Thursday 29 November 2018

The thoughtless utopia

There are more ways for the world to go wrong than ways for things to go right.

At least, that’s what a careful review of science fiction indicates. It seems it is usually easier for science fiction authors to create a compelling and believable dystopia than it is for them to offer a utopia that rings true. One supposes that if there were an easily imagined path to utopia, we’d all be on it by now.

But these facts don’t mean that when writing stories about utopian societies, creators should be absolved of at least providing some bare-bones explanations of what societal structures have led to the perfection of their imagined nation.

This speculation about social structures doesn’t need to be convincing — Heinlein’s utopian world of Beyond This Horizon suggests that a socialist command economy, gun rights, and eugenics are the secret recipe. Hardly believable off the printed page, but he at least put in some thought about how his world would work.

All I know is that I didn't vote for
Jaresh-Ino to be president of the UFP.
(Image via MemoryBeta) 
What is bothersome is the intellectually lazy utopian imagination, the offering of a science fiction paradise in which there is no thought about how that utopia was achieved.

The United Federation of Planets, as depicted in Star Trek's Original Series and Next Generation is an exemplar lazy utopia. Sure, some handwaving is offered around humanity ‘evolving’ beyond a need for money, but little concrete evidence is offered about how this utopia actually works.

How are the competing needs of different citizen species balanced? How are minority rights ensured? How do they balance the right to privacy with the need for security? These are the types of questions that all free societies must struggle with, and yet in hundreds of hours of Star Trek stories that have been filmed, no solid answers are offered.

Of course, the nebulous nature of the United Federation of Planets offered authors and fans plenty of opportunity to impose their own ideas and ideals onto this world — sometimes to excellent effect. For example, economic historian Manu Saadia uses Star Trek as a jumping off point to explore socialist ideas about a post-scarcity economy in his book Trekonomics.

Another example of a poorly crafted utopia is Wakanda, the high-technology kingdom that is home to Black Panther. How Wakanda became a utopia while neighbouring countries did not is never fully explored.

It is suggested that the presence of a miraculous resource — the metal vibraneum — may be the root cause of the nation’s perfection. But in the real world, resource riches rarely lead to anything like
Supreme executive power derives from
a mandate from the masses, not from
some farcical aquatic ceremony.
(Image via MarvelCinematicUniverseWiki)

If the natural resource of vibraneum had been paired with a democratic governance system, or an alternative inclusive governance model, it would have been easier to buy into the idea of Wakanda, but the country is ruled by an absolute monarch. This would make it one of only seven absolute monarchies on Earth, and none of the others are human rights leaders. To put it bluntly, absolute monarchy and utopia are utterly incompatible.

It is interesting to note that current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has begun to address these questions of governance in Wakanda. One hopes that this new more democratic version of Wakanda may make it to the movie screen one day.

We would argue that Coates’ work on the book is a recognition that a believable utopia would not be based on resources, wealth or technology, but on equitable distribution and respect for the rights of those who live in the utopia.

In short, utopia is in large part a matter of societal institutions and cultural practices.
The libertarian utopia
of The Unincorporated
is compelling (if
unconvincing) in part
because the authors
had the courage to
be political.
(Image via

Proposing alternative — utopian — societal institutions and customs will always risk alienating a good portion of your audience. Social institutions are inherently about the distribution of power in a society, and therefore the imagining of different social institutions is political, and political arguments will always offend someone.

For the broadest audience to remain unoffended by an imagined utopia, the author — or studio — needs to be as vague as possible. Perhaps that’s why so many high-budget productions — like Star Trek and the movie Black Panther — depict banal utopias that offers vagaries and magic to explain the perfection of their societies.

Utopia is more difficult an construction than dystopia, both artistically and in the real world. No author will ever write a utopia that is convincing to everyone, but those who try should try to offer ideas, and should be upfront about their politics.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Retro Hugos 1943: Short Fiction

It seems to me that Retro Hugo awards are sometimes given to lesser works by better-known
Astounding Science Fiction
continued to be a dominant
force in the field in 1943.
(Image via
authors, rather than to meritorious stories by obscure writers. This tendency is both unfortunate and understandable, as the back catalogues of big-name authors are more likely to be read in the modern era.  

