Saturday, November 10, 2007

Written Science Fiction

I've finished a 1950s-era collection of science fiction novellas called Strange Tomorrows.

In John D. MacDonald's Shadow on the Sand, the planet Strada is home to an ancient civilization which encompasses hundreds of inhabited planets. In their millenia of recorded history, Stradans have developed impressive telepathic abilities. Their society is divided into two factions which despise each other. But because the two factions occupy the same space, and each relies on the other for materials and logistics, any armed conflict would quickly bring about the Mutual Assured Destruction of civilization. One last, crucial detail: Strada is a parallel-universe Earth. And one Stradan faction figures out how to open a dimensional gateway, giving it a decisive edge over the other faction once and for all...

In Theodore Sturgeon's The Comedian's Children, a popular television comedian is beloved by millions for setting up a foundation to treat children afflicted with a terrible, disfiguring disease. So one can imagine that he's mighty pissed off when a scientist comes close to finding a cure...

In William Tenn's Firewater!, enigmatic aliens came to Earth years ago, and since then have done... basically nothing. Humans who manage to communicate with the aliens gain psychic powers, but also go batshit crazy. As an anti-alien "Humanity First!" movement gains power, one CEO makes millions by figuring out bits of alien science from the crazy ones and turning it to marketable goods...

In Jack Williamson's The Greatest Invention, the Galaxy contains a highly rational, scientific human civilization, but many planets are gripped by intense religous fundamentalism. One academic type is convinced that all humans are originally descended from a culture on ancient Earth (really ancient Earth - the novella takes place in the 20th Century and Earth people are considered by other humans to be uncivilized savages not even worth contacting), but he has trouble winning over the dogmatic, conservative bureaucrats whom he must deal with...

In Hal Clement's Planetfall, an alien made of some kind of rock or crystal lands his starship on Earth and tries to deal with the curious locals, but is severely handicapped by his inability to conceive of organic life. He can't shake the idea that human beings are just robots remote-controlled by a real life form somewhere else. And his senses are not really attuned to dealing with events on a planet's surface... This story ought to be required reading for anyone who can't conceive of an extraterrestrial character more alien than Chewbacca or Lieutenant Worf. (I wonder if Planetfall inspired Terry Bisson's famous short story They're Made Out of Meat.)

Each of these novellas bears a copyright date between 1950 and 1958. And yet, as a whole these stories are far more inventive than most science fiction you see on TV or at the movies nowadays. I'm not here to bash all SF film and TV - there's a lot of it I like, and my brain is a repository for more useless Star Trek trivia than I'd care to admit - but it seems there's an inventiveness, a vitality, in written SF that you don't see as much in TV and movies.

Of course, a huge amount - maybe a majority - of SF on TV and in the movies is really just fantasy or action in a science-fictiony setting. That's not necessarily bad - I've liked Star Wars since I was a kid, and Star Wars is obviously a fantasy/action film series with starships.

But it seems that when interesting ideas do pop up on televised SF, very often the screenwriters don't follow them to an interesting payoff, or present them in such a way that the audience loses its suspension of disbelief. Or both.

One of Star Trek: Voyager's best episodes (it's up to you to decide whether or not that's exceedingly faint praise) dealt with an alien race descended from dinosaurs that developed space flight and left Earth way back in the distant past. That's a potentially interesting setup. But I flat-out don't accept the idea that, even though these guys have obviously been living among the stars for millions upon millions of years, they have a technological level and society comparable to our 24th-century human protagonists.

I realize that a TV series is a different medium, and is going to have a different goal than a short story or a novel. But it seems like SF movies and TV shows could probably muster a bit more of the inventiveness of written SF.

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