Science and technology and politics have helped push us to new heights, fostering our ability to criticize and change countless old/bad habits. But culture also plays a big role. The myths we tell and love, these propel us to action. "Self-preventing prophecies" like 1984 and Soylent Green helped save us. Star Trek offers a glimpse of our better-than-us grandchildren. Here are many of the essays and deliberate provocations in which I have tried to shake up stodgy ways of looking at film, literature and science fiction. Break the assumptions and cliches!
Science Fiction is multi-dimensional and no one criterion can be used to determine a best-of list. From Bladerunner to 2001, Inception to Gattaca, Conan the Barbarian to Lord of the Rings: My recommended list of phenomenal Science Fiction and Sci Fi movies, with separate categories for those that are great for the kid in us, the grown up, and those that take us far beyond our familiar horizons...
The movie, EUROPA REPORT, completely lacked any villains, just brave astronauts trying to survive and get their jobs done amid accidents, (some plot-convenient blunders), and monumental discoveries……which also kind of describes the magnificent Cuaron film GRAVITY, again with no villains, other than nature and the harshness of space. How interesting to spot this theme among a small number of recent films. That you do not need red-glowing eyes or gloating-evil bad guys, or even men-behaving-badly to - on occasion - make interesting cinema.
Well. Apparently -- zombie flicks flourish when Republicans are gaining ascendency. After all, such works works depict a garish, simplistic exaggeration of what they dread most -- an unruly uprising of the filthy, ignorant masses.
Vampire films, in contrast, represent fear of a predatious-controlling aristocracy and so, this genre surges in perfect tempo with times when democrats rise in influence.
S'truth! Moreover, given the sudden greenlighting of ever-more remakes of remakes of remakes of the same dull zombie scenario... the same cliches, over and over again... it looks like we may be in for a very long period of aristocratic rule. Perhaps like the 4,000 year feudal reign that only ended with the American Revolution, and that may resume at any time.
What always entranced me about "Star Trek" - helping turn this physicist into a science fiction author - was the vision it offered, exploring human destiny, confronting big issues and pondering a unique notion, seldom expressed anywhere else: that our descendants might somehow be admirable.
Central to "Trek" is the image of a large, quasi-naval vessel called Enterprise, based on 19th-century sailing ships like HMS Beagle, dispatched to practice peacemaking and war, diplomacy and science, tutoring and apprenticeship, all in equal measure.
How different from the tiny fighter planes featured in "Star Wars," each piloted by a solitary knight, perhaps accompanied by a loyal squire, or droid, symbols as old as Achilles.
What will the future be like? The question is much on peoples' minds, and not only because we stand in the verge of a new century. One of our most deeply human qualities keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow's dangers. One of the most powerful novels of all time, published half a century ago, foresaw a dark future that never came to pass. Or... at least, not yet. That we have so far escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight "Big Brother" to their last breath.
In other words, Orwell may have helped make his own scenario not come true.
That infuriating televison show: LOST: I'm going to list the inconsistencies and frustrations that most vex me in this series. They are probably not the same as what you'll read at, say, one of the fan sites, because I view it through the lens of a professional plot-smith. But first, I do try to view art in the spirit that it is offered -- and I know that the writers and producers of LOST are engaged in the art form known as the Grand Tease.
After my infamous "Star Wars Despots" essay appeared on Salon (see below) I was asked to take part in one of the wildest and most-fun debates about pop culture in years. The Star Wars franchise and the hero-or-villain status of George Lucas are at the heart of these essays by bestselling science-fiction authors, hurling (or warding off) a range of accusations! Connecting them all together is a "trial" in which I was the "prosecutor" and Star Wars novelizer Matthew Woodring Stover stand in for Lucas as the "defense attorney. (The parts in between guest essays, where Matt and I pompously challenge each other before the "droid judge" are choice. Much snapping of suspenders and harrumphing.) The incredible popularity of the movies has led to strong emotions over the strengths and flaws of the SW films. This intense examination of the epic works addresses a broad range of issues—from politics, religion, and the saga's overall logic to the impact of the series on bookshelf space as well as science-fiction film. The question: Is George Lucas a hero for bringing science fiction to a mass audience or a villain who doesn't understand the genre that made him rich? Even worse, is he disloyal to a civilization that's been very, very good to him? (Dig the cool - and entirely legal - cover!
Another look at the Star Wars universe: cliches and all. It happens time and again. You create a beloved universe — then spend most of the sequels wallowing in emotional reunions, or worse, spend most of the prequel introducing characters to each other, dwelling on each moment for long stretches laden with emotional music. R2, meet Threepio! (For the very first time!) Obi-Wan, meet Anakin! Anakin grew up with Greedo! See early elements that fell into Star Wars on Trial.
