What is Science Fiction, Part 1, Introduction and History

What is Science Fiction, boy now there’s a tough question to answer. We all have a feeling about what makes a story Science Fiction or not. The technology is more advanced than in our present day world; lasers replace firearms, rockets replace airplanes and automobiles and etc. Also, Science Fiction stories are often set in places no human has yet visited whether it be the planets or stars or perhaps the future. Then of course there’s the alien forms of life, creatures whose nature and motives are completely unknown to us, at least in chapter one. It seems then that Science Fiction takes what we know, science is the Latin word for knowledge after all, and proceeds from there to speculate on what we don’t know.

But at the same time isn’t Science Fiction more than that, doesn’t Science Fiction allow us to ask in story form the big questions, doesn’t it enable us to think about the very nature and purpose of reality and mankind’s place in it. With Science Fiction we can look out at the Universe and then turn around and look back at ourselves.

I’m going to take a few posts over the next couple of weeks to talk about just what I think Science Fiction is. The posts may not be one after the other but hopefully I’ll keep them close together.

I’m thinking of doing this in four or five parts. Today will be just a basic introduction of Science Fiction along with a brief history. Next time I’d like to discuss what I’ll call the great themes of Science Fiction, which will be followed by an analysis of some of the most famous Science Fiction novels and stories using those themes. In the final part I’ll talk about the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy as I see it.

Now right up front I admit that this is going to be pretty much just my opinion. Oh, I’ll do my best to get the authors’ names and the titles correct, but really I don’t expect anyone to agree with me completely. Indeed, feel free to dispute everything I say.

If I just prompt you to think a little about Science Fiction. Or if you are inspired to find and read one of the novels I mention for the first time, then I will have done my job.

As a literary form Science Fiction has a much older history than you might think. What is generally regarded as the first Science Fiction romance was “True History” by the second century CE poet Lucian of Samosata. (By the way the term romance simply means a story composed in the Roman fashion, today we would call it a novel or novella)

The idea of writing a story that you don’t want anyone to believe was so unusual at that time that Lucian felt the need to tell his readers at the end that the things in his tales “do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all”.

The story in “True History” concerns a group of travelers who are swept up to the Moon on a whirlwind where they witness a war between the armies of the Moon and the Sun over which would colonize the morning star. The story therefore contains two of the elements we mentioned earlier. Travel to a place no one had ever traveled to before and while there encountering strange and alien creatures.

Over the next 1500 years or so a rare story would be written that today we would call science fiction. Cyrano de Bergerac (yes he really lived, big nose and everything) wrote another story about a trip to the Moon but he used a balloon and, get this, rockets.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century however that we get authors who wrote several Science Fiction stories thereby establishing Science Fiction as a genre. I’m speaking of course about Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and this is where I’m going to stop for today. Next time I’m going to use the novels of these two pioneers in Science Fiction to discuss what I call the ‘Great Themes of Science Fiction.” Till then.

Book Review: Luna, New Moon by Ian McDonald

First Published back in 2015 the Novel ‘Luna: New Moon’ is an exciting, fast paced tale of five powerful families fighting for control of the industries that keep humanity’s lunar colony alive. The author Ian McDonald has himself described Luna as ‘Game of Domes’ and ‘Dallas in Space’, I think I’ll call it a space opera.

Novel, Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

The plot revolves around the Corta family who control the He3 production on the Moon that powers the fusion reactors back on Earth. Rich and powerful, the Cortas are involved in a large number of rivalries and struggles both between themselves and with the other four families that basically run the Moon.

Although there is technology aplenty this story could just as easily have been set in the Italy of the Borgia’s or among the Frankish Merovingians. In other words it’s a story of human passions and mostly bad ones at that. The technology is basically used as scenery or to facilitate the human interactions rather than driving the story.

I do have one little criticism to mention. In the novel there are a number of individuals who were born on Earth along with many who were born on the Moon itself. Now the Moon born are stuck on the Moon, their bones and muscles are too weak to be capable of surviving Earth’s gravity. Now, that may very well turn out to be true but in ‘Luna: New Moon’ the people from Earth also can never return to Earth after they’ve been on the Moon more than two years.

That is almost certainly not true! In my post back on 15Feb17 I mentioned the medical studies being carried out right now on the Astronaut Scott Kelly who had spent an entire year in zero gravity! While astronaut Kelly did require several days to adjust back to Earth gravity and scientists studying him have found some minor changes in his physiology he is well, healthy and back to living a full life. If returning to Earth after one year in zero ‘g’ is not a problem at all can two years on in Lunar gravity be so debilitating.

