Sunday, November 5, 2017

Veering into the Future

One of the themes mentioned in the header to this blog is "popular culture" which often means that I say unkind things about popular music, as in my post on The Tyranny of the Backbeat. But probably my favorite popular culture is science fiction, especially the science fiction of television series. So, combining two hobbies, science fiction and aesthetic criticism, here is my survey of science fiction in which I give sketchy and eccentric coverage of a whole lot of shows and films and books.

I became a science fiction fan in my early, early teens when I discovered the young adult science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein. His series of books, written largely in the 50s for teen readers, have stood up so well that they are popular with people of all ages even today. Every time I make a major move, which involves whittling down my library to something transportable, I find that, after a while, I have to replace my shelf of Heinlein books. Of course, now, with Kindle, this won't be necessary. Here are some books worth reading:

  • Red Planet, in which a young man encounters authoritarian bullying and prevails
  • Citizen of the Galaxy, in which a child is kidnapped into slavery and ultimately escapes and rediscovers his true destiny
  • Starman Jones, in which a young man escapes from an ignominious existence to discover his true potential
  • Podkayne of Mars, in which a young woman goes to Venus for a nice vacation and ends up with more than she bargained for
There are a lot more good stories. But I want to mention his even better adult fiction:
  • Double Star, a novella in which a hack actor steps into a role of unexpected magnitude
  • Starship Troopers, in which the future of war is outlined along with an exploration of moral truth
  • Glory Road, possibly the best fantasy adventure novel ever written, and it starts on a French nude beach
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, probably Heinlein's best novel in which a one-armed tech guy, an aging political radical and a computer end up launching a revolution
There are a number of other outstanding science fiction authors like Larry Niven (Ringworld and The Mote in God's Eye with Jerry Pournelle), Keith Laumer (A Plague of Demons), Frederik Pohl (Gateway), and Joe Haldeman (The Forever War), but Heinlein seems to stand up the best.

Now on to film and television, where science fiction has had a lot of success. The classic series is Star Trek of course with the original series starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The three seasons are available on DVD with improved special effects and many of the episodes stand up pretty well. They used a lot of good writers and explored a lot of interesting themes. The weak points are some over-zealous scenery chewing and a future in which socialism seems to have triumphed! The only actual capitalists in the whole Star Trek oeuvre (including all the spin-offs) are the Ferengi who are given a very negative depiction (except for, occasionally, Quark, on Deep Space Nine). Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably the most annoying of all the spinoffs with its moral smugness, socialist economics and lack of decent villains. One longs for the rich Corinthian leather of Khan in the original series and the movie The Wrath of Khan. Speaking of annoying, a remarkable number of characters on Star Trek: TNG are consistently annoying: Wesley Crusher, Beverly Crusher, Deanna Troi, William Riker, Guinan and even Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Why do I say this? I think it is the constant moral smugness and really awkward and stiff writing. Plus, just weirdnesses like how could you possibly cast an obviously Scottish Shakespearean actor as a Frenchman? Star Trek spinoffs like Voyager were often plagued by political correctness. If I see Captain Katherine Janeway attempting to demonstrate her leadership with one more pointless hand gesture or end an episode by staring into the camera with her trademark teary-eyed puppy-dog expression, I think I might lose my lunch. Mind you, adding Seven of Nine to the cast pretty much saved that franchise. Deep Space Nine had its moments and Benjamin Sisko made for a pretty good lead character. Any show that casts the luminously beautiful Terry Farrell has to be doing something right. I had hopes for Enterprise, the Star Trek prequel, and it had its moments as well, but it was really sunk by the fatal flaw of no interesting bad guys. The Xindi are just a clutch of pasteboard villains. The best character on this show is Dr. Phlox who gives us a delightful cock-eyed take on human eccentricities.

Well, this is running on a bit long and I have probably insulted enough of your favorite shows and characters for today. I am going to have to get to those other fascinating science fiction series like Farscape, Babylon 5, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate on future posts.


2 comments:

Steven Watson said...

As no one else has commented yet, just want to quickly say I look forward to these posts. Seen most of those shows, except for the Star Treks -- though I did see some of DS9, as I liked Babylon 5 a lot, and thought the cardassians were good villains. The slippery chap, a taylor I recall, made for compelling television.

If only there were some good sci fi operas etc. I only know of one (Nowak's Space Opera) and it was awful.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Steven! I was hoping that someone might be interested. I forgot to mention Doctor Who. Yes, Garak on Deep Space Nine is quite an interesting character as well. Babylon 5 has several fascinating characters.

I will continue the series!