Thursday, May 2, 2013

George Orwell's 1984: The First Cyberclunk Novel?

One of the earliest terms for what we know today as science fiction was “scientific romance.” The term endured until Amazing Stories publisher Hugo Gernsback coined the word “scienetifiction,” which soon became simply “science fiction,” abbreviated by science fiction super fan Forrest J. Ackerman as “sci-fi,” and abused further still by cable’s inexplicably named Syfy Network.

But the romance never quite left it.

Frankenstein; or a Modern Prometheus, one of the earliest science fiction novels, or "scientific romances"  is as much about technology’s flaws as it is a romance. The “Prometheus” part of the title right away tells us this is a cautionary tale, as the romance of Doctor Frankenstein’s vision is contrasted with the grotesquery of his creation. It’s not just about science gone wrong—because Frankenstein achieves his essential goal—but science that doesn’t work quite how we want it to.

Later, Jules Verne would write an even more romantic scientific romance. Nemo’s Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is science as elegant in its conception as in its execution. And like the genesis of Mary Shelly’s monster, the source of that technology is electricity, which by this time was not the same mystery that it was when Shelly wrote Frankenstein. The book is surprisingly prescient--diving suits and a bomb that’s devastation mirrors the destructive power of a nuclear weapon. Once again there are references here to Greek mythology, in this case, Homer’s Odyssey, and like Frankenstein before him, Nemo is the quintessential mad scientist. But for all his madness, Nemo’s technology is streamlined and perfect, and the drawbacks are strictly in its repercussions rather than inherent in its design, a theme we see again and again in the science fiction that followed.

Verne’s other efforts ranged from the progressive use of technology existent at the time—Around the World in 80 Days—to the humor (if not satire) of Journey to The Center of the Earth, which contained both speculation and pure fantasy. But the essence of his stories, from the exploration of the sea, to space travel, was romance. More than Frankenstein, this is the model for later day science fiction, science fiction as futurism, as speculation about technology to come. Verne, in this way, is more the model for the works of popular authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov than Shelly.

H.G. Wells’ approach was similar to Verne’s, with one notable exception. In the majority of Wells’ work, the technology is still romantic in its depiction. Though the time travel device in The Time Machine is used as a vehicle to illustrate a dystopia that represents the ultimate consequence of class, the time machine itself is described as an elegant device. And though it predicts a second world war, the future world in The Shape of Things to Come is ultimately utopian.

The great exception is The Island of Doctor Moreau. Moreau parallel’s Frankenstein in his ambition, and as with Frankenstein,  the process is grotesque, involving skin grafts and surgery so painful it’s used as a form of discipline against his creations. There’s no brain surgery described in the process—the changes are all superficial manipulations of the flesh. The ultimate message is similarly Promethean, about our inability to turn the tide of nature, and how nature metes out its own punishment upon those who try. Like Frankenstein, Moreau succeeds in generating creatures that resent him for what he’s made them, but unlike Shelly's Frankenstein, Moreau knew that if he was going to achieve his goals the process would inevitably be crude. He embraced the imperfection of his initial results as a necessity, but overestimated its effectiveness. Morality tale aside, it was bad technology. His formerly animal creations returned to the wild. His efforts didn’t take. The Invisible Man follows a similar path of imperfection, but not nearly to the degree of Moreau. 

This is the compromise that all scientists and technologists have to make—technology is never going to turn out quite how we want it to. You have to accept the inelegance inherent in invention. It takes a long time to smooth out the edges, and you’re never going to smooth every corner. Though more emphasis tends to be placed on Moreau as a morality tale, I see it, more importantly, as a blunt and unfiltered illustration of this fact.

George Orwell’s 1984 and The Beginnings of Cyberclunk

After Wells we see two popular dystopias about totalitarian oppression, first Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and then, nearly a decade later, George Orwell’s 1984. These are by no means the first depictions of future dystopias (Even Shelly wrote one of her own) but both were significant for their criticism of the industrial class structure, and of the two, Orwell’s 1984 heralds a new kind of science fiction.

