Friday, 21 January 2022

The Closing Of The Lunar Frontier

The most important year in the history of science fiction is 1973, because that’s when science fiction ended.

All fiction is political, and science fiction was the literature of technological triumphalism as a political idea. Like the Western pulps that it largely supplanted, it was primarily an American phenomenon from its inception as a defined genre in the late 1920s. And, like all literature, it was steeped in assumptions about societal and economic progress. The 1970s witnessed determinative changes in these assumptions, shifting the genre’s trajectory beyond recognition.
(Image via

First, a bit of context. While individual stories that we would now class as science fiction existed prior to the 1920s, the genre became codified and defined through the early pulp era. This meant that genre traditions, tropes, and conventions were formed at a time when more new technologies were entering common use in the Western world than at any time before or since (automobiles, telecommunication, washing machines, etc.).

During the five decades of science fiction’s ascendancy as a defined genre, income inequality in the US was on the decline; between 1929 and 1941, the share of total GDP taken as income by the top one per cent of America’s richest people declined from about 20 per cent to 15 per cent. By 1952, that had declined to just eight per cent of the total GDP going to the top one per cent. Combined with the simultaneous doubling of per-worker productivity, this meant a radical improvement in the lives of working Americans.

Three parallel trends of technological, social, and economic progress made it a fecund era for imagining pollyannaish interplanetary monocultural futures clad in chrome and plastic. In just a 30-year span, Jack Williamson went from traveling by covered wagon to traveling by airplane, so one could understand why he might assume that in an additional 100 years people would be going to the stars.

And this is why the year 1973 is so important: it’s the year that shattered the fundamental assumptions that guided science fiction over the previous five decades. This happened in several important ways.

After Apollo 17 left the moon on December 17, 1972, vonbraunian dreams of a rocket-powered conquest of space began to look naïve. Though clearly technology continued to advance, this progress was less and less about raw power, and more about subtlety and efficiency. As the space race ended, the idea of a final frontier was relegated to increasingly fantastical fiction.

It was the same year in which inequality in the US began to increase after almost 50 years of decline. Since then, inequality has gone from eight per cent of income going to the top one per cent in 1973 to almost 30 per cent going to the top one per cent today.

Likewise, the unionization rate among American workers began its steep decline in 1973, from 26.7 per cent of workers belonging to a union to just 13 per cent in 2011.

In 1893, then 33-year-old historian Frederick Jackson Turner addressed the American Historical
They left, much as they had
come: In peace, for all mankind.
(Image via

Association and presented his theory on the closing of the American frontier: "The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history." Part of his thesis was that this closure had a profound impact on the national imagination of the United States, and it’s difficult to disagree with this assessment.

Likewise, it seems clear that the closing of the lunar frontier had a drastic impact on the imagination of the citizens of science fiction fandom.

When coupled with the fact that 1973 was a turning point in Western economies, the result is even more drastic.

When people imagine the future, they usually imagine one in which they have a part. So the exclusion of the working class from economic progress effectively limited the imaginations of many.

Many of these economic shifts have been attributed after the fact to the 1973 oil crash that marked the end of the era of cheap oil, and ushered in an era of greater control of prices by oil producers. It is possibly the most important economic shift that America has faced since the 1929 stock market crash.

It has often been observed that the secret weapon of science fiction authors is economics; in essence, that insights from economics are crucial to building believable fictional models of the future. So it should be no surprise that these shifts in long-term economic trends had an impact on the types of technologies that science fiction predicts.

Space adventure stories fundamentally shifted from being a near-future genre to being closer to fantasy. It became more and more difficult to suggest that futures depicted in works like A Fall Of Moondust, Farmer in the Sky, or The Caves Of Steel were based on any serious extrapolation of current trends. Also, declining economic fortunes became more of a focus of the genre. Although the term wouldn’t be coined for several more years, we could argue that cyberpunk’s birth was 1973 when John Brunner began writing The Shockwave Rider, and when James Tiptree Jr. published The Girl Who Was Plugged In.

The time it takes to write, edit, and publish a novel means that the distinction between pre- and post-1973 speculative fiction is fuzzy — but evident once you start looking for it.

We would argue that (without privileging one or the other) this shift from technological-triumphalist
In this interpretation of history,
Ursula K. Le Guin could be the
progenitor of  modern
speculative fiction.
(Image via

new-frontiers speculative fiction to economic anxiety-driven social speculation is a significant enough change of focus that they are distinct genres. Science fiction as it had been understood ended, and something else took its place. We might argue that post-1973, the genre split into speculative fiction (cyberpunk, mundane SF, cli-fi) and science fantasy (space opera, time travel).

