Monday, 30 July 2007

What I’m Pointing To…

Science fiction was born in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories. The first attempt at defining science fiction occurred several days later. In more than eighty years, no one has satisfactorily defined the genre - the most often quoted "definition" is Damon Knight's, science fiction "means what we point to when we say it", from 1956. However, it often seems people chiefly define science fiction by its readers. So PD James, Maggie Gee, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy - for example - can all write novels that are not science fiction, despite featuring tropes common to the genre. Or so they would have you believe...

I've yet to see anyone claim Jed Mercurio's Ascent as science fiction. And yet... It's set in the past, true: the book ends in 1969. It is also chiefly a fictionalisation of real events. But the final third of the novel certainly never took place. Which arguably makes Ascent alternate history, which is often considered a sub-genre of science fiction - sf author Stephen Baxter did something similar with NASA and a trip to Mars in Voyage. But there's more to Ascent's science-fictional credentials than just that.

Yefgenii Yeremin is orphaned during the Siege of Stalingrad. Each year, a boy from the orphanage to which he is sent is awarded a cadetship in the air force. Yeremin wins that cadetship - by partially blinding his chief rival. During the Korean War, he becomes Ace of Aces. Known as "Ivan the Terrible", he kills more enemy pilots than anyone else - despite not "officially" being in Korea. Unfortunately, his masters back in Moscow are not happy with his final escapade, and he is assigned to an air base in
Franz Josef Land (an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, north of Novaya Zemlya). Most Soviet pilots spend a year or two in Franz Josef Land, but Yeremin and his family spend nearly a decade there. Yeremin is then recruited for the Soviet space programme... and the last third of Ascent describes his one-man mission to beat the Americans to the Moon in 1969.

The technology that Mercurio describes for this fictional mission is real. There really was a
LK Lunar landing module and a LOK Lunar orbital craft. The project, however, was abandoned following the death of Chief Designer Korolev and a series of catastrophic failures of the N1 booster. As is clear from the attention to detail (and the bilbiography at the end of the novel), Mercurio has not stinted on his research.

Reviews of the book in the national press made much of its heavy use of unglossed aeronautical jargon and the near-obsessive attention to detail. This, some critics decided, was a reflection of the protagonist's own self-absorption and aloofness. Yeremin was so driven, they argued, that he was defined by his immersion in the technology he used and the ways in which he used it. The fact that Yeremin's wife is referred to throughout as "the widow", they saw as indicative of a protagonist who was so focused on his own ambitions that he could not relate to people - especially those closest to him. But Yeremin's fellow pilots in Korea are all named, as are the cosmonauts he joins in Star City (
Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov, Vladimir Komarov). The only US pilots named during the Korean War dogfights, however, are those who later become astronauts - Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra...

To my mind, Mercurio's jargon-heavy prose, and lack of a glossary, has much in common with a science fiction narrative. To aeronautical and astronautical buffs, Mercurio's prose is detailed and accurate… but not baffling. To a science fiction reader, a story which references
androids, FTL, Dyson Spheres, AIs, etc., is not impenetrable. In fiction, settings are defined by what they contain - in mainstream fiction, those objects are shared with the real world. We all know what a television set is, a mobile phone (or cell phone), Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, turnip, casserole, marmoset, etc... In science fiction, the objects within the setting are either unique to the story or to the genre. In the latter case, no glossing is usually necessary (and is, incidentally, where mainstream authors writing sf usually fall flat on their faces). In the former, the better writers allow meaning to come from context, and so avoid the dreaded info-dump. True, some sf novels do use glossaries - Frank Herbert's Dune is perhaps the premier example. Mercurio does not gloss (the amount of jargon understood depends on the reader's familiarity with the technology described), but he also makes terms comprehensible through context and through info-dumps.

