Star Trek TNG: Sub Rosa

I forget why, but I was recently reading about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Sub Rosa. It was an unusual episode, being described by Memory Alpha as a foray into gothic horror. It was a (sort of) ghost story, centering about an “anaphasic entity” which had been haunting the women of Beverly Crusher’s family. Haunting isn’t quite the right word, as it seemed to live symbiotically with them. Though like all TNG episodes, it had its share of plot holes.

For one thing, it was said to have lived symbiotically with the “Howard Women” for centuries, except that family names are patrilineal, not matrilineal, so they would have been Howard women for a single generation. (You could get around this by skipping a generation, going from grand-mother to grand-daughter, which happened in the case of Beverly Crusher but didn’t at any other time.) I bring this up not to nit-pick, but because it’s a good symbol of how much the TNG writers cared about plot holes: not very much.

A bigger plot hole was that the anaphasic entity was supposed to be sinister, but it seemed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. Beverly came into contact with it because she was burying her grandmother at a very old age, and the Howard women were, if I recall correctly, generally described as hardy. This suggests that the anaphasic entity kept them healthy. It also, according to Beverly’s grandmother’s diary, kept them happy. Why, then, it was supposed to be bad was completely unclear. It did eventually murder someone, though there was no obvious reason that things got to that point.

As I said, it’s not that I particularly care about the plot holes in TNG episodes, at least not any more. When I was watching them as a teenager I would immediately call up a close friend and the two of us would nitpick the night’s episode for the better part of two hours, but I’ve gotten over that. What I do find interesting is what this suggests about resource allocation: most of these plot holes would not have been at all hard to fix. The producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just didn’t care. And what I found most interesting about the Memory Alpha article were some quotes from the writers at the end. First, from Jeri Taylor, the showrunner at the time:

Rick and Michael were very distrustful of this story. They considered it a romance novel in space and felt the possibility for embarrassment was monumental, but I just knew it would work. It’s a different kind of story for Star Trek to tell. It is a romance but we do have women in our audience and women do traditionally respond to romantic stories.

This from Bannon Braga:

It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. I just thought she did a wonderful job. Picard catches Beverly masturbating for crying out loud! What a tough role to play. When I was writing the words, ‘She writhes around in the bed having invisible sex,’ I just thought, ‘Oh man, we’re asking for trouble. Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ Thanks to [director] Jonathan Frakes and Gates, it was not hokey. It was very good. Look, I scripted the first orgasm in “The Game“. This was mild by comparison. Sure it was racy. Even Rick Berman had said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ I think they trimmed quite a bit out of the writhing sequences.

And finally, this from René Echevarria:

“I can still reduce Brannon to shudders when I go into his office and say, ‘I can travel on the power transfer beam’. But the cast loved it. Every woman on the lot who read it was coming up to Brannon and patting him. Ultimately I think it was worth doing because it was campy fun and the production values were wonderful. The sets look great and everybody threw themselves into it. Gates did a wonderful job. It just got bigger and broader and to the point of grandmother leaping out of the grave. Just having Beverly basically writhing around having an orgasm at 6 o’clock on family TV was great. For that alone it was worth doing. We got away with murder.”

That last line really summed up a sneaking suspicion I have about the writing on The Next Generation. “We got away with murder.” They weren’t trying to tell good stories. They were trying to be clever.

(I should note that I mean good in the sense of, well, good. Not in the sense of “addictive”.)

If Disney Didn’t Hate Star Wars

I’ve read and heard enough about Star Wars: The Last Jedi (henceforth TLJ), both from people who liked it and people who hated it, to know that I’m never going to willingly see it. This review makes a fairly good case that TLJ is Star Wars for those who hate Star Wars. Before I get to my main point, I should put in a defense of some people who liked TLJ. I don’t think that you have to hate Star Wars to like TLJ. I think it’s sufficient to simply not care about Star Wars. The original movies, I mean, not the franchise.

