Thursday, February 24, 2005

Bloviation about science fiction

Okay, over at the TrekBBS someone started a thread about Star Trek vis a vis science fiction in general. Books, that is. It's the latest take on an occasionally popular subject: why don't the "real" science fiction people take media tie-in SF seriously?

This time around, the poster asked about Star Trek in relation to "cutting edge" science fiction.

The problem is that there are two science fictions being discussed here. There's science fiction as a literary genre and science fiction as a TV/movie genre. The two have not developed together, not have they developed at the same speed. A lot of what has been called "cutting edge" in print SF has never been translated to film or TV, sometimes because it wouldn't have the kind of mass appeal necessary for the larger audience TV and movies demand, sometimes because the story just doesn't lend itself to the medium.

A number of people would probably faint if they read the following, like Brian Aldiss, author of Trillion Year Spree with David Wingrove. It's probably the best history of the genre available. Likewise Robert Scholes and Eric Rabkin, writers/editors of Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision, which was one of the texts in the SF course I took in my English major days. I'm going to give a ridiculously simplified set of generalizations and call it a history of science fiction. It will ignore all kinds of contradictory evidence for the sake of convenience.

Depending on who's telling the story, science fiction begins with Apuleius, or Mary Shelley. or H.G. Wells, or Hugo Gernsback. To a considerable extent it depends on how you define the term "science fiction." We're talking about Star Trek here, so let's jump to the 1930s and 1940s.

Space opera was invented in the 1930s by E.E. "Doc" Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, et al. Ignoring the philosophical focus on writers like Shelley and Wells, the space opera writers provided slambang action in outer space.

The story of American pulp science fiction begins with those adventure stories, but before long John W. Campbell, Jr. took over the editorship of Astounding, and cultivated a number of writers, not least Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Campbell's early tenure is considered an early high point in the development of American SF, as Campbell pushed for better written stories with more thought put into them. A lot of the great SF of the 1940s and early 1950s appeared in Astounding.

A.E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle, cited by some as an influence on Star Trek, originally appeared as short stories in magazines, the first, "Black Destroyer," being published in Astounding in 1939. The stories describe the adventures of the crew of the Space Beagle, a starship exploring strange new worlds. In 1950, when it was first collected and published in book form, it would already have struck some readers as old-fashioned.

In the 1950s, with most of the old pulps dead and gone but Astounding still going, a couple of new magazines appeared. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is generally thought of as the more literary, less genre-bound magazine. Galaxy was more strictly SF but ran to social satire and humour. Astounding's best writers, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, et al., were moving into book form and developing beyond Campbell's limits, while writers like Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth used satire to take on advertising, law, and other aspects of modern life. Science fiction started drawing on psychology and sociology instead of just the hard sciences and engineering. Distinctive new voices like Cordwainer Smith and Alfred Bester took some of the stuff of space opera and turned it into exotic new forms.

As with culture in general, the 1960s brought a lot of new developments. The move to literary experimentation and social commentary intensified and developed into something of a movement, the New Wave. This time around, women and British writers were strongly involved. Some of the results of that experimentation would have been almost unrecognizable as science fiction to fans of the old 1930s pulps. See, for example, Brian Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head, published in 1969, and presenting the perspective of a character in a world where everyone's hallucinating and unable to think normally. Or Joanna Russ's 1970 novel And Chaos Died, which not only deals with homosexuality but tries to depict telepathy from the telepath's perspective. The New Wave didn't sell a hell of a lot of books; there were still a lot of writers doing more conventional SF, but the New Wave's influence rippled through the decades.

One of the writers whose career kicked into high gear in the 1960s was Frank Herbert. Astounding had by then become Analog, and it was there his first Dune fiction was published, bringing into SF not only ecological concerns but also the thinly veiled influence of Middle East history and Islam. Herbert was a mainstream SF writer by New Wave standards, but he was doing something far more sophisticated than Captain Future.

And while all this ferment was going on, and Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were making a psychedelic space movie in the form of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek was on TV. A decade after bold explorers in space were generally seen as just kiddie TV (e.g., Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and his fellow Solar Guard cadets and officers aboard the spaceship Polaris), Star Trek's main innovation was in taking old-fashioned space adventure seriously as adult fare. But it wasn't really a lot different from the 1950s movie Forbidden Planet or some 1940s print SF.

In the 1970s, for a few years at least, the literary experimentation and focus on the soft sciences were being subsumed into the mainstream in the form of books as disparate as Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake and John Brunner's near-future dystopias, which actually started circa 1969 with Stand on Zanzibar. SF was getting a bit more mainstream, and big sense of wonder/hard SF novels like Larry Niven's Ringworld and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama were actually selling well. Then 1977 happened. On the one hand, Star Wars dramatically increased the demand for media SF tie-in novels and relatively straightforward SF action-adventure novels that might recapture the feel of the movie. At the same time, Del Rey Books began their fantasy line with Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara, fueling a boom in epic fantasy, a genre that had pretty much not existed as such until then. There was Tolkine, there were a handful of fantasy novels by SF writers, there were fantasies for kids, and there were fantasy stories from decades earlier. But the large sections marked "Fantasy" in bookstores these days simply could not have existed before 1977; there wasn't enough of that kind of fantasy in print.

At this point, everything goes kablooey, and it becomes harder to talk about trends in the field as a whole. There was some concern that the dual attack of Star Wars and post-Shannara subTolkien retreads would dumb down the genre, but that didn't really seem to happen. Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, which had begun publishing as a quarterly in 1976, went to monthly publication before long, and became one of the most important breeding grounds for new SF writers in the next couple of decades. Established writers like Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, and Heinlein started showing up regularly in bestseller lists, while younger writers like Joe Haldeman and John Varley made names for themselves with bold and innovative work that was still readable and entertaining.

By the 1980s, there was no shortage of any kind of science fiction or fantasy. There was right wing militarist stuff, satire, sense of wonder stuff... but in 1984 the big trend of the decade appeared. The information technology revolution had begun a few years earlier, real life was starting to look more like science fiction, and William Gibson's Neuromancer captured and projected the zeitgeist, and a lot of SF afterwards seemed like an attempt to ride its wave or reject it completely. Asimov's SF Magazine ran an article by Michael Swanwick, "A User's Guide to the Postmoderns," which divided the current crop of new writers into the cyberpunk and literary humanist camps, the most famous of the latter being probably Kim Stanley Robinson. The idea was that, on the one hand, there were writers fascinated by technology, punk and other subcultures, crime fiction, squalor, and the dark side of life in general, and on the other were more literary writers more concerned with the human condition than the machine condition. Of course, a lot of the writers mentioned in the article -- and Swanwick himself -- had written fiction that could fall into either category. As a manifesto, it left a lot to be desired, but as with the New Wave, it got people talking and writing, even while the average SF fans may have been unaware of it all.

So, while a lot of SF was about people using direct neural interfaces to interact with visual metaphors of computer information for criminal purposes, doing drugs, having sex with people of any gender imaginable, and generally not being clean cut engineers and space explorers, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, showing some signs of developments in television but only a few indications of any awareness that science fiction had also developed. Meanwhile TV and movies had given us Blade Runner, Brazil, and Max Headroom, which presaged and/or paralleled cyberpunk in a number of ways.

More recently, SF has been absorbing influences from here, there, and everywhere, and feeding them back into the culture. Space opera has been brought back in a newer, more cynical, form by writers like Iain M. Banks. New scientific developments have inspired some wild speculations from the likes of Greg Egan, even as the world seems more and more like science fiction, thanks to the ubiquity of personal computers, cellphones, the Internet, terrorism... and while American SF TV continues to refine space opera through Star Trek spinoffs, Babylon 5, Stargate, Andromeda, Farscape, etc, Japanese anime takes cyberpunk a few steps farther along in movies and series like Ghost in the Shell and Serial Experiments: Lain.

So, as to the concept of cutting edge: Star Trek was in some respects cutting edge as SF on TV a few times. It pioneered the space opera as an adult form of television entertainment, it pioneered the use of syndication for hourlong drama series, but it's generally been pretty conventional and mainstream in its storytelling, and well behind even sitcoms in its willingness to deal with controversial subjects. Compared to Farscape or a lot of anime series, it looks old-fashioned on screen, even with its high quality special effects.

Now let's consider Star Trek books. In a number of ways the books are ahead of the TV series. Some of them have done a much better job of using ensemble storytelling than most of the Trek TV series have done, even though it's been common on non-SF TV series for at least the last 20 years. The books have certainly done a much better job on issues like homosexuality than the TV series have generally managed to do, bringing them up to speed with print SF circa 30 years ago.

But as far as cutting edge goes... there are two good reasons why Star Trek can't be cutting edge. First, the cutting edge is a transient thing, moving forward restlessly, not staying in one place for decades. Second, the cutting edge isn't generally where the audience is. Max Headroom was much more cutting edge than The Next Generation was. It didn't last a full season on TV. Star Trek, on TV and in books, can certainly learn and borrow from whatever's on the cutting edge, but it can't hope to take its place there, because it's not sustainable. You can't take a lot of risks with something that has to be pretty much the same again next week. And in the books, you can't blow up someone else's playground.

Now, as far as reading some good cutting edge SF goes... if you haven't read any non-media SF, some of the cutting edge stuff isn't necessarily going to make a lot of sense. A lot of it builds on, critiques, appropriates, or detournes (can I use that as an English word?) what came before. And some of it is wilfully difficult. Some of the cyberpunk writers and critics hailed Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless 15 years or so ago, and yes, it's innovative and new in a post-William S. Burroughs kind of way, so it's cutting edge. It just isn't a lot of fun to read, unless you're really into challenges and already know all of the material she's reworking and commenting on.

I'd say, don't worry about the cutting edge just yet. Find a good reading list of classic SF from the last hundred years or so and immerse yourself. Read Stanley Weinbaum, "Doc" Smith, Heinlein, Asimov, and so on. Check for lists of Hugo and Nebula winners and try some of those. And then move on to the fringes a little. Read magazines, book reviews, textbooks, and just learn.

I don't even remember the original question now. If I have a point, it's that there's a lot of great reading out there. And you can spend many happy years exploring it.

If you read this here, you might consider going to the livejournal version to comment. It does dialogue a lot better.


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