This new chapter in the history of speculative fiction has been increasingly diverse, less in thrall to destructive hegemonic ideas peddled by an influential early editor of a major magazine, and certainly less centered on the United States. As a result, the intellectual descendants of science fiction have been able to connect with the larger culture in ways that their predecessors were never able to. It is hard to imagine the ascendancy of pop cultural phenomenons like Star Wars and Guardians Of The Galaxy in a genre that was still tied to positivist (and occasionally objectivist) outlooks.

Arguably, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic is as significant an economic event as the Great Depression and the 1973 Energy Crisis. Perhaps it will be the event that moves speculative fiction into the next era.

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Hugos Unlike Any Previous

The 2022 Hugo Awards seem likely to be unlike any previous Hugos, because the Hugo-nominating constituency will be unlike any previous.

As far as we are aware, there has yet to be a Worldcon in which the largest single contingent of the membership came from anywhere other than the United States. Likewise, as far as we can determine, there has yet to be a Hugo Awards at which the plurality of votes came from anywhere other than the United States.

Even when the Worldcon was in Dublin two years ago, members living in the U.S. were the group
Even when the Worldcon was in far-off Helsinki,
there were more Americans than Fins in attendance.
(Photo by Tapio Haaja via Pixabay)

most represented in sales, with 2,750 of the 6,918 memberships (and 1,582 of the 4,190 in-person memberships) being purchased by U.S. residents. In Finland two years before that, 3,368 of the 8,748 memberships (and 1,141 of the 3,316 in-person memberships) were purchased by U.S. residents. At Japan’s 2007 Worldcon, 1,907 of the 4,010 memberships sold were purchased by U.S. residents. The complete and exact tally of how many people from each country bought memberships to Discon III is not available yet due to issues with the registration system, but similar patterns repeat in the demographic breakdown of every Worldcon for which we have found the statistics.

This dominance of American voters is reflected in the results of the Hugo Awards; almost 85 per cent of all Hugo-nominated fiction, and almost 85 per cent of all Hugo-winning fiction was written by U.S.-born authors (a statistic that’s even more revealing when one realizes that the calculation counts Isaac Asimov, Algis Budrys, and Manly Wade Wellman as not being U.S.-born.)

Editor and author Xueting
Christine Ni would be a
worthy inclusion on the Hugo
ballot. (Image via Amazon)

We predict that these statistics (which have remained fairly stable over recent decades) are about to change.

Rumours about a large number of supporting memberships being purchased in the days leading up to the 2023 Worldcon site selection vote were viral at Worldcon 2021. Turns out they were also accurate, with more than 2,400 Chinese residents purchasing supporting memberships for Discon III; approximately 1,600 of those memberships were purchased in the 10 days before the convention. The final vote tally was 2,006 votes for Chengdu to 807 for Winnipeg.
Science Fiction World prints more
than 200,000 copies every month.
(Image via

We have trepidation about the Chinese government and its human rights record, but we also have respect for the fans and the bid committee behind the Chengdu Worldcon. As much as we would have preferred to see the 2023 Worldcon happen in Winnipeg, we are embarrassed to have seen the (sometimes racist) response we have seen towards the people working on the Chengdu Worldcon bid. Based on our attendance at related Worldcon 2021 sessions and conversations with members of both bids, the groups behind the 2023 bids seemed to be enthusiastic and professional, and backed by dedicated fans.

The Chengdu bid won this site selection vote through organizing, through outreach to convention runners, and through encouraging their local fans to purchase supporting memberships and to vote. As has often been pointed out by proponents of the Chendu bid, China is the country with the world’s largest number of science fiction fans. 

Based out of Chengdu, Science Fiction World (科幻世界) is the science fiction magazine with the largest circulation on Earth; comparable to the total of Analog, Asimov’s and the Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy combined. The 2,400 Discon III supporting memberships from China represent a fraction of a percent of the circulation of this one magazine.

Canadian author Derek Künsken
does well in North America ...
but more than a million people
read his works in China.
(Cover of the Chinese edition
of Quantum Magician via the

The vast majority of these memberships were bought by people who have never previously participated in voting on the Hugo Awards, as this will be their first Worldcon memberships. And excitingly, they will be eligible to nominate works for the Hugos in 2022. Given that there are usually little more than 1,000 nominating ballots cast in a given year, these supporting members of Discon III could have an enormous influence on what makes the ballot at the Chicago Worldcon. We encourage them to nominate. 

