Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
In Which I Criticize the Great Stanislaw Lem
Just to Set the Internet Straight
Thursday, August 8, 2019 11:03 am
At least two people on the internet — let's call them Bob and Ted — have been dissuaded from reading Stanislaw Lem. That is a shame; not least because, as usually happens on the internet, they are reacting to something that isn't true. 

It began with a list of the best literary SF books. Lem's Solaris is on that list, and the listmaker — let's call him Harry — said this:
Lem's humans are some of the best in science fiction as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
To Bob, this quote is asserting that the best-written character is one who fails — indeed, that humanity itself equals failure; and who wants to read such misanthropy? To Ted, this quote is praising the irrational screw-up rather than the flawed yet ultimately competent character; and who wants to read about incompetent characters?

I'm not about to tell Bob and Ted that Lem is actually imbued with a cheerful vision or that his characters are badass heroes; because he isn't and they aren't. I suspect that Bob and Ted might dislike Lem even if they judged him by actually reading him. But it is unjust that Bob and Ted now have a distaste for Lem because of what Harry said.

You see, Harry is wrong. To say that Lem has the best humans in science fiction is to say that Frosted Flakes have the best jalapeños in breakfast cereals. There are no humans in Lem's books. There are barely any characters.

I've been reading Lem for over thirty years. I have read Solaris four or five times. I love Stanislaw Lem. But honestly, there is no denying the lack of characters in his work.

While it is true that one can point to Ijon Tichy, Pirx the Pilot, or the robots Trurl and Klapauscius, and one could say that each is distinctive, ultimately each is just a character type meant to sustain the type of story he appears in: SF comedy, SF adventure, or robot fable. Indeed, when someone like Tichy ends up in a non-comic tale, it becomes even clearer how merely flexible each character is: an appropriate Protagonist with, at most, a pinch of flavor.

This is especially true in Lem's serious novels. Not one of his characters is memorable as a person. I admit this has always disappointed me. Notably I consider Solaris so good because, rarely among his works, it utilizes actual human emotions. Another of his very best stories — The Mask, about a robot assassin who falls in love with her target — is best precisely because it engages one's sympathy (and has one of the best final sentences ever). But most of the time Lem doesn't care about people, nor emotions qua emotions. His concerns are philosophical; cosmic. His interest is in the man as an atom of mankind, not in the man as a fellow soul.

So does that make his work deficient? Dry? Dull? Not often. He writes wonderfully and sets your mind a-thinking. His robot fables are damn delightful. But, contra Harry, you will never find irrational screw-ups nor the proud and the vain in Lem's dramatis personae. Harry's statement asserts too much. What you will find in Lem is irrationality, screwing-up, pride, and vanity: that is, human weaknesses all but disembodied. A character in Lem is playing a fairy-tale role, at best demonstrating an aspect of human behavior, contributing to Lem's exposition of the cruel mysteries of the universe. Lem's characters are vessels with nametags.

You will find a Snow White in Lem, but never a Falstaff.

In the end I agree with Bob and Ted that Harry is wrong about the "best" humans. It is a pernicious lie that humans are most human when they fail. That is the self-serving excuse for sin, after all. But as I have tried to point out, Harry is wrong about Lem as well. In no sense does Lem contain the best "humans" in science fiction. So ignore Harry.

But read Lem. Yes, you may have to be selective, since at times he can get so philosophical the fiction disappears. Seek anything with Tichy, Pirx, or robots; read the novels Solaris, Eden, Fiasco, Peace on Earth, and above all His Master's Voice; and just be ready to focus on those nametags, because the characters won't really stand out otherwise.

P.S. Lem also wrote excellent reviews of, and introductions to, non-existent books and treatises; but of course these are even more removed from character-rich fiction.

Well-Ordered Star Trek
Revisiting an Old Friend
Wednesday, May 22, 2019 3:45 pm
Of course I like Star Trek. I was only three when it first aired, so I didn't see it until it was in syndication and I was nearly ten; but from early on I was a genuine fan. I knew all the episodes. I built models of the ships. I read (and still possess) the paperback adaptations by James Blish. I even bought fold-out technical plans of the Enterprise.

I was never a Trekkie, however; never deep in the lore. 

My first and truest passion was for Space: 1999. But even when I was twelve I recognized how dumb that show could be. Then I loved Star Wars. What nerd could do otherwise! But I was never drawn into its universe — and by the time of Empire I really didn't care.

Space: 1999 is that first crush you never disavow, much as it embarrasses you; Star Wars is that heady fling that quickly leaves you cold.

And Star Trek is that steady friend you eventually disregard. Back in the day I even looked forward to watching Voyager; only with Enterprise did my interest fade.

In recent years I have tried to re-watch the various Star Trek series. I am surprised by how much I don't care for TNG and DS9, even if I target the "best" episodes. I tried to finally finish that Xindi arc in Enterprise — and sputtered out again. I'm not even inclined to bother with Voyager.

The Original Series, on the other hand...

During an evisceration of the latest atrocity from Star Trek: Discovery, the eviscerating YouTuber made a passionate contrast to the TOS episode Journey to Babel. I hadn't seen that episode in eons, so I went to Netflix and watched it.

I enjoyed it.

And it's not one I've seen very often. I was reminded of my sporadic desire to binge TOS, to just start at the start and watch them all. Since TOS became streamable I've watched some of my favorites — like Errand of Mercy; Mirror, Mirror; and A Taste of Armageddon — but I guess I was put off by slogging through the likes of The Way to Eden. But seeing Journey to Babel suggested I might find more good than bad among the less-remembered episodes; and rather than bias my choices I might just go for the binge.

Immediately, however, on surveying the first episodes of season one, I was not enticed. The Cage, maybe, although I prefer that embedded in The Menagerie; and sure, Where No Man Has Gone Before; but The Man Trap, Charlie X, The Naked Time... I dunno. It already felt like a slog.

Then something occurred to me: Is this the proper order of the episodes? Something felt imbalanced, like the dregs were above the froth. I might not be a Trekkie but my gut was saying: This isn't right. So I went to the handy-dandy internet to investigate the proper ordering of TOS episodes.

I soon found a list that went not by original airdate but by stardate. And dang if that order isn't better. I suppose some deep part of me recognizes the correctness of this order; a sounder narrative flow, such as there was. Stardate, it seems, is a better indication of an episode's time of production. Or maybe this order just seems balanced better between the surely good and the surely bad. Anyhow, I like it.

I'll let you know how the bingeing goes.


STAR TREK TOS SEASON 1
× AIRDATE STARDATE
1the cage1the cage
2the man trap4where no man has gone before
3charlie x7mudd's women
4where no man has gone before11the corbomite maneuver
5the naked time2the man trap
6the enemy within3charlie x
7mudd's women6the enemy within
8what are little girls made of?5the naked time
9miri14balance of terror
10dagger of the mind17the squire of gothos
11the corbomite maneuver8what are little girls made of?
12the menagerie 1 & 29miri
13the conscience of the king10dagger of the mind
14balance of terror13the conscience of the king
15shore leave16the galileo seven
16the galileo seven20court martial
17the squire of gothos12the menagerie 1 & 2
18arena15shore leave
19tomorrow is yesterday18arena
20court martial27the alternative factor
21the return of the archons19tomorrow is yesterday
22space seed22space seed
23a taste of armageddon21the return of the archons
24this side of paradise23a taste of armageddon
25the devil in the dark25the devil in the dark
26errand of mercy26errand of mercy
27the alternative factor28the city on the edge of forever
28the city on the edge of forever29operation: annihilate!
29operation: annihilate!24this side of paradise

Long Time Coming
An Unexpected Sight
Sunday, April 28, 2019 3:29 pm
Rocketships are romance.

However grounded they were in speculative engineering, rocketships were ultimately acts of art. They were unreal transports to a heaven closer than God’s. They were graceful. Hopeful. Evocative.
A Lunar Excursion Module is not a rocketship.  A LEM is a quasimodoan apple pegged on a foil-wrapped, four-legged cardboard box. I agree there is a kind of beauty to it. There is no grace, however. Even its name is graceless.

And when the lunar astronauts returned, they did not gracefully descend — but fell; in a practical, man-packaging cone, wingless, powerless, splashing into the sea.

Even when astronauts acquired wings, those wings were stubby. The Shuttle was a train-car with ailerons, a brutish airplane without the slick menace of an SR-71, the aloof magnificence of a B-52, or the subtle panache of a DC-3. Whatever else, the Shuttle was surely no rocketship.

Now, I didn’t grow up with a romantic anticipation of the Space Age. I and the Space Age are siblings. I was six when we landed on the Moon. The rocketships I encountered were already passé, simplistic and dreamlike, images in outdated storybooks and encyclopedias. And yet, even then, those images were not so very old to me; and somehow they retain a nostalgic weight.

So one day recently, in this year of 2019, when I am fifty six and Apollo 11 is fifty years past, I was surfing through dumb videos on YouTube — not even cyberspace is quite the wild thing it was once romantically expected to be — and I came upon a recording of SpaceX ships returning to Earth. I knew about these SpaceX successes, but since I get my news from video-free blog posts, I had not seen such a recording before.

I watched. I saw spacecraft descending from the clouds, landing with flames, vertically and grandly like... rocketships. Oh, yes, the SpaceX ships are only tubes with brackets. They moved so perfectly, though. Even without portholes and silver fins, they stirred me.

Real rocketships, at last!

P.S. I really do agree that the LEM has its own beauty. In fact one of my favorite SF spacecraft is the Eagle from Space: 1999 — a ship clearly using a LEM aesthetic. My mother once wondered why I liked the Eagle. "It's so clunky," she said. Yeah, Mom; but it's cool.


Religion as Fraud Is Boring
Why Not Try Harder With Your Conflict?
Tuesday, November 20, 2018 3:48 pm
There's a couple of things I dislike about the Ori arc in Stargate SG-1.

First, it is facile and cowardly to cast Origin, the religion of the evil Ori, as a sort of medieval Christianity. Of course the Ori instigate a crusade against our galaxy. Why not a jihad? Because modeling Origin on Islam and having Stargate Command oppose a jihad would, I suppose, be mean to brown people. Or something. Mustn't be phobic! Except, of course, against Christians. Natch. 

Second, the Ori offer enlightenment and outright ascension to their followers. Those who heed Origin will themselves become gods! But then it is revealed that this is a lie. The Ori want followers only to literally consume the energy of belief. Ascension will never be granted to anyone. Origin is a fraud.

This, I think, I dislike even more than the arc's implicit Christophobia — which, these days, I'm somewhat resigned to. Haters gonna hate. Amirite? But to posit a religion as a fraud? That is artistically tedious.

The modern screenwriter, being so far removed from true religion and bound, by his university-credentialed brilliance, to the truths of SCIENCE! alone, cannot even imagine religion as anything other than fraud. Gods aren't real; God isn't real. How do I know? The SCIENCE! tells me so!

We might, as Good Liberals, indulge the ethnic employment of religion. Aren't those Mexicans adorable with their Signs of the Cross? Aren't those Blacks adorable with their Gospel Spirituality? And my, the little bon mots we can extract from the religious expressions of these adorable ethnics! Despite the fraudulence of their silly religions.

But imagine the Ori weren't lying. Imagine that ascension truly awaited the followers of Origin. Imagine that Origin was not a fraud. Suddenly the Ori arc is interesting.

It's easy to fight charlatans. The moral high ground is so very high. But what if your foe is not a charlatan? Where then is your moral high ground? Is it right to oppose the dissemination of enlightenment? When the rewards are so great? The truths so real? True dilemmas arise. It's not so easy anymore. The Crusade has a point after all. It is bloody, yes. But not pointless. The conflict between the Ori and Stargate Command is suddenly deep.

Or at least not tedious.

Since I actually like the trappings of medieval Christianity, I mostly enjoy the Ori arc even as it irritates me. They squeezed a lot of decent adventure into two seasons. (Squeezed perhaps too much: One potentially deep and interesting story — the implantation of a Goa'uld into the incarnated avatar of the ascended Ori — was somewhat flaccidly disposed of in a single episode. That story should have been a three parter, the very climax of the Ori arc. Oh well.) I also like Tomin, and Vala's relationship with him. And finally I have one word for you: morenabaccarin.


As the Humans Say
Dialogue for Aliens
Saturday, July 21, 2018 5:28 pm
In The Corbomite Maneuver, an episode from the original Star Trek, an alien named Balok has decided to destroy the Enterprise. Balok then grants the crew some time to make peace with their Deity or deities. And how much time does Balok give the crew? "Ten Earth time periods known as minutes." 

Unless you're a steady fan of SF, you might not appreciate how amusing that is. It is the epitome of an SF meme, namely the alien who must use human measurements just to make it clear how long or far or big something is. And since the writer must concede that an alien would not normally use "minutes," he must therefore qualify "minutes" with "your" or "human" or "Earth."

But it sounds so silly. It's even a tad pedantic.

These pedantic qualifications are constant in Babylon 5; and it's not just for measurements such as "days" or "megatons." These past weeks I've been bingeing the series and you can all but make a drinking game out of "as the humans say." Straczynski, the prime mover and writer of the series, too often uses "as the humans say" to qualify a colloquialism or allusion or metaphor that, yes, might seem odd from the mouth of an alien. But surely the alien knows that his listener, a human, knows what humans say, and would qualify nothing. I have conversed with quite a few Japanese and Indians in the context of an English-speaking company, and they have never said "as the Americans say."

It's especially grating when Straczynski has two aliens of the same species conversing. He wants an alien to use some obvious and appropriate phrase like "kill two birds with one stone," and of course he feels a pedantic twinge and has to have that alien prepend "as the humans say." Honestly, if the phrase seems that out of place in the mouth of your alien, don't use it. Besides, why would two aliens, speaking to each other, use human turns of phrase at all? For one thing, they'd be speaking to each other in their own language, not English (the English is just a concession to the reader or viewer); and for another, they'd surely have their own phrases.

Never be like Straczynski and deploy "as the humans say." Either narratively establish that the aliens are linguistically assimilated and let them speak naturally, or bite the bullet and use a measurement or metaphor without qualification. Only in first-contact situations need you fuss with this issue at all, and in such situations do try to avoid the overblown balokisms.

P.S. Although the writing and the "humor" in Babylon 5 can be cringe-worthy, the characters and their arcs are really good. The characters actually develop. Their relationships and struggles are interesting and relevant. They're not just cogs in the plot or literary mixtures of personality traits. They support the space opera nicely — and that opera, Shadow War and all, is also really good. Hence my bingeing.

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