Due to the sheer volume of amusing John Scalzi quotes put up by Nicholas Russon of Quotulatiousness, I have wondered whether there might be life in the genre after all, and warily tuned in to AMC TV’s SciFi Scanner blog. This is probably a bad idea because, as a recovering scifi nerd, I have a puritanical zeal not unlike a recent ex-smoker exhorting his still-toking buddies to get with the program and ditch the nicotine.
When I was a young lad (of say 6 years old) I had just about every Star Wars action figure (and associated vehicle/playset) ever devised and marketed, Star Wars bed sheets, a pint-sized original series Star Trek uniform, and a host of other goodies. When I was in elementary school I used to draw a cartoon series featuring characters from Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film was awe-inspiring, what can I say. As I grew older, that younger fascination with space opera and science fiction moved into the print realm, and I devoured everything I could—Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sawyer, even pulpy and ridiculous 1950s throwaway dime-store novels. And who didn’t love Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the Philip K. Dick story it was based on?
But eventually as I entered my 20s, the appeal of science fiction faded well into the background. Obviously Mr. Lucas certainly didn’t do it any favours with his odious Star Wars prequels, but that wasn’t the whole story. Whether I moved away from it, or it moved away from me, scifi stopped resembling anything like a future I could halfway believe, let alone like and want to spend a lot of time exploring.
My sci-fi interest had a brief resurgence in my 30s when the rebooted Battlestar Galactica miniseries was aired, but that died out quickly as it became apparent that BSG-reboot would not be a battle-filled epic about a remnant of humanity fighting a last-ditch war for survival, but instead a tired old angst-filled entrail-reading wherein a remnant of humanity grapples with what it means to be human when both humans and machines share sentience and similar biology, but dissimilar belief systems. Man, I’ve never heard that one before. BSG really put the nail in the sci-fi coffin for me because the mini-series started off with characters who seemed to have a solid grounding in military thinking and discipline, but then they reverted to hand-waving caricatures with more talking than flying as soon as it transitioned to a regular TV show. Based on the mini-series I was hoping for a space-oriented Band of Brothers, with a lot of attention paid to the minutiae of a wartime future fighter squadron; what I got instead was Alias with a heavy salting of Imitation Space-Flavoured Pixie Dust.
And I’ll be blunt. I have enough drama in everyday life to not require any supplementation via broadcast media. I could fill this blog with stories of iconic ancestors, scheming heirs, dastardly deeds, betrayal, buried secrets, trailblazing technologies, family fortunes, criminal enterprise, legal battles, last-ditch/last-minute deus ex machinae, love triangles, introspection, changed belief systems and character development, but I consider it bad form to air the details of Thanksgiving dinner to the general public. So in my down-time, whether it be reading or partaking of audio-visual media, I don’t want to see fake people having fake drama. I can phone a half-dozen relatives and hear real drama any day of the week. What I want to see is professionals doing their jobs in a believable way, reacting to extraordinary situations in the way professionals do. I don’t care that they have personal drama; I’ve had personal drama and had to work through it, going to the office every day, no temper tantrums, no punching anyone, no Oscar-worthy meltdowns, no lengthy arm-waving debates about whether the cyborgs that have deviated from their programming and improperly installed network appliances deserve the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of us flesh-and-blood humans. (Short answer: they do, if they can learn to install the appliance properly, every time, with minimum supervision.)
Real people take these things in stride and get stuff done; arm-waving and meltdowns send a strong message to your team that you are not the man to work with in a crisis. Too many unprovoked Shatneresque speeches about the human condition get you escorted to the door, sans building pass. Suffice to say it bugs me when supposedly exceptional leading characters don’t have the basic constitution, fortitude and emotional intelligence of the average guy working in the office next door. And if there is one thing that scifi tends to lack, it is not necessarily a specialist’s appreciation of physics, chemistry, biology, or any physical or applied science. It is an ordinary human’s appreciation of how ordinary humans interact. I suspect this is because scifi nerds do not place a premium on believable emotional interaction. If they did, George Lucas’ and Hayden Christensen’s homes would have been burned to the ground after Attack of the Clones. And Oliver Crawford and Gene Coon should never have worked in Hollywood again after penning the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield“. You say it’s stupid to have murderous emotions based on obvious and superficial pigmentation differences? You don’t say. We never would have realised that without Star Trek. It’s a miracle the different human phenotypes didn’t slaughter each other and completely denude Earth of human civilisation before the January 10, 1969 air date. Didn’t Marco Polo burn and pillage all of China and Mongolia for not looking sufficiently European back in 1266? That’s why Italian remains the lingua franca of Asia today, right?
Another thing that bugs me is when scifi authors construct a cosmology around “Wouldn’t life be better if we didn’t have to deal with Human Emotion/Condition A?” Maybe it would, but here’s a news flash: things like anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, jealousy, guilt and a whole panopoly of human irrationality are not going away any time soon. They have been encoded in our psyche by millions of years of physiological and social conditioning; before we even emerged as the species Homo sapiens. Hell, higher order animals have these emotions; they aren’t unique to us, and they obviously serve a physiological and social purpose in mammalian evolution. If we ever lose them it’s going to be a million years down the road and things aren’t just going to be a little bit different. They will be drastically different: we won’t even recognise future humans, in the way that a Neanderthal would have trouble recognising us for what we are.
Retire the lame old scifi tropes, the Pinocchio syndrome, the Butterfly Effect, the Theme Planet, the thinly disguised Allegory to a Current News Item. But most of all, instead of focusing on the technical criticisms of why Macguffin X wouldn’t really work (or should be classified as Science Fantasy instead of Science Fiction), try focusing on Characters That Act Like Real Humans Would. Then we can get back to the nerd theological discussions of why Macguffin Y is better than Macguffin Z.