Saw Robert J. Sawyer give a talk tonight

For those who have no idea who that is, he’s a Canadian science-fiction writer, one of only seven authors (and the only Canuck) to win all three prestigious sci-fi writing awards (Hugo, Nebula and some other thing I’d never heard of). One of his books is also being developed for a series (miniseries?) on ABC, called Flash Forward. Hopefully it works out. The premise of that story is pretty cool, actually. When the dudes at CERN, I think it is, do some funky with their collider, the whole world winds up witnessing a chunk of time maybe 20 or so years in the future – those who don’t die before then, anyway. Then there’s this big hustle to figure out what all these little vignettes people experienced will mean for the future.

Anyway, the talk tonight was one he’s given before – here’s part 1 of the same, which I found on YouTube. You can find the rest if you want it.

I thought he made some valid points in this, that prior to Star Wars, there were decent sci fi blockbusters (2001 a Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes got a mention) and Star Trek was on prime-time television, all of which were filled to bursting with real live social commentary on war, racism, inequity and the like. Star Wars, on the other hand, is more a fairy tale or fantasy set in space where everyone knows who the bad guys are, the good guys are, and who the slaves with no rights are (that’d be the droids). Sawyer claims that Lucas never encouraged anyone to question the world he created “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and expected the audience would not notice or at least ignore the inequities and failings of that world, failings that would have been readily vilified by critics and viewers in general if found in any other movie made during that era.

I see version30 wrote up some stuff about this very topic last year (so Mr. Sawyer’s gotten a lot of mileage off this little piece, yes indeedy) which I may as well quote:

If Star Wars was removed from the direct social commentary present in Planet of the Apes or 2001 (or Logan’s Run, or THX 1138), it may have had less to do with a malevolent decision and more to do with the climate of the late 70s: the reason the film took off so mightily had loads to do with people being sick and tired of the complicated real world and its unjust wars, compromised governments and murky morality. It’s a cheap sort of criticism that takes art to be the cause of culture rather than a reflection (ie. “South Park Makes Kids Bad!”). And Cheap Criticism is what Sawyer is up to here: his thesis – not uninteresting, worth discussing – is really lazy.

The author of this piece goes into more criticism of the relevant examples Sawyer did and didn’t include that ultimately weakens his argument:

Even Star Trek, hailed by Sawyer as a shiny example of Good And Relevant SciFi, has terrible bits. The chicks wear nonfunctional miniskirts and only hold trad jobs – answering the phones, being nurses. Plots rely on mono-trait species all the time (Klingons are cranky, Vulcans are chilled, etc) – a rotten approach to writing and more than a little like interstellar racism. But Star Trek is given a pass because of its interracial smooching and heavy handed metaphors

And like Stargate where they’re going to all these worlds and making serious choices that should affect the whole world (or at least continents) but you only see 5 people sitting at a table on a world looking a lot like B.C. making these decisions. What a way to run a gate system. Nobody has a flipping passport either. Just unmanned gates in fields and forests. Insane. And you notice there were never any tourists from other worlds pissing around town square looking for deals in the market? Would people with access to gates for thousands of years still be that xenophobic? Mind you, walk out of a gate, get nabbed by a goa’uld. Yeah, I guess I can pass on the tye-died t-shirt this time, Grandma, but thanks for asking.

Sawyer also said in his lecture tonight (and I assume previously) that it’s not fair to look back 45 years and ask why they weren’t as enlightened as we are now. At least Trek had women on board, unlike some underwater sea show that was produced on a rival network at the time (one I’d never heard of and now can’t remember). At least Trek was making some attempts at multiculturalism and putting blacks/African Americans/Negros/”people of colour” in roles where they were highly educated and respected and worth looking up to. Hasn’t Nichelle Nichols said in interviews that she was pleased to be a part of that, even if she was just a glorified receptionist with oldfashioned yet futuristic BlueTooth accessories? And, he reminded us during Q&A, that Trek was produced by DesiLu studios, owned by what I think he said was America’s first televised “mixed-race” couple. That Lucille Ball fought hard to have her real life Latino husband, Desi Arnez, play her husband on TV, apparently. Watching it today, I wouldn’t have even thought about such a thing. Big deal, you know?. But then? Big deal!

Believe it or not, Star Wars had its nice themes too: spirit over technology, and love over hate, to name the main ones. It contained as much relevant stuff as any other movie. And Star Wars certainly didn’t end social commentary in sci-fi movies: the summer blockbusters that endlessly followed had commentary in spades, or not, exactly the same as before.

True enough. The value of inner strength is a theme that runs through the original trilogy. Perseverance. Loyalty. Trust. Hope. A lot of other good things. I think perhaps commentary got a little more obvious in later movies. You can watch War of the Worlds without ever realizing H.G. Wells’ original intent. The story as a story stands. Martians invade, they get sick and die of something we barely sneeze at. Crowds cheer and the audience complains that the story is too retarded and demands a refund. The story as analogy/allegory also stands, the fact that Wells happened to be making a point about Britain’s dominance in the world and how it must feel to be dominated by such a power.

