Tag Archives: space settlement

The More Things Change… (review 1: Pale Boundaries)

6 Jul

The year 2709 sounds a long ways away.  But in Scott Cleveland’s science fiction thriller, space colonization and interplanetary crime syndicates don’t seem so alien when they’re populated by the highly realistic characters of Pale Boundaries.

Although the first couple chapters and their in-depth explanations of the social hierarchy and political landscape of planet Nivia struck me as a bit expository, the pace picked up considerably when the story turned from introductory stage-setting to a more character-driven plot.

Pale Boundaries’s hero (maybe antihero’s a better word) Terson Reilly arrives on Nivia a rough man from a rough planet—Nivia proves nothing like the dangerous bush of Algran Asta, where Reilly risked life and limb as a smuggler (four men die in the prologue, for goodness’s sake).  But while Algran Asta shaped his character and gave him heightened self-preservation instincts—he’s the consummate survivor—this foreign world he’s been exiled to turns all that upside down.  Poaching, after all, ranks somewhere between incest and murder on this hyper-environmentally-conscious planet.

Reilly as the rugged individualist dropped down into a disapproving society strikes an interesting note in the cultural climate of 2010 America.  Pale Boundaries is by no means a political manifesto (even if the law enforcement/environmental law enforcement officers on Nivia are called the EPEA), but there’s an interesting premise here: what happens when “civilization” comes head to head with basic human nature?  One of the best examples is the environment-protecting policy that drives not only Reilly but his probation officer Captain Bragg completely crazy: mandatory contraception, pregnancy-by-application, and strict population control.

The colonists of Nivia has made a prize of the most basic biological drive and began fighting for their children’s lives before they’ve even been conceived.  Terson knew, without a doubt, that somewhere in the room was a person willing to destroy a friendship, betray a spouse, and perhaps even plot murder if they believed it could get them a child.

It’s Reilly’s realism confronted by the “naïve realism” of Nivia—best represented by another strong, fleshed-out character: Terson’s wife Virene.

Though they meet at Captain Bragg’s office (Virene’s not quite squeaky clean herself), the pretty dark-haired barmaid affecting the posture of a rebel (favorite pastime: taking up four spaces in a parking lot for her sports car), Virene’s a Nivia girl at heart—just as Reilly chafes under the strictures of this highly-ordered society, Virene blushes furiously when Reilly jokingly calls her “my horny little poacher.”  Virene can’t quite adapt to her husband’s criminal tendencies, however attractive she finds the bad boy archetype.

“Their world was certain, stable and uncomplicated,” Reilly thinks, “A condition that ran completely counter to the environment of rugged self-reliance that produced Terson’s pessimistic realism.”

It’s kind of a commentary on the values of a complacent, comfortable American culture today versus that heroic image of the frontiersman who tamed the West.  When Reilly comments on the “environmentally zealotry of youth,” I can’t help picturing the Go Green! posters plastered around my University’s residence halls every move-in day.

But let’s get back to the heart of Pale Boundaries.

Cleveland crafts a number more believable characters with their own engaging storylines.  There’s Halsor Tennison, legacy boss of a powerful criminal organization on Nivia’s Beta Continent—a rougher place than Nirene’s tame Saint Anatone.  Hal’s a sharp, enterprising thirty-something whose “only regret was not accomplishing as much as his predecessors.”  For him, that means crime, counterfeiting, and general villainy.

Pale Boundaries, you might have gathered, isn’t just a ride to the future, but to the future’s underworld—the rebels, criminals, and disenfranchised.  Surprisingly, they’re all sympathetic.  (My favorite so far?  Cormack MacLeod, the Scottish space hobo whose scenes are a guaranteed laugh out loud, every time).

Hal might plot the overthrow of a rival or destroy scientific research labs via arson, but he’s a good foil for Reilly: Halsor Tennison isn’t the most patient man in the Nivia Prime sector, but he’s not about to go on a shooting spree in a fit of rage (for the record, Reilly’s rage is pretty damn justified at the part I’m thinking of).  With the uber-rational—not to mention beautiful—Lieutenant Dayuki by his side, Hal’s going to pursue his self-interest just as determinedly as Reilly, but with a lot more subtle scheming and a lot less visits to a probation officer.  His cool encounters with Dayuki are parsecs away from the passionate Reilly and Virene, but the characterization of the Beta continent criminals is no less realistic.  In fact, Dayuki might be the most fleshed-out character of them all.

Early descriptions of Nivian culture were a little heavy, true, but the complex relationship of the Family and their until-now submissive Minzoku allies.  The honor-obsessed world of Dayuki is revealed through dialogue and plot, not blocks of explanation—and it makes the Beta Continent chapters some of my absolute favorites.  The Minzoku have a history, a language, and a distinct way of life that Cleveland reveals slowly and subtlely.  But once again, it’s believable because it’s not too foreign.  A Japanese-founded colony on a new world that preserves continuity from the Pacific islands of ancient Earth is a ton more believable than the my-name-is-a-number futures of so many science fiction books.

So here I am at the halfway point, enjoying the characterization and sensing a tension build as the unrelated story threads of Reilly and Virene, Hal and Dayuki, even Cormack and a fellow baffle-rider (kind of like a train-hopping hobo… in space) slash snotty rich kid named Philip Sorenson begin to weave together.

But best of all is the fact that even as the determinism of an author’s pen draws them together, nothing feels contrived.  The cultures are realistic, and the characters are real–even in 2709.

Just goes to show–the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Review part 2 on the way.  Just as soon as I figure out why the hell Hal’s crazy ex-girlfriend Tamara just order a hit on… never mind.  On to chapter 12!


Another Decade in Science Fiction

9 Jan

Last year (that’s 2009) cable’s foremost source for time travel, space travel, and scantily-clad aliens shocked fans with a controversial name change—from Sci-Fi to Syfy.  Personally, I like it.  The fandom needs to be shaken up (science fiction should never have an orthodoxy), and the uninitiated need to inch away from that viewer stereotype of bespectacled adolescent boys watching Star Trek in their basement.

And Star Trek, actually, is a great example of a show that’s always done a brilliant job focusing on the now and never nostalgia, often making the future look eerily like the best—and worst—aspects of the modern day.  Captain Kirk and crew of The Original Series (1966-69) tackled racism and sexism, for one, and The Next Generation’s Captain Picard’s battles with the terrifying Borg Collective aired during (you guessed it) the heat of the Cold War.

J. J. Abrams continued the tradition of taking the present to the future with a new Star Trek movie that put 2009’s international relations problems on the big screen, and an intergalactic scale.

Romulans and Vulcans, we learn, share a common cultural ancestry—but it’s hardly an amiable one, with black holes imploding home planets left and right.  (Young) Spock’s stoic observation that perhaps 10,000 Vulcans exist in all the universe, and the entire cultural history and traditions in a handful of elders, sounded chillingly like the story of the Jewish diaspora.  The fact that the warring humanoids are distant cousins only puts audiences more in mind of the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

That’s heavy lifting for a franchise popularly seen as somewhat cornball (although, I should add, there was one incident of Jim-Kirk-and-a-half-naked-bright-green-alien-girl action).

In any case, it’s a stereotype pretty successfully debunked: don’t let anyone tell you that science fiction is escapist.

Another excellent case story is Whedon, who you might know as creator of cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and spin-off series Angel (1999-2004).

Unfortunately for Whedon, his two attempts to bring sci-fi to FOX in the new millennium were shot down as fast as the USS Kelvin in a Romulan phaser-storm.  And Firefly, which generated a massive fan base after the series’ DVD release, barely even made it out of the loading dock.  Only 11 of the 14 episodes were actually aired on television, and those not even in the proper order—don’t ask.

Firefly demonstrated the “radical presentism” (quoting Cory Doctorow: always appropriate) that keeps science fiction relevant, and rather less fictitious than one might imagine.  In Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his motley crew, we find an assortment of war heroes and petty thieves dodging the all-seeing eye of a totalitarian—and universal—government.  Add roving cannibal marauders who wear their victims’ skin, and space begins to look like a pretty scary place.

Also a lot like our more terrestrial society.  Firefly shows us a future where a war for independence fails, and an all-encompassing government (however well-meaning) trades liberty for paternalism.  Premiering almost one year to the day after 9/11, Whedon’s message about liberty versus security was particular pointed—not to mention probably more effective than quoting Ben Franklin, whose aphorisms (however incisive) haven’t had so much punch since the periwig went out of fashion.

When 2005 brought the cancelled series new life as a feature film, Serenity, space’s frontier savages (“Reavers”) got further treatment, as well as a backstory involving genetic-engineering gone terribly, terribly wrong—another issue making headlines at the time.

