The Post That Might Have Been

September 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Hypothetically, let’s say I joined the marching band in high school. You have to understand something—marching band at my former high school is only slightly less of a commitment than joining the Marines. In-season, it involves 10 hours of after-school practice during the week, a performance at the football game, and, more often than not, Saturday practice for around 4 or so hours. Oh, and don’t forget the time you spend going to band class 5 days a week. And competitions. And special events. And then there are those weeks in the middle of the it’s-so-hot-we’re-lucky-we-only-lost-five-kids-to-dehydration-yesterday summer when the band practices for 8 or 12 hours a day.

As appealing as that sounds, I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision. I would like to say yes. But man, during my middle school years I loved playing in the jazz band. We weren’t bad—for 7th and 8th graders. And we were definitely higher on the treble clef—er, totem pole—than the regular band. (In middle school, it’s important to be higher on the totem pole than something.) What if I had carried this through?

Welcome to my first post, “Social Sci-Fi,” version 1.1:

Most of my friends and family have no real opinion about science fiction, much like me. It’s a system that works very well, mostly because I really have no people in my life who like science fiction. In high school, it was hard to meet a lot of people outside band, and most of those people were interested in band things. At Vandy, well—the same applies even though I’m not a Blair student. Marching band practice takes up a lot of time—it’s fun, but it takes up a lot of time. And how many people at Vandy do you know who like science fiction (present company excluded)?

I have a confession: I have never seen an episode of Star Trek even though it’s arguably the best-known sci-fi franchise besides Star Wars—which I have seen, and thoroughly enjoyed. I simply don’t know where to start, especially when it comes to fiction. Sure, I’ve surfed through the channels and landed on the Sci-Fi network before. But something tells me that’s not the same level of sci-fi, that it only becomes serious when you’re holding a book in your hand, reading it in public—a high level of commitment. (It’s almost like you could categorize people who read in public based on their genre of choice.)

I’ll admit—I have heard of Isaac Asimov. And in the 10th grade we read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. But, like I said, I didn’t have time to go much beyond what was required. I still don’t.

I guess that I do have something to say about science fiction—in a way. One time, after church, a friend and I went to my car and got inside. (We’ll call this friend Ronaldo.) Ronaldo and I were going to our favorite after-service Mexican restaurant. Before we could go anywhere, though, I had to start my car. When I did so, the sounds of Vaclav Nelhybel’s “Outer Space” filled the car, causing my friend to ask the rather rude question: “What the heck is this crap?” I switched it off rapidly, said it was some kind of experimental music by this 20th century composer. By then, I had learned that unless you eat, sleep, and breathe music it’s hard to appreciate the standard classical stuff, let alone “Outer Space”—which I would argue is an audible version of science fiction. It could certainly serve as a soundtrack to a screen adaptation. And for some reason I listened to it nonstop back then. It’s still in my rotation now.

But who the heck calls something “crap” on first listen?


On the Alleged Marginalization of Science Fiction

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the enduring traits of science fiction fandom is its perception that its favored genre is treated unfairly. English departments sneer at it, the mainstream segments of the film and literature industries dismiss it, and people who enjoy it are denigrated as “nerds”; so the popular opinion goes. Is this perception accurate, though?

I would characterize myself as a science fiction fan. After all, a fair amount of my childhood was spent reading novels by Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and other noteworthy science fiction authors, and many of my favorite television shows, like The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Firefly, fall squarely within the genre. Yet I have never experienced or witnessed the marginalization that the mainstream supposedly inflicts upon science fiction. Many of my close friends in high school were even more into the genre than me; I have yet to attempt to make my way through the many iterations of the classic British show Doctor Who, but I had friends who had seen every episode. My grandmother watched most of the iterations of that other classic science fiction show, Star Trek, when they first aired. Hollywood hasn’t dismissed science fiction since the phenomenal success of Star Wars 34 years ago. Finally, lest the charge that English departments sneer at science fiction is allowed to stand unchallenged, one of the first classes I took at Vanderbilt was an English class. Its assigned reading list included William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

I don’t doubt that science fiction was relegated to the margins of film and literature in the past. An interviewer once asked The Twilight Zone‘s creator, Rod Serling, if the amount of work he was putting into the show meant that he had given up on writing anything “important” for television. Other incidents like this one pepper the history of science fiction, and they have left an impression on writers and readers alike. That said, in the past three decades or so, it seems to me that science fiction has moved much more into the mainstream; it may very well be that the perceived marginalization of science fiction is, in 2011, little more than the shadow of a phenomenon that has long since vanished.

Richard W.

