Saturday, January 12, 2008

Back to the Future!

I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction. I love the sense of wonder and possibility, the thrill of "exploring strange new worlds" and "seeking out new life and new civilizations" in the immortal words of Star Trek. On the other hand, I hate the dark, violent, nihilistic strain that runs through a lot of science fiction: the strain that says everything in the universe, including humanity, is just a product of mindless, soulless evolution; that says violence is the natural order of things; that says God and religion are just ignorant superstition; and that says given enough time and enough knowledge, human beings will completely understand the things of God, or in a sense, become gods themselves. This is a complex topic, and I won't try to unpack all my thoughts on it here; but I have been listening to a lot of classic, early science fiction lately, and I've found plenty to both love and hate. I'm thinking of writing something that harkens back to those early pioneers of the genre, such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I've learned that this deliberately retrograde style of SF has even acquired a name--"steampunk."

I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, so tales of starships, super weapons, beautiful alien maidens, green bug-eyed monsters, and "boldly going where no man has gone before" have always had a certain appeal. The longest piece of fiction I've ever written was in fact a Star Wars/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine crossover story that you can find here. I've also written one straight Star Trek story that you can find here, and I have several other unfinished fiction projects on my hard drive that have a distinct SF flavor. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs's tales of Barsoom (as much swashbuckling romance as SF) several years ago and enjoyed them thoroughly. I listen regularly to Steve Eley's Escape Pod and Escape Pod Classic podcasts which feature short stories by both new and established SF writers. The latter show features stories that are more "family-friendly" for parents and other listeners that are concerned about explicit violence or sexually suggestive material.

Recently, however, I had a hankering to go back to the very roots of the genre--to read or hear the stories of Burroughs, H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. I suppose this was motivated in part by the news that Pixar is developing an animated version of Burroughs's Martian stories, and by hearing an audio version of Ann Leckie's short story "Hesperia and Glory", an affectionate tribute to those same Martian tales, on Escape Pod, episode 131. Since then, I've listened to podcast versions of Princess of Mars by Burroughs, War of the Worlds by Wells, and The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (In addition to creating Sherlock Holmes, Doyle also wrote tales of adventure, suspense, and horror fiction.) I'm also plowing through the podcast version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Seas by Jules Verne. The text for this last book is based on a new translation of Verne's original French text by F. P. Walter of the University of Houston, that you can find, very handsomely illustrated, here.

I say I'm "plowing" through Verne because the author insists on larding his text with lots of extraneous facts and figures that do little or nothing to advance the plot: summaries of previous ocean expeditions, tediously detailed explanations of how the Nautilus works, its average depth, cruising speed, and distance traveled, Latin names of plants and animals encountered, etc. Like the nerdy kid who just can't resist showing off every aspect of his winning science project, Verne just can't let any of his background and technical data go to waste. Another problem with this podcast version, as with many LibriVox recordings, is that it's read in round robin style, with different readers recording different chapters or different blocs of chapters. This is disconcerting for the listener who has to constantly adjust to different rhythms of speech, different accents, different pronunciations, and different levels of drama and expressiveness in the reading.

The reading for War of the Worlds is much better. The single reader, who choses to remain anonymous, reads the story in what I would guess is a middle class London or Surrey accent, appropriately professorial and matter-of-fact for the narrator, but able to reproduce the accents of working class people such as soldiers and tradesmen accurately. It's easy to read The War of the Worlds as a protest against late Victorian smugness, complacency, and class consciousness, and a reader who can bring these things out in his reading is an added bonus. It also struck me when listening to this reading that Wells constantly peppers his text with place names that an American might mispronounce and which would have added an extra level of verisimilitude and made his tale even more terrifying to a British audience. Just imagine how disturbing it would be if you sat down to read a fanciful story of an alien invasion, but the invaders were moving inexorably through real towns near you.

I don't know what will come out of all this reading and ruminating--I hope some good writing on my part--but it has been fun to travel back to the future and share with you what I've discovered.

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