Saturday, August 29, 2015

Quick Thoughts - Star Trek, Hugos, and Puppies (oh my)

I'm going on a rant here. About Star Trek. About the Hugo Awards. About things. I'm probably not qualified to do so. I'm new to SFF (kind of, as I've been reading it for as long as I've been reading, but as that doesn't seem to count for anything, there it is). I've been to all of two conventions (both WisCons, because it's close and all I can afford and also because it's awesome) so I don't really feel as connected to fandom as I could be. But as a writer and a reader the Hugo Awards…stuff…got to me. And I've come up with an analogy that works for me.

So science fiction, to me, is Star Trek. And I think that it's a sentiment that exists for many people, because Star Trek has been around for a long time and has changed from generation to generation. And I feel that the arguments about science fiction, about SFF, as embodied by the Puppies, can be illustrated quite well with Star Trek. It starts with Kirk. And Spock. And Bones and Scotty and Sulu and Uhura and Chekov and Chapel and the whole gang. The Original Series is…hard to watch at times, just as early science fiction can be hard to read at times, because it is a product of a time. The intent is to be better, to hope better, to find a place where there is inclusion and space for all kinds of people. And for that Star Trek was revolutionary. But go on back and watch those episodes. There's such a surety that Kirk is right. That his way is right and that his methods, however they might seem, are honorable.

We move forward. The Next Generation. Picard and Data and Riker and Worf and Troi and Crusher and all of them. A bigger, more diverse cast. And more complicated plots. A loss, perhaps, of the surety that the Enterprise always does the right thing. Picard is not Kirk, but still remains a paternal figure, one who is wise and who, even when he breaks the rules, is correct. There is more nuance, but even those shows are far from perfect. The messages, while by and large better than the Original Series, are still at times incredibly uncomfortable, rather oppressive, and hypocritical. But for many I think the Next Generation marks the height of franchise, and this despite the fact that it's a rather mixed bag and produced four rather mediocre films.

But then came DS9. And the moment people saw a black starship captain (who, by the by, couldn't start as a Captain but had to be promoted later in the series) people started to have…issues. Cue the people accusing Star Trek of basically being run by SJWs because Sisco is black and actually aware of his blackness. It's important to the show in ways that Picard's whiteness never were. Indeed, it kind of calls out Picard for his "color-blindness" and is aware that for all the good that Star Trek did in positing a better future, it also failed to follow through in some of the most important ways. And the show is phenomenal. Try to find a better hour of television than "In the Pale Moonlight." The show got it, got the complexities of what Star Trek was trying to do and what it could do better. It didn't blink from showing just how racist and sexist the Federation could still be despite it thinking it was past such things. The subtle things like the Holodeck recreations from time periods steeped in racism. Colonialism and appropriation. Greed and capitalism. And yet no movies for DS9 and for all the scale the show managed, an entire war being fought with consequences that the Next Generation couldn't even dream of, it's not promoted as much as the earlier shows.

Then Voyager, which does a fine job of picking up after DS9, and while I don't think it ever quite captures that magic, it's still Star Trek, and it continues to explore some nuance and some very complex situations. Janeway is in many ways very much like Picard, unflinching in her command and willing to take risks. But where Picard is exalted, Janeway is sneered at. There's a joke out there about the more modern Captains and judging them by their reactions to Q. Picard tolerates him, Sisco punches him, Janeway kisses him. Which is all sorts of incorrect and problematic. It erases the fact that Janeway faces a much more sexual threat from Q, who harasses her (for all Q and Picard end up in bed together, this is never seen as sexually predatory, as the scenes with Janeway can be, and for Janeway to be blamed by viewers for what, having to deal with an omnipotent asshole's advances? It's terrible). And it just places stereotypes over characters (Sisco the brute, Janeway the slut) who are actually done much better than Picard (who's characterization is a bit…well, dull much of the time, because he's the stern father, which of course is rather hilarious because Sisco is an actual father who has an actual healthy relationship with his son).

But then the backlash. And I cannot see Enterprise as anything more than a backlash. It's…well, it takes all the progress that DS9 and Voyager had made and throws it away. It's like Star Trek grimdark. It reacts to the growing diversity of the show (which was never more than like a third female, never less than two thirds white) by having a cast in which almost all of the principle characters (the captain, first officer, doctor, engineer, security) are white, and nearly all of them are men. Once again the communications officer and helmsman are the only people of color, so aside from a female Vulcan it goes all the way back to the Original Series as it's benchmark, trying to recenter to that past, to the "glory days" which were only exceptional in the context of the time they came out of. Like people wanting to get back to the stories that were told by "the greats," that constitute "classic SF," the show sought to capture that same magic. But that show is…boring. And pretty not-good overall. And instead of that leading to a chance to get back to what made Star Trek great, what made DS9 so amazing, the franchise just…ended.

Let me be clear. If SFF goes "back to the glory days" it will be irrelevant. At most, it will produce works like the latest two Star Trek movies, which are made with such an open disdain for Star Trek as a franchise that I could not stand to watch the most recent one. If those are the best stories that people looking to recapture that "classic" feeling can make then I want no part of them. Same with much of the Puppy slates. I've seen time and again Puppy supporters say that the stories and novels that the Hugos have been awarding in recent years are not deserving. That they are not interesting. But honestly, I think the Puppies have failed to keep up with what makes a story exciting. The new Star Trek movies are boring. For all that they are explosions and planets imploding, they are boring. Terribly boring. They do nothing new, have nothing to say, and while the visuals can be striking, the characterizations are flat and the plots predictable. I'm not saying that it's true for every work the Puppies nominated, but…well…

There are books out there, stories out there, that can capture something that is new and striking and invigorating. That are complex and subtle at times but also fast and frenetic and fun. And written with a passion and a craft makes everything else seem…boring. Again, watch DS9 when it's really going and then watch the Next Generation at basically any time and tell me which has better action. Which has better characters. Which has the stronger message. Go read Karen Memory and tell me anything the Puppies might promote this next year will be as visceral, as moving, as subtle and clever. Go read Signal to Noise and tell me anything Puppies might promote will be as wrenching, as deep, as well crafted.

This is not about social justice. DS9 is a better Star Trek than the Next Generation, is much better than the Original Series. It is my "classic SF" because it is good, not because it was around first. It is fun but it's also difficult at times in ways that the earlier Star Trek really didn't manage. What I don't want to see happen to SFF is what happened to Star Trek. I don't want to see the genre be taken back toward a time that was worse. If the future is what we want to be better, then why does it seem some SFF enthusiasts want only to look back? I want better. New. Because as good as DS9 was, we can do better. We can improve. We can make a better future, a future without what makes the Original Series so painful to watch, a future where perhaps the injustices of the past are addressed instead of hand-waved away.

I believe that SFF is amazing. It keeps me reading, week in and week out, because the stories are exciting. They are good. They are good in part because they challenge and provoke and take me outside my immediate experiences. I want more of that, not less. I'm so happy that there are others out there that want the same thing. I'm not so happy that there are people out there who would like nothing more than for me to disappear, who would tell me I'm not a true fan or true writer or true whatever. But I'm not going anywhere. I'm here. Get used to it.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur

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