Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

download-1I watched the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in 1993, and I hated it. I was a teenager, and this show bored me to tears (it’s called Trek, but they don’t actually go anywhere!). I did the natural thing: I forgot it existed for more than two decades.

I checked out some episodes on Netflix recently, and I was quite amazed: Deep Space Nine is awesome!

If Rogue One is Star Wars for grown ups, Deep Space Nine is Star Trek for adults. Even the opening credits (whose slowness baffled me as a kid), illustrate this contrast. Where the first two Star Trek series had zippy, bombastic anthems playing, DS9 has a somber, stately processional.

And I never knew that DS9 was a tense political thriller! World building is a big thing in the realm of fantasy writing these days, but unlike the rest of the franchise up to that point, DS9 isn’t an obvious analogy for the political environment of our time, but has completely invented its own wholly complete and complex political milieu from scratch.

And it’s unabashedly a military thriller! This is a story of the world at war. (Gene Roddenberry always wanted Star Trek to be about a hippie Utopia without real violence; hence the emphasis on families on board the Enterprise in season 1 of TNG, and hence the detachable saucer to whisk them off to safety in time of need–both awful plot devices that quietly disappeared as that show became much better).

But DS9 is absolutely saturated in military conflict. It’s everywhere, all the time. And, again, it’s a rich, mature world of serious political intrigue. This will definitely be my next Netflix binge show. For anyone else who might have written this off back in the 90s, do yourself a favor and give Deep Space Nine another chance.

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Fans of H.P. Lovecraft May Not Want To Read This

This week I was thinking of something I read somewhere, that much of what we think of as “Lovecraftian” doesn’t really come from the works of Lovecraft. It’s true. Most of his work is not horror fiction as we think of it; his style has that ring to it, but the plots tend to be be of different genres.

Most of his major work is really more science fiction. The rest is a mix of weird Gothic, some is dark fantasy, and, sure, some is just horror. But he jumps around, blends genres, and covers his main body of work under the very broad umbrella of speculative fiction.

Basically, he’s Dean Koontz.

There, I said it. Let the rioting begin.

 

 

Highly Recommended: Mockingbird

51IwBRUAXyL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I think I’ve found a new favorite science fiction novel. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is “set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.”

The most amazing thing about this story is just how uncanny its dystopian vision is. Combine the most prescient parts of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and you have this. Actually, it mostly reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but where that was just a skeleton of a fable, this is fully fleshed out.

I marked a couple of dozen passages about stupified dependency, obsession with self-fulfillment, and the joys of rediscovering civilization; there are just too many to quote. Instead, here is a picture of one page, where the hero shares a passage from a history book that explains how the world fell. I got chills. This was published in 1980. He saw where things were going perfectly.

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It’s not just a simple tale of society falling apart, though. There’s genuine love and adventure and sadness. Part of it is a Shawshank Redemption-like prison story. Part is wilderness survival. And there’s even more than that.

Just as with another great dystopian sci-fi classic, The Children of Men (which was also about the decline of the human family), there is one f-bomb, powerful for its lone status. At one point, a suicidal robot tells a pregnant woman that she should have an abortion. Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly approve of her response.

The Pool of Fire in Boys’ Life Magazine

8412My post a couple of weeks ago about the Just For Boys book club reminded me of something else I loved in Boys’ Life as a kid–the Pool of Fire comic.

I wasn’t old enough to have read the serial adaptations of the first two books in the trilogy, which ran earlier, but I came into the story during the run of this third book in the mid 80s. It was one of the first comics I ever read, and I loved it: action, adventure, Big Ideas!

Today I’m most impressed that a science fiction series was broken down and doled out in such small parts over the course of several years. Where does anything like that happen anymore? And do any kids still get introduced to great stuff like this in comic form? I know I only ended up reading the original books in this series because of the comics.

Some swell fella has collected all of the original comics here.

Apparently, all the old issues of the magazine itself are on Google. Perhaps it’s not too late to build the robot from the February 1987 issue?

Fahrenheit 451 is a Conservative Classic

9781451673319_p0_v7_s456x700And I don’t mean “conservative” here just in the sense that Bradbury is arguing for preserving an established way of life, though his most famous work certainly does that.

No, despite its perennial status as a staple in the counterculture, Fahrenheit 451 defends the ideas of the right far more than the those of the left.

It’s always fun to track the many items in our modern world that Bradbury basically predicted here: earphone radios, massive flat screen televisions, reality TV, etc.  Far more prescient, though, are the modern issues of the Puritanical, tyrannical left that he saw ascending to dangerous heights.

Consider these passages from Beatty’s exposition in the first third of the book.  I’ve labeled them with contemporary problems that Bradbury described perfectly.

