Sunday, 24 May 2009

Wavering trees

Many of the trees near the lakeshore do this. I don't know why.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Star Trek and the future of science fiction

I remember a writing course in which we were challenged to create a new character, past and all. Sounds easy enough, and we took turns blurting playful answers to basic attributes.

First name, asked the teacher? “Alastair!” someone shouted. Last name? “MacAlastair!” said someone else, laughing. Lives in? “Um … New Orleans!”

The laughter died away, though, as it became a challenge to keep the story straight. If Alastair MacAlastair had fought in Vietnam, what was he doing in college today? “Uh … he is trying to rebuild his life after prison.” And why was he in prison? Each new fact gave the character added complexity, demanded more answers, reduced our ability to play around. Like life itself, each choice shuts off all others, and making no choice is a choice as well.

I thought of this while watching the new Star Trek movie, which was not Citizen Kane but was a fun day at the show. I especially found it clever that – and I don’t think this is important enough to qualify as a spoiler –that the writers chose to create an “alternative timeline,” bringing the long-beloved characters back to the beginning but jettisoning all previous canon. Batman and James Bond have also done this recently, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other cult franchises followed suit, seeing this as a way out of the corners in which they’ve written themselves.

As science fiction jumped from a fringe genre to blockbuster status in the countercultural era – say, the late 60s to the early 80s – stories that began as B-grade entertainment swelled over their banks. Star Trek, X-Men, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator – each developed near-religious followings whose members saw in these fictions a profundity they occasionally deserved. Each fiction spun off into more and more comics, books, television series and movies, and occasionally languages and commemorative porcelainware. Each simple story grew more and more fractal iterations and an increasingly crowded “universe,” until the creations threatened to collapse under the weight of their own Byzantine mythology.

For a while, the solution was more sequels and spin-offs, and in comics or books this can go on as long as there is an audience to buy them. But movies and television necessitate actors who age, until the Terminator was obviously collecting a pension and the increasingly jowly Enterprise crew kept lumbering back out of retirement. And in any medium, plots must be resolved, characters are killed off and story arcs reach the end of their feasible trajectory, leaving sequels feeling increasingly strained.

Jumping far ahead in time is also a possibility, as Star Trek did well with the Next Generation and the original Battlestar Galactica did badly with Galactica: 1980. Star Wars could have done this and spared fans much pain. Not all stories are suited to such a leap, however – Doctor Who already jumps around in time, X-Men would have to become a show about the future rather than the present, and the last two Terminator movies implicitly declared the heroism in T2 to have been in vain.

Prequels are an obvious alternative, keeping the characters and universe fresh while leaving room for new stories. But Star Trek: Enterprise, the Star Wars prequels and the recent X-Men: Wolverine movie all suffered from the same problem: how to make all these characters meet before they met and save the universe together, while also ensuring they got amnesia, were blindfolded during the action, or never left behind records of anything. It’s also just not that interesting writing a story with a foregone conclusion. As David Wong wrote in Cracked magazine, “The universe gets smaller as we find out that every page of history contains the same dozen names.”

Prequels have an additional problem: at the same time that the fictional world has gone backwards, the real world has gone forwards. The original Star Trek’s primitive special effects, heavy-handed social allegory, mini-skirted assistants and sexually irresponsible captain fit well in prime time in 1966; the 2000 prequel series never felt like it was happening earlier.

The most logical solution to all this, then, is the reboot. Batman, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica and now Star Trek have revived venerated characters and story with modern special effects and fresh actors. Writers get the best of both worlds: an already-familiar history from which to draw plot, along with the license to ignore it. Nods to the mythology can please fans, but embarrassing aspects of the original can be discarded. People who remember the original Battlestar Galactica can easily re-invest their emotion in the familiar quest for Earth, but Earth can be anything this time. Kirk and Spock’s understood relationship makes their first meeting momentous, but no one has to worry that it violates the canon of novel 23 back in 1979.

Even if other sci-fi franchises do reboot, though, it will be interesting to see what their universe will look like. Much of science fiction has been a product of its time looking much more like the year it was made than the year it is set; again, Star Trek may have been set in the 23rd century, but its sets, dialogue, costumes, score, villains and exaggerated play-fighting looked very much like 1966 Westerns or cop shows. (Relating to the title of this blog, they even used the set of Mayberry, with some tumbleweeds added, for a post-apocalyptic wasteland.)