A close friend of mine enjoyed TLJ, and one of the curious things about him (in the sense of being very different from me) is that he almost never re-watches or re-reads anything. Fiction is, for him, an experience which is then over. Characters don’t live in his memory, as far as I can tell. As a result, once he’s watched a movie, when he watches a sequel to it the original movie is simply backstory they don’t need to cover with exposition to him. As such he simply doesn’t care whether a sequel urinates all over an original movie; he was never going to go back and re-watch the original movie anyway. All that matters to him (as far as I can tell) is how much he enjoys the story he’s in right now. In other words, complete indifference to the original Star Wars movies will suffice.

Anyway, as I was explaining to this friend why some people loathe TLJ so much, he objected that you can’t have Star Wars without an Empire. He was at least correct that Star Wars is not Beaurocraaaaaaaats Iiiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaace (henceforth BIS). But you don’t need the Empire to be reset as if it was a syndicated TV show to avoid making the sequels to the original movies BIS. Granted, though, this is a place where having a few scraps of historical knowledge would really come in handy, so writers “educated” within the last 50 years are pretty screwed. Here’s the thing about empires collapsing: they don’t just get replaced by another empire as if a democratic election just took place. They fracture into smaller empires and kingdoms. The Empire in Star Wars was patterned on the Roman empire even down to having regional governors. When the roman empire collapsed, at first the big difference was that taxes stopped flowing from the governor to Rome, and stayed with the governor. In some places the governor was too weak to stop local kings from rebelling, while in other places they were. The exact same thing would happen in the Star Wars universe after the events in Return of the Jedi. Regional Governors who were several weeks journey away would not suddenly swear fealty to Leia and the rebellion; they would simply give themselves all of their orders instead of most of their orders, with a few orders coming from the emperor.

Likewise, the Rebellion would not suddenly become supremely powerful. As they work to reconstitute the Republic, a few planets most directly under the emperor and far away from regional governors would probably join them, augmenting their strength considerably. And the regional governors would probably not just unite, since most likely they were men of ambition, so their fights with each other over territory would probably keep them from just outright crushing the rebels in retribution for killing the emperor. But thirty or forty years after the death of the Emperor the Rebellion-turned-New-Republic would probably still be one of the smaller forces in the galaxy.

And this is a perfect setting for what you want to do with the next trilogy: shift the old actors to advisory roles for rising young stars. You want to do this for many obvious commercial reasons (as the death of Carrie Fisher demonstrated), but also because this is actually how life works. Heroics are a young man’s job; mentoring is an old man’s job. Transitioning the older actors’ characters into age-appropriate activities—political leadership, mentoring, etc.—would not only be good commercial sense, it would be good story telling. And equally importantly, it would pay tribute to the characters which fans of the original movies loved. I mean, I know that these days the concept of not hating the fans of your work is quite alien to the writers of popular fiction, but couldn’t the suits who are supposed to oversee the creative types have enforced a little bit of discipline? That is, in theory, why the investors entrust their money to the suits and not directly to the creative types.

Incidentally, I think that this hatred of fans stems from the fact that fame is hollow. Fame makes huge promises; fame claims that it is the face of God smiling on the famous. But it isn’t. And I think that people who do popular art in order to become famous so often end up hating their fans precisely because they find out that their fans are not God. That realization makes the pain of their separation from God all the worse. There are two and only two viable ways of dealing with fame and not hating one’s fans:

  1. Purely as a business transactions. This isn’t ideal, but it will at least admit of gratitude. It will probably predispose the artist to too much fan service, but many well-executed stories have been done this way that ended well.
  2. As service to God, since much of the work he gives us to do is service to our fellow man. This is much harder, but it is obviously the better route, and one is more likely to keep a level head whether one is loved or hated (or as is common for public figures, both). If one is service God, praise by one’s fellow men is nice, but beside the point, while hatred is inevitable and also beside the point. And you’re very unlikely to hate your fans since the only reason you’re doing what you’re doing is to love them even if they hate you for it.

Anyway, that (or a direction similar to it) is how the third Star Wars trilogy should have gone had Disney not hated Star Wars.

