Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

Once again, I join the talented and charming Carlette Norwood Ritter for her “Lette’s Chat” broadcast. Here we interview Scott Pruden, author of the satirical science fiction novel “Immaculate Deception.” How is being a book lover these days like being an indie music fan back in the day? Can men really write erotica? Is junior high more survivable for the young science fiction geeks of today? And what are some creative uses for grapes? Listen and find out.

OK, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s moon base proposal is the catalyst for this post. But first, I’m going to throw out one important caveat. My purpose here is NOT to judge the proposal, or Mr. Gingrich himself.

The reason I’m so adamant about that is because I work as a newspaper reporter. I cover politics for a living, including the current presidential campaign. While I do have opinions about candidates and their proposals, I make a point of never expressing them publicly.

And as you’ve probably ascertained by now, this blog is just a goofy thing I do to entertain myself. (If you really want to see some of my political analysis, feel free to check out my journalist’s Facebook page here.

So. Newt Gingrich proposes a moon base. And he’s taking a lot of flak about it from both Democrats and Republicans.

The reactions, though often more eloquently expressed, basically come down to: “A moon base? A freakin MOON base? Come on! Do we really need any more evidence that this guy is a couple burritos short of a combination plate?”
I’m not surprised at those reactions. But I do find them interesting, for what they say about where we’ve gone as a society.

See, I’m 45. I’m old enough to remember a time when the idea of an American base on the moon come the 21st century wasn’t considered wacky. In fact, it was generally regarded as pretty much inevitable.

I’m too young to remember the 1969 moon landing. But it was still very much a part of the collective consciousness when I was in kindergarten. The other kids and I would sit in open-mouthed wonder as teachers told us about our own future. How when we were grown-ups, we’d be able to take regular flights to the moon the same as people could then ride airplanes to other cities. (In this alternate future, I wonder if the poor quality of rocketship food would have become a staple for lame standup comedy routines.)

I guess it’s one more example of just how impossible it is for even the most prescient minds to predict the future. For me, a particularly amusing example of this principle can be found in the science fiction movies of decades past — featuring spaceships zipping effortlessly between star systems, equipped with clunky wall-sized computers that include reel-to-reel tape spools.

It’s interesting how the very proposal of a moon base, widely regarded as manifest destiny in my early childhood, has transitioned to “Exhibit A” that a politician doesn’t have his head screwed on right.

That’s mainly because of cost. We just don’t seem to think it’s worth the expense anymore.

Why the change?

There was plenty of practical reasoning behind the space program, of course. Potential military applications, made all the more urgent by the Cold War. Scientific research. The possibility that we might find resources that would be of use to us down here on Earth. And let’s not underestimate the pure, adrenaline-pumping awesomeness of being able to say “We put a man on the moon, baby!”

Still, I assume that a lot of the public enthusiasm for space exploration from previous decades stemmed from a widespread misunderstanding of just what was out there.

I’ve already mentioned science fiction, which (get ready for a big revelation here) is different from science fact. But I truly believe that a science fiction-informed mindset inspired a lot of the early national enthusiasm for space exploration — among the general public, if not among the scientists involved in the space program.

It still amazes me when I read science fiction from the 1960s, featuring unsuited and unhelmeted space explorers having adventures on the earthlike surfaces of Jupiter or Mercury. Hell, the 1960s weren’t THAT long ago! Didn’t people know any better by then?

Similarly, the surrounding cosmos was going to be an exciting, romantic place. It would be chock-full of earthlike planets featuring exotic creatures, dazzling landscapes and hot space babes in silvery bikinis and beehive hairdos.

In truth, outer space turned out to be a lot lonelier than that. There are no earth-like planets within reach. We”ll just have to live without those beehive-hairdooed space babes.

In some ways, I see those dreamy visions of a space-faring civilization as hearkening more to the past than the future. The very arrival of the space age, with the advent of satellites, brought a final end to an activity that had been part of the human experience for millenia — speculating about the mysterious lands beyond the explored edges of the map.

Even in the 1930s and 40s, it seemed entirely plausible that there might be some vast civilization as yet undiscovered out there. A Lost City of Z waiting in the dark reaches of the South American jungle for some intrepid explorer to cross that one final rise and find it. It’s an exciting concept that’s denied us these days. For a while, I think people tried to project that fantasy on a cosmos that ultimately couldn’t accommodate it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of space exploration. Yeah, it’s a hard sell these days when it comes to the expenditure of public funds (unless you happen to be making a campaign speech in Florida) but I suspect we’ll see the private sector getting more and more involved. And who knows? We might even get that moon base one of these days. I already mentioned how the future has a way of defying the predictions of even the smartest people. (I’d be the first to admit I’m not one of the smartest people.)

For now, though, I’m willing to put the moon base — along with the personalized jetpack and the robot butler — on my list of neato future stuff that I daydreamed about as a kid, but that I don’t expect to get anytime soon.

I’m making my way through Olivier Assayas’ miniseries “Carlos,” a fictionalized account of Carlos the Jackal’s life and career. I’m impressed. I think it does a good job in its presentation of Carlos. The series shows him for exactly what he was — a murderous fanatic with a knack for self-promotion. But actor Édgar Ramírez manages to convey the personal charisma that led apparently sane people to team up with him.

One thing I found interesting is the evocation of the 1970s, and the widespread atmosphere — at least in the circles where Carlos traveled — of “radical chic.” This is a milieu where people try to one-up each other with the extent of their commitment to revolutionary causes, and spit out the term “petit bourgeois” like it’s the vilest of  insults.

I was a kid in the 1970s, and grew up in a decidedly unhip suburban setting. If anybody in Marlton, N.J., was having marijuana-fueled discussions on Marxist theory late into the night, I was never invited to those parties.

My knowledge that something was afoot came mainly from the movies I’d watch on the portable black-and-white TV set I’d lug up to my bedroom. From the late 60s through the 70s, subversive subtexts were as ubiquitous as big sideburns in movies.

Some movies easily stand out when you’re looking for examples. “All the President’s Men.” “Z.” “The Parallax View.”

But how about “Star Wars?” You don’t really think of Star Wars as a subversive film, simply because it was so financially successful. George Lucas practically invented the summer mega-blockbuster, which is the very antithesis of radical film-making.

Still, the first movie in particular — and the next two sequels to a lesser extent — was very much a product of the 1970s.

The good guys were rebels and criminals, taking down an imperialist empire. They get assistance from indigenous people carrying out a guerrilla campaign on their home turf, using primitive but deadly weapons fashioned from materials occurring naturally in their terrain. (Describing Ewoks in that fashion makes them sound a lot more badass than the annoying little teddy bears that actually appeared onscreen.)

So did Star Wars represent a kind of stealth radicalism, sneaking into our collective consciousness in the form of a seemingly innocuous science fiction movie? Or am I reading WAY too much into this?

I love old science fiction TV shows and movies. Does it have a bunch of intrepid astronauts smoking cigarettes in the suspiciously cardboard-looking cockpit of their rocketship for a 15-minute flight to the forested landscape of Mars where they’ll encounter a warrior race of women with beehive hairdos? Dude, I am SO there!

But I think my favorite vintage science fiction cliche involves computers. I’ve even seen versions of this in relatively high-end stuff, like “The Prisoner” and the original “Star Trek.” Now by computers, of course, we’re talking about wall-sized metal boxes. They usually have blinking buttons on the control panel. Sometimes, for extra measure, they have a pair of reel-to-reel tape spools. And they speak in halting, tinny voices.

And every computer in vintage science fiction — no matter how advanced, no matter what alien civilization designed and built it — comes with one inherent flaw. If you confuse it, it self-destructs. And by confuse it, I don’t mean input some kind of destructive code. All you have to do is say something confusing around the computer and it will self-destruct, usually while shooting streams of sparks out of its control panel and repeating “DOES NOT COMPUTE! DOES NOT COMPUTE!” in its reedy, nasal voice.

Now, obviously it’s a good thing that real computers don’t have this flaw. Although it’s kind of a shame, too. Think of the fun you could have at the office. You’ve got some downtime. You’re bored. So you go over to the desk of that guy Lou in purchasing who’s kind of a douche. And the following exchange takes place.

You: Hey Lou! What’s shakin?

Lou: I’m busy. What do you want?

You: This statement is false.


Lou: Thanks a lot, asshole! (Picks up phone) Yeah, technical support? Could you send a guy up here? Somebody just said something confusing in front of my computer.

You: Heh heh heh!

Lest I sound too hard on science fiction screenwriters of the past, I’m aware that the purpose of science fiction movies and TV shows — then as now — was to entertain, not to provide documentary-style realism. And entertain they did.

And to be fair, computers were still a pretty esoteric field of study in the 1950s through the 1970s. Those writers can certainly be forgiven for not grasping how they work. These days, everybody’s got a computer. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to making computers accessible and user-friendly. So do more modern screenwriters have a better handle on the subject?

Well … according to the movie “Masterminds,” this is what hacking looks like: