star trek

Boot

I have possessions, some small, some large, but nearly all of them are transitory. Electronics get worn out and become obsolete. A favorite pen will eventually run out of ink or fall apart. Chairs, no matter how comfy, get left behind during a move. And while other men might have Super Bowl rings or family heirlooms, I don’t have any such jewelry. Even my collection of physical books–you know, the paper kind–are giving way to electronic copies. It doesn’t mean I don’t treasure the ones I keep, but the knowledge within them is a far, far greater prize than the medium.

One thing that I have brought with me from place to place for almost a decade is a photograph. It’s not of me or of any place I’ve been. It’s neither a professional shot nor an amateur Polaroid. The picture is of a boot kicking out a car window, sole front and center, and cubes of shattered safety glass exploding out past the focal point in a glittering bubble. Inside the car, one can just barely make out my father’s face, shrouded in shadow. It’s a perfect line of motion, frozen. I bring it everywhere with me partially because it’s a conversation starter. What is this? Why? Who? What’s the story, man?

Well, what is the story? The car belonged to my parents’ friend, Charles, and the window had had a crack and needed to be replaced. Item number one on the to-do list was take the old window out. Of course, why gently remove a piece of glass if you can smash it–and why boot out the rear passenger window of a Volkswagen if you don’t plan on making an art project out of it?

For the longest time, I had assumed that my mother, not Charles, had been on the other end of the camera. The car is a Volkswagen Beetle, and I know we used to have a blue one when I was very small. I called it the Bu Bo-baxen. I am a marginally better conversationalist now.

But this is the other reason I have kept the photo for as long as I have. It’s a constant reminder of the malleability of memories. Even a photograph requires context. Without knowing who took the picture, when they took it, where they were, and why, it’s just a pretty picture. Some photographs include all this information in the picture. Wedding photos, for example, are a special kind of archiving; this happened to these two people in this place, at this time of day, and with these emotions. They’re the kinds of photos you can instantly understand when walking into someone else’s home. Ah, you say to yourself. Married, two kids, wealthy enough to have this kind of wedding, but not insane millionaires… and on and on. It’s the Darmok of our lives. Dick and Jane in Hawaii. Dick and Jane holding hands. Jane in her white gown. The happy couple, their feet in the sand. These kinds of photos are the most logical way of compressing tons of sensory and emotional information into an easy-to-transport package.

The same applies to the kind of moment captured in the photo I take with me from place to place, only with an important difference. As art, Jack in the Volkswagen, his boot through the window, is, to everyone but Jack (and possibly Charles, his eyes shielded), an almost entirely subjective experience. You can get the straight story from him, or you can get an interpretation from Emmett, his hands gesticulating. Sooner or later, however, the story will be lost, and all that will remain is the photo, compressed data awaiting extraction. The car, its window exploding.

Not to make too much of it, but go back in time and ask Leonardo about the real dope on the Mona Lisa, and he might have something to say. Now, though, we have the Mona Lisa Smile, which each of us interprets according to whatever bits and bytes of information our minds need in order to fill in the gaps during data extraction. It’s the same concept as Jurassic Park, where they used frog DNA to fill in the missing chunks of dinosaur code–only with an slightly smaller probability of horrible death.

That incompleteness is what makes the photo so valuable. It’s neither data that can be compressed further nor knowledge that can be learned. It’s neither purely in the domain of memory, nor is it purely art. The image remains, but the story, known to me now, still mingles with the memory of the story I’d created for it. Understanding the picture, for now, means understanding its changed nature, and means understanding who has it and why. The photograph remains in a wonderful little gray area, a node in the network of how I understand the world. My existence, in relation to the object, puts a lot of weight on it, perhaps unfairly. But once I’m gone, it is free once again to be just an object until someone else comes along and weighs it down again.

For Day 20

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Homemade Pizza!

I made pizza entirely from scratch for the first time–dough and everything. I was going to take pictures as I went, but during the dough-making process, my hands got a bit gooey, and I wasn’t about to touch a camera.