The more recent Dollhouse picked up, thematically, where Serenity left off: the moral ambiguity of rapidly-advancing technology, particularly as it applies to the brain, memories, and identity.  Though tragically terminated, Dollhouse demonstrated, again, that science fiction can posit answers to modern questions (and raise more questions)—in this case perhaps surrounding the very contemporary fear that, when it comes to technology, what can be done will be done.

This may be bad in brainwashing human “dolls,” perhaps, but it’s definitely good for Whedon in the realm of production and dissemination of a more successful 2008 project: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. With Dr. Horrible, Whedon got his revenge on big networks and showed (in the middle of the WGA writers’ strike, no less) that current technology could make TV a little more personal while spreading science fiction to the masses.

If the title doesn’t hint at the venue, Dr. Horrible (featuring a singing and dancing Neil Patrick Harris and Firefly’s Nathan Fillion) was distributed exclusively online—and was named #15 in Time magazines Top 50 Inventions of 2008.  As for the theme—NPH’s Dr. Horrible desperately aspires to supervillain status (his love interest, by the way, runs a homeless shelter).  Is it too deep to suggest this is a protest against the impersonalization of a mass-produced, mass-consumer-oriented America?  Whedon’s rejection of the traditional format certainly is: there’s not much more democratic than an Internet release.

In the end, the “Ohs,” despite setbacks, continued to pull off what science fiction has been doing for decades: reflecting current concerns in what may look, at first glance, like an alien setting.  As for now—onward to the twenty-teens.

Captain Kirk on the Vietnam War (Part 3)

30 Sep

A groundswell of anti-war sentiment, in fact, is exactly the danger Kirk and Spock must pursue McCoy into 1936 in order to avert.  The alternate history McCoy unknowingly precipitates follows from his rescue of a social worker from certain death in a car accident — by snatching her out of the path of an oncoming Model-T Ford (just another subtle reference to a classic example of American innovation), McCoy ensures that the woman will live to pilot a pacifist movement which delays the United States’ entry into World War II.  Kirk and Spock learn that Germany ultimately wins the war “because all this,” the delay, “lets them develop the A-bomb first.”

Again, progress and technology is shown to play a major role in global events; even more important, however, is the public’s traditional loyalty to “God and Country,” an attitude fast eroding in the late-1960s and 1970s.  The storyline of “The City on the Edge of Forever” — and, within the story, the fate of nations — pivots on the anti-war sentiment of a single woman, a plot device only serving to emphasize the exponentially greater danger of a growing public outcry against the war.  As disunity benefited the Axis powers in the story, the writers and producers suggest that contemporary fractiousness could work to the advantage of the enemy in Vietnam.

Essentially, the two central questions of the 1960s anti-war movement — Why aren’t we winning? And who is really the enemy? — “The City on the Edge of Forever” answers with a single word: You.

In Star Trek’s fictional America, a man who has “dropped out” of reality sets in motion a chain of events that lead finally to a pacifist 1930s Counterculture derailing American history’s archetypal battle of good and evil.  Facing a future in which Victory Culture values of confidence in, progress for, and loyalty to the United States have been abandoned, Kirk (whose technologically advanced ship, consequently, has vanished as well) laments that “Earth’s not there, at least not the earth we know.  We’re totally alone,” a short speech which suggests the sentiment of Star Trek writers and producers shaken by the period’s divergence from the America they knew.

Accordingly, when the timeline has ultimately been set right, Kirk responds to the Guardian’s offer to be a gateway into “many such possible journeys” with an utter rejection of both alternative histories and alternative lifestyles: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

This is a slightly retooled version of a paper I wrote for an American Studies class this semester: It had pretentious subtitle and far fewer parenthetical comments.  The only quotes are from the episode dialogue itself.  But remember kids, if you’re going to use any of my research, make lots of citations—they’re fun!  And if you don’t, you could go to jail for a long time because plagiarism, my friends, is a felony*

*That’s a lie, but the world “plagiarism” does come from the Latin “plagiarus,” which means “a kidnapper.”  That’s actually kind of cool.  Not the kidnapping part—the etymology.

Captain Kirk on the Vietnam War (Part 2)

29 Sep

In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the epicenter of this change in the stream of history is 1936 New York, a bleak setting where men stand in long soup lines at the 21st Street Mission and Captain Kirk and his first officer Spock are forced to steal ragged clothes off a fire escape in order to avoid notice (Spock’s ears are of particular concern to the natives).

