|Justin B Rye 31-Jul-98|
This essay is supplementary to my ancient
Trek: Mark Two rant, and is itself something of an antique;
I wrote it in 1998 to make a fresh start when the topic-drift of my
Babylon Five postscripts was beginning to get ridiculous.
While that essay was about the possibility of TV science fiction
better than Roddenberry's brainchild, this is a similar fantasy
about improvements on Straczynski's. It is inspired by
discussions with various friends and e‑acquaintances, and by
several webpages including of course Alison Rowan's B5 Gripes Page.
I've been on record for a while as believing that Babylon Five is
the best SF to hit our TV screens since Quatermass back in the fifties – and
looking back at the whole thing, I think that was a conservative
estimate. The central season or so at least was consistently
better than Star Trek could ever dream of! But now as its
five year mission draws to a close (see
afterthoughts below) I find myself looking around
to see what else is coming along. Spinoffs are all very well,
but let's not pin our hopes on the JMS equivalent of
Voyager… It could easily be another thirty years
before visual-media science fiction takes another step up, and in
the meantime our standards have risen enough that things like
Space: Above and Beyond or
Deep Impact just don't cut the mustard any more. In
fact most of the TV or movie sci-fi that I've enjoyed
recently has succeeded on
humour/nostalgia/eyecandy value, not as science fiction.
But (if you'll pardon a digression inspired by Mark Rosenfelder's lament that Science is Killing SF) that's not because the horizons of modern science have grown too restrictive, it's because there are too few real science fans and too many downdumbers in the Meejuh. There are still huge untapped reserves of sense-of-wonder potential in literary SF – even such well established subgenres as the Alternate History, the Far-Future Earth setting or the Xenobiology/ethology Puzzle plot have been left essentially untouched by Hollywood.
As I imply by my harping on about science, quasiscience, and
pseudoscience, SF doesn't have to be limited to what is
orthodoxly considered to be possible; it just has to make some
pretence of having excuses for its extravagances. Fond
though I am of the
hard stuff that restricts its
inventions to a minimum, I would reject any definition of
science fiction that excluded such unscientific classics
Lord of Light,
The Man in the High Castle, or
The Lathe of Heaven! In fact, I would define science
fiction and fantasy not in terms of fidelity to current
scientific dogma but in terms of divergent attitudes to ideas and
explicability: where fantasy writers invoke mystic archetypal
imagery, science fiction writers map novel conceptual territory.
Now, it's true that modern physics is making it harder to get
away with scenes in which space-pirates blaze away at one another
with Coruscating Beams of Death, but this kind of Marvel Comics
quasiscience was never intended to stand up to a moment's
scrutiny – indeed, FTL travel only became popular in the
pulps after Einstein had established that it was impossible!
The sort of SF that relies directly on state-of-the-art stuff like
micro-black-holes or Piltdown Man is the only kind that really
suffers when scientists move the goalposts. Some of the old
buzzwords for superscience power-fantasies (like
vibrations) may have evaporated, but others (
singularity) are still going strong, and new ones (as in the
Lexicon) continue to arise. Besides, who says physics
has run out of big surprises? As I see it, the main problem
in designing a plausible twenty-third century these days isn't lack
of grandeur, it's the imminence of changes so fundamental and
unpredictable they're likely to make the dramas of 2298 as
unintelligible to us as the Microsoft Anti-Trust Suit would be to
Joan of Arc.
So okay, while I'm pining for a
B5+ taking the next step
towards real televisual SF, here's my Wishlist of background
design points that could do with forethought and topics I'd like
(in an ideal world) to see built in from the start. If by
some freakish chance it contains original story ideas, I disclaim
any copyright on them! By the way, don't tell me
they had one of those on the X‑Files once – I
don't want improvised one-offs, I want running themes. And
I'm ignoring the need for good characters, dialogue, and so on
because those apply to any drama, whatever the genre.
Adopting a ten-kay-perigee ellipticalis that the writers and producers can't tell the difference between plausible background techspeak and treknobabble!
in person, then via self-replicating robots? Do civilisations naturally achieve rapid nirvana (or extinction)? Is the Galactic Federation waiting for us to design something worth talking to? Is hyperspace full of genocidal berserkers? Any setting involving aliens or the marked lack of them needs some answer for this paradox, preferably showing some understanding of the depth and scale of cosmic history, and how full of von Neumann probes, billion-year-old civilisations and Big Dumb Objects space could be!
races, and fashions… not to mention languages. That's a whole separate diatribe! (And further
extended remixcoverage of some of these topics is now available as Astronomically Unlikely.)
The point of all this is not to predict things accurately (cf. my
reviews of people's attempts), but to
produce a detailed and robust imaginary world without the glaring
absurdities and contradictions of the made-up-week-by-week
approach. In the process you can build in some contending
forces (all claiming to be The Good Guys); a bit of
general-purpose imagery (compare B5's
metaphor); and of course a few layers of personal secrets,
ancient conspiracies, and unsuspected hideous cosmic truths.
Well, at last I've seen the finale and I'm spoilerproof (what a strange feeling after all this time on tenterhooks)! It was a sadly condensed-then-rediluted season thanks to the show's brush with cancellation, but that's the fault of those Evil Network Executives I've been warning you about. Indeed, it seems to me in retrospect that the best thing JMS could have wished for is a set of voodoo dolls to give him total control over his actors, so he could build up a good stock of regulars without them vanishing between seasons – and more importantly, control over the distributors (Channel Four's betrayal of UK B5 fans was particularly sickening). Or for a more practical version of that wish, perhaps next time a three-year plan would make everything more manageable?
Star Wars: Mark II… but this (ex-)site could have been.