September 16th, 2007

#569: Soylent Green is people!

Mom saw that movie today and hated it. I don't blame her. I didn't like it, either, when I saw it.

Generally speaking I am no fan of the dystopia. There are certain few exceptions to that rule, but not many. It's the nature of the beast for a dystopia to be depressing, and I have enough problems without worrying about fictional ones.

Soylent Green takes place in a Malthusian world of overcrowding and limited food production, and one corporation's solution is to take dead people and convert them into food. People die all the time and the protein would otherwise go to waste, and that world can't afford to waste any food source, no matter how vile it may be.

I've always had a lot of trouble taking it seriously as science fiction, but even moreso after I saw an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer said, "Mmm, Soylent Green." I've never had anything against Charlton Heston as an actor--notice how people suddenly started saying he was a hack after he rose to prominence in the NRA?--but him shouting, "Soylent Green is people!" at the end of the movie put the capper on an already dull movie. Still, it's been more than a few years since I last saw it, and maybe my tastes have changed and I should see it again.

But Mom saw it today and didn't like it, and I could have told her she wouldn't like it.

Still, it's typical of the SF of the 1960s (and 1970s, before Star Wars); most SF was set either in a post-apocalyptic world, or a barely pre-apocalyptic one. Definitely not promethean stuff; everyone was either going to die horribly or already had, and had come back to life (Omega Man, another Heston vehicle). (I think. Or maybe they were just diseased and barbaric. What's the difference?)

The original Star Wars made science fiction movies fun again. Unfortunately, George Lucas took the success of that movie as a sign that he was some kind of great filmmaker; unfortunately the more recent three SW movies rather decisively prove otherwise. The reason it was successful was more due to the special effects and the tone of the movie than any skill on Lucas' part; other than the SW movies and American Graffiti all his other efforts were crap. (I don't count the Indiana Jones movies in that. Those were directed by Spielberg.) And, by the way, THX-1138 was a dystopia, just like every other SF movie during that time. At least the characters in Star Wars had a fighting chance.

That was why Star Trek was successful, too: its promethean, not dystopian, tone made all the difference. People want some hope (however chimerical) that the future will be better, not worse.

One of the novels I'm working on--and have been for years--is the story of how a group of would-be socialists seize power over a colony world and turn it into a totalitarian communist state. The main character is a whiny crybaby, a homosexual, and a pedophile; he is the political mastermind, the main strategist, working behind the scenes to effect the takeover of the world's government.

And I hate the story. I hate it because it's so damned depressing, even though the main character is unabashedly gleeful at the success of his efforts. The end result is the wholesale enslavement of several billion people, after all, and knowing where the society ends up some 80 years later, it's hard to stomach. It's a dystopia--or at least a dystopia-in-the-making--and although it's a story that needs to be told in order to flesh out part of that universe, it's one that's not easy to tell.

Eventually I'll get to the good part: when his "figurehead" betrays him. His pedophilia and homosexuality will become inconvenient to the State, at which point our "hero" becomes an unperson and disappears. That's the only thing which keeps me from moving it into the "forget this shit" pile. But it's really not that much fun to write a story about someone you hate, even when you get to write a really big payoff scene in which he gets utterly boned, stoned, and de-throned. ("Stoned" in the sense of "having rocks thrown at him", I mean.)

That's really the only dystopia I've set in that universe. There are plenty of other dystopian societies throughout the 3,000-odd year "future history" of that universe, but I don't concentrate much on any of them; my main thrust lies elsewhere.

The most ironic thing, though, is that the earliest story set in that universe starts as a dystopia. The story has been started, stalled, restarted, re-stalled, ignored, lost, found, buried in soft peat, and recycled half a dozen times; every time I foundered on the need for more historical research, at times when I didn't have the time to read lots of history books. In all probability the story will never be written--there's too much research needed for too little story--but I have a basic framework in mind which sets up the universe quite nicely.

Basic premise: scientist and his assistant, working in secret in a dystopia, build a time machine and use it to change history to improve the present. Other people get involved, making other changes such that Hitler achieves his dream of world domination. The assistant gets some help from an unlikely source, fights back and, in the end, history is as we now know it, the assistant's girlfriend has suddenly never existed, the scientist has been assassinated before he finished developing the principles of time travel, and the assistant's own memory of the events is erased when the people who make the final changes to history leave him in the past while it's changing, so his own memories conform to the final version of history. (Mostly, anyway.)

It's a pretty standardized plot, too, which is another reason I don't feel like writing it. It doesn't go to the comic-book extreme of having time-traveling Nazis, fortunately; I can come up with plenty of rationalizations for people wanting the "Hitler Victorious" scenario to take place, and they would even make some kind of sense. That segment of the story would have an incredible look and feel to it, too...but it's just not necessary that I actually write the story, particularly since time travel plays no role in the other stories whatsoever, except for the last one...and at that, it's just so I can show the reader some things that have been hidden from the beginning of the larger story arc.

And I don't need to write the story which takes place about 60 years later after the first one, for much the same reason: although the events are part of the larger story, actually telling them in their own story is just not necessary. They work fine as flashbacks or exposition.

There are plenty of good stories out there about dystopias. I won't like 99.997% of them due to personal taste.

On the other hand, though, one I do like is Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes' satrical story Fallen Angels, set in a not-too-distant future world where eco-luddites have run amok and the next ice age has begun, with glaciers already covering most of Canada. I heartily recommend it; it's a fun read.

#571: Tape

In the mid-1990s I was showing the first episode of Tenchi Muyo! Ryoh-ok-ki OVA to some friends who weren't anime fans at all.

There is a scene in about the first quarter of the episode in which Tenchi scoffs at the sword he finds deep in the cave he's not supposed to enter. "Give me a break! 'The sword that cuts through a rock'?" He sneers, swinging the rusty old thing at a stone with a seal on it. Although the stone is split neatly in two, the rusty blade shatters.

One of my friends then said, quietly, "Tape." And we all busted out laughing.

That's what makes this so funny: