Category Archives: science fiction
Last weekend, the final Stargate convention took place at its home at the Westin O’Hare in Chicago. It was a bittersweet occasion: we were all there to celebrate Stargate, and as usual, there was fun, friends, and memories, but this is also the last official Stargate convention for the foreseeable future. This is the last time, it seems, that we’ll have a chance to gather in Chicago to make memories. But memories we did make. Here are some highlights from the convention – some funny, some insightful, and some outright bizarre.
- Paul McGillion was going to be Scotty the Engineer
The 200th episode of SG-1 included a Star Trek sequence with an engineer who sounded a hell of a lot like Scotty. They were originally going to have Paul McGillion do it, saying something like similar to “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!” During his panel, Paul auctioned off this version of the script, reading his lines allowed in a comic Scotty accent. I asked Paul to write the quote he read from the script when I was getting his autograph, but he couldn’t remember it, so he tried writing Scotty’s quote instead and got that wrong, so what I ended up with is the rather dirty “For Chrissakes, I’m giving her all I’ve got!”:
- Beckett, like Scotty, drinks Scotch
(despite the fact that it was invented by a little old lady in Leningrad). In fact, in a twist so ironic only reality could produce it, I was able to witness the Scottish Paul McGillion autograph my photo with a Scotty quote while drinking Scotch. (the Scotch may also have been responsible for him getting it wrong and turning it dirty)
- Someone tried to buy Joe Flanigan his favorite whiskey
During his panel, Joe mentioned that his favorite drink is Lagavulin Whiskey (but it has to
be sixteen years old!), going on to say that when he lived with Jason Momoa during the filming of Stargate, they went through bottles of it at the pace of frat boys and piled up the bottles against the wall as “decoration.” Consequently, as I was enjoying a “Kawoosh” at the hotel bar, a breathless fan ran up, asking if the bar had a bottle. I suggested she try the liquor store next door, which is the source of much of our felicity at Stargate cons, but they didn’t have it. The hotel bar did, but refused to sell her an entire bottle. I don’t know whether Joe did eventually get his whiskey, but I was touched (and entertained) by the gesture.
- The special drink menu
Speaking of alcohol….the Westin O’Hare, which is like a home away from home for me, put together a special drink menu for the convention. As overpriced as the drinks were, I must admit the “Kawoosh” was delicious, though the bright-green Teal’c’s Margarita did leave something to be desired.
- Chris Judge likes big boobs and he cannot lie
I’m not sure I know where to even begin explaining this one (or if, as an aspiring academic, I should be putting it on the internet) It all started when Chris Judge (whose biceps are, like Jason Momoa’s, the size of my face) was asked about his workout routine. He mentioned that he has to lose some weight for an upcoming role, in which he plays a trans superhero, and then segued into talking about his costume for the role. He’s had costume fittings, and was asked things like “what size boobs would you like?” As far as I recall, he jokingly said that he wants big boobs, and it all went from there. To compound this hilarity, there was a wedding at this Stargate con, with a bachelorette party the previous night, which of course meant that there were lots of NC-17 items floating around, like a headband with boobs on it, which Chris Judge was wearing while signing autographs (though with my lack of observation skills, I didn’t notice them during my autographs).
But that, my friends, is not the end of the story. After the hilarity of his panel, I asked Chris Judge to write something about boobs when I was getting his autograph. He looked at me and went, “you want me to sign your boobs?” and to this day, I don’t know whether he’s joking or not. I mentioned that while I’d be happy to allow him to, I don’t think Creation Entertainment would take a similar view, which is how I ended up with the following autographed photo (in which Teal’c enigmatic smile perfectly matches the words, methinks):
- He also likes ridiculously snazzy pants:
I just don’t have words. Only Chris Judge could pull off those pants and still be able to look slightly terrifying.
