Thursday, April 30, 2009

Allen Steele on worldbuilding

This podcast (11.4 MB) may be of intrest to SF fans and RPGers alike. It's a lecture by Allen Steele on worldbuilding given at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. [via SF Signal]

He talks about common problems in invented settings, such as the homogenous world and the habitable planet that has no atmosphere-generating volcanoes. From designing the solar system to the geography of the planet to the plants and animals, Allen covers the important elements necessary to creating an entire environment."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Beam me up

One curious aspect of the impending release of a new Star Trek movie is the fact that Paramount is acknowledging Riverside, Iowa's status as the birthplace of the fictional Capt. Kirk by providing the town with free tickets to a sneak preview. It seems to me that there is more to this story. That perhaps this is Baudrillard's theory of the hyperreal being vividly confirmed before our eyes.

Here an act of magnanimity to the town's citizens seems to be a reward for their willingness to subsume themselves into the fantasyscape of Star Trek. The town has transfigured itself, changing it's traditional River Fest into a TrekFest, and erecting statues in honor not of historical Riverside personages, but of the imagined Kirk. The history of the town is eclipsed by the shadow of the imaginary starship Enterprise. It is, as Baudrillard observed, "...the disappearance of history and the real in the televisual."

How long, I wonder, before the townsfolk begin dressing in Star Trek uniforms, repeating scenes from the shows and movies, creating not historical reenactments, but science fictional enactments? By becoming in effect an inhabited Star Trek Disneyland, Riverside's new identity is "... a magnificent stroke of cynicism, naivety, kitsch, and unintended humour - something astonishing in its nonsensicality." In short, something hyperreal.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Astounding Stories

Project Gutenberg has just place a complete issue of Astounding (February 1930) online. They've hosted many individual stories from sf magazines before, but this is the first entire magazine that I'm aware of. The editor at the time was Harry Bates, best remembered today for his short story "Farewell to the Master," which was adapted for the screen as the classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

The contents are pretty standard pulp fare, although a few names stand out. Harl Vincent was a prolific contributor to the early sf pulps penning such colorful tales as "Microcosmic Buccaneers" and "Lethal Planetoid." Also contributing a story is Hugh B. Cave who was an author of pulp horror tales. And then there's Captain S. P. Meek who is best known for his stories "Submicroscopic" and its sequel "Awlo of Ulm" that recount the adventures of humans reduced to microscopic size only to discover that atoms are entire worlds.

If you read these tales don't expect much from the prose you encounter. Many of these writers would crank out stories two at a time, jumping from one typewriter to the other. And don't be shocked to find offensive attitudes expressed toward women and minorities. These yarns reflect the times in which they were created, warts and all. But if you do read them you'll be treated to some cheap and colorful thrills from the early days of the genre.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Space Invaders

I just watched the classic, I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), and actually thought it was pretty good for a 1950's sci-fi b-movie. I'm even more impressed after reading Bill Warren's essay on the film in his book Keep Watching the Skies! and finding out it was shot in only eight days. That's impressive. The plot is hopelessly hokey -- alien invaders from the Andromeda Galaxy take on human form in order to mate with Earth women -- but it's played with enough of a straight face that it doesn't lapse into self-parody. In an interesting twist, American firepower proves useless against the alien invaders. Instead they are ultimately done in by Rin-tin-tin's kin.

This and similar movies, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), are usually seem as expressing the Cold War paranoia of Communist infiltration, and not without reason. The first alien body snatcher stories do seem to have appeared around WWI at a time when the popular press was whipping up fears of German fifth columnists.

However, another perspective is to view the film in psychological terms as a dramatization of Capgras delusion which results in people believing that their spouse, friends, or close family members have been replaced by an identical-looking impostor. This type of story was a mainstay of the works of Philip K. Dick, even in his early short stories such as "Colony" which was adapted for the excellent 1950's radio show X Minus One. (Download mp3 13MB)

The most surprising thing was watching a scene in which one of the disguised aliens complains about the human urges he's having and realizing that this movie was the inspiration for the Star Trek episode "By Any Other Name" written by D.C. Fontana and Jerome Bixby, in which alien invaders from the Andromeda Galaxy take on human form and begin to experience human urges. Who would have thought?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Audio Transmissions

here are a few 'casts to amuse and inform you.

Fresh Air (April 23, 2009) The Sexy 'Secret Identity' Of Superman's Creator.

"Author Craig Yoe explores the risque art of the man behind Superman in his new book, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art Of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster."

finding out that Joe Shuster drew kinky comics not only explains some things about Superman, but also brings to mind the open secret that Robert Silverberg once wrote x-rated books to pay the bills.

on a less salacious note, here are a few podcasts about Star Trek from the Chanesurfer Radio archives.

11/30/2002 The Biology of Star Trek (16.77MB)
Dr. J. talks with Athena Andreadis, neurobiologist and author of The Biology of Star Trek, about the future of the human race. Dr. Andreadis discusses the future speciation of the human race as it spreads in space. "Resistance is Futile. You will be conviviated."

04/06/2002 The Ethics of Star Trek (16.77MB)
Dr. J. talks with Judith Barad, author of The Ethics of Star Trek.

