Friday, June 1, 2012

Jetpacks and TV News

They lied to us
This was supposed to be the future
Where is my jetpack
Where is my robotic companion
Where is my dinner in pill form
Where is my hydrogen fueled automobile
Where is my nuclear powered levitating home
Where is my cure for this disease

(Seen on a T shirt designed by John Slabyek over at Threadless)

I laughed, at first, but only until I remembered a couple of secrets about the public… I don’t suppose you would forgive me, right here and now, for breaking the “prime directive” by blurting out society’s secrets. I  don't throw the truth at people like a wet dishrag. But maybe if I reminisce, then I might, accidentally-like, unfold some secrets…

Before the Star Trek’s prime directive, before color TV, I too wanted a jetpack, especially on Monday nights while watching a young pre-teen Johnny Quest, with a rifle, flying alongside his dad’s bodyguard. (They don’t make such violent cartoons anymore, a pity) It was an age of both vacuum tubes and something new and “mighty:” As Chief Engineer Scott said once, “I think they called them transistors.” As a child I occasionally used pencil and paper to calculate how old I would be when the year 2000 arrived. Unthinkable! I would be as old as Mr. and Mrs. (no Mizz) Duplesie, George and Janet. Their names, I realize today, were something out of a childhood Saturday morning cartoon, The Jetsons, while their plain home, not at all futuristic, retains in my mind symbols of the past.

On summer days I might walk up the gravel road to Duplesie’s place. In his garage George had a skeleton of an enormous Alaskan king crab. I don’t suppose they grow that big anymore; I don’t suppose any modern sensitive environmental man would collect such trophies, either. On Janet’s kitchen counter, bolted down as tightly as a vice, was a meat grinder. You don’t see them these days, not when we can afford to buy our meat already minced, but once they were a common warning reference to the horror of war. In the corner of the front room stood an upright player piano. In the middle, inset above the keyboard, was a perforated scroll, like a scrolling computer punch card. If you pumped the foot pedals the piano would play itself. Alas, it always stood unrepaired.

As for punch cards, there was belief at the time, propagated by “they,” that everyone put out of work by computers could get a job as a computer repairman. Even as a child I knew they lied. Kurt Vonnegut’s first science fiction novel, Player Piano, (1952) skewered such beliefs. The not-too-heroic viewpoint character meets with an expert, and with honest people displaced by punch cards, and then he ponders. Of course, because the novel used the print medium, no reader would groan at the “talking heads.” (People who simply appear in front of a camera and speak) At last he rebels: A natural consequence, I guess, of a hero pondering the absurdities of society and his corporate life.

Written science fiction, “sf,” is truly a medium to encourage pondering. A scene in my cherished 1948 young adult novel, Space Cadet, by Robert Heinlein, has the hero’s bratty little brother saying, “Mom doesn’t even know what holds the moon up.” Heinlein could be sure his young readers would pause and reason things out for themselves. Not so for Hollywood “sci-fi.” Not when “moving pictures” allow no pausing. And no reasoning. Sci-fi suits many people: They don’t want to think, just as they don’t want talking heads. Alas, this may be a steadily growing social trend. Sad to say, in the big box bookstores, it’s probably no coincidence that in my lifetime I have watched fantasy go from being mixed in among sf to being in a big separate section, safely separate, that now just dwarfs the little struggling sf section.

Hollywood knows what people want to not-think about. “Hey, how about those special effects?” I was among the first in North America to see Star Wars, at a midnight preview, before it opened on Friday across the land. My adult buddies and I left the theatre excited, but we didn’t think we had seen anything too special. Not when we had grown up on similar stories. Before Star Wars I don’t suppose I read film reviews. After Star Wars, as best I can recall, every sci-fi review would evaluate the special effects right away, right up in the lead paragraph. This bugged me. Would Hemmingway and Faulkner ever need special effects? I figured the public “just didn’t get it.” After all, that play about the robots, R.U.R., was an international classic although having no effect more special than a cloud of dry ice to start the last act. (No, I won’t link to R.U.R: I expect you to reason out how to find it)

Hollywood is accused of making movies so bad, it’s as if they disrespect the audience. Meanwhile, sf has a respect rule as hard as titanium: everything in the story must be constrained by the latest findings of science. Not like sci-fi. Perhaps passive watchers don’t care about respect, but engaged readers care very much. Without the laws of science their fiction would be merely “playing tennis without the net.”

And just how do you put sf ideas, or any abstract ideas, before the public by using moving pictures? You can’t. There is a reason why, for the six o’clock news, if a world-changing international economic summit were held in Japan, then it would get less airtime—if any!—than a story of the Japanese princess walking under the cherry trees. (As Neil Postman has pointed out)

With ideas so critical, we have a fundamental consequence: One can always translate to the screen beloved westerns and nurse stories and Agatha Christie mysteries and classics of English literature, (War and Peace may need to be done as a mini-series) but one can’t always translate sf. You can try, but often you end up keeping the book title, and some of the character names, but little else. Unfortunately, as the central ideas drop away, the very plot and characters must be totally changed. For example, a lonely troubled veteran of a fierce interstellar war, getting a fresh start as a rancher in a little democratic colony, a man who ponders racism versus peace, (and strives to prevent a local conflict) becomes, in Hollywood’s version, a guy wearing scraps of clothing, living in an illiterate feudal landscape. (Andre Norton’s 1959 The Beast Master) One of my favorite novels, written “first person in a future culture,” was about a thoughtful investigator, sans fedora, who discovers cases of human possession by alien parasites. And gets possessed himself. It was a flop as a movie because the camera only showed “third person in the present culture,” with no introspection, no commenting on the surrounding society. And besides, how could a camera ever capture the despair and sheer horror of feeling emotionally certain that if you die while still possessed then your soul must be dragged down to hell? (Robert Heinlein’s 1951 The Puppet Masters)

Yes, “they” can make a classic black and white version of Shakespeare, and yes, writer-director Bergman can make The Seventh Seal, but I don’t expect to ever see a classic movie version of Nineteen Eighty-four. In that novel of ideas, as you know, one of the main ideas is how the public doesn’t care to hear certain secrets of their society… Just like us?

If the public, in our age of computers-calling-to-satellites, still hasn't even the foggiest notion that science fiction doesn’t translate, then… is there some sort of psychological prime directive going on? Something the public really doesn’t want to hear? I wonder.

I discovered something when I took a university night class among students in their final semester. If there was a balm of humor, then these scholars might admit their TV set is an idiot box, or that police shows are merely a way of passing time, but what they certainly wouldn’t admit was a certain open secret: The evening news isn’t real news… By not reading newspapers these students were shortchanging themselves. We all had a good long laugh when I used the term “6 o’clock infotainment.” How nice. I was baffled; why didn’t every student already know (as Postman explains) that TV couldn’t provide context? Perhaps they weren’t ready to ponder their life-style: having higher education yet choosing not to read. Perhaps, then, the voting public’s overall relationship to the boob tube is a really shameful secret. And if, apparently, even scholars don’t grasp the political implications of the public obtaining their news from “sound bites” and “moving pictures” then what hope is there for the rest of the body politic? ... I wonder, in the lonely chill of night.

In my sunny childhood I perused old fading science fiction magazines. There were sometimes flying cars, usually to speed up the plot, but none of the other things mentioned in the T-shirt quote. Such things didn’t decorate the background of a science fiction story, although they might, rarely, be in the foreground as being what the plot was all about. (A robot companion who rebels, for instance) No, some things are just too unscientific for fans to read about.

One magical summer day, over at the Duplesie’s house, I found a newspaper my family never bought. It was opened at the Sunday color comic page. Here were pictures, showed sequentially, almost moving. Wow! It was Buck Rogers, with some ape-creature buddies, hiding in the foliage at the edge of a big garden party. The guests wore flowing capes and funny headgear. Buck, who of course was from our own century, had exchanged his old bullet gun for a ray gun. Neat! I’ll never know what happened next… To a science fiction fan, comics are lumped together with sci-fi as being “media” science fiction, a thing apart, a media without any need for thinking or accurate science. When you see fans at conventions wearing costumes, if they’re not fans of written fantasy, then –you guessed it- they’re media fans. An old writer, L. Sprague de Camp, at a convention here in Calgary, told us of attending the first science fiction convention, held in New York City. He still remembered the name of the first guy to a wear a costume, a man who went across the street to the automat dressed as a media character, Buck Rogers.

I relish an image: Somewhere, Buck Rogers is still flying with a jetpack. Meanwhile, I remain an avid reader. I know better than to give credit to any complaining T-shirt based on “pictures” for an unaware public.

Sean Crawford
In orbit between Venus and Mars
June 2012

~ Even though Neil Postman has an excellent book called How to Watch TV News, I would recommend first reading his more general Amusing Ourselves to Death. For that book, the opening chapter is so good I once saw it published alone as a separate essay.

~Hark, librarians: In late August I’ll again be attending a weekend of sf and fantasy, of romance and erotica and farm wife writing groups, a weekend where librarians host seminars and are an esteemed part of the opening ceremonies panel. It’s called When Words Collide, a pun on the old Philip Wylie novel about the end of the world. (later a 1950’s movie) It’s for “readers, writers and publishers.” Yes, publishers too. For example, the manuscript buyer from Penguin Books (Canada) will be there. Trust me on this: There will be no costumes.
Even though I’m shy, and live in the same city, I’ve booked a hotel room to give myself a little more exposure to my fellow avid readers.

~A local retired newspaper woman, with a Troy Media on-line column, Catherine Ford, was being interviewed last week on CBC Radio One. This was after we learned the Post Media Sunday papers were being cut. When the interviewer said the younger generation “is still getting the news, only from different sources,” Ford said “No.”
She explained they are missing some context because while they are “getting what they choose to read” they are no longer coming across little stories in the bottom left hand corner right next to what they are interested in. 

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