From New Harmony to Ariadaeus Dome, utopias have been built on philosophical foundations by rational minds brandishing simple solutions to the eternal problems of human societies. The problem each has faced is that those eternal problems are the result of real people living in the real world and dealing with real circumstances.
Utopias fail not only because their philosophies are unrealistic or the rationality is unreasonable, but because they invariably deny the nature of the human material they have to work with. But we are human. Wherever we go, for good or ill, we take our humanity with us. How could it be otherwise?
Silas Hudson, Mars Ep. 1, “The Romance of New Horizons”
(Sometimes, I think Silas Hudson should set up a Twitter or Gab feed.)
Alistair1918came up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, a found-footage movie with a science fiction (specifically time travel) theme.
The story concerns a social work student making a video on homelessness for her master’s program, who encounters a strange man who claims to be a British WWI soldier. At first she and the friends helping her film dismiss the guy’s claims (quite understandably) as the delusions of a mentally ill man. But there is something about them that compels them to dig further and to help him out. Ultimately they come to the conclusion that he actually did travel through time, and set about finding a way to help him get back to 1918.
An interesting SF premise. And the writer (and lead actor) Guy Bartwhistle actually does a somewhat decent job with it. But…there were a few problems that I saw with the genre elements and the storytelling:
Alistair is a compelling character mainly because of Birtwhistle’s portrayal, but as written simply wasn’t believable as an Englishman transported from 1918 France to 2018 Los Angeles. He was entirely too matter-of-fact about a situation that would have been bizarre bordering on incomprehensible to someone actually in that situation. He doesn’t marvel about plastics or aluminum or television or assorted technologies that we take for granted with which a man from 1918 would have been completely unfamiliar. Even modern versions of technology like telephones and cars and Google Maps he accepts and uses without wonder or confusion – indeed, from the very beginning he’s completely at home with the film crew pointing modern digital cameras and microphone booms at him, with an anachronistic understanding of what they’re doing and how it might help him. One could on the other hand focus too much on the fish-out-of-water aspect of the character’s situation, but that element needed more explanation than simply stating that he’d been 2018 for 30 days already to account for his easy acceptance of the strange new world around him. I don’t recall him even once responding with wonder to any of the infinite number of things that to him should be marvels verging on magic.
Likewise, his manners and views were jarringly anachronistic. A randomly-selected middle-class Englishman from that time ought to have been openly religious, especially one freshly plucked from the front line of the Second Battle of the Marne. His telephone etiquette would have been more formal than was shown (think of how different it was before cellphones, when one actually answered the phone with a greeting rather than a grunt). When one character (inevitably, because Hollywood) casually reveals that she is a lesbian, he has no reaction to that revelation at all, nor to the fact of that same character (platonically) sharing a bed with another character who is pining for her. Nor to the fact of that same character inviting him to sleep on her couch. For an ordinary middle-class Englishman of that period, such things should have seemed inappropriate, but Alistair accepts them without comment (apart from not wanting to impose) exactly as a contemporary man or woman would be expected to respond. It’s not that he’s biting his tongue, or cautiously withholding judgment of these future-people and their unfamiliar ways – it’s that he doesn’t appear to notice them at all.
The science fiction element of the wormhole is handled poorly (and, this being a low-budget flick, the special effects involved are terrible). I liked the concept of naturally-occurring wormholes moving around unseen and waiting for the right conditions to be opened, but the technobabble tried too hard to explain things and ended up cringe-inducing. A better appreciation for the genre conventions would have kept the exposition to a minimum and left more to the imagination. It would have made things a little more believable had the scientist in question already been aware of the wormhole that brought Alistair to 2018 through sensor data or the like, and that this natural occurrence serendipitously confirmed and corrected elements of her theory, allowing her to finally understand the phenomenon well enough to manipulate it.
I did not like the first attempt to manipulate the wormhole phenomenon. If it was going to fail, it should have failed utterly with no visible effects at all, making the scientist look just as delusional as Alistair appeared to be. Like Alistair with modern technology and mores, the modern characters accept this holographic blob appearing above a swimming pool far too readily. There is no wonder or apprehension at this unfamiliar apparition before them. Far better for us and them to see nothing, Alistair makes his leap based on blind faith in what she thinks she is seeing based on instruments alone, and the whole thing fails as shown and they’re all disillusioned. Then later, when they try again and it actually works, then you give the characters and audience some sort of visual indication as confirmation that this time she got it right. And because this is a low-budget film using the found-footage gimmick, that visual indication can occur partially or wholly off-screen, with the characters backing away in awe and caution from the wormhole that’s just materialized before them, the steadycam whirling around as they flee and only getting a fleeting, overexposed shot of the phenomenon itself and Alistair disappearing/having already disappeared into it.
