Thursday, July 30, 2009
So you wanna talk Sci-Fi?
And she's only the second hottest female in sci-fi history.
SPILLOVER. All right. You all like Sci-fi. Got it. Just wondering if it's possible to get past the favorite shows, favorite episodes discussion to something deeper. Let me try. I admit I'm at a disadvantage here, even though a lot of the punk writing oeuvre could be considered science fiction, too. Irony? I'll leave you all to wrestle with that if you want to. Feel free.
I think the thing for me to do here, though, is explain why a lot of science fiction icons leave me cold, and what I did like about the few works I've enjoyed. Then you can fiill me in on where I've missed the boat or why my own experience and criteria are deficient. Sound fair?
First, a sort of honest inventory of my likes and dislikes. I loved the original Star Trek, despite the cheesy sets and effects, because of Shatner. Period. He filled that captain's chair. He had a real taste for combat. When he went to work against the Romulans or Klingons with photon torpedoes, etc, I believed it. The worse the odds, the more he seemed to be alive and in command. None of the endless other Star Trek spin-offs ever convinced me, and perversely, the more they tried to upgrade their makeup and special effects, the more bored I got. Turns out, one of my biggest hangups about all science fiction is plastic faces and bizarrely eccentric body forms, which from the very beginning seemed to me to be a kind of cartoon multi-culti statement intended as propaganda for dumbasses. I also think the few plots I saw of the Star Trek Next Generation series reinforced all that in a big way. The last thing in the world Piccard ever wanted to do was use the awesome firepower of the Enterprise. And since these shows really are space operas (i.e., high tech horse operas featuring the U.S. Cavalry against the Indians IN SPACE), what on earth (pun intended) is the point if nothing ever really happens?
I have truly loathed every single episode of the endless Star Wars saga. Too cute by half, fake mythological, and increasingly self-important. I remember Bill Moyers conducting an interminable series of interviews with Joseph Campbell, whom I actually liked when he lectured us at my school. But his repeated references to Star Wars in the Moyers series set my teeth on edge. The beginning of pop intellectualism, which is no doubt responsible for the fact that it's now possible to take courses in comic books at major universities. Suck.
[My only other personal brush with icons in this realm -- the day a publisher bought The Boomer Bible I saw Isaac Asimov hailing a cab in New York. I thought his muttonchop sideburns looked ridiculous, and he looked sour. But no one's at his best hailing a cab in the Big Apple.]
I didn't read the science fiction classics as a boy. No Heinlein. No Arthur Clarke. Like everybody else in the known universe I was required to read Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man. A Hitchcock/O'Henry trick ending sort of piece. Yawn. I once saw Harlan Ellison interviewed on the old Tom Snyder Show, the one with the blacked out set and lots of cigarette smoking going on. Ellison explained -- this was way back in the days when people were wondering if Star Trek would ever rise from the dead -- that he had submitted a movie script in which the entire universe is destroyed and the Enterprise has to bring it back, but the producers told him his story "wasn't big enough." He was clever, but he was also fondest of one of the -- to my mind worst and shallowest -- Star Trek scripts ever, the gruelingly obvious allegory about a half-black-half-white man chasing a half-white-half-black man through the universe in perpetual hatred. He was proud of that effort. Phooey.
Which is a big big part of my whole problem with science fiction. I actually began my professional writing career at a company called Datapro that did technical reviews of every kind of computer product. Everyone who interviewed there was told of the constant dilemma of the hiring bosses: hire a technical whiz who could learn to write or a writer who could learn about digital technology. (The best of us all was a Wesleyan music major who learned datacom by "hearing" the bit stream in her mind. Genius.) Science fiction writers always struck me as scientific types who fancied themselves as writers. Their technical inventions were formidable, but their characterizations, their themes, their philosophical musings were, well, superficial. And in the rare cases when they weren't superficial, they were decidedly lacking in passion.
I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey the year it came out, in Cinerama, which was stupendous. But in human terms, it was as dry as one of those ancient inert craters on the moon. A function of admittedly admirable intellect entirely divorced from human experience. How much wisdom could it possibly contain? One could admire it as some sort of intricate puzzle, but one could not feel anything for anyone in it. Is that even a movie?
What else? I liked the first Alien, but it wasn't really a science fiction movie. It was a horror movie set in space. Every sequel has gotten worse. I liked the first two Terminator movies, but chiefly because they were action movies, science fiction as prop warehouse rather than perspective-changing premise. The more they grapple with time travel, the more incoherent they get. (Really hated the TV series about Sarah Connor; I'm as fond of gratuitous nudity as the next guy but the female terminator was creepy, the putative savior of mankind was a hopelessly immature chump, and mom was borderline incestuous in the way that only network television can intimate without ever committing to.)
I liked the Stargate movie, which is to me one of the few science fiction movies that resonates past the end credits. Why? Because it did not amputate itself from human history, the ultimately fascinating mystery of human origins, that to me is the only real topic of art and literature. An absurd take on it, perhaps, but still one that allows us to consider and reconsider our own unexamined assumptions about where we come from and what that means.
Does it seem like I'm not getting anywhere? That's where you're wrong. I have a litmus test for science fiction that is closely analogous to my litmus test for religions. The latter is a simple one: if your religion discourages you from asking questions and seeking illumination from the possibly surprising answers to those questions, your religion is a death cult, not a path to salvation or spiritual enlightenment. Sci-Fi? If your premise separates itself entirely from earthly human experience, any allegory it attempts is cheap, and there's absolutely nothing remotely worthwhile about it. No exceptions. No human imagination can make up an entire civilization from scratch. Every such attempt is chock full of cheating, hidden assumptions, and most often, downright propaganda. (There goes Dune, including all past imperfect and future perfect versions of the same failed vision.)
That's why I got taken in, as I admit I did, by Battlestar Galactica a year ago. I thought they were converging on a human experience. Table lamps. Whiskey. Anglo-European military ranks. Pet dogs. In the end it was the most fraudulent piece of sci-fi crap I have ever endured. Corrupt and empty from start to finish. A talky, muddled, self-indulgent soap opera that resembled Twin Peaks more than it did Star Wars, of which the original series was a blatant ripoff.
To my mind, sci-fi is mostly junk. The few examples I like are movies that succeed on traditional virtues like character, clever plot, and action fun. I like Riddick. It's exciting. I like the first Predator movie -- simple and exciting.. I like -- and I'm surprised no one mentioned -- FarScape, which I like because of Claudia Black, Claudia Black, and, of course, Claudia Black. I like Soldier starring Kurt Russell. I liked the old Doctor Who starring Tom Baker, not because it was sci-fi or moving in any way, but because it was classically mordant British comedy, which they no longer do now that they're a dying nation. And I liked the cheesy sets and the music one of the commenters finds unsettling. Loved it, in fact.
As a kid I read an Edgar Rice Burroughs book, one, about some hero on the moon. Enjoyed it a lot without understanding a word of it; I think it was part of some saga I never found the beginning or end of. Only science fiction I actually remember. Well, I remember reading Fahrenheit 451, but nothing in it. No Claudia Black.
Now. Do your worst. You started it. I invited you to continue. Have fun.
Did I say fun? I'm sure I did. Which is spelled C-L-A-U-D-I-A B-L-A-C-K.
Who the hell else is actually having fun these days? You see what I do for you, my children?