Monday, October 19, 2009

Cosy Catastrophes

MAN, it's hard coming up with topics, which is why I thank people who publicly say stupid shit. Thanks, peoples. Much appreciated. The stupid shit responsible for this post comes courtesy of award-winning science fiction author Charles Stross. I haven't read Stross yet. He's been on my list for a long time, but Robert Charles Wilson and John Scalzi keep bumping him down. Anyway, he posted this thing about why he hates Star Trek, ingeniously titled "Why I Hate Star Trek." So I thought I'd take a look.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don't hate Star Trek, but I don't consider myself a Trekkie or Trekker or whatever name is of the moment. I'm pretty familiar with the world of Trek. I haven't seen all episodes of each series but I would say I've seen most. I dug the new movie. The Star Trek universe isn't precious to me.

That said, I went into Stross's rant totally open-minded. But it soon becomes obvious that the dude does that science fiction nerd thing that drives me up the wall. He complains about the science of Star Trek. This acknowledgment came after Stross had read something TNG alum Ron Moore had to say about how they wrote the techspeak on Trek. It took me awhile to get over the shock of it. Not the shock that the writers on Trek would frequently just write "tech" in the dialogue so that the tech guys (called science advisors, which could be part of the confusion) would fill it in with futuristic-sounding words.

That's not what surprised me. It's the fact that we've fucking known about this since TNG was on the air, which was over twenty years ago. Seriously, dude, WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? How is this news to anybody with even the remotest interest in the genre?

Don't get me wrong. I like a lot of crap, stuff I won't even mention on this blog. I hate a lot of crap, too, and there are certainly logic reasons -- like shitty science, for example -- that I do. But what happens is that the show or book or movie has already committed a greater crime -- it's badly written. When something's badly written, I'm much harder on the other stuff that's wrong with it. It's much easier for me to take Heroes to task because it's already not very good. So when you steal from better source material, and then you fuck it up, well... prepare for the wrath.

But man, I've sure seen some great episodes of Star Trek. City On The Edge Of Forever, obviously. Best Of Both Worlds, for sure. Yesterday's Enterprise, no question. The Visitor, well... that's one of the best episodes of television I've ever seen. Hearing actors spout techspeak did not hinder my enjoyment of those episodes because of what they did right. They told stories about people unbelievably well.

If you watch The Visitor and think it doesn't do the things that make science fiction powerful, then you're just not paying attention.

But Trek isn't the only thing Stross hates. He also hates Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica. No, not the original; the good one. And he hated them without seeing them. Which is fine; there's a ton of stuff I'm not interested in. I should watch Supernatural, but I don't. Smallville doesn't interest me. Stuff on SciFi doesn't float my boat. Stross discovered WHY he hated shows he'd never seen when Ron Moore said the thing about techspeak. This is a bit confusing. I get that he hates Star Trek because he's actually seen it, and maybe it DID take him twenty years to figure out why. And maybe the techspeak IS what drives him absolutely crazy about it. But Galactica? Really? Is it just because Ron Moore developed it, so naturally it would also be tech-driven?

Because it's not, just FYI.

If there's a more character-driven genre show in recent memory, I don't know what it is.

He says this:
SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist (either because the technology doesn't exist, or there are gaps in our scientific model of the universe, or just because we're short of big meteoroids on a collision course with the Sea of Japan — the situation is improbable but not implausible).

What he conveniently forgets is that we're talking about speculative fiction here. Trying to fit speculative fiction into a neat little box, as Stross is attempting to do, is kind of the opposite of what speculative fiction can do. Why on Earth would you want to limit that? Isn't the whole idea that you go the OTHER way? That you open up the limits of imagination? People who label with such authority drive me crazy. It's bad enough that we have corporations and executives and showrunners putting limits on genre. Shouldn't a science fiction writer like Stross know better?

He talks about how he conceives his books, which involves world-building and then conceiving characters who fit into those worlds. That seems logical, right? My issue is that it's TOO logical. Logic is a necessary tool, but I think people who work in genre who are kind of afraid of it rely too much on logic, at the expense of inspiration and surprise and imagination. This results in dull, dry stories that aren't even as logical as the writer thinks they are.

Stross doesn't care about characters, about how people interact with each other, but then sometimes he does when he says science fiction should be about an exploration of the human condition. So I'm confused. What does he want, exactly?

