Just Say No to One Planet, One Language

One of the things I find a wee bit annoying about this Slate piece on science fictional languages is that it heavily references Star Trek (not even real Trek but that JJ Abrams thing from 2009) yet keeps talking about all science fiction writers like we all do it this way. Granted, there are some literary examples given, but they are very few and not the focus the way Star Trek is.

Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra
Dathon is having none of your linguistic simplicity, no sir.

First, let’s talk about Trek and alien language and culture. The thing all TV and movie iterations of Trek have done is treat each planet like it has one culture and one language. This is why Uhura’s line about three dialects makes some small sense in the world of Trek because Romulus, Star Empire it may be, metaphorically represents one country. A country that is probably small in comparison to Vulcan or Earth since it’s made up of the descendants of refugees.

It’s the same with every Trek culture. Only the ones we see multiple times ever move away from homogeny. How many years and new series had to go by before we saw a non-white Vulcan? There was once an “albino” Klingon, but otherwise they’re generally dark-skinned in TNG-era Trek. They do have different head ridges as time goes on. Did we ever see a Cardassian that didn’t have the very same coloring, bone structure, and facial markings as the first one we saw?

Even the humanoid species that looked exactly human on the outside lacked variation: with few exceptions they were all white people. If we got wild there might be a green person or a blue person with funny horns, but always the same blue or green or whatever.

To go along with the thing where everyone on the planet looks the same (even the same haircut. Do Romulans even have barbers? They would have the most boring jobs ever) the cultures were always the same across the planet. Everyone would talk about how to deal with the Bajoran people or Trills or whatever as if there was only one way to do so. One culture, one society.

The only time I remember TNG-era addressing this was an episode in season 7 when 2/3rds of a planet applied to join the Federation while the other third wanted nothing to do with it. Still though, that’s just two societies on one planet.

I realize that this is part of the utopian vision of Star Trek. That as people of different planets evolved and mass/instant communication became possible, soon they would all become one global society. That’s certainly the way Earth is presented. In the 24th century we’re all one culture: American culture. You can pretend Picard is French all you like, even with his strangely British accent, but you cannot tell me he acts in any way specifically French or even in any way specifically like a man who grew up three centuries from now.

That’s not the point, of course. Because science fiction is about us, right now, and always has been. And I have no beef with that, theoretically.

However, my story in Federations was written specifically in response to TV science fiction ideas about homogeneous alien cultures. I reject them. And I believe a lot of good science fiction novel and short story writers do as well. Because we’re not constrained the way TV writers are.

As much as I’d love more alien cultural diversity in Star Trek, I recognize that it’s mostly metaphor. I also recognize that if we were going to be super realistic, TV episodes would be boring as hell. Can you imagine the tediousness of having to deal with multiple governments and cultures on every single planet? It’s hard enough to deal with just one.

If Star Trek can’t do more than one culture per planet, how do you expect more than three dialects of Romulan? Even if you adhere to the thinking of a planet = a country, most countries have more than three dialects going on. But in every episode we’d be figuring out how to talk to new aliens or even some the Federation has already met because they’re not in the Federation yet. The universal translator takes care of that for us and we can move on to the story.

For the sake of the narrative and simplicity you have to be willing to put up with some handwave.

That doesn’t mean the same applies to science fiction literature. It shouldn’t, at any rate. I wouldn’t assume that it does.

I’m not as up on my space opera as I probably should be, but I know for my own works I try to be careful about falling into planet = one culture thing. Same as I try not to fall into the Planet With A Universal Climate trope. The SF I’ve read using that is also usually more on the metaphorical side and I’m down as long as the author clearly knows what she’s about. It’s when authors get lazy that this becomes a problem.

It seems like an awful lot of work to have to come up with multiple cultures and societies and mention multiple languages and dialects when you write stories dealing with alien worlds or even colonized ones, right? That’s because it is. This is what makes fiction rich and complex. And no, it doesn’t mean having to work out every single detail, it just means not falling back on what’s easy. That’s okay for TV, not so much for literature.

Even though the Slate article is at pains to try and paint the single language thing as scientifically valid, I don’t see that as the way to go. From an alien perspective all of Earth’s languages might seem, at the core, to be all one. And on a certain level that might be right. That doesn’t mean it’s a universal truth, does it? The way different cultures use language has huge effects on how the people in those cultures think, and dealing with those differences has a huge impact on how we Earthlings deal with each other and how we’d deal with alien cultures.

