Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Halt and Catch Fire—a series to catch on Netflix

As we aren’t “cable” subscribers, sometimes we miss a show that was commissioned for a network. Halt and Catch Fire is such a series, as it was originally shown on AMC. Honestly, the title is so weird that I would have never given it a thought, but one of those “Best things to watch on Netflix” lists gave it a good review, so hubby and I decided to give it a go.

Of late, it has been our favorite binge-watch. Usually, I wait until finishing a series before reviewing it, but Halt and Catch Fire ran for four seasons, and we are mostly through season three, so it’s time to let y’all in on this excellent period drama.

First off, the title has something to do with writing computer code, but I don’t remember what it means (and it probably doesn’t matter). I like computers; I’m typing on a MacBook Pro right now! This show is about the computer revolution, and how you view it might depend upon your age. If you are younger, this show will be a bit historical. But, if you are a somewhat chronologically gifted, you probably remember the first computers. As a classroom teacher, I remember begging to put computers into my classroom so we could edit copy for the yearbook. Back in the 80s, editorial changes for typewritten copy were costing us hundeds of dollars per year, so I managed to get a couple of surplus Apple IIe computers. They had green flashing characters and those big floppy drives, but they saved us some dough and were my intro into the modern age of publishing. Then I got a Mac SE that used smaller disks. That little machine was bequeathed to use from an administrator who felt some pity for the plebes in the classroom, and it was so different that I took it home over the summer to learn how to use it. I digress, but the 80s is the era where HACF begins.

The characters who come together in the first episode represent various aspects of the nascent computer business. In season one, the show is set in Texas (the Silicon Plain) but the group moves to Silicon Valley in later seasons. Joe is the super salesman who cut his teeth at IBM and wants to create a better personal computer. Gordon is an engineer who already made a better computer, but since the machine failed, he’s slogging along at Cardiff Electric, a company that produces software for mainframes and tries to compete with IBM. His wife, Donna, is a brilliant computer developer who is relegated to support work at the Texas Instruments learning division, because she and Gordon need to feed their family. The catalyst for change is Cameron, a female college drop out who writes code better than Shakespeare wrote plays. Cameron is recruited by Joe to come to work at Cardiff Electric, where he’s a recent hire. The company manager, John Bosworth (Boz), is just trying to make the owner happy and is baffled by the changes that are coming to the company as these players all work together to build a better computer.

This show is well-written and well-acted by the ensemble cast. As I wrote that summary, it sounds a bit boring. Not! While there are a few technical aspects that are necessary in a show about the informational technology revolution, this is a show about people—their hopes, their ambitions, as well as success and failure of people and businesses. The series is a blast from the past in terms of technology, but seeing how these fictional characters helped create the computers that we tend to take for granted is both entertaining and compelling.

If you didn’t watch Halt and Catch Fire the first time, catch it on Netflix before it goes away!

Home Before Dark—television for October or any time you want a mystery

After buying a new iPad, I got a freebie subscription to AppleTV and we’ve watched a couple of good things. However, my husband and I were both surprised by the appeal of “Home Before Dark,” which has a description that sounds a lot like Harriet the Spy blended with a modern gothic mystery. The first episode shows promise, but by the third, we were in “gotta see more” mode. Series television shows often have difficulty maintaining suspense, but this one does a darned good job of it.

Basically, the story follows an investigative reporter in New York, who has lost his job, and moves his family back to his hometown (and home) because his dad has had to move to a facility due to illness. As the family is in some financial distress, they have come to this small town because the house is free. The wife is a former public defender, and the couple has three daughters. The middle daughter has always wanted to be just like her dad, and she likes to carry a notebook and ask a lot of pointed questions. Before long, this daughter has found a cold case that dates back to her dad’s childhood, solved at the time by convicting a scapegoat whom the child comes to believe as innocent, and she emulates her dad by asking lots and lots of questions.

While I don’t want to spoil the story for potential viewers, suffice it to say that dad and mom get drawn into the investigation, while the older and younger daughters suffer the consequences of the backlash which comes from the townspeople, who don’t welcome the revival of interest in the case, which gets hotter with each episode.