Huxley’s is a dystopian romance, a smooth running machine with technology that meets every practical need. Everyone is kept content with the ubiquitous happy pill Soma and encouraged to be good consumers. A eugenic system is in place that establishes both intellect and class at birth (echoes of Wells’ Time Machine). This is science fiction as futurism, and the vehicle is still smooth as glass technology.

 Orwell’s original intended title for his novel was 1948, a direct reference to the post-war era. Since Orwell’s book was written at the beginning of the Cold War it’s often assumed to be a critique of Communism, but like Huxley’s novel, 1984 was a critique on the growing power of corporate hegemonies. Every thought and every product is dictated by the state, and though this does parallel in many ways the Stalinist era of controlled communications and historical revisionism, it’s not even ostensibly a worker’s society. Consumerism is a peripheral issue, but that doesn’t mean that the populace is discouraged from consumption. There’s no explicit critique of capitalism. Conspicuous consumption isn’t an option to be considered. People take what they are given. Big Brother takes care of you.

As in A Brave New World, class is strictly divided between blue collar and white collar, another clear example of how 1984 had little to do with communism. The society of 1984 leans more towards the model of Structural Functionalism--the body of the society functions based on the assumption and acceptance of strictly reinforced societal roles. The simplified language of Newspeak is a satire of the conventions of technical and educational writing taken to the extreme. Newspeak is language as pure instruction and uninflected communication, another illustration of the ultimate consequence of the basic tenants of Structural Functionalism.

In 1984 the everyday hardships of life are oppressive and emotional connections are discouraged, but there’s no Soma to make the citizenry content with their plight. If it’s a smooth running machine, it’s one that performs in relative stasis. Technology hasn’t so much advanced as become distilled, and at the beginning of the book it’s established that the year is an arbitrary one.

“he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984. It must be round about that date, since he was fairly sure that his age was thirty-nine, and he believed that he had been born in 1944 or 1945; but it was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two.” 

Chronologically, to the contemporary reader at the time, 1984 was the future, but just as soon as the idea is posited, it’s discredited, because literal futurism is not relevant to the story that Orwell is trying to tell. Though the society that Orwell describes is not entirely outside the bounds of possibility, Orwell, in this brief passage, lets us know that that’s not what this story is about, or the point. In all likelihood, changing the title from 1948 to 1984 was a concession to a contemporary audience that had already grown to expect futurism in their science fiction. But 1984 is an exaggeration and sometimes satire of the time in which it was written. While Huxley firmly anchors his story in what he imagines to be a possible future, Orwell makes it clear that the year should mean as little to the reader as it does to its protagonist. He deliberately and decisively obliterates the conceit of futurism that had plagued science fiction up till this point.

With this simple passage, Orwell’s 1984 is the first true cyberclunk novel. It’s fiction about science, both technological and social, and how science affects society rather than a meditation on literal possibility. 1984 remains timeless because the literal, progressive evolution of technology, culture and politics is not directly alluded to. It’s easy to read 1984 on its own terms without having to discount false predictions rendered quaint by time. If at all dated, it’s dated in the same way that other traditional literary fiction is reflective of its era, not because of its failure to predict the future. Accurately predicting the future isn’t the obligation of science fiction in the first place, but as long as contemporary sci-fi continues to focus on literal futurism this fact will never be as obvious as it should be.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How The Battlestar Galactica Remake Could Have Sucked Less

The new Battlestar Galactica started out as good science fiction. The premise was a tried and true sci-fi trope handled well: what happens if an artificial intelligence that we created decides the human race isn’t worth it?

They took the basic space opera premise of the original series-- the last survivors of a robot invasion represented by a “ragtag fleet” fleeing through space in pursuit of earth, the mythologized “last colony"--and added a compelling reason why the robots want to wipe us out. They used to be our slaves, and now they’re afraid that if they don’t annihilate us we could continue to pose a threat to them.

There were a number of great plot points to drive the concept and keep things interesting:

What is This “Last Colony” Exactly?

Is it a contemporary earth, or a future earth, or the earth of our past? Or is it the earth we know at all? This is the mystery that drives the show. The big challenge is how to provide a reasonable and satisfying payoff, which Battlestar failed to do.

There Are 12 Models.