Similarly, the original Star Wars was wildly popular partly because it hit all the right notes of 1977: young rebellion against the Man, plucky female characters, pseudo-Oriental wisdom -- and whole sections of plot and dialogue lifted from Westerns, a genre whose recent demise had left a hole in popular culture. (That scene where Luke realizes his parents are in danger? Lifted line-by-line from The Searchers.) At the same time, it did things no science fiction had ever done: it was fun, had great special effects and presented a dented, lived-in world instead of the usual spires and togas. The prequels failed partly because they kept all the wrong things: they abandoned the fun story and grimy world, but the outdated kung-fu mysticism remained, grandfathered into the mythology like Star Trek’s Cold War allegories or Clark Kent’s fedora.

Science fiction has done this for a century, extrapolating the burning headlines of the moment and offering earnest writers a soapbox. But the whole genre is rooted in changing technology -- it wouldn’t really have been possible until the last few centuries, when people could expect the future to be radically different than the past. Not coincidentally, science fiction arose as technology began to boom about a century ago, when a critical mass of people began to abandon traditional lives and skills for a crowded and frenetic urban life. Its popularity really took off in the 1960s, when consumption went into overdrive and the global energy use curve took a much steeper angle. The more rapidly society changed, the more popular sci-fi became.

But what happens when we begin to slide down the other side of the energy curve? (You knew I would get to this sooner or later.) In the next few decades we will not only not see the economy recover to what it was, we might have to rethink what “economy” means. We might experience more natural disasters until we consider them normal. We might see fuel problems increase until more and more people give up trying to get petrol.

What form will science fiction take? Movies, television and YouTube will be in trouble eventually as energy becomes scarce, but they won’t go anywhere in the next few decades -- although they might be available to fewer people. Science fiction fills the top-grossing movie lists and whole sections of the bookstore, and probably won’t go away either. But what would it look like? If it predicts a future of small farms and small towns -- like, say, Mayberry - is it science fiction anymore?

Almost all Hollywood futures fall into one of two types: the one in which most people are more prosperous, better-educated and nicer than today, surrounded by wondrous technology in starships or domed cities; and the one in which most people are eating rats out of the gutter and fighting a desperate battle to stay alive during the End of the World.

As John Michael Greer has pointed out, most people seem to believe that we will progress until we ascend as supermen to the stars, or that disaster is about to weed out the unworthy. Either way, it’s a kind of religious belief that comes directly out of Christianity –the belief that we will improve ourselves until we ascend to God, and the idea that Judgement Day will cleanse the world.

To be more specific, these are roughly the futures of two main strains of apocalyptic Christianity, called post-millennialist and pre-millennialist to their friends. To grossly over-generalise, post-millennialists believe that Christians will gradually transform the world until the Kingdom of God is established here. It can take a healthy form, like the reformers who sought to end slavery or establish labour laws, or it can take the uglier form of radicals who want to create a Shia-like theocracy in the USA, but either way, it demands that Christians change the present and create a “better” future before we ascend.

Pre-millennialists tend to believe that the world is going south fast and will be destroyed soon, with a few believers saved – either uploaded to heaven in the post-60s “Rapture” religion, or by surviving the coming Tribulation.

During the mid-20th century, as energy use skyrocketed exponentially, science fiction was definitely post-millennialist – the world was getting better and better, and soon – 1980, 1990, 2020, whatever – we would ascend to the stars as superior beings. In the 1970s, though, social unrest, oil shocks and recession darkened the global mood, and issues like overpopulation, pollution and the limits to growth percolated into the public consciousness. Also – and this was probably both cause and effect -- the pre-millennialist Rapture movement spread through Christianity, popularizing the imminent end.

Not coincidentally, science fiction got dark, dystopian and pre-millennialist fast – only a few years separate 2001: A Space Odyssey from Soylent Green. Star Wars had a few hopeful moments but didn’t predict any future – it happened “a long time ago,” remember – and most other science fiction of my generation has foreseen desperation and despair around the corner. Alien, Resident Evil, I Am Legend, 28 Days Later – they all involve everyone dying horribly except for a few survivors whose future is uncertain, and each new film boosts the death rate further.

With one exception: Star Trek. Created at the tail end of the utopian-future era, it has lingered and flourished even through decades of holocaust porn – perhaps this is the reason for its famously devoted following in a cynical age. Its vision has been diluted somewhat from Gene Roddenberry’s creation, but it continues to show a world without corporations, without poverty, without class, without even fashions. I wouldn’t choose Roddenberry’s vision of one-world socialist government to get there myself, but I’m completely behind the ideals.

As the world enters an era far more difficult than the 1970s, science fiction might lunge even further into grim survivalist epics, but – and I’m afraid to even ask this – how much darker and bloodier can they get?

On the other hand, when a crisis begins, the public mood does not always go south – sometimes, as when World War II began, people pull together in common cause, more hopeful than they would be in a time of hedonism. Movies made during the Wall Street boom of the 1920s leaned toward tragedy, and the science fiction of the time towards dystopias. Only when the Great Depression and World War II began, and the world was plunged into darkness, did people find the future hopeful and holy again. As we enter what may be the greatest crisis, Star Trek’s optimism might have reached right across the decades to find its moment again.

Of course, that optimism assumed that we would ascend to the stars soon, and now it seems we won’t. But we can still enjoy the mythology even after it has slipped the surly bonds of expectation, just as we can enjoy Lord of the Rings even if we don’t believe there were ever elves. We can love it as a fantasy, whether or not we remember that, once, it was what the future was like.

Saturday, 16 May 2009


If you want to spend a few days surrounded by scenic landscape, you could do worse than Bealkelly Wood in County Clare, Ireland. There, decades ago, an old survivalist bought land at the edge of Lough Derg, planted trees and maintained the forest, and still lives off the land today – and occasionally greets a hundred or so guests.

The land is now the site where the non-profit CELT– Centre for Environmental Living and Training – hosts courses in fishing, smithing, carving, stone building and many other traditional crafts. This past weekend, our whole family journeyed across the island to one of these events, and everyone took a different course -- my wife took copper-smithing, my mother-in-law wood carving, The Girl played with other children in a central area in view of all of us – and I tried my hand at blacksmithing.

You don’t become an expert blacksmith in a couple of days, of course, but the class bestowed the basic information and a little experience. Two very patient smiths worked with myself and three other students, walking us through the basics, correcting us and stepping in when we went wrong, until we each came away with some hand-crafted work.

In movies blacksmiths look like WWF wrestlers, dramatically slamming white-hot metal with sledgehammers. Our experience was different – a plate-sized fire, small tools and frantic tapping. The forge was an old metal hubcap, with small holes drilled in the middle, standing on a metal pipe. At the other end of the pipe was a hand-cranked blower – I don’t know what it was originally, but the smith said you could substitute the metal fan from an old Electrolux vacuum.

Our elderly teacher began each day by lighting a small fire in the middle of the hubcap, right over the holes. Once the fire was going, he placed charcoal delicately over it, and then a ring of coal around the charcoal, and the crank fan blew air through the middle to keep the fire hot. Iron-working only appeared in the last 5,000 years or so – the final 0.3 percent of the time humans have had fire – because ordinary wood fire does not heat iron enough to work, and large amounts of charcoal and air are needed. The coal, I was told, helps the fire continue but is not necessary.

The four of us quickly learned that you need to spend a great deal of time standing over the fire, with the metal part in just the right place – in the middle, above the blower and slightly buried in charcoal – to get the right temperature. Too little heat, of course, and the metal cannot be worked, but too much and it begins to “burn,” liquefying and deforming. A lot depends on the size of the metal piece – the tractor axel we put in took ages to heat, but I accidentally burned off the tines of my fork in short order.

Once the metal was glowing orange, we had to rapidly move it to the anvil without yanking it out and sending hot coals everywhere, and without burning the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Once at the anvil you had only several seconds of BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM ... until it was black and solid again.

Also useful are steel vices (vises to Americans) and hefty pliers, which allowed us to grip metal while turning it – hence the twist in the fork handle. None of us wore gloves, but leather aprons and goggles were recommended against flying sparks and coals.

In the end we came away with two roasting forks – one made by me, the other won in a raffle – and a horseshoe that I’m not including in a picture. I was supposed to shape it into the head of a horse, but mine looks more like a praying mantis.:-)

Blacksmithing is one of the dozens of professions that were widespread until just the last century, now is kept alive only by a few aficionados. For thousands of years in metalworking cultures, smiths were a vital and respected role – look how common it is as a surname today. They might become vital again if the coming decades bring the turmoil we anticipate. With charcoal and tools, a smith could turn landfill scrap and old car parts into useful tools again – and as far as I know, there is no end to the number of times metal can be recycled.

When the world is no longer able to mass-produce new materials at its former rate, when there is no new plastic and fewer forests, we will have billions of tons of landfill waste. Movies like WALL-E posit garbage covering the Earth, but in real life much of that garbage would not only be reusable, but precious. Some of it will be metal – the U.S. alone will have a car for every person, and a few decades from now few of those cars will be driving. The Chinese are doing their best to buy up all this precious resource from U.S. junk dealers, along with the plastic we might need again, but hopefully enough landfills will remain to become mines.

Some of my favourite books as a teenager were Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, about human cultures scattered across space in the far future. In the pivotal novel of the series the prescient leader gradually transforms the titular desert planet into lush greenery, its Bedouin-style inhabitants, called “Fremen,” into farmers. He bids a small minority of them, however, to live in the one remaining desert as Museum Fremen, keeping the old traditions alive. He is the only one who knows that the planetary transformation is only temporary, that someday the land will become desert again, and the Museum Fremen can teach the others how to live. Weekends like this allow us to become museum people, accumulating the knowledge that our children might need.

Top photo: The fire, with a tractor axel in it. Bottom photo: the forks.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Future of Ireland

A couple of days ago I did a radio interview here, talking about -- among other things -- whether Ireland was too consumerist. Today, Rod Dreher pointed me to Christopher Caldwell's article in the Weekly Standard on the same theme.

While I was fairly positive about my adopted country, though, Caldwell paints a harsh portrait --an Ireland that has turned its back on its culture, has lost itself in hedonism, and has been hit by Europe's worst economic collapse. An excerpt:

Over the last 20 years, Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture. But now the country has been harder hit by the financial downturn than any country in Western Europe. We may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.

And that was before this morning's news: the Obama administration plans to discourage U.S. companies from investing in tax havens, and that's a major source of national revenue.

But things don’t look nearly so apocalyptic on the ground here, as I wrote in Rod's comments. Maybe it's just that we've been preparing for so much worse, but life doesn't look very bad or very different to me. Buses and trains have not stopped, banks have not closed, most people are working the same jobs, zombies are not roaming the streets and we've just been approved for a mortgage.

Things could always get worse, of course, but the Irish seem better prepared than most Westerners. They’ve experienced hardship within the lifetimes of most people still living – electricity and plumbing were new and not universal in the 1970s – whereas only the most elderly Americans remember such times. Few Irish expected the window of flagrant prosperity to last long, and are not indignant at the loss of entitlement. They have always been cosmopolitan even in their poverty, with cousins in distant lands, and while many came home during the Celtic Tiger, many are prepared to migrate again.

Most Irish remember their former poverty with less sentiment than those who did not live through it, but also have mixed feelings about the recent window of prosperity. Many think the country has lost some of its old tradition and community, but that recognition is a good start, and such things can be restored. Some lament their own alleged consumerism, but per capita consumption and waste remains far below that of the U.S.

The boom did multiply housing prices here, but now houses are growing affordable again. The Catholic-Protestant “Troubles” in the North largely ended a decade ago, the recent shooting a rare exception decried by both communities. Caldwell seems alarmed by Ireland’s “liberal” environmental policies, but they are moving the country a step closer to energy self-reliance.

Public transportation is widespread here – which may seem like a small thing, but in our rural area it means that people are not stranded in their homes. Pre-globalisation ways of life, like horse-drawn carriages and thatch roofs, still exist in places, common enough that they could be widely re-adopted. There is a widespread movement to deal with the Long Emergency – my group, Transition Towns and others – trying to combine ecological knowledge with the traditional skills that here, more than most places, have been kept alive.

Top photo: New office park near our home, never occupied.

Bottom photo: The view from our bedroom window.