Home Before Dark isn’t a show for kids, although older ones might enjoy the story, despite the nine year old point of view character. The script, the acting, and the setting are all top drawer, so ignore the “kiddy show” description, and enjoy a very good mystery leading up to Halloween!

The Night Manager (television series)—a brief review and commentary

managerOften, the best stories begin as, well, stories. Before The Wizard of Oz was a groundbreaking film, it was a book by L. Frank Baum. Before 2001 A Space Odyssey was an influential science fiction film, it was a book by Arthur C. Clarke. Television series have also been book based, including such diverse stories as Little House on the Prairie, based on a series of books by Laura Ingles Wilder, and Game of Thrones, which was based on a series of books by George R. R. Martin. There are literally dozens of others, but I’m going to discuss one that you might have missed: The Night Manager, based on a book by John Le Carré. A friend recommended this six part series, and we usually enjoy the same sorts of stories.

The Night Manager is currently on a streaming service offered by a large online reseller, the one that starts with an A. Originally, however, the series was made for British television and shown in the states on AMC. As I don’t subscribe to cable, I missed it there, but my hubby and I saw this winner of three Golden Globe awards recently. The plot, although updated a bit from the 1993 novel, is intricate enough to puzzle, but not nearly as confusing as modern teleplays tend to be. The direction is subtle but sure. The acting is simply outstanding, with a star cast including Hugh Laurie (who starred eight seasons in House M. D.) and Olivia Coleman (who dons The Crown in seasons 3 and 4 over on Netflix.) The main character is brought to life by Tom Hiddleston, who has several Marvel movies as well as a video game in his resumé. This series was rather expensive to make, by BBC standards anyway, and was filmed in Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Here’s a bit of plot summary: A former soldier for the British army, Jonathan Pine, is portrayed as the night manager of a Cairo hotel as the story begins. He gets involved with a mysterious guest who is the girlfriend of a local gangster. Through her relationship with the gangster she has acquired information linking illegal international arms sales with Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an English billionaire. Just after leaking information regarding the illegal arms, she is found murdered.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

Fearing for his own life, Pine flees, and is next seen, a few years later, doing the same job at a remote hotel in Switzerland. When super villain Roper visits the Swiss hotel, Pine longs to have some revenge, and soon he is enlisted by British Intelligence to spy on Roper. Before long, he has a new identity and an opportunity to infiltrate the small network of arms dealing. Getting information out, while staying alive and undercover is quite a challenge.

One reviewer called it a “classy thriller.” That nails it, but do check out this amazing bingeable series.

For All Mankind—on Apple TV

MankindWith the purchase of a new device from Apple comes a free subscription to their relatively new paid streaming platform. As hubby and I are often seeking a new television series to binge watch, we just finished For All Mankind on the Apple platform, and overall, we liked it quite a lot. However, I read several reviews, with criticisms being at least as numerous as the accolades, and often both are well deserved. The series was developed in part by Ronald D. Moore, who has a stellar (pun intended) reputation for writing and producing excellent science fiction, from Star Trek the Next Generation to Outlander, and with the simply superb reboot of Battlestar Galactica in between.

The scenario is quite promising: In an alternate history, the Soviet Union beats the United States to be the first nation to put a man on the moon, and the growing rivalry between nations causes the space program of the United States to flourish, rather than founder. Neither our citizens nor our politicians like being second best, so the need to catch up and surpass drives the plot. As an alternate history, many of the characters are based upon real people, but quite a few characters are inventions. Even those who are based upon real people have different adventures (or mis-adventures) due to the fictional nature of the series. The acting is good, as is the writing. The effects are very good, also. The sets, props, and costumes are really amazing—it’s truly a back to the 60s look. So far, so good.

But, as many negative reviewers have noted, the series is typical of our “social justice” modern agenda. Immigration, same sex relationships, race relations, and feminism are more than just sub-plots in this re-imagining of the space race. Each of these social justice themes has a story arc devoted to it, and these themes are every bit as strong as the “what if America had continued to send people to the moon?” theme that is the advertised plot line.

Alas, any subtle use of themes is no more. This alternate history is very good, but the social justice warriors are using a sledge hammer to right perceived wrongs. For All Mankind is just like many modern day productions in that regard. What could have been A+ for Apple’s streaming service is instead closer to a B-.

