Notes on Science Fiction

Science Fiction is all about technology, that much is obvious. Combining imagination with hypothetical speculation and wishful thinking about future settings, SF can provide retroactive extensions (in a positive or negative vein) of the technology whose roots we experience today. These extensions are usually a criticism of our current interactions with technology and science — we depend(ed) too much on computers and machines; we mistakenly thought that science could protect us from disease and destruction etc. But it is still one of the truly broad imaginative genres. SF can factor in cybernetics, information technology, future capitalism, alien races and concepts of otherness, stellar travel and tourism, higher spiritualities and intelligence, weird physiologies and sexuality, fancy gadgets, fancy science and weapons, in addition to the standard u/dystopian commentaries. And it’s usually quite a transparent genre — it has its own techno-babble and jargons, it draws on distinctively human traits, stereotypes and behaviours, and is clearly dependent on wide leaps of faith. But SF can also be coherent and systematic like the various Star Trek franchises; it can suggest consistent worlds of possibility. And by taking for granted the inevitability of efficient space travel and exploration, it can make us feel better about our technological/scientific limitations today.

I love SF for its speculative powers and bold acts of prophesy. It is an act of extended interpretation, a radicalisation of the New. But it also has its transparent problems on a structural level. Basically, the technologies of typical SF have (supposedly) undergone several generations of paradigm shift — within the limitations of what we currently conceive to be possible later. Regrettably, the technology has advanced but the narrative worlds haven’t. The narratives are always predictably 20th Century human. Why else is the clear-cut moral range of the Western so adapted to SF? On a very basic structural level that ignores for the moment the leaps of faith involved, and which ignores the trends and fashions of narrative culture, narrative has, when viewed in technological parallel, changed little over the last thousand years. Good guys on grand adventures fight against evil aliens or technologies; there’s friendships, loyal teams and skimpy heroines; missions spinning out of control that become desperate journeys home; mysterious objects/omens/phenomena that teach humanity crucial lessons about itself or the vastness of space; there’s power plays within hierarchies and rebel factions — and all with the clearest scenario establishment, suspense and resolution of within 1-2 hours or 190 pages (and I beg indulgence here — it is an error to confuse plot with narrative — narrative is the whole active field of story and effect, not just its obvious formal/genre elements). For us, these are a series of fixed and universal forms which change little except in shape and colour but which inform much of the novelisation, filming and televising of SF. An episode of Star Trek might deal very intelligently with an interesting and debilitating problem of interstellar physics, and the formal execution of the episode might reflect this; but it’s still an extension of the problem/teamwork/solution form worked out in 50 minutes. (Star Trek - The Next Generation embodies most perfectly what could be called the corporatisation of SF — a reliable, bankable and easily-consumed SF-product franchise. More on this later.) It’s easy for SF to dream up convenient stellar drives and beeping tricorders — it is much harder to conceive and execute a narrative experience that is truly futuristic or that hypothesises how future generations might expand and experience the structures of narrative beyond superficial trends. Because narrative too should also undergo paradigm shifts if it is to be truly futuristic.

Considered the deep-time projection of SF speculation, I’m starting to detect a new trend of late: the basing of scenarios on near-future technology and materials recognisably closer to our current computer/communications/travel capacities (for instance Red Planet, Star Trek Enterprise); and thereby the emphasising the gadgetry of SF and not the science or its sub fields of physics, astronomy, biology etc. One of the curious misconceptions of SF is its nominal definition. Science only ever plays a minor contextual role in SF worlds, a vaguely explanatory system or philosophy of concepts and understanding. SF has always downplayed the conceptual/theoretical schema of Science to offset its physical, technical manifestations. The paradigm of technological change is one we can readily identify with since our own gadgets advance fast and often. Science, in the broadest sense, is inconveniently both too specialised and (at least, on its outer rims) far too hypothetical to create a solid picture of where we’re at in the universe. Between quantum physics and string theory there’s little to base a consistent projection of the future on. We experience our present in terms of technological progress rather than the distant, epoch-bending shifts of paradigm that define the Science of our reality. Who cares about the science.

The modern SF consumer identifies with the fancy gadgets that are not conceptually far removed from his mobile phone. The feeling I get is that the Science of SF has slowed down, that it has adopted the conservative measures of the Next Generation, establishing limits and developing diplomacy instead. The early trend in SF was to project further and deeper into the future — the current trend is to draw back. Either because SF can get pretty abstruse or because the same old plots don’t complement the future-ideas in a relative sense, or because we’ve reached some unspoken limitations about what is humanly knowable that we can only resort to deliberate ambiguity (think 2001, Solaris). It could also be due to the phenomenon that gave rise to the Clock of the Long Now — because our rates of technological change are so rapid, we’ve been experiencing a shortening of time and the corresponding sense of the future. Technology has not really given us more leisure time or space, it has crammed more time and media in, thereby shortening it. We have trouble conceiving and sympathising with perspectives of deep time, just as there are few if any institutions that encourage the long view into the future, with planning and thinking that works in terms of millennia rather than four-year terms. (Corporate and optimistic SF like The Next Generation could be argued to act like a mildly comforting narcotic here. More on that later too.)