Back in the 1980s, the field of science fiction was all afroth over a movement that proclaimed itself as cyberpunk. Reviewers both inside and far outside the genre went into paroxysms over this new movement, crediting it with everything from 'gritty, sharp-edged realism,' to 'high-gloss textures,' to inventing the trope of an angry tomorrow, symbolized by the angry young man of the streets.
Setting aside egregious exaggerations and heaps of heavy-breathing hype, this literary movement surely made the field more interesting for a while. Haughty literary mavens, who normally snub sci-fi condescended to discover these daring writers of dark, heroic, slashing prose, including William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, a tale filled with stark, vivid imagery about a future dominated by oppressive corporate structures. A future in which control over access to information outweighed the importance of political or military power.
Is that sub-genre still relevant? Let's have a look.
From Apollo 13 to The Right Stuff, From October Sky to Inherit the Wind, Cosmos to Lorenzo's Oil -- a look at popular movies that can be used in the classroom (or at home) to give some insight into science, technology, and and the real world.
Through Stranger Eyes is a new collection of my book reviews, introductions and essays on popular culture. Included: everything from carefully measured views on J.R.R. Tolkien to that infamous, outraged rant about the Star Wars saga! Many of these reviews -- and a number of other essays -- have been collected into Through Stranger Eyes. From sober reflections on Jared Diamond's Collapse, and Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, to scientific ponderings on Feynman and Gott, along with appraisals of great authors like Brunner, Resnick, Zelazny, Clarke, Verne, and Orwell....
It can be illuminating to plumb the Bible -- one of the keystone books of western civilization. Moreover, it gives you the ability to stun, surprise and gain a back-brain door into the minds of some of your deep-steeped neighbors. And so, in light of the recent Russell Crowe film, let's pause and sample the story of Noah. Now of course, it is somewhat like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Past scholars, uncharitable toward literalist believers in "biblical inerrancy," have calculated the needed size of the Ark, for example. Were even just all known mammal species shoved aboard, shoulder to shoulder -- you'd need a hundred modern aircraft carriers. In fact, this argument has had results! Creationist "scientist" Ken Ham conceded -- in his recent debate with Bill Nye -- that evolution (yes "evolution"!) must have radiated all the species we now see, from a seed population that rode upon the Ark! I cannot believe this major concession got so little play in the media or among devotees of either religion or science. It is a real shift in ground.
The original film "300", based on a comic book by Frank Miller, told egregious historical lies, cramming into the mouth of the Spartan general- Leonidas -- things that he would never have said. For example dripping contempt for the Athenian shopkeepers and potters and fishermen who had destroyed an entire Persian army, just ten years before, at Marathon. Spartans still stung with shame over having stayed out of that fight. But to have Leonidas rant… while ignoring what was in plain view from his cliff-edge… an Athenian-led navy holding the vast Persian fleet at bay, guarding his flank… that omission in "300" slandered Leonidas and betrayed the audience.
The self-preventing prophecy is arguably the most important type of literature, since it gives us a stick to wield, poking into the ground before us as we charge into a murky future, exploring with our minds what quicksand dangers may lurk just ahead. This kind of thought experiment – that Einstein calledgedankenexperiment – is the fruit of our prefrontal lobes, humanity’s most unique and recent organ, the font of our greatest gifts: curiosity, empathy, anticipation and resilience. Indeed, forward-peering storytelling is one of the major ways that we turn fear into something profoundly practical. Avoidance of failure. The early detection and revelation of Big Mistakes, before we even get a chance to make them. While hardly in the same league as Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Carson, and Butler, I’m proud to be part of that tradition – an endeavor best performed by science fiction.
Some impressions of old and recent Science Fiction movies, from Star Trek Into Darkness to Cloud Atlas to Atlas Shrugged: I thought J.J. Abrams dealt pretty well with the rascally immaturity of the new version of James T. Kirk by giving us a tale of maturation. Fine. Chris Pine is growing on me. I wasn't keen on this re-boot, but I think it could work out fine. (I'd like to see a more thoughtful use of the old (Nimoy) Spock. I believe he would be more nuanced in his "interference." Indeed, what's blatantly called for is an intersection of the parallel worlds, giving Pine (conveying different Kirks) even more range. But that awaits my someday having beers with Mr. Abrams.)
What does it take to be a shining new star in Hollywood these days? Well, if you're female, it helps to be beautiful. An ability to act? Kind of useful. Success may also come with knowing the right people. That much has always been true. But nowadays another essential trait has been added to the list of starlet requirements. You gotta be able to kick ass. Think about it. Can you name any hot new Hollywood sensations who can’t do a leaping decapitation kick? From La Femme Nikita and Charlie’s Angels to Witchblade and Xena, the trend has been amazingly consistent. And leading the charge has been the winsome but mighty Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What does the figure 2001 mean to you? Why of course, it's a movie! One that, remarkably despite its age, still shines some amazing sparkles of perspective on our time. Oh, I could go on and on about mixed messages in the film. Its love-hate relationship with technology, for example. Or the story's ambivalence toward the notion of artificial intelligence. Or the quaint combination of optimism and pessimism that we saw repeated over and over again in the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov -- leading visionaries of their era -- both of whom worried that humanity might be far too snared by the sticky fibers of an aggressive Neolithic heritage ever to break free on its own.