The third-highest grossing movie worldwide in 2021 was the Chinese-language time-travel movie Hi Mom. Han Song has won the Chinese Galaxy Award six times, but remains little-known among English-speaking readers. Xueting Christine Ni has been tirelessly working to promote Chinese science fiction for years, and could be recognized in one of the editor categories. And some authors underappreciated by Hugo voters (such as Derek Künsken) have found a broader audience with their works translated for Chinese-language magazines such as Non-Exist Magazine. We might also hope that these new Hugo voters will not neglect the fan categories.

There is a real possibility that the 2022 ballot could be the most surprising Hugo Awards shortlist in years — and the least U.S.-centric to date.

Thursday, 30 December 2021

Best Dramatic Presentation Boldly Goes Forward (1967)

This blog post is the tenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems only natural that Star Trek should win a Hugo Award in its first season.

The Hugo shortlist in 1967 included Fantastic Voyage,
Fahrenheit 451, The Menagerie, The Naked Time, &
The Corbomite Maneuver. (Image via IMDB)
At the time, however, this decision was not without controversy.

The Worldcon chair for 1967, Ted White, published a screed against the show calling its writers patronizing and ill-informed. Hugo-winning fan writer Alexei Panshin opined that Star Trek was filled with cliches and facile plots.

But for every voice criticizing the new show, there were several voicing their support. Big-name authors like Harlan Ellison and A.E. Van Vogt campaigned for the television series to win a Hugo, hoping that the recognition might buy it a second season. Writing in the fanzine Yandro, Juanita Coulson offered the definitive counterpoint: “The scorners of Star Trek do not seem to have an alternate dramatic piece of science fiction to offer; they usually do not like anything TV calls science fiction or fantasy.” 

It was by far the most talked about Best Dramatic Presentation ballot up to that point, with various pundits at turns praising Fahrenheit 451’s elegant direction, complaining about plot points in Fantastic Voyage, and analysing the merits of “The Corbomite Maneuver.” The quality of this debate, the resulting shortlist, and the final vote all look exceptional from the perspective of 2021; this was the year that the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation came into its own. 
In 1967, Gene Roddenberry was
one of the few Best Dramatic
Presentation winners to accept
the award in person.
(Photo by Jay Kay Klein

Considering the eligible works for this Hugo shortlist, one member of our cinema club (Paul) watched no fewer than 43 science fiction and fantasy movies that had hit cinemas in 1966, and concluded that Hugo voters could hardly have done better.

As we started watching movies and television shows from 1966, many of us had expected Fahrenheit 451, directed by François Truffaut to be the shortlist standout. However, we were surprised to find the movie had aged far more poorly than other works. Most readers will be familiar with the source material, which criticizes anti-intellectualism and post-literate culture, but this is an adaptation that does not live up to the provocative premise. The first half of the film moves at a pace that makes the Mendenhall Glacier look like quicksilver; and although the second half provides some good moments, it’s undermined by questionable choices around gender representation. That being said, Truffaut is a master of building individual shots, and some of the imagery continues to hit hard. Scenes which center the action on the television in Guy Montag’s apartment are visually arresting and prescient. The set design — both the use of existing architecture and the film’s own props — is iconic and lush. There are moments of brilliance in the movie; particularly a speech in which Captain Beatty cynically dismisses the value of books. In several other years, this might have been at the top of our ballots, but in 1967 it was outshone.

The most expensive science fiction movie to have been made up to that point, Fantastic Voyage, holds up somewhat better. Sparingly and effectively directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie follows a five-person submarine crew who are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a scientist in order to perform life-saving brain surgery. Although far too many movies of the era over-explained their premise, Fleischer’s dialogue-free opening sequence is a masterclass in visual storytelling, showing the events that kick off the movie’s action.
A pleasure to burn perhaps, but not a pleasure to watch.
(Image via Pintrest)
It’s worth noting the quality of the visuals in Fantastic Voyage, which earned the movie two Academy Awards. Art Cruickshank’s visual effects pushed the limits of compositing technology at the time, while Jack Martin Smith and Dale Hennessy’s clean and functional design work made the secret military base setting seem real. The movie may have had a leg up on some of its competitors that year, since Isaac Asimov’s novelization of the movie had received mostly positive reviews. This might have been a very worthy Hugo winner, if it hadn’t been for the genre-defining presence of Star Trek.

From the day that Gene Roddenberry first showed “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” at the 1966 Worldcon in Cleveland, Star Trek had dominated discussions of science fiction. One unsigned complaint in the fanzine Algol notes “somewhat more than half of every fanzine I have seen this year was concerned with one subject and one subject alone: Star Trek.” Three episodes made the ballot in that first year: “The Menagerie,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and “The Naked Time.” 

