Friday, April 29, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, April 25-29

As well as the two halves of Dan Hartland's review of the 2011 Clarke award shortlist (the award has since been won by Lauren Beukes's Zoo City--see Niall Harrison's thoughts at the Strange Horizons blog) the reviews department rounds out April with Lisa Goldstein's review of Helen Lowe's The Heir of Night, the first in a new fantasy series, which Lisa finds a little by the numbers, telling a rather predictable story of a young person who discovers that they are the chosen one.  John Clute's column Scores also appears this week, and his topics are China Miéville's Embassytown and Joan Aiken's collection The Monkey's Wedding and Other Stories.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Clarke Day

The Arthur C. Clarke shortlist review is a tradition of long standing, first at the now-defunct Infinity Plus, and in the last few years at Strange Horizons.  For the second year running, Dan Hartland has reviewed the year's shortlist, and parts 1 and 2 of his review are now up.  See also comments on the shortlist from Niall Harrison, David Hebblethwaite, and Maureen Kincaid Speller.

Another Clarke tradition is roundup of reviews of the nominated novels that Niall used to post on Torque Control.  That seems to have lapsed this year, so--with only a few hours until the award is given out this evening--here are some of the reviews I've been able to find.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Reviewed by Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman
Reviewed by Saxon Bullock at SFX
Reviewed by Maya Chhabra at Ideomancer
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Eve's Alexandria
Reviewed by John Clute at Strange Horizons
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Patrick Hudson at Pointless Philosophical Asides

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

Reviewed by Nic Clarke at Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Dan Hartland at @Number71
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at The Zone
Reviewed by Roz Kaveney at The Independent
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid at SF Site
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont at Ruthless Culture
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Reviewed by Amanda Craig at The Sunday Times
Reviewed by Martin Lewis at Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Sam Ruddock at Vulpes Libris

Generosity by Richard Powers

Reviewed by Tim Adams at The Observer
Reviewed by Helen Brown at The Telegraph
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid at Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Jay McInerney at The New York Times
Reviewed by Christopher Taylor at The Guardian
Reviewed by James Wood at The New Yorker

Declare by Tim Powers

Reviewed by Nick Gevers at SF Site
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread
Reviewed by Philip Raines at Infinity Plus
Reviewed by Adam Roberts at Punkadiddle

Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan

Reviewed by Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman
Reviewed by Nic Clarke at SFX
Reviewed by Farah Mendlesohn at Strange Horizons
Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller at Paper Knife
Discussion between Nic Clarke, Niall Harrison, David Hebblethwaite and Nick Hubble at Torque Control

Monday, April 25, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominations

The list of nominations was announced two hours ago and is by now all over the internet--for example.  Some comments.
  • The pleasure of seeing four women on the best novel ballot (to match the female-dominated, yet hardly overlapping, Nebula ballot) is undercut by how thoroughly unappetizing I find the actual ballot.  I was looking forward to reading Ian McDonald's The Dervish House (which just yesterday won the BSFA award, and is strongly tipped to win the Clarke award later this week) and N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but even fans of Lois McMaster Bujold and Connie Willis seem to consider Cryoburn and Blackout/All Clear lesser works (and in the latter case I've already expressed my objection on principle to the two volumes being nominated as a single work) and nothing I've heard about Feed excites me particularly.  In light of this, I'm not planning to become an associate member of Renovation, but I will be resuming my short fiction Hugo blogging.

  • Speaking of short fiction, I've deliberately kept away from genre short stories in the last year so I don't have much to say yet about the actual nominees, but my first reaction after looking at the ballots is: no Mike Resnick!  I don't dare imagine that this is a sign of genuine change--probably Resnick simply didn't publish an eligible story in 2010--and the fact is that Resnick is still on the Hugo ballot, in the Best Related Work category, for his book, with Barry N. Malzberg, The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing.  But just the thought of facing a Hugo read-through without the dreaded prospect of a Resnick story puts a bounce in my step.

  • Staying with the short fiction ballots, I see that Analog has two nominated novelettes, the first time that magazine has received a nomination since 2006 (in that year, Michael A. Burstein received a best short story nomination for "Seventy Five Years," still the very worst piece of fiction I've read in all my Hugo shortlist reviews; it would be nice to think that Analog's dry spell was some sort of cosmic punishment).  Magazines continue to be pushed out of the Best Novella category in favor of standalone volumes and anthologies--or, which is more likely, to push themselves out by publishing fewer novellas.  On the other hand, after several years of strong showings from online venues and anthologies, print magazines dominate the novelette categories, and except for Elizabeth Hand's novella nomination from Neil Gaiman and Al Sarantonio's Stories, there are no anthology stories on the ballot.

  • Can the best graphic story category die now?  It was a nice idea but this is clearly not the fandom to make it work.

  • Were it not for the parlous state of genre TV nowadays, I'd start agitating for a change in the Hugo rules saying that there can only be one nomination per show in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form category. There's just no fun to the category any more--we all know that multiple nominations for Doctor Who will translate into a Who voting block that'll defeat all other comers, and the result is foregone.  But there's so little worth watching in genre these days that I even though I was underwhelmed by Stephen Moffat's debut season (and would have traded "A Christmas Carol"'s slot for one for "The Lodger") I can't think of too many other nominees that truly deserve to be on the ballot.  (I would have liked to see Caprica nominated, but that was never going to happen, though I am surprised that Futurama's "The Late Philip J. Fry" didn't make it on to the ballot.)  Though Shaun Tan's Oscar-winning short The Lost Thing and the perplexing fan video "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" are amusing entries on the ballot, I wish there was more worthwhile TV out there so I could get worked up over the inevitability of it being trounced by Doctor Who.

  • The Short Form category looks to get even more unexciting in 2012.  Neil Gaiman has written a Doctor Who episode.  Short of Doctor Horrible 2 happening within the next eight months, I think we might as well hand Gaiman his Hugo now and get the hassle out of the way.

  • I have nothing of interest to say about the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category except to note that there are three children's films on it.  It is mildly amusing to wonder whose fen are more powerful, Inception or Scott Pilgrim, but as I didn't care for the former and found the latter entertaining but problematic, I can't work up much enthusiasm.

  • An interesting comment on the live feed reporting the nominations got me thinking: as nice as it is to see a new face in the Best Fan Artist category, does Randall Munroe truly belong there?  XKCD is, after all, a business.  Does the fact that the strips are offered free of charge while the money is made selling merchandise really make Munroe a fan, rather than professional, artist?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, April 18-22

This week's reviews kick off with Nic Clarke's look at the first two volumes in Juliet E. McKenna's new trilogy, Blood in the Water and Banners in the Wind, in which Nic finds an interesting counterpoint to the much-discussed reactionary tendency of epic fantasy, as the novels describe a popular rebellion against a restrictive aristocratic class in a fantasy kingdom.  Matt Hilliard makes his Strange Horizons debut with a review of Gene Wolfe's Home Fires, a novel about a couple reconnecting in the wake of war and time dilation, which Matt finds more accessible and more successful than much of Wolfe's recent work.  Less positive is Paul Kincaid in his review of Fredrik Pohl's All the Lives He Led, which Paul finds muddled, especially in its handling of the subject of terrorism.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let's See What's Out There: Table of Contents

For your convenience, a link post for my series revisiting Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  1. Introduction

  2. To Boldly Stay - How The Next Generation changes its focus from exploration to politics

  3. "Optimism, Captain!" - On Star Trek's most contentious quality

  4. Keep Flying - The tragedy of Picard

  5. Odds & Ends - A few more thoughts on the characters and the actors who played them

Friday, April 15, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, April 11-15

This week's Strange Horizons reviews kick off with Martin Lewis's take on Source Code, which is decidedly less positive than mine (see also the discussion in the comments).  Maureen Kincaid Speller reviews the first two volumes in Alaya Dawn Johnson's YA fantasy trilogy, Racing the Dark and The Burning City, and is disappointed in their handling of the main character.  Finally, Nathaniel Katz finds Mark Charan Newton's City of Ruin an improvement over the previous volume in its series, Nights of Villjamur, but still somewhat lacking.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Something to Ponder

Over at Ferretbrain, Daniel Hemmens has a very long, very detailed, and very negative review of Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear, the long-awaited sequel to The Name of the Wind.  The whole review is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by this observation:
What annoys me about Kvothe is not so much that he's a gratuitous Mary-Sue, but that despite this fact he is taken incredibly seriously by critics. People bitch about how unrealistic it is that everybody fancies Bella Swan, about how stupid it is for teenage girls to indulge in a fantasy where powerful supernatural beings are sexually attracted to them. People laugh at characters like Sonea and Auraya because they're just magic sparkly princesses with super-speshul magic sparkle powers. But take all of those qualities – hidden magic power, ludicrously expanding skillset, effortless ability to attract the opposite sex despite specifically self-describing as being bad at dealing with them, and slap it on a male character, and suddenly we get the protagonist of one of the most serious, most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the last decade.

