Not long ago I wrote a post in which I compared the traditional characteristics of angels with the characteristics attributed to aliens in pop-culture. I was discussing it with a friend who’d read it, and he initially misinterpreted what I’d written. He took me to be describing what I thought aliens were actually like, as opposed to how they’re described in literature, movies, and so on. I clarified what I meant; but it occurred to me that maybe I should discuss my thoughts on aliens in real life. Onward, then!
The logical starting point in discussing aliens is clarifying our terminology. What most people take “alien” to mean, without explicitly saying it (or perhaps not even explicitly realizing it), is “intelligent life forms originating elsewhere in the cosmos”. In short, alien intelligence is automatically assumed without even taking into the account the probability of alien life. If there is no life in space at all, though, there can certainly be no intelligent alien life. Thus, we have to start at the beginning and ask, “Is there life in space at all?”
Even that question makes unstated assumption, to wit: Are we talking about any life, or only, to use the cliche, “life as we know it”? Life as we know it–that which we see on Earth, including ourselves–is based on carbon. Carbon is the building block of the amino acids that form the proteins out of which life is made, as well as of the RNA and DNA by which genetic information is passed from generation to generation. Things could, however, have turned out differently.
You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But in the detail which he gave you of them he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured wasting in impotent passions. For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?
–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
We went out to watch a big-screen showing of the classic 1931 movie version with Boris Karloff; so I thought a quote from the novel was opportune. Besides, Halloween will soon be upon us!
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a science fiction novel published in 1960. The novel, divided into three parts, takes place between 600, 1200, and 1800 years in the future, respectively, chronicling a new Dark Age in the aftermath of a nuclear war. As in the Middle Ages, the Church survives and preserves learning over the centuries until a new Renaissance can occur. However, with the rebirth of knowledge and technology come the same forces at work a millennium earlier, and once more the world stands on the brink of nuclear destruction. Wishing to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that (you can read more in the linked Wikipedia article above). I certainly encourage everyone to read it–no summary does it justice. In my mind it’s one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and probably the greatest sf novel dealing with themes of faith and religion. Despite this, I think anyone of any religious persuasion can enjoy the novel, and more importantly find food for thought on the topic of knowledge and whether or not mankind can use it responsibly.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a bit of an enigma. He is considered one of the most important writers of science fiction of the mid-20th Century, and yet his output was small. During World War II, he was part of the crew of a bomber that participated in a series of raids against the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino is the historic monastery founded by St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, and as such the mother house of the Benedictine order. During the Italian Campaign in 1944, British intelligence erroneously thought that the monastery was being used as headquarters for German troops, and therefore ordered the bombing raids against it. The monastery was almost completely destroyed, with the only casualties being Italian civilians who had fled there for shelter, rather than Germans. Ironically, German troops later did camp in the ruins of the monastery, which were good cover. Miller was deeply traumatized by the effects of this tragic error, and the effects of this–what we’d now call PTSD–lingered for years. After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism, which was to be a major influence on his work.
During the 1950’s, Miller published many short stories and wrote scripts for television, winning a Hugo Award for his much-lauded short story “The Darfsteller“. From 1955 to 1957 he published a series of novellas dealing with an order of monks dedicated to preserving human knowledge in a distant, post-apocalyptic future. The novellas were originally titled “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, “And the Light is Risen”, and “The Last Canticle”. In 1959, Miller substantially edited and reworked the material in the novellas and published them in novel form as A Canticle for Leibowitz. The three-part structure was preserved, with the sections being renamed as “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man”), “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”), and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy will be done”). The novel won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1961, and has been in print ever since. After this, Miller never published anything again during the rest of his lifetime. Despite his small oeuvre, Miller is widely considered to be one of the most influential science fiction writers of his time.
Sadly, as the years progressed, Miller became increasingly reclusive, avoiding even most of his family and refusing even to meet with his literary agent in person. He struggled with depression and the aftereffects of PTSD. Though he published nothing, he worked for years on the manuscript of a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz titled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. “Sequel” is perhaps not quite the right word–the second novel takes place in the time between the events of “Fiat Lux” and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” in the original novel. In any case, Miller completed some six hundred pages of manuscript over a period of many years. By the 1990’s, though, he was in ill health and suffering from writers’s block, so he commissioned sf novelist Terry Bisson to complete the novel. According to Bisson, the vast majority of the work had been completed, and he merely tidied up the text and tied up a few loose ends. Tragically, in 1996, shortly after the death of his wife, Miller committed suicide. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published the following year.
After forty-one years and counting of the Star Wars franchise, which has brought us ten movies, seven television series, and God knows how many books, comics, works-in-progress, and various other media artifacts, I still maintain that the pinnacle of them all was the second movie (Episode V), The Empire Strikes Back. I will take that statement as self-evident 🙂 and thus I don’t intend to make that argument here. Rather, I recently wrote a post about space in which I mentioned time dilation in The Empire Strikes Back, and said that that would be material for another post. This is that post.
I watched The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980, the summer after my junior year in high school. It was long-anticipated, and as I’ve mentioned before, some loud-mouthed acquaintances, having read the book before the movie came out, spoiled the big reveal about Darth Vader being Luke’s father. Despite this, I found I enjoyed the movie enormously, more even than I had the first. I think this is a good demonstration of an argument made by the Plaid Adder, a blogger I follow. She says that if a reveal is properly done, then a spoiler–finding out about it ahead of time–doesn’t, in fact, spoil the show. This was definitely the case with me and Empire.
Anyway, I don’t know when I got to thinking about the specific issue I want to discuss today, but it gradually presented itself to me over the course of a few years. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time I watched the movie for the first time; but I think I had the matter articulated by the time I was in college. To make it clear just what I’m talking about, let’s have a quick recap of the relevant events of the movie.
I had been mulling over making a post on this topic when I saw this story in my Facebook newsfeed. A new galaxy, tiny and dim, has been discovered orbiting our own. That was a fascinating piece of news, and it confirmed my intention to write about the topic of space. More specifically, I want to discuss how the structure or layout of space seems to be widely misunderstood, even by some writers of science fiction. In this regard, this post is a sort of follow up to this one and this one. Thus, let us now boldly go into space and see what we’ll find there!
Since October 4th, 1957, with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be sent by humans into Earth orbit, we have lived in the Space Age. Press coverage of space and space travel seemed wall-to-wall throughout the 1960’s and into the early 70’s. Space figured largely in pop culture, too, with the 60’s giving us Star Trek and the monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. With time, the allure wore thin and the extraordinary became humdrum. Still, over sixty years later, we are more deeply connected to the inventions of the space program than ever before. Cell phone signals, Internet transmissions, and GPS all depend on satellites to function. Many of us get satellite TV as a matter of course. There has even been a resurgence of interest in space in both pop culture and reality. In the former, the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, after periods of dormancy, have re-started. In the latter, Elon Musk is making plans for manned travel to Mars, while various government sources have spoken of returning to the moon and of founding a military “space force”.
Given all this, one would assume a certain amount of science literacy regarding space. Certainly in the beginning of the Space Age, there was a strong push towards what we’d now call STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, out of fear of the head start of the Soviet Union in space. With space more integrated into our lives than ever, a permanent international space station in orbit, and the aforementioned space exploration plans, it would seem more imperative than ever that we have a good grasp of science and terminology of space. Most particularly, one would expect such science literacy from the writers of science fiction, which is perhaps the most characteristic genre of our age. Alas, that seems to be far from the case. Thus, along the lines of previous posts of mine which detail areas in which sf writers often fall short, I want in this post to look at some of the basics of space.
Star Trek, of course–what kind of question is that? Actually, if I’m going to write an essay, I should have more to say….
Star Trek, in its original incarnation (which I will henceforth refer to by the standard fan abbreviation TOS for “The Original Series”) began its prime-time network run on NBC in 1966, at which time I was three years old. Its last season ended in 1969, at which time I was six, and about to begin the first grade. I know Mom and Dad watched it, so I no doubt did, as well. I’ve seen every episode multiple times since, and given that, it’s hard to sort out any genuine memories of the series’s original airing.
It doesn’t really matter, though. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, TOS was more or less constantly in syndication somewhere on one channel or another. Every time it was available on any of the channels we got, I always watched it. For reasons that are obscure, certain episodes (e.g. “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”) were in very heavy rotation, whereas others (such as “Errand of Mercy” and the insanely elusive “The Mark of Gideon”) were rarely if ever aired. I made it my goal to watch every one of the original seventy-nine episodes at least once. I set this goal at the age of around twelve or thirteen, and it took into my mid-twenties to complete it, but complete it I did. In the meantime, my involvement with Star Trek was expanding far beyond watching reruns.
Someone I follow on Tumblr had a post recently discussing what makes for good writing in a fan fiction context. The conclusion was “good technical skills”. The idea is that, while writers and readers of fanfic may have different criteria of what makes a fic “good” than do the gatekeepers of “mainstream” fiction, and while those differing criteria are valid, good technical skills are universal, allowing you to develop the story you want to tell and to say what you need to say. Technical skills may not be the end-all and be-all; but you have to be able to control what you’re saying if you want to get anything across to the reader. I totally agree with this.
Anyway, I reblogged and added a response dealing with an aspect of fanfic that I think isn’t often realized or understood. It occurred to me that it might be worth putting up here, too, especially since I’ve been discussing pop culture–which of course includes fanfic–in the course of writing my series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“. I have edited it very lightly for publication here, but it’s substantially the same as the original form. Enjoy!
This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion. There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind. It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.
Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged. I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov. Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references). Certainly, Asimov knew better. The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created. It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us. The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.
The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right. This leads to the topic I want to talk about here: What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy? That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.
In the course of this reconsideration of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we’ve looked at all the major aspects of production except for what some consider the most important, the director. I don’t really have any strong feelings either way with regard to the auteur theory–I think there are cases to be made both ways. In either case, the director is certainly one of the most important aspects of any film; and the director chosen to helm STTMP was the distinguished veteran filmmaker Robert Wise.
Robert Wise was a Hollywood veteran of long standing, who had worked in almost all cinematic genres. He won Academy Awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music. More germane to the present consideration, he directed the movie widely considered to be the best science fiction movie of the 1950’s, The Day the Earth Stood Still. He also directed the science fiction thriller The Andromeda Strain. Unlike later directors who often stamped their personality onto all their films, Wise had a reputation as a consummate craftsman who worked with what he was given to make the best movies he could. Wise had not been familiar with Star Trek, but he had been a favorite director of Gene Roddenberry. Thus, after several possible directors were discussed, Wise was chosen to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture.