Turn the Survey Inward

September 21, 2014

Philip K. Dick’s story “Survey Team” was so prescient for its time that it has completed the cycle and now seems passé.

He sees a future where we are stuck in an endless cycle of resource abuse, casting out to other planets to replace what we have wasted. These explorers discover our ancestors had already ruined one planet (Mars), and a splinter group moved on to a third planet, farther into space, where we could possibly find resources to replace our ruined Earth. The protests of the character Mason at the end fall on deaf ears:

“It’s wrong!” Mason shouted. “Two are enough! Let’s not destroy a third world!”

Nobody listened to him. Judde and Young and Halloway gazed up, faces eager, hands clenching and unclenching. As if they were already there. As if they were already holding onto the new world, clutching it with all their strength. Tearing it apart, atom by atom… (Pg. 51, The Early Work of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2: Breakfast at Twilight and Other Stories, Prime Books)

That’s a great ending – and we have been inundated with that message for so long that most people, just like Judde and Young and Halloway, are immune to the moral protests against our behaviors. We are in a mindless survival mode now.

Azrael lesson for the day is to identify what is already in your life that is important to you, that gives your life meaning, and focus on that.

“That irreparable change a death makes in the course of our daily thoughts can be felt in a vague and poignant discomfort of mind.” Pg. 86, Nostromo.

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Mr. Spaceship

December 18, 2011

In the short story “Mr. Spaceship,” published in 1953 in a publication called Imagination (according to my Citadel Twilight collection, Volume 1), Philip K. Dick put a human brain into a spaceship, a la a “living ship.” So he was way ahead of his time on this particular sci-fi meme.

There’s a lot that is wrong in this story, the cheesy ending notwithstanding. For one,there is the bit of dialogue from the story, “Very little life is actually conscious. Animals, trees, insects are quick in their responses, but they aren’t conscious.” Now, attributing a lack of sentience to animals, that they are merely reactionary clockwork mechanisms, may have been the prevailing “popular wisdom” of the time, but of course it is flat-out wrong. And the notion that a human brain would work and react faster and better than a computer processor is similarly untrue. We do have unique advantages over our eventual robotic overlords, but reaction time is not one of them.

Still, Dick’s prescience in this idea of organic-synthetic symbiosis goes to show, despite his misfires, he still wipes the floor with us when it comes to conceptual sci-fi.

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It always happens…

October 3, 2009

When you’re way way way way down at the bottom of the writing world, it seems every time you look up, there’s a luminary (or at least someone with better connections than you) making a success with one of your ideas.

It happened to me in the Nineties, when I was working on a comic series called the “Faerie Police,” about a division in the police department that handled supernatural offenders. Granted, it had its predecessors, namely The X-Files, but once I got a few stories cranked out, I started seeing that conceit everywhere – Men in Black, G vs. E, and countless indie comics.

Now, more recently, Margaret Atwood has published The Year of the Flood, a work of “speculative fiction” where a future world is beset by viruses, genetically engineered animal hybrids, and groups of religious zealots. Gee, I could almost cut that description, whole cloth, and used it for my Highway Virus series. It’s always a bit depressing, mixed with a sense of impotence, to see the upward trajectory of someone else’s work, while you are stuck with a small, unvisited Website carrying stories with similar themes, which came to you independently (from the Noosphere) and now look completely unoriginal.

I will say this, though – in her interview with the NewsHour, Margaret Atwood sounded a bit supercilious toward the sci-fi genre, glomming onto the phrase “speculative fiction” as if it were dipping in gold and glazed with cherub tears, whereas something with the label “science fiction” is low art, with stories about talking hamburgers and lizard men.

I haven’t read her book, although I am sure it is entertaining, if not outright good. But I find this attitude toward “genre fiction” to be a bit tiresome, especially with more and more great authors (for example, Cormac McCarthy with The Road) dipping into traditionally sci-fi themes.

What else would be worthy of this rarefied label of “speculative fiction”? Red Dawn, of course. Granted, there are people who think it is a documentary, sent as a warning from the future, but (for now) it lives in the speculative fiction camp – it is post-apocalyptic, and there are no robots or multi-limbed aliens. Atwood must have seen this gun-loving, right-wing stroke fest and thought – Gee, I’d much rather be associated with that as opposed to trifles such as Foundation or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I may be at the bottom of the literary world, but at least I readily embrace the true nature of my work.

The Mundane

June 21, 2009

We have lost our sense of the mundane. That was one of the great things about Philip K. Dick. He didn’t make science fiction about the Space Prince or the World Conqueror or the President of the Universe. He wrote about the janitors, the technicians, the laborers. The ones who get stuff done. They were the ones dealing with the extraordinary. And no one seems to be carrying on the legacy.

Case in point, what was the overarching theme from The Incredibles? “There are only a few special people in the world. And you are not one of them.” Why would the fastest being on the planet need to compete in track and field, except to rub our noses in our own ordinariness? And why would his parents need to see him do that? At the beginning of the film, they didn’t want Dash to compete because they feared exposure, not because it would eliminate any sense of competition to the proceedings (i.e., he would mop the floor with all the kids who were actually trying). On the other hand, Syndrome was a modern-day Prometheus, hoping to bring exceptional qualities (fire) to us ordinary people. And he was the bad guy.

Moving on, I thought Star Trek the franchise needed a mundane makeover. Dispense with the Captain Worship. Especially after the top-down disaster that was Star Trek: Enterprise. Focus on the men and women who really make the ship run – the people cleaning the air ducts, mopping down the transporter rooms, polishing the communications consoles. Really, Captain Worship is just one step above Wesley Worship, and no one wants that.

Well, the new Star Trek film (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way) still carries our obsession with those at the top. I had my initial doubts about the movie, mainly because Alias was a show about worshipping Jennifer Garner, and I feared J.J. Abrams would carry that over – Kirk would wear a fluorescent-orange wig, cop an attitude to infiltrate the Klingon High Council, and the rest of the crew would have nothing to do but marvel at his mad skills. Star Trek didn’t go that far, but still, I feel we’ve lost our appreciation for the mundane, which is doubly troubling because one, most of us have to live in it and two, we are growing blind to the important stuff that happens in this space. Maybe that’s why everyone nowadays thinks they’re going to be famous.

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Watchmen & the future of Highway Virus

March 8, 2009

There is a fourth Highway Virus story. Its composition is ongoing – but I hit a stumbling block. About halfway through it, as I was trying to turn my rambling notes into a coherent narrative, I realized it had many of the same themes as Season Four of Battlestar Galactica – mainly androids struggling with their identity.

My notes predated the time I watched  that season. Maybe there is something to this notion of Morphic resonance, and I plucked my thoughts from the Noosphere. Should I really worry about the connections to my own story if it is part of our collective consciousness? Regardless, the similarities were enough to prompt a retreat, a reorganization, a rethinking, on the fourth Highway Virus story. I want to be at least a little interesting, if not somewhat original, in my writing. The BSG writers have a TV show watched by many people – I don’t – so they get dibs on androids. No matter who was “first,” it would look like I was following behind, picking up thematic scraps in their wake.

Of course the creators and writers of BSG regularly channel Philip K. Dick (but hey, who doesn’t?). They cannot be considered wholly “original” in their work either. But is this debate even useful anymore? Is it possible to be original when there’s always someone who comes before you? Perhaps this whole concern with who owns an idea is a remnant of the cultural revolution in the U.S. – one which ended (hopefully) with the election of Obama.

This topic is appropriate on the weekend that Watchmen opens. The original book, the basis for the movie, is a historic, vastly influential work – and rightly so – but it sure has a lot in common with The Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear,” which itself is similar to Theodore Sturgeon’s earlier story “Unite and Conquer” (of course everything goes back to Sturgeon). The Watchmen book even acknowledges this connection near the end, with the episode playing on the TV in the background.

Alan Moore says he had not seen the episode when he conceived the book, a claim I have no reason to dispute. The dude is brilliant – so he gets plenty of slack. Maybe he was floating in the Noosphere too. Fortunately the awareness of the similarity with The Outer Limits did not stop him from writing Watchmen. (Unfortunately it did not stop Zack Snyder from making a movie out of Watchmen.) Of course, as Studio 360 rightly points out, the Watchmen book has been so influential, we have been reading and watching the fruits of that work for years now – just as the influence of Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon still reverberates long after people are aware of it.