“The Naked Time,” which aired first of the shortlisted episodes, is without a doubt one of the most well-remembered episodes of the original series, if for no other reason than the image of a shirtless Sulu wielding a fencing sword. The episode — which depicts a touch-transmitted disease that causes the protagonists to become disinhibited and act drunk — features some of the earliest moments of the series that show the range and depth of the characters. While “space makes people go mad” storylines were already a tired trope by the 1960s, the panache of the direction and the strong performances elevate the material. For at least one member of our viewing club, this would have been the top pick from the year.

In a slightly less-well-remembered episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,”  the Enterprise crew is
We’d suggest that of the eligible episodes
(those that aired in 1966) both "The Conscience
of the King," and "Balance of Terror" might
also have made very solid inclusions on the ballot.
(Image via Youtube)  

confronted by an immense and implacable alien ship that seems intent on destroying them. At the risk of offering a heterodox opinion, the primary plot of the episode is less clever than its authors seemed to think, with Captain Kirk’s bluff reading as ham-handed. But despite this criticism, there’s enough in the episode to make it a worthy inclusion on the ballot. The theme of resolving conflict and building bridges between cultures is well handled. And this is one of the first opportunities to observe Kirk as a trusting and supportive captain.

“The Menagerie” is the only two-part episode of the original series of Star Trek. Making use of the original unaired pilot, it brings back the original captain Christopher Pike on a quest to return to the planet of Talos IV. Though it would be difficult to argue that it’s one of the best Trek episodes, it’s fine and provides backstories and insights about the show’s intentions. But fans had other reasons to support “The Menagerie” for the Hugo Award.

“We're agreed that we vote for “The Menagerie” and get the Hugo for Roddenberry personally, even though that wasn’t really the best episode,” Hugo-winning fanzine editor Buck Coulson wrote. “It's the only way to honor the man who made all the Star Trek episodes possible.”

Given how significant Roddenberry’s contributions to the genre would prove to be, it’s difficult to argue that Hugo voters got it wrong.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Slipping on the stickiness of time

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was an unusual and perplexing author, so it seems fitting that Unstuck In Time — a
Academy Award-nominee Robert B. Weide (left)
chronicles his decades-long friendship with 
science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (right)
in a mostly excellent documentary. 
(Image via

documentary tackling this legendary science fiction author — would be unusual and perplexing.

Directed by Robert B. Weide, who’s best known for his Emmy-winning work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the film is an affectionate (almost hagiographic) look at the author of Hugo finalists such as Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan, and Slaughterhouse Five. Taking his cues from Vonnegut’s non-linear narratives, Weide flips from wartime Dresden, to 1980s New York, to Depression-era Indianapolis, trying to craft a holistic portrait of the author.

The director’s decades-long friendship with Vonnegut provides a through-line for the movie. Vignettes about the documentarian’s youth, correspondence with Vonnegut, and process of filming interviews, are interspersed with archival footage and the standard fare of a more conventional documentary. Given that Vonnegut often blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography, it seems appropriate that this documentary includes so much about the filmmaker attempting to grapple with the author’s legacy and the way their friendship shaped both lives.

It’s an approach that works … mostly.

Overall, the film suffers from this split focus between the personal view of Weide and his desire to make a definitive portrayal of the man and his legacy. When the film leans in to the historical perspective and a quasi-academic assessment, it’s easy to see how Weide’s meticulous approach earned him an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category. When the movie leans in to his personal relationship with his subject, his passion and affection for Vonnegut are effusive and likely infectious for Vonnegut fans. But each of these perspectives ends up getting short shrift; there are notable omissions from Weide’s personal perspective, and there are notable omissions from the historical overview.

Weide is too close to his subject to provide an unflinching look. But it also seems that he’s too much of a documentarian to lean into the personal. Both perspectives suffer for this, but one can also see why the movie took 40 years to make: it’s filled with incredible moments, and archival footage, and surprising snippets. With the amount of footage that Weide gathered in four decades, one can only imagine the riches that had to be left on the cutting room floor.
Before he was beloved
by the literary establishment,
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s work
was recognized by SF fans.
(Image via Ebay)

One of the biggest omissions is Vonnegut’s relationship with the greater science fiction community. There is little attention paid to the fact that the science fiction community embraced his work long before he attained “mainstream” literary success. In fact, the only other science fiction author even mentioned in the documentary is Theodore Sturgeon, who appears only as a passing reference without offering the context that Vonnegut considered Sturgeon (among several other science fiction authors) a friend. Numerous of Vonnegut’s short stories are mentioned as well as publications such as Collier’s and Playboy, but the magazines Galaxy, If, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction are omitted from this version of his bibliography (an omission that is all the more egregious when one realizes that his most famous short story “Harrison Bergeron” first appeared in F&SF).

Vonnegut’s atheism is also neglected. Given the fact that disputes over religion were central to the breakdown of his marriage, and given that he took over from Isaac Asimov as president of the American Humanist Association after Asimov’s death (and eulogized Asimov with his trademark wit), this is a significant blind spot for the documentary to have.

The version of Vonnegut presented in this documentary, scrubbed clean of the unwanted stench of SFF fandom, will be familiar to many fans who have seen their most literary icons repudiate fennish roots. The idea that he was apart from science fiction is one that Vonnegut attempted to curate, especially late in his life. As Fred Pohl noted, “[Vonnegut] made the commercial decision to deny that he was a science fiction writer.”
Yousuf Karsh's portrait of 
Vonnegut (left) and Ray 
Bradbury (right)
(Image via

It is also notable how many of the interviews in Unstuck In Time are cut short; for example, just as someone seems ready to say something truly damning about Vonnegut’s behaviour towards his first wife Jane or his adopted children. Vonnegut’s second wife Jill Krementz is hardly mentioned at all, nor is his close confidante Loree Rackstraw, nor is his sexism or philandering, nor is his well-documented temper.

It would be difficult for a friend of Vonnegut to grapple with the author’s darker side, so these omissions are somewhat forgivable, though the movie might have been stronger if Wiede had fully accepted and leaned in more on the subjective voice.

For better and for worse, this is not a definitive biography of Vonnegut. Unstuck In Time is a flawed, perplexing, infuriating movie that much like its subject provides nuggets of wisdom, moments of insight, and a compelling story.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Once more into the breech (Best Dramatic 1966)

This blog post is the ninth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

Although the Hugo committee solicited nominations for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award in 1966, the category was omitted from the final ballot. This made it the fourth time in eight years that a Worldcon had failed to honour a televised or filmed work of science fiction.
Harlan Ellison addresses the audience at the
1966 Hugo Awards ceremony. Though he'd
been quite insistent that there be a Dramatic
Presentation Hugo in 1965, he was oddly 
quiet about the subject in 1966 when he didn't
have anything eligible in that category.
(Image via Calisphere)

Interestingly, this fact seems to have escaped the notice of fandom at the time. Or at least, it wasn’t documented. Notable fanzines such as Yandro, and the WSFA Journal reported on the 1966 Hugo shortlist, and analyzed each category in detail … but failed to make so much of a mention of the absence of Best Dramatic Presentations.

Theodore Sturgeon, writing in the Australian Review of Science Fiction, noted the disconnect between the quality of science fiction on screen and fandom’s prevailing attitude to the medium: “In films, on TV, and even occasionally in the theatre, we are seeing a new attitude to science and science fiction. The result of this combination of new attitudes has been a resurgence of sf in the cinema - and the production of the finest sf films ever made. Yet the fanzines are empty of sf film reviews except those panning the duds.”

The members of our cinema club agreed in broad strokes with Sturgeon’s assessment that there were exceptionally good dramatic works that would have been eligible for a Hugo in 1966, though there wasn’t a clear consensus of what should have won.

The front-runner on several of our ballots would have been Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s noir detective story set in a technocratic dystopia ruled by a computer. Godard’s filmmaking is beyond dispute; the use of modern architecture, the stark lighting, and the innovative camera work in some ways make this the most timeless movie we have seen during our viewing of historic Hugo film and TV.

However, Alphaville has aged poorly in terms of gender roles;
It seems strange that Jean Luc Godard could
imagine a future in which the government is
a computer, but had difficulty imagining that
women might be more than objects.
(Image via Film Forum)
’s protagonist slaps women with little provocation on a regular basis, and most women in the movie have little agency or dialogue. Some members of our cinema club could not finish the movie because of this rampant misogyny.
It is difficult to assess a movie like this, in which the technical filmmaking is innovative and impressive, but much of the content is utterly unpalatable today. That said, in the context of the times, it does seem surprising that the 1966 Hugo Awards would ignore Alphaville; the movie was significant enough that it was reviewed contemporaneously in all the major papers, and even mentioned in the first season of Star Trek.

The 10th Victim has aged better in many respects in terms of gender representation as it features a female protagonist who’s just as competent and ruthless as her male counterpart, though some supporting characters fall into old and cliched tropes. The contrast with Alphaville is stark. It was the first time that Hugo finalist Robert Sheckley’s work had been adapted to the silver screen, and Italian director Elio Petri made it a modest international success. Depicting a future society in which government-sanctioned hunting of humans is a popular form of entertainment, the movie is stylish, beautiful to look at, and over-the-top camp. Despite some pacing issues, the welcome critique of capitalism and the top-tier acting (Italian legend Marcello Mastroianni and OG-Bond-girl Ursula Andress have superb on-screen chemistry) have earned the movie a place in the cult canon.