But even against this grim backdrop, what Spock terms “a rather barbaric period in your American history,” elements of Victory Culture make their way into the scene — signs seen throughout the episode read “Buy Bonds” and “Please Register”; a cart bearing the words “Victory Ice Company” is clearly visible on the street as Kirk steals his twentieth-century garb; and when a young woman overhears Spock calling his companion “Captain,” she asks excitedly, “Did you serve in the war together?”  That the script calls for these small details reveals a determined effort on the part of Star Trek’s writers and producers to ensure that viewers recognize the vital importance the episode puts on pride and confidence in the United States; though the economic boom of the early twentieth century collapsed in the 1930s, hope for the country’s future is depicted as remaining buoyant.

This particularly applies to confidence in future military and technological preeminence.

Edith Keeler, the unsinkable manager of the 21st Street Mission, encourages her down-and-out guests with a vision of “the days worth living for” — “One day soon,” she asserts, “Man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom, energies that… will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world, and cure their diseases.  They will be able to find a way to give each man hope, and a common future.”  Keeler’s faith in technological progress (in the atomic bomb no less) could not be more starkly different from the anti-war movement’s distrust and rejection of military advances.

While on the television set Keeler described military technology as a potential force for good in the world; outside, the anti-war movement protested President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War — in October 1967, six months after “The City on the Edge of Forever” aired, thousands of protesters would demonstrate on the steps of the Pentagon; and in less than a year, America would be rocked by the audacity and near-success of the January 1968 Tet Offensive.  In Keeler’s speech, Star Trek unswervingly upheld Victory Culture confidence in the United States both as an unequaled military might and the foremost force for good in the world, even against a growing tide of opposition to the war in Vietnam.

This is a slightly retooled version of a paper I wrote for an American Studies class this semester: It had pretentious subtitle and far fewer parenthetical comments.  The only quotes are from the episode dialogue itself.  But remember kids, if you’re going to use any of my research, make lots of citations—they’re fun!  And if you don’t, you could go to jail for a long time because plagiarism, my friends, is a felony*

*That’s a lie, but the world “plagiarism” does come from the Latin “plagiarus,” which means “a kidnapper.”  That’s actually kind of cool.  Not the kidnapping part—the etymology.

Captain Kirk on the Vietnam War (Part 1)

29 Sep

Space, the final frontier.

Today, use in every Star Trek spin-off series and movie adaptation has turned that line into a something of a cliché — but in 1966, at the time of the original series’ premiere, Kirk’s line communicated a specific political message:

Imagining an extension of the American frontier experience meant imagining a future in which fundamental beliefs in progress and the inherent goodness of the United States still maintained cultural hegemony (this time on an intergalactic scale) — no small feat in the era of the Counterculture, whose emphasis on alternative lifestyles and the overthrow of traditional values made for a slightly different vision of the future.

Converging in the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, these diametrically opposed strains of thought playing out on the national stage also found expression on a Hollywood soundstage in April 1967: in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Star Trek: The Original Series frames an alternate history in which World War II, the classic historical example of the triumph of “Victory Culture,” becomes a victory, instead, for the Germans — a result of the introduction of two hallmarks of the Counterculture, drug use and anti-war sentiment, into an earlier timeline.

Airing on network television April 6, 1967, “The City on the Edge of Forever” hit the small screen less than three months after San Francisco’s prelude to the summer’s subsequent cultural revolution in Haight-Ashbury: the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park.  Counting among its 20,000-odd attendees such ascending stars as Timothy Leary and Jerry Rubin, the January event provided the first large-scale evidence of a live hippie scene in America. Perhaps the tagline of the event, Leary’s exhortation to “turn on, tune in, drop out” through the use of mind-expanding drugs such as LSD set the tone both for the psychedelic gathering and the subsequent portrayal of chief medical officer Leonard McCoy in “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

McCoy, accidentally injecting himself with an overdose of the fictional stimulant “cordrazine” when a “temporal distortion” disrupts the ship, embodies Leary’s ethos throughout the episode. In the show, cordrazine, like LSD, precipitates hallucinations and a mental dissociation between the user and the outside world — at one point, McCoy himself reflects that he must be “either unconscious or demented,” allowing the writers a commentary on those in contemporary America who chose to “drop out” of reality.

Notably, McCoy is the member of the crew who, hallucinating and paranoid, throws himself through the “Guardian of Forever,” the center of the temporal distortion and a portal into the human past — McCoy, the personification of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” mentality, is the one who alters the course of American history so disastrously.