The idea that there are a finite number of “models” is a great plot device. We’re constantly guessing who the sleeper agents are, and as we discover each new model in the form of a sleeper agent we get the satisfaction of another ticked off box. Who will be next?

Monotheistic Cylons vs. Pantheistic Humans

Though they really never knew quite what to do with this and it eventually became the source of what made the show fall apart, the the idea is a good one. There are a good many parallels that can be made to religion as it played out in our own society. After all, in our own global culture, the monotheists won. Monotheistic cultures happened to produce the most effective warriors, and their descendents formed the foundation of our present day empires. Jews, like the Cylons, were monotheists and former slaves, and were responsible for plenty of Old Testament slaughter (though that slaughter was small compared to the slaughter perpetrated by the Christians that followed), so there’s no small irony in the idea that the Cylons are the monotheists.

Starbuck Is Awesome

Starbuck, at least in the first two seasons, truly represented, more than any other female character on the show, what a woman’s role might be in a society free of gender prejudice. Starbuck held her own with the men as a professional soldier, but there was never any question that this made her any less feminine. She expressed her sexuality no more than any of the male characters, and it was never a focus. There were no mixed messages presented by her appearance—she dressed like any other soldier. She grew beyond the initial premise of a kick ass female hero to develop genuine flaws and a rich and complex personality.

What Went Wrong?

The first key moment when Battlestar began to go off the rails was early on, with the pregnancy of Boomer #2. I like the concept of original Boomer as a sleeper agent and the reveal of a second Boomer, but the writers really didn’t seem to have any clear idea where they were headed with this. Out of nowhere, it was explained that this was for the purpose of cross- breeding the two species, which might have been fine if it wasn’t for an entirely nonsensical reason. The Cylons suspected that their previous experiments in cross-breeding had failed because of the missing element of “love.”

Though they had a religion which suggested that they believed in some kind of metaphysical world, this reasoning is counterintuitive on a number of levels. Why would a society with its origins in technological advancement who had superior technology to humans believe in something so bonkers? And why would they want to cross-breed with a species that they think is so dangerous  they are making every effort to wipe them out?

This is when it becomes clear that the writers are making it up as they go along, and that the declaration that ends the summary exposition at the start of each episode, “and they (the Cylons) have a plan” is pure bullshit. Nobody on this show has a plan.

To wrap up the show, the writers resorted to deux ex machina in its most classic and literal form— divine intervention. God fixed everything. It went from science fiction to something like high fantasy, but not good high fantasy.

How Could It Have Worked?

Keep Metaphysics Out of It.

Retain the two contrasting religions and their moral parallels, but keep the literal metaphysics out of it. No shared dreams, no divine intervention, no annoying resurrected and completely undermined Starbuck in season 4. No more existential nonsense that leads nowhere.

No Final Five

The introduction of the concept of “the final five” in season 3 was another clear indication that they were just making this shit up on the fly. They had resorted to this final five business because they had already shown too many scenes from the Cylon perspective with no more than the 7 models they had previously introduced. They desperately needed some explanation for this. If they had kept these scenes to a minimum and doled out all but one of the Cylons through the course of those first two seasons (for a reason I’ll explain shortly), there would be no need for this.

The ending of that second season where they relocate to the planet only to have the planet invaded by Cylons was a brilliant move. To add to the tension, they could have saved the last Cylon reveal for the revolution in season 3, one last sleeper agent in their midst. Leaving that 12th Cylon for the 3rd season would have allowed the audience to continue the guessing game of who’s a Cylon and who’s not without overplaying the concept. After that last reveal, they could more fully introduce the Cylon point of view and make them less faceless without compromising their fundamental intent. Taking over the colony on the planet becomes a failed experiment in keeping the human threat contained in what from their viewpoint is a humane manner without having to resort to genocide. It doesn’t work. The humans win. Pursuit continues.

Baltar The Luddite

Back on Galactica, there can still be the truth and reconciliation trial of Baltar, but without the annoying affected Lawyer and Apollo subplot. This could end with Baltar coming to the conclusion that technology is the problem. He decides to repent for his part in the destruction of the colonies by becoming a devout Luddite, which makes this whole idea of Baltar as some kind of religious figure make more sense. Why would the colonists want to follow Baltar after he collaborated with the Cylons? Because Baltar is preaching against technology, the source of all the trouble. This message, under the circumstances, is going to resonate with a good number of the colonists. Also his hallucinations of Cylon #7 will be revealed to be a result of genuine schizophrenia. Baltar is not only a zealot, but he’s seriously Jim Jones crazy.

