Tuesday, October 05, 2004

science fiction and Schlock

I've been wasting way too much time lately reading through the Schlock Mercenary archives (thanks a lot, Donald). Although it is silly in a lot of ways, the comic strikes me as real science fiction, compared with Star Trek which often doesn't. I've been trying to understand what it is that gives me that impression and I think I've finally got it.

What leads to the confusion is that science fiction is a genre, not just a setting. A setting is the world in which a story happens. For example, a western happens in the United States, ca. 1880. That's the setting, but the plot is not distinctly a Western plot unless it has lots of action. Westerns are really just action stories in a particular kind of setting. "Little House on the Prairie", for example is not a true western. It takes place in the right setting, but it isn't an action story.

The situation is similar for science fiction. The high tech is not sufficient, you need to have science fiction plot elements as well. The essential plot element in science fiction is adventure. Not just action --fighting and chasing and escaping and such-- but the adventure of seeing new places, of finding out new things, of encountering novel problems and finding novel solutions. It's all about exploration and discovery. And part of what you discover is the technology and aliens races and planets.

Fantasy literature is characterized by the same element, and I think that's the real reason that the two are often categorized together as speculative fiction. But adventure literature doesn't have to be science fiction or fantasy. "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Treasure Island", and "Swiss Family Robinson" are all adventure literature. Adventure literature is the real genre of which science fiction is just a class of settings.

The genre of adventure competes with other genres such as action, romance, intrigue, mystery, and horror. Westerns, for example, are really just action literature in a western setting. Other common settings for action literature are feudal Japan, feudal Europe, and modern times.

Since action, romance, and the rest are plot elements that can be mixed up at will. It is probably more accurate to say that they are plot elements and that the genre is just literature that heavily emphasizes a particular plot element.

In the case of action, romance, intrigue, mystery and horror, it is usual to categorize the stories by the primary plot element. You can have action stories that take place in tenth century India, romances in Elizabethan England, mysteries in the roaring 20's, and everyone recognizes them as action stories, romances, or mysteries, respectively. But with science fiction, fantasy, and westerns, the stories are categorized by setting instead. That is what leads to the confusion of setting with plot elements.

It doesn't make sense to categorize books based on setting. There aren't a lot of people who are perfectly happy with either romance or action, just so long as there are lots of aliens. Different people prefer different plot elements. Romance scenes have me quickly flipping forward to the end of the scene. I imagine other people do the same with detailed technology descriptions.

That's how science fiction/fantasy and westerns ended up as a fairly pure genres even though they were (unwisely) categorized by setting rather than genre. They couldn't build up a customer base by cramming a half-dozen different genres onto one shelf, so the most fit genre for the setting survived. In the case of westerns, the most fit genre was action. In the case of speculative fiction, the most fit genre was adventure.

Adventure is the most fit genre for science fiction and fantasy settings because those settings add novelty. They add exotic peoples and locations and events --the stuff of adventure. Advanced technology (or magic) is just another thing to explore and in real science fiction --adventure fiction-- you explore those things.

That's how Star Trek fails as real science fiction. Teleporters, phasers, warp drive, photon torpedoes; those were things to explore for a real science fiction author. What's the limitation on the range of a teleporter: energy or processing power or something else? Does it work (as it appears) by disassembling and reassembling the person? If so, can you make a copy? How can one device be used to stun, kill, or vaporize, and why do the characters decide to use one instead of the other? How fast does warp drive go and are there any other kinds of star drives? What is a photon torpedo and what are the trade-offs between photon torpedoes and ship's phasers? How can something that uses as much power as a phaser be as small as something that uses as little power as a communicator? What do tricorders record? How many hours of recording to they have? How do sensors work? How do the medical instruments work?

Star Trek authors had no interest in any of these questions. The answer was always "whatever the plot requires". Teleporters were nothing but a plot device to move the story along quickly. Their unique powers were almost never exploited. Phasers killed, stunned, or vaporized as the plot called for: you want a dramatic end? Vaporize. You want a body to mourn over? No problem, we'll invent a setting that kills without vaporizing. You want some moralizing about crime and punishment or a returning enemy? No problem, we'll invent a new setting that just renders the victim unconscious. You want to heat up a rock? Why shouldn't a weapon that vaporizes, kills and stuns also heat things up?

A real science fiction author would have had some reasoning behind this --probably different weapons-- but Star Trek authors didn't think of technology at that detail. There were just guns. Just one kind of gun, but it was a science-fictiony gun. A --you know-- ray gun that would do whatever the plot called for. They weren't even there unless the plot needed them. A real science fiction author would have realized that if you have enough energy available in a tiny weapon to heat a rock red-hot, you ought to have heating elements in the uniforms themselves. But that removes a high-tech survival-oriented activity from the script.

And the ship. Star Trek treated that ship like it was a common, every day naval vessel. If you want to know what it's like, look it up in the encyclopedia. They'd hop in an elevator to get from place to place. Like the transporter, it was designed to avoid exploration. Just get from scene A to scene B as quickly as possible. There was no curiosity about the ship's organization. Rooms popped up as the plot called for them. You need to lose control of the bridge? No problem, we'll grow an auxiliary bridge.

And what about the Federation? You never did know how big the federation was, how many species were in it, or how it was organized. It wasn't even clear that there were any other species in it. Were the Vulcans in the federation? If so, why did we need a Vulcan ambassador? The only thing we ever learned about the Federation was that the people in it were perfected human beings with no selfishness or other character flaws. How that miracle happened is yet another thing that the authors didn't bother to explore.

And then there were the alien planets and species. You'd get a quick and unenlightening description of an entire new race at the beginning of the show, and then they'd go off into a plot that could just as well have happened in 19th Century Europe (except for the special effects). You never learn anything new about the species except for surprise plot elements. Planet explorations consisted of a small team wandering around in homogenous terrain for a few minutes until a red-shirt gets scragged, and then you go on to the plot. It's just a setup for the adventure, not exploration.

Star Trek is a space action show, a future fable. In fables you have magical powers and beings pop up at will to provide a background for the action or romance.That's how Star Trek treated hi-tech. It isn't true science fiction because there is no significant amount of curiosity about the universe. And what exploration there was is all external. There was no attempt to explore the exotic technology. And that is directly counter to the spirit of science fiction: the whole point of the exotic technology is to give you something else to explore.

Star Trek is popular among science fiction fans. That's not because it's science fiction. It's because most science fiction fans also like action. And even though there was no exploration of the setting, it was still a fun setting. And television does action well. I don't care for pure action books but I like pure action movies and television because the visuals and sound make it more interesting. That's why science fiction fans like Star Trek, not because it's science fiction but because it's good action in a science fiction setting.

Contrast this with Schlock Mercenary. Even with just three panels per day, you learn more about Schlock's universe than you ever knew about Spock's. If you read the text addendums, you learn even more (although I'd like to know more about galactic politics). It's clear that the Howard Tayler, the author of Schlock Mercenary, likes to explore, and he takes us with him. That's what makes good science fiction.

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