The Story Modern (Western) Screenwriters can Tell

I’ve lost interest in modern American movies. (Fair warning: I’m going to paint with a very broad brush for simplicity. Keep a grain of salt on hand.) If I’m being brief, I just say that Hollywood is made up of atheists and atheists have no interesting stories to tell. That’s not quite true, though; there’s one (mildly) interesting story atheists can tell, and it’s the only story they’ve been telling for decades now.

This is not to say that movies all have the same plots in the details; it’s a bit like how pop songs have different words but all use the same four cords:

The analogy breaks down because pop songs can be about anything, even about good subjects. But the basic story which all recent movies are about is the “hero” deciding that he won’t be a villain after all. Not, it should be pointed out, in the sense of overcoming temptation. That was done very well in this star trek scene:

Instead, the modern story is about choosing an identity. The difference is that in the modern story, being the villain is a live option in the sense of being a good option. When a man is tempted, he may do what’s wrong, but he knows that he’s the worse for it. In the modern story, when the man is tempted he doesn’t see the villain as any worse. He just chooses (for no rational reason) to not be the villain.

And when I say that it’s mildly interesting, most of its interest comes not from the story itself but from the story it can feel like: whether a man will resist temptation. Resisting temptation is a religious story, though. At least in the sense of it having religious premises. For there to be a real story about whether a man will resist temptation, there must be good and evil, and there must be free will. You don’t have any of those things in a materialist universe. (Some will call it a naturalist universe. Quibbling over terms that mean the same thing is a waste of time.)

But if one is telling stories within a religious framework—and especially within a Christian framework—far more types of stories become possible. With real virtues available, it becomes possible to tell stories about choosing between virtues. The meson (balance between competing virtues) of Aristotle can be an excellent basis for a story. There are also stories of redemption. It’s true that modern atheistic stories may have what is called the heel-face turn, but by and large that’s just a switching of sides. True redemption involves things like contrition (which is the hatred of the evil done, not anguish over one’s current place in society). They involve things like performing restitution. And they involve things like trying to help others to turn away from evil. People who have truly repented tend to be the most evangelical, not the most mopey. Basically, those who have been given much more than they deserve want to share it.

I do think that there’s another culprit behind the bland homogeneity of modern screenwriting: modern education is primarily organized around training people to be good factory workers in a socialist utopia (thank you, John Dewey). Screenwriters have almost never read any of the classic stories of western literature; they’re familiar primarily with TV and movies. And the result seems to be a kind of literary inbreeding. The family nose is getting ever more pronounced, even as the family lungs are getting ever weaker and more wheezy.

Update: I’ve written a followup post. That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell.

Whence Comes the Book?

I read a curious article about a fan of The Mists of Avalon which is about her reaction to learning that the author of the book (Marion Zimmer Bradley) (allegedly) sexually abused her own daughter and other children. It’s curious because of the degree to which it regards the author indulging in astounding amounts of sexual evil as if it were simply a ritual impurity, rather than as something which might be woven into the book itself. A book which, by the reader’s own admission, was very unlike anything else:

I still cannot imagine anything more perfectly aligned with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece. Bradley opened my eyes to the idea that, when we look at the past, we are only ever seeing a small part of it — and usually, what we are seeing excludes the experiences of women. Encountering the vain, self-serving, diabolical Morgan le Fay transformed into the priestess Morgaine compelled me to question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men. The Mists of Avalon also gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities beyond male-dominated, male-defined religions. In retrospect, I can see that it gave me ways of seeing that helped me find the feminine even within patriarchal systems while studying religion as an undergrad. The impact of this book lingers in my feminism, certainly, but it also influenced my scholarly interest in folklore, and it still informs my personal spirituality.

And this is her analysis of the book in light of the revelations about the author:

The sexual act described [above] takes place around the Beltane fire. As a young reader, I was disturbed by it, but I saw it as a description of people who have passed beyond the normal world and into the sacred time of a fertility ritual. The scene was frightening for me as a child, and repellent, but also, I must admit, fascinating. In context, this passage made sense: The horror of the scene was an element of its power. And that was all I found. Everything I had always loved about the book was still there, and I didn’t find anything new to hate. So, what was I going to do with this book?

