As I’ve written before, I’ve always been into science-fiction throughout my life. It isn’t really, when you think about it, a big deal because so many popular culture involve sci-fi forms and ideas. But even though sci-fi ideas basically are popular culture now, actually identifying yourself as someone who likes sci-fi per se has, at least until recently, put you pretty solidly in nerd cultures, with everything that entails.
But I’m also a published novelist in sci-fi now. Even though I won’t be able to get fully into promoting Under the Trees, Eaten until the new year (it was always going to be a slow build sort of thing anyway, as I’m trying to get my new career in communications and network science off the ground at the same time), I’m still actually part of the field.
So whenever my friend Philosojaysfan* tweets links about his Stanley Kubrick fandom, I’m usually interested, especially when it’s about 2001, which is one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made. This time, the British Film Institute posted a scan of Kubrick’s original letter to Arthur C. Clarke that started their collaboration on what would eventually become 2001: A Space Odyssey.
* Yes, that is seriously his Twitter handle. Don’t judge him, because you know it’s actually kind of brilliant.
|So many pictures of Kubrick make him look intense or|
manic, but I prefer the images of him as amused or
Kubrick’s movies were really influential on my thinking when I first started to consider seriously the possibility of creating art as one of the major things I did with my life. My own styles and priorities have since become very different than his, but that formative influence, admiration, and love is still there. As well, there are attempts throughout my work to make what I’d call “really good science-fiction.”
So I thought this and the next few Sunday/weekend posts would discuss some of my ideas about what makes “really good science-fiction” and how I put these into my work. Right now, my two major projects are Under the Trees, Eaten and the Alice script that I’m developing with Lee Skinner. I’ll discuss an idea I had for a comic series a few years ago, and how that developed in my thinking after meeting a possible collaborator in Toronto this summer. And maybe I’ll talk about some ideas I’ve had about a dream project of mine: what I’d do if my writing career ever gets to the point where the BBC would commission me to write an episode of Doctor Who.
What do I think generally constitutes “really good science-fiction”? A lot of it is in that letter Kubrick wrote to Arthur C. Clarke in 1964. There should be a thoughtfulness to it, considering a question that could (or perhaps should) reorient how we understand the universe and our place in it. I ultimately don’t like what Clarke did with the 2001 concept of extra-terrestrial life in the novels that followed their collaboration. He essentially made them superpowerful gods whose mission was to seed the universe with life of all kinds.
There was a naïveté in those Clarke novels that depressed me at the time I read them without entirely knowing why. Kubrick and Clarke’s original collaboration didn’t get into the aliens’ motives for what they were doing at all, letting their actions remain mysterious, and our encounters with them taking on an almost mystical character. Aliens would be so different from us that encountering them would require a temporary suspension of your own humanity, an experience that only our religious mystical traditions have come close to preparing us for. When aliens that were once the causes of world-shattering encounters are treated as technical problems to solve and tinker with, a lot of literary and philosophical majesty is lost.
This is a problem that I have with a lot of sci-fi influenced by the Golden Age period anyway, as Clarke’s very much was. The stories were not about character, ethics, or any deeper meaning, but simply puzzle boxes. Culturally, we’ve figured out how to combine puzzle boxes with all that now, and so the quotidian triviality of puzzle box storytelling only becomes more frustrating to encounter.