This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch.
The release of the new Star Trek movie has already prompted a deluge of hyper-nerdy commentary. But Star Trek isn't just about spaceships, ray guns and teleportation machines. It also has something to say about politics. And it's the politics of sci-fi - using Star Trek as a convenient warping-off point - that I'd like to look at today.
Star Trek is set in a putative 24th century in which Earth is one of many planets inhabited by various ‘races’ (species would be the more correct term) that together form a United Federation of Planets. The Federation is a major galactic power with impressive hardware - yet it is also, surprisingly, a communist regime. Some people think so, anyway!
To be fair, others take a different view. But what's undeniable from the various TV series and the later movies that the Federation is a society that has abolished capitalism as we know it, and has a centralised system for the allocation of resources. Admittedly, some rugged individualism survives in the Federation’s Star Fleet, but then you’d expect that in any military, especially one that’s committed to "exploring strange new worlds".
Other celluloid versions of the future have different takes on aliens, robots, clones and so forth, but their anti-capitalist ideals are often quite similar. Star Trek is almost Utopian in its depiction of human beings getting on – more or less – with one another and also rubbing along (not to mention up against) humanoid aliens. The Alien series by contrast, shows space explorers in the employ of corrupt corporations which undermine their efforts to tackle nasty monsters in space. The Terminator franchise imagines a (private) defence contractor creating a supercomputer network - which then tries to exterminate humanity. Well, it would get rid of that budget deficit…
Even the most simple, escapist films depict a Dystopian future which is capitalist or consumerist in nature. In the lightweight Seventies flick Logan’s Run, made cheaply for a teenage audience before the Star Wars detonated the sci-fi boom, the combined talents of Michael York, Jenny Agutter and Peter Ustinov deliver the message that the human race better off living outside an enormous computerised shopping mall. More recently Wall-E throws environmental concerns into the mix and gives us a mega-corporation crushing human freedom.
Things were always rather different on the printed page. The term science fiction was coined in the early Thirties by writer/editor Hugo Gernsback (an enterprising immigrant from Luxembourg). At that time short stories on popular themes, from thrillers to romance, were churned out by poorly-paid hacks for dozens of pulp magazines,so called because of their cheap paper. People read the pulps for reassurance and cheap thrills in very troubled times. Attitudes in the pulps tended to be small-c conservative.
Robert A. Heinlein, considered by some the best writer of the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction (c. 1940-60) was overtly political and scathing about liberal/left ideas. His novel Starship Troopers has been described as militaristic power-fantasy, or an anti-fascist satire. It is set in a future where the soldiers of all nations have established a global government simply because nobody else had the gumption to take charge. Full citizenship is only extended to those who have done military service.
Daily Mail readers will be even more pleased when I reveal that at one point a child molester is summarily hanged. But beware simplistic assumptions; writing in Fifties America, Heinlein offered his readers a black hero who wears an earring, uses eyeliner, and doesn’t seem to fancy girls. Science fiction rarely depicts the future accurately, but Heinlein came damn close to predicting Michael Jackson.
If Starship Troopers is his best-known book, Heinlein’s magnum opus is Stranger in a Strange Land, a heftily pretentious novel full of interesting and/or loopy ideas. (For me one of the best is the Fair Witness – an independent professional whose sole purpose is to tell the truth at all times. It’ll never catch on.) The book is set in a corrupt future America ripe for subversion. It was one of Charles Manson’s favourite reads and he tried to emulate the cultish revolutionary movement Heinlein depicts.
Heinlein’s books are infested with characters who function as the author’s mouthpieces, presumably because he thought his readers were too stupid to ‘get it’. Jack Vance (b. 1916) is rather different. Like Heinlein he rose via the pulps and takes a broadly libertarian stance. But Vance leaves it to his readers to draw their own conclusions about his often outré political systems.
Vance’s novels and stories are mannered, ironic affairs leavened with plenty of violence and subterfuge. In The Last Castle an aristocratic elite is too refined to actually do anything when its servants rise in murderous revolt. In the The Face Vance creates a society in which the sexual abduction of juveniles is the conventional method of procreation. Emphyrio satirises religion by way of a complex, oppressive faith based on hopping.
Going to extremes is often Vance’s way of tackling a political issue. Thus the trilogy beginning with The Anome is set in a world with a totally unaccountable government. The Anome, or Faceless Man, is the ultimate autocrat; each of his subjects wears a tamper-proof ‘torc’ containing a radio receiver, and a strip of high explosive. Heads can be blown off by the Anome’s shadowy minions at any time. Yet Vance manages to create credible and even likeable characters to defend this system, even as his hero is trying to wreck it.
Equally inventive but very different is Cordwainer Smith, pen name for Dr Paul Linebarger (1913-1966), a noted expert on Asiatic affairs. His father helped finance the Chinese Revolution of 1911, and President Sun Yat Sen duly became young Paul’s godfather. Linebarger served with US Military Intelligence in WW2, wrote the standard textbook on psychological warfare, and advised the US military in Korea. As Cordwainer Smith he wrote some of the most distinctive science fiction of the post-war era.
Most of Smith’s stories take place thousands of years hence, in an era dominated by the "Instrumentality of Mankind". The Lords of the Instrumentality preside over a cruelly unjust society that relies upon a slave class. The Underpeople are sentient beings created from various animal species (after the fashion of Wells’ Dr Moreau). The Underpeople’s struggle for freedom is the main thread in a strange tapestry of stories. Stylistically, Smith shuns the gung-ho methods of the early pulps. His titles alone suggest something very different from Starship Troopers – ‘The Lady Who Sailed The Soul’, ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’, ‘Scanners Live in Vain’.