If you have Apple TV, check it out. If you don’t, I wouldn’t buy it for this series alone.

Star Trek Picard—review and commentary

 

Ryan in Trek

Then and now— Seven of Nine


Star Trek
is an integral part of American culture
and a controversial view of the future of humanity. It began with Gene Roddenberry’s concept for a serious science fiction television series, a novel idea in the early 60s, and it has continued to evolve for fifty years. As America has changed, as science fiction has changed, as television has changed, Star Trek has changed, too.

Picard is set two decades after the feature film, Nemesis, and is based upon the series Star Trek The Next Generation, which ran for seven years on television. Later, four of the feature films were based upon the characters from TNG series. Picard has ten episodes in season one, but the second and third seasons are planned for CBS All Access, which is how hubby and I watched the first season.

This made for the web series has very high production values—the sets and effects rival feature films. Sir Patrick Stewart is still an amazing actor, although the pace of the series (slow!) seems to be partially dictated by the age of its principal character. Viewers who prefer space battles and fisticuffs will probably be a bit disappointed. Casual viewers may also find the editing, with its rapid cuts from scene to scene, confusing. Honestly, I don’t like that aspect at all, but this is apparently in line with Picard‘s sister show, Star Trek Discovery.

Spoiler alert—

We both thought the first few episodes were confusing and lacking in characters, apart from Jean Luc Picard himself, with whom we could empathize. The writers made a good decision in embracing the age of the main character. Anything else would insult the viewer, as Patrick Stewart looks and sounds old. For us, as fans of Star Trek Voyager, the show got better when Jeri Ryan pops in, as an older and less “Borg” version of Seven of Nine. Ryan is still riveting to watch, even without the cat suit that made her fodder for lots of magazine pictures in the late 1990s. In the seventeen years since her character graced the small screen, Seven has become much more human—in her speech pattern, in her attire, and in part due to suffering losses associated with years of living in a deteriorating society.

A key word here is suffering. One of the better aspects of Trek in its first few decades was  its optimistic view of the future of humanity. Although Roddenberry sought to put serious science fiction onto television, and therefore into lots of living rooms, his vision was seldom dark. However, much of serious science fiction—in print, in film, in gaming, and even in graphic forms—has embraced the dystopian view of the future of humanity. A utopia is an idealized society in which social and technical advances serve to make all things better for humanity. Yes, I did say it was idealistic! A dystopia is the polar opposite, in which “advances” in society and technology make things worse. For some examples of dystopian literature/film, think of Orwell’s 1984 or the film Blade Runner, based upon the work of Phillip K. Dick.

Alas, Picard‘s greatest weakness isn’t its slow pace or its rather confusing editing. Nor is it the “flashbacks” in which the characters look just as old as they do in the current timeline, no doubt due to the unforgiving nature of high def photography. Nope, the core problem for many fans of Star Trek will undoubtedly be the dark vision of the future embraced by the writers. Picard is a dystopia. Beloved characters from the previous Trek series will suffer, and some will die. New characters suffer and some of them die, too. And, by and large, those deaths may very well be without purpose, meaning, and certainly without honor.

Star Trek Picard has some strengths, including dazzling cinematography, a rich background of material from which the writers can draw inspiration, and an aging but talented main character. Guest stars include characters from TNG and Voyager, and the development of Seven of Nine, the former Borg, works well. Enjoy the series, but temper your expectations. This is post-modern Star Trek.

 

The Future of Learning for K-12

ChromebookNews organizations have truly embraced the old adage, “never let a crisis go to waste.” With every new pronouncement regarding the COVID-19 virus, the sky gets a bit closer to falling. Many of the public schools in my area have closed, but most of them are posting assignments online. Indeed, one of them has offered Chromebooks for check out if the family lacks a computer. This strikes me as a leap into the future of K-12 education.

Having taught both web enhanced and hybrid classes for the Technical College System of Georgia, I fully understand how to teach from my couch. In those classes, students had access to an online learning suite (either Blackboard or Angel, depending on the flavor of the year) wherein I listed assignments or offered online assessments. For those readers who are not chronologically gifted, the idea of closing schools seems unthinkable, but for anyone who has attended a post secondary school in the past decade, these fortnight long closures are no big deal. Indeed, I used to make jokes (during face-to-face class sessions at school) about teaching in my pajamas!

For younger students, such as those in K-12, however, quite a few of them have little experience with online learning, and some of their parents may not have experienced it at all. With a bit of coaching, both students and parents will come to see that much of what happens in a classroom can happen at home. In fact, in some cases, it is better to have online content. Forgot what happened to that important handout? Just print another one. Want to check the due date for an assignment? Just look at the online lesson plan. Need extra help? Email the teacher with your questions and concerns and you should get a prompt, personalized answer. Missed a class? Watch a recorded video session. In my experience, most college students eventually came to appreciate online resources, even if they didn’t embrace them. There is a learning curve, of course, as anything new requires some learning. Parents around here are about to embark on a new way of helping their kids with homework.

Who knows if the COVID-19 will actually be a serious threat to public health? Only the perspective of time will let us know that. However, this unprecedented interruption of business as usual in public education will demonstrate the power of online instruction. No doubt there will be some kinks in it, as this is new for some folks. But, the future of K-12 will be online, and this is just a preview of how it will work.

Jersey Boys on Netflix

Jersey BoysLike many of you, we use services such as Netflix rather than having a traditional cable subscription. At times, we miss the old TV Guide magazine, which would guide the viewing experience. Instead, with Netflix, there is some algorithm that knows my husband likes shoot ’em up flix, so I am not always happy with the suggestions. However, a couple of days ago, I noticed “Jersey Boys”as an option in our feed. I’m embarrassed to say that hubby actually, “What’s that?” I simply said, “Click on it and you’ll see.”

Anyway, fortunately for me, hubby likes music, especially vintage pop, so he was eager to take a look at the movie version of this musical, which had a great run on Broadway, and is still touring around the country. Jersey Boys tells the story the Four Seasons, featuring the fabulous Frankie Valli. Surprisingly, the film version is directed by Clint Eastwood. The cast is really great, with Christopher Walken in a small but pivotal role, and it also has the original Valli from Broadway, John Lloyd Young as well as Erich Bergen, who has a supporting role in another show we’ve watched on Netflix, Madame Secretary.

There is much to like about this film, which is actually a 2014 release, but I was most impressed with the sound track. And, as is possible when watching a film in the comfort of home, I paused it and did some research, finding that the cast sang, rather than having it dubbed by either the original band or by hired musicians. Many of the hits from the Four Seasons are present, including “Sherry”, “December 63 (Oh What a Night)”, “Walk Like a Man”, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Valli’s solo, “My Eyes Adored You” is also in the film, as are other familiar tunes.

Although not entirely happy, for this film follows the rise and the ultimate fall of The Four Seasons, we enjoyed this film quite a lot. If you are a Netflix subscriber, the movie version of Jersey Boys is a great way to spend an evening. Toe tapping is optional, but recommended!

My video is reaching students!

NASA nebula

A still shot from NASA

Way back I took classes in “podcasting” and “movie-maker.” Afterward, I came home and practiced what we’d learned in class. I made three videos, which are a lot closer to Powerpoint presentations, if the truth be told. Anyway, one of them has had a bit of success—”A Brief History of Science Fiction.” This video was designed with a few still images, mostly screen shots from NASA such as the one I featured on this post, and two audio tracks. We’d been warned in class about using commercial music, so I downloaded a freebie track that I thought sounded dramatic. The second audio track is my voice, reading story boards, in my rather strong Southern U.S. accent. I did write the story boards, based upon my study of the science fiction genre, my training in English literature, and what of that matched up with the still images that I managed to acquire at the time.

Science fiction is an ever changing literary and film genre (with more than a dash of animation) so my video is already a bit dated. Still, I was most gratified when reading a very valid complaint about the loud musical soundtrack. The complainant stated that my little YouTube video was required for class. Gosh darn! My Brief History of Science Fiction is required by a teacher (somewhere?) for a class (in something?) I’m flattered. Really.

If you don’t mind hearing that awful musical track, head over to YouTube and see A Brief History of Science Fiction. While you are there, the link to my “book trailer” for The Gift Horse is still live also.