Of course you can't ever really say, for certain, how a book would have been received if you reversed the genders of its author and protagonist, but something tells me that a book about a red-haired girl who plays the lute and becomes the most powerful sorceress who ever lived by the time she's seventeen, and who has a series of exciting sexy encounters with supernatural creatures, would not have been quite so readily inducted into the canon of a genre still very uncertain about its mainstream reputation.
I haven't read either of Rothfuss's novels so I don't know whether the comparison to Twilight and other novels of girlish wish-fulfillment is apt, but it certainly seems that Hemmens has raised a fair question that deserves a little more discussion.  In particular, his observation puts Penny Arcade's recent praise of the book, in the same post in which it is said, of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, that "I think I would have liked this book if I was a girl. I’m not a girl though and so it just made me mad," in a very interesting context.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Let's See What's Out There, Part V: Odds & Ends

Some thoughts about actors and characters.
  • As I wrote in the previous entry, one of the pleasures of returning to The Next Generation as an adult was rediscovering, and learning to fully appreciate, Patrick Stewart's performance as Picard.  The rest of the cast, however, proved a less pleasant surprise.  Whether it's because the show was considered a bad employment risk when it first started casting, or because Gene Roddenberry and the other producers just had bad taste, The Next Generation's starting lineup leaves much to be desired.  Jonathan Frakes has turned out to be a good director and producer, but his acting is hammy and overdone, and he's frequently stretched even by the material the first season throws at him.  It's almost amusing to watch the show try to pit him against Q in "Hide and Q," the trickster character's second appearance--one imagines the writers planning a series of episodes in which Q interacts with each of the cast in their turn, then realizing how inert the pairing of Frakes and John de Lancie is, especially when compared to de Lancie's crackle against Stewart, and making Q Picard's antagonist for the rest of the series.  Gates McFadden is a comedienne, and there are episodes and moments in which the show uses her well in this capacity--the occasional humorous scene, but also episodes like "Remember Me" and "Attached" in which she's allowed to be cranky and sarcastic.  But for the most part Crusher's role is a dramatic one.  She's the staunch humanist whose belief in the sanctity of life trumps the most cherished Federation values--the Prime Directive in "Symbiosis," or the need to respect other cultures' values in "The Enemy" and "Ethics."  McFadden is lost trying to convey the gravitas and depth of conviction that this role requires.

    McFadden is also a good example of a phenomenon that occurs more and more often as the series's success translates into prestige and a higher production budget, in which the main cast is outclassed by recurring or guest actors.  In the second season a contract dispute led McFadden to leave the show temporarily, and Crusher's role as ship's doctor was filled by Diana Muldaur's Katherine Pulaski.  I was pretty young when I watched the second season, so my memories of it and of Pulaski, going into this rewatch, were rather hazy; and like, I suspect, a lot of fans, I imprinted on The Next Generation's cast as it was in the show's middle seasons, with Crusher as ship's doctor.  I thus wasn't particularly eager to rediscover Pulaski, and it was a surprise, a delight, and, once I remembered how little time she had on the show, a bittersweet pleasure to realize that Muldaur is every inch the actress that McFadden wasn't.  She effortlessly brings across the stubborn self-assurance of a person who can pit their cherished principles against Picard's or Worf's, and refuse to budge in either case.  There's something very McCoy-ish about Pulaski (right down to her casual bigotry towards Data), a down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality that suits her role on the ship very well.  When Crusher and her breathy overacting returned in the third season, and especially in episodes where her role was to stick by her guns and represent the humanist point of view, it was impossible not to wish that Pulaski were there in her place.  Similarly, one might compare Denise Crosby's performance with Michelle Forbes's five seasons later.  They're playing essentially the same character--an orphaned young woman raised outside the Federation in troubled circumstances, who escapes to Starfleet--but where Crosby's Tasha Yar is shouty and unconvincing, Forbes completely sells Ro Laren as tough, damaged, both driven and undone by anger.

    As the show's writing improved, the writers also got better at playing to the cast's strengths, and to their stronger castmembers.  This means that Brent Spiner, who, with the exception of "Datalore," is used mostly as comic relief in the first season, and Michael Dorn, who was originally only a recurring character, both of whom turn out to be versatile, charismatic actors, get more and better stories as the show grows.  Less fortunate are LeVar Burton and Marina Sirtis.  Geordi LaForge turned out to be The Next Generation's O'Brien--a character I had remembered liking and enjoying, but who turned out, upon a second viewing, to be one-note and not very ably portrayed.  Burton is given so little to do with Geordi, however--after the first season, in which he's a young bridge officer learning the ropes of command, he loses that story to Wesley and spends the rest of the series spouting the week's helping of technobabble--that it's hard to gauge whether the problem is with him or the writing.  Sirtis, meanwhile, is a game performer who handles all the abuse the show flings at her--episodes like "The Price" and "Man of the People," not to mention whole stretches of doing nothing but sighing and rolling her eyes during the Lwaxana Troi episodes--with enough dignity and good humor to make me think that with better writing at her back, Troi could have been a breakout character to rival Worf.  What's interesting about Troi is how imperfect she is.  Against the other Starfleet characters' thoughtless courage and effortless selflessness, Troi is whiny, and her kindness is frequently undercut by a strong streak of self-centeredness.  Both of these qualities manifest themselves when Troi is challenged or taken out of her comfort zone, as does her underlying strength.  It's a combination that had a lot of potential, as the brilliant "Face of the Enemy" demonstrates, but one that the writers didn't quite know how to write for (or, to take a less charitable tack, didn't know how to write for in a beautiful woman).  Troi is thus shunted off to the side or relegated to romantic storylines.

    (For completeness's sake, Wil Wheaton was a cute kid who grew up into an average-looking adult and a poor actor.  But The Next Generation is hardly the only television show to run into this problem with its child actors, so I'm willing to give the show a pass in this case.)

  • A few more thoughts on Geordi.  Wesley was supposed to be The Next Generation's gateway character, and for me he was--I wanted to pilot the ship and save the day just like him.  Those who came to the show a little older than myself developed the disdain for Wesley with which the fandom has by now become synonymous, and would have been more likely to identify with Geordi.  Like O'Brien on Deep Space Nine, he's the everyman character--not a special snowflake like Data or Worf, not a paragon of virtue like Picard and Riker, and not a woman, which as we all know invalidates Crusher and Troi from being audience identification figures.  He's the guy you can imagine meeting for a friendly drink without feeling completely outclassed and intimidated.  Star Trek, already a franchise that tended to skew towards niceness, was thus deeply invested in keeping Geordi likable, which I think is a big part of the reason his character stagnates.  The fact is that once you take a closer look at Geordi, there is clearly something not quite right about him.  He's a guy who gets along better with machines than with people, and not just because he's an engineer and very nearly a cyborg.  His best friend is an android.  He's the first member of the crew to bond with Hugh in "I, Borg."  He falls in love with a computer program in "Booby Trap."  In that same episode, and later in "Transfigurations," Geordi is shown to be shy and awkward in social situations (though a friendly alien cures him of the worst of his shyness in the latter episode).  He's much better at connecting with people, and with his own emotions, by using technology as a buffer--when he watches the title character's log entries in "Aquiel," or when he says goodbye to his recently-deceased mother while remote-controlling a repair drone in "Interface."