Based on Astronaut Kelly’s example, and others, I have no doubt that a person can return to survive returning to Earth after more than two years on the Moon or Mars.

Aside from that minor point I did quite enjoy Luna: New Moon and do recommend it but with a warning. There’s quite a lot of pretty graphic sex in the novel so if you’re the type who doesn’t want to read about ‘dried semen stains’, well you decide for yourself.

One more thing; Luna: New Moon is actually the first part of a two novel story. The second novel, Luna: Wolf Moon is supposed to be published this month. So if you do read Luna: New Moon don’t expect any conclusion, in fact the ending is very much a cliffhanger, and don’t buy Luna: Wolf Moon until you’ve read Luna: New Moon.

Now the big question. If Luna: New Moon reminded me of ‘I Claudius’ as much as anything else, if the science is just scenery then is Luna really a science fiction novel? I’m not the first person to ask this question but I’ve thought a lot about it and I’m planning on a future post, or more likely a series of posts discussing just what is science fiction, what are the GREAT THEMES OF SCIENCE FICTION and where is the crossover between science fiction and other literary genres, Fantasy in particular. It won’t be too long, I’m working on it so keep watching for it.

 

Book Review: Dark Secret by Edward M. Lerner

In a nutshell the novel “Dark Secret” a novel by Edward M. Lerner, is the story of a spaceship crew who escape the total destruction of the entire solar system and have to re-establish the human race on a new planet. Familiar territory but “Dark Secret” does manage to bring some new twists to the theme.

Dark Secret by Edward M. Lerner

 

We begin aboard the spaceship Clermont, named for the first steamship because this Clermont is testing a new form of propulsion, the Dark Energy Drive. Since DED derives it’s thrust from dark energy it requires no actual fuel, and that’s all we ever learn about Dark Energy Drive. That’s the first problem I had with this novel, I just never got a feel for the spaceship.

Anyway, while stopping at Mars for resupply, the crew of the Clermont is seized by Martian police and taken to meet the Martian President and his Chief of Staff. The President then informs the crew, and the reader of course, that a astronomer measuring gravity waves has calculated that a nearby Gamma Ray Burst will destroy all life in the entire solar system in three years. The President’s plan is to build a fleet of ships equipped with DED which will colonize a new planet around Alpha Centauri. The Clermont will leave first to scout the new planet.

While the Clermont is being modified for its interstellar mission the Martian Chief of Staff shows up and informs the crew that the astronomer has updated his calculations and the GRB is going to happen in eight months. He throws some equipment, and three new crew members onto the Clermont and orders her to take off, the modifications can be completed while the ship is fleeing the solar system. I don’t know about you but I don’t get a good feeling for this mission.

I don’t want to give too much more away, and there are plenty more twists and turns and conflicts, but while every science fiction story asks its reader to accept a few things out of the ordinary “Dark Secret” is really a strain on credibility. There’s one part where the entire crew goes into hibernation leaving the autopilot to navigate around a cosmic string! Ah, yea, right!

Things get a little better in the second half of the novel when the ship, now renamed the Endeavor, finally reaches a new planet over a thousand light years away, (remember that cosmic string). Here one of the crew who was added at the last moment decides she knows exactly how the new human race should be organized; Hint, she’s no fan of Thomas Jefferson and all man being equal. Even on the new world however, the only real problem the crew encounter in colonizing a new home for what’s left of humanity is the would-be dictator. Again, that’s a little bit hard to take.

I’m not saying “Dark Secret” is a bad novel. I read it through in less than two days so it certainly kept my attention. There is something new on just about every page. It’s just that “Dark Secret” seems to brush past some real problems and descriptions in order to get on with the CONFLICT in the story. In doing so however it also brushes past a lot of the details that would give a real feeling to the story.

Well, that’s my opinion. What’s yours?

Movie Review: Passengers

To start with “Passengers” is a certainly a visually attractive film, and I don’t just mean Jennifer Lawrence. It’s true, the best part of the film are the special effects and especially the set design. The starship Avalon is the starship you dream of being on.

Passengers. Maybe they could have shown the starship in one of their posters?

The biggest problem with this movie is the plot, it’s sooooo slow and so predictable, especially the love story. The movie begins as the starship Avalon is about a third of the way through it’s 120 year journey to the colony Homestead II when the ship has a collision with a rather large asteroid. The ship’s deflector screen prevents the ship from being destroyed but there is some damage, the first instance of which is when passenger Chris Pratt is awoken from hibernation much too early. For the next half an hour we are treated to watching Pratt learn he is the only person awake, watching him try wake up members of the crew and otherwise try to find a way out of his problem as he slowly goes a little crazy. This is the worst part of the film.

The story gets a little better when Jennifer Lawrence wakes up (I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot here). At least now we have two people trying to figure out what they can do. As Jennifer and Chris fall in love and then break up we occasionally are shown small parts of the ship beginning to malfunction as Cleaning robots, visual displays and other systems run into walls or flicker on and off.

Here we have the biggest plot hole in the story. As the failures begin to cascade we are shown the ship’s computer keeping tract of all the breakdowns but for some reason it hasn’t been programmed to wake up any of the crew to fix the bloody problem. At the same time boy engineer Chris is so engrossed in Jennifer he doesn’t notice the accumulating malfunctions. If fact we have to wait for crewman Lawrence Fishburne to be awakened before anybody says “Hey we gotta fix this”!

Now, since three’s a crowd, Fishburne has suffered internal damage during his revival and literally only lives long enough to get Chris and Jennifer off their well exercised butts while giving them his authority to access sections of the ship they hadn’t been able to get into and control the computer systems in ways they’d never been able to. Then he dies leaving Chris and Jennifer to risk their lives saving the ship while falling in love again.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie isn’t bad but it is slow and predictable. As I said earlier the set design does have a real feel of what we imagine a starship passenger liner to be and the story does take the effort to think about why people would ever consider leaping 120 years into the future to begin a completely new life on a new world but hey, isn’t that kinda just the story of our country.

I guess if you like Chris Pratt or Jennifer Lawrence, or if you really like starships you’re like “Passengers” otherwise this movie will probably leave you feeling a little flat.

Review: The Finale of “MARS” on National Geographic Channel

Last night we were treated to the season finale of the National Geographic channel’s six part series “Mars”. Now I’m not sure but does season finale mean there’s more to come next season? Or is this the final finale? Either way it’s a good time for a review of the show.

Mars on the Nat Geo Channel

For those who haven’t seen Mars the series combines a fictional depiction of the first attempts to build a colony on the Red Planet with interviews from scientists and engineers who hope to turn the fiction into reality over the next few decades. Each episode in the series was intended to highlight one of the many dangers the first travelers to Mars will face while showing how they will overcome those dangers with courage, ingenuity and hard work.

While trying to avoid any spoilers the final episode posed perhaps the greatest challenge of all those facing Mars explorers. It’s not an engineering problem or the lack of resources on Mars, those problems we can easily overcome. The problem is the unwillingness of the people back on Earth to accept the inevitable casualties that will come as we explore new worlds in deep space.

The fifth episode had ended with just such a disaster as seven of the Mars colonists were killed. The finale then opens with the political and corporate leaders back on Earth trying to decide whether or not to order an evacuation of the remaining explorers. The interview segments then discussed how the near disaster of Apollo 13 brought about a cancelation of the final two Apollo missions and a complete ending of Human missions beyond Earth orbit for the last 45 years.

This is a big problem. When the colonists of Roanoke Island died they simply disappeared into history, we still aren’t really certain just what happened to them. When somebody dies on Mars however we’ll see it live (O’k there’ll be a time delay for the speed of light) and in full living colour. Now the adventurers who will go to Mars are ready to accept the risk but will we here back on Earth? As I said, this timidness on the part of the Earthbound public may well be in greatest difficulty to be faced in conquering Mars.

As to Mars the Series. Well, I can tell you it’s going in my video collection. It wasn’t perfect, the sound quality of the fictional sections was rather poor, some of the actors seemed like they were mumbling into their chests. But on the whole it was intelligent, thought provoking science fiction of the best kind. Hopefully Nat Geo, the Science Channel and other media outlets will find the way to provide us with more series like “Mars”.

Well, that’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. Till next time.

Movie Review: Arrival

I have a big problem with this Movie! The alien visitors are not only smart enough to span interstellar space and come to Earth they are smart enough to have a deeper understanding of time than we do. And when they arrive on Earth they know that we are a divided species, they seem to know something of our physiology and technology. Yet somehow they haven’t managed to learn English or any other Earth language, nor do they manage to do so by the end of the movie. Seriously, at the film’s climax Amy Adams is trying to get the big message across to them using their language!