- I got my Atlantis control crystal signed
It forms a nice collection with the isolinear chip that LeVar Burton signed. Now I just need Colm Meaney to complete the collection…
- Someone “borrowed” my David Hewlett photo op idea from a couple years ago
A couple years ago, I did a photo op with David Hewlett in which I brought a lemon (which, when I was purchasing it at 7-11, is the reason I was recognized by a bunch of other Stargaters from the con) and had him react to it. A couple new friends did something similar this year, involving a lemon and an epi pen:
- Everybody crashed everyone’s panels
This is a pretty common occurrence at Stargate cons; the atmosphere is extremely laid back, and there’s always a lot of stars autographing in the vendors’ room, which is right next to the theatre. This means that, from time to time, one of them will come in to randomly join a panel that’s happening and then just not leave. In particular, David Nykl crashed David Hewlett’s panel, and we got some Rodney and Zelenka banter onstage and firsthand:
David DeLuise also crashed Chris Judge’s panel to admire his biceps:
- “Can You imagine Putin as a Klingon?”
A literal quote said by Joe Flanigan. The context was talking about villain characters that the heroes are forced to work with, like the Klingons, who were the Russians on Star Trek during the Cold War. Yes, Joe, I can indeed imagine Putin as a Klingon.
- A Stargate wedding!
Last year at the Stargate convention, Danni proposed to Bri; they’re both Stargate fans, and met at the Stargate con, so it seemed like the perfect place to propose. This year, they had their wedding at the con, complete in costumes and with a little bit of roleplay.
Daniel dressed as Daniel Jackson, while Brianne dressed as her fan-fiction character, Dr. Adrienne Rowan, and everyone else wore thematic outfits as well. The wedding was also a skit re-enacting those characters’ wedding in her stories, and made to look like a traditional Jaffa wedding. What made it even more realistic was Eric Avari (who played Sha’are’s father, Kasuf) giving an impromptu blessing in Egyptian that he had learned for the show. All in all, it was ridiculously beautiful – especially the vows. They also managed to mount a pretty life-sized Stargate on the stage, which formed an excellent backdrop for the rest of the convention, though I heard that lots of duct tape was involved in making it actually stand up. I suggested they ask David Hewlett for help, who reputedly is basically a geek of Rodney McKay proportions.
12. Michael Shanks can make about 20 bazillion facial expressions in one minute
I could upload them all to this blog, but then I’d crash WordPress. I have about 300 photos of Michael Shanks, and I swear, every single one of them has a different facial expression. I don’t know how he does it. Here’s a taste….
13. David Nykl and Joe Flanigan talked about the nature of television.
One of the great pleasures of conventions for me as an academic is when industry insiders talk about television, media, and fandom, because they always provide a unique insider’s perspective. This con did not disappoint in this department. David Nykl talked about how movies today are a dime a dozen, and usually full of explosions. Television, on the other hand, is special, he said: it has a fanbase, and is in people’s living rooms and kitchens every week, building rapport. In fact, today TV might even be better and more important than movies. Joe Flanigan pointed out that sci-fi has a loyal fanbase that not even regular popular shows have. It’s a fanbase that Hollywood is out of touch with: they produce lots of sci-fi, but don’t understand the fandom. This is something that’s impressed me at every Stargate con I’ve attended: the actors really seem to understand, appreciate, and approve of fandom and all its creativity (fan fiction included). They get fandom and sci-fi, and many of them (like David Hewlett) are also huge nerds.
This was the phrase with which David Hewlett began his panel and a running gag throughout it. He also mentioned that the hotel the con was in was hosting a leadership conference that he considered crashing just for the hell of it
- “What Would McKay Do?”
When asked what advice Rodney McKay would give if he ever did have a chance, David Hewlett thought about it for a while, then said, “whenever you find yourself at a juncture and don’t know what to do, ask yourself, What Would McKay Do?” Of course, he followed it up with “run away and hide, probably.”
- I gave Joe Flanigan a hard time about his character “Kirking around.”