The French scientist was a missed opportunity for some brilliant writing. She should have been an older woman, perhaps in her early sixties, whose grandfather (vs. great grandfather) fought in WWI, told her his stories personally, and introduced her to his war buddies. She would then have had a personal connection to men with direct personal experience of the war, allowing her to more believably recognize Alistair’s shell-shock and other subtle tells. Being from the area where Alistair fought should have been milked for clues that he was telling the truth (at least about having been there) – she could have served as an unexpected confirmation of details of his story that he couldn’t possibly have fabricated.
Related to this, one detail that I didn’t see exploited correctly was the distinctive cut on Alistair’s wrist. This injury was presented as a Chekov’s Gun early on in the film, a clue prominently set up for later use, but never (that I noticed) delivered on later in the story. Imagine the scientist, at first doubting Alistair’s story of time travel, but gradually growing suspicious over the subtle, uncanny details that remind her of her grandfather and his friends. She comes to recall a hazy memory of an elderly Englishman, visiting her grandfather when she was small…a man with a distinctive scar on his wrist, who told her one day she would meet a man with an incredible tale and help him return home. (I should note here that we do something similar to this in Ghosts of Tharsis, inspired by my tripping over a ladder and not by this movie.) This would also have been a more effective way to twist the plot, with the moderns seeing him up to that point as a fascinating lunatic whose deep and detailed delusions have as-yet-unrevealed mundane explanations (he’s a history buff/reenactor, for example), and after that point accepting that he was telling them the truth all along. As presented, though, the ambiguity of whether Alistair’s predicament was real or delusion was drawn out well past where the story called for it to be decisively resolved.
It’s not the greatest movie, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking despite its many flaws. At worst, it’s another entry in the long list of genre movies whose script I wish I had been asked to review before filming started. So much potential right there, already in the mix, just not realized.
In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finishedand out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourthstory that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.
“True Crime” (working title)
Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
“The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).
The trouble with science popularizers in general is that by nature, the job entails talking about a wider range of technical topics than any individual can fully comprehend at the level necessary to discuss them competently. While an expert in one field can speak intelligently about closely-related fields, the further away from one’s own expertise one travels, the more difficult that task becomes. And it’s even worse if a man in that role is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so assured of his superior intellect that he is incapable of recognizing that he is in fact a fool.
Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson inspired a character in another “Dispatches from Mars” story Carl and I are trying to finish up – a character who as a science popularizer and a man is the opposite of these two.
The big difference between the fictional Silas Hudson and these two is that he learned very early on, when he fell into a career as a public personality on the back of a book and related video series, that it’s easy for any expert to fall prey to the temptation to speak authoritatively about fields of which he has lesser, little, or even no knowledge. After publicly embarrassing himself, he redeemed his image by hiring a research staff to vet his scripts and books with true subject matter experts, and by conscientiously acknowledging the limits of what he personally understood. In other words, he started off as a young man with an enormous ego, humiliated himself as a result of that ego, and learned a bit of humility and ethics from the experience – humility that improved his ‘product’ greatly.
I’m actually disappointed that we have to kill him off. But when you’re writing a murder mystery, someone has to be the victim.
Recently recovered from a crippling illness, Leon Toa sets out on his first solo trip to Port Lowell. For any other Martian settler it would be a routine drive, but for Leon it’s a chance to rebuild his battered self-confidence and demonstrate his regained independence – both to his fellow settlers and to himself. When unseen forces interrupt his trip deep in an unpopulated and unexplored network of canyons, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out. An homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx”.
In this Dispatch, freelance journalist Calvin Lake explores the unlikely truth behind the worst industrial accident in Martian history: the destruction of Mars Environmental Works. Going beyond the bare facts and curiously self-interested evasions of the official Mars Development Authority inquest report, Lake’s account uses exclusive eyewitness and survivor interviews to paint a fuller picture of the catastrophe of April 1, 2050. A pun-ridden spoof of several science fiction tropes.
The next short story will be another of Calvin Lake’s Dispatches, this one concerning entrepreneur Jedediah Thoreson and his North Cap Water Pipeline project mentioned in Anatomy of a Disaster. Unlike that story, Pipeline will be a serious treatment of its topic. The Dispatches will be a series of essays on various aspects of life on Mars in the Ares Project fictional universe, written by fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake (who will also play an important role in the upcoming Ghosts of Tharsis).
I’ve only read Tunnel in the Skyonce before, probably in the late 1980s when I first discovered Heinlein. I remember having liked it then, but with some vague misgivings. Reading it again, I can better put my finger on what I did and did not like about the book.