    There's obviously a story to be told here, and it's one that the show ignores even as it piles on the evidence for its existence.  Though it's obvious that maintaining Geordi's nice guy cred is a big part of the reason, I also think The Next Generation's resistance to the notion of artificial life (as already discussed in the case of Data) is a factor.  When the real Leah Brahms shows up in "Galaxy's Child" and disappoints Geordi by not being the woman of his dreams (and, of course, by being married), the show argues that Geordi's problem is that he can't separate the fantasy from the real woman, who is under no obligation to cater to his wishes and desires.  While there's no denying that Geordi has some creepy hang-ups about women that the show, in keeping with its conception of him as a geeky, nice guy, is all too willing to forgive ("Galaxy's Child" ultimately comes down on the side of his friendship with Leah, and in the "All Good Things…" future they are married), there's a more interesting possibility that the episode leaves unexplored--that the Leah from "Booby Trap" is not just an idealized version of the one from "Galaxy's Child" but a completely different person, one who is perhaps worth loving in her own right.  By the time Voyager comes along, holographic people, and their romantic entanglements with those of the flesh and blood variety, are par for the course, but such as story is a little too risque for The Next Generation, as are almost all the stories suggested by Geordi's affinity for machinery.  Possibly LeVar Burton couldn't have handled these stories--even when he's given the chance to emote in "Interface" he comes off as stiff and shallow--but it might have been nice to see him try.

  • Geordi isn't, of course, The Next Generation's only geek identification character, but against his competence and almost-coolness, the show pits the neurotic, awkward, stammering Barclay.  His introductory episode, "Hollow Pursuits," is another example of the show failing to acknowledge the creepiness of the story it's telling, and for much the same reason as in Geordi's case.  Barclay's reaction to professional and social frustration is to fashion, and sink into, elaborate fantasies in which he places caricatured versions of the main cast so that he can enact violent vengeance against the ones who intimidate him and give free rein to his lust for Troi and Crusher.  This is very disturbing, but the show treats it as an unfortunate foible, as the main cast band together to help Barclay overcome his problems.  The reason, clearly, is that Barclay is an audience stand-in (and that in the pre-internet era it was not yet considered cool and funny to cruelly mock your fans by representing them as pathetic and sometimes villainous characters on your show).  The next Barclay story, "The Nth Degree," finds him still functioning as the cast's special project, still so unprepared for power and independence that the gift of super-intelligence turns him into a threat to the ship.  So it's a relief when "Realm of Fear" shows us a Barclay who is clearly growing sick and tired of being treated with kid gloves, and of how indulgent the senior staff are of his neuroses and phobias.  The story sees him rejecting Geordi and Troi's patience and understanding, their willingness to accommodate his fears.  Instead Barclay examines his phobic reaction to the episode's events and tries to dismantle his fears, in the process realizing that they are rooted in reality and saving the day.  It's not quite a character arc, but it's a more attractive portrait of a geek than the one in "Hollow Pursuits"--not as someone who needs to be protected from reality, but as someone who finally realizes that being shy and awkward is no justification for not behaving like a grown-up.
And that, I think, is that.  As promised, less verbiage than the Deep Space Nine posts, but I hope not significantly less worthy of your time.  My next project will probably be to watch Voyager--the first time through though I've seen the odd episode here and there.  Look for it some time in the future, and thanks for reading along.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Let's See What's Out There, Part IV: Keep Flying

"I should have done this a long time ago."
Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "All Good Things…", 1994
I think it's safe to say that if it hadn't been for Patrick Stewart, there would be no modern Trek, and we would still think of the franchise as a cult TV series from decades ago that spawned a couple of movies and, in the late 80s, a short-lived spin-off.  In The Next Generation's first season, Stewart is the only member of the cast with both acting chops and the opportunity to use them, and he makes Picard, and the show, his own, elevating the cheesy material and blatant speechifying.  In his hands, Picard's wanderlust, his geekish enthusiasm, his commanding presence, and his deeply held and frequently expressed convictions, become genuine and heartfelt.  Stewart brings Picard to life--that fascinating, complicated mixture of whimsy and stolidness, humor and gravitas, thoughtful diplomacy and indomitable will.  There is a popular theory that the show improved so dramatically in its second and third seasons because Stewart kept acting above the material the writers provided him with, and whether or not that's actually true, the fact that The Next Generation ever achieves the magic of slipping into the world of Trek and making it its own, becoming part of a grand storytelling tradition rather than just a bunch of bad actors traipsing about in ugly spandex, is largely down to that one man and his performance.

It's easy to lose sight of Picard's complexity when you watch the later Star Trek films, which reconfigure him as a shoot first, ask questions later action hero.  Part of me thinks this transformation happened as a sop to Stewart's vanity, was maybe even instigated by him, and if that's the case then I suppose that after all he did for the franchise he's entitled to have his ego stroked--after all, it's not as if Insurrection or Nemesis were ever going to be masterpieces.  But it's worth keeping in mind that this is not who Picard was, that the real character was a great deal more complicated--a man defined, in fact, by his contradictions.  In "Samaritan Snare" Picard tells Wesley about the incident that caused him to require an artificial heart (the significance of which, for a man so invested in controlling his emotions, is surely obvious), in which, as a young cadet, he picked a fight with three Naussicans twice his size.  Picard tells the story as one of a hard lesson well learned, a punishment for his arrogance and devil-may-care attitude, an experience that taught him to buckle down, as well as a bit of humility.  But in "Tapestry," when Q gives Picard the chance to undo the fight altogether, to become that more humble, more serious man he thinks he needed to be ahead of schedule, the result is a small, grey life as a mid-ranking science officer.  The lesson of "Tapestry" is that it takes the two men--the adventurer who laughs in the face of danger, and the thoughtful, reserved nerd, who on their own are just a silly child and a stodgy old man--to make Jean Luc Picard.

Of all his contradictions, perhaps none defines Picard as much as his conflicting desires for adventure and a more quiet, ordinary life.  As the series opens he's chosen the former, and a lot of Next Generation episodes revolve around Picard considering the roads he chose not to take on his path to a stellar career in Starfleet--the lover he abandoned in "We'll Always Have Paris," the career he might have had as an archeologist in "The Chase."  But as the show draws on The Next Generation seems determined to shake Picard's conviction of having made the right choice.  In my posts about Deep Space Nine I wrote that that show's deliberately mundane tone allowed its writers to inflict losses--of lovers, children, homes, jobs, and sense of self--on its characters that in a more dramatic story might have seemed over the top, and The Next Generation takes the same approach with Picard.  He starts the series gruffly telling Riker that he has no room for children in his life.  Seven years later, in Generations, he's weeping for the children he'll never have.  Along the way, there is much loss.  He seems to discover a son in "Bloodlines," only to learn that he has no claim on him.  He bonds with a child in "Suddenly Human" but must give him away.  He falls in love in "Lessons" but is forced to give that love up for the sake of his duty (the same might be said of "The Perfect Mate").  In "The Inner Light" Picard, after a long struggle, surrenders to the kind of life he has always sought to escape.  He becomes a loving husband and a doting father and grandfather, living a small life in a small village.  And just as he's grown not only to accept but to love this life, it is snatched away from him, leaving nothing behind but memories and a single keepsake.  Perhaps worst of all, Picard forms relationships that place him in the role of mentor and surrogate father with Wesley Crusher and Ro Laren, whom he shepherds on their Starfleet careers, but both of these "children" choose to leave Starfleet, and thus to sever their ties with Picard.

Wesley and Ro leave Starfleet for largely the same reasons.  "Journey's End," Wesley's farewell episode, is terrible, an early harbinger of Ronald D. Moore's penchant for prioritizing real-world references over the integrity of his world, in which Native Americans--in space!--are still suffering the effects of European colonization in the 24th century.  Ro's goodbye, "Preemptive Strike," meanwhile, despite some mawkish plot points, is one of the few strong episodes in the seventh season (Michelle Forbes and Wil Wheaton's respective talents play a part in the episodes' relative quality as well).  But in both stories, Wesley and Ro are disillusioned by Starfleet's actions and its policies--relocating settlers on the Cardassian border and hunting down the Maquis who attack Cardassian settlements on that same border.  That Picard sides with Starfleet, however reluctantly--he is conflicted about relocating the colonists and sympathizes with the Maquis, but in both cases ultimately decides that preventing war with the Cardassians is the greater good--shatters his bond with his two protégés, permanently in Ro's case, ambiguously in Wesley's (it is one of "Journey's End"'s many flaws that it doesn't give the two anything like a proper farewell but also isn't willing to cap their relationship on the negative note that "Preemptive Strike" ends on). 

