Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No News Is Good News: What Science Fiction Leaves Out of the Future #1

No News Is Good News: What Science Fiction Leaves Out of the Future #1
by Gary Westfahl

For critics and commentators, it is generally easy to notice and discuss whatever there is to be found in a science fiction story or film. It can be harder, however, to notice and discuss what is not there in science fiction—those features one might ordinarily expect to find in a story or film that are, for some reason, being left out.

I discovered one of these strange omissions purely by accident while editing The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: because the assigned contributor never completed the entry, I was forced on short notice to write the entry on "Journalism." And hurried research brought to light a curious situation: while journalists were reasonably common in science fiction stories set in the present—ranging from the novels of Clifford D. Simak to the adventures of Superman—they were extraordinarily rare in science fiction stories set in the future.

Consider the most obvious examples, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes: one never observes a reporter visiting the Enterprise to interview Captain Picard about his latest exploits, or the crew of the Millennium Falcon killing time by reading a hard copy of the latest news or watching a propagandistic news bulletin from the Empire News Network. In print, no journalists that I can recall ever appear in Isaac Asimov's far-future Foundation saga or Frank Herbert's Dune novels. To be sure, reporters are not entirely excluded from futuristic science fiction stories; for example, outrĂ© news bulletins permeate the chaotic prose of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), reporters were regular visitors to the Babylon 5 space station, and television news reports can be seen in films like Total Recall (1990) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995). Still, even when they appear, these journalists of the future are always invariably minor characters or voices in the background. There have been many stories about heroic reporters in mainstream fiction—consider Gaston Leroux's novel The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) and its sequels, the comic strip Brenda Starr, the play and film The Front Page (1931), and television series like The Name of the Game or Lou Grant. Why has there never been a novel or film about a star-spanning investigative reporter for the Galactic News Agency?

At this time, I can come up with three possible explanations for the strange absence of reporters in the future worlds created by science fiction.

* * *

The first explanation would be: perhaps journalists will no longer be needed in the future. After all, the profession of journalism came into being because people were unable to travel to faraway places or sit in government chambers to observe newsworthy events, so that trained reporters had to be there to write down what they saw in a clear, concise fashion for curious outsiders to read. Today, however, due to various advanced forms of communication, people are gaining direct access to sources of information, and this trend is sure to continue in the future. Thus, future citizens of New York City who want reports about the latest crimes may be able to directly examine police reports, and future inhabitants of Earth interested in the doings of the starship Enterprise may be able to direct examine the ship's logs. Just as new ways to directly make plane and hotel reservations are making the profession of travel agent obsolete, new ways to directly obtain desired information may make the profession of journalist obsolete.

Still, I don't find this argument particularly convincing. For one thing, I can't think of a single science fiction novel or film which explicitly presented this explanation to account for its omission of reporters. There is also the real problem of information overload: if you look at New York City police reports, the vast majority will always consist of dull descriptions of boring crimes, just as the vast majority of entries in the Enterprise logs will be routine status updates. To avoid having to search through all of this verbiage to find the worthwhile story of an interesting crime or an historic alien encounter, people will always require the services of someone whose job is to sort through all the forgettable stuff and select only the data that others will want to have. Finally, those who produce police reports and starship logs are rarely talented writers, so that even their descriptions of exciting events may make for dull reading; trained journalists would be valuable because of their ability to tell such stories in lively, involving prose.

A second explanation is the one I floated in the conclusion of my encyclopedia entry on "Journalism": after noting that the few references to futuristic journalism one finds were generally negative—such as satirical exaggerations of dire trends in contemporary broadcast journalism like Edward Bryant's "The 10:00 Report Is Brought to You by..." (1972) and Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron (1968)—I suggested that the absence of reporters in science fiction might represent another strategy for criticizing the profession. In effect, writers and filmmakers may dislike reporters so much that they consistently resolve to banish them from their imagined future worlds.

On further reflection, I'm not much fond of this idea either. I can think of another profession that is almost universally despised—bureaucrats—yet obtuse, troublesome bureaucrats are as endemic as villains in written and filmed science fiction. If writers and filmmakers indeed feel a deep hostility toward certain figures, one has to believe that they would always choose to express those feelings instead of suppressing them. Certainly, when I encounter an argument about science fiction that I disagree with, it has never occurred to me that the very best way to show my contempt for the argument would be to ignore it; instead, I take aim and fire away. The problem is that silence on a given subject is too ambiguous to be a satisfying method of criticizing it, for there are many reasons other than enmity that might lead one to be silent about something. So, if writers have some strong opinions about journalists, we can assume that they will always prefer to express them.

We arrive at a third possible explanation, one which I find both persuasive and rather disturbing.

* * *

I begin by noting, as others have noted, that science fiction frequently seems obsessed with the idea of empire. As the preferred form of governments for thousands of worlds across the Galaxy, writers have regularly envisioned a Galactic Empire, seeing no problems in having a single man exercise direct and complete control over the affairs of trillions and trillions of people living on innumerable distant planets, and stories set on single worlds routinely involve petty monarchs and scheming prime ministers exactly like those featured in Ruritanian romances. Even when more democratic forms of government are vaguely projected, such as the Star Trek universe's Federation of Planets, the spaceships that function as their errand boys and ambassadors invariably have military structures, with captains who maintain absolute authority over their crews. Think about the last time you have read about or watched citizens of the future participating in a democratic election, or a group of future citizens pausing to take a vote before proceeding upon a course of action. Yes, I can think of examples of works that show or refer to such activities (Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers [1959], Douglas Adams's farcical novel and film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy [1979, 2005]), but they seem uncomfortably rare to me.

To illustrate science fiction's attachment to totalitarianism in all its manifestations, I have a personal story which I had hoped never to tell, but its relevance to this point is undeniable. Many years ago, through a series of odd circumstances, I found myself as the credited co-author of a script that was submitted to, and properly rejected by, the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. The idea behind the episode, which I had come up with, involved precisely the issue I am discussing: why should the starships of the future, which are much more like traveling communities in space than battleships, be governed precisely like ships of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Era? It had never made any sense to me. So in the episode, prodded by an iconoclastic crew member, Captain Picard agrees to experimentally implement a democratic government on board the Enterprise, with himself as elected President and various crew divisions under their own elected leaders, and things seem to be working out in their own bumpy way until a contrived crisis involving the Romulan Neutral Zone (I said the script was properly rejected) convinces everyone to return to the military chain of command as at least an occasional necessity. I was given the rare opportunity to read (but not to keep) the show's written comments on the script, which began promisingly (quoting from memory): "Abuse of authority is a worthwhile theme to explore. However—" (now identifying the crucial flaw in the script) "Captain Picard never abuses his authority." Thus, we observe how the program's creators are indeed attached to militaristic structures, and what sort of stirring defense they would offer for their authoritarianism: hey, dictatorships are just fine and dandy, as long as the dictator is a really good guy.

Further, we now begin to discern why there are never any reporters interviewing Captain Picard. Journalists are trained to be gadflies. Their natural inclination is to ask pointed questions about government affairs, to look for signs of incompetence or corruption in everything that political leaders and bureaucrats are doing. The ultimate victory they seek, as celebrated in fictional stories like The Front Page and the real-life adventure All the President's Men (1976), is to uncover evidence of official malfeasance so outrageous as to lead directly to the downfall of the once-powerful perpetrators. So, that reporter would not be welcome on board the Enterprise because he would raise awkward questions: Captain Picard, was your decision really the best course of action? Weren't there other ways you might have better dealt with this crisis? In making your decision, did you perhaps have any ulterior motives? Do you mind if I take a long look at all of your official records to confirm the accuracy of everything you're saying? In other words, doing what reporters always want to do, that reporter would be fiercely probing for evidence to show that Captain Picard—gasp!—had actually abused his authority.

In sum, I regretfully conclude, science fiction excludes journalists from its futures for the same reason that dictators always seek to suppress the freedom of the press: journalists ask too many discomfiting questions; they want to find and publish information about matters that dictators would prefer to keep secret; their goal is always to challenge and undermine authoritarian governments. Journalists in the future worlds of science fiction would be challenging and undermining the very assumptions that lay at the heart of those future worlds—and for that reason, their presence cannot be tolerated.

* * *

In the past, when commentators have noticed how frequently science fiction envisions a dictatorial future, even implying that certain authors are closet fascists, there have been defenses of the practice ranging from the claim that such governments represent a logical prediction of future developments to the fallback position of efficiency in storytelling (that is, because crew members do not have to stop and take a vote before landing on an alien world, the writer can more quickly get to the interesting stuff). Here, however, I wish neither to characterize the political beliefs of these writers nor to ponder rationalizations of their proclivities.

Instead, I would offer science fiction writers and filmmakers this simple challenge: the next time you are creating or revisiting one of your future worlds, make an effort to include a journalist or two. In the process of coming up with things for this journalist to do, or questions for him or her to ask, you may hit upon provocative issues in the structure of your future world which you never considered before, inspiring worthwhile revisions to your story. Forced to play the roles of both master and critic of your invented world, you are likely to end up making that world a better world, and making your story about that world a more interesting story.

A free press is indeed a wonderful thing: it keeps government officials on their toes, impels them to do their work honestly and efficiently, and helps to keep them focused on the important business of improving the lives of their citizens. And, like the governments of the United States, science fiction would greatly benefit from the presence of a free press. It is, at the very least, an idea worth exploring.

* * *

Gary Westfahlis the author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-four books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005),The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), the co-edited critical anthology Science Fiction and the Two Cultures (2009), and the recently published Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009) and its companion volume, The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009).

1 comment:

  1. This is certainly an interesting point of view. However I have a different theory as to the lack of journalists in most Science Fiction located in the future; since most of the regimes are indeed authoritarian and dictatorial, it's good to remember that in those regimes the media is owned, controlled and ran by the state itself, therefore a free press is anathema to most of the governments, or is a slave to it, as is the case of the press in Orwell's 1984, which can, and is, frequently edited by Winston and his colleagues. In the worlds where democracy is upheld there are examples of the press, though not as central characters, like in Ursula K. Le'Guinn's The Dispossesed, where there is two kinds of media, print for the poor and the telefax for the wealthy, or in Orson Scott Card's Ender universe there is certainly a press, we can see Ender's father reading the newspaper several times in various of the books. As to the lack of journalists in key roles of SF stories, there might be something to the issue that even in mainstream fiction journalists are not popular in central roles, due to the complexity involved in being a journalist, and even in the case of Stieg Larson's Millenium Trilogy, we hardly see Mikael Blomkvist working as a reporter, he's closer to a P.I. despite writing articles at the end of his work.