Have filmmakers lost the ability to make a motion picture that can be both, or just lost interest in creating cinematic productions with multiple meanings and depth? Certainly if they want to make money they need to blow shit up or have someone blow shit in a toilet that hasn’t worked in a decade. Both plot points have been proven to make money in this day and age. Message movies can sell, but it seems like the message these days has to be pretty damned blatant in order for that to happen, like all those pro-America good old war boys movies that crop up any time America sees a need to remind its people that war is worthwhile and purposeful and good for America. Or, they have to sugarcoat the message and instead of walloping audiences in the face with it, they package it up all cute and deliver it with animated song and dance. I’m looking at you, WALL-E. Couldn’t just be about two cute robots making friends. Oh no. Had to slap on some environmental awareness stickers, too. The puffy kind with googly eyes, or maybe the ones that smell like grapes and licorice and chocolate fudge when you scratch them, although not all on the same sticker because that’d be just gross.

Anyway, back to the writing angle of this. Sawyer was in China some time ago to receive an award. Apparently he’s very popular there, as is the sci-fi genre in general. Why? Because sci-fi has proven its worth and value as a method of pushing ideas and commentary to an audience via a non-threatening approach, especially when it’s an audience for whom news and information is heavily censored and policed. He also doubts China will purchase his next trilogy about the World Wide Web and censorship since the books won’t really show the country in a great light, as far as freedom of information goes. That’s so irony it could rust, and yet are we really that surprised? hardly.

He read from his upcoming book tonight, Wake, specifically a part where this character, a young Chinese blogger, is well aware that his country is hiding what might be a major disaster and he’s trying to get around the government’s heavy handed attempts to control access to the internet and news of what exactly is going on. Is it another health scare of SARS proportions, or what?

Obviously, what’s really going on will have to be discovered when I finally read the thing. I think Sawyer said that the internet becomes self aware in this one and maybe when I read it, I ought to compare it to Charles De Lint’s book along the same lines, Spirits In The Wires, or hell, even the rest of Orson Scott Card’s Ender books, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide and Children of the Mind. Thoughts to ponder on another night…

Anyway, I get the impression that version30 doesn’t like Saywer’s style, but I can’t tell if v30 also thinks his books are as bad as his lecture was or if he just comes across as arrogant and smug in person and that’s what’s so offputting. As to award bragging, I suppose winning a few could go to a person’s head, but I don’t begrudge him his honours, even if he sounded snarky about the ones he didn’t win. That said, I certainly wouldn’t have looked at him twice when I was a cashier. I didn’t even stick around for the meet&greet even though the cookies looked delicious. I’ve never been drawn to fawning over people and their accomplishments. I just wanted to see him in person and hear him speak. Also, it was at the library and it was free.

I’ve read just about every book he’s published but I don’t follow his blog or twitter or whatever other narcissistic accoutrements he might use. Are his books the best I’ve ever read? Not by a long shot. But I enjoy them, for the most part. I also enjoy Janet Evanovich. I don’t want a steady hard-core diet of meaningful fiction. Or even meaningful non-fiction. Not to say I’ll read The Secret tomorrow, mind you. I do have SOME standards.

So, an ending, an ending. How do I end this? Ultimately, I thought the lecture was kind of interesting, but I see why v30 had some issues with its quality. It’s fluff, designed to entertain any audience that knows what sci-fi is or what they think it ought to be. But he did tip his hand early – he reminded us that liberals will look for books that reaffirm beliefs they have already, as will conservatives or atheists or Christians. Sometimes people aren’t reading to expand the horizons of the mind or change their minds one iota. And someone who’s always been interested in space or ethics or relevant issues of the day may seek them out in books written to highlight and expand on those interests. And some smart bitches read trashy books instead. And while readers might get sideswiped once in a while by an issue presented in an opposite direction than expected, that won’t necessarily alter their perspective or cause them to pull a 180 at 250 words per minute, ashamed to be going the wrong way.

What’s important is just the possibility that it could.

About 1minionsopinion

Canadian Atheist Basically ordinary Library employee Avid book lover Ditto for movies Wanna-be writer Procrastinator
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2 Responses to Saw Robert J. Sawyer give a talk tonight

  1. mister zero says:

    Hey – Nice piece. Just to answer your Q about my opinion of Sawyer’s books – I haven’t read any. I was writing only about the lecture. Cheers.
    – mister zero, version30 aka MonkeyX

  2. 1minionsopinion says:

    Hey, thanks for responding. Thank for writing something useful to bounce off of, as well. It gave me another perspective.

    If you wind up wanting to try one of his books, Factoring Humanity is probably my favourite out of all he’s written, loosely based on a Contact idea, that a message needs deciphering and a machine needs building to understand the message, but the results become more about understanding people.

    Illegal Alien isn’t bad either. They’ve come to Earth looking for the creatures God designed in his own image, since they’ve somehow decided they aren’t. Also a bit of a murder mystery thing goes on.

    He also has a space-faring dinosaur series that I think I’ve tried but couldn’t get into, but thought I’d mention. I think Far Seer is the first of that set.

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