Reviewers unfamiliar with the language of science fiction found the privileging of technology in Ascent worthy of comment. They interpreted this as an aspect of Mercurio's characterisation of Yeremin. Narrow, or flat, characterisation is often perceived as a defining characteristic of science fiction. In a literature where the idea, often in the form of technology or science, is foregrounded, then characterisation is often going to appear subservient. Because Mercurio does this in Ascent, I started thinking about what it was that made the novel science fiction, and what it is that makes any sf novel science fiction...

Let's say that science fiction can be distinguished by its settings, or by its readers. To many, if a story is set in the future or in outer space, then it is science fiction. But
Apollo 13 is not considered to be sf. Any book labelled by the publisher as science fiction is sf. But not all sf books are marketed as sf - William Gibson's Spook Country or Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for instance. Any book written by an author who identifies themselves as a sf writer, or identifies themselves as a member of the community of sf writers and readers, is science fiction. Again, not all sf books are written by sf writers - Orwell's 1984, or Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. So neither of these characteristics are distinguishing or useful.

Science fiction, unlike fantasy, is a
modernist form of literature because it takes as axiomatic that the human condition and/or the human environment can be controlled - from cybernetic implants to genetic engineering, from colonies on Mars to re-engineering whole galaxies. Even the "unknown" can be subjected to reasoning and control, although it may not produce answers. Science fiction differs from mainstream modernist literature in that the tools used for control of the human condition and/or environment are figments. They either do not exist, do not operate in the real world as described in the text, or rely on science and/or technology which does not exist. Or their use presupposes, or leads to, a condition or situation which cannot or does not currently exist - such as a landing on Mars, or the Germans winning World War II. Or, in the case of Ascent, the Soviets sending a cosmonaut to the Moon.

So science fiction is more than just an invented setting. It is more than just squids in space. It is the
process by which the figments are used, and it is the intent of that process. Not the intent of the author - we can't know that from the text alone. But if the figments are instrumental in the control of the human condition and/or environment, and that is the intent of the figments in the text, then the text must be science fiction.

It's a theory, anyway...

After all that, I should probably point out that I did enjoy
Ascent. I've been fascinated by the Space Race since I was a child - The Right Stuff is both a favourite book and a favourite film - and I'm enough of a geek to find the technology fascinating. However, I do think Mercurio missed one trick in his book. One of the Apollo missions allegedly reported strange lights on the Moon's surface during one of their orbits. Perhaps Mercurio should have tied this in - so Yeremin's landing becomes a UFO myth of the Apollo programme. It would have provided an amusing link to the real world.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

I'm As Surprised As Anyone That I've Been Keeping Up With This...

I've been a bit random as to which title I choose to read next from my list of favourites. I wonder if this has affected my response to the various novels? I mean, going straight from the grim and political near-future of Gwyneth Jones's Kairos to the slight but fun space opera of Iain M Banks's Against A Dark Background... Of course, I read other books between those two - I read seven books, in fact... including Jed Mercurio's Ascent (expect a post on this soon), Paul Park's The White Tyger (the third book in the series begun with A Princess of Roumania; superior fantasy), and Text:UR (a small press anthology; a mixed bag, but on the whole recommended).

So, Against A Dark Background... This was the first of Banks's non-Culture space operas. It's actually set within the Golter planetary system, located millions of light-years from its nearest neighbouring star. It could be a Culture novel - there's no reason why its story might not take place in some unexplored reach of the Culture's universe - but unlike Inversions, there are no clues in the narrative suggesting as much.

The Lady Sharrow is a noble fallen on hard times. When she was little, her mother was assassinated, and her grandfather's vast commercial empire was broken up by the World Court. She served in the military during the Five Per Cent War, but is now a retired hunter of Antiquities (relics of Golter's seven thousand years of technological civilisation). As the novel opens, a religious cult, the Huhsz, has received permission from the World Court to hunt and assassinate Sharrow... in revenge for an incident generations ago. An ancestor of Sharrow's had stolen several artefacts from the Huhsz - including a Lazy Gun. Only one Lazy Gun, of eight manufactured, remains. The last-but-one was found several years earlier by Sharrow, and handed over to a university. Who promptly tried to study its interior... only to trigger an explosion which killed half a million people. The Huhsz want the last Lazy Gun and will kill her if she does not give it to them. Except, she doesn't know where it is.

Sharrow puts together the survivors of her Five Per Cent War squadron, and follows a series of clues about Golter's planetary system, before finally finding the last Lazy Gun. It's plotting by coupons, of course. Sharrow is on a Quest - although unlike in high fantasies, the consequences of failure are purely personal. Sharrow will die if she fails, it's not the fate of the world at stake. Each step of the quest is a set-piece - from the theft of the Crownstar Addendum in Log-Jam to the assassination attempt on the last of the Useless Kings in Pharpech to the final assault on the Lazy Gun's hiding-place. It's all typically Banksian - but you guessed that much from the term "Useless Kings". If there's one thing that distinguishes Banks's novels from those of a similar ilk it's his mordant wit.

And that wit is firing on all cylinders in Against A Dark Background. Especially since every plan put together by Sharrow and her team during their quest goes horribly wrong. In fact, by any definition of "hero", Sharrow is a failure - she is out-manoeuvred at every turn, and only manages to reach the next stage of her quest more by accident than by design. Or by being rescued by saviours from out of the blue. Against A Dark Background could have been titled The Perils of Sharrow.

Sharrow, however, is anything but passive. She's a strong character. In fact, there's a bit of the Perfect Girlfriend to both her and team-mate Zefla - both women are gorgeous, intelligent, independent, strong-willed, and more than willing to dress for display. By contrast, the male characters are mostly under-written. But perhaps this is a hang-over from the book's origin. It was apparently first written in 1975 (when Banks was 21), but heavily rewritten before publication in 1993. The character of Feril, an android, I suspect was added in the rewrite; or at least altered a great deal. Feril joins Sharrow's team some two-thirds of the way through the novel. It is C3-PO in all but name and irritating mannerisms. Star Wars had yet to be released in 1975, of course.

Against A Dark Background is by no means Banks's best sf novel. It's a space opera quest, with plotting by coupons. However, it is slightly subversive in as much as Sharrow loses each coupon to other forces as soon as she has found it. And yet still the quest progresses towards its foreseen end. To have a character fail all the time would not make for an entertaining read, and so Banks livens up the story with wit and an approach to genre furniture and tropes that knows, or allows, no shame. He had fun writing Against A Dark Background, and he wants the reader to know it. Against A Dark Background is a fun book.

Against A Dark Background was one of the books on my list of favourites I'd read several times. And each time I've enjoyed it - perhaps because it's hard to take seriously. That's the book's strength. Repeated rereads don't spoil it, because there's as much enjoyment in encountering remembered characters and events as there is in meeting new ones. Like AE van Vogt's Undercover Aliens and John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline, familiarity is comfortable. It doesn't breed contempt. Against A Dark Background is a favourite novel first and foremost because I enjoy it every time I revisit it. It will stay a favourite; it stays on the list.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Why Television Sci-Fi Sucks

For the last couple of weeks, I've been watching Battlestar Galactica seasons one and two on DVD. I missed most of the episodes when they were broadcast, so I bought the DVDs. BSG is one of those sf television programmes that is allegedly so good, people desperately try to find ways to describe it as not science fiction. The same has been said of the new Doctor Who. And yet, and yet... If television sf is good, then it seems to me it's more by accident than design - after all, we're talking about programmes created by people who are not sf fans, and aimed primarily at an audience that is not composed of sf fans. And so it should be - for a TV programme to succeed, it has to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. What this means is that sf programmes are often good drama but bad science fiction. Sometimes, they're both bad drama and bad science fiction. But programmes that are bad drama generally don't survive.

This post was sparked off by BSG. On the whole, I like the series. It's well written, well acted, and it presents its fictional universe convincingly. Well, okay: it presents its fictional universe mostly convincingly. The laws of physics are still frequently sacrificed to the rules of drama. And, if you think too hard about the Cylons, you realise they don't actually make much sense. They're supposed to be machine intelligences, a "race" of AIs created by the humans. Fair enough. That doesn't mean the interiors of the raiders can't be organic, or that there can't be ones who resemble humans. Except... the latter are humans, by any meaningful definition of the term - biologically, and they're sentient and aware. They just happen to have been created artificially. It strikes me that the makers of BSG haven't actually worked out the full ramifications of "machine intelligence". The Cylons are merely television villains - in other words, a blank canvas on which to paint a suitably-disguised version of Western society's current enemies.

But I didn't set out to pick apart the Cylons. I wanted to show that good science fiction and good drama are not only possible, but result in excellent television sf. And that doing either badly can spoil a programme. I recently found myself annoyed at the direction the story-arc took in BSG's season 2. Beginning with the final episode of season 1, 'Kobol's Last Gleaming: Part 2', in which Adama "terminates" Roslin's presidency. The last time I looked, in a democratic state the military does not have the authority to unseat an elected ruler. It happens, yes - Musharref in Pakistan, for example. But that's a coup, a military takeover. So, Adama doesn't "terminate" Roslin's presidency. He seizes power. And he does so in a fit of pique - because Roslin persuaded Starbuck to undertake a mission against orders. It gets worse... Several episodes later, in season 2, Adama hands power back to Roslin. There's a clear inference that the democratic process only exists through his largesse. Which makes a mockery of earlier episodes in which various people - including terrorist Zarek - insisted that the fleet must maintain a democratic government. It seems that in BSG, a democratic government can only exist if the military allows it to. Which makes any political commentary the series might wish to make immediately invalid.

In season 2, a new battlestar appears, commanded by Admiral Cain. And the annoyance factor shoots sky-high. Cain, the superior officer, takes command of the fleet. The president is completely ignored. In the US, the president is also commander-in-chief. But not in BSG. (There's no reason why she should be, of course.) Cain's singlemindedness then results in her and Adama almost going to war, and actively plotting each other's assassination. Why bother putting a government in place in the fleet, if the programme makers are going to ignore it every other episode? Especially when Cain's past actions come to light, and are clearly those of a war criminal. Not only are these actions ignored, they are tacitly condoned. After attempted genocide by the Cylons, Cain deliberately left survivors to die - and no one thinks this is a terrible offence? There is an off-putting current of militaristic fascism running throughout BSG which has been steadily increasing as the series progresses.

It's not just the laws of physics or politics which are blithely ignored in order to present "good drama". There's economics, too. In episode 11 of season 1, 'Colonial Day', Zarek makes a long speech about how people in the fleet no longer require money. Since supplies are provided, there is nothing to buy... and so no reason to pay people for the work they perform. This makes sense - the fleet is comprised of refugees, and whatever supplies they might carry are being managed by the military. But sometime when writing season 2, the makers chose to ignore this. In season 2's episode 14, 'Black Market', Commander Fisk of Pegasus is murdered, and the Galactica officers learn he was running a black market. In fact, black market profiteering is rife in the fleet - and is controlled by a single gang lord. So much for not needing money. You can't have a black market without money - not only so that people can buy from it, but if there were no profit in it then it wouldn't exist. Not only does this directly contradict earlier world-building, but the episode's situation was clearly created for drama's sake. It's implausible within the setting. Story-telling discipline is more important in science fiction than it is in other genres. Readers know what is and what isn't possible or plausible in the real world. In sf, the creator determines what is possible or plausible. And if they chop and change that from episode to episode, they undermine their creation. It's no different to Hercule Poirot pulling a clue out of thin air to solve the crime.

It's not enough that science fiction should have a central conceit, but it should also follow its own internal rules. Television sf may be the intellectually-challenged brother of written sf, but if it wants to be "good" then it's still bound by the same rules, it should still use the same techniques. It recently occurred to me that part of the problem is television sf's lack of subtlety. Written sf is not just action-adventure in outer space - even some Star Wars tie-in novels aim higher than that - but whatever commentary it might present is often disguised. Television sf has much less room to manoeuvre - episode lengths of up to an hour; aimed at an audience chiefly ignorant of the language of science fiction; and must appeal to the least sophisticated members of its audience as much as it does to the most sophisticated. As a result, commentary in a television sf programme - where it exists, which is not often - frequently involves beating the viewer about the head. I don't have a problem with this - except, when the desire to create such drama means the rules and techniques of good science fiction are abandoned. Throughout season 2, Battlestar Galactica has done this.

All this makes for an interesting comparison with Doctor Who. BSG, of course, is American. Doctor Who is British. I was as excited as any other fan of sf when I learnt Doctor Who was returning to television. And, on the whole, I have to say the new series are a great improvement over the old ones. We might well remember past Doctor Who stories with fondness, but it's often best to leave them as that - memories. Watching them anew on DVD only spoils the magic because, let's face it, many of them weren't very good. They were done on the cheap, and it showed. In Doctor Who - The Green Death, the UNIT air support proves to be a two-man helicopter, with the words "Twycroft Helicopter Rentals" (or something like that) painted on the side and a man leaning out and dropping hand-grenades!

Of course, nowadays it would all be done with CGI - and CGI has been used to great effect in the new Doctor Who. This is both a blessing and a curse. The ability to realise alien worlds with such convincing verisimilitude often results in poor science fiction - just look at the Star Wars prequels (not that the original Star Wars trilogies were paragons of science fiction; far from it). In Doctor Who series 3, for example, we had the sfx-heavy '42' (the title no doubt a reference to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), in which the Doctor and Martha find themselves aboard a starship falling into the sun. They have 42 minutes to save the ship. Not only did the episode seem like a rip-off of Sunshine, but a race against time to survive when you know the protagonists will be back hale and hearty next week is entirely pointless. And suspense-free. Yet the best episode broadcast so far - of all three series - was pretty much sfx-free. Steven Moffat's 'Blink' was not only excellent drama, it was also excellent science fiction. It was gripping drama, peopled by engaging characters, and made clever use of the Doctor's time-travelling abilities. 'Blink' deserves both a Hugo Award and a BAFTA.

The remainder of the series could only be a let-down after an episode like that. And so it was. The humans at the end of time in 'Utopia' were, well, too human. When Worlds Collide at the heat death of the universe strikes me as more like a heat death of the imagination. And then in the two-parter 'The Sound of Drums' and 'The Last of the Time Lords', we had the Master conquering Earth... and the Doctor putting it all back as it was before it happened through some sort of psychic deus ex machina... From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Interestingly, Doctor Who's much freer set-up means it rarely drops into the trap into which BSG so often falls. The Doctor travels so far and so wide, that any rules to what is possible and plausible attach only to him and his behaviour. There is no setting, as such, in which the series is, er, set. The world or universe need only be consistent within the episode itself (we'll ignore the greater inconsistency of baseline humans and Goths inhabiting Earth at the end of time in 'Utopia'). The only objects within the "Whoniverse" which require consistency are those which are common to many stories - such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, the various other alien races which have made more than one appearance. Admittedly, the Doctor's time-travelling nature means any inconsistencies with these can be explained away as his encountering them at different points in their history. So, for instance, series 1 and series 2 can end with the destruction of the Daleks... only for them to pop up again halfway through series 3. As anti-narrative consistency devices go, time travel is both the perfect weapon and the perfect defence.

I set out with this post to discuss how internal consistency in television science fiction should not be sacrificed to drama, that good drama and good science fiction produce superior television. Instead, I've just pointed out why BSG is often bad science fiction. And that the best piece of television sf I have seen recently is Steven Moffat's 'Blink' - an episode which clearly demonstrated the benefits of good sf as well as good drama. I probably need to think more on this subject. I shall endeavour to do so. Expect a continuation of this post sometime in the future...