Let me start by saying that I love science fiction. I have a Master Replica’s lightsaber, have gone out in public in a Star Trek uniform, and just finished running a Firefly RPG. I am beyond garden-variety geekiness here. I love science fiction. I love being a fan of it. Trying to carve my own path as writer through the genre, however, has been equal parts frustrating and enlightening.
My longest-standing struggle with this genre, like most long-standing struggles, stems from my childhood. I was introduced to science fiction quite young and, after my initial wariness about the Deltan in the first Star Trek movie (I was a little kid, I wasn’t sure what to think about the bald lady who went crazy) and my lasting horror at the (now old-school) cylons in Battlestar Galactica, I began to see that science fiction was a properly good thing. I enjoyed the make-believe of it, the costumes, the gadgets, the creatures, the barrage of fantastic vehicles and, well, the barrage of the fantastic.
But before long I began to debate with myself and, too soon, those around me, over the simple question what is science fiction about?
Only now, in the middle of writing this post, am I beginning to suspect that science fiction’s truth may be in the eye of every beholder. For myself, because the first-released Star Wars movie loomed so large over my childhood, science fiction is about the journey of the characters. Despite the coolness of the Millennium Falcon and the lightsabers and the fighting and the villains and the aliens (which were all undoubtably the coolest things I had ever seen as a youngster) the message that Star Wars sent me home with was a simple one: trust your instintcs. The most important part of that story, to me, was how Luke saved the day, and didn’t let all his Rebel friends get blown up by the Death Star. And when all the other able pilots had failed, Luke triumphed because, quite simply, he had faith in his own ability.
Maybe I was just the least-cool kid to ever sit through a movie, but I was willing to dismiss everything else – the props, the technological marvel of the special effects, the costumes, the acting, the whole mesmerzing otherworldliness of it – I could do without it all because what really mattered was that the hero saved everyone’s lives by believing in himself. (Yes, that was me. Dorky child philospher.) Make no mistake, I agree that the futuristic techno-gear part of sci-fi is cool too, and I love the memorable parts of the genre. The transporters in Star Trek? Best way to travel. Warp drive? Going to lightspeed? Spinning up the FTL? Fate of the crew hanging on the port compression coil’s catalyzer? All so brilliant. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t use to care how any of those things worked. I’ve just been a lot more interested in what happens to the characters when they reached their destination, not so much on how they did or didn’t get there.
And I maintain this (perhaps wrong) attitude despite the fact that the how is often an integral part of the plot. If the transporters are on the fritz or some do-gooders are protesting how warp drive travel is damaging the fabric of the time-space continuum, that makes for a good story too. An astromech droid repairing the hyperdrive at the last possible minute? Thrilling stuff. Problems in the tylium ore processing unit? I’m as fascinated as the next person. Broken catalyzer crippling the ship? I can’t wait to see how it turns out. But ultimately, I’m way more curious to see how Capt. Picard settles a Prime Directive dilemma, or discover if Luke’s destiny really is to yield to the dark side of the Force. I’m a lot more interested in seeing whether Admiral Adama will ever make peace with his son, and what sort of shadowy past Shepherd Book really has.
Of course, once I started writing this, I thought of examples where the technology did play an inseperable role in a show’s theme… so, I’ll address that in part 2. (Great, I just wrote a disclaimer to introduce a disclaimer.)