Joe was asked about whether a Weir and Shepard romance was intended and whether there was any sexual tension there. After confirming that this was indeed the case, Joe complained that his character didn’t get nearly enough romance, and (unless I’m recalling this incorrectly) made mention of Captain Kirk’s romancing of the women of the galaxy. After which I pointed out to him when I was getting his autograph that Kirk didn’t actually Kirk around. Then again, Joe confessed that he never really got into or watched the original Star Trek, but it’s okay, I forgive him.
- David Hewlett and David Nykl discovered official, authorized Stargate fanfic
At one point during his panel, David Hewlett was asked what he thinks of fan fiction (which he approves of, by the way, but more on that later). He mentioned something about how Stargate should get some fans to write authorized fanfic, only to be told that, hey, it exists, and the authors who write it are just outside. One of them got to come up onstage, and David was presented with a set of Stargate books. Naturally, he and the other David opened them to look for their characters. Zelenka was easily found on the first page David Nykl flipped to, but poor David Hewlett couldn’t find any mentions of Rodney.
…And seventeen seems like a good number to end on, as that’s the number of seasons the Stargate franchise had. I’ll be writing a bit more about this convention (and in particular, on the actors’ thoughts on fan fiction), but for now, I just wanted to celebrate this last hurrah of Stargate in Chicago by preserving some of the best memories.
(All photos by me)
Fifty years ago today, Star Trek came into the world, airing its first episode, “The Man Trap.” In the half-century since, it has had an almost unprecedented effect on every aspect of human existence. There are, perhaps, not even words enough to express the power of this little space Western from back when color televisions were a rarity.
On this momentous day, I thought it might be appropriate to look back at the effect Star Trek‘s creators and fans thought it could have – and how it compares to the effect it has had. In 1975, three fans – Joan Winston, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Sondra Marshak – published Star Trek Lives!, a momentous piece of fandom history, which gives a fascinating glimpse into the attitudes towards science fiction, Star Trek, and its influence almost fifty years ago.
In particular, long before the 50th anniversary, Leonard Nimoy suggested the very way in which Star Trek might impact human society: (the following is quoted in Star Trek Lives!)
I think that science fiction has always been not only a bridge between the present and the future, but a scientific-motivator for the future. I think that much of major scientific movement started with science dreamers – somebody who’s dreaming science fiction, what he dreams is s-f. Now he may or may not be a science fiction writer, a dramatist; or he may read science fiction by a science fiction writer that causes him to think about the possibility of accomplishing physically the things the science fiction writer has dreamed about. So obviously a bridge in that sense.
Nimoy mentions something that scientists, science fiction fans, and scholars have long pointed out: that science fiction often not only becomes, but also influences and shapes, science fact, and it would be difficult to find a work of science fiction of which this is more true than Star Trek. It would be impossible to name all of the technologies, all the discoveries and inventions that are due to a fan of Star Trek watching the show and being inspired to try to create its technology or go into the sciences.
This was something that fans of the show recognized less than a decade after it aired. Following Nimoy’s quote, the three fans write:
Since we spoke with Mr. Nimoy, The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has begun to collect Star Trek fan-produced material to check out this theory. How many young fans of today will be historically significant scientists of tomorrow? Fifty or a hundred years from now, the Smithsonian may be able to evaluate Star Trek’s impact on modern science.
This quote is serendipitously a-propos: it’s been fifty years, and there are concrete examples and literal answers to the question posed above. In fact, at the recent Star Trek: Mission New York convention that celebrated Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary, one of the absolute best, most inspiring, and most breathtaking events was a panel of four NASA astronauts, engineers, and scientists:
Kjell Lindgren, NASA Astronaut
Michelle Taller, Deputy Director of Science Communications
Dave Lavery, Program Executive for Solar System Exploration
Jeffrey Sheehy, Senior Technical Officer
When asked, each of the above admitted that science fiction