B-Movie horror auteur Jacques Tourneur directed his final — and possibly best — film War-Gods of the Deep. Loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the movie depicts a conflict between the eccentric residents of a small Cornish village and 19th century pirates who live under the ocean and who have been made immortal by strange volcanic gasses. Featuring Vincent Price as the captain of the underwater pirates, the cast is top notch, and despite a very modest budget, the sets and production have a lot of atmosphere.

Though it's far from a perfect movie, the cast of
The 10th Victim is incredibly charismatic, and the
movie is filmed with panache.
(Image via
Interestingly, one of the science fiction films that year that would have the most impact on future filmmaking flew under the radar at the time: Planet Of The Vampires. The Italian-American co-production, which features an exploratory team encountering infectious alien spirits on an eerie planet, has been often cited as an inspiration for a variety of movies including Ridley Scott’s Alien, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, and the upcoming D.C. Superhero movie Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. While the acting is competent, and the set design is mostly run-of-the-mill, what elevates Planet Of The Vampires above many of its peers is the ending. This is a movie that takes a hard right turn in the last 20 minutes, and finishes with panache. (In what could be one of the all-time great double features, Planet Of The Vampires was released in the USA packaged with Boris Karloff’s compellingly weird “Colour Out Of Space” adaptation Die Monster Die!).

Invasion of the Astro Monster, directed by Ishirō Honda, is the most science fictional entry in the entire Godzilla franchise (Two members of our cinema club hadn’t read a synopsis before watching it and were surprised when Kaiju show up 20 minutes into a movie that starts out looking like a well-produced space exploration film). It is an extraordinarily silly movie, featuring evil aliens who kidnap Godzilla and Rodan, and use mind control technology to weaponize the monsters against the Earth. That being said, it is one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and at least one of us said she would have put it at the top of her Hugo ballot had she been able to vote at the Worldcon in 1966.

As the first decade of dramatic presentation Hugo Awards came to a close, science fiction on screen
Though Fantastic Voyage and Star Trek
were greeted with enthusiasm,
fans jeered and booed throughout
the screening of Time Tunnel.
(Image via IMDB)

was slowly gaining in respectability in the general public, but also among fandom. Studios and directors had begun to seek out conventions as a place to test market their new works; the 1966 Worldcon saw three such premieres, with Star Trek, Fantastic Voyage, and Time Tunnel all being screened at the con. And despite the lack of Hugos presented in the category, the convention presented special commemorative plaques to Ric Noonan for Fantastic Voyage, and to Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek. (Irwin Allen, who was at the convention to present Time Tunnel was surprised not to receive a similar honour … and put out a press release claiming that he had.)

This burgeoning respect had been a long time in coming, and 1966 would be the last year for a decade that the Hugo Awards would neglect to recognize science fiction on screen. It is a shame however, that some of the films that helped build up to such recognition were not celebrated at the time.

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

The Potterization of Science Fiction

One of the more annoying trends in mass-media science fiction and fantasy is the move away from
The absurdity of the notion that
some people are born special
cannot be overstated, whether
we're talking about a monarch
or the Half-Blood Prince.
(Image via Wall Street Journal)

achievement-based protagonists, and towards those whose ‘specialness’ derives from something they were born with.

It’s clear that the entertainment-consuming public is often interested in people who get defined as special, regardless of what arbitrary circumstances have bestowed that specialness on them. We feel that when engagement with a protagonist is predicated on birthright rather than achievement, readers and viewers are essentially being treated as Royal Watchers.

Being expected to care about the narrative because it depicts an unattainable and presumably better position in life is classist and demeaning.

Whether the privilege is acquired through right of birth, through being born ‘special,’ or through being the subject of a prophecy, this trope is fundamentally tied to a classist and undemocratic worldview. The prevalence of such narratives, and why they persist, needs to be examined and challenged.

Certainly, under the right circumstances, this technique can produce characters that are central to memorable and enduring cultural myths, such as Paul Muad'dib or Prince Corwin. Those circumstances, however, are contingent on the overall narrative working coherently with the premise.
Say what you will about Dune,
it doesn't pretend to be anything
less than classist and cryptofascist.
(Image via Screenrant) 

Between the superhero craze and the shoe-horning of high-born people into existing franchises, this choice seems to have become the default for too much mainstream (corporate) science fiction and fantasy — whether or not it strengthens the larger story.

