with scientific accuracy, but not, say, the color of its protagonist’s hair ― it was a quick hit. His 99-cent ebook sold 35,000 copies before publishers took notice and Crown Publishing bought the rights. The rest is history. Or a version of it, starring Matt Damon.

The book made it to The New York Times’ bestseller list, an impressive feat for a title belonging to the thought-to-be esoteric subgenre of “hard” sci-fi, or sci-fi concerned more with the “sci” half of the mashup. Readers reveled in Weir’s technical proficiency (his dad’s a particle physicist). Reviews were mixed, but leaned positive. A “B” review from Entertainment Weekly laments, “The men and women we see in action on the ship and at NASA are brainy but dour. Still, the technical details keep the story relentlessly precise and the suspense ramped up.”

As readers, and viewers, it seems we can be more willing to overlook these character-centered shortcomings, more so than we’re able to suspend our belief for the unreal, or the accurate-ish. Just look at “The OA,” the surprise show that debuted at the tail end of last year, controversial for its ending ― called out as off-color by critics ― but also for its ethereal message.

The eight-episode Netflix project follows a girl who’s returned to her hometown after a long disappearance. When she left, she was blind; now, inexplicably, she can see. The girl’s adoptive parents named her Prairie, but after her presumed abduction she calls herself “the OA,” a title that remains cryptic for much of the season.

We learn that the OA had a near-death experience, or NDE, as a child in Russia, where she was the sole survivor of a sinking bus crash. Before the accident, she had ominous dreams that predicted it in flashes, and she always woke up with a nosebleed, a quirk that led reviewers to draw comparisons between “The OA” and Eleven from “Stranger Things.” (The connection is mostly superficial.)

During her NDE, the OA tells a sort of goddess-guardian-oracle named Khatun that she wishes to return to Earth. And she’s able to, but at the cost of her sight. She’s then shipped off to America, where she lives with her absent, extended family until she’s adopted by the Johnsons, a kindly couple that raises her in the suburbs. 

The OA ― who’s still going by Prairie Johnson at this point ― is tormented most nights by her nosebleed-inducing dreams, which she interprets as premonitions. The Johnsons view her behavior as problematic and seek to medicate her; whether she’s experiencing psychotic breaks or truly supernatural phenomena is left ambiguous on purpose. Eschewing empirical evidence in favor of an individual’s lived experiences, the show’s portrayal of Prairie ― and later, the OA ― is one of acceptance and imagination. When we’re asked to consider that her premonitions might have real, physical consequences somewhere beyond her reeling, traumatized brain, we’re forced to take them seriously. She’s more than just crazy; empathy is born. 

This idea is threaded through as the story builds. We eventually learn that, during her absence, Prairie was held captive by Hap, a man doing research on NDEs, along with a rotating cycle of fellow abductees. He’s researching where they go when they nearly die ― what happens to their minds, or spirits ― by drugging them and drowning them over and over.

We also learn that Khatun gifted Prairie a bird from the afterlife, which she swallowed, granting her the ability to dance or move in a specific way that feels, to her, important. It sounds like mumbo-jumbo belonging to the same family as healing crystals, but one of the other captives, Homer, is on board with her theory that they each must complete these coordinated movements together in order to escape. Over the course of years, the “movements” are born, these jerky gestures that look like either rituals from a far-off ancient land, or a trendy new workout fusing yoga with Zumba. (The OA, it’s worth noting, looks like she’s scoured the sale room at Urban Outfitters, further imbuing the show with this decade’s particular brand of New Ageiness.)

When she’s set free, the OA makes her way back to the Johnsons, but yearns to return to Homer and the captives she left behind. She scrounges up a crew of high school students and one teacher, who for their own varied reasons are intrigued by the OA’s story and wish to help her. There’s Betty, a teacher who’s mourning her twin brother; Alfonso, a promising student-athlete who piles on responsibilities at home; Buck, a transgender teen; Jesse, a soft-spoken orphan; and Steve, whose violent tendencies could land him in military school. They become the OA’s captive audience, stand-ins for the family she lost in Hap’s damp basement prison.

They learn the movements, not knowing when or why they’ll need to perform them in the future. Then, in the final scene of the final episode, it becomes clear: the OA’s crew performs their dance in the midst of a school shooting, and it’s so bizarrely distracting that the shooter pauses long enough to be taken out. The plot choice has been criticized and defended. Tasteful or not, it casts off the idea that it matters whether or not the OA’s premonitions are real or in her head. The effect is real, and that’s what counts.

Not everyone agrees. Writing for Gizmodo, in a post titled “The OA Is Bullshit, But It’s Beautiful Bullshit,” Evan Narcisse says, “the lack of closure feels like a calculated ploy to avoid delivering a concrete answer to its central mystery.”

But it would seem that the lack of closure ― of clarity about the OA’s true backstory ― is the point. The imagination, the show posits, is as real as the real world. And before you dismiss such a takeaway as wishy-washy, remember that it’s the crux of so many beloved stories.

In the final installment of Harry Potter, Dumbledore upholds the realness of the imagination by reminding Harry, “of course it is happening inside your head [...] but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”; in Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s wild rumpus matters not because it was or wasn’t a dream, but because of what the hero gleans from his adventures. In William freakin’ Shakespeare’s plays, the substantiality of false worlds is celebrated again and again. It’s arguable that the concept has helped shaped storytelling as we know it. Depending on who you ask, the concept is timeless or hackneyed. But it certainly isn’t cheap. 

In a Facebook chat with The Huffington Post, writer Lidia Yuknavitch — whose Chronology of Water explores the fluidity of our bodies, our genders, and the stories we tell, and whose forthcoming novel, The Book of Joan, approaches sci-fi anthropologically ― praised “The OA” as a show about “desire toward meaning-making kissing desire of the body.”

“I have a gigantic crush on the creative mind of Brit Marling,” she said. “I think we are in DIRE need of redefining what we mean by ‘spiritual’ today, away from old theologies and dead myths that relied on god the father. I think new paradigms are being born like new stars, bringing us closer to ourselves, and new forms and themes in storytelling are emerging. Thank the night sky.”

She added that criticisms of the show as wishy-washy pseudoscience are unfounded. “I think it’s a little reductive to call ‘the OA’ a ‘spiritual’ show without adding to that the helix made of spirituality and astrophysics ... you know, hard science. The many worlds theory, string theory, the ‘music’ made from Saturn’s rings,” Yuknavitch said.

It’s true that “The OA” is a new kind of science fiction, at least for mainstream audiences. But its heavy reliance on bald emotions, occasionally corny mantras and theories that could’ve been plucked from college dorm rooms doesn’t mean that it isn’t also rooted in the fascinating facts of the universe. Like its heroine, the show has a foot in reality, a foot in unreality. Asking it to commit to one or the other would only rid it of its wonder.

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