I had the same problem with Close Encounters of the Third Kind back in 1977, I know that’s almost heresy but it’s true. In CE3K the aliens have been watching us since at least Dec1945 when they abducted Navy flight 19 but in the next 32 years they haven’t learned English! I’m sorry but that really ruined CE3K for me and it pretty much ruins Arrival.

I remember the old 1950 Film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” where at the beginning of the movie the Alien Klaatu walks out of his flying saucer speaking perfect English. He explains this by announcing that “they” have been listening in on our radio and TV broadcasts. Which is probably how any aliens would learn about our existence in the first place.

arrival-poster-russia

Arrival’s best part is in fact where Amy Adams learns the aliens written language where every word is based on a circle (see example below). They state in the film that this makes every word a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same backwards and forwards, but if you look at the example that’s not true, the alien symbol is different depending on whether you go around the circle clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Alien Language in Arrival
Example of Alien Language in Arrival

As to the Aliens of Arrival themselves, they aren’t very interesting. They look pretty much like octopuses that have lost one tentacle and we don’t get to see a great deal of their technology. The film is really more about how we humans react to the arrival of aliens than the aliens themselves. In that case however “Arrival” spends too much time with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and we only get snippets of news reports on how humanity as a whole is reacting.

Serious Science Fiction movies are rare and need to be supported but I just can’t give it my wholehearted approval. It’s not bad, it’s just not very alien. The scriptwriters needed to spend more time on the aliens and not just their language. Well, that’s my opinion, what’s yours?

 

National Geographic Channel Gives Us A Night Of MARS

Last Night the National Geographic Channel debuted the first episode of it’s new six part miniseries “Mars” from Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Formatted as a dramatization of the first voyage to Mars the program adds in comments from some of the scientists and engineers who are working to make that first voyage actually happen.

In the first episode we were introduced to the international team of six men and women who will take the spaceship “Daedalus” to Mars. Last night’s episode concentrated in the difficulties and dangers of the actual landing on the red planet. Without giving away to much, a life threatening malfunction occurs, the mission commander is injured while fixing the problem enabling the Daedalus to land safely.

It appears to me that the plot for each episode will resemble last night’s in examining one aspect of the voyage to Mars, adding in an emergency and letting the crew survive by their technical skill and courage. My biggest criticism of last night’s episode would be the sound, with the crew’s helmets on and all of the background noise I never did get to hear what the malfunction actually was.

The interspersed comments from the scientists included Elon Musk the CEO of Space X corporation, Neil deGrasse Tyson the Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of Star Talk, Andy Weir the author of “The Martian” along with my favorite astronaut (I met him once) Jim Lovell and a host of other scientists. In general the commentators succeeded in informing rather than interfering but towards the end I almost got the feeling I was watching a commercial for Space X.

We’ll see how future episodes go, I’ll certainly be watching. National Geographic has announced that they plan on producing more series like Mars and less of the the Tuna Fishing, Surviving in the wild with nothing but a camera crew to help type of reality show and I for one appreciate the change.

After the premier of Mars came the weekly installment of Star Talk with the aforementioned Neil deGrasse Tyson. Doctor Tyson’s guests were the aforementioned Andy Weil along with NASA Engineer Adam Steltzner the team leader on the Mars Curiosity Rover’s sky crane landing system and Jim Green, NASA’s lead planetary scientist. As you might guess the discussions were all about Mars without making an explicit tie in to the miniseries.

Television was once described by Newton N. Minow as a “Vast Wasteland”. Well last night the wasteland of Mars gave us some of the best TV I’ve seen in quiet a long while.

Movie Review: Doctor Strange

The Marvel Universe has released its latest comic to movie superhero in Doctor Stephen Strange. Marvel has certainly developed a winning structure for action movies and while Doctor Strange may not be a high point in the Marvel Universe it was still an entertaining installment.

The biggest problem is the first third of the movie, where noted neurosurgeon Doctor Strange has a car accident, injuring his lifesaving hands. Abandoning western medicine he seeks a cure in eastern mysticism, becoming a super magician, and learning the truth about himself in the process

What we get is simply trite. We’ve seen all this before and the comparisons to other movies are so easy to make. I’ll use Star Wars as an example. Tilda Swinton is the Yoda character, Chiwetel Ejiotor and Benedict Wong share the Obi Wan duties while Benedict Cumberbatch is of course Luke Skywalker. There are scenes of Luke…er, Stephen in training along with the required ‘wise’ sayings stressing how no sense makes sense.

As you can tell from the cast the acting is excellent, only Mads Mikkelsen in the Darth Vader role is unconvincing, and to be honest he has very little to work with aside from just being the baddie. The special effects are also high quality. The bending of reality does manage to generate a genuine feeling of vertigo.

The film picks up a bit of steam when Strange’s artifact finds him. A mage doesn’t find his artifact, it finds him. Again, that’s a little trite. I won’t give away the ending except to say it was the best part of the film with Strange being clever in defeating his foe rather than just another fight scene.

I’m not saying Doctor Strange was a bad film, it just needed a good bit more care in the early part of the script. If you’re looking for something thought provoking, or even just clever plot twists you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re just looking for an enjoyable night’s entertainment Doctor Strange will do the trick.

Oh, and one last thing. Since Doctor Strange will be an integral part of the Marvel Universe, ya kinda have to see this this movie in order to keep up with what’s going on in the rest of MU. Clever boys there at Marvel aren’t they.

P.S. Monday night, 14Nov16, the National Geographic channel will debut the first installment of its six part miniseries ‘Mars’. You can bet I’ll be watching, and posting!

Book Review: “On to the Asteroid” by Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson

Just finished reading the new (Aug16) novel “On to the Asteroid” by Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson, a hard science look at space travel about twenty years from now. If you’re like me and are anxious for humanity to return to the Moon, get going on exploring Mars and begin living, working and profiting from space I can recommend “On to the Asteroid” without reservation.

The basic plot, a runaway asteroid is going to strike the Earth is actually the weakest element of the entire book. We’ve seen all this before whether in novels, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Hammer of God” or movies “Meteor”, “Armageddon” and Deep Impact” and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. That said “On to the Asteroid” is a thrill ride in a high-tech spaceship with plenty of plot twists, a homicidal maniac along with harrowing escapes from certain death.

The Authors, Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson certainly know their science and technology. Taylor is an aerospace engineer, author and appears in National Geographic Channels “Rocket City Rednecks” while Les Johnson is a physicist who works for NASA at their Advanced Concepts Office so you know the science is done with three digit accuracy. Like Andy Weir’s “The Martian” the science of “On to the Asteroid” is the solid foundation of an adventure unlike anything anyone has yet experienced.

“On to the Asteroid” is a quick read, it took me two days to finish. It reminds me somewhat of the Dan Brown novels that have something happen every page which keeps you turning to the next page. I’m not going to spoil the ending or anything but “On to the Asteroid” is a roller coaster ride that will keep you in suspense till the very end.

“On to the Asteroid” isn’t either philosophical nor psychological. It isn’t great literature, but it is what science fiction has always done best, it takes you to other worlds!

Happy 50th Birthday Star Trek

Today we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast premier of Star Trek, and I do mean celebrate. On the evening of September eighth 1966 NBC television showed the episode “The Man Trap” and the world was introduced to Captain James T. Kirk, the half Vulcan Mr. Spock, “Bones” McCoy, Scottie, Uhura and the entire crew of the starship Enterprise.

I still vividly remember watching that first episode and immediately became a lifelong Trekker. The Man Trap itself was a good episode, not great but it did have an alien planet with a lost civilization and a deadly monster with cool powers that you ended up feeling almost sorry for. “It’s the last of its kind, like the buffalo.”  

Yes, I know the costumes were high school, same for the sets. The special effects are now so outdated, and Shatner’s acting could sometimes make you cringe. Still, some of the episodes that followed were classics of science fiction in any media and even after all these years are some of the best television that has ever been produced.

That the world of Star Trek has lasted for fifty years, and continues to grow, is I think because it provides a framework into which many of us, the nerds of the world if you like, are able to fit our hopes and dreams. It provides an example of a world, a humanity where many people would like to live. 

I grew up with friends who wanted to be the Captain of the Enterprise. I have other friends who would prefer to travel to remote, alien worlds on the Enterprise. Personally, I was something like Scottie, I wanted to know how the Enterprise worked; how the Jeffery’s Tube connected the Engineering Section to the Warp Pods or how many decks did the Saucer Section have?

Gene Roddenbury’s of vision of a humanity that has solved the problems of today by the simple act of behaving like grown-ups, and because of which is now prepared to face the challenges of an entire universe still attracts new followers. We can take pleasure in knowing that there are more movies being developed, and a new series starting early next yea. So we will still have Star Trek with us for a long time to come, and I for one am glad for that.