Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Alien Intelligence

Imaginary planet no. 17

In the week India -- India! -- launched a rocket to Mars, my own thoughts have also been concerned with space travel.

Now, I've never been a big fan of science fiction.  I've read the obligatory Philip K. Dick and a few others, but their work doesn't excite me as a genre in the way that, say, crime or thrillers do.  This is not to condemn those for whom "skiffy" is the favoured absorbing read.  The whole point of genre fiction is that it's a reliable form of entertainment with fixed-but-flexible boundaries and conventions that you happen to find agreeable.  Publishers know their markets, and, personally, I'll try anything that comes in a promising cover (anyone who believes you can't judge a book by its cover doesn't read enough).  How else would I have discovered what good writers Lee Child, Ross Thomas or Tony Hillerman are, for example?

The same goes for speculative fiction on-screen, even the "classics" of the 1970s and 80s.  There are some acknowledged masterpieces, like Alien, Blade Runner or even Solaris, that anyone should get to see.  However, I have sat through 2001 three times (I get drawn in by the brilliant opening sequence with the ape-men, the bone and the space-station) and each time I have concluded it is one of the worst films I have ever endured (though I do always enjoy the lengthy list of operating instructions on the zero-gravity toilet wall).  On TV,  Star Trek and Dr. Who left me cold, despite the enthusiasm they inspired in others; I preferred westerns and secret agents.  In the end, I found sci-fi and fantasy to be genres with built-in problems of credibility and unintended hilarity that it takes near-genius to transcend.

Craft abandoned outside the Engineering Block

However, as any parent will attest, having children changes all sorts of things.  Mine were just the right age to catch the second wave of Star Wars movies, and I dutifully sat through so many hours of astonishing effects and no-less astounding dialogue ("The Force is strong with this one!") that I acquired a certain inoculation.  It was all a darned sight more entertaining than Postman Pat and Power Rangers, after all.

I found this exposure re-awakened certain long-forgotten memories, potent engrams of childhood reading.  An image of an alien craft in a blue sky, flying over the heads of astonished Dark Ages-style tribesmen, drawn in a comic-strip style, for example.  This turned out to be from The Trigan Empire, an ambitious series that ran in The Ranger comic in the 1960s, those ancient days when space exploration seemed an imminent reality, and no-one had yet done the maths on getting anywhere worth going, or how much it would all cost.  Space, I remembered, had once been interesting, and not intrinsically ludicrous.

One evening recently, I surprised myself by settling down to watch the pilot of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix.  I was instantly gripped. Two and a half series on, and I'm still watching, fitting in episodes of that cult space-western Firefly in between as, um, spacers.  Yes, I'm having a personal space odyssey.

Firefly is fun, but shallow: if it had been allowed to run beyond that first establishing series, I suppose the characters and plot might have deepened, but that whole "American Civil War and Wild West in space" metaphor seems, ultimately, a bit juvenile.  Wot, no slavery?  I do like the always-unseen but feared Reavers, though; space Comanches, humans gone cannibalistically feral out in The Black, the furthest outer fringes of the re-settled star-system.

Galactica, though, is quite a grown-up space-opera.  It deals with issues of moral choice and compromise, of betrayal and loyalty, of what it is to be fully human rather than a sentient machine, and doesn't overdo the hokey pseudo-mythological elements (at least, not yet -- that difficult 4th series is coming...).  Characters have proper inter-locking story arcs and suffer emotional and physical damage and loss, as the clash of humanity and their rebel robotic creation, the Cylons, works itself out.  Shakespeare it isn't, or even The Wire, but it is very entertaining.

I find that this rich diet of rockets, jump-drives and space-suits has also provoked various questions that have lain dormant in the back of my mind since I was an impressionable youth, like forgotten paperbacks discovered at the bottom of a trunk.  Are there really UFOs out there?  Could we possibly communicate with alien intelligences?  Will we one day leave this planet behind?  Was God an astronaut? (hey, how did that one get in there?).  But as this is already a long post I'll save those for another day.

Imaginary planet no. 26

1 comment:

Martyn Cornell said...

As xkcd pointed out recently, the ubiquity of the cameraphone has pretty much settled the existence or otherwise of UFOs and similar such phenomena http://www.xkcd.com/1235/