I think the discovery of Earth the last colony as a bombed out wasteland is a great reveal, further proof that the Cylons are right and we can’t be trusted.

How to Conclude The Series Without Cheating

The series ends on season 4, and as in the original season 5, the humans colonize our own pre-civilization earth. Even though they’re nearly certain that they’ve finally eluded the Cylons, after what happened last time, not everyone wants to make the trip, so you still have about half of the colonists living in orbit around the planet. With half of the colonists still on board, Baltar and his luddite zealots steal control of the fleet and steer them all into the sun. The few colonists that remain on earth had only just begun to immigrate, so they’re left with few resources and little of their former technology. With little knowledge of how to sustain themselves without the technology that they’ve grown to rely upon, they must cooperate and learn from the indigenous population to survive.

We skip forward two generations where we discover that the colonists have become fully integrated into the culture of the indigenous people of the planet, and we see that the culture of the original colonies, even their language, is slowly disappearing.

At this point we cut back to the Cylons, who after all these decades have discovered the human’s existence on the planet. The Cylons decide that for now, without their former civilization and technology, the humans are harmless, but they resolve to check back in another century or so to see if they still pose no threat, an ominous suggestion that there might be an impending Cylon invasion sometime in our earth’s future.

That’s the Battlestar Galactica I would have liked to see. At this point though, I can’t watch those first two seasons without the knowledge of what it would become messing with my enjoyment. This show could have been so much more awesome if they actually did, “have a plan.”


After writing this I thought about taking on the plot of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, but ultimately decided that it was just too hopeless. There’s no redeeming that one.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Jennifer Lawrence Didn't Have to Show Her Boobs, and Why Seth MacFarlane is Still an Asshole

Just look at this smug little bastard.

Seth MacFarlane, creator of The Family Guy and and a number of other cartoons I haven't seen, recently hosted The Oscars. I didn't watch them, but I did catch a few highlights, notably, the "boobs" song, where Seth Macfarlane sings a song that lists all the hollywood actresses in the room who have exposed their breasts in a movie. Notably among the many people that Macfarlane pissed off was Jane Fonda.

This is what Fonda had to say:

"What I really didn't like was the song and dance number about seeing actresses boobs. I agree with someone who said, 'If they want to stoop to that, why not list all the penises we've seen?' Better yet, remember that this is a telecast seen around the world watched by families with their children and to many this is neither appropriate or funny," Fonda wrote. "I also didn’t like the remark made about [Quvenzhane Wallis and George Clooney], or the stuff out of Ted's mouth and all the comments about what women do to get thin for their dresses. Way too much stuff about women and bodies, as though that's what defines us."

The Clooney joke she refers to is one where Macfarlane says, “To give you an idea of how young she is, it’ll be about 16 years before she’s too old for Clooney.”

If you want to hear the rest of his monologue or the highlights, I'm sure you can find them elsewhere, but this pretty much characterizes the tone. But lets just say sexualizing little girls just scratches the surface.

Not everyone responded the same way to MacFarlane's humor. Jennifer Lawrence, who received the Best Actress Oscar said, "I loved the boob song," and that she found MacFarlane "hilarious."  But I don't think Lawrence is any less a feminist than Fonda for feeling this way. 

MacFarlane's humor is irreverence for irreverence's sake, a kind of humor that Fonda's generation doesn't tend to understand. It's also very dependent on context to work. It's not satire. Its irony exists sheerly in the fact of the unacceptability of its premise.

Sarah Silverman is a good example of someone who knows how to make this kind of comedy work. I've never cared for her stand-up--a litany of deliberate irreverent statements that seem to me to be essentially the same joke with the same intention told over and over. But in her show, The Sarah Silverman Program, her comedy has the context that it needs. It's funny not just because of Sarah Silverman's irreverence, but because The Sarah Silverman character in The Sarah Silverman Program doesn't know she's an asshole. The audience understands that her character is fundamentally broken. In one way or another, the other characters in the show, like her nerdy gay neighbors, or a as she calls them, "gaybors" come across as both clueless and endearing, irreverent out of a fundamental ignorance of the dynamics of human behavior, but no one is more clueless than Silverman's character.

Occasionally the show will veer into satire, as in the episode where Silverman "adopts" a homeless person as if they were some kind of Guatemalan infant refugee, but generally it goes for straight irreverence for irreverence's sake, and does it well. 

So Lawrence, at 22, probably grew up with The Family Guy and South Park and any number of other examples of this kind of humor. It's humor in that post-modern context--we're supposed to know that they know that they're being wrong on purpose. 

Which doesn't make Seth MacFarlane any less of an asshole.

We live in a country where breasts are objects of sexuality and implied intimacy. So when an actor decides for one reason or another to expose her breasts in a film, it's no easy decision. Once they do, whether they like it or not, their image is instantly recontextualized. If you do a Google image search of a popular actor with the word "boobs" attached you're likely to find pictures of them topless or nude, either stills or video from a film, or photoshopped inventions. And even the kids that Fonda believes are too innocent to hear the "boobs"song have likely discovered this fact at an age she probably wouldn't approve of.  

And this fact and assumption is reflected in the "boobs" song.  As has been mentioned in many places on the web already, some of the women who showed their boobs did so in the context of rape scenes. But that's not what the song is about. It's about that 12 year old boy feeling of glee at having seen an adult woman's boobs.

During MacFarlane's "boobs" song, the camera turned to each actor's response as their name is mentioned, and MacFarlane says, "we've seen your boobs." He sings this with the LA Gay Men's Chorus to give credence to the idea that he's only just kidding, see? Look! Gay people. Gay People, the signifier of liberality, an indicator that his intentions are innocent of all malice.

But as the camera focuses on each woman's response, they are forced into a position well known to women in our culture, the position of having to be "good sports" no matter how they feel about what's being said about them. If they don't at least pretend, they're going to seem oversensitive or worse, "bad sports."And in some cases, the strain isn't so ambiguous. 

Edit: Apparently these responses were taped earlier with permission from the actors involved. The actor's may well have felt compelled to participate in order to be "good sports." At any rate, this makes the song no less a debasement.

 There's no way to know how difficult the decision might have been to do a nude scene in a movie, and reducing this decision to "we saw your boobs' only emphasizes its consequence--that they no longer own those images, that those images can be completely divorced of their original context and the actors have no control over this. 

This is a decision that Lawrence hasn't had to make.

 With her fist pump when she was mentioned as someone who hadn't "shown their boobs," came the implication, no matter how light-hearted, that just maybe she'd dodged a bullet. Who knows how she would have reacted if she was one of the targets of the song. Maybe she wouldn't have cared. But still, her reaction was an acknowledgement of  the song's underlying sexism. In a way she was going along with what we were all to assume was the intention of its humor. But it's hard to have it both ways. There's a fine line between pretend sexism and just plain old sexism. 

Fonda's take is from that original generation of feminists whose statement, to many in Lawrence's generation, might be considered humorless, and worse, to have missed the point. There are plenty of other contemporary women who share Fonda's opinion, but because she fails to acknowledge or "get"  MacFarlane's school of irreverent humor, it's easy for others to dismiss her. But I think Fonda is right. 

Does that make Jennifer Lawrence wrong? Yes. It does. Despite what Fonda may lack in her understanding of post-modern irony, Fonda has more first hand experience with the worst aspects of sexism. Lawrence is the recipient of the advantages that Fonda had to fight for as an actor in Hollywood in the sixties at the height of the feminist movement. Because of actresses like Fonda, Lawrence has more choices, and one of those choices included the choice not to show her boobs.

But I do feel that Lawrence is a positive role model. The Hunger Games not only was a hugely successful fantasy adventure film with a young female protagonist, but it was one that didn't explicitly sexualize its protagonist. This wasn't Angela Jolie's sexy, skin-tight outfitted Lara Croft. The posters that promoted The Hunger Games weren't about Lawrence's body.While Lawrence is riding the crest of this wave, she's not the cause of it, which isn't to say that she's not its best representative. She's been vocally resistant to body conscious Hollywood, and the roles she's both chosen and been offered have been roles that women simply weren't given in the past. Even 10 years ago, Lawrence would have been the love interest for the male protagonist in someone else's movie. So far she's avoided that. Even in her recent romantic comedy The Silver Lining Playbook she holds equal footing and equal billing with her costar. And she got an Oscar for it. And she didn't have to show her boobs.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Cyberclunk of John Byrne's The High Ways

I feel  remiss in not reviewing cyberclunk in prose fiction (which I will try to address soon, or what passes for soon on this blog considering my infrequent updates), but in the meantime here's yet another comic book review.

John Byrne is a controversial figure in the comics world for a number of reasons, all of which are irrelevant here. I'm only interested in talking about this comic on its own terms, so if you have an opinion or gripe about John Byrne the individual that you wish to share, I don't care.

 Now that that's out of the way, lets move on to The High Ways.

I was pleasantly surprised by the suggestion, in a popular medium like comics that space travel involves actual weightlessness. In much science fiction, particularly in popular culture artificial gravity is the rule and the assumption with no explanation given. The only artificial gravity in The High Ways is by centrifuge on an enormous space station, and the inherent awkwardness and imperfection of the technology is well noted.

Outside of this, spaceships designed for long range travel are weightless and dangerous, requiring passengers to wear spacesuits at all times in case of potential breaches in the hull. This makes sense--spaceships aren't the only things out there and I think it's a fair assumption that there's always the risk of coming in contact with a stray asteroid or some other hazard.

It takes a while to get to planets in our solar system. In The Highways there are no warp drives. Cryogenic sleep is required for long trips, though in The High Ways this process does seem to be problem free. Also spaceships are dirty. Close quarters and no opportunity to shower, as the passengers in our own space station have found, makes for a potent aroma. Then there's the problem of weak muscles caused by a lack of gravity, all realities considered by Byrne.

So this can all easily be placed into the realm of hard science fiction, and there are still many conventions of traditional futurism that are adhered to, like the assumption that the resources are available for infrastructure on a grand scale are a given, massive space stations and spaceships are common place.

But this isn't what makes The Highways cyberclunk.

Though it's only hinted at in the first issue, according to the promotional material Byrne intends to populate the solar system with anthropomorphic life in the style of classic science fiction. While in older sci-fi this is done out of naivete, in Byrne's story this is very deliberate. When I read about his intention for the first time, I expected Flash Gordon style space opera, but clearly that's not where he's headed. Any romance is undermined by the reality of imperfect technology. It's this mix of imperfect technology and the fantasy of unlikely anthropology that makes The Highways cyberclunk.

The fantasy of the suggestion that the universe is populated by anthropomorphic aliens is analogous to the anthropomorphic but indigenous creatures that populate China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, a book that effectively mixes science fiction and fantasy without adhering to the conventions of either. But China Mieville's world includes one key fantasy convention, magic, while The High Ways is more science fiction in the purest sense. It's fiction about science.

So here's a brief breakdown of how The Highways employs cyberclunk:

The Highways does not romanticize the mechanics of science.

Unlike the futurism of traditional sci-fi, technology doesn't always work particularly well. It's flawed and inelegant.

Logical and scientifically accurate anthropology doesn't apply.

Byrne knows very well that anthropomorphic life on other planets in the solar system isn't likely. In traditional contemporary science fiction anthropomorphism only exists in deep space. Contemporary science fiction employs the goldilocks planet concept, that anthropomorphic life can only exist on a world with similar conditions to our own. Byrne deliberately ignores this.

 Traditional contemporary science and ideas about science coexist in a way that is not strictly logical.

The High Ways is fiction about science that isn't about literal futurism. It's not a projection of the future, but an exploration of science as an idea, an expression of science through fiction without religious fidelity to realism. It's not space opera because it's still about science, rather than science that's used as a vehicle for romantic adventure. Strip away the science and you have no story. This is the essence of cyberclunk.

Since this is the first issue I still have no idea where the story is headed, and it could still venture into the realm of space opera, but I hope it doesn't. I'm anxious to see where it's headed.