And finally, here is her conclusion:

So, what to do with this once-beloved book? I’ve read it once since Greyland spoke out, and I don’t know if I will read it again. Probably not, I’m guessing. Discovering that powerful men are predators is disturbing, but not surprising. Learning that the author who introduced me to feminine spirituality and the hidden side of history abused children — girls and boys, her own daughter — was horrifying in an existential kind of way. I’m a writer and an editor and I know that characters can exceed their creators. I would go so far as to say that that’s the goal. So I can keep Morgaine — what she has meant to me, what she has become in my personal mythology — while I reject Bradley.

This is a common thing I see in the modern world: assuming that all propositions stand alone, unconnected from all others, as if truth is not things fitting into each other but like a butterfly collection on unconnected facts.

This woman never asks herself whether the book teaching her to “question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men” is just Bradley trying to escape the blame for her own evil, projected. If in most other parts of the world, people who don’t rape their (and other) children take responsibility for their own wrongs, but a rapist teaches how to shuffle the blame off on others, perhaps the right course of action is not to keep the lesson that you should always shuffle the blame onto others.

Virtue is not a simple thing. Virtue is required for people to live together. Virtue is required for people to live together with everything, in fact, even nature. Virtue is what places us into a right relationship with the hierarchy of being. Evil people reject the hierarchy of being; they substitute their own for the real one. At the extremes you have Satan’s nolo servire—I will not serve. The more vicious an author is, the more one expects this to permeate every aspect of their being, because the fundamental solipsism of their orientation to the world cannot but touch on every interaction they have with the world. To learn life lessons from the book of a thoroughly wicked man is a fool’s errand; they will be right by accident. And since they will be right by accident, their effort will not be in making the truth attractive.

In short, if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, don’t do it in exchange for wisdom.

What If The Future Has Past?

(This is continuing thoughts from Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard and Why Science Fiction Will Never Die, both of which are related to a science fiction story I’m working on writing.) As I’m working on a Science Fiction story about the first ship from the Milky Way to explore the Andromeda galaxy, the various sorts of magic required to make any sort of space exploration story weigh on my mind because I tend to prefer hard SciFi to soft SciFi. I think that this is in part because if one is going for magic, why bother with the SciFi at all—why not just go whole hog and actually have fun with the fun parts?

But the problem is that you can’t do space exploration as hard SciFi. This was captured fairly well in a post by Jasyn Jones titled, Hard SF Does Not Exist. And he’s right. There are of course exceptions like Andy Weir’s recent book The Martian, but the sorts of stories one can tell in hard SF are not very different from the sorts of stories one can tell on earth. People get trapped for many months at a time on Antarctica, and there is nothing preventing someone from setting a story on a desert island. (For example, two women were recently stranded at sea for months.) But if you want to actually do space exploration, you need magic to accomplish it. To put things in perspective, it took 9 years for New Horizons to get to Pluto. Proxima Centauri, the closest star we know about, is approximately 5,400 times further away than Pluto is. Even if we could travel to Proxima Centauri ten times faster than New Horizons (which seems doubtful), it would still take more than twice as much time to get there as has elapsed since Julius Caesar became the emperor of Rome. Just the amount of fuel necessary to power a ship for 5400 years would be staggering (ball park, assuming a gigawatt nuclear power plant, it would need about 5.4M Kg of fissile material, according to this), to say nothing of the near-perfect oxygen and water reclamation necessary, the meters of shielding necessary to protect the people from cosmic rays, etc. It would take tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of rocket launches just to assemble such a generation-ship in orbit around the earth. And heaven help the people on it if they need any spare parts for their ship during those five millenia.

I should probably note that there are proposals, like Project Daedalus which can span that distance much faster—on the order of 50 years. But they involve fusion engines firing for years and consequently truly massive amounts of deuterium and tritium, both of which are extremely rare. Project Daedalus depends on a bunch of stuff which there’s no good reason to believe can reliably be made to work, and that in order to get a 500kg mechanical payload to do a flyby. To move people in a way that they can land on a foreign planet requires exponentially more mass and consequently initial fuel, etc. In short, the human race is not going anywhere outside of our solar system in real life.