This is interesting because, though in its early years Picard stands for the Federation as much as he stands for The Next Generation, there is a sense as the show draws on that Picard and the Federation are falling out of step.  In "Too Short a Season" Picard discovers that a Starfleet admiral traded arms to aliens in exchange for Federation hostages, and prolonged a costly civil war.  In this first season story, the tone of the episode makes it clear that what the admiral has done is beyond the pale.  Later seasons return to the well of the shady admiral who betrays Federation principles and is exposed by Picard, but each time the story repeats his staunchness seems less convincing.  When the admiral in "Ensign Ro" agrees to break Federation neutrality in the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict in order to appease the Cardassians, or Riker's former commanding officer violates a treaty with the Romulans that prohibits the Federation from developing illegal cloaking technology in "The Pegasus," it's hard not to wonder whether Picard is the only honest senior officer in Starfleet--and if so, what that says about Starfleet.  There's a compelling reading of late Next Generation in which Picard is regarded by his fellow officers and the Federation's top brass as an increasingly out of touch throwback, a moralist who won't recognize the difficult realities of the political situation in the quadrant, and who insists on clinging to his ideals come hell of high water, and regardless of what his principled actions, such as exposing the forbidden cloaked ship to the Romulans at the end of "The Pegasus," cost the Federation.  (Insurrection, in which the Federation council is so shattered by the Dominion war that they conspire with a race of arms dealers and bioweapon manufacturers to displace an entire people, only for Picard to commit mutiny against them, really only makes sense if you apply this reading to the show.)

In this take on The Next Generation, the Enterprise is a fool's paradise that keeps flying about to diplomatic missions and scientific studies, even as the events of Deep Space Nine unfold and the rest of the galaxy burns.  This is probably taking it too far, but it's hard not to watch "Journey's End" and "Preemptive Strike" without concluding that for Wesley and Ro, Picard is Starfleet and the Federation.  They would love to serve in his fleet, on his ship, in furtherance of his ideals, but when they get a taste of the real thing (and when Picard falls in line with that reality) they recoil.  Nor are these the only occasions on which Picard's Enterprise is held up as an ideal.  In "Ménage à Troi," Wesley is stunned to realize that there's no guarantee he'll be returning to the Enterprise when he graduates from Starfleet academy, and the ship's convivial atmosphere is what halts Riker's previously-meteoric career in its path.  The Next Generation got a lot of guff over the years for keeping the ship's senior staff static for so long, in contravention of the reality of most military bodies (and most workplaces, for that matter).  Though this stagnation was obviously driven by the producers' fiat and 80s TV mentality, within the show it seemed believable that no one on the Enterprise wanted to move on, because they were all too happy and too comfortable where they were, in a working environment that suited them all to a T (by all accounts the cast felt this way as well).

Which is why "All Good Things…" is such a perfect cap to the series.  Despite a plot that hinges on the destruction of the human race, that's not where the story's emotional core is to be found.  "All Good Things…" is an episode about the Enterprise crew.  It switches between three time periods that describe that crew's lifecycle--the present, in which the Enterprise is an ideal working environment, all its parts moving together in perfect synchronization; the past, when the crew is just on the verge of coming together; and the future, when it's all come apart.  Which is what happens in any workplace, of course.  Even if you're lucky enough to find a job you like with people you enjoy working with, sooner or later someone will leave, or die; close friends will quarrel or drift apart; others will try to transmute their camaraderie into more intimate relationships, with mixed results.  And if by some chance you manage to hang on through all those changes, eventually you'll get to be too old and feeble to do the work.  This is the great tragedy of The Next Generation, and of Picard's life--in lieu of the family he'll never have, he forms one with his crew, but it is ephemeral and doomed.  The series ends with that famous, lovely scene of Picard joining the other officers at the poker table, reaffirming their unity in the face of the knowledge--now more certain than ever--that its days are numbered.  In its gentle sadness, its deceptively light tone, and its inherent contradictions, this is the perfect ending to The Next Generation.  One of these days, the crew will be dispersed.  The Enterprise will be put in mothballs.  Starfleet will complete its transformation into a body that none of them particularly want to serve in.  But for now, their voyages continue.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Source Code

The trailers and promos for Duncan Jones's second film Source Code seemed to suggest a very familiar narrative.  Not for the film, that is, but for Jones's career.  First, an arty, idiosyncratic film to establish his credentials among critics and science fiction fans alike.  Then, a bankable, formulaic action flick with SFnal touches to prove to the Hollywood money people that Jones could be relied on to rein in his artistic impulses and put seats in the movie theater.  That Source Code has turned out to be an enjoyable, somewhat intelligent and competently made film while still hewing closely to the more conventional blockbuster format suggested by its marketing is gratifying, but not very surprising--it mainly means that Jones is closer to being another Christopher Nolan than another Richard Kelly.  What is surprising, however--especially given that Jones has only directed the film, while the script is credited to Ben Ripley--is just how many similarities there are between Source Code and Jones's debut Moon.  Both are focused on a single individual, a man engaged in grueling, repetitive labor whose hoped-for reward is described in terms so hazy that it comes to seem metaphysical.  In both films the protagonist discovers that he is not what he thinks he is, and that his nature enables his handlers to view him as expendable and unworthy of compassion.  Both men nevertheless manage to win over one of their handlers, and with their help they make their escape into a world that is uncertain but nevertheless offers them more freedom than their life before--but not before making sure that others of their kind are given the same opportunity.

In Source Code, the hero is Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, demonstrating once again how a pair of soulful blue eyes can turn a conventionally handsome, perhaps even callow face surprisingly transparent and vulnerable), a helicopter pilot flying sorties in Afghanistan for the US Air Force, who suddenly finds himself on a passenger train, meeting an unfamiliar face in the mirror and being addressed as Sean by his fellow commuter Christina (Michelle Monaghan, bubbly and charming to just the right degree).  No sooner has he started to get his bearings than the train explodes, and Colter finds himself in what looks vaguely like a helicopter cockpit, being addressed through video transmissions.  Though he insists that he has no memory of how he got here from Afghanistan, Colter is informed by his handlers, Air Force officer Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and civilian scientist Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) that he is part of a top-secret anti-terrorism project called Source Code.  Using Rutledge's technology, he can relive the last eight minutes before the explosion again and again, using them to discover the identity of the bomber and prevent another bombing that Goodwin and Rutledge insist is imminent.

It's pretty easy to guess just what vital piece of information is being held back from Colter, and to the film's credit it doesn't wait very long before revealing that he is, essentially, a brain in a box, having been shot down and very nearly killed in Afghanistan several months before the film's events.  Colter is thus faced with several challenges on top of identifying the bomber (which he anyway takes a rather desultory approach towards, letting several iterations of the explosion go by before kicking his investigation into gear and discovering he perpetrator on his first serious attempt).  He has to convince Goodwin and Rutledge that he is a person and not a tool, and thus that he deserves respect and the chance for self-determination, which in his case means the right to die.  He has to deal with the trauma of experiencing death multiple times on the train, while coming to terms with the fact of his death in Afghanistan, even as he falls in love with Christina.  Finally, he has to fight for the chance to prevent the train explosion rather than simply identifying the bomber, insisting over Goodwin and Rutledge's objections that what he is experiencing isn't a mere simulation.

Despite the similarities between their situations, one crucial difference between Colter and Moon's Sam determines the shape and meaning of their stories--Colter is a soldier.  Moon's plot could be taken--and we were encouraged to take it so--as the story of an individual being exploited by a corporation for the sake of financial gain.  The original Sam Bell did his tour on the moon, collected his salary, and went on with his life, unaware that his clones continued to labor with no compensation, either to him or to themselves.  Colter's exploitation, however, is a less clear-cut evil.  Soldiers accept that the nation has the right to ask them to make incredible sacrifices, up to and including giving their lives.  The question that Source Code asks is whether it's right for the nation to ask its soldiers to make sacrifices even beyond that last full measure of devotion, and more generally, where the correct point of balance is between the needs of the state and the needs of the soldier.  As soon as he regains consciousness, and especially after he realizes that he is dead, Colter is preoccupied with making contact with his father, with whom he'd quarreled over his decision to return to Afghanistan for a third tour.  There's an obvious parallel to be drawn between Colter's willingness to return to the danger of a war zone--and his superiors' willingness to send him there--and the constant repetition of the train explosion.   Just as his father insisted on Colter's right to rest from battle, Colter insists on his right to rest in death, making Source Code the latest in a long line of works that equate the soldier's much-deserved rest after the tumult and peril of battle with the peaceful rest of death.

Which is why Source Code's greatest flaw is its choice to make Rutledge both a civilian and the film's villain.  Much more than the actual bomber, who doesn't end up posing much of a challenge to Colter, Rutledge is Colter's antagonist.  Unlike Goodwin, who warms to Colter and bonds with him over their shared service (when Rutledge refuses to confirm that Colter has died, Colter persuades Goodwin to do so by asking her "one soldier to another"), Rutledge has no concern for Colter's wishes and desires.  Despite promising to let Colter die at the end of the mission, he plans to erase his memory and keep him on life support, and refuses to let Colter go back one last time to prevent the train bombing, insisting that this would have no real-world effect.  The film could easily have made Rutledge an ambiguous figure--his motives, preventing a terrorist bombing and creating a powerful new tool in the war against terror, are after all honorable, even if his methods are questionable--and if he, like Goodwin, were an officer then he could have credibly represented the opposing viewpoint to her stance that there is a limit to what the state may demand of its soldiers.  Instead, the film delights in portraying Rutledge as callous and even cruel, not only unsympathetic to Colter's distress, but disrespectful of his bravery and sacrifice.  This disrespect, the film strongly implies, is rooted in the fact that Rutledge is a civilian--when he glibly tells Colter that many soldiers would jump at the chance to give more than one life for their country, Colter's response is that Rutledge must never have been in battle, because soldiers who have been would say that "one death is enough"--and the film plays up to many of the stereotypes that crop up when fiction confronts brave soldiers with craven civilians, making Rutledge a grotesque.  Rutledge walks with a crutch, and Wright makes of that disability something profoundly unattractive, wheezing and gasping for breath.  Rutledge thus presents an image of offputting sickness which the film can then contrast with Colter's attractive virility--a virility that is entirely illusory, since Colter is nothing but a torso on life support.  This, of course, plays up another war movie cliché, that of the maimed soldier who is still more of a man than the whole--or in this case, nearly whole--civilian.

If Source Code ends up disappointing as a war movie, it is much more successful, though not perfectly so, as a science fiction film.  I was particularly impressed with how the film thought through the implications of Colter's predicament, the slow revelation of the fact that the impassioned exchanges we see him have with Goodwin and Rutledge take place almost entirely in his head, while their conversation with him is mediated by impersonal technology (though I wish the film hadn't waited so long to reveal, for example, that Goodwin can't hear Colter's voice or see his face, because this goes a long way towards explaining why she and Rutledge can so easily fail to empathize with Colter, and why only she comes to see him as a person).  Even more important is the nature of the source code, which turns out, as Colter keeps insisting over Rutledge's dismissal, to be much more than a simulation.  The film appears to end when Colter, having gone back to the train one last time and prevented the bombing, arranges the last minutes of his life to be perfect, saying goodbye to his father and confessing his feelings to Christina.  As they kiss, the image freezes, and Colter appears to have gotten his desired rest.  But this turns out to be false bottom--the film restarts, and Colter realizes that he's created an alternate universe in which the train never exploded and he is free to live out the rest of his life (albeit in another man's body).  I've seen complaints that the "freeze frame" ending is the better one of the two, and though I agree that it would have been a good stopping point, it's the film's real ending that makes it truly SFnal.  The revelation of the source code's true nature elevates it from a quasi-magical McGuffin to something genuinely scary and momentous, and the film's final moments, in which the alternate universe's Goodwin receives a message from Colter and understands the true power of the source code, have the feeling of teetering on the edge of a brave and terrifying new world.  It must be said, however, that the film doesn't fully engage with the technology's implications; if Colter's final iteration created an alternate universe then so did all his previous, failed attempts, in each of which the Source Code project would have been activated, which would have created even more alternate universes, and so on and so on.

Source Code, then, is an underbaked war movie and a slightly wobbly science fiction film.  What's left is an entertaining and occasionally moving SFnal action flick that is smarter and more thought-through than it has any business being, and refreshingly uninterested in wowing us with explosions and special effects.  There's been a mini-glut of low-budget science fiction films from major studios recently (Skyline, Limitless, Battle: Los Angeles, The Adjustment Bureau), and though I don't yet know how Source Code stacks up (and am anyway only planning to see the last of the four) I think that trend is something to celebrate in itself.  A wider field means more chances for quality to accidentally make its way to the screens, and lower budgets put less pressure on filmmakers to stick slavishly to proven, and brain-dead, formulas.  For both science fiction films and Duncan Jones, then, Source Code is a promising sign of things to come.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, April 4-8

This week's reviews kick off with the third installment of Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's series in which reviews Isaac Asimov's series The Great SF Stories (see also parts 1 and 2).  This time Alvaro takes a look at the stories of 1940.  L. Timmel Duchamp follows with a review of Julia Holmes's Meeks, a novel that Timmi finds frustrating in its refusal to engage the reader with any of the conventions of storytelling.  Chris Kammerud rounds up the week with his review of the Peter S. Beagle-edited The Secret History of Fantasy, the companion volume to The Secret History of Science Fiction (review here), which he finds worthwhile even as he questions Beagle's thesis about the genre's evolution and current state.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Let's See What's Out There, Part III: "Optimism, Captain!"

Picard: In my century, we don't succumb to revenge. We have a more evolved sensibility.
Lily: Bullshit!
Star Trek: First Contact, 1996
My first forays onto the internet coincided with the height of my Star Trek fannishness, and one of the first websites I can recall checking regularly was a cache of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine reviews by Tim Lynch, who was writing weekly recaps + reviews long before it was the revolutionary, web 2.0 approach to writing about television (a helpful Wiki collects the reviews today). Looking back, it occurs to me that Lynch must have been the first reviewer I read for pleasure, and the source of some of my first inklings that reviewing was a worthy endeavor in its own right. I don't remember much of his actual writing, but the review that sticks in my mind is for the sixth season episode "The Chase," in which Picard's old archeology mentor bequeaths him research that points to a message concealed in the DNA of many of the humanoid species in the galaxy. The message, when decoded, turns out to be the revelation that all of these species were seeded on their home planets by a single parent race. Lynch, a scientist and teacher, was incensed at such an unscientific take on evolution, arguing that it bordered on supporting the theory of intelligent design. Though he's right about the fundamental inaccuracies of how "The Chase" portrays evolution and how they dovetail with creationist attempts to undermine the theory and its acceptance, watching the episode a second time it seemed obvious that its take on evolution was entirely in keeping with the series's general approach to this topic, an approach that is inextricably bound with original Star Trek and The Next Generation's most contentious and, these days, most maligned attribute, their optimism.

Evolution, in The Next Generation, is a purposeful, directional process, deliberately set in motion (sometimes, as in "The Chase," by a specific individual or group) and with a definite goal in mind. That's still a common misconception, but it was more prevalent in the 80s and 90s, and The Next Generation was not alone in interpreting "more evolved" not as better suited to its environment, but simply as better, more perfect. And, also like a lot of other stories in and out of genre, The Next Generation applied the concept of evolution to societies as well as species, sociology and politics as well as biology. Humanity's progress from our violent, greedy present to the 24th century's egalitarian, post-scarcity utopia is repeatedly described as the result of evolution, and other species encountered over the course of the series are described as being in the process of evolving towards this ideal form. When Riker visits a matriarchal society persecuting a group that has been agitating for men's rights in "Angel One," he argues that what is happening is not revolution but evolution. When the Ferengi are first encountered in "The Last Outpost," Riker explains to the representative of an ancient space empire that "I find them very much as we were a few hundred years ago … they may grow and learn"; evolution is not mentioned explicitly but it is strongly implied. "The Chase" itself is strongly bound up in notions of evolution as a social process. The purpose of the message hidden in the DNA of humanoids is to reveal their common ancestry and foster unity between them, and though the Klingon captain who learns this sneers at the notion of sharing ancestors with humans and Romulans, the episode ends with Picard and his Romulan counterpart exchanging a less chilly farewell than the current relations between their species would warrant, both obviously spurred to thoughts of peace by the discovery they've made.

You can't make evolution one of the central metaphors of your story without raising the specter of it going wrong, and a lot of Next Generation episodes involve the Enterprise visiting a social evolutionary dead end--the luddites and cloners in "Up the Long Ladder," the genetically engineered "Masterpiece Society." In both cases Picard shakes his head over the foolishness of trying to shape humanity on such misguided principles, but implicit in that reaction is the notion that it is principles that guide evolution--the evolution of societies, but perhaps also of species. The Next Generation never quite comes out and says this, but it strongly implies that it is not just human society that has evolved in the 400 years that separate the show from us, but human nature, that humans in the 24th century are fundamentally different from us--more moral, more tolerant, less violent. It's not until First Contact that we get a counter-example, in the scene quoted from at the head of this post, in which Lily concludes, and Picard ultimately confirms, that beneath his civilized exterior he still craves violence and vengeance. But First Contact is a very un-Star Trek-ish movie, and in the space of the show itself there is no human who surrenders to barbarity in the way that Picard very nearly does in that movie (perhaps the closest is Dr. Marr in "Silicon Avatar," when she kills the crystalline entity that killed her son).

The show's take on the future of human evolution is, similarly, guided by values rather than biology. In the episode "Transfigurations," the show strongly excoriates an alien species who are persecuting and exterminating a minority who are "evolving" into energy beings, but when Barclay becomes uplifted in "The Nth Degree," the reaction from the Enterprise's crew is fear and incomprehension. In other words, it's OK for evolution to fundamentally alter aliens, but humans had better stick to a familiar baseline. On the other hand, in "Home Soil," the Enterprise discovers sentient silicon-based life on a planet about to be terraformed. The aliens reject contact with the Federation on the grounds that we are too primitive, and tell us to come back in 300 years when, presumably, we will have outgrown our petty carbon-based prejudices. The aptly-titled third season episode "Evolution" tells a very similar story that also concludes that humans are not ready to be in contact with a non-humanoid lifeform (this time, Wesley's science experiment--by no means the first or only time that someone on the Enterprise uplifts an artificial being for fun or a good grade). At the end of "The Host," Crusher tells her Trill lover, now transplanted into a woman, that she can't handle that kind of change, a deficiency she ascribes to her species, not to herself: "Perhaps someday our ability to love will not be so limited."  So again, evolution, for humanity, is treated as a social rather than a biological process, and one whose "proper" form is guided by principles that just happen to coincide with Gene Roddenberry's hippie, California liberal values--tolerance, equality, non-violence, all that good stuff.

To say that this is problematic is to understate the issue quite considerably. Roddenberry's values are unobjectionable on the macro level, but one need only watch the series with a bit of distance to see how far from perfect its vision of 24th century society is. Geordi LaForge is the only black member of the Enterprise's senior staff, and gets the least development and the least stories dedicated to him (Michael Dorn is also black, but as all Klingons have the same skin tone regardless of their portrayer's race, I think it's safe to say that Worf is not a black Klingon). Crusher and Troi get only a bit more attention from the writers, but both just happen to be in nurturing, caretaking roles, and their stories often revolve around their love lives (it's interesting to watch the show become more aware of this in its later seasons and try to give both characters more to do on the ship, for example making them both bridge officers; the results are decidedly mixed--on the one hand, the magnificent Troi episode "Face of the Enemy" or Crusher saving the day in "Descent II", but on the other hand, the unmistakable take-away that there's nothing interesting or exciting about being a doctor or a ship's counselor, and by the time the later movies come along neither character's profession is of any importance, and they're both just waving phasers about). Then there are episodes like "The Outcast," clearly well-intentioned and, for their time, perhaps even progressive, but today what was intended as a statement in favor of gay rights comes across as homophobic--the episode clearly opposes persecuting homosexuals, but can't bring itself to come out in favor of being gay (right down to casting a woman in the role of Riker's androgynous lover). Or throwaway scenes like the one in "The Wounded" that make it clear that before they were married, Miles and Keiko O'Brien never lived together--perhaps never even spent the night together, since Keiko is making breakfast for Miles for the very first time. Like the cell phones besides which original Star Trek's communicators, so revolutionary in the 60s, seem bulky and of limited use, Roddenberry's allegedly advanced, egalitarian future society seems positively regressive when compared to the norms of your average TV show in 2011.

Even if we accept that Roddenberry had his heart in the right place but was still a product of his time (and had to appease his broadcasters and the court of public opinion), there are still the fundamental questions raised by his optimism--is it dramatically satisfying? Is it realistic? Is it moral? In "Time's Arrow II" Samuel Clemens is accidentally transported to the 24th century. A famous curmudgeon whom we'd seen, in the story's first half, railing about the fundamental wickedness of human nature, he's at first unable to believe that the peaceful, wealthy society he's arrived in is the whole truth of the future. Surely, he tells Troi, all this opulence is achieved on the backs of the poor? Even allowing for the dim view that we might take of Troi's claim to live in the perfect society--look at her outfit, for crying out loud--and for the things that a man of Clemens's era might not consider an improvement--look at her outfit, for crying out loud--the message is clear. Clemens is a stand-in for us, for any cynic who believes that humans are inherently evil and that the human race is doomed. The Next Generation, like Star Trek before it, is the story that tells us that no, humanity is going to overcome its problems and create something wonderful. That's a powerful statement even if you acknowledge the imperfection of Roddenberry's perfect society, but it's one that the genre has reacted very strongly against in the last twenty years. So strongly, in fact, that there's been a backlash against the backlash.

I think it's safe to dismiss the argument that you can't tell good stories about utopia--quite apart from the fact that The Next Generation was often a very good show, there's a persuasive argument to be made for Iain M. Banks's Culture being a more sophisticated, more developed version of the same concept as the Federation, and Banks has written some cracking stories in and about it. As for realism, I've probably said my piece about the trend of dark and gritty science fiction and its dubious claim to that trait. Like Roddenberry's utopian approach, it is rooted in truth without fully encompassing it, and seems to be driven more by its writers' preoccupations (and sometimes by fashion), than any attempt to realistically portray human nature. Whether or not either of these modes work is down to the writer in question, but I don't think that either one can lay a claim to realism--and this is not even to address the question of whether realism is an ideal, or even the ideal, to which a work of fiction should aspire. The real question, to my mind, is an ethical one. Is the kind of aspirational utopianism Roddenberry baked into Star Trek a moral good? Does it teach us to reach for the stars, or to smugly congratulate ourselves on being there already?

There is a great deal in The Next Generation that suggests the latter. Much as the Federation represents humanity's future it is also, and particularly in its dealings with the Romulans, intended as a stand-in for the US during the Cold War. In episodes like "The Enemy" or "Data's Day" the Federation behaves with scrupulous even-handedness and reacts with wounded dismay when the Romulans, the series's Soviet stand-ins, interpret its actions as underhanded or conniving. The parallels to Cold War-era notions of the two sides in the dispute are clear--the West is open, ethical, and law-abiding, while the Russians are distrustful, perceiving their own immorality in others. By presenting the Federation as the perfected, evolved version of the democratic US, The Next Generation reinforces its audience's image of themselves as being the good guys, leaving no room for the possibility that this image is at least partly a self-imposed delusion, or for an acknowledgment of the underhandedness that came from the West during the Cold War. More generally, by positing the Federation, with its obvious Western antecedents, as the end result of humanity's social evolution, The Next Generation engages in a level of cultural imperialism. Unlike the series's blindness to its own sexism or racism, this is something that feels baked into its utopian premise. You can imagine the Federation as a less blindingly white society, less gender-segregated, less heteronormative (and later Star Trek series went some way towards portraying it as such). It's impossible, however, to imagine it as less Western.

