06 August 2007

Masters of... hey wait a second!

H/t to Ace of Spades HQ's Kensington for the fact that ABC is doing Masters of Science Fiction, which are four teleplays based on stories by 'Masters of Science Fiction'. Now as a fan of SF for awhile, although my reading rate has plummeted for a decade or so, I would think that such a thing would have famous SF stories involved with them along with some of the true Masters of SF. Like The Weapon Shops of Isher by A.E. van Vogt or some such, to help capture stories that have stayed timeless, remain readable and are relatively short so that a good television adaptation could be done to them. I mean how hard could it be to take Hal Clement's Needle or Mission of Gravity and get a television adaptation? I don't even have to go to the "Greats" like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark or Ray Bradbury to find great stories to tell from SF from the 1930's onwards! Like In the Bone by Gordon R. Dickson or Mindworm from Cyril Kornbluth or A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber... all wonderful stories that would not have extremely high need of special effects (for the modern era) and yet would serve as a window into the diversity of SF from those not commonly considered to be 'Masters of SF'.

Instead we get John Kessel? Howard Fast is great for his historical fiction, what I have read of it... but Science Fiction?

They do have an entry by Robert Heinlein! But the theme of Jerry was a man has been done to *death* by the media over the decades and do we really need another in the 'is this chimp human or not' sort of deal? Not to belittle the work, but ploughing over old territory that had such things as Planet of the Apes and all of its follow-ons is really not what I would call great or even novel fiction at this point in time.

But then we come to the main *problem* which is trying to equate someone with many laurels into a touchstone for the series: Harlan Ellison. Now, as I have briefly met the man and heard him speak on the subject of SF more than a few times, read his editorials and a fair smattering of his works and his outlook collections of SF that he really, really, really wants everyone to consider to be wonderful and 'ground-breaking' SF.... ok, if you grew up with a person who always wanted to be on the 'in crowd' and *was* for about two days and then pines over the fact that his version of what 'in' should be isn't what other folks see it and that his vision of 'in-ness' is the right one and will carp on that ad nauseum.... if you know that sort of person, you know Harlan Ellison's outlook. Any series that spends more verbiage on HIS accomplishments than that of Robert Heinlein is skewed.

Harlan Ellison really didn't think much of 'hard science fiction' - the stuff based on actual technology and science and speculating how society would adapt with and around such things. His lovely vision would be that SF would head to the 'soft' side of sociology and such, which have no real firm basis to stand upon as *science*. You can still write great stuff there, just realize that you are not working with actual knowns like physics and chemistry and the speed of light and looking at some of the possible advances in those areas which would have different consequences for our outlook on the universe and ourselves. Nor does military SF play a large role in the 'soft SF' realms thus putting most of that entire realm, along with hard and technology driven side into a 'lesser status'.

Harlan Ellison wanted SF to produce great 'literature' and missed the fact that having it taught in english courses was not the goal of SF writers. Actually, in the 1920's and 1930's at the rate of a penny per word, the object was to churn out verbiage, some of which turned into damned good reads because authors could expand upon ideas at a fast rate. There was also a pile of garbage produced then, too... when the pulp magazines declined and hard readership was established stories needed to be tighter, pointed and more firmly based. From that era of the 1930's to 1980's we get the Masters of SF in the first wave - Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury are the acknowledged ones this first era of SF. The intercession before the rising of 'soft SF' saw the first stories by Gordon R. Dickson, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Fred Saberhagen and Philip K. Dick. These are each writers with fantastic works that could be readily adapted to television. From there the 'soft' form arose, but many authors found that it was necessary to keep on the scientific edge so that the social edge would not be lost, so while Harlan Ellison tried to lead the 'SF revolution' such writers as Andre Norton would chart her own course and diversity greatly beyond the limited venues present by 'soft SF'. And that era would start the counter to it from authors like Alan Dean Foster, David Drake, Ben Bova. Writers like Harry Harrison would deftly create combined forms that would defy the easy characterizations of hard and soft SF. I have, of course left off favorites of people in each era, but that points to the strong diversity of SF, not the paucity of good stories to come only from 'Masters'.

The diversity of masterful writers in SF from that counter-era would spur on the next one which continues to this day to diversify and change form until, finally, SF itself is reaching the limits of creation as technology and science make it come true too quickly, as Jerry Pournelle as quipped. These authors take the same rigorous approach to Fantasy and now put out great works there, using the methodology of known foundation of worlds and their fantastical elements to derive great stories. It is not in the hardness or softness of the basis, but using a firm and understood basis to create a good story that gives insight into our humanity, culture and the possibilities that we need to prepare for in the future that is the telling point of SF.

That leaves Harlan Ellison like King Canute, raging against the tide, even as the waves wash over his face and to his crown. And these four stories are ones that only a King Canute of SF could choose as from 'Masters of SF' - a very dull set of stories from one author who has had little impact on the field, one from outside SF for his main claims to fame, one from a Master of SF but in so worn an area as to not matter, and then one from the man who led the charge to the sea to rage against the tide. While great stories with hard impact from Keith Laumer, H. Beam Piper, James Blish, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and others sit on shelves waiting for the next interested reader to come along to learn of worlds and the stories of the people in them.

Someday some of those compelling stories might get told properly and then we will find those that had mastered the form of science fiction and wonder why they are not also considered Masters of SF.

No comments: