Why Science Fiction Matters

Star Trek
In the past two years, we’ve watched all the Star Trek series (on Netflix) from start to finish, and all the ST movies (on DVD). We just started watching the Battlestar Galactica series on Blu-Ray this past week (which we had seen some years back, but with long gaps between seasons). Both of us love scifi.

Although the first ST series was often more space opera than scifi (as the Star Wars series has been), it matured quickly into some complex, adult-oriented storytelling in the subsequent series (a sad failing of the first several Star Wars films was their failure to mature). BSG is even more mature, and thus more compelling. 

If wisdom comes with age, then Star Trek—the series that’s taught us diplomacy, morality, and workplace ethics since 1966—has to be up there with Kant and Nietzsche by now.

So begins “Why Star Trek Matters,” a 2016 article in Popular Mechanics, by Tom Chiarella. Or rather, a paen to Star Trek. I would say the same of science fiction generally: it matters, deeply, and across cultures and generations, and affects a wider cultural range than other literature. It matters in all its forms: written, visual, gaming, and audio.  But I also admit to a soft spot when it comes to Star Trek.

Science fiction — and the ill-defined, but closely-related speculative fiction — is a prism through which we can shine the light of modern issues and events to see how they play out in other situations and conditions, from the near to the distant future, here or on other worlds. In his book, The Future of the Mind (pp 55 and 57), Michio Kaku says,

The highest level of consciousness, which is associated primarily with Homo Sapiens, is Level III consciousness, in which we take our model of the world and then run simulations into the future… Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear.

Sounds like a pretty good description of science fiction, too. Wikipedia adds, “It has been called the “literature of ideas”, and often explores the potential consequences of scientific, social, and technological innovations.”

I’ve been a scifi reader for more than 60 years.  I distinctly remember standing in my backyard with my father one October night in 1957 and seeing a tiny dot of light move across the sky. It was the first satellite: Sputnik, and right then and there, I wanted to go into space. My first encounter with scifi literature, as I recall it, came soon after in the form of Tom Swift Jr. books. My parents started buying these books as birthday and Christmas gifts when I was seven. I loved those stories and collected the first 18 or 20 of them.

When I was ten, my mother suffered a stroke and went into hospital for much of the next two years. During that time, when I got out of school, I went to the local branch of the public library (Bendale, and it’s still there), only  a few blocks from my home. I would wait there until my father got home from work. During that wait, I read. A lot. I quickly went through what was age-appropriate for me in the small children’s section and turned to the books for young adults, which included a few science fiction (and fewer fantasy) novels. I don’t recall much of them although I read them all, but I can remember reading some by Andre Norton.

(The lines between fantasy and scifi are often blurred. I read both, but tended to prefer scifi. As Arthur C. Clark wrote in Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible,”…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Harry Potter fans take note.)

Back then, there wasn’t the same sort of literary machinery to produce young adult titles as there is today (no Harry Potter!). The selection of books considered age-appropriate, especially in the scifi category, even for older teens, was limited. It didn’t take me long to graduate into the adult book section and find the treasure trove of science fiction there. Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Frank Herbert, and many more. I consumed them. I’ve been reading scifi ever since, often with the same sense of amazement and wonder I had when I first began reading it. I remember reading Frank Herbert’s stunning novel, Dune, when it came out in 1965 (I’ve read it three times since).

These stories were not just promises of a future, but for a young boy faced with a troubled and unsure present, they were an escape vehicle. After my mother returned home I continued to read science fiction as one of my primary literary interests (I also discovered and read the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs; a delightful mix of scifi and fantasy).

Continue reading “Why Science Fiction Matters”

The Signal

The SignalOne of the oddest – but most intriguing – scifi films I’ve seen recently was the 2014 movie, the Signal. It is a small-budget film that premiered at the Sundance Festival last year and seems to have gone to DVD soon after. I picked up a copy recently at a nearby HMV and watched it over the weekend.

It stars Laurence Fishburne as the only big-name actor, while the main role is played by newcomer Brenton Thwaites.

The film reminded me somewhat of George Lucas’s first big film, THX-1138, in its minimalist production and sets. But they’re not otherwise alike. THX-1138 was overwhelmingly white: in The Signal the sets are dingy, drab and dreary.

It also uses some of the shaky-cam techniques that made Blair Witch Project standout but has been overused ever since. But not enough to make my eyes hurt and head ache, and reach for the remote to turn it off.

The movie takes three young university students on a cross-country journey during which you learn they were accused of hacking a university server, but apparently cleared somewhat. As they drive through the American southwest, they decide to chase down the hacker who was really behind the attack, using the IP of a message to locate him/her.

All of which takes some time. Probably half the film is a road trip/coming of age movie in which the backstory slowly emerges and the characters are gradually developed. There are some technical elements thrown in to remind viewers there is some science in here, however thin.

I was almost tempted to turn it off and watch something else, something more exciting, but the DVD case had a photo of Fishburne in a biohazard suit, so I knew there was more to come.

When it does arrive, it’s a strange blend of Kafka, THX-1138, ET, The Shining, and other popular cultural and literary themes. I won’t spoil the movie, except to say that it isn’t ever really clear for most of the remainder what is going on. In fact, until the final scene you never quite get the point. It keeps throwing hints at you that never quite stick and make you wonder more.

I can’t get it through my head that it’s supposed to be a metaphor for love and emotion as it is claimed to be. When I think of that notion in scifi, I think of Spock and Kirk. But it does explain why the director put so much vacillating about love and feeling, especially in the first half. There’s some love-redemption going on, sure, but it didn’t strike me as the foremost theme.

Stay with it. It’s not the best scifi film I’ve seen, nor the most well-constructed story and the pacing is too slow at the start. Still, it redeems itself towards the end with some action, suspense and surprises. And like I said, it makes you think.

My final comment is that the last shot, that final glimpse that explains it all, is too fleeting. It should last another minute or so, just enough for the audience to take in the whole picture.

Rethinking John Carter

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FekiAVioSg]

After recently going through the first five of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11 Barsoom books, I decided to give the 2012 Disney film, John Carter, another viewing. This two-hour-eleven-minute film bombed at the box office, and when I first saw it, I was deeply disappointed. But on reflection after a second viewing, it isn’t all that bad. It’s not great, but it deserves a better rating than it received, and it wears well in a second viewing.

It isn’t quite the Barsoom I grew up with, true, but it borrows heavily from Burroughs, enough to make it a close cousin in many parts. It’s the parts where the writers went off to play mix-and-match with other scifi franchises and stories where it’s actually weakest. That’s where the storyline unravels, but not so much it falls apart.

And, of course, no film or TV series can ever live up to the books, if for no other reason than that no matter how spectacular, no film cannot live up to imagination. Reading always wins, hands down, regardless of the film’s budget.

I initially saw John Carter through my own lens as a lifelong fan of ERB, who had grown up reading and rereading Burroughs’ tales and still has a substantial library of his novels on my bookshelves. That’s a mixed blessing, because while it allowed me to immediately understand the story, setting and the characters, it made me overly sensitive to that context. I compared the actual novels and the plots to the film from a purist perspective and found them wanting.

I should have been looking at the film more as a tribute, set in the Barsoomian universe, rather than a strict retelling. The film plays homage to the first two Barsoom novels, but also takes many liberties, conflating plots and characters and adding extraneous non-Burroughs elements. I didn’t like these additions at first, but now I understand better what the writers and director were trying to achieve by enhancing the drama.

Continue reading “Rethinking John Carter”

ERB and Barsoom

Chessmen of Mars

Tara of Helium rose from the pile of silks and soft furs upon which she had been reclining, stretched her lithe body languidly, and crossed toward the center of the room, where, above a large table, a bronze disc depended from the low ceiling. Her carriage was that of health and physical perfection—the effortless harmony of faultless coordination. A scarf of silken gossamer crossing over one shoulder was wrapped about her body; her black hair was piled high upon her head. With a wooden stick she tapped upon the bronze disc, lightly, and presently the summons was answered by a slave girl, who entered, smiling, to be greeted similarly by her mistress.

So opens the fifth book in the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom series, The Chessmen of Mars. I have read that opening – indeed the whole series of his 11 Martian novels – several times. I still have the entire set of Ace paperbacks from the 1960s or 70s on my bookshelves. I periodically read a Burroughs’ tale just to remember the pleasures of reading him.

I recently downloaded several of his novels in audiobook form, to listen to on my visits to my mother, in her nursing home or on my iPhone when walking the dogs in the park. Librivox has many, and some are quire well read.

Last month I manged to hear A Princess of Mars, the first of the series, written in 1912, and the fifth book, Chessmen of Mars (1922).  This month I have books 2,3 and 4 burned to CD and ready to play. Back in 2007, on my old blog, I wrote the following piece about ERB and my lifelong love of ERB and his tales. After hearing these two audiobooks, I thought I should share it again here, albeit somewhat edited and updated.

Continue reading “ERB and Barsoom”

Jack Finney’s Time and Again

Invasion of the Body SnatchersEver read Jack Finney? I knew the name, but I never read any of his books. I knew he was the author of the 1955 pulp novel, The Body Snatchers.  This became the basis for the 1956 movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is one of my all-time favourite B-films, one I can watch almost endlessly. I like it even more than the 1978 re-make. I have both (of course), and even have have the subsequent – and less impressive – remakes: Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007). Plus a few of the below-B spinoffs like Invasion of the Pod People.

But I never got around to reading Finney’s original. Not sure why, since I’ve read in the past and still read a lot of the pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels of the 1930s-60s.

A couple of years ago, I came across an unabridged audiobook of Finney’s Body Snatchers on sale at a nearby Chapters store. I often listen to audiobooks when I travel outside town and thought this would be amusing. Instead, I was impressed by how good it was, how well written. Well above the usual pulp standards. This was the work of an accomplished, talented writer.

And I was pleasantly surprised to find I liked the audiobook better than the movie. A lot more. That’s some accomplishment. Sure, I usually prefer like books to their movies, but seldom do pulps scale the heights above their B-flicks this way.

I liked it so much, I played it for Susan – who doesn’t like the movies or the scary genres – and she agreed: it is very well written. Not scary as much as dramatic. Finney has a remarkable eye for detail.

Yesterday, on my trip to the city, I started to listen to it for a third time. It struck me again as such a well-crafted novel I decided to stop at the Chapters on the way home and see if they had a copy so I could read it. Of course, they didn’t (Chapters, I think, has gone steadily downhill as a bookstore since they decided to add geegaws and lifestyle tchotchkes to their stock at the expense of space for books…). But that store had another of his novels: Time and Again (1970). Which I bought.

Continue reading “Jack Finney’s Time and Again”

Gravity: A Review

gravity
While watching director Alfonso Cuarón’s film, Gravity, this weekend, I was struck by how powerful the mixed themes of isolation and survival can be. I was reminded not simply of films – Tom Hanks in Castaway came to mind immediately – but in literature, too; from Robinson Crusoe to Blindness. Stories of survival have captivated humankind since the Gilgamesh epic was scratched into clay tablets by an anonymous Sumerian scribe.

I really enjoyed Gravity for several reasons and highly recommend it.

First it’s a science fiction film and scifi is my favourite genre of movies. And it’s a good, well-done, high-quality production, not the usual cheesy B-flicks I consume. This one is visually stunning, especially on Blu-Ray. And the sound is gorgeous too – watch the extras about how the sound was developed. Fascinating.

Continue reading “Gravity: A Review”