So let’s think about what was happening in 1943. Numerous authors were serving in the military during the war and published relatively few — or no — stories. Among this contingent were luminaries such as Robert Heinlein, James Blish, Cyril Kornbluth, and L. Sprague de Camp.

Even Isaac Asimov’s usual pace of publishing slowed down during his time working for the war effort. After almost a year away from writing, he produced just two stories near the end of the year, one of which (Death Sentence) is worth noting, and may appear on our ballots.

The relative absence of science fiction heavy hitters opened the door for several authors who might otherwise have been neglected. The Retro Hugos that will be presented in 2019 give us a chance to recognize some authors who are long overdue a Hugo.

Suggested Retro Hugo readings in brief:

Link to work, or supporting document(s)
Earth’s Last Citadel
C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner
Clash By Night
C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner

Link to work, or supporting document(s)
Blind Alley
Malcolm Jameson
The Citadel of Lost Ships
Leigh Brackett
Short Story
Link to work, or supporting document(s)
Mimsy Were the Borogoves
C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner

Death Sentence
Isaac Asimov
Eric Frank Russell
The Proud Robot

Edmond Hamilton

There have been few science fiction writing duos as successful or as prolific as Catherine L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, who together published in excess of 200 stories over the course of a decade and a half from about 1940 to 1955.

They have often appeared on Retro Hugo ballots, and won for Short Story in 2018. But there are few years in which anyone was as dominant in the field as they were in 1943.

Writing under several pseudonyms, they published something interesting, clever, innovative and fun, every month that year. In fact, almost half of the stories selected by Isaac Asimov for his 1981
Like many classic works of SF,
Mimzy Were The Borogoves was
adapted into an excruciating movie.
(Image via
collection reviewing the works of 1943
Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 5 are works by Moore and Kuttner.

Their most famous collaboration is possibly Mimsy Were The Borogoves, a short story they published under the byline Lewis Padgett in the February 1943 edition of Astounding.

The story, which is an odd work about time travel that focuses on the neurodivergent possibilities of childhood development, has aged remarkably well and should be a strong contender for the Hugo Award in short stories. It’s interesting that so few stories have looked at the idea of educational toys from the future. It is the only work from 1943 that Robert Silverberg selected for his renowned collection The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1: 1929-1964.

Another of Moore and Kuttner’s short works, The Proud Robot, is the best-known of their comedic stories that detail the life and misadventures of eccentric inventor Gallegher. In this tale, Gallegher struggles to deal with an exceptional robot that he built in an alcoholic haze, and of which he cannot remember the purpose. It is wickedly funny, though dated in its descriptions of technology.

Better-known for his crime fiction, Anthony Boucher published one of his finer works of science fiction in 1943. As with much of his speculative fiction output, the novelette One-Way Trip has a strong aspect of religion and morality woven into it.
C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner
enjoyed an extraordinary
collaboration over more than
15 years as husband and wife.
(Image via

An opponent of capital punishment, Boucher imagined a society that dealt with the most severe criminals by exiling them on a one-way rocketship into the depths of outer space. While there’s an excess of convenient accidents in the plotting, the likability of protagonist Gan Garett, the quality of the writing, and the utopian worldbuilding all add up to a work that is well worth celebrating.

Boucher was on the Retro Hugo ballot last year for The Compleat Werewolf, but regrettably lost to the better-known Robert Heinlein story Waldo. With Heinlein absent from the ballot this year, we have hope that he might be recognized.

Leigh Brackett, whose career had started with modest success in the first years of World War Two, had significantly developed her craft as a writer by 1943. Her novelette The Citadel of Lost Ships, which appeared in the March edition of Planet Stories shows her delving into questions of identity and cultural influences. This story clearly shows the development of her superb style and taught pacing that would, in 1944, earn her contracts to write major Hollywood scripts.

There are, unfortunately, several mediocre works that may receive undue attention this year due to the fame of their authors. H.P. Lovecraft’s posthumous work The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was first published in 1943. While the book has its admirers amongst hard-core Lovecraft afficionados, and those who appreciate dream-logic narratives,  it is in our estimation relentlessly mediocre and tedious throughout.

A wide swath of lesser-known science fiction and fantasy from the pulp era is less available to readers because it is difficult to acquire the pulp magazines in which they appeared. While some magazines have been scanned and made available online, copyright issues serve as an impediment to their wider distribution.

As this accessibility barrier grows over time, these issues might even call into question the legitimacy of the Retro Hugos when they’re presented 75 years or 100 years after publication dates. When nominating — and voting — for these Retro Hugos, we would encourage Worldcon members to read widely.

Monday 12 November 2018

IDIC and the art of franchise maintenance

Many of us have spent a lot of time, money, and emotional energy watching, reading, digesting, reflecting and arguing about, and consuming science fiction media. Over the past 30 years, some of those stories have become increasingly consolidated into franchises and shared universes. But when we become invested in a franchise, are we continuing to see a return on our investment? 

Let’s talk about the sunk-cost error.
When you're down 50,000 credits at
the Royale, you just assume that your
luck is eventually going to turn.
(Image via

It’s a cognitive error in which people refuse to abandon something that isn’t providing a return on investment. You can see it in stock markets, in policy debates, in relationships, in gambling, in consumerism.The investor is loathe to leave the stock, idea, person, or material object because their emotional attachment to the money, time, and effort they’ve already invested outweighs any logic to leave.

The sunk-cost error is arguably happening with a few key science fiction franchises: fans are escalating their commitment to mediocre derivatives of once creative and innovative narratives. The obvious example is a certain class of Star Trek fans.

If you’ve spent 32 hours watching the complete original series of Star Trek, an additional 144 hours watching all of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, shelled out money for several movies, and bought the complete collection of Mego Star Trek Model Starships … well then it gets more and more difficult to acknowledge that the vast majority of late-period Star Trek isn’t very good. 

The more invested we are in a franchise, the more difficult it is to accept when our relationship with the corporation that owns that franchise is no longer healthy. We aren’t getting creative output commiserate with our investment of time and money, but the emotional draw of new offerings is too
The commodore is called 'Paris'! It's a
reference to Tom Paris from Voyager!
Only real fans like me would get that
reference! This movie is made for me!
(Image via
strong to ignore. 

Separately, but related, the corporations that own franchises like Star Trek are trying to please shareholders by investing in low risk projects. Of course, the best chance at good returns is to go back to the same group of loyal fans. Pandering to profit without alienating an aging fan base leaves little room for innovation. 

Ironically, it’s often the risk taking projects — narratives that challenge audiences or speak to larger truths — that built the fan base in the first place.

While all commercial artistic endeavours (books, films, television) are on some level created in the hopes that there will be remuneration for the work, franchises are so valuable that the primary goal is to maintain the franchise. 

This type of franchise maintenance has several hallmarks: lack of creative ambition, meaningless callbacks to previous iterations, aversion to innovation, and emotionally hollow feel-good resolutions to conflict.

A perfect example of these hallmarks can be found in the recent J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies that saw a younger, hipper cast take on the mantle of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
Remember when James T. Kirk dies
in Star Trek: Into Darkness? No?
Emotionally hollow deux et machina
saves him in one of the biggest cop-outs
in the long history of Star Trek.
(Image via

The movies have been commercial successes, with the 2009 installment of the series raking in almost $400 million in box office receipts, and the 2013 follow up Into Darkness exceeding that tally. 

But viewers are offered weak tea philosophy and recycled plots. Fans are engaged primarily through call-back mechanisms that would mean nothing if the narrative were bereft of its franchise.

Shoehorning Leonard Nimoy’s Spock into the J.J. Abrams movies adds almost nothing to the plot. It’s a cheap and empty way to appeal to fans who have sunk time and effort into decades of the franchise. 

In Into Darkness, when the primary antagonist John Harriman says that his real name is Khan Noonien Singh, it’s presented as a major revelation — but in fact it means little within the narrative. The only reason an audience member would react to this is that they’re steeped in the lore of the franchise. 

Sadly, these stories can become victims of their own success as readers and viewers imagine what happens next, what happened before, and who else lives in that science fictional universe. 

What was once a narrative becomes a canon. 

What was once a story becomes a franchise. And franchises are dependent on fans continuing emotional attachment, but sadly not dependent on telling engaging stories.

It's difficult to let go of a beloved franchise. But maybe it's time to let it lie fallow for a while. 

Thursday 1 November 2018

Retro Hugos - Dramatic Presentation Long Form

There was a flourishing of low-budget science fiction and horror movies in 1943, offering American audiences an escape from the Second World War. Next summer in Dublin, these works will be vying for the Retro Hugo for 1944.

In 1943, Bela Lugosi fought The Ape Man, and Turhan Bey fought The Mad Ghoul. Flesh and Fantasy offered
While it was a success
when released in 1943,
The Batman does not
hold up well, in part
because of its racism.
(Image via HuffingtonPost)
three linked stories of the supernatural. Claude Rains thrilled audiences with his iconic turn as the Phantom of the Opera (a movie that interestingly featured sci-fi legend Fritz Leiber’s dad in a major role.)

Lon Cheney Jr. and Bela Lugosi went toe-to-toe in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman — which could reasonably be described as paving the way for the Marvel cinematic universe by being the first shared-universe movie. 

The year also offered moviegoers the first cinematic adventure of Batman.

Each of these movies has its charms, some offered a pulpish enthusiasm for the material, others were stunning in their set design and camera work. But one cinematic work of science fiction or fantasy towers above all of them: Ernst Lubitsch’s late-period romantic comedy Heaven Can Wait (not to be confused with the 1978 Warren Beatty movie of the same name).

A Light Touch

Lubitsch is probably best known for his anti-Hitler movie To Be Or Not To Be, and the Jimmy Stewart vehicle The Shop Around The Corner, the latter of which was named by the American Film Institute (AFI) as one of the 100 all-time greatest movies, and was remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail.

As a director, Lubitsch used longer takes and camera motions that appear simple, but upon examination the observant viewer sees the complexity hidden by their elegance. He is in fine form with Heaven Can Wait.

Simultaneously, a morality play and a love story, Heaven Can Wait features Don Ameche as Henry, a
Don Ameche (left) and Laird Cregar
give possibly the best performances
of their careers in Heaven Can Wait.
(Image via ScottRollins
recently deceased man who is penitent for the life he led on Earth. Certain of his fate, he visits the devil (Laird Cregar) and recounts his life story. The devil has high standards for damnation, and wants to fully assess Henry’s HELLigibility.

Most of the story is told in the form of flashbacks to Henry’s life, from his libidinous youth through his unfaithful years of marriage. But despite his infidelities, the movie makes it clear that Henry and his wife Martha (Gene Tierney) share a love that endures.

Strong structure

The parenthetical narrative structure is strengthened by a tight three-acts that – while edited in a way that may seem ponderous to some modern viewers – makes it highly watchable. Rather than being overtly moralistic, writer Samson Raphaelson uses a light touch.

There’s a subtlety to Raphaelson’s wit that’s delivered almost perfectly by the cast. First-rate lines like “Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once,” and “Sometimes it looks as if the whole world is coming to Hell,” could easily have been ruined by ham-handed delivery. Instead, these jokes land lightly enough to almost be missed.

It's interesting to note how many pictures in the mid-40s were about the afterlife, heaven, and hell:
Ernst Lubitsch is one of the best
comedy directors of the 1940s,
and in 1943, he produced a fine
work of fantasy cinema.
(Image via
among others, there’s The Horn Blows at Midnight, A Matter of Life and Death, Angel on My Shoulder, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It might be suggested that this was related to wartime anxieties, much as the Civil War popularized spirit photography, and mediums came into vogue after the First World War.

Heaven Can Wait earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director – losing out to Casablanca in both cases – as well as a nod for cinematography. We’d argue that Laird Cregar’s turn as the devil should also have earned him at least a nod for Supporting Actor.

In its dry comedy, existential musings, and terrific performances, this movie might be seen as a forerunner to last year’s Dramatic Presentation – Short Form winner The Good Place. It is every bit as much of a work of fun fantasy.

There are several other decent works that would be suitable for nomination in the upcoming year’s Retro Hugos. Phantom of the Opera and I Walked With A Zombie would be worthy of recognition, and will make our ballots. But no other science fiction or fantasy movie of 1943 comes close to Heaven Can Wait.

Whether or not you plan to vote on the Retro Hugo Awards next summer, we highly recommend this movie