When I was a kid I wanted much more science-fiction movies! How should I know? I just watched “Oblivion”, with Tom Cruise as ‘Jack’. It was a so-so sci-fi short-short story, rendered visually with painstaking ‘realism’ by use of CGI, Green-screen, and whatever else those people do out there in Hollywood. Add to that (no small budget item, itself) the enormous additional cost of casting Tom and Morgan Freeman, et al. and shooting an ‘actual’ movie to splice into the CGI, or vice versa—however it goes.
And I appreciated the effort. Cinematically, it was sophisticated, fast-paced, and suspenseful—everything you want in a great movie. But I never got past this feeling I had while watching—I felt like I was being read to. To read this story in print would be a brief experience—probably less time than it took to watch the film.
But I would have supplied my own imagining of what the drones looked like, what the bubbleship looked like, and how they each sounded. The author would use words like gleaming, razor-edged, ‘a soft chime’, status: ‘green’, and so on—nothing like those full-spread-masterpieces of today’s leading graphics artists that one sees on the screen—more like suggestions. The words would hint at a form and my mind would imagine what that would look like—whether it was a character’s face, or a killer robot, or a moon-sized space station parked next to the remains of our Moon.
And, no, perhaps I wouldn’t have imagined anything quite so cool as the movie’s designers’ vision. But it would have existed in the center of my brain, where I can really feel it. You see, the trouble with movies is that we see and hear them—they’re all ‘front-loaded’—and watching them is a very conscious experience—even a social occasion. We read books when we are alone and relaxed—we use them to take us away from the moment, to enjoy a vicarious experience, to past the time quickly. We watch today’s movies as witnesses—yes, albeit a fictional sort, we are witnessing, watching and hearing, we stake out our audio and video monitoring surveillance sensors and we consume the movie.
We control the movie. We pause the DVD so that we can hit the head without missing the cool part. We adjust the volume. Even pinned to our seats by the sensory overload of a 3-D IMAX screening, we will have been previously encamped with a small, portable den’s-worth of provisions, settled in and waiting for previews to start. But a book—a book controls you. You don’t hear. You don’t see. You don’t notice the passing of time. You are inside the book, enchanted into a scene of which you are one of the players. They are two totally different experiences—as different in their effects as they are in their media.
And here’s the bad news—reading a book has not gone away. You will still need to read—and to understand as much as you possibly can about what you read. There are reasons why ‘dead’ languages haven’t died. There are reasons for teaching the ‘arts and letters’ that are just as important as the reasons to learn math and science. The reasons for the Arts are harder to explain because they are subtle—and being subtle is one of the very important things one learns by the studying of our arts as well as of our sciences. The ancients once saw science and art as part of a whole—they called it the search for understanding (‘philosophy’). And the only reason science and art seem so divided from one another, to us, is that we have distorted our natural world and have gone from trying to understand the world and our place in it, to trying to control the world and make ourselves ‘the deciders’ of whatever happens on it.
It’s a simple premise—business-people are developing every square inch of land, digging down miles and miles into the Earth, fishing the oceans until there are no fish left, cutting down most, but not all, of the trees. And their favorite industries involve a panoply of chemical toxins they blithely dump in the Hudson, or the local water supply near you, and onto the land. Did you know that many water sources in Iraq are contaminated by radiation from the spent-uranium-shells the US Army used? O yes—and will stay so for a century, at least.
You won’t see any businessperson start up a company that detects, collects, and disposes of all those spent-uranium-shell fragments scattered around their top-soil. You won’t see that because that business wouldn’t make any money. But I’ll bet, market forces allowing, that there’s still plenty of money to be made manufacturing more of those spent-uranium-shells. Get the picture?
The obvious solution is that we ignore all this karmic payback until the poop really hits fan—then we’ll find new ways to survive on our spoiled planet. We will probably get right back on that bicycle, too. Rich, powerful people telling everyone else to shut up and keep working. I think Edison and Einstein would be proud, don’t you? I mean, how else do you see this thing working out?
Do you really believe we can just ignore our problems until one day someone says, “O, it’s all over. It’s okay, we fixed it—all seven (maybe eight, by then) billion of us will be fine from now on”? …And we live happily ever after—just like Jon Lovitz (as ‘Tommy Flanagan’) used to say on SNL, “Oh, yeah? I wrote a book about rock and roll. Yeah, it was about the guy who invented rock and roll. Yeah, that’s it! In fact, it was.. it was an autobiography! Yeah!”
Sure, it could happen. But something has changed in my appreciation of Sci-Fi—it’s the ‘Neo’ meme—‘we only think we control our world and ourselves—but it’s really aliens plugging into our brains and making us live in a dream.’ Sci-Fi purists would probably call it the “Puppet Masters” meme, since Robert Heinlein’s Novel, “The Puppet Masters” (1951) pre-dates “The Body Snatchers” (1955), a novel by Jack Finney. So the ‘Neo’ meme is older than I am (born in ’56)—sorry, Keanu fans.
But the change is this—the more post-modern the Sci-Fi gets, the less upset I get about the idea of aliens taking over our planet or our lives—it’s kind of, like, ‘How much worse could they do?’, You know?
There is a small body of work, most notably Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”, which posits a forcefully beneficial type of alien that just overwhelms our tech and mandates a more communal, more cooperative, or more conservative culture over the entire globe. Some of those are fun to think about. My favorite, and I wish I could cite the book and author, is one story where suddenly, everyone on earth feels what they do to others. So, every time someone took a sock at a guy’s face, that attacker’s teeth would come flying out of his mouth. Of course, such a state would make surgery very difficult, but nothing’s perfect, right?