22 June 2009

Is Star Trek What You Think Of When You Think of Science Fiction?

Star Trek isn't what I think of when I think of science fiction. But it's very clear that it's what many people think of, including members of the media. That surprises me - but maybe it shouldn't.

There are two poems about Star Trek in Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand ("In Which I Materialize, Horribly Maimed, in the Transporter Room of the Enterprise" by John Dolan, and "Lament of the imperfect copy of Ensign Harry Kim" by Tze Ming Mok). For the record, there's also a poem about Dr Who - Louis Johnson's "Love Among The Daleks", which dates from 1970, and was the poem from the anthology published in Wednesday's Dominion Post newspaper. And we could have had a very good Battlestar Galactica poem as well, but we decided Battlestar Galactica might not be widely enough known to make sense to most of our audience.

Here's the thing. When I think of science fiction, I think of authors: Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe and Nalo Hopkinson. And I think of TV series: Battlestar Galactica (the dark, political modern reimagining, not the clunky 1970s original) and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But I was never a huge fan of Star Trek, either in its original incarnation or one of its many subsequent series and ventures into film. I haven't even seen the latest Star Trek film, and while I'll probably watch out for it on TV, I don't feel any great urge to see it on the big screen. To me, Star Trek was usually too chocolate-boxy, too predictable, too lame. ("From hell's heart I stab at thee, Kirk!" - of course, a couple of the movies were honourable exceptions.)

But Star Trek, in all its primary-coloured glory, still seems to be what most people think of when they think of science fiction. I wish that wasn't the case, because I think this contributes to science fiction not getting its due as a genre that can provide a perspective on the world and the universe not readily available by other means. (Then again, since we entitled one of the sections of Voyagers "The Final Frontier", I suppose we can't complain too much!) But it looks as though it will be quite some time before the influence, benign or malign, of Star Trek fades from public consciousness.

How about you? What do you think of when you think of science fiction?


nzlemming said...

Like you, authors - Heinlein, Norton, LeGuin, L'Engle - the ones I grew up with, and the ones I found later. I suspect it's to do with our age. We got into SF when most AV media representations were rubbish. Even the notable exceptions (Rennie's Day the Earth Stood Still comes to mind) were parodied more often than they were respected.

Don't get me wrong, I loved Star Trek and Dr Who, Quatermass and some others, but many were in the style of "Buck Rogers" or the BSG you refer to and, while I enjoyed them for what they were, I never equated them with "real" Science Fiction". You'll remember, we divided the fannish world into "trufans" (us) and "media fans" (them), while they called us "old fogeys" and "elitist" (there may have been a little truth in the last one.

Over the years, I have become better disposed to media-based SF, as it has got better in quality (production values and stories). TrueBlood is a case in point. Love it, though I've never heard of the books. (Twilight, on the other hand, held no interest for me, so it's not just a vampire thing :-)

But the books are still where I look first.

Ross Brighton said...

I was raised on Sci-Fi, and what i think of is novels i pillaged off my fathers bookshelf- Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness, Dune, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Mote in God's Eye, Two excellent novels by Vernor Vinge, CJ Cherryh, and David Brin's Uplift novels.
I love speculative fiction, such as the work of Nancy Kress, and her amazingly insightful investigations of the possibilities of Genetics - Beggars in Spain being a standout. If anyone out there knows where i can get the sequels to that novella, I'd be most grateful.

David Tulloch said...

I think the problem here is that you read books, Tim. Stop it now!

Also you remember things that are old. Stop that too!

Become one with the masses and gain all your pop-culture references from what is on the idiot box this moment.

You may supplement your viewing with the latest DVD releases, but nothing labeled "Arthouse' or 'Classic' ... or even worse, 'Cult'. If it was old and worth watching they'd show it as a re-run.

harvey molloy said...

I think of my childhood and how books were able to transport me elsewhere. I've never been that keen on SF on TV or films.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, nzlemming, Ross, David and Harvey for these thought-provoking comments.

It's interesting that all of us think of books first and foremost. I discovered SF in my early teens and read it avidly through to my late twenties. Then my reading broadened.

In the last ten years or so, I have found less and less of interest in the SF shelves of bookshops and libraries - aside from the authors I know I like (and even then, Gene Wolfe, for example, is no longer writing at his peak), there is little by newer authors that strikes me as anything more than once-over-lightly rehashings of well-worn SF themes. The fiction I enjoy most nowadays is often "science fictional" to some degree, but isn't actually genre SF.

On the other hand, (some) TV SF has improved immensely from the standard when I was young. CGI technology allows SF to be visually convincing on TV for the first time; excellent writers and producers like Jane Espenson focus on genre work; and, from being a backwater for second-rate actors, TV SF now features some outstanding actors, the cast of the modern Battlestar Galactica being one notable example.

So, while I'm still a book person first and foremost, the balance between SF books and SF TV is closer than it used to be for me. Unfortunately, SF movies are still, mostly, mindless excuses to blow things up.

Emma said...

I think of all of the books that alienated me as a teenager! I loved Sci Fi so hard as a kid. I read everything and anything I could get my hands on, but as I got older I couldn't really connect with a lot of Sci Fi due to my growing political consciousness.

