Monday, March 22, 2010

Science fiction, anime, and a downward litterary evolution

So far I'm not having much fun in trying to get back into reading science fiction. While there are fantastic works of sci-fi being produced these days--mind-bending philosophical concepts woven into plots and characters--they seems to be happening largely in video games, film, and animation rather than in books.

When it comes to anime science fiction I'm currently enjoying Ergo Proxy's beautifully animated musings on artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and the nature of identity.

Any show with Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" for a closing song has got to be good!

The entire series is currently available on YouTube, with commercials. The first episode is a starts of choppy with confusing jumps between unexplained events, but quickly settles down into a solid narration.

Also of note and available on YouTube in its entirety: Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid.

Full Metal Panic
is a bit like Tom Clancy meets the traditional Giant Mecha anime, complete with angsty teenagers whose special talents have thrown them into unusual circumstances. Issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are touched upon in former child soldiers, fear and tension are subtly evidenced, but at the same time show also reflects the can-do personalities and professional dedication found in successful militaries.

There are some nice technical battlefield realism touches, including bullet-time slow-mo shots of sabots (casings) falling away from main-gun armor-piercing rounds fired by two tanks, as well as an authentic sighting view on an AT-4 rocket launcher--I fired about a dozen or so AT-4s at armored hulks in Germany and at Fort Knox back in the day.

I only wish that I could come across something in literary science fiction as engaging as Ergo or other features I've watched during the past year.

What got me out of reading science fiction was that it paled beside the intensity and complexity of books on real world history, military affairs, and science. At the time I figured it was an age thing. However, after having asked around it seems as though nearly everyone in my circle of friends and family stopped reading new science fiction during the 1990s, regardless if they were fifty or fifteen.

Many of these individuals--my self included--are more than happy to reread books from the prior to the 90s.

Robert Heinlein stories, for example, continues to be engaging, even in those places where his technical details or near future predictions have not stood up to the test of time.

Meanwhile, the much talked about critically received recent novels that I've tried reading during the past two years have done nothing for me. This includes a couple that are up for the Nebula award this year. Such works are cynical, dark, and often lack any real science or science-driven philosophical speculation.

What such stories have instead are several of the pretensions and far-left leanings of Post-Modern literature.

Not surprisingly, science fiction has been stagnant in terms of sales for nearly two decades now, and as a genre it continues to lose shelf-space to fantasy. Even worse for us writers, fair amount of that remaining bookstore-volume is devoted to reprints of older works rather than new novels.

When I talk to science fiction fans about what get's them excited, it mainly seems to be Japanese anime, a handful of films, and above all game titles like Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Halo.

Obviously we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and managed to abandon our readership.

While I believe that there is room for social realism and social criticism in literary science fiction, our readers in the working and middle classes do not need have it hammered into them that life can be difficult. They get enough of that on a day-to-day basis. Part of what they are looking for in their entertainment, part of what is desperately missing in current science fiction, is the heroic struggle to overcome such obstacles.

When a book is written as an allegorical polemic for either the left or right it alienates close to half of its potential readership. And with its cynicism and gloomy endings, present-day literary science fiction doesn't seem to be enjoying much luck in reaching many of my friends on the left, ironically enough. Many of them seem to be either FDR old-school style liberals or more 1960ish Civil Rights/hippie era, for whom dark endings and the denial of any form of progress holds little attraction.

For them there is more to the world than power structures, oppression, and unbounded relativism.

All of this isn't to say that science fiction has hitherto been free from ideological biases. Far from it. For nearly three decades the field had a strong libertarian bent. And while I'm not a libertarian*, libertarianism with its blended creed of social and economic freedom and emphasis on the heroic quality of individuals didn't seem to drive off readers on the left or right. Or rather if it didn't have everything for everyone it still had something for everybody.

Just as bad, the focus on almost 1984-style political commentaries with capitalism in place of communism means that science--not a field that most Post-Modernists are overly fond of to start with--is largely lacking in the current offering of works. The exception to this are extreme environmental doomsday scenarios, which are unfortunately often heavily tied into the polemical outlook of these books. This further politicizes an urgent issue that should be viewed through the lens of empirical evidence.

Another strike against the field's current literary aspirations is too much of an emphasis on human drama. Yes, you read that correctly. Instead of soap-opera like dramatics--yeah, I'm looking at you Battle Star, even television hasn't proven immune to this trend--show us potential alterations in the human condition. Past and present technological revolutions have changed how we live and see the world, so give us a look at how the future might come to pass within that context. Show us a tomorrow rooted in the complexity of a world beyond the clear-cut views of any ideology. And for God's sake, show us solutions to dilemmas now and again rather that constantly throwing up your hands at the future.

*If I had my way we wouldn't have ideologies. Period. At at best these outlooks are black-and-white still photos of a colorful and ever-evolving world. The present statist vs free market current that flows through much of the polarized political discourse here in the US is like listening to two carpenters argue over whether the hammer or the screwdriver is the perfect tool for every job. What keeps ideologies around, in my view, is their utility in motivating and organizing large numbers of people--a usefulness that carries a high epistemological cost.

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