I am asked about the movie version of my novel, all the time. Yes it sank at the box office; colliding with Titanic in December 1997 did not help! But am I resentful, especially given less than honorable treatment I received? In fact, though many authors leap to fiery indignation over their adaptations, my measured response may surprise you. The Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalyptic books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization's fall. It's a story about how much we take for granted -- and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. A man who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were. It would take a special kind of actor to play the lead role -- a ragged survivor, deeply scarred, yet still willing to hope. In this era of cynicism, we need reminders of the decency that lies within. That sense of strength, openness, and hope was what we felt after watching Field of Dreams. The Postman is a very different story, yet it aims to deliver the same message to the heart: We are in this together.
This infamous article appeared on Salon Magazine. Look, I quite enjoyed the original 1977 flick and I adored Empire Strikes Back! I admired the underrated Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, with its fierce love of thought and humor and civilization. Which made me wonder, after leaving Jedi... "what happened to this guy?" Worse, what happened to what had seemed about to be a truly great legend?
Just what bill of goods are we being sold, between the frames? Elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule; common citizens needn’t be consulted. They may only choose which elite to follow. “Good” elites should act on their subjective whims, without evidence, argument or accountability. Any amount of sin can be forgiven if you are important enough. True leaders are born. It’s genetic. The right to rule is inherited. And... oh yeah... justified human emotions can turn a good person permanently evil, like a light switch.
Most of us are used to envisioning evolution as having to do with macro creatures -- like plants, microbes or animals -- whose bodies and behaviors prove their "fitness" value by surviving and reproducing across countless generations. By this reckoning, DNA is no more than a tool, like the creature's eyes or limbs -- a repository of codes, a passive library of biochemical and cellular tricks -- serving the needs of an individual or species. But in a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, things can be viewed the other way around. Our complex bodies and behaviors may only serve as the pragmatic implements used by genes to facilitate their own replication.
Yes, this bizarre-sounding idea is taken seriously, in fact, by a majority of the world's experts in Darwinian selection. Even more amazing, many of our best thinkers now believe the same thing happens with ideas or "memes" that replicate in human minds and make us tell the ideas (eagerly) to others.
Back in 1983 I took this concept and extended it in truly science-fictional ways, predicting the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall (unimaginable then) and that our great struggle in the early 21st Century might be with one form of "machismo culture" or another, probably the desert variety. Prescient? Judge for yourself. But come away with this new way of viewing the ideas and dogmas spread by popular culture.
Despite my low esteem of Ayn Rand's simplistic dogma, I do have some sympathy for some varieties of libertarian philosophy... (e.g. the core messages of Adam Smith, who liberals ought to rediscover, much to their surprise). Moreover, I do rate THE FOUNTAINHEAD as by far Rand's best book. In its smaller and more personal scope, that novel offered a pretty effective (if melodramatic) portrayal of uncompromising genius having to overcome the boneheaded doorkeepers of art and architecture -- two realms that are always beset by bullies and villainy. Alas, in contrast, both the book and the film ATLAS SHRUGGED take on civilization as a whole -- all of its institutions and enlightenment processes, top to bottom -- calling every last one of them corrupt, devoid of hope, intelligence or honor. Moreover A.S. proclaims that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are braying, silly sheep. In this highly-viewed essay, I decrypt many aspects, e.g. why none of Rand's characters ever, ever have children. And how she turns out to have been the greatest literary and philosophical heir of ... Karl Marx.
In 1997, voters in a BBC poll named The Lord of the Rings the greatest book of the 20th century. In 1999, Amazon.com customers chose it as the greatest book of the millennium. Of course there is much more to this work than mere fantasy escapism. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his epic -- including its prequel, The Hobbit -- during the dark middle decades of the Twentieth Century, a time when modernity appeared to have failed in one spectacle of technologically amplified bloodshed after another.
While I often inveigh against nostalgia-romanticism as a drug-habit that isn't helpful in moving civilization forward, I have always found Tolkien to be both intelligent and honest, the very best examplar of nostalgia-romanticism. (Unlike George Lucas, who has no excuse for his lobotomized attacks on modernity.) Can you blame Tolkien, who watched most of his classmates mowed down in Flanders? From the nineteen-thirties through the fifties, planet Earth fell into armed camps of starkly portrayed characters, tearing at each other in orgies of unprecedented violence. Titanic struggles, with the fate of all the world at stake. LOTR clearly reflected this era. Only, in contrast to the real world, Tolkien's portrayal of "good" resisting a darkly threatening "evil" offered something sadly lacking in the real struggles against Nazi or Communist tyrannies -- a role for citizenship, openness and a progressing civilization. Read more on this... and ponder.