Now I think of Iain M Banks and Ursula Le Guin and of course beloved and flawed BSG. Star Trek is almost last on my list of Sci Fi. I could never stand Kirk.

Ross Brighton said...

I tried to reread the Mote in God's eye recently, and couldn't - partly for the language - i'm not sure what it was, but it grated - and partly for the politics (which i thinkwould get better (messier) further in, but the universe's aristocratic system i found very distasteful.
Though that's there in Dune, but the ontological and metaphysical concerns, plus the fact that nothing seems to be taken for granted, redeem the book from being a sly dig at democracy (a level Heinlen was never afraid to stoop to)

mary p said...

Cara, Talia and I all read science fiction and are also BIG fans of Battlestar Galactica. We think that people who choose to read Sci Fi poetry would certainly know about BC. We also saw the new Star Trek movie and it was awesome. Very different from the TV series (the original which only I have seen) and the earlier movies. Cara went and saw it again on her own, many of her friends have seen it more than once it was that good. I am talking intelligent, literate young people who are huge fans of good science fiction. I loved the movie and would recommend it to anyone - except my husband but then he is not the least bit interested in sci fi. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that even he would have enjoyed it.

However, Star Trek is not the first thing that comes to mind. Probably for me its Arthur C Clark, Heinlein,Asimov, Scott Orson Card and Ender's Game, Mary Doria Russell and The Sparrow,Ursula Le Guin and lots more.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for those further comments, Emma, Ross and Mary. (This topic has provoked some of the most interesting comments I've had on a blog post!)

Emma, have you read any Suzy McKee Charnas or Joanna Russ? - both SF authors with a strong feminist message. I considerably prefer Charnas to Russ as a writer, but my opinion may not be the most relevant here.

Ross, I did enjoy "The Mote in God's Eye" when I first read it, and also the Niven/Pournelle retelling of Dante's Inferno, but Niven's bad writing and Pournelle's appalling politics ruin most of their work for me. Heinlein's YA novels are pretty good, but as for the "adult" stuff - bleurgh!

Mary, I now wish we had included the BSG poem. One problem was that the poem would have contained spoilers for people (like me) watching BSG Season 4 on terrestrial TV in NZ! I might ask the author if I can reproduce it here.

I wasn't trying to criticise the Star Trek movie, and I'm glad that you, Cara and friends enjoyed it - I was more trying to make the point that I have never been able to get very excited about Star Trek, though I expect I too will enjoy the film when I see it.

I'm glad you mentioned Arthur C Clarke - I used to love his early work. I re-read his early short story collection "Expedition to Earth" recently, and was once again impressed and moved by many of the stories.

Ross Brighton said...

I recently posted on Ender's Game (briefly) in regard to a recent Exhibition by the incredible Ed Lust - if you haven't seen his work, it's amazing. The post is here (and very brief): http://ignoretheventriloquists.blogspot.com/2009/05/kindlefilm-by-ed-lust.html

Ed also told me that it was the first result in a google search for the word "Elegiac", or was at some stage.

People should do more Sci-Fi art.

Meliors Simms said...

Like the rest of your commenters I'm first and foremost a reader, not a watcher of sci fi. I attribute that to the incredibly expensive process of making films and television throughout which so many different stakeholders are having input into the product that it is, in the end, little more than a product needing to make a profit. With few noteable exceptions (eg Gattaca), all the things I enjoy about sci fi are diluted or lost in the process: the social commentary, personal transformation, ethical dilemmas leaving a bunch of special effects and costumes to set them apart from every other war/action flick.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Meliors! I can't quite believe that I'm about to stick up for TV SF, but nevertheless, I think that the modern Battlestar Galactica would meet your requirements for social commentary, personal transformation, and ethical dilemmas - though it does also have special effects, costumes, war and explosions.

I do feel jaded about much modern written SF - I wish I didn't.

Emma said...

I haven't read either of those authors. I shall look them up! Although now I think about it Joanna Russ sounds very familiar.


Kay said...

Ross asked about sequels to Nancy Kress's novella, Beggars in Spain . There are three books, Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride. Many libraries have them.

I started reading SF as a child including many of the same authors as lemming. In recent years however brain overload at work has led me to read lighter fare such as fantasy and even occasionally paranormal adventures and romcoms with werewolves, vampires, witches and other supernatural beings. Authors include Charlaine Harris (whose Sookie Stackhouse stories provided the source material for TV show True Blood ), Kim Harrison, Jennifer Radin and others but NOT Stephanie Meyer. I'll read a slushy Laurel Hamilton but the apparent misogyny in the Twilight series puts me off.

I return to harder, more content focussed books in summartime or when I have holidays from work. The SF magazine Locus is handy then, with its round-up of the year's best books. I'm looking forward to trying a few newer authors like Robert Sawyer and to reading longer works by Neal Stephenson and Richard Morgan and John Scalzi.

Ross Brighton said...

Thanks Kay - I haven't been able to trak them down. Might be an idea to try interloan.

Susana Gardner, Who publishes the amazing DUSIE PRESS, summed up Stephanie Mayer better than anyone else - "It's like Wuthering Heights, But shit" (pardon my language)