I've been using the Federation and humanity as interchangeable terms in this post, which is one of the things that threw me during my rewatch of The Next Generation, coming to it as I was with Deep Space Nine, whose cast was largely alien, as my last foray into Trek. Humans are not simply the majority on the Enterprise. They are so much of a majority that the presence of non-humans on the ship usually requires an explanation. Main castmembers who were not human usually had some connection to humanity that profoundly affected their lives. Troi was half-human, and her alienness was strongly downplayed, both through her appearance and her behavior. Worf was raised by humans, had spent his life trying to regain his Klingon heritage, and kept bumping up against what were to him the pernicious effects of human culture when trying to raise his part-human son. And then there's Data. Data is the most high-concept character in The Next Generation cast and, of the three main castmembers who can be said to have a character arc (the others being Picard and Worf) the one whose story seems to have been the most thought out at the series's outset. The premise of that story, as laid out in "Encounter at Farpoint," is that Data wants to be human. Not sentient, not feeling, but human. This is for the same reason that the Enterprise's crew is so overwhelmingly human--because humanity is The Next Generation's business. Just as the perfection of the Federation is intended as a demonstration of humanity's potential, Data's quest to be human sheds a light on what humanity actually is.

This has the effect of contorting Data's story in ways that seem particularly glaring today, with the concept of artificial intelligence and machine life having received a lot of interesting and sophisticated attention in genre, and in light of Deep Space Nine's more nuanced handling of its own outsider character, Odo. It's understandable that Data wants to be a person rather than a machine, but why does he want to be a feeling person--why does he aspire to the one thing that is obviously beyond his programming? Star Trek features aliens who are sentient but not emotional, and though Data raises the question in his diary entries in "Data's Day," or his conversation with Spock in "Unification II," he never truly explains why he's chosen to emulate humanity rather than Vulcans. In the later seasons of the show, there are episodes that edge around a recognition of the fact that Data's personality is bound up in his lack of emotions--"In Theory," in which he tries and spectacularly fails to engage in a romantic relationship, "Descent," in which the temptation of feeling emotion overrides his most cherished values. When he finally becomes capable of emotion in Generations, Data becomes a completely different person, and the fact that this was inevitable, and that much of what we valued about Data--his patience, his even temper, his generosity--was rooted in his lack of emotions is never acknowledged. To do so, and thus to admit that Data can be a person without having emotions, would also mean the show saying that he can be a person without being human.

This resistance to the notion of alien--truly alien, not humanoid with forehead ridges alien--sentience informs a lot of the episodes that try to discuss Data's rights. In "The Measure of a Man," Bruce Maddox, trying to argue that he should be allowed to dismantle Data against his will, asks whether, if the computer of the Enterprise were to refuse an upgrade, the court now discussing Data's case would allow it to do so. He means this as a rhetorical question, which of course it is, but not in the way he thinks. If the computer of the Enterprise possessed the self-awareness and will to understand the meaning of an upgrade and refuse it, its wishes would have to be respected. That neither Maddox, nor Picard, nor the judge recognize this simple truth is because they are hung up on hardware rather than software. To them, the issue isn't what kind of machine Data is, but the simple fact that he is a machine, and not human. This attitude persists in "Measure"'s follow-up episodes, "The Offspring" and "The Quality of Life."  Partly this is due to the trope being undeveloped--by the time Voyager comes along, the idea of an electronic person is a lot easier for both the writers and the audience to swallow (compare Voyager's Doctor, or even Deep Space Nine's Vic Fontaine, to Moriarty in "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Ship in a Bottle," where it is inconceivable that the sentient holodeck character might have a life, and a meaningful one, despite being, and knowing that he is, a hologram). A more important reason for the show's resistance to the notion of artificial sentience, however, is that the purpose of Data is not to explore the possibility of different forms of sentience, but to hold up a mirror to humanity, and a rather flattering one at that. Here is a super-intelligent, super-strong, virtually immortal creature, who repeatedly states that he would give up his many advantages to be more like us. As Odo is once told, "What higher flattery is there? 'I, who can be anything, choose to be like you.'" For Data to aspire to be human implies that humanity is pretty hot stuff.

Which brings us back to optimism, and to the notion at The Next Generation's core--that humans are, indeed, hot stuff, that we have great potential and are capable of great things. The very foundation of Star Trek, after all, is the notion that humanity will become a leader on the galactic stage, one of the most important and influential races in the quadrant and beyond it, and there are a lot of instances in The Next Generation in which humanity is described as exceptional. Sometimes this exceptionalism reaches absurd degrees, as in "When the Bough Breaks," when our attachment to our children is described as unusually strong, or the aliens in "Allegiance" who call morality "a very interesting human characteristic." There is, as these examples demonstrate, a pernicious side to The Next Generation's cheerleading of humanity, especially when one considers how homogeneous and Western-derived 24th century humanity is. But there's also something admirable. The fact is that Roddenberry allows himself to imagine something audacious and, especially in our present moment, almost impossible to believe--that it all turns out all right, that we make good, that we get it right. The sheer chutzpah of the act is impressive in itself, but I keep going back and forth about its moral implications. Is Roddenberry giving us hope for the future, or is he telling us that we're fine just the way we are? Does his work spur us to bigger and better things, or help us to ignore what's wrong in the here and now? The answer, obviously, will vary from one viewer to another, but I would dearly love to know what effect, if any, Star Trek had on the generation of people, like me, who took it down as our first introduction to SF TV--and what effect did the myriad works tearing down its optimistic premise had. Did it make us self-satisfied? Did they make us cynical?

In lieu of an answer to that last question, which I don't have, I'll close with one more episode. "Chain of Command II" came up quite a lot in conversation a few years ago, when torture was the hot button issue, both in real-world politics and the entertainment industry, and Jack Bauer was waterboarding and ripping out fingernails at the drop of a hat. So I thought that I was well-prepared for the episode when I sat down to watch it again a few months ago. It still took me completely by surprise. What I had somehow forgotten about "Chain of Command II" is that it is determinedly, unequivocally anti-torture. Not only in the sense that, unlike so many episodes of modern TV that try to raise a "tough question" by having the protagonists commit torture, here the torturer is the bad guy and the victim is Picard. And not only because the torture is shown to be brutal and cruel. "Chain of Command II" is anti-torture because it concludes that torture doesn't work. "[It] has never been a reliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. And so one wonders why it is still practiced," Picard says to his torturer. In late 2010, with pop culture having almost uniformly accepted that torture is an effective and reliable means of information-gathering, which repeatedly enables heroic characters to save the day, this came as a genuine shock, but no more so than the answer the episode gives to Picard's final question. Picard never gives his Cardassian torturer any information, but he does break--famously, he sees five lights where there are four. This is necessary for the episode to have an effect--if Picard had held out, "Chain of Command II" would be a story about how much of a badass Jean Luc Picard is, not about how awful torture is--but it isn't necessary for the torturer. By the time he makes that last push against Picard's defenses, the one that finally tumbles them, his side has lost. Picard is about to be released. The torturer is, in fact, defying orders to clean Picard up and get him ready for transfer. There is no possible reason to keep torturing Picard except pride and cruelty. And that, the episode concludes, is what torture is ultimately for.

There is much of the hypocrisy and self-congratulation that underpin The Next Generation's optimism in "Chain of Command II"'s conclusion. The episode assumes that the Federation--which is to say the US--doesn't torture, which in the real world wasn't true even at the time. But it is also underpinned by the recognition that torture is wrong and that we should be above it, neither of which are things that are taken for granted anymore, in either entertainment or the public discourse. Perhaps that, if nothing else, is the value of The Next Generation's optimism, of its starry-eyed take on humanity's future--to remind us of the values we've lost, and of those that we've allowed ourselves to relinquish.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Let's See What's Out There, Part II: To Boldly Stay

"Anyone remember when we used to be explorers?"
Picard, Star Trek: Insurrection, 1998
The first season of The Next Generation is probably best thought of as the fourth season of original Star Trek, except set decades later and with an entirely different cast. To a certain extent, this was probably inevitable--any spin-off feels the gravitational pull of its original, and the twenty five years that separated Star Trek and The Next Generation, with their movies and tie-in novels and increasingly vocal fandom, would have turned the original series into a black hole. That Gene Roddenberry was at The Next Generation's helm surely only compounded the original show's influence, as he repurposed everything from character designs to costuming to scripts, left over from the original show or from the various abortive attempts to revive it, for use in the new show. But beyond the stylistic and tonal similarities, there is the fact that early Next Generation is, like its predecessor, a show about exploring the unknown. This seems obvious at first--boldly going, seeking out, and exploring are right there in the opening narration that every Star Trek fan knows by heart--but as the first season draws on it become apparent just how different its stories are from what The Next Generation, and eventually all of Star Trek, became, and how little exploration there was in the latter.

