Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Speculative Fiction

This rant is an offshoot of a discussion at Sci-Fi channel's Stargate Atlantis forum. Someone had suggested that just like , Stargate needed more cool phrases and chicks to rev it up (which indicated that it needed revving up in the first place, which it does not). Don't get me wrong - I think Battlestar Galactica is a great show by itself, very nicely taken with some very interesting people. However, at the end of the day, Battlestar Galactica is a Space Opera, a chick-flick of sorts with lots of cool stuff. It has a very stylish look and feel to it, and merely happens to have been set in space. It covers very little on the theme of social and cultural constructs, it is more along the lines of Asimov's .

On the other hand, Stargate is a true SF show. By SF, I mean - the original genre encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror and related themes. To paraphrase Djisktra, the question of whether or not computers can think is about as interesting as asking if submarines can swim - Stargate is as much sci-fi (I'm referring to the modern, corrupted use of the word) as a swimming submarine. Stargate is not merely about cool technology or impressive science, although there is plenty of that. Stargate is about how that technology affects things, how civilizations rise and fall with new discoveries and new science, how the tyranny of superior races and slavery of the inferior ones evolve and how entire cultures can be the effective result of near-singular artifacts. What would have happened if we did not have our Dark Ages? Could there be common threads to the various belief systems in this world? What would parasitic nature taken to the extremes look like? Or what would pacifism taken to the extremes look like? While it is definitely not the first work of fiction to address these, it most definitely is one of the better ones.
Every term, every cultural, religious, linguistic, anthropological or technological reference in Stargate has been well thought out and well derived from genuine facts that are quite plausible in the real world. Star Trek aims to be like that, but fails at several points because of one simple flaw - technobabble. "Geordi! Align the deflector dish to emit two quarter frequency of the theta radiation and arm the phaser banks to open fire and execute sequence alpha delta beta using photon torpedos upon my mark." Did that mean anything to you? If it did, you're probably a script writer for Rick Berman. Contrast this with Stargate, where has the priceless dumb look on his face everytime someone brings up something complicated - no, don't feed me buzzwords. Show me the technology, and how people and things react to the technology. I don't care how the Stargate works, but rather what happens when it works. People do not really care how things work, as long as they do. Sure, a few geeks may, but the bottom line is that civilizations and cultures are not the result of how a thing works, but rather that the thing works at all. However, other than the flaw of technobabble, Star Trek comes right on top (well, right next to Stargate anyway). Why? Because ultimately, it too talks about the anthropological, social and cultural influences of technology. You can replace the ship with a flying chariot, the technobabble with hymns and Picard or Kirk with wizards, but you'd still not quite get the same elements - because despite appearances, Star Trek is more about how people react to technology, rather than the technology itself. What would we be without our emotions? Is rationalism really worth it? How does a civilization treat an artificial life form? What would be the prejudices of a race that has supposedly overcome every prejudice? What kind of ethical and moral issues would come about in the future? What are the problems that would come about in a near-perfect era? How do we handle power? How do we handle a life where material possessions are quite meaningless? An android who sacrificed himself in a quest to be more human. An enlightened civilization seeing itself in other younger civilizations. Races that can be evil without meaning to. People and their perceptions.
The spirit of Star Trek was quite nicely summed up when someone asked Gene Roddenberry, "Surely they would have cured baldness by the 24th century?". Roddenberry replied - "In the 24th century, they wouldn't care". That is the utopia of Star Trek. But while Star Trek aimed at this utopia, it ended up sending out political messages, when it did not mean to - a lot of people conceive Star Trek to be largely socialist in nature, and the idea of a Star Trek-ish utopia while nice, is near improbable to be ever realized. In that way, Star Trek was pseudo-allegorical of sorts, in demonstrating the beliefs of the era that it belonged to. However, Stargate takes a different approach. You do not have Captain Kirks and Picards, you have normal folks who handle things of galactic consequence. Do wormholes scare the bejeezus out of you? Don't worry, Col. Jack O'Neill is just as scared. Nobody has learnt Wrap Drives in their eighth grade textbooks, they're just glad that they exist. And when they do figure things out, it's not any one of them, but rather the best minds in a planet working together trying to figure things out. In fact, they are just as surprised when things work.
Sam: This may not be possible, you know. Jacob: Come on, Sam – it can’t be any harder than blowing up a sun. Sam: You know, you blow up one sun and suddenly everyone expects you to walk on water! (At which point, whatever Sam's been working on starts to work) Jacob: There you go! Sam: Oh. Next up - parting the Red Sea.
Stargate is not merely about cool technology - it is about how this technology (amongst other things) affects people. The fact is, every action has consequences, everything you do has an effect - this is what Stargate captures so well. Every simple action that the Stargate team performed has had far reaching consequences, everything was tied-in together, in the grand scheme of things. It is not a one-episode thing at a time, the storylines tie in well together and they all weave a beautiful web of a motley colored story. And it's about normal people doing great things, and great people doing normal things. There is science fiction (cool technology), fantasy (Ancients) and horror (Goa'uld, Wraith) - but it does not talk merely about the science, the fantasy or the horror, or related things. Rather, there is a speculation of stories set in those themes, and how things evolve and affect one another. You stop being fascinated by how the Stargate works, but rather how the fact that it works has changed entire races. How it becomes a scientific, religious, social and cultural symbol. How it can make or break entire civilizations. Battlestar Galactica on the other hand focusses more on technology and its evolution, rather than people and their use of this technology. In Stargate, it is not the technology per-se that matters, but the people flexing it - that is what makes the good guys the good guys. And very often, the technology changes people, turning them into something or the other. Absolute power. "The only way to fight evil is to deny it battle", showed a young boy to a man who refused to believe him. Or very often, technology brought about a certain level of responsibility, a benign but tempered attitude that comes with true maturity. "They very young do not always do as they are told", said the Nox. And it only went to prove how young we really are, as a race and as a civilization. The great races are cool not just because they have cool tech, but because of what they did with that tech. Everything (and everyone) has a background, a history and a character. And everyone has a side to them that has evolved over time, something that is not black or white, but shades of gray. Things have historical references and characteristics that you could relate to (etymological dervivations, anthropological references etc.) - things that you and I could understand. Sure, it was all make believe, but it was make believe, not merely believe. This is why Stargate rocks. And this is exactly why Battlestar Galactica does not.