Here are the After pictures.

Homemade Pizza

One quarter impulse, ensign.

and

Red Alert!

Something seems to have fused to the hull, captain. Fascinating….

Aaaaaaand we’re done for today.

Edit: Crap… I probably should have included a recipe or something.

Dough:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 packet active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp XV olive oil

Add water, yeast and 1 tbsp olive oil to a bowl and stir until Not Lumpy. Let sit until foamy, or about 5 minutes. Get a big-ass mixing bowl and start adding the flour gradually. About half of it to start, and then about a small handful after you’ve made what you have Not Lumpy. Keep adding that flour in until the dough is somewhat tacky (not like a shirt, but like glue). Pull it out of the big-ass bowl and knead it for a few minutes on a lightly floured surface. You don’t need to wail on it, just tender caresses. Either wash out that big-ass bowl or get a second big-ass bowl. Oil it down with the other 1 tbsp of olive oil. Toss that hunk of dough into the oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temp. It’s going to grow about 2x its size, so after about an hour and a half, you can do what you want. Toss it into the fridge (still in the bowl), maybe. Some people say to leave it for 16-24 hours after that, but you should be able to use it pretty much right away if you want. If you threw it into the fridge, put it back out on that floured surface and let it get back to room temp. It might be enough for one giant (or two smaller) thin crust pizza(s), or one large-ish thick crust pizza. Make whatever sauce you want. I threw some tomatoes, basil, oregano, salt and pepper into the blender. Top with whatever. Bake at 250-ish Celsius for about 20-ish minutes or until golden brown on the edges.

It’s a treat. Do it.

Encounter at Farpoint, I&II

Until The Writing 101 prompts come around, I still have about two weeks’ worth of posts to fill, in order to avoid being a sad sack who reneges on his commitments. So, I thought, here’s a novel idea for the creatively lackluster days: start naming posts after Star Trek: The next Generation episodes, and even if you don’t talk about the episode, you can make it a theme. Brilliant! So, let’s go chronologically. First episode: “Encounter at Farpoint, parts I and II.” Crap. Oh well. Also, by the way, if you’re unfamiliar with Farpoint, you’re probably going to be lost. But hey, that’s why there’s Netflix.

After staring at my screen for an hour and not knowing what in tarnation I could possibly write about this, I remembered something. Despite being retroactively reviled by fans and hipsters alike, Farpoint had all the makings of a perfect TNG episode, and would actually go on to be the blueprint for much better episodes, like “Clues” (in the style of Friends: The one where Data wipes everyone’s minds lest they all be murdered by aliens). Honestly, it wasn’t a terrible episode; it just suffered from the kind of stiff writing and undeveloped characters most first-season network TV shows have. And the first- and second-season uniforms were kind of awkward. But those things are peanuts compared to what it got right.

While, admittedly, Captain Kirk kicked mountains of ass from one end of the galaxy to the other during his abbreviated five-year mission, there was generally a great sense of exploration and newness to the Original Series. Farpoint made a point to carry on that tradition, and in doing so, set the precedent for the rest of TNG, which is why far more of its episodes have more replay value than those of any other Trek series. Because of its uncompromising fidelity to the “new life and new civilizations” ethos, the Next Gen crew could encounter grave conflict, but the show never had to become mired in it. As the following series in the franchise became increasingly battle-based (eventually self-destructing with Enterprise, which was basically Stargate SG1-Lite), crews became less focused on the exploring and newness, and more and more bogged down in the typical human-style conflict of territorial pissing. Now, with the film reboots, the new-old Federation resembles the Klingons or Romulans more than it does the peace-seeking and -keeping Shatner- or Stewart-era Federation.

If there is an argument out there that TV audiences only respond well to cruelty and explosive action, this show is its antidote. And it’s all because of a mediocre first meal made from the best ingredients.