Picard is introduced to us as a great explorer--Crusher even refers to him as such in the series pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint"--who has given up the chance of a normal life in order to see things that no other human has seen. The Enterprise's mission is described as an extension of the original ship's, exploring the uncharted portions of the galaxy, and opportunities to do just that abound in the first season. When the Traveler whisks the Enterprise thousands of light years from known space in "Where No One Has Gone Before," Picard and Riker are positively giddy at the thought of exploring this region, and it's only due to their ironclad discipline as Starfleet officers that they forgo the opportunity. Aliens who are encountered in this season are often described in awestruck terms that seem more suited to fantasy--they are creatures of legend said to possess fantastic powers ("When the Bough Breaks") or secretive villains shrouded in mystery (the Romulans in "The Neutral Zone"). "We've only charted nineteen percent of our galaxy. The rest is out there, waiting for us," Wesley says in the early second season episode "The Dauphin," and that is what seems most strange and unfamiliar about early Next Generation--the sense that the galaxy is a vast and largely unexplored place, full of wonders yet to be discovered. This was, of course, original Star Trek's starting position, but it's one that the modern franchise, with its emphasis on the known and the familiar--on political disputes between established alien species and the role of the Federation on the galactic stage--moved away from. The galaxy in later Star Trek, and even in the later seasons of The Next Generation, is a much smaller place, whose rules are more clearly laid out.

You can spot the moment when original Trek-style Next Generation dies and gives way to what we think of today as Star Trek. It comes in the second season, in the episode "Q Who?" In the episode's early scenes, Geordi is trying to keep up with the enthusiasm of Sonya, one of his new ensigns. "Whatever is out here, we're going to be the first humans to see it," she tells him, almost vibrating with excitement. At the same time, Picard is getting into another argument with Q, who offers to act as the Enterprise's guide to the great unknown and, when rejected, petulantly flings the ships into a distant part of space, setting in motion humanity's first encounter with the Borg. By the time the episode ends, Sonya's enthusiasm has given way to horror at the Borg's casual slaughter of 18 Enterprise crewmembers, and Picard is begging Q to save the ship from destruction. The lesson Q is trying to teach Picard is that humanity isn't ready for what it's about to encounter as it ventures into unknown space--"It's not safe out there. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross, but it's not for the timid"--but the lesson that The Next Generation learns is not to venture at all. "Q Who?" sets up the Borg as an antagonist that will overshadow the series for the next season and a half, and by the time they have been dealt with, both the Klingons and the Romulans will have been developed as the major sources of story. The Enterprise encounters less and less unknown species, and spends more time visiting human colonies and scientific outposts, or rendering aid to species with whom it already has diplomatic contact.

In all fairness, the immediate effect of this shift on the show is that it tells the same kind of stories in a more effective way. If an alien species hasn't been heard from before--if, in all likelihood, they were invented for this very story--does it matter that the episode tells us that they're already known to the Federation and have diplomatic relations with it? The audience gets the same hit of newness they did before, even if the characters don't. There's certainly an argument to be made for dispensing with what, by the end of the first season, had already become a boilerplate in which Picard introduces the Federation to the aliens of the week, and getting to the more interesting meat of the story, in which an alien social custom causes consternation among the Enterprise crew, as in "The Outcast" and "Half a Life," or Picard's adherence to the Prime Directive forces him into a moral quandary, as in "Evolution" or "Homeward." It's also very difficult to come up with an interesting new alien culture, while also telling a story and introducing guest characters, in the space of 45 minutes--and a rather thankless task if that species is never to be heard from again. Even within the confines of its episodic storytelling, The Next Generation was more resonant, and more interesting, when it returned to the settings of the Klingon or Romulan empires, societies which it developed over the course of several episodes and seasons. The Klingons are, in fact, an interesting case. In the show's first and early second seasons, even after Denise Crosby's departure from the show moves Worf into a position of greater prominence, his race remains shrouded in secrecy. "I think perhaps it is best to be ignorant of certain elements of the Klingon psyche," Picard tells Troi at the beginning of "Where Silence Has Lease," fretting over Riker joining Worf in his training exercise (his fears are well-founded; overcome by bloodlust, Worf nearly attacks Riker), and in "Heart of Glory" he and the rest of the crew are befuddled by Klingon rituals. But in "A Matter of Honor," Riker joins of the crew of a Klingon ship and we see them from the inside, and Star Trek begins its decade-long love affair with this culture (some of the credit for this falls to Michael Dorn, whose ability to convey intelligence and humor from beneath his makeup and Worf's stolidness brought life to the character and no doubt encouraged the writers to explore his history and his race).

The Next Generation never becomes as inward-looking as its follow-up series, but as it deepens the Cold War analogy it draws using the Romulans, the show becomes more concerned with the Federation, its values and attributes, and its relations with a very small set of species. As the Star Trek franchise grows, it moves even further away from exploration. Deep Space Nine explicitly rejected the mobile setting of Star Trek and The Next Generation, and though its early seasons briefly flirted with the notion of exploring the gamma quadrant, such stories quickly gave way to ones about its specific region of space and the war that erupts over it. Voyager was a story about boldly going home. Enterprise paid lip service to the importance of exploration while resetting the franchise's time period to a point where the rough timeline of events was already known to the viewers, and much of what was strange to the characters was familiar to us (a reversal of post-"Q Who?" Next Generation's approach). The Next Generation movies, which span the three series, reflect these changes in the franchise. Generations is nearly an episode of the series, as much a cap to Picard's story as "All Good Things…" Insurrection, which begins with Picard telling his officers that in the wake of the war with the Dominion, the Federation is licking its wounds, consolidating itself, and turning away from exploration, and ends with his discovery that in their pursuit of greater security, the Federation's higher ups have betrayed its cherished values, is clearly of the Deep Space Nine era. Nemesis, which dispenses with any pretense of moral focus (Picard ignores the Prime Directive and gets into a shooting match with members a pre-warp society, and we discover that the Federation has happily tolerated the existence of a Romulan slave race) and revels in our heroes shooting at over the top antagonists, is an Enterprise film. (First Contact is not a Star Trek film in any meaningful way, more an action movie that happens to feature Star Trek characters.)

If you go by numbers, I'm not sure that the shift from exploration to Federation-centric stories was particularly good for Star Trek--against latter-day Next Generation and Deep Space Nine you have Voyager and Enterprise, not to mention the later movies. But it's clear that The Next Generation became a better show once it stepped back the emphasis on boldly going where no one has gone before. There's a part of me, however, that like Picard in Insurrection feels rueful for those days. Those words in opening credits, that for most of the show's run turn out to have been hollow, express a grand and worthy sentiment, a spirit of adventure that's worth celebrating, and that science fiction fans in particular should feel an affinity for. There's a joyfulness to Picard when he sees something new and different that reaches through the screen and grabs at your soul. A big part of that joy is lost when his stories come to revolve on keeping the peace between the Federation and the Romulans, or steering the Klingon empire towards an optimal resolution of its succession crises. One of the reactions I kept having during my rewatch of The Next Generation was that Gene Roddenberry had some lovely ideas that just didn't lend themselves to good drama. That's still my conclusion, but I also think those good intentions should be lauded. It may be unrealistic, but I'm nursing the hope that exploration-based Next Generation failed not because it was inherently undramatic but because of the limitations of the show's writers, and of the medium in the 80s. Perhaps an enterprising television writer might still make good TV out of the notion that though it might be scary and dangerous, it is bold, and exciting, and worthwhile, to see things that no other human has seen.