Smith’s dystopian future is one of the most original on offer. The saga reaches its climax with the Rediscovery of Man, in which the regime is forced to concede that freedom has to be allowed back into the world. Freedom makes life worth living, Smith argues, despite – or perhaps because of – its inherent evils. There is a distinctly spiritual overtone to this saga, but Smith (while a committed Christian) shuns apologetics in favour of what might be termed a more ‘oriental’ mysticism.
Even more critically acclaimed than Smith is the remarkable Philip K. Dick (1938-83). PKD, as he’s widely known, wrote quirky short stories for the Fifties pulps while failing to break into mainstream fiction with a series of rather good novels. (He didn’t do himself any favours by giving these books titles such as The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike.) Balked of a ‘respectable’ career Dick poured his intellectual obsessions into science fiction; he remains one of the few sf writers to win unqualified critical admiration outside the field.
If you only know of Dick from the credits of Blade Runner, you have surprises in store. He was strange and darkly prophetic, but also extremely funny. ‘What does it mean to be human?’ is the question that obsessed Dick. He tackles it in numerous short stories and novels such as Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Martian Time-Slip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Blade Runner is loosely based, uses the renegade androids as a way of defining inhumanity. (There’s a very disturbing scene with a spider.)
Dick is as unrelenting on moral issues as an Old Testament prophet, and his status as an American conservative thinker is, I think, clear if you read enough of his stuff. His good characters are often confronted with a vision of pure spiritual evil, invariably described with surreal intensity. Perhaps the best example comes in The Man in the High Castle, with its theme of Nazism triumphant. Towards the end of his life Dick became very strange indeed, while losing none of his talent. A spiritual epiphany led him to some very odd conclusions about reality and his place in it. Despite this, Dick’s later books, notably VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth, are as effective and disconcerting as any of his earlier work.
So, if you want to relax with a bit of non-socialist sci-fi, there is plenty of it out there on the printed page. But let’s return to the screen for my two final examples. The first, Firefly, was a TV show produced by the revered Joss Whedon. He essentially created a space Western, with a future society based on the post-Civil War USA. In the world of Firefly big government and big business combine against the little guy in a futuristic version of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. The story concerns a shipload of disreputable space merchants who inadvertently shelter two political fugitives.
The series was cancelled, but fan pressure spawned a movie sequel, Serenity. In the film Whedon is more explicit about his heroes’ political stance. The opening scene has a member of the ruling class (who is soon to fall foul of a rather nasty experiment) sum it up nicely: ‘People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think; don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads, and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.’ Quite.
The remake of Battlestar Galactica has proved much more successful than the cheesy Seventies original and won considerable kudos outside the usual genre audience. The basic plot concerns a society that, having created ‘perfect’ robot slaves, the Cylons, is threatened when they revolt and seek to extirpate humanity. The robots nearly succeed, but a remnant of humanity escapes aboard a rag-tag fleet of spacecraft, guarded by the eponymous warship,.
BSG, as it’s known to fans, has been described as a rather grim and arty drama that happens to be set in space. It tackles issues of loyalty, betrayal, personal integrity and morality in ways that would be difficult in a non-science fiction context. The series does not offer simple answers, and is all the better for it. But its stance is to some extent conservative in its exploration of issues such as the role of the military in a free society, and how much individual freedom should be sacrificed to defend the community.
I’ve left the best till last, giving belated credit to the one true begetter of science fiction (albeit nearly a hundred years before before the term was coined). Jules Verne and HG Wells both acknowledged their debt to that most conservative Southern gentlemen, Edgar Allan Poe.
Those who only know Poe from Roger Corman’s film adaptations might not appreciate the scope of his influence. Poe’s first published story, MS Found in a Bottle, deals with a strange voyage that ends with the narrator apparently heading into the hollow earth, one of the trendier ideas of the time. Poe was the first writer of the scientific age to imagine a voyage to the Moon – The Unparalleled Adventure of Hans Pfaal – that was not mere moonshine; his hero even has a gizmo for making oxygen. The Balloon Hoax deals with a transatlantic flight, while Mellonta Tauta looks back on the 19th century from an imaginary (and very violent) future. Verne took his lead from Poe in creating his voyages extraordinaire, and wrote a sequel to Poe’s polar adventure The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Poe’s last major work, the prose-poem Eureka, contains descriptions of black holes and an early version of the Big Bang theory. This little-known tour de force has won admiration from, among others, Sir Patrick Moore. It is riddled with hyperbole and errors, but that only reinforces Poe’s claim to be the originator of sci-fi. Poe imagined the end of the world by comet (The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion) created a cyborg (The Man That Was Used Up) and considered the likelihood of thinking machines (‘Maelzel’s Chess Player’). Not surprising, then, that HG Wells considered Poe’s early death to be an unparalleled loss to American letters.
In Poe we can find the origins of almost everything that follows – even Star Trek. Consider: Poe’s cerebral detective Dupin is the prototype of Sherlock Holmes, who is in turn the progenitor of Mr Spock. And having closed the circle, it is time for M. Valdemar to return to his rest.
Valdemar adds: I have recuperated (without net access) a fair bit. Still sore eye and wonky vision but now back online. Will be able to respond to posts assuming anyone bothers!
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch.