Science Fiction

Three Reasons Jenny Agutter Should Be The Next Dr. Who

I'll make no bones about it, I didn't care for Matt Smith and once Karen Gillan was no longer around upping the pretty factor, the last season of Dr. Who got old fast. I was already getting tired of River Song by the end of the fifth season and the decision to focus so heavily on her in the sixth and seventh seasons bored me to tears. The fact of the matter is that the Doctor has historically been largely asexual. While the chemistry between David Tennant and Billie Piper was undeniable and made for an interesting change as The Doctor and Rose played through their love story, in the course of Doctor Who Mythology it only really works as an aberration rather than the new normal. Frankly I would like to see a return to a Doctor who remembers that he is an alien and is as emotionally detached as a 900 year old time traveling super genius who is a misfit in his own society should be. Something modeled more on Tom Baker on Jon Pertwee's doctors than the soap opera leading men we've been getting instead.

To that end I think it's high time for a shake up in the casting. The next doctor needs to be older, less lonely, less angsty, more patrician, more eccentric, scarier, and female. In short I think the actor to take on the role next is Jenny Agutter.

Why I Hate Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury is one of the few writers published consistently in the science fiction category who is also read widely by non-sf readers. He was awarded a special National Book Award for "contributions to American letters", his books are regularly assigned in schools, and he inspires that special level of fanatical devotion that leads people to name blogs after him and create absurdly elaborate music videos about wanting to have sex with him.

Which is part of why it's so frustrating to me that I don't like him. Of all the sf authors who have made some significant impact on the mainstream (whose numbers include Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville, among others), Bradbury is probably the one that troubles me the most. (Okay, Heinlein is deeply problematic, but that's another essay entirely.)

Bradbury's most famous and bestselling book is Fahrenheit 451. Like millions of Americans, I was assigned to read this book in Middle School, though I didn't until recently as part of my Reading the History of Popular Literature project. Most of what's always bothered me about Bradbury is summed up by this passage on page 7 of my edition:

Gene Roddenberry's Unfortunate Legacy; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Star Trek

Netflix in their pursuit of continual appeasement of the great god Mammon has etched a deal with Paramount Pictures that allows them to stream all day all night all Star Trek all the time. And lo it did come to pass that the great multitude of Star Trek Nerds were pleased. I have taken this opportunity to, with no extra expenditure than I would otherwise make, finally sit down and engage with the franchise as a text. I can now say unequivocally that it is without a doubt every bit as stupid as I always assumed it was, but I have nevertheless made some discoveries about it that I think have wider cultural implications that can be profitably unpacked.

I should note that I elected to watch the series in the chronological order internal to the franchise. I began with Star Trek:Enterprise, followed by 2009 Star Trek prequel/reboot, then watched the 60's Star Trek, then the Motion Pictures featuring the original cast, then Star Trek: The Next Generation, and finally Voyager (Deep Space Nine is not yet available on netflix as of this writing) flipping back and forth between them interspersed with the feature films with the Next Generation cast until Voyager gradually, finally, mercifully ground to an ignominious halt. In all of this, I find very little that is of any value, the Wrath of Khan and the interesting treatment of the "Mirror Universe" being the most notable exceptions. Of all of these particular cash cows, however, the one that I think is most consistently my favorite is the truly abhorrent Star Trek: Enterprise.

Star Trek: What a Ridiculous Load of Crap

Massive spoilers below.

EDIT: added more notes at the bottom.

Imagine if you will that there's a magic red goop, and that a single drop of this goop—one drop!—can create a black hole. Now imagine that a whole man-sized container of the stuff (which one needs, for some reason, because a few drops just won't do the job) smashes in the middle of a starship. Now imagine that for some reason that ship is still around with a giant black hole forming all around it and you can have a nice conversation with the captain of that and then decide for some reason you need to shoot him with your phasers and photon torpedoes because the black hole hasn't completely destroyed them already.

Okay, now imagine that you sky dive from space into the atmosphere of a planet. There is no sense of burning up on reentry or even any sort of heat. Then you land on a giant laser drill in the stratosphere. This drill is hanging off of a ship in space and is drilling a hole in the planet, but there's no sense at all of the ship maintaining geosynchronous orbit; indeed the drill seems to be moving around quite a lot and yet is still drilling this big hole. Oh yeah, and the reason you need a big hole? Because you want to put a drop of red black hole goo in the center of the planet to destroy it because for some reason creating a black hole anywhere in the general vicinity of the planet isn't good enough. (Why do they bother even using the term "black hole" if they have no desire to have anything to do with what a black hole is or does?) But okay, so then you land on your space drill. You whip off your helmets and have no trouble at all breathing up in the stratosphere. Then for some reason the drill is manned, and the bad guys come out and you all have a big kung fu fight up on the top, complete with flips and acrobatics. On a platform in the open air in the stratosphere. And nobody just blows right off.

I don't think I've ever in my life seen an ostensible Science Fiction movie with such complete contempt for science. Space Balls had better science. Godzilla had better science (all of them).

Racefail and the SciFi Ghetto: Why It's Really All About High School

As you may or may not be aware, there is a maelstrom brewing under the surface of the internet regarding racism and sexism in the world of Science Fiction. Generally referred to as "RaceFail," the simplest way I can think of to describe it is as sort of a metaflamewar that's been bouncing around the blogosphere for a few years now. It's been going on so long and has involved so many different players that I don't think anyone involved in it really understands the whole thing. To this gigantic clusterfuck of fevered egos, I have decided to add my own small contribution, in part to try to at least sort of map the whole thing, and also to try to talk about what I see as the real underpinnings of the whole controversy and where it comes from. No, it's not Nick Mamatas's fault.

No Really, Dune Fucking Sucks: Part One, an introduction to the project

Lots of people really likeDune. It's spawned a movie, a couple of TV mini-series, several video games, at least one comic book adaptation, and a continuing series of books written by the book's late author's son in order to cash in on the gullible mouth breathers who think there is value in the franchise. The pro-Dune camp believes that this book and the series it spawned are "classic," "masterfully crafted," "well-planned," novels. Do a quick google search, and you will find no shortage of people who are willing to ascribe adjective phrases like "beautifully written," "elegant," and "brillant" to this novel.

I respectfully—well, sort of— disagree with this assessment, and taking a page out of slacktivist's close reading of Left Behind, given how widespread respect for Dune is even occasionally outside of the science fiction ghetto, I think it's high time someone pointed out how terribly flawed, immoral, and transparently lacking in complexity Dune actually is.

I don't know how many entries this is going to take, but beginning next week after I've been able to procure another copy of the book, I'll be posting a page by page and occasionally line-by-line commentary on the book in the hopes of exposing it for the massively deficient and incompetent piece of literature that it is.

All comments are welcome, particularly from those who think that there's something of value in this trash that I'm missing.

I'm looking forward to the project and expect that it will take me some time to complete. I hope you all enjoy it, or at least learn to enjoy Dune a little bit less.

The Future of the Fantastic: Dangerous Visions

Dangerous Visions
Edited By Harlan Ellison, iBooks, inc, 544pp, $14.95

Note added 2012:

In retrospect, there are two things I'd like to change about this essay. One is the line accusing Ellison of putting Pohl and Knight in there because of sf-family nepotism. This completely ignores the fact that they were much lauded and well established authors at the time, and so might have been included on the strength of their reputations. Which exposes my ignorance: at the time I wrote this, I'd never heard of Pohl or Knight.

Second, I completely ignore Samuel Delany's story "Aye, and Gomorrah". In retrospect, this story is quite good, and it's whole meditation on sexual perversion was really novel and interesting for the time.

One of the things that comes across clearly in the various introductions to the stories in Dangerous Visions, the anthology that defined the "New Wave" of speculative fiction in the 1960's, is that these aren't just writers to Harlan Ellison, but to a large degree they are friends. Even those writers Ellison isn't close to seem part of an extended family, and Ellison admits at one point that he only accepted two stories for the anthology from people he'd never heard of (submissions that were sent to him by agents). On the one hand, this speaks volumes about the sort of collegiality that existed in sf at the time (and in all probability still exists). On the other hand, it makes for an anthology that reads exactly like someone getting stuff from all his friends together whether or not that stuff is actually particularly good.