Star Wars: Science Fiction or Fantasy

September 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

“Does it have to be literature?” my girlfriend, Mary, asked me one day, in response to a discussion about our favorite science fiction stories.  I conceded that she could be as broad as she wanted, and she went straight to two popular TV shows: Doctor Who and Firefly.  She loved them in part because of the richness of the worlds their authors had created, which explains her obsession with the Lord of the Rings, her favorite piece of literature of all time.This got us started on a discussion on the differences between science fiction and fantasy, because works in the two different genres were precious to her for the same reason: the worlds in which they take place.  For her, science fiction bridged the gap between reality and fantasy.  I refrained from giving my actual thoughts and took up my favorite position, devil’s advocate.  There are many fantasy stories which are close to reality, including Harry Potter and Dragons in Our Midst.  Both seemed fairly similar to me, because the first supposes the existence of wizards and witches living among us, and the second supposes the existence of dragons in human form who live among us.

Of course, these particular examples are not all that typical of fantasy novels, which tend to make complete worlds apart from our own.  But even those worlds, I argued, are not all that different.  A classic example is the arguably best RPG of all time, Final Fantasy VII.  In the game, there is magic, but the magic is explained not as something spiritual but as stemming from a strange source of energy, called Mako, which scientists then harnessed to form something which would appear very much to be magic.  There’s even a scene of the game which takes place in outer space.  Despite the title containing the word “fantasy”, this game seemed very much like a hybrid to me because of the scientific approach to magic.

On the other side of the spectrum, Star Wars is an iconic example of science fiction.  The universe created therein is separated from our own by both time and space; after all, the prologue begins with the famous line: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  More importantly, if Mako made FFVII completely different from our universe, then certainly the Force should function the same way.  So I reached an apparent contradiction: either one of the most famous fantasy games is science fiction, or one of the famous science fiction movies is fantasy.

Mary set me straight.  According to her, science fiction added to the known reality, whereas fantasy changed the known reality.  Harry Potter, by inclusion of magic, fundamentally changed reality.  Mako energy did the same, because it was discovered to be to the very source of life, and in doing so it altered the basis for much of humanity.  The Force, on the other hand, doesn’t affect everyone as much as it affects the people who tap into it.  In this way, she conceded, Star Wars is a sort of hybrid, but at the very least the previous two are definitely fantasy.  Thus the lines are perhaps blurred, but the fundamental difference still exists.


The Art of Sci-Fi

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment


I asked Her as we pulled into the Sonic drive through, with bellies roaring with hunger after the four hour hike up and down a spectacular bluff in Tazewell, Virginia.  Our photographic venture had left us both amazed and starving.

“Haha, I don’t know,” she retorted, “you know I’m not really crazy about Sci-Fi stuff and all.”

Over the next ten minutes, while utterly destroying the cheeseburgers, onion rings, and frothy milkshakes that laid before us, I explained the depth of those three movies as best I could.  How starships and lightsabers only set the stage to tell an epic and moving story about courage, loyalty, friendship, love (if you, like I do, consider the three as a single story), sacrifice, and especially redemption.  I’ve witnessed many a Facebook status to the amount of “everybody deserves a second chance,” but have seen few events which better exemplify redemption than Vadar’s sacrifice at the end of the third film.

“Seriously?”  She added at the conclusion of my spiel, “I always thought it was just an action movie, with lasers and robots and stuff.”

“Well, I mean, it has that too,” I responded with a rather large grin on my face.

“Haha, boys will be boys.”

“I don’t think science fiction has to do with gender.  I think more than anything it’s because we really want to believe than anything is possible,” I said to Her, “that our experiences are only limited by our imaginations.  I mean take Blade Runner for example…”  She laughed and gave me a look as if I was talking about some futuristic weapon of mass destruction.

“It’s a movie, haha,” I quickly added.  I recalled to Her the scene in which Deckard repeatedly asks his computer to “enhance” an image to give him a lead in his investigation.  “I wish getting a great shot was as easy for me as it is for Rick Deckard.  We just hiked up and down a mountain, and I might have gotten nothing at all.”

“Oh my gosh, hush.  I loved the shot you took of the owl in Warner Park.  You’ve got a great skill,” she said.

“Umm, not exactly,” I quickly added, “Had I not driven by at that exact moment, OR not had my camera, OR not brought my long lens, OR not had such a perfect subject who for God only knows stayed on that branch despite my frantic (and rather loud) attempts to open the trunk of my car and put my gear together, that shot would have never occurred.  That was more luck than art!”

“Well you consider Star Wars art even though science says it shouldn’t have happened either right?  I think I’ve picked out a movie for us to watch tonight.”

I smiled to myself as we pulled out of the parking lot.  After all, everything has an art to it.


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