What I liked:
The premise of the story. It’s almost shocking to realize that there was a time when the idea of high-school students being dropped on an unexplored planet to fend for themselves for two to ten days – no rules, no adult supervision, no possibility of intervention, and with death as a very real possibility – as a school sanctioned activity, could be presented as a realistic scenario. While in the 1950s this might have been stretching the Boy Scout ethos a bit (a point Patterson makes in his bio of Heinlein), today this element would belong less to science fiction than outlandish fantasy: long before Rod Walker had a chance to apply his chronic, paralyzing angst to the decision of whether or not to go through with the test, Patrick Henry High School would have been sued into insolvency by the first pair of grieving parents to find a lawyer capable of circumventing any liability waivers they or their mulched-by-alien-pirhana-dogs offspring may have signed. I imagined how right-thinking busybodies and helicopter parents would react if you proposed something analogous to this today, and got a good chuckle out of it.
Elements of the plot and world that seemed to prefigure/inspire later SF and other media (something else Patterson touches on, I discovered after I wrote this post). For example the titular tunnel, which is essentially a Stargate without the water ripple or the kawoosh effect (luckily for Rod, since he would have been disintegrated by it at one point in the book), but with what amounts to an iris in one case, and subject to the same sorts of misalignment problems presented in the Stargate movie and the first few episodes of the SG-1 series. Also from the Stargate franchise, you have the similarity of the marooned ‘duplicate’ crew of Destiny having to start over with nothing on an unfamiliar planet after their gate is disrupted by a large stellar event, quickly coming to grips with the situation and starting a new government, building the tools to make the tools to make the tools, etc., recovering the ability to make iron (albeit bog iron in the case of SG:U, which is more believable as it mirrors iron development in a number of real-world cultures) — of course, since SG:U was subject to the influence of John Scalzi, I suspect it was more of a lazy knockoff of Heinlein than inspired by him. For another example, stasis fields of varying time-distortion effects – while Heinlein’s stasis fields never reach complete time stoppage like Larry Niven’s do, his description of how they were invented bears some similarity to Niven’s account of their invention in the Known Space universe. And of course, there’s the presentation of the dishonest and manipulative news media at the end of the story, in which journalists are shown to be more concerned with titillating images and lurid stories than presenting the truth of what they’re covering.
What I didn’t like about the book:
Rod Walker. What an insufferably neurotic and insecure character. I kept expecting him to learn from his experiences and develop new confidence and grow into his role as ‘mayor’ of the group of survivors paralleling his growth into adulthood. But he just…didn’t. His dinner scene with his family after his return is little different from the dinner scene before he left – he managed a community of 70-odd individuals for more than a year, yet he still can’t stand up for himself against a self-absorbed father who is completely detached from reality, relying once again on his older sister to intervene. (Of course, one can read the portrayal of his parents and his home life as the genesis of those neuroses and insecurities – Rod is barely recognized as an autonomous individual by his parents, everyone is expected to walk on eggshells around his codependent and psychologically delicate mother, his father uses her fragility as a weapon to control the others, the parents are so self-absorbed that they planned to use all of their financial resources to go into stasis for twenty years to await a cure for a disease they never mentioned the father had and without even telling their minor child who they are leaving behind penniless and parentless, etc.)
The other characters. Nobody really had any depth, and few were even likable. Heinlein seemed unable to decide whether Grant should be a villain or not, presenting him at first as a sweet-talking sociopath, morphing into Napoleon from Animal Farm, before abruptly turning him into a well-meaning but incompetent leader who sacrifices himself for the survival of the others to atone for the consequences of his lack of foresight and bad decisions. The same with Roy, who is at first Grant’s henchman in Animal Farm tyranny and dislikes Rod for being Grant’s rival, then abruptly becomes pals with Rod (all through the downriver expedition, I expected the newly-chummy but intermittently-sullen Roy to metaphorically unmask and literally stab Rod in the back). And as noted above, the parents are horrible people, as is their “family friend” who is tacked on at the end.
The unresolved romantic issues between Rod and Caroline. Yes, I know the reasons why they didn’t end up together (racial sentiments in 1955 would have made the book unsellable, or at least seem so to his publisher, even though – if you pay close attention – both characters are actually black), but it’s unsatisfying that their relationship simply…ends. And isn’t resolved even in the epilogue.
The numerous abandoned plot, character, technology, or world elements. While it didn’t quite reach Star Trek levels, it was frustrating to have some element built up only to see it dropped abruptly without further development or used in an inconsistent manner. The Deacon was missing parts of three fingers, but later on a character informs us that it was better for Grant to have died from his injuries because unlike on Earth, they lacked readily available replacement/donor limbs. In the first few days, before anyone even knows they’re marooned, one of the students is stalking and killing the others, yet this whole matter is dropped abruptly after Jack explains how she acquired Rod’s knife – wouldn’t someone in that situation at least be a bit put off by the thought that a fellow student who (if Johann and his dog count as the first victims) was murdering the others within the first few hours of the test, for no other reason than to take their gear? If the point was to hit the theme about humans being more dangerous than any alien predators they might encounter, the opportunity was wasted by leaving that thread so poorly resolved. Likewise, why spend so much time on the downriver expedition and the discovery of the beach of bones and the abandoned cliff dwellings without then following up on the significance of those things? Yes, I can connect the dots and guess that the dopey joes stampeded the herds to the salt sea and then ate them on the beach while the animals were trapped and weakened from thirst, but the cliff dwellings and the implications of their existence were completely wasted…we’re teased with the idea of sentient aliens, and then that idea is developed no further and their fate is left unresolved. So many Chekhovian guns are hung on the wall and left unfired at the end of the story that I have to wonder if there isn’t a much, much longer original version from which the published version was haphazardly cut.
Overall, not Heinlein’s best work. But not his worst, either, as it’s still a passably entertaining read (if you don’t read it closely enough to frustrate yourself the way I did). According to Patterson Heinlein wrote the book in one month, and I think it shows in lack of attention to detail. From what Patterson relates of Heinlein’s writing practices, Tunnel in the Sky reads as if he had a bunch of well-developed world-building material on hand and a solidly-developed gimmick, and hastily strung a story around it all to meet a deadline.
It’s funny to see Rand and the commenters on his article echoing the sentiments we present in In the Shadow of Ares regarding Amber’s parents having a child on Mars and the continued reluctance of other settlers to have children. One criticism we received from several early readers of the manuscript was that it was unlikely that in a dozen years of settlement activity, nobody else would have had a child but Aaron and Lindsay.
Well…here’s an indication that it’s not so unlikely.
The problem with writing a novel from first-person perspective is that it’s safe to guess that the point-of-view character is not going to die. And when it’s written in present tense, you can be certain of it — there’s no plausible literary device by which they can recount events after the fact, and it’s stretching belief to have them leave behind a journal which abruptly terminates in an agonized “AAARRGGGGHHH!”
This undercuts suspense by lowering the stakes in any trouble they happen to get into. The challenge then becomes, like a Bond movie, to provide enough action to be entertaining despite the knowledge that the character can never truly be in mortal danger. Which, of course, Hunger Games does.
Over at PJM Kathy Shaidle lays out Five Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks. Having seen large portions of several of the old and new movies over the Thanksgiving holiday, I can add one more to the list: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a despicable “hero”. Prior to the release of the prequels, I always had this impression […]
Having seen large portions of several of the old and new movies over the Thanksgiving holiday, I can add one more to the list: Obi-Wan Kenobi is a despicable “hero”.
Prior to the release of the prequels, I always had this impression of the character as being a wise and noble mentor to the young Luke Skywalker, a father figure whose efforts to help the latter learn his true nature and value are cut tragically short. In November I watched Episode 3 and most of Episode 4 back-to-back, and found Kenobi now comes across as dishonest and incompetent hack (or worse):
His incompetence and inattentiveness regarding the young Anakin’s training and his failure to recognize the blatant, flashing-neon warning signs of the latter’s willfulness and disobedience led to Anakin’s temptation to disallowed romance and his corruption to the Dark Side. He was too young, inexperienced, and headstrong himself to take on such an important and demanding task, but he did it anyway, even begged for it.
He walked away and left the maimed and burned Anakin to die, without properly finishing the job of killing him – finishing Anakin off was his responsibility, since his failures had led to Anakin becoming what he had become and because he was the one who had cut him to pieces. It was his duty to make sure the threat was eliminated, and having gotten to the point he did, and being a supposedly noble Jedi, it was his duty to exercise the virtue of mercy by finishing Anakin off instead of leaving him to suffer in agony for minutes or hours longer. This is where the “or worse” comes in – his incompetence let Anakin survive long enough to be rescued, but his leaving Anakin in agony revealed a cruel indifference to the latter’s suffering if not a vindictive satisfaction with it.
When he first meets Luke in Episode 4, he lies to him regarding the fate of Luke’s father. In hindsight, this is as much a self-serving lie to cover up his own involvement in Anakin’s fate as it is the white lie for the not-quite-ready-to-know-the-truth Luke that it always used to seem.
If we accept that his duty while in exile (as established at the end of Episode 3) was to conceal and protect Luke, how do we reconcile that task with the fact that Kenobi lived in a remote dwelling far away from the Lars farmstead, too far to keep watch on Luke, and that he had apparently never had contact with Luke for the first eighteen years of his life? Why was the Jedi master not training the boy from childhood to use the Force to protect and conceal himself incase he himself were to be discovered or to die? Again, incompetence…had Luke been better prepared, he would have been more effective in confronting the challenges that faced him.
When entering the cantina, Kenobi would have been smarter to have used his “Jedi mind tricks” to persuade Luke’s two harassers to leave him alone rather than to lop off one of their arms and thereby draw unwanted attention to himself and his companions. Incompetence, and another instance of indifference to the suffering of others (specifically, others he has maimed with a light saber).
Finally (though there are no doubt more instances to be found), Kenobi lies to Vader when he boasts that he will “become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. It was all braggadocio – he never followed through on that threat.
It was all very disappointing to notice these elements in a character I used to like. But, it just goes with the territory when you’re talking about the Star Wars franchise.
UPDATE: Brian Preston responds, on behalf of science fiction fans. I should add for my part that I don’t agree with Shaidle’s attacks on science fiction as a genre, just with some of her criticism of the Star Wars movies. Some were good, and fun, but not great, and when you look at them with a critical eye towards character development and such, they really suffer.
I’d agree with his assessment, except I think the problem is actually much worse:
One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’
The original article is behind the firewall at the New Yorker, so I only have this quote to build on, but if hackneyed War on Terror allegories are all that has him upset about the current state of science fiction he might be in for a surprise if he picks up a copy of, say, Analog.
One of the reasons Carl and I decided to write In the Shadow of Areswas the dearth of positive visions of the future in modern science fiction. Over the past twenty years (if not longer), there has been a shift in tone towards an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-human perspective:
By “anti-technology”, I mean a perspective in which science and its applications are regarded as intrinsically suspect if not dangerous. Plots involving a new discovery, innovation, or application frequently put significant if not sole emphasis on its negative consequences. One of the great things about science fiction traditionally has been the useful or interesting speculative exploration of the potential for misuse of such things, but this perspective instead reflects a deeper pessimism which devalues or dismisses the positive benefits instead of making a balanced assessment of tradeoffs.
By “anti-capitalist”, I mean a perspective in which business, the profit model, free markets, etc. are the enemies of all good and decent things. If a corporation of some sort figures into a story, it’s almost certain to be portrayed as greedy, oppressive, irresponsible, reactionary, rapacious, short-sighted, callous, etc., an intangible sentient entity possessing a collective and inexplicably (or unexplainedly) malevolent will of its own. “Portrayed” is probably a generous way to put it, given that these things are not crafted as the corporation’s attributes so much as mix-and-matched from a pouch of stock-villain tropes with little thought or creativity involved. There seems to be little acknowledgement that there are business entities other than Big Evil Galactic Mega-Conglomerates™, or that as seen in the real world business, profits, markets, etc. are far more likely to be positive agents and influences. There are certainly interesting science fiction stories to be told involving bad businessmen, but I’d hazard a guess that each of them has by now been told many hundreds of times.
By “anti-human”, I mean a perspective in which it is taken for granted that humans are by default corrupt, greedy, bigoted, abusive, violent, intolerant, militaristic, or otherwise by their inescapable nature a threat to non-humans or to the natural world. Non-human entities — whether alien, artificial, or non-sentient — are held to be morally superior to humans due to nothing more than their non-human nature, and are portrayed as endangered by humans due to our aforementioned moral defects. When non-humans are absent, humans are still portrayed as intrinsically morally negative, being (for example) willing to use a new technology to harm or oppress others for no other reason than that that’s what humans are apparently wired to do. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t bad humans to be found, or that humans behaving badly can’t be fodder for an interesting story; the problem is with the self-loathing default assumption that humans are inherently bad, augmented by the corollary assumption that non-humans are inherently good.
This is not to say that these problems are universal, merely pervasive. I gave up on Analog in 2008 after 25 years as a subscriber because of this pervasiveness – there were still occasional human-positive, business-positive, technology-positive stories in the magazine, but there was a clear drift in the opposite direction (and increasing numbers of borderline-fantasy woo-woo stories) over several years.
I think the broader point underlying both Thiel’s criticism and my own is that where science fiction used to be predominantly optimistic, it has for years (decades?) descended into an ugly dominant pessimism. And when the people whose job is imagining possible futures see only doom and gloom ahead, is it any wonder that the people actually responsible for building the future may be less enthusiastic about doing so?