And yet, as I said in my last blog post on the subject, I do think that exploratory Science Fiction is great because it is the heir to Greek epics like the Odyssey. (Of course, the Odyssey did have magic in it, but the magic wasn’t Odysseus’s, it belonged to the people he met.) But all exploratory sci-fi relies on what amounts to teleportation. Does this mean that Science Fiction is just bad fantasy? Is it just fantasy for people whose imaginations are too weak to entertain the explicitly fantastical?

There is another possibility, though: what if Science Fiction was possible in an earlier time, but isn’t now? The Science Fiction written from about 1850-1950, was often set in our solar system. There are a million counter-examples, I have no doubt, but what if it was the Science Fiction (scientifiction, as C.S. Lewis called it in the days when he was writing it) that was set in our solar system which was the source of vitality in science fiction?

Space exploration set in our solar system actually did have the right scale to it. One can get to the moon in days; one get can to Mars in months. The moons of Jupiter are more like a year’s travel time; and all these are the right time scales for the Greek epics. Stories set here were—when we didn’t know what was on the moons and the planets—actually were quite plausible for the future. The science involved in getting to these places was actual science, not merely magic with a veneer of science lightly glued on top.

Alas, time moved on and we found out that there are no civilizations to explore on the moon or on the other planets; any civilization which happens there will be human settlers living in very highly technologized dwellings. They will live there, if they live at all, in little bubbles of planet earth which they’ve brought with them.

I grew up on Star Trek; there is something utterly magical about Science Fiction. But it seems very possibly that true, hard science fiction is as much a thing of the past as the wild west is. We may be in the unfortunate position that to recapture the magic, we must capture it in a genie’s bottle. And that will always leave us with the question of where we got the genie’s bottle, and why we take it for granted.

Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard

C.S. Lewis once propounded the theory that Scientifiction (what science fiction was called in the days when he was writing it) was really the modern form of the Greek epic like the Odyssey. In the days of Homer you could set a tale in a land where all the normal rules didn’t apply by merely putting it on an island no one has been to in the Mediterranean sea. Since modern man has been to all of the islands in the Mediterranean, we have to put the far-off lands farther off. In the 1800s it was still possible to put it deep underground, as in H.G. Wells’ Journey to the Center of the Earth, but in the 1900s the only real candidate was on another planet.

I think that this theory is essentially correct, especially as regards science fiction which is about adventurous exploration of places as yet unknown. I don’t think it applies nearly as much to space empires made up entirely of humans which are set in the far future as much to have a free hand with the political setup as for any other reason. But space exploration is the sort of story I’m writing for NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. But unfortunately, (so far) writing relatively hard sci-fi, where faster-than-light travel and free energy for propulsion are my only two main cheats, this brings me into language difficulties with encountering new species. There’s no plausible way in a relatively hard sci-fi way to have two creatures who developed along entirely different evolutionary pathways would have worked out the same language when they may not even both have heads.

I believe I’ve basically just committed myself to ignoring the problem of microbe contamination; when two unrelated species meet there’s an overly good chance that one or the other will contaminate the other with microbes to which the other has no resistance and thus inadvertently wipe most or all of the other species out. Basically, an even worse case of what happened when Europeans came into contact with Native Americans. This is basically an insoluble problem since we need our symbiotic bacteria to live. One could, possibly, confine everyone to leak-proof space suits on away missions, but that has its own problems, especially where the fun is concerned.

But language is just really a problem. If one can’t speak to another or even figure out that the other is speaking, it really cuts down on the dramatic possibilities. On the plus side, my story is set within a Christian universe so I could always introduce something like a “soul stone” which allows rational souls to communicate without words. For added fun, it could even be something like a statue to the archangel Gabriel.

Anyway, the point is that hard sci-fi is very difficult to write without plot holes for the sort of stories one often wants to write because the sort of stories we often want to write are not really about outer space in the future. That setting is just our excuse.