In the Buck Rogers era, the future was an arbitrary number. As though, looking at an SF projection of a thousand years from now, we can imagine all these great achievements but still have to dabble with shitty plots about heroes with guns. I’d like to believe that a consciousness of narrative’s current limitations (in terms of genre forms) inform this shortening time-scale in SF. We’ve exposed and exploded all genre limitations in the last century, but seemed incapable of generating truly new paradigms of story. At least we might bring plot-reprocessing to new lows, say the cynics — but that is already happening consistently. One of the most effective sub-genres of SF is CyberPunk, which banks heavily on the idea that there’s not going to be much of a future anyway — and in a loose sense this has somewhat come about. We have stopped speculating and interpreting possibilities of deep future time. It could be the lack of visionaries in science and art. It could be the lack of dreaming beyond Humvees and home renovation. It could be the tired old narratives.

I understand that for a SF television show especially, the story has to adhere to basic rules and the science has to be bite-size. But I want more hypotheticals about how future generations process and arrange information, about how they will participate in culture and whether any new forms and genres will peak and level out, with only their media or delivery changing occasionally like ours do; or whether a true paradigm shift can occur in the process, structure and experience of narrative. Whether a truly Other narrative is possible. Or whether our burgeoning rates of technological change will continue to shorten our perspective of time. Future writers and directors might correctly diagnose our technological obsession and salvage or redefine our experience of time and narrative in some way.

But how, for instance, will future generations solve the problem of solitude? Argue from non-gadgetry principles.

Star Trek Virtues

I read Star Trek (from the Next Generation on) as Technological Utopianism. It is fiercely optimistic about the course of humanity and our ability to right ourselves after the worst global calamities. As with any SF, it tells us more about our present than our future. It surreptitiously proves that idea so beloved in America: that technology will a) give you hope, b) set you free and c) conquer all enemies. I love its easy formula and characterisation and occasional brushes with hard science and sheer impossibilities. I willingly drop into its broad leaps of faith and convenient technical glosses. I like the high regard its scientists are held in. I even tolerate the endless Picardisms about what makes Humans so unique when confronted by some uncomprehending alien entity. I love the excellent and subtle sound engineering. I love all the things that make it a formulaic franchise.

The Next Gen is riddled with utopian attitudes to the future. Its Federation of Planets is friendly to all races and species, tolerant and open to all under a comfortable banner of free trade and exchange. Its most important ethical achievement is the Prime Directive — a doctrine of non-involvement and isolationism. None can establish contact with a new species that hasn’t yet mastered interstellar travel through warp technology. Future technologies shall not contaminate or hasten lesser technologies, it says. A benign but technologically-keyed argument, implying the universality and fixity of all physics and the end or rather limitation of major paradigm shifts once this warp business is achieved. All hunger, energy problems and other capitalist side-effects have in the meantime been eradicated from Earth. The humane utopia has been achieved. All rejoice.

At the head of this advancement is the Enterprise, a rather executive flagship which acts as arbitrator and vehicle of diplomacy as well as cultural explorer, researcher and enforcer of the new universe. It is almost odd that this shiny executive ship can carry out its egalitarian mission of trade and tolerance (without capitalist side-effects) whilst functioning on a rigid naval slash militarist structure of hierarchical rank and command (with StarFleet its parent company). I know it’s probably a carry-on from Roddenberry’s days in the navy; but it begs performative contradiction to base a tolerant, humanitarian system of exchange on an authority-driven system of command. It’s a bit like asking generals and admirals to be good-will ambassadors and statesmen. Humanity doesn’t spring from authority. Those ethics consultants must’ve had their big come-uppance in the future; or the discreet absence of government and politicians (but not lawyers and a love of courtroom dramatics) could be another positive indication. Again, on the level of human reality this is all bollocks and dreaming; as entertainment it’s endearing to see such an attempt at true and tolerant nobility. The assumption is that humanity has advanced somehow, without of course speculating on the specifics or mechanics of this achievement.

One of the plusses of turning Star Trek: Enterprise into a prequel of sorts (after the Deep Space 9 and Voyager franchises) is that it throws all this future context into near-future relief. With many notable exceptions, this older Enterprise looks much like a modern submarine on the inside: there’s cramped space and bulky bulkheads compared to the Next Gen’s comfortable quarters and boardroom veneers. The retro-technology of ST: Enterprise is still future-technology slash fantasy for us, just given that edge of the almost-reachable. The production designers and tech-wonks of the series have relativised the scale of ST technical advancement in the new series; implying a real scale of growth and not some absolute or ultimate state of end-technology. For the franchise, this means technological scalability and new-product flexibility. And it also means ST:E can be nicely mercenary about its hunger for technology; alternatively leveraging trade with new toys and getting a handle on them risky transporters and replicators. It’s still a case of ‘they’ve got bigger guns and shields than us’ and the usual impossible odds, but never mind that.

And there’s also the elements of standard ST formula: every franchise must have talent in a catsuit, a rational agent offset by a more animalistic one, a doctor and some inexperienced ensigns, hostile aliens with devious (technologist) plans, tech-jargon and tech-limitations, the prestige of officers and the captain and some kind of inane mythology of the ‘chair’ of command. With plenty of lessons in humanity along the way.

And like so much entertainment, it’s fiercely American in wanting to make you feel better about yourself and the world. I used to think this feel-good side-effect was just a by-product of the neat characterisations and even neater plot resolutions, on top of all that utopian escapism. But now I’m fully convinced that the warm glow and slightly fuzzy meditativeness of the new Star Treks comes from some incredibly subtle sound engineering. Every room, scene and setting has its own unique sonic signature, its own shade of white noise hum or ominous but mild throb or natural air effects. Air conditioners tend to sound the same in any room, but ST has gone that extra yard in applying cinema-quality sound engineering to the feel and critical ambience of every room and setting. And it’s a very comforting hiss and hum. It’s textured and sculptured static, it’s the subtlest of colourings working on the level of minimally-perceived detail — if you pay close attention (with headphones) you notice the detail but otherwise they’re comfortably absorbed in the viewing experience. It adds a level of complexity and depth to the tone and feel of the series. And it’s one of the crucial motivators to make me want to explore sound engineering fully. I’d have my own tonal static generators running all the time.

1 comment:

Andrew Montin said...

Science in science fiction provides an alternative mythological space, allowing it to escape the monotheistic certainties of the last two thousand years. Paradoxically science helps revive the pre-rational, pagan imagination by rendering an omnipotent godhead obsolete. The return to myth explains all the plots with heroes and their guns, as well as the SF obsession with the unconscious and sex.

Kubrick knew this which is why his three sci-fi films (2001, Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut - excluding for obvious reasons AI) have very little to do with technology or utopian visions. Kubrick didn't have an American sensibility, so the last thing he wanted was to make you feel better about yourself (cf. Spielberg). The medium of cinema allowed him to reinvent ancient myth visually - into what one might call, pretentiously, a mythology of space. In 2001, for example, the references to Odysseus are explicit, but Kubrick sabatoges the narrative arc or circle by setting Odysseus adrift - he wants to tell the story about an ever increasing distance; something I'm not sure is possible using words. Kubrick emphasizes the "nonverbal experience" of 2001 when he talked about the film. He also said:

"I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001 - but not in any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don't believe in any of Earth's monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God..." (Playboy interview, 1968)

In Clockwork Orange the satirical context makes a political signification inevitable. And yet, here again the SF setting allows Kubrick a means of escape; to fashion a kind of apolitical iconography of violence - to the extent that's possible. In order to stage the drama Kubrick seems to draw freely from the conventions of commedia dell'arte. But in an extension of this, Kubrick throws into almost every scene all sorts of futuristic objects d'art, junk really, as if the grotesqueries themselves invited the characters to commit their surreal acts of violence. The surrounding space itself becomes a masked character prodding the others on. Here the films setting in the future seems to be a condition of possibility for the absurd juxtaposition of things.

The ambition of Eyes Wide Shut far exceeds that of his other films, and it's not clear that he succeeded. What seems to me remarkable though is that he should employ the elements of SF here to tell what is an explicitly inward journey - turning the whole inner / outer space distinction inside out. The scenes in the mansion could just as easily have been shot for an adult version of Star Wars. Kubrick uses the masks in particular to separate the voice from the body in a truly unnerving manner. I would go further and say it dehumanizes the voice in a way that HAL never could. Since sex is the one constant heading into the future, more so than death or taxes, Kubrick seems to be suggesting that the greatest threat to humanity's self-proximity lies in such acts of physical intimacy. Unfortunately the otherwise non-SF setting restricts the visual / spatial logic of the film to a mundane predictability for the most part. If only he had set it a hundred years in the future....

Oh, and how will future generations solve the problem of solitude? They'll embrace it. Kubrick knew this too.