Where Next?

This essay is supplementary to my ancient “Star Trek: Mark Two” rant, and is itself something of a museum piece; I wrote it in 1998 to make a fresh start when the topic‐drift of my Babylon 5 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 was inspired by discussions with various friends and e‑acquaintances, and by several web pages [most of which have since disappeared] including of course Alison Rowan's B5 Gripes Page.

I've been on record for a while as believing that Babylon 5 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 “Star Trek: 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 as “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 “psionic vibrations”) may have evaporated, but others (“quantum singularity”) are still going strong, and new ones (as in the TransHuman 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 “Oh, 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.

Jargon
Who told those Hollywood moneymen that the public would never accept accurate science, anyway?  The audiences for crime and hospital dramas are routinely treated to unintelligible jargon dialogue; the real reason we never hear space pilots say anything like “Adopting a ten‐kay‐perigee elliptical” is that the writers and producers can't tell the difference between plausible background techspeak and treknobabble!
Futurology 101
Questions that I'd hope might be answered, if only tacitly, include: what are the economic effects of self‐replicating devices, off‐world resources, fusion power, and the automation of genius?  How bad is our climate and ecosystem going to get?  What is going to happen to the Third World?  How will the populace be kept healthy, entertained, housed, policed, fed, and educated?  And how long am I personally going to live?
Star Wars
What sort of toys do the military (or indeed the traffic cops) get to play with?  Viral subversion grenades?  Relativistic antineutronium projectiles?  How much of the planet will they have broken?  If we get to see any Nearly‐As‐Fast‐As‐Light space combat, I should hope that it explicitly involves computer‐enhanced tactics and visuals.  Even if the storyline is only there as an excuse for space‐opera FX, realism can be fun.
Space: $19.99
Will anybody ever find any reason to move off Earth?  Can we expect domes full of colonists living on Mars and freezers full of explorers orbiting Titan, or is the space age best left to machines?  Is any kind of interstellar probe workable?  Preferably one capable of giving results within the builders' lifetimes?  And above all, when will somebody produce a plausible special‐effects representation of low gravity?
Cog‐Sci‐Fi
Ideas from twentieth‐century philosophy, neurology, and artificial intelligence, as opposed to dualistic hogwash like Mutant Mind‐Powers.  Are people in the fictional world still working on AI, or is it working on them?  Does software have rights?  And how far can casual net access and data‐manipulation facilities be integrated into people's minds before they become unintelligible as TV characters?
Handwavionics
Is there much of a future in biotech?  (Gen‐eng pharmacology?  DIY animal design?)  How far will nanotech get?  (Synthetic meat?  Utility fog?)  And are quantum‐computers, space–time wormholes, and similar wibbly seeming concepts actually possible?  I don't ask if molecular‐engineered self‐replicating thinking‐machines are feasible because I'm one myself.
Cyberpunk
Never mind the Gibson‐wannabe techno‐yuppies who copied the superficial features of this genre; what I mean is that I want to see some real incorporation of technologies like prosthetics or Intelligence Amplification into a plausible society (including subcultures).  Elective cyborging and neurosurgical personality‐modification may seem abhorrent to some, but then again so do tongue‐piercings and silicone implants.
Future ‐Isms
What will people believe in – representative democracy, Shinto, consumerism, ufos, biochauvinism, or something new?  How long will it be before a Denebian AI becomes Pope?  Nonhumans, whether alien or terrestrial, may claim a quite incompatible set of basic civil rights (to seize unused property; to run amok; not to be talked about!); and among the normal humans, give us a bit of political content.  Never mind 1984 homages, let's have some Ken MacLeod scripts, for instance, with anarcho‐syndicalists fighting ecofreak communists.  (Somehow, I can't see this getting out uncut on network television…)
Fermi's Paradox
If (as is statistically plausible) intelligence has evolved elsewhere in the universe, why hasn't it (detectably) contacted us – if not “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!
The Campaign for Real Aliens
If we're getting ETs, I want plausibly unearthly ones based on a real understanding of the exobiological probabilities, rather than another lot of white males with latex bonces – even Jabba the Hut was ridiculously humanlike by the standards of real evolutionary biology.  Yes, I know this is beyond current special effects technology, but if Starship Troopers can fill the screen with Bugs then it can't be far off – and this is a wishlist, after all.  A more important argument is the offputting effect of faceless characters; but this sounds to me like an excuse for fun with synthetic diplomats!
Xenosociology
We may be limited for practical reasons to betrousered humanoids, but rather than a constant supply of starfaring feudal patriarchies, it would be nice to meet a species whose social structure (under the layers of cultural accretions) followed interestingly from their biology – hominids have football, soap‐opera, and rock'n'roll; what do triffids have?  Or even to see evidence of aliens with some diversity of beliefs, “races”, and fashions… not to mention languages.  That's a whole separate diatribe!  (And further “extended remix” coverage 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 “gathering darkness” metaphor); and of course a few layers of personal secrets, ancient conspiracies, and unsuspected hideous cosmic truths.

1999 Afterthoughts

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?