This is a slightly retooled version of a paper I wrote for an American Studies class this semester: It had pretentious subtitle and far fewer parenthetical comments.  The only quotes are from the episode dialogue itself.  But remember kids, if you’re going to use any of my research, make lots of citations—they’re fun!  And if you don’t, you could go to jail for a long time because plagiarism, my friends, is a felony*

*That’s a lie, but the world “plagiarism” does come from the Latin “plagiarus,” which means “a kidnapper.”  That’s actually kind of cool.  Not the kidnapping part—the etymology.

“Benevolent Science Fiction”

20 Jul

Abroad, for a human being in an inhuman tyrannical social system, has a particular and rather radiant sort of definition.  In her article “The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy,” Ayn Rand defines the word as conceptualized by a person in Soviet Russia:

“The meaning of the word for a Soviet citizen is incommunicable to anyone who has not lived in that country: if you project what you would feel for a combination of Atlantis, the Promised Land and the most glorious civilization on another planet, as imagined by a benevolent kind of science fiction, you will have a pale approximation.”

Abroad, as in Europe or the United States, is both a utopia (Atlantis) and the land of opportunity (the Promised Land).  But the reference I found most interesting was her connection of advanced technology or high culture not only to science fiction, but in particular a “benevolent” kind.

She’s right to imply that a kindly, optimistic science fiction is a lot less common than the darker variety.  Just a few examples: Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone is downright disturbing, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is about as pessimistic as you can get, and while Isaac Asimov may be less dark his Foundation series is undoubtedly creepy.  Not to mention that absolutely nothing Philip K. Dick writes is ever pleasant.

Admittedly, I don’t read much hard science fiction (I’m a Humanities major, for God’s sake)– but “soft” science fiction (which deals often with social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, anthropology, etc.) tends toward the distinctly dystopian.  Think 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451.  Paranthetically– Ayn Rand’s Anthem is a bit sci-fi itself, and not in the least “benevolent”… but then that’s the point, isn’t it?

In any case, science fiction which doesn’t involve human beings destroying the planet, the galaxy, the universe, the species, or alien species is a bit rare these days.  “Benevolent Science Fiction” would, on the other hand, present an optimistic vision of human ability and the future: freedom, not a security state, or technology as advancing the quality of life rather than enslaving its creators.

The Green Movement today tells us that industry and technology is killing the planet; that humans are hopelessly destructive and should be quarantined to their single globe and not cause any more damage.  Environmentalism isn’t, after all, opposed to pollution or killing baby seals– it’s opposed to technology.

Doubt me?  I was horrified a couple days ago to find a trailer for the upcoming documentary “No Impact Man” on the Apple Safari homepage.  I will not put the link to the trailer up here because it feel it would pollute my blog environment, but here is the description and summary provided:

“Author Colin Beavan, in research for his new book, began the No Impact Project in November 2006. A newly self-proclaimed environmentalist who could no longer avoid pointing the finger at himself, Colin leaves behind his liberal complacency for a vow to make as little environmental impact as possible for one year. No more automated transportation, no more electricity, no more non-local food, no more material consumption… no problem. That is, until his espresso-guzzling, retail-worshipping wife Michelle and their two year-old daughter are dragged into the fray. Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s film provides a front row seat into the familial strains and strengthened bonds that result from Colin’s and Michelle’s struggle with this radical lifestyle change.

Welcome to the Dark Ages, friend.  (And with no electricity, that’s quite more literal than flippant on my part.)

But let’s think about this– is electricity evil simply because it makes an “impact” on the environment?  Even the earliest humans used natural resources for tools, or altered the environment with agriculture.  We can only survive by making an impact on the environment.

So if technology is evil, so is what makes it– the human mind.  This movie sounds like science fiction to me, and more specifically, the malevolent kind.

Modern culture is telling us that progress is evil, so today, on the National Space Society’s “Space Settlement Blog Day,” the idea of a benevolent view of science, technology, and the future seems both relevant and important.  Space colonization and settlement still sounds like science fiction to most people, even when we had men walking on the moon forty years ago.

And honestly– at the rate that some fields of technology are advancing, how does the accomplishment of half a century ago still stand as the summit?  Looks like technology-haters are getting what they want.

Even today, and even in the West, the idea of going abroad (this time from the planet) seems like an improbability (if not an impossibility).  It’s an idea pulled from a genre of benevolent science fiction– except, now, with technology the new bogeyman, there’s no such thing.


For more information on Exvironmentalism and how conservation and space colonization can mesh, I direct you to Dr. John Bossard’s blog, the Plasma Wind.  He has posted a copy of the keynote speech at a recent Exvironmentalist conference, where I was happily in attendance.