Science Fiction and the Soul

A friend and philosopher wrote in late to ask that I consider a topic for discussion: midi-chlorians. For those of you who aren’t big on Star Wars, those who scooped out parts of their own brains after the prequels, and for the rest of you, who purged the memories from your brain with alcohol, midi-chlorians are a newer addition to the Star Wars canon. I don’t want to blow through a full summary in the intro here, but to say that this addition was controversial is a gross understatement. If you really, really want to know what a midi-chlorian is in excruciating detail, you can find a suitable explanation on its Wookieepedia page. It’s nuts, and in case you don’t want your browser ever remembering that midi-chlorians exist, I’ll summarize it below.

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!

You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!

To start, let’s get that brief summary out of the way. George Lucas officially added the idea of midi-chlorians as canon with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Apparently, he’d wanted to introduce them much earlier, but couldn’t find a good way to do it. Because there is no good way to do it. He wanted there to be a rhyme and reason for Force sensitivity, and the best way he could figure was to create a kind of cellular mitochondria, present in all living things, but super abundant in Force sensitive folks, like Jedi. The midi-chlorians are not the Force itself, but a connection between the Force and, as Yoda said of Luke’s meat suit, “this crude matter.” To emphasize that Anakin Skywalker (soon to be Darth Vader) was super-duper special, Anakin’s midi-chlorian count was the highest ever recorded.

In a way, on its own, the midi-chlorian is kind of an interesting idea–a physical link between the body and the soul. A lot of other science fiction writers and filmmakers have touched on the idea of a subjective versus objective soul. Clearly, Lucas was talking about the latter, which is fine. There’s no proving or disproving either side. The trouble begins with his inclusion of the idea in the Star Wars universe. Most other science fiction and fantasy authors, faced with ideas that they can’t fit into their current long-running series, simply start a new project or write a stand-alone novel. Much to his fans’ frustration, George R.R. Martin has a few side projects going, but we thank him for not trying to shoehorn those extra ideas into his Ice and Fire series. Unfortunately, Lucas created an empire on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and apparently couldn’t find the time or inspiration to explore his creativity outside of those realms.

The next bit of trouble harkens back to a post I made a few days ago about science fiction versus science fantasy. Star Wars is and has always been science fantasy. The root causes for many things in the original movies (IV, V, and VI) were never explained. We don’t really know how hyperspace works, nor do we need to; it gets our characters from one place to another nigh instantaneously, and reduces unnecessary exposition. The same is true with the Death Star, or any other space-bound craft for that matter. We kind of assume that the materials for the Death Star’s construction were strip-mined from somewhere. The Empire is a vast, black-gloved tyranny made up of thousands of worlds. Pull a few of them apart, and–bam!–instant Death Star. Just add sadness. A second one? Easy as eatin’ pancakes. How does gravity plating work? Who cares? Why don’t spacecraft need retro rockets? Who cares? Where does all the air come from? Who gives a crap? If we cared, we’d have more exposition than we ever wanted, and none of it would serve to advance the plot even a little bit. And that’s why Star Wars (the originals) works. It’s essentially Lord of the Rings in space–knights, wizards, unwilling heroes, trolls, and elves–except that instead of throwing the ring into Mount Doom, Vader’s has to throw the Emperor into the reactor core.

So what happens when we add midi-chlorians? Exposition, and a lot of it. Because they weren’t part of the original trilogy, we now have to tell half our audience (pretty much anyone born before 1994) why Anakin is Force sensitive, and why Luke is. This is time that could be spent in character development. In the Star Trek series, we get a ton of technical exposition about the ship, the inner workings of stars, Data’s brain, and the space-time continuum because these things are integral to the plot, because it’s science fiction–science as fiction. Mostly, anyway. We know that Betazoids are telepathic, but do we know exactly how or why that works? No. Why? We don’t need to. Geordi’s visor shattered the universe in Star Trek: The Next Genereation, and was also able to help the crew identify inter-dimensional newborns. In fact, his visor practically wrote more than a few episodes of that show. Midi-chlorians are introduced as a major reason that the Star Wars universe exists, but they end up playing no part in the driving action. We’re never going to need to know anything technical about them ever again. Seriously. There are plenty of books and comics, post prequels, of course, that mention them, but at heart all of these works are science fantasy. Wedging a science  fiction element into the existing science fantasy construct only serves to fracture the story and take attention away from the characters.