One of the fundamentally troubling assumptions behind the born-great protagonist is the anti-democratic idea that the lives of some people simply matter more than the lives of other people. If we accept that Harry Potter is destined to be the only one who can do the thing that’s important, then why should we care about the life of Ritchie Coote? Likewise, if Aragorn is destined for the throne then we have to accept that all other Men of Gondor would be incapable of managing the kingdom (let alone Women of Gonder). There is a direct link between the idea that one person can be born great, with the ideas that underpin racism, classism, and sexism. See also: the equally flawed “great man” theory.

Just as troubling an assumption is the idea that greatness is unearned; those who are great have not thought about it, have not put in effort to attain greatness, have not practiced whatever inherent part of their nature makes for greatness. It wouldn’t matter if Húrin the Tall graduated at the top of his class in urban planning at the University of Dúnedain, he’d still be incapable of managing Minas Tirith, and
Yes, even your favourite kids'
cartoon Visionaries features
a prince who was born special.
(Image via YouTube)

would be doomed to repeat Denethor’s mistakes. This is an idea that breeds complacency as we are taught by the stories we consume that greatness is achievable only through parentage. That is, one’s efforts to improve their lot in life are largely irrelevant, as is the society that supports the achievement of greatness at all.

We are not suggesting that readers should avoid these books, movies, and short dramatic works. Rather, we are suggesting that readers should cast a critical eye to what they read; particularly concerning issues of race, class and gender. The fact that problematic authors such as (kinda classist) J.R.R. Tolkien and (transphobic) J.K. Rowling would produce problematic works is unsurprising. What is more surprising is that this “born great” trope continues to appear in a plethora of modern, popular, award-shortlisted novels by authors who harbor otherwise progressive and thoughtful worldviews. Our intent is not to cast aspersions on authors who use this trope, but rather to encourage readers to interrogate the ideas at the heart of it. Why is it so appealing to you?

This narrative crutch has long been a central part of epic fantasies (Everything from Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time, to Dragonlance and Masters Of The Universe), but the trend of prophesied protagonists who were born to lead has seeped into wider genre stories.

Salvor Hardin, who in the novel Foundation had been nothing more than a competent mayor who
Although some have tried
to cast the great math
prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan
as someone who was
simply born with abilities,
an examination of his
biography reveals that they
were the result of significant
study and hard work.

happened to get caught up in historical forces, is recast in the television adaptation as someone who was born special; someone with a psychic ability to understand history. In the very same adaptation, Gaal Dornick has been recast from a young professor from a mid-tier university, to a child prodigy whose great mathematical abilities are simply in her blood. To our eyes, the way the series relies on the ‘specialness’ of these characters is condescending to the audience. 

Even Star Trek — once mocked for depicting an occasionally dull and technocratic meritocracy — has come to embrace the protagonist born great. Starting with the 2009 reboot of the classic series, J.J. Abrams reimagined James T. Kirk as a maverick who was born with a destiny, instead of the Original Series depiction of a studious “stack of books with legs” who had earned a captaincy through hard work in postings on the USS Republic and the USS Faragut. The distinction is not insignificant; in one version of the story greatness is something that is earned through hard work, in the other version greatness is something bestowed upon a person seemingly arbitrarily.

This is almost a direct rebuttal to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tapestry," which tries to give viewers a perspective into why Picard is who he is. It is revealed in that episode, that Picard could easily have ended up as a junior lieutenant, but that circumstances had motivated him to do better. In essence, he earned his command through hard work and diligence.

One could also note that when a protagonist is “born great,” it tends to undermine the role in societal supports leading to greatness. Harry Potter isn’t great because he lives in a society whose social services, schools, and hospitals enable him to achieve, he’s great because he was just born that way. One might parallel this to the view held by those arch-Randians who would proclaim that Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is entirely self-generated, owing nothing to the school system that educated him or the public investment in developing internet technology.

Works that directly grapple with the implications of “born great” protagonists are worth examining. One of the best, Sarah Gailey’s Magic For Liars, engaged with the classism and elitism that is baked into the very notion of a person born with a great destiny. By taking the point-of-view of someone left behind by the destined greatness of another, the book serves as a sharp rebuttal to the elitism of
This will be the only time ever
that this blog says anything good
about Buffy Season 7.
(Image via Pintrest)

“chosen one” narratives. The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman takes a completely different tack in criticizing this trope by showing how infantilizing it might be for a character to be born into power; his protagonist Quentin Coldwater grows into a listless, emotionally stunted young man precisely because of his privileged magical destiny.

And despite a ham-handed delivery, smug self-congratulatory tone, and a toxic showrunner, we’d probably also have to give credit to the final season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer for at least suggesting that the specialness of the show’s “chosen one” should be democratized.

At its core, the philosophy that some people are just inherently great (and therefore most others just aren’t) is nihilistic. This is a narrative framework in which few people have free will, or whose decisions can have an impact on the world.

If all of our enduring cultural myths are about people whose greatness and purpose are thrust upon them by right of birth, it implies that everyone else is saddled with a purposeless life. That’s a proposition that we urge readers to reject.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

American Cleon

There has long been a lapsarian strain in the American imagination, and that’s why Foundation is so
Hari Seldon never suggests making something
better than an Empire. He wants to make Trantor
Great Again. (Image via CNET) 

appealing — and so dangerous — right now. But unlike the fate of the Galactic Empire, the outcomes of the issues facing us today are not certain.

Books and articles about the decline of the United States and of what is called “Western Civilization” have populated bookstore shelves and magazine pages for more than a century, with such notables as Niall Ferguson, Chris Hedges, Emmanuel Todd, and David D. Schein contributing tomes to the pastime of prognosticating American eschatology.

But in the past decade, these types of predictions have reached a fever pitch. And it’s not difficult to see why. Factors such as political polarization, global warming, the decline of democracy, increasing resource scarcity and disparities between rich and poor, all seem to have clear and exacerbating trend lines. If there were one of Hari Seldon’s prime radiants, one could imagine these trends being plotted through the equations of psychohistory and seeing a definitive predictive answer that an unpleasant end awaits us all.

These are historical trends that seem inexorable; they seem as inescapable as “the known probability of imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations…” all of which afflicted the Galactic Empire during the reign of Cleon II.

It must be understood that Foundation reflects the argument made by Edward Gibbons in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; that decline was only in part caused by forces external to the empire itself, that a determinant of collapse was a gradual loss of civic virtue among its Roman citizens (Though by ‘civic virtue,’ some have suggested Gibbons meant ‘members of lower classes knowing their place’). Asimov had just finished reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he began writing Foundation, but he was also writing in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, and a period of upheaval and uncertainty about his country’s future.
Some pundits have gone further back,
and compared present-day politics to
Asimov’s source material.

The idea of the United States as a “new Rome” has existed since shortly after the American revolution. It is communicated through the myth of manifest destiny and is encapsulated in the architecture of Washington, D.C. At various points through its history, American preachers have attempted to create historical narratives that cast the rise and fall of the country as divine prophecy (Just as one high-profile example, Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith told his followers that the U.S. Constitution was a divine document, and that Jesus’ second coming would occur in Missouri).

Foundation as a narrative has to be understood in this context; Isaac Asimov’s understanding of history was informed by American exceptionalism, the influence of America’s third ‘Great Awakening’ of apocalyptic religiosity, the wake of the Great Depression, and of a period of upheaval and uncertainty about the country’s future. It might be asked why, after 80 years, the books are finally being adapted to the screen; is it perhaps because we are again in a period of upheaval and uncertainty?

While we should be aware that the original novel is a product of the ideas and concerns of the time it was written, the television show is a product of today and makes arguments about the world of 2021. We would suggest that the television series version of Foundation contains hints of Gibbons’ classism, echoes of Asimov’s concerns about America on the eve of the Second World War, but also reflects our own 21st Century concerns about decline.

Margaret Atwood has said that “Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it's always about now.” And it’s really more about how people perceive the present, as today’s perceptions determine the actions of tomorrow. Apple TV’s Foundation series resonates because people perceive these trends to be inescapable, and determinative. This is underscored by science fiction’s ideas shaping powerful political forces.

If we accept that this new iteration of Foundation is indeed about the United States, those who take its core messages seriously may help ensure that decline is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problems facing the world are not insurmountable. There are policies and technologies that will mitigate climate change. Pressure on politicians can force them to behave in our best interest. These things are not easy but they are necessary if we want to avoid Seldon’s predicted outcome.

Inescapable doom can sometimes be more comfortable than faint hope; if the Empire’s going to collapse one way or another, then enjoy it while you can and let Raven Seldon worry about what comes next. If we, as citizens of the world, accept the metaphor presented by Foundation, it can inculcate fatalism about the very real problems we’re facing. As Florida International University professor of English Charles Elkins argued in his Marxist reading of Foundation, “Reading these novels, the reader experiences this fatalism which, in a Marxist analysis, flows from his own alienation in society and his sense of impotence in facing problems he can no longer understand, the solutions of which he puts in the hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite.”

Decline is a powerful idea, and one that rightly should worry us. Foundation suggests that individuals have little agency to affect real change. In doing so, it absolves us for doing nothing.