Meme Therapy’s latest brain parade asks “What is the job of contemporary sf? Does it have a job?” To which most of the respondents so far say no, not really, or at most no but. Which of course is the correct and proper stance: we all know nowadays that the important part of science fiction is that it’s fiction, that it is an art form, that it has no responsibility, and indeed no ability, to be anything else. We know that whatever value inheres in science fiction is aesthetic value, and that it can and should be measured by the same yardsticks as other forms of fiction.
I’m not saying this is wrong, per se, but it’s interesting to compare that sort of stance to, of all things, the latest episode of Stargate SG-1. I don’t watch Stargate. Once upon a time I would have done—in my teens I was indiscriminate, happily gobbling up whatever BBC2 decided to show in their weekday 6.45 slot—but these days it seems like too much commitment for too little return. But It’s reached two hundred episodes, which is an absurdly high number, and the prepublicity photos suggested they were going to celebrate the fact in gloriously absurd style. And they do, for forty-two minutes and thirty-one seconds of the forty-two minute and fifty-five second episode.
The conceit, by the way, builds on the show’s hundredth episode, which I haven’t seen, in which it transpires that a studio is developing a thinly-veiled (to those in the know) version of the SG-1 team’s story for tv. It’s called Wormhole X-treme!, and in the latest episode we learn that it lasted for three episodes, but that it did well on DVD so now there’s interest in making a tv movie. Cue all the meta ever—not only is Stargate itself based on a film, of course, but two of the current actors, Ben Browder and Claudia Black, were the leads on Farscape, which died and was resurrected as a tv movie—plus various suggestions for how the movie could work, and so on. The movie falls through, but the tv series gets recomissioned, and the last segment is a flash-forward ten years to a behind-the-scenes documentary focusing on the Wormhole X-treme! cast and crew. Cue even more gentle parody, as the actors’ doubles talk about the challenges they faced in such a long-running show, and the producer says that he thinks one of the secrets of their success is how they don’t take themselves too seriously; and then, in the last twenty-four seconds, we cut to an interview with the actor playing the Teal’c equivalent, who says:
“Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, ‘individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today. But the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.’”
End of episode. Fade to black. It’s shameless, it’s manipulative, it’s arrogant … and yet I found myself moved by it, by the simple, whole-hearted belief that it demonstrates in the project of science fiction.
I’ve been reading Mark Budz’s latest novel, Idolon, for review for Strange Horizons. It’s set in a near future on the edge of the sort of shared sensory environment that’s cropped up in recent work by Vernor Vinge and Chris Beckett, among others. People and buildings are habitually coated with electronic skin, programmable matter that allows them to imitate the style of people and places from times past. I don’t want to gazump my own review, but one of the things that’s struck me about it, particularly having just watched that Stargate episode, is the presence of passages like this:
He felt the pressure, too. It got to him after a while. It got to everyone. Each day, reality became a little less familiar … a little more uncertain. Maybe that was why so many people cast themselves in the past. It wasn’t real, but it had been real. Which was more than anyone could say for the future.
Which surely chimes with the prevalent sentiment in that brain parade (not to mention echoing Pattern Recognition). I think it’s Graham Sleight’s review of Rainbows End that suggests the futures of science fiction can be thought of as arguments, works of advocacy. Reading the above passage, I suddenly realised that one of the reasons I was still turning the pages, probably a reason at least as strong as my interest in the characters and plot, was that I wanted to know how Idolon‘s argument resolved. More than wanting to see the bad guys beaten, I wanted to know whether the world Mark Budz was creating would rediscover its belief in the future.
Which I guess means that, on some level, I’m a believer too.
(All of which has nothing to do with international sf, for which I apologise. As recompense, I propose to write about one of the following later this week: “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter” by Geoff Ryman (Oct/Nov F&SF); “R&R” by Lucius Shepard; or the special Finncon edition of Usva. Which would you prefer, o readers?)