I’m just sayin’: leave the one language, one culture, one planet simplicity to TV. Because it’s TV.

My Faves: Time Travel Fiction and Media

Fans of NPR’s Weekend Edition may have caught a familiar voice when listening to the segment on time travel fiction. I had a great time talking to Petra Mayer about time travel, a topic near and dear to my heart. Yes, I am still writing a novel with time traveling twins (same world as my story in Diverse Energies). Now that all of NPR knows about it I guess I should finally finish.

In the mean time you can enjoy my best-loved time travel books, stories, and other media!

“It’s All True” by John Kessel (contained in his collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories)

I mentioned this during the time travel panel at ReaderCon. In this story, a future society has invented time travel and they use it to go to parallel worlds, travel back in time, get famous people from the past, then bring them forward in time back to their own timeline. Thus avoiding changing their future. I swear this makes sense. The story centers around one guy’s attempt to convince Orson Wells to come to the future.

the freedom maze and kindred

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman and Kindred by Octavia Butler

I mention these two together because they share a basic premise (but are very different in sensibility as well as plot). In both, a person from modern times is thrown back into the era of American slavery, ends up with people who are her ancestors, and has to live as a slave for some portion of time. In Kindred the person is a grown woman who is pulled backward in time multiple times. In The Freedom Maze the person is a young girl who is actually white, but because she’s very tan is mistaken for a mulatto. She stays in the past for weeks and it’s unclear whether she’ll ever get back home. Both novels explore modern perspectives on the past in interesting ways.

Past Tense” and “Trials and Tribble-ationsStar Trek: Deep Space Nine

Some people will try to tell you that the best Star Trek episode about time travel is “The City on the Edge of Forever”. I don’t mind telling you that those people are wrong. As with so many things Star Trek, DS9 has the best episodes using this story vehicle. My ultimate favorite is, of course, the tribble one where the crew of DS9 travel back to the episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” and have to blend in with the original Enterprise crew. It’s awesome on so many levels from how seamlessly the effects crew blended the footage from TOS with the new footage to moments like this:

However, “Past Tense” has stayed with me all these years for a different reason. DS9 was often very social justice oriented, and this episode was chock full of it. For once, when Star Trek people ended up in the past on Earth it was not in the 20th century. Instead, they land in 2024 (still in San Francisco, though) in a dystopian America that is sadly not that hard to imagine. People who are poor, sick, or just undesirable are cordoned off into ghettos. And not just ghettos in the urban sense, but actual ghettos with walls and fences and an inability to get out where people have to fight over food rations and only get a place to sleep if the local gangs think you’re okay. It’s terrifying and not that far off the mark. This episode aired about 20 years ago. 2024 is 10 years from now. Think Star Trek will prove prescient?

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

This series didn’t get a chance to flourish fully and it ends on what could be a cliffhanger or what could seem like a satisfying end given that we sort of know what happens after. The second season dragged in the middle for sure, but overall this is one of the best entries in the Terminator franchise, right up there with T2 and way better than T3 or what weird one with Christian Bale.

The main characters in SCC don’t do much time traveling themselves. What I loved about the time travel elements is that the war between Skynet and the humans takes place not only in the future but across both the relative past, the future, and the present. Several people and Terminator models are sent back in time at different points for specific and long term missions. And each time a person or group of people are sent back, it changes the future. So that woman you knew in the resistance and see again on the street might not be the exact person you knew, but a version of them.

And even when they strike a blow against Skynet, be it by destroying tech that will lead to it or getting rid of a Terminator come to kill someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean Skynet won’t still rise, it’ll just rise at a different date. All these elements are key to the plot, and kudos to the show for making all of this relatively straightforward and understandable. It’s not just some jumbled timey-wimey mess.

I am always looking for more time travel fiction to add to my to-read pile. Rec me some in the comments, if you would!

Dragon*Con 2011: The Late, Late Report

I’m horrible at posting timely con reports, so I’ve given up worrying about it. It’s been a week since Dragon*Con ended, so at least with this one is up faster than my WisCon or ReaderCon reports. No, you didn’t miss them… they aren’t posted yet.

Onward!

This was my first Dragon*Con, and I was slightly worried about feeling overwhelmed. However, I had the chance to work for the at-con newsletter, the Daily Dragon, and that helped me feel less at sea. I had specific things to do and I spent most of my time doing them. Those specific things involved copyediting, being on call in the DD office, covering panels, and interviewing people. Being a journalist is a bunch of fun.

I had a great time talking to Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about steampunk and Alethea Kontis and Leanna Renee Hieber about being pro guests who are also fans. But the absolute highlight of my con was getting to interview Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway. I also got to interview Brent Spiner of The Next Generation.

For Kate Mulgrew, I had to chase down her agent, then come sit at her signings three times before he found time in her schedule. William Shatner had just denied a couple of my colleagues an interview, so I was nervous. But Ms. Mulgrew wasn’t as ALL DONE THIS as Bill (and I don’t blame him, he did three solo panels and signed 4 times) so she granted me five minutes.

I’ve met her just once before, and she was just as warm and funny as before. She has this commanding attitude that I adore. It’s not obnoxious — more like a very forceful matriarch. If she tells you to do something, you do it because obviously she thinks it’s best. Plus, you don’t say no to Captain Janeway. Read the interview (Kate says so.)

Talking to her about how there needs to be more women leaders in the Star Trek franchise, I had this awesome idea for a panel at Dragon*Con about female leadership in SF. My dream panel would be Kate Mulgrew, Nana Visitor, Mary McDonnell, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, and Gina Torres. I also think that would make an excellent pop essay book, with the volume split between TV/Movie properties and SF novels. As things ramp up for next year’s D*Con, I’ll see if the panel is possible.

I was in the autographing room on Monday waiting for Brent Spiner to have time when I noticed that Robert Duncan McNeil (Tom Paris, Voyager) had a life-size cutout of himself in character sitting on top of his table. Not next to, on top of. I went over and asked, “How much to take a picture with the cutout?” because pictures with him were $10 and that’s just not my thing. Thankfully he has an excellent sense of humor and joked with me about it and, when I came back to actually take a picture with the cutout in my absolute silliness, decided he needed to be in the pic, too. I let him. You know, to make him feel better.

Tempest Bradford and Lt. Paris... and Robert Duncan McNeil

I also had one other mission during the con, which was to sell fans and raise money for Con or Bust when possible. I didn’t sell many fans, but my roommate, Mary Robinette Kowal, sold TONS. She’s a sales machine and earned Con or Bust a lot of money.

In addition to selling fans, I also asked some actors of color to sign one so we can auction them off. When I get home I’ll post pics. Edward James Olmos (BSG) and Garrett Wang (Harry Kim, Voyager) both signed readily and were very sweet about it. In fact, Garrett misunderstood my request (I’d asked him the night before in the green room) and had a picture he’d planned to give me of Robert Beltran, Robert Picardo and himself in character, signed by all three. It’s really adorbs. I gave him a fan in exchange for the picture and we’ll auction that off, too.

Sidenote: Garrett Wang is awesome. He runs the Trek Track at D*Con and does a fantastic job, does funny as hell spots for Dragon*Con TV, and spends hours and hours in the autograph room so everyone who wants to see him gets a chance. Plus, he’s super sweet, like I said.

That was pretty much my Dragon*Con. I met many awesome fans, hang out with the fabulous Daily Dragon staff, saw fantastic costumes, got to go to panels, met one of my heroines, and had conversations with a host of fabulous people. I’m looking forward to going back next year.

Standing Up For Sisko And Janeway

Standing Up For Sisko And Janeway

Ben Sisko DS9Over on my Tor.com Star Trek post I noticed something that I often see but don’t always comment on: the dismissal of Captains Janeway and Sisko (and their shows) as being bad, or mediocre, or not as good as Kirk/TOS, Picard/TNG or even Archer/ENT (wtf?).

I’m used to Janeway hate. Voyager started shaky, founds its footing, then fell on its face when a blond in a skin-tight jumpsuit wandered by. There were many individual moments of great television, but nothing that truly cohered. Plus, Janeway is a woman, and the sexism-laced commentary about her being too manly or too feminine or too whatever have flowed since the show began.

What I don’t understand is the lack of love for Sisko, who was by far the best Star Trek captain since Kirk. Deep Space Nine was the most ambitious and complex of all the shows, and explored issues that were sometimes touched on in the original series but rarely approached in The Next Generation. I realize that Star Trek began as Wagon Train in space, but is there no room in the franchise for a show that required a bit of deep thought?

What I’ve always wanted to do, and am now taking the chance to do, is to ask: what exactly do you dislike about Janeway and/or Sisko? And let’s not pussyfoot around here: I want concrete examples, not vague “she was too feminine!” bullcrap. I want to know in what way did Janeway’s femininity made her worse or negatively different than Kirk or Picard or Archer, if that’s your stance. Whatever your issue, bring it on.

Star Trek Universe Prime

Star Trek Universe Prime

Today on Tor.com I’m mourning the loss of the Prime Star Trek Universe. You know, the one that now only exists in Spock’s memories? It saddens me, because I think Universe Prime deserves a good send-off at the very least. We have yet to see Captain Sisko’s return, perhaps many years later when Admiral Janeway and Captain Picard are on one last mission. sigh I can only dream, I fear. Anyway, if you feel the way I do (or think I’m a nutter) go chat on Tor.com about it.

Online RPGs and Freedom

I’ve been wondering this for a while and I’m hoping some of my more gaming-inclined friends can help me out.

This weekend at Comic con the folks behind Champions online and Star Trek online were there drumming up excitement for their games.  The Star Trek one looks really cool and the best part seemed to be the character creator — play an existing Trek race or create your own.  Yay!  I immediately thought of creating a whole race of super awesome black people and then tearing up the universe with them.

Anyway, I asked one of the people there if players were allowed to get together on one ship and ride around the world as a self-made crew and if they had to follow pre-set quests/storylines or if they could make up their own the way tabletop gamers do.  She said that each player has a ship of their own, so you can get together with buddies, but you’d all have a ship.  Also, there were quests you could go on or you could just explore.

As cool as I find the concept of MMORPGs, I feel like this is kind of a flaw.  And maybe this is a flaw of just Star Trek Online.  It seemed to me that WoW and Everquest and such was a lot like playing tabletop with the exception that you couldn’t create your own dungeons.  But you could still put together a group and go off adventuring together.  Everyone having their own ship is fine, but it’s not the same as putting together a crew, yanno?  And she didn’t mention if you could be part of a planet and then form planetary alliances and such.

I feel like there could be so, so much depth to a game like this — creating your own race, your own planet, your own government that then interacts with the Federation or your own space-faring military and other people’s planets and races and such.  That kind of freedom within an online game I could get behind.  I would pay good money for it.

As I said, I am not really a gamer, though, so I have no idea how realistic this is or if other MMORPGs do this better.  Anyone care to enlighten me?  I’m really curious!

My Love For TNG Makes This Funnier

Because we spent a good chunk of time talking about Star Trek on Hour of the Wolf, Leah/seaya send me these videos, which I have arranged in a convenient playlist for you. NSFW not just due to some… visual stuff, but also because you will laugh so hard that your boss will totally know you are goofing off.

The first one isn’t great but, in context, is useful. Just watch them all…

…I need some TNG icons.

The Original Number One

I just heard the sad news that Majel Barrett Roddenberry passed away this morning — she had leukemia.

The elder Mrs Troi was always one of my favorite characters on Star Trek TNG (and later DS9). Still, I can’t help but imagine the awesomeness that would have been had she been allowed to play the role of Number One on the original Star Trek. For those who don’t know, Star Trek’s original pilot, “The Cage”, was slightly different from the show as it eventually aired. Shatner was not the captain, Spock was all emotional and shit, and the first officer was a woman, played by Majel. I don’t think she ever got a name; the Captain always refered to her as Number One (something Kirk never did to Spock, as far as I know, but what Picard often called Riker). When Roddenberry showed the pilot to CBS, they wanted some changes. Big changes. Apparently they hated both Spock and Number One, and Gene felt he could only fight to keep one of them, so he fought for Spock.

Eventually Majel did get to play Nurse Chapel, but a female first officer did not emerge until DS9.

Though I love Spock, there are times when I wonder how awesome it would have been if he’d chosen to fight for Number One.

Here’s to you, Mrs. Barrett-Roddenberry, the first officer of the Enterprise that should have been.