Censorship comes from aggrieved special interests who don’t want to be challenged.  This narrowing of acceptable ideas helps dumb down the culture and focuses it on lurid media that stimulates the body and pacifies the mind. 

“All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag.”

A sprawling government bureaucracy can infantilize society through a shallow, technical education system and a coarse, hedonistic media culture.

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

“If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.  Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.  So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

“Primary Education of the Camiroi”

XTRTRRSTRB1988One of my favorite science fiction stories is R.A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi.”  I remember reading it in the Issac Asimov-edited anthology Extraterrestrials at the old Charleston Heights library in the late 1980’s.  I loved how weird and silly it was–I’d never read anything quite like it.

Reading it again now on Google Books, I see it as a pretty biting satire of an American education system that even by the late 60’s, when the story was first published, was already showing cracks.  I especially loved the schema for the alien curriculum near the end, which I’ve copied below.  In fact, I think this story helped influence young me in my decision to become a teacher.

I really think we should consider some of the “modest proposals” in this story.  I would have loved having a class in “laser religion” as a high school freshmen.

My grade for this story now, nearly 30 years after first reading it?

A+

Lafferty 1 Lafferty 2 Lafferty 3 Lafferty 4 Lafferty 5

Notes on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End 

childhood'sIn June I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  It was excellent; clearly a precursor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey script.

Some stray thoughts as I was reading:

“There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.”  ch. 10.  After superior alien saviors come to Earth and create a paradise, humanity uses its free time to get awesome at everything, thus the changed economy.  Are we seeing something similar now with blog reporting and YouTube videos?  I think we are.

I love prescient science fiction predictions, but Clarke says that humanity’s vastly increased leisure has the dystopian result of us starting to watch TV for up to…wait for it…3 hours a day!  This was written in the 50’s.  Isn’t that cute?

“In this galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns.  Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space.  In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the desserts of the world.”  ch. 14.  This is why I love good sci-fi.  It intelligently inculcates a healthy, humble reverence for the universe.

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time.  In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.  ch. 19.  Alas, Clarke’s generation never could have imagined that civilization would voluntarily extinguish itself through epidemic demographic decline, and would celebrate it all the way to the collective nursing home.  Like his naive TV watching warning, reality turned out far scarier than he prophesied.  It’s always sad when tragic speculation turns out to be, if anything, too optimistic.

Dystopias Vindicated

From National Review:

…the process of conquering is a gradual humiliation: Islamic supremacists make life as dificult as possible for the sugar daddy kuffar while demanding to be paid for the privilege — and the payment itself is symbolic of the conquest.

Replace “Islamic supremacists” there with “looters” and you have a page from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged!

*****

From an Atlantic article quoted today at Instapundit:

So citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people.

How is that not a perfect thematic summary of Brave New World?

This is not encouraging.

 

 

Telescopes Are Time Machines

I love thinking about how space is really a huge window into the ancient past.  We think we see all this great stuff out there, but everything we see is as old and outdated as the time it took the light from those things to reach Earth.

If something is 200 million light years away, we can’t see it; we can only see it the way it was 200 million years ago.

If the sun exploded, I don’t think we’d know about it for eight minutes.  Could the effect of broken gravity travel faster than light?  I doubt it.  And inertia would carry us along for a brief bit, right?

That would make a great science fiction story: a future where we have faster than light communication and travel, and we get word of the sun’s destruction from some satellite near Mercury, giving humanity a few minutes to evacuate the planet.

Here’s another: a future where we can zip across the cosmos–maybe through wormholes–and then look back at Earth and, thus, back into our own history.  In the year 3000, ships could fly out instantaneously to, say, about two thousand light years away, and watch the Crusades through super powerful telescopes.

Historical research sure would get easier.

Interplanetary Real Estate Law

Every story I know about aliens coming to Earth has one of two basic plots: they’re bad guys who want to invade and kill/enslave us, or they’re good guys who want to explore Earth/enlighten us.  Couldn’t this paradigm be expanded a bit?    

Here’s a little idea I had for a story: an alien race—advanced, peaceful, and already rich in Earth’s natural resources, like water and oxygen—starts colonizing and mining another planet in our solar system for substances that they need, and which we neither have in abundance nor need, say Venus, for sulfuric acid, or liquid hydrogen on Saturn, or some other element of which we’re currently unaware.

Who would contact whom first?  Would the new race say, “Hello!  We’re moving in to Mars, which we see you’re not using, and just wanted to introduce ourselves.  We’ll stay out of your way.”

Or would we notice them at work over there, freak out, and then later start wondering why they’re not doing anything to us?  Might we send a message like, “Why aren’t you contacting with us?”  And they might reply, “Why would we?”

