Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Culture Clubs and Power Plays

I don't actually like much science fiction. And that may seem strange, considering the nature of this blog, but I really don't.

I enjoy Roger Zelazny's works, clearly, but the fact that he wrote science fiction and fantasy is almost incidental to me now. It's just good writing and that transcends genre to a large degree. (I'll include here the caveat that I first encountered his works when I was a young high-schooler and read sci-fi and and only sci-fi, so I almost certainly would never have discovered him if he had chosen to work in another genre.)

Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to science fiction, of course, but it seems that science fiction and arenas closely associated with it (fantasy and role-playing) tend to inspire fans to write stories of their own, which, by and large, are not very good. I worked in a comic book store in the 90s and I was exposed to a lot of that kind of stuff, and left me a bit more critical of SF than I would be otherwise. (I include fantasy under this umbrella, too, so just because I'm a fellow geek, it doesn't mean I want to read your 500 page manuscript where the members of U2 all get jobs teaching at Hogworts.)

So, I don't like most sci-fi. And yet, I'm listening to two series on my phone. I initially joined Audible because they were the only place I could find Lord of Light as an audio book. That was really all I wanted (and I didn't like their proprietary format anyway), so I canceled and left the account fallow for a few years until I rejoined a couple months ago. I worked my way through Sarah Vowell's libary, listened to Lord of Light a couple times, endured Bossypants and then downloaded a Culture book because I had heard good things about the series. After I worked my way through the Culture books they had available, I downloaded Shada, a Doctor Who story, which I reviewed here.

To sum up, I don't like a lot of sci-fi, but I enjoy both Doctor Who and the Culture and they couldn't be more different.

Of course, I'm persnickety about what I like about Doctor Who. I like the Doctor better as someone who is exceptional because of what he does, rather than who he is. I like a Doctor who isn't godlike, who isn't facing ever-escalating threats to time and space, but as a wanderer who knows it's impossible for one man to right all the wrongs in the universe, so he doesn't even try, but rather fights these threats where he finds them and inspires people to become their own champions.  The Fourth Doctor did this the best. I watched City of Death on Friday, and while I kept expecting Scaroth to turn into King Richard or get in his AT-AT (that joke is hilarious to the three people who get it), I just noticed a joy and a spontaneity to the production that I find lacking in the new series. Doctor Who is really, pretty absurd, and it seems like the latter day Doctors aren't in on the joke.

I've run the following point in to the ground here, but I'll repeat it again. Sometimes David beats Goliath. But not always. If David is running circles around Goliath every week for seven years, I think it's time to stop pretending he's really David.

Also, if your master plan ten thousand years in the making is so brittle that it can scuttled by some eleventh hour machinations by a chain-smoking Sting wannabe, well, maybe you deserve to lose.

City of Death, incidentally, doesn't suffer from this problem. The Doctor is on holiday and happens across an alien named Scaroth. Scaroth's actions would destroy humanity (or more specifically, prevent us from being created in the first place), but that's not really his goal; it's just something incidental to what he really wants to achieve. He's punching below his weight class on 1970s Earth, but so is the Doctor, and the story works for me, because the villain didn't have this crazy master plan. He had a plan that was predicated being the only one with his advanced technology and while it was good enough to do what he wanted it to do, it didn't have a lot of wiggle room built in, so I can buy the idea that a problem from completely outside his context would cause him to stumble. Scaroth's plan was really only feasible because the Doctor and Romana showed up, so it does only seem fair that they could trip it up too.

I like Law & Order, because there really aren't that many shows like it. It's not a show about the last minute Deus Ex Machina (I liked Russell T. Davies, but man, three years in a row of Apocalypse >  Deus Ex Machina > Cosmic Reset button was at least two years too many), but one of the diligent application of proven techniques. The Culture strikes me the same way.  Not that there aren't clever gambits in the series, (my favorite was the doomed drone that used its final action to burn a coded message into the hull of the enemy ship that destroyed it) but they aren't pulled from nowhere or reliant on their enemies being completely oblivious. The Culture tends to win its battles because it has a vast and flexible infrastructure and is shrewd and ruthless in its employment.

And I'll go into the Culture in a little more detail here, since fewer people will probably be familiar with it. I usually describe it as Star Trek's Federation, taken to its logical conclusion. All the write-ups describe it as a post-scarcity society. Unlimited matter replication has seen to that. It's a Utopia. And yet, there's this understated horror of scale to it. The civilization is just so big and the backbone of the Culture is its society of Minds (Marvin Minksy shout out!). The Culture built computers which were smarter than any human, which designed the next generation of computers, and this was repeated until they got to the Minds, AIs with most of their components housed in hyperspace so their processes are not limited to the speed of light. They're benevolent, but so many orders of magnitude smarter and faster than any human that again that subtle horror of scale creeps in.

The Culture is more in line with my sensibilities. Here is a passage from Excession, my favorite Culture novel.

...the attack had been too sudden, too extreme, too capable. The plans the ship had made, of which it was an important part, could only anticipate so much, could only allow for so proportionally greater a technical capability on the part of the attacker. Beyond a certain point, there was simply nothing you could do; there was no brilliant plan you could draw up or some cunning stratagem you could employ that would not seem laughably simple and and unsophisticated to a profoundly more developed enemy.

And while we're on the subject of things outside of one's context, here's another offering from the Culture, from Wikipedia's entry on Excession.

This is a problem that is "outside the context" as it is generally not considered until it occurs, and the capacity to actually conceive of or consider the OCP in the first place may not be possible or very limited (i.e., the majority of the group's population may not have the knowledge or ability to realize that the OCP can arise, or assume it is extremely unlikely). An example of OCP is an event in which a civilization does not consider the possibility that a much more technologically advanced society can exist, and then encounters one. The term is coined by Banks for the purpose of this novel, and described as follows:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

There is, incidentally, a Doctor Who/Culture Crossover of sorts, in the novel The Also People. I haven't read it yet, but even now it is speeding towards me. I've avoided reading a summary of it, because I like being surprised, but it is a Doctor Who book, (specifically a Seventh Doctor book, set in the time when he was the child of Xanatos and Machiavelli) so I imagine he'll be dismantling the Culture-analogues in the story. Perhaps I'm wrong. If I love it, I'll blog about it here. If I hate it, I'll blog about here, too.


  1. Your Scaroth joke made me laugh out loud.

    1. That's because you're clearly a person of taste and refinement.

  2. So true about Doctor Who. I always felt the same for Woody Woodpecker…how can you root for this guy who never fails, always defeats any obstacle in front of him, and constantly humiliates every person he encounters?

    1. I think I fell out of love with the Doctor during David Tennant's debut, in the Christmas Invasion. In the conclusion, the Doctor has driven away the alien invaders, but Harriet Jones, the Prime Minister, orders the ship destroyed.

      I'm pretty sure this a reference to the destruction of a warship ordered by Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War. Anyway, the Doctor is so outraged that Jones would do this that he demolishes her career with some social engineering. Not only is that astonishingly petty, but it has far-reaching consequences, as it ends England's Golden Age early and leaves a power vacuum for Saxon.

      Jones remained defiant, and I'm in line with her reasoning, that the Doctor isn't always be there and it's a good thing for Earth to be able to defend itself.

      And I kept watching the show, because that seemed like a momentary aberration in characterization. However, since it did come so early in his tenure, it did inform my understanding of that Doctor. But I think the Doctor should be guided by the principle of "The freedom to make decisions includes the freedom to make *bad* decisions" and it should be anathema to him, particularly as an outsider, to force his views on those he encounters in such a fashion.

  3. But that was his flaw was that whole godlike feeling.

    I think part of what I like about the Doctor is he is now the most brilliant by process of elimination (everyone else is dead) and he gets this crazy god complex. The first Donna Noble story had an aspect of that, as did the Martian one.

    The Doctor seems to be his own worst enemy, especially without someone there to smack him straight (which is why I like Donna Noble, because she just seems the type to smack him upside the head and not have him do something "because he cares for them")

    1. There may be something to what you say. I haven't seen David Tennant's episodes since they originally aired, so it may be worth it for me to what them with this in mind and see if I come away with a different impression.