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.


Lausten North said...

Great stuff Brian, I have had a sci-fi story brewing in my head for a while, but I want to avoid the two options you point out. If all we have is the myth of redemptive violence, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trouble is making a story about people methodically working through their differences, interesting.

smokehaze said...

A nice bit of reflection here, Brian, to share with your readers - like me in Australia, on the other side of the world. I like the way you are aware of the global mega-problems, but are not drawn into any narrow, paranoid or alarmist world view. As I interpret your musings, you tend to see things with a kind of philosophical acceptance - acceptance of the diversity in people's thinking and their responses to the times in which we find ourselves. But also, you seem to find find time to appreciate the little things in life that are important. Like your little daughter, or the magic of nature in the peaceful Irish countryside. A nice little blog for those who are aware of the mega-problems but also need to escape from disillusionment and cynicism that peak oil awareness can trigger in earnest souls. . .tks

jpbenney said...

"If it predicts a future of small farms and small towns - like, say, Mayberry - is it science fiction anymore?" I would undoubtedly say it is.

Many writers of science fiction and fantasy were and are actually very much supporters of smaller, more organic cultures (think Tolkien). Even just looking at such cultures it is very easy to make fantasy or even science fiction. Just look at creatures like mermaids and fairies that come from such an age and imagine what we could do with them. I do feel that they and similar characters could certianly be made into lengthy epic stories even if they are bound to something closer to a natural world.

Anonymous said...

Why:"Movies, television and YouTube will be in trouble eventually as energy becomes scarce"?

As travel becomes more restricted/expensive even more people will turn to mass media for entertainment.

Paul Mobbs said...

What films do we make on the other side of the energy peak?
'Soylent Green'
'Logans Run'
'Zardoz' (filmed in Ireland)
'Death Race 2000'
-- all created on the downside of the 70's energy crisis.

'Mad Max' wasn't until '79, although George Miller admits it was oil crisis inspired, but personally I thought Silent Running was more prophetic, but that was '72.

Anonymous said...

I found your post via Energy Bulletin.

I enjoyed it, but I have a substantial disagreement which may be a productive one. Science fiction is not supposed to be about predicting the future. It is supposed to be about how people handle technological change, the social consequences, the unforeseen possibilities.

I recall an old saying that an engineer imagines the automobile, and a science fiction writer imagines traffic jams. But this can be reversed. Imagine a story about a cross-continent journey after airflight is too expensive and multiple-day train voyages are more popular. That transition right there is a response to technological change, and one with a lot of story potential.

What stories can we write about people dealing with the strange mix of technological simplification and sophistication that lie ahead? The better stories are not gadget fantasies, but windows into human lives under possible circumstances. And they can even be positive.

RAS said...

Brian, I agree with you. I've been a fan of fantasy and science fiction my entire life and to me science fiction is technology and spaceships. My first novel (Walk-about) is set in the post-oil future and shows mostly small farms and towns -but it is still classified as science fiction. And post-apocalyptic ficiton, at that, even though no apocalypse takes place -just a gradual winnowing down of technology. Perhaps we need a new category?

Nightfishes said...

“Fascinating” post, if you’ll excuse the reference.

Even the perennially upbeat Star Trek could not draw a line from the present to the future without revealing a dystopian and nearly apocalyptic transition period, ala a devastating World War, as portrayed in Star Trek: First Contact. That theme was repeated and reinforced in the mytho-history of Vulcan. The overall message seemed to be that although we may not avoid that dark near-future – whether a slow unwinding or an abrupt apocalypse – the human spirit will survive to build a new and better civilization. So the predictive element is there too.

That being said, I agree with “Anonymous” that the best science fiction has always been about examining social issues of the day. It is often, but not always about the interaction of technology and society. More often, technology and science are used as a device to bring sharp focus to a particular social issue.

An area ripe for current and future science fiction starts with the premise of the inventive and persistent human spirit continuing to move forward with new and differently based technologies (Biological? Psychic? Something altogether new?). Space ships and space travel were, as pointed out, projected from the activities of the time. They are by no means a pre-requisite for good science fiction.

Brian Kaller said...

Thank you, Lausten. Yes, it is easy to fall into writing a story about consequence-free violence, as well as to fall into familiar patterns. I have been reading your blog, and I would like to read your science fiction story when it’s done.

Thank you, Smokehaze.

JP, you bring up a good point – science fiction has often been deeply ambivalent about techno-futures, and Tolkein and others embraced the opposite idea of the bygone Golden Age. Many of the examples you cite might be called fantasy rather than science fiction, but there are no clear divisions between the two, so it’s all subjective.

Anonymous, that is true, but movies, television and especially the Internet require massive infusions of electricity, much of which we currently get from burning fossil fuels. I don’t think the power will go out forever tomorrow, but it might become more sporadic and patchy, and there might be less money to spend on luxuries.

I didn’t know Zardoz was filmed in Ireland. Yes, all those were all dystopias, and partly, I’m sure, due to the energy crisis -- but films have only gotten darker during the alleged prosperity of the last couple of decades. In only the last century, popular culture has stayed nihilistic even during recoveries and responded to crises with sanguinity, and I hope we can do the latter.

Good point – science fiction doesn’t have to be a serious attempt at prediction, although some have been. I like your idea about a cross-country journey after planes and cars, and the way you describe a likely future – a strange mix of technological simplification and sophistication. Do you know of any books or stories that describe such a future?

I’d be interested to get a copy of your novel. Is it complete?

It was interesting to see even Star Trek get progressively darker from the original series through the various television spinoffs, while still being the most optimistic vision out there. Even then, it went from dystopia to utopia without any other possibilities.

RAS said...

Brian, yes, it's complete. You can get it off of Amazon:
It's a short book, but I'm rather proud of it (this is my first novel; I've just written short stories and such before this.)