It All Starts with Sturgeon, sort of…

February 27, 2011

Science fiction took a big step toward modernity (actually postmodernity) with Theodore Sturgeon’s  “Unite and Conquer,” which I read recently in the collection A Way Home. Within that story, the genre became aware of itself, in the sense that he made the connection between earlier plot motifs in H.G. Wells and the underlying conceit that humanity can unite only in the face of an immediate and existential threat. From that realization, it was a short step before someone tried to manipulate that phenomenon, for good intentions (i.e., to force peace and unity on humanity) or bad (i.e., to consolidate power).

The main actor in Sturgeon’s story manufactures an alien threat but with the purest of intentions, as does the darkened cabal in The Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear.” Of course this idea of a ruling order manipulating current events dates way back in annuls of fiction, at least as far back as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The first tenet in this faux-historical document states “…[M]en with bad instincts are more in number than the good, and therefore the best results in governing them are attained by violence and terrorisation than by academic discussions” (quoted from David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories).

Humanity has been repeating this story over and over again, in some form or fashion, for at least 100 years, up to and including modern 9/11 conspiracy theories. I once had the idea I would track down its origins – where did this conspiracy theory of a guiding cabal of global architects first start? I thought I had a clue with Sturgeon. Maybe he was the first to introduce aliens into the mix, which popped up again in The Outer Limits and Watchmen (read the book if that doesn’t make sense to you), but he certainly wasn’t the first to write about this notion of a global elite guiding our history. I realized I was “chasing gulls,” a term Alan Moore used as he delved into the myths and studies of Jack the Ripper along with the “ripperologists” grasping for that one bit of evidence that reveals the killer’s identity.

From Hell

Panel from Appendix B in "From Hell"

So I have largely abandoned my search for the origins of this myth of a global cabal. Its origins are complicated and extensive, and it’s unlikely this story is less than 100 years old or even 1,000 years old. This is a story we like to tell ourselves.

Funny thing is, regardless of whether or not there’s a group of elite puppeteers pulling the strings on world events, the assumed end result, that the world population becomes compliant out of fear or united in purpose, doesn’t seem to ring true. At least not anymore – I can’t speak to the prevailing mood during the Crusades or the Cold War or after Pearl Harbor. Maybe we are just not as easily moved as previous, once we reached a point in our culture where we believe we should get everything we want, any time we want, and everyone, except for maybe you, will be a celebrity. The only thing that effectively scares us is something that might dispel that belief – and that we might have to sacrifice or at the least take responsibility for our actions. Baby Bush knew the temper of times, too well perhaps, in telling us to go to the mall instead of to your local recruiting station. It’s not 1984, it’s a Brave New World.

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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.


January 24, 2009

I liked the TV show Six Feet Under from beginning to end, despite some sluggish periods in the arc of the series. And Alan Ball does have a tendency to slip little profundities into his dialogue that get people nodding. Sure, it was contrived. I mean, when was the last time anything profound came out of a conversation you had with a coworker, a friend, even a family member? But still, I found myself nodding along with everyone else.

One that stuck with me was near the end of the series, with Claire, who talked about her relief when she left art school to be an office temp, the noble career of Donna Noble. Relief at the prospect of not having to create, not having the pressure to make something of value even when you know 90 percent of everything is crud (thank you Sturgeon). I am paraphrasing for Claire – or maybe I am projecting. I never thought about it before – fight the impulse, save yourself the frustration, and live a normal life. Do what smart people do in the morning and on weekends – and don’t spend your spare time staring at abysmal stories on a computer screen. Because it is a slog. With no guarantee that it will be meaningful to anyone. I guess the mere persistence of this site means I haven’t reached that point yet.

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