I wanted this post to be mostly on the subject of science fiction vs. science fantasy, but I want to take a chance and wrap it up with an idea I began earlier that I’m not sure holds every drop of water I’m about to pour into it. Which idea is that there is an almost de facto balance between the objective/subjective soul and science fiction/science fantasy within the sci-fi genre. As fiction within the genre leans toward fantasy, the soul is depicted more objectively, as an concrete thing that can be weighed and measured with the right equipment. And as literature leans more toward science, the soul is portrayed more as an abstract thing, mystical and necessarily outside the bounds of tangibility. Let’s start with the first two obvious examples: Star Trek and Star WarsTrek, falling well on the science side, mentions the soul, but almost every instance of its inclusion in canon, it is something beyond measurement or understanding. For example, Data’s journey, as an android, toward humanity is constantly fraught with questions of soul. Where inside that complex mass of circuits and flashing LEDs is the thing that makes Data Data? It was established by the end of TNG that the question was never going to be answered by a measure of his emotion (which is pretty much where the movies went horribly wrong in this aspect). In fact, it became clear after a while that there may be no answer at all. In Star Wars, even before the prequels, Yoda says, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” As a crazy-old crazy old wizard, he is a religious and spiritual figure, and as such, he has the ability to see and sense the soul–and thus weigh and measure it.

In literature, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon sits on the science side of the spectrum, while Frank Herbert’s Dune sits on the fantasy side. In Altered Carbon, a person can have their consciousness swapped from body to body like renting a car, yet the soul is somewhat of a stickier wicket. Those rich and powerful enough to have their consciousness ride through the centuries, changing out of their old bodies like dirty underwear, are known as Methuselahs (a reference to the Book of Genesis). Their minds are typically intact, but it becomes clear that their souls are twisted and corrupted. Yet the nature of how this comes to be or where the soul exists is left as a big question mark. In Dune, by contrast, the search for the Kwisatz Haderach is essentially a mission to find the galactic messiah by creating it. But what makes a messiah, if not the soul–in this case a very carefully weighed and measured soul?

It’s no secret that fantasy and science fantasy writing is typically tied closely to religion and mythology. Herbert, for example, uses a crazy mishmash of Zen, Islamic, and Judeo-Christian stories and iconography to sew the Dune universe together. But Altered Carbon uses mainly philosophy, borrowed and fabricated, as its foundation. Star Trek does the same, and really only touches on religion with any consistency in Deep Space Nine, and the writers pretty much made up the Bajoran religion from scratch, using old pagan practices as a guide. And it was clear that George Lucas always meant for Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader to be an exceedingly special character, the prodigal father, maybe. But then in The Phantom Menace, he wanted Anakin to have been possibly conceived by midi-chlorians. So then he’s Jesus with a lightsaber?

Speaking of robots with a soul...

Speaking of robots with a soul…

The point, I think, is that there is redundancy in the storytelling. Telling us how Anakin is supposed to be special does nothing for us. In A New Hope, we needed no expositional dialogue to tell us that Luke was going to end up a hero, nor did we need his midi-chlorian count to know that his soul was incorruptible (well, until Dark Empire, but let’s keep things simple). The same should have been true of Anakin. The mytho-religious science fantasy of Star Wars should have been enough to show us that Anakin was a troubled soul.

The end result of exposition is that it cheapens the sense of adventure. In a way, it’s why the Book of Genesis and its long lists of A begat B begat C begat D and so on is practically unreadable. It may lend a sense of realistic credibility to the endeavor, but ends up reading like the IKEA manual for my desk.

A Sci-Fi Primer

Today, Day 2 of my blog post marathon, let’s talk about science fiction! Actually, I’ll do the talking, so if you need a snack, or a beer or whatever, now’s the time.

More specifically, I want to talk about contemporary cinematic science fiction. I may include a reference or two to television, but I’m leaving written sci-fi out for two reasons. One, there’s a solid ton of it out there, and no practical way of covering it all. Two, I’m a slow reader; I’m just in the first few chapters of Asimov’s Foundation, and that was written in 1951. Of course, I’ll be talking about some older movies, possibly from the same era as Foundation, but nec pluribus impar.

Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy

A few years ago, Red Letter Media’s Plinkett review of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), they made a distinction that hadn’t occurred to me before. They posited that the major difference between the original Star Trek movies and Abrams’ reboot was a shift from science fiction to science fantasy. It had ceased to be Star Trek, they said, and had become “Space Adventure Film.” Why? I’ll let their video speak for itself, but suffice to say, that the more intricate and technical aspects of the previous Star Trek universe (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, etc), were replaced by a more freewheeling spirit, in which how something happens is less important than the fact that it does.

The old Trek was about explorers, Star Wars is about knights and wizards in space. But let’s not cling to the past. There are good analogues of both spirits out there today. Embodying the technical spirit, there are Upstream Color (2013) and Timecrimes (2007)–and probably Gravity (2013), though I haven’t seen it yet. And representing the freewheeling spirit, there are Monsters (2010) and Inception (2010)–probably also Ender’s Game (2013), but again, I haven’t seen it yet. We might understand science fiction, then, as science as fiction, and science fantasy as pretty much any story put in a setting that captures our scientific imagination.

Aren’t these distinctions meaningless, though? A little. To the genre, they’re two sides of the same coin, but as a matter of taste, it makes a big difference. As part of the sci-fi genre, The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991) are not only great movies, but are excellent examples of science fantasy. There is time travel–oh, yeah, and unfeeling killer cyborgs–but no one really cares how any of it works because it’s not particularly important to the plot. Terminator goes back in time, terminator terminates things, terminator gets terminated (fucker), and all the while, the story is of a battle against fate. It could have been told outside of the sci-fi genre, and has been. Ingmar Bergman rocked this story with The Seventh Seal (1957). It, of course, had 100% more chess playing and 100% fewer murderous cyborgs. Another, final example, is pretty much every Roger Corman sci-fi flick ever. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) was pretty much Seven Samurai in space and spandex.

On the flip side, there are movies like Primer (2004) that rely so heavily on the science aspect, that it becomes the story. The science of Primer, isn’t how they get time travel to work, but the logical–and by extension ethical–conundrums inherent in trying to rewrite the past. No one gives a damn about that in Terminator.

The difference between the two facets of sci-fi seems to be drawn from an adoption of content versus an adoption of affect. Neither is necessarily better, but science fantasy does tend to produce a greater volume of cinema, and thus a larger share of crap.

Quality Control

Currently, the best sci-fi, on both sides of the coin, isn’t coming out of the big Hollywood studios, with a few exceptions aside. Shane Carruth has made a name for himself as an independent director and producer of mind-bendy time travel movies (Upstream Color and Primer). Monsters, the underrated and overlooked 2010 feature about two people sneaking through an alien-infested northern Mexico, was published by Vertigo Films, a British company with movies like Spring Breakers on its resumé. And Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes) is, as it sounds, a Spanish production by Nacho Vigalondo, who also contributed to The ABCs of Death.

Of course, Hollywood still releases a quality sci-fi movie every once in a while, but recently, most of them seem to be sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and adaptations of preexisting works. One of the beautiful things about the genre is that it encourages us to stretch the limits of our imaginations and look toward what we could be. Sometimes these visions are utopian or dystopian (but at least they’re topian, right? Is this thing on?). Other times, there isn’t much difference at all. But most of all, sci-fi tells us who we are now. So what does it say about us that we’re rehashing old ideas instead of greenlighting quality stories? Whether we’re making science fiction or science fantasy, whether we’re stretching the laws of nature or just the bounds of believability, we need originality. We need to know who we are and what we’re becoming, not who we were.