03/08/2003 Is Data Human?: The Metaphysics of Star Trek (16.59MB)
Dr. J. talks about the challenges to personal identity and the rights of persons posed in Star Trek, with Richard Hanley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Delaware, and author of Is Data Human?: The Metaphysics of Star Trek.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Prime Directive problematics

There is an essay on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies website by George Dvorsky provocatively titled "Star Trek’s ‘Prime Directive’ is stupid". In it he engages in a sharp analysis of the Star Trek: Enterprise episode ”Dear Doctor”. The gist of his assessment is that,

"The PD is a science fictional projection of the naturalistic fallacy and injunctions against playing God. It’s also a disturbing application of social Darwinism. The underlying assumption of the PD is that a civilization must attain space faring capabilities and advanced technologies through their own means (civilizational uplift is not an option, I suppose). It’s survival of the fittest as decreed by the Federation, and those who cannot progress to an advanced developmental stage or who destroy themselves first simply didn’t deserve to be in the Federation in the first place."

This is a fascinating perspective that deserves due consideration, but I find it problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is that the Prime Directive is intended to curtail the Imperial arrogance that has tended to characterize Western technoculture's interaction with "primitive" cultures. The approach that Dvorsky suggests -- "uplifting" the pre-warp civilization -- is itself open to the criticism that it reiterates the ethnocentric hubris of past ages by perpetuating the notion of "The White Man's Burden."

A further objection to Dvorsky's perspective is the recognition of the unintended consequences that can result from such interactions. A vivid example is provided by the Cargo Cult phenomena which illustrates the distorting effect an advanced technological culture can have on a tribal society. A science fictional dramatization of similar unintentional disruption of native society by spacefarers can be found in H. Beam Piper's short story "Naudsonce."

So while Star Trek's Prime Directive remains a problematic concept, and Dvorsky's analysis provides a stimulating critique, it is my opinion that his objections don't entirely discredit the concept.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Star Trek in Historical Context

With the upcoming release of a new Star Trek movie it might be informative to examine the opus in light of its wider historical context.

As a 1960's television feature Star Trek was, like other shows of its day, a reinterpretation of a movie from several years earlier. Just as Bewitched was based on Bell, Book and Candle (1958), and I Dream of Jeannie took its cue from The Brass Bottle (1964), Star Trek drew its inspiration from 1956's Forbidden Planet (and also from earlier TV shows like Tom Corbett and Space Patrol). That MGM blockbuster dressed the basic story of Shakespeare's The Tempest up in a space opera costume that would be familiar to any fan of the sf books and magazines of the day.

It drew on a set of informal genre conventions going back at least to the 1920's and the days of Hugo Gernsback. The basic elements of this sub-genre are a group of adventurers representing a federation of planets (usually called the United Planets) exploring strange worlds, contacting alien species, and facing down terrible menaces. Typical of these stories were Edmond Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol and Sewell P. Wright's Commander John Hanson series, in which a retired space captain recounts his adventures aboard the spaceship Ertak in the service of the Special Patrol of the Interplanetary Alliance.

These tropes had continued right through to the 1960's recurring in the popular stories of Murray Leinster, Andre Norton, Christopher Anvil, and many others. When Gene Roddenberry brought this sub-genre to the small screen he turned to many of these same professional science fiction writers. Mainstays like Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Jerome Bixby, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson all penned scripts for the show. Familiar elements from the pages of magazines like Galaxy and Analog found their way onto the TV screen. The starship Enterprise (taking it's name from the space ship in H. Beam Piper's 1963 novel Space Viking) was launched into space in 1966 powered by warpdrive (found in stories such as Harry Harrison's 1960 tale "The Misplaced Battleship") and guided by a Prime Directive that resembled an amplified version of the prohibition against introducing new technology to primitive cultures from L. Sprague DeCamp's classic Rogue Queen (1951). For many science fiction fans it was an opportunity to watch familiar stories enacted on the screen, while viewers unfamiliar with the genre were introduced to a new and exciting world for the first time.

Very soon Star Trek became part of the cultural discourse and came to typify in an immediate and visual way the entire sub-genre from which it had emerged. And its popularity shows no signs of abating, with devoted fans maintaining websites, playing videogames, boardgames, role-playing games (often involving detailed campaigns), attending conventions, and even making their own Star Trek fan films.

So while the milieu from which Star Trek sprang may long remain obscure and even forgotten it continues to touch our imaginations through a show that seems sure to "Live long and prosper."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dinosuars We Love You

some guys i know made this video.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cannabis Legalized

not a week goes by that a news report doesn't begin with the phrase, "It sounds like science fiction...", but seldom does a news organization actually produce a work of science fiction. tonight NPR did just that. John Burnett's segment "What If Marijuana Were Legal?" ventures into the popular sub-genre of Alternative History to imagine what the U.S.A. would be like after cannabis is legalized. maybe they're after a Nebula Award for best script .

also in the same show was a short tribute to the late great JG Ballard.

JG Ballard R.I.P.

in memoriam JG Ballard 1930-2009.

another leading light of science fiction has gone out. the fact that his mundane autobiographical novel was acclaimed whilst the majority of his science fiction is considered controversial accomplishes in its own way what the best science fiction always does -- throw into sharp relief the contours of the modern landscape.

"But one question still remains unanswered: who loaded the starting gun?"

perhaps he is best remembered through the words of his close friend, Michael Moorcock:

"JG Ballard was one of my closest friends for 50 years. Together with Barry Bayley, who died last year, we "plotted" the revolution in science fiction which led to the so-called New Wave and he was a regular contributor to New Worlds, which spearheaded that movement. He was exceptionally brave and cheerful to the end. He was a loyal and generous friend and a great influence on the generation of writers who followed him."