He understands that TeeVee shows, unlike books, can't present his own brand of science fiction, where non-bipedal creatures in totally alien landscapes use tools we've never seen before. But really, that's just lip service. Because he doesn't really understand what that means:

I can just about forgive the tendency of these programs to hit the reset switch at the end of every episode, returning the universe to pristine un-played-with shape in time for the next dramatic interlude; even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focusses intently on revolutionary change), I recognize the limits of the TV series as a medium. Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc — but it's frequently pathetic. I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying.

More limits. Science fiction is "a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change." For Stross, maybe. But not for everyone. Not for every reader, or every writer.

And how nice of him to recognize the limits of TeeVee as a medium!!! That's extremely troubling, coming from someone like Stross. He's ALLLLL about limits, isn't he? Where he sees limits, I see opportunity. Isn't it MUCH more challenging to tell a great story within these so-called limits? Jesus Christ, man, what Galactica did -- regardless of how you think it ended, and I personally think a lot of people didn't get it -- has just not been DONE on television. Not that anyone will ever get to do it again, but Ron Moore fucking DID it, and Charles Stross -- that master of science fiction -- won't even take a look.

I'll bet the Terminator show made his fucking head explode. If he'd seen an episode. Which he probably didn't. I wonder if he's one of those "I don't own a television" people. It doesn't sound like he should, since all genre TeeVee and movies make his head explode. Which is most assuredly indicative of disruptive revolutionary change.

He lays a smackdown:
The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

"You WILL do science fiction MY way, or IT IS WRONG." He also adds the "under science fictional circumstances" bit, which means, I suppose, that we have to check with him first to see what is acceptable. Which again, defeats the entire purpose of speculative fiction. And since he's asking us to choose, I'd rather get the story right than the science. Otherwise, write a paper.

He then, however, makes an even worse faux pas:

PS: Don't get me started on Doctor Who ...

Sigh. Anyone who expects a show about a two-hearted, immortal time traveler going through time in a blue police box that's bigger on the inside to be scientifically accurate is a fucking idiot. If you're desperate to attach a label, Doctor Who is science fantasy. Not science fiction. Doctor Who is NOT driven by the science, it's driven by character and ideas.

For me, Doctor Who does everything good speculative fiction should do. To wit, IT DOES WHATEVER THE FUCK IT WANTS. It moves dizzily from hard SF to fantasy to horror to a drawing-room murder mystery to a soap to comedy... it literally does everything. And it does so with heart and passion and deft writing and CHARACTER.

First of all, Doctor Who has been on TeeVee since 1963. It's survived in part because of the elegance of its premise. Time-traveling Time Lord and human companion bopping around time and space in a phone box. That can be as simple or as complex as they want it to be. They can reinvent Daleks and Cybermen and make them work because the framework of the show is so simple. Essentially, it's the best kind of anthology, where you can see a totally standalone episode one week, a Dalek episode the next, then Jack Harkness pops in the week following, and then the show unexpectedly ties together an episode from the first season in an episode from the third.

This is precisely the kind of structure that frees you up.

The ability to have intense serialized mythology but also standalone episodes without hurting the show is the goal of TeeVee, at least for me. X-Files managed this for awhile but got lost in its mythology, so the standalone episodes and mythology episodes basically diverged into two different shows. Doctor Who manages this beautifully.

I don't see a lack of imagination on Doctor Who. I see exactly the opposite. I honestly don't know how the Brits feel about Doctor Who but if Stross's reaction is any indication, well... that's unfortunate.

I will say this to Mr. Stross. Next Comic Con, come to the Starship Smackdown panel. Let's see if you can keep up, Sparky.

Yvonne -- send me your e-mail addy through comments and I won't post it. Good to hear from you!


BurnettRM said...


Well, I still think DAY ONE was KOed because someone finally read Robert Charles Wilson's THE CRONOLITHS.
Great post. I'm a fan of Stross' writing, but his rant was absurd. I must go back to my favorite definition of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss' famous quote, "Science Fiction is the search for a definition of man(kind) and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge..."
If BATTLESTAR GALACTICA did anything, it certainly lived up to this definition. But really, isn't the purpose of any kind of storytelling to examine the human condition and make sense of our day to day existence? Beyond comment on how external forces and stuations effect our inner selves? The genre trappings are meaningless without some kind of basic human truth they serve to illuminate.
THE VISITOR was a terrific story which relied on the very basic sci-fi concept of time travel for its framework. However, it obviously wasn't about time travel at all, instead examining tremendous loss, guilt and a life consumed by regret. Weighty topics to be sure and covered by any number of stories throughout the ages, but very effectively addressed within the confines of a STAR TREK story and its established use of time travel. The tech didn't matter at all, only the human truths at the heart of the story.
The same is true of all great Science Fiction, whether it be short story, novel, film or episodic television series. We find the genre trappings delicious, but if the underlying stories aren't somehow nutricious, we just won't consume them.
Much as I love Stross, his rant sounded like many I've heard in convention hotel hallways at 4:00 in the morning. Usually at Worldcon.

Horse said...


I'd be interested in hearing more about your impressions of the BSG ending. I really liked BSG, apart from (a) the middle of S3 and (b) the finale.

I was fairly underwhelmed - I thought it was a bit of a handwave frankly ("don't worry about explanations, Goddidit! See also: ineffable.") But maybe I've missed something?

gareth-wilson said...

Stross's rant is a bit off, true. Star Trek's annoying "tech the tech" dialogue is mostly gone these days. For all the flaws of Babylon 5 or Firefly or Battlestar, they didn't have it. I can see a more valid criticism there, though. It's that SF TV isn't putting enough effort into the SF part. Let's use Battlestar Galactica as an example here. There are plenty of questions that the writers obviously didn't put much thought into, including what a Cylon is in a physical sense, what language the human characters are speaking, and why it makes sense to launch fighter spacecraft from a carrier. It's still a well-written, well acted show, but I'm not sure you can describe it as good science fiction. And you could easily give those questions answers consistent with a TV show, and make it good SF.

Kiyote said...

I have read some of stross' work. The Merchant Prince the first 3 quickly - liked them - 4th book stalled and haven't picked up 5th one. He suffered from no movement from book to book.

And understand - i love serial books. (I cried when robert jordan passed away).

But all the hard sci-fi writers (of which he isnt as he writes alt history too - merchant series)...all nit pick sci-fi on tv and movies.

Kristine said...

Am I smoking crack because I think tech is often the *least interesting* aspect of sci fi? For me, it's all about the characters and the inventiveness of the stories, which BSG, DS9 and Dr. Who all do so well. The world has to be interesting, yes, but I've never given much thought to the way the transporter works (beyond the fact that I'd love one to get me to work on time). Dr. Who is one of those shows I watch and am just impressed by the intelligence of the writing, and the way it all comes together. Those are complex stories--and they're brilliant!!

I've never read Stross's work. But if it was all real science... it wouldn't be science *fiction*, would it? Maybe I'm over-simplifying.

And then there's this:

"The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances."

Isn't the whole point of science fiction to tell stories that explore the human condition under *any* circumstance?? BSG is about the human condition, period. And damn if it didn't do an amazing amazing job of exploring the human condition, period.

Sorry if this is rambly!

M. C. Valada said...

Len and I often say "there's protomatter in the genesis matrix" when we hear technobabble, and then we just pay attention to the characters. Len once explained how Nightcrawler can "bamf" by telling the fans "it works because I SAY IT WORKS." End of story.

Don't take people like Charlie Stross seriously. He's probably upset because he hasn't sold anything to Hollywood. ;-)

Stephen Gallagher said...

I honestly don't know how the Brits feel about Doctor Who but if Stross's reaction is any indication, well... that's unfortunate.

Charlie Stross speaks only for himself on this one. The fact that Doctor Who has renewed itself and played to successive generations means that it's always had special meaning for all levels of the audience. Even through the long years when the BBC's own management looked upon the show with disdain. Maybe they found it hard to feel respect for viewers who loved a show with shaky sets and low production values.

But those viewers appreciated how craftspeople in every department were knocking themselves out to do something special with no money. Fans didn't love the show for its flaws, they loved it in spite of them.

The BBC had the disdain slapped out of them by the revival's undeniable success. Now every executive you meet has a story about how long they fought to get it back on the air.

I suppose I have a special relationship with Doctor Who. As a small child I was right there in the target audience for the very first season. Fifteen years later it was my first writing job in TV. And when the Tennant era came along it was the show my daughter and I watched together.