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Truth Is Stranger Than Science Fiction

I’m reading Robert A. Heinlein’s 1966 masterpiece, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.  The premise here is very clever: the historical outlines of the American Revolution have been transplanted to 2076, where a rag-tag group of outsiders colonizing the moon throws off the overbearing bureaucracy that has burdened them from Earth.  In this scene, the Russian-speaking narrator observes an informal new congress debating what the new government should look like, with some suggesting laws just as onerously regulatory as what they’ve gotten rid of:

Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please.  Rules, laws–always for other fellow.  A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up.  Because not one of those people said: “Please pass this so that I won’t be able to do something I know I should stop.”  Nyet, tovarischee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing.  Stop them “for their own good”–not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it. 

 Did you know that in New York it is now illegal for resturants to cook with trans fats?

Two Thoughts About “V”

Yesterday afternoon I told my oldest son about the rebooted series V, and how much I enjoyed the original version as a kid.  When I explained the plot to him–aliens show up and solve all our problems, pretending to be our friends, so they can win our trust and then eat us–he said, “Hmm.  Sounds like that Twilight Zone episode, ‘To Serve Man.'”  He’s only ten.  I was so proud I could have cried. 

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After watching the show last night (truly excellent, by the way), I was struck by just how silly, impossible, and outrageous the story was, though.  I mean, c’mon, an attractive leader shows up out of nowhere, promising to magically solve our problems with little more than broad bromides about hope and peace, and everybody just goes gaga and falls into line?  Why, this leader even has a simpering media quickly trained to jump through hoops!  And I refuse to accept that this leader’s minions could be actively recruiting young people to subversively carry on their work.   

Seriously, who could ever buy into a story that crazy?  Clearly, clearly, this is some pretty far out science fiction.  Luckily, nothing like that could ever actually happen in real life.

 

Happy Golden Anniversary, Twilight Zone!

34375698I’ve been looking forward to today for months—it was 50 years ago, on Friday, October 2, 1959, that the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired.  
 

It’s unbelievable how good these were, and still are.  They are models of perfect pacing, creating suspense, framing and lighting shots, developing a theme, and dialogue that moves a stimulating story forward but never condescends.  There are no short cuts or cheap shots in The Twilight Zone, just flawless exposition and social commentary.  Rod Serling was a genius—besides the bulk of the great TZ episodes, he also wrote the original Planet of the Apes screenplay, including the best shock ending ever.

Who doesn’t like the monster of the wing of the plane, or Shatner getting addicted to fortune telling, or the nearly endless classic twist endings: the “deformed” girl in a conformist world,  the broken glasses, or the alien cookbook!

I use a few episodes in my classes each October, actually, to help teach literary concepts, like identifying themes and commentary.  

Should you invest some time on your date night to watching several classic episodes free online?  Yes.  Yes, you should.

Fortuitous Serendipity

Lately I’ve been thinking about Frank Herbert’s Dune.  I can’t believe I still haven’t read the ultimate science fiction masterpiece.  Last week I checked it out of the library but, overwhelmed that I’ve bitten off more than I could chew with what I’ve currently got open and bookmarked, took it back with a heavy heart this afternoon.  As I dropped off the book, I casually perused the used book cart nearby, seeing…an old paperback printing of Dune, in perfect condition and on sale for 25¢.  Recognizing the cosmos speaking to me when I hear it, I scrounged up the quarter and put Dune that much higher on my to-do list.

Life is good.

Recommended Reading: 2001: A Space Odyssey

20011Although I was first exposed to Kubrick’s classic film in high school, I was too sleepy/ dumb/ apathetic to pay much attention.  Despite that, I was pretty familiar with it, if only because of the ubiquitous references to it in pop culture (I can remember at least a few just from Sesame Street). 

A few years ago, I found myself planning for the last day of summer school, where I would spend the first half of the day reviewing and then administering a final exam, and the second half of the day grading it and filling out paperwork.  As the students would obviously be done with the course itself after the exam, an extraneous activity was needed to fill the time while I worked.  (Technically, administrations are supposed to have us give the exam and grade it during the second half of the last day, while we’re simultaneously supposed to continue doing regular class work with them–an expectation so impossibly ridiculous that nobody anywhere has ever tried to enforce it).

Not being a fan of time-wasting movies, I wanted something calm and cerebral for them to try.  Remembering 2001, I checked it out of the library.  As long and slow as it is, (and as much as I was trying to focus on my work, which I mercifully finished earlier than I’d expected to), I was dazzled by it, by all of it: the visuals, the music, the ambition of the story’s epic scope.  How could such a simple and simply-told movie be so fantastically overwhelming? 

Since then, this has been a landmark of art in my mind.  Thus it’s not surprising that, eventually, I’d read Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, which he wrote at the same time as he and Kubrick wrote the screenplay. 

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