Review: Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

In recent years it has become increasingly politically incorrect in literary circles to simply dismiss Philip K. Dick as a pulp Science Fiction writer; at this point, there seems to be a general consensus that there is more to Dick than there is to other "classic" scifi writers like Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, or Isaac Asimov. A dismissal of Dick in this way is no more acceptable than it would be to dismiss Kafka a horror writer, or Ernest Hemingway an Adventure writer. At the same time, there is the lingering problem with Dick in that he is somehow not of the same caliber as a Kafka or a Hemingway, and the critical appraisal of his work becomes problematic as a result.

The Future of the Fantastic: New Wave Slipstream Fabulism

It isn't so surprising that I didn't know what was going on in Science Fiction, as I'm the type of guy who generally reads "Literary Fiction," and like many readers of a particular type of writing, I didn't stray outside my aisles in the bookstore much. Sure I used to pick up a Philip K. Dick book now and again, maybe a Neil Gaimen novel, but hell, those guys are cool. And reading them made me feel like I was open minded and hip to what's going on, even if I wasn't.

Kelly Link, Pynchon, Moorcock and Genre

In a recent interview with Bat Segundo, Kelly Link offers some interesting comments about genre labels. She says that she feels like the term "Literary Fiction" turns off lots of people, and she prefers to call what she writes "Science Fiction:" "People who are turned off by the term 'Science Fiction' probably aren't the people I want reading my work, anyway." Which struck me as strange, since so much of what Link does is exactly what I think of as "Literary Fiction." Then again, a friend of mine once pointed out that Literary Fiction is a redundant term, and one wonders if it really means anything at all. Longtime Science Fiction and Fantasy author Michael Moorcock recently wrote a fascinating review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, where, in a blistering litany of names and terms, he puts Pynchon in a linage that includes Brian Aldiss, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. And perhaps Moorcock is right, and my own analysis that science fiction started growing up in the eighties is off by at least 20 years. If Neal Stephenson can call The Baroque Cycle Science Fiction then maybe there is no reason that we can't call Pynchon that too, and indeed his work may share more in common with Moorcock's own then it does with "Literary Fiction" stalwarts from Hemingway to Updike to Joyce Carol Oates.

However, if Link is right that it's the term "Literary Fiction" that turns people off, then someone like Pynchon would sell more as a Science Fiction writer, and I'm not sure that's the case. A lot of the Science Fiction fans I've met seem put off by anything remotely difficult, and I recall J.F. Quackenbush telling me about the time he went to a Science Fiction convention and a group of authors on a panel all agreed that writers shouldn't use big words. This kind of thing, and the Star Trek-type imprimatur I talked about in my earlier article, are what turns people off Science Fiction, and I can't help but feel like Link's own defensiveness about the value of her chosen genre (and, more importantly, I think, of the community she identifies with) results in a kind of reverse snobbery. Yes, Moorcock and Link are right; there are many works labeled Science Fiction that are really great, and besides, there's nothing wrong with a rip roaring good story (I am, in fact, in favor of those). Further, I really like lots of work that's labeled "Science Fiction." Further still, I respect the decision of people like Link, Stephenson and China Mieville who could declare themselves "Literary Fiction" writers and get out of the perceived "ghetto" of Sci Fi and Fantasy but don't on principle. The fact remains that I get very turned off by so much "genre" writing that reads like rapidly produced hack-work, and am reassured that even the least of the "Literary Fiction" crowd spend a good deal of time refining their craft and style in a way that just can't be said by the run-of-the-mill "genre" author, whose writing is often laughably bad. Which leaves me torn, because on the one hand I want to believe that's it's great to say "Yeah, stick it to those uppity snobs, Science Fiction and proud of it," and on the other hand I have trouble accepting the idea that labeling your work Science Fiction is in any way an improvement over labeling it Literary Fiction.

Ultimately though, it's a bad situation all around. I've certainly met people from the Literary crowd with an irrational dislike of Science Fiction, and vice versa with people from the Science Fiction crowd (as well as those of various other genres). There are, in fact, lots and lots of readers who will only voluntarily read one genre, voluntarily pigeon-holing themselves. So the whole thing becomes silly, a situation which I suspect is the product of the way bookstores started shelving things in the last hundred years or so that's taken on an unfortunate life of its own. Thus turning one's nose up at Literary Fiction makes as little sense as turning it up at Science Fiction, and I can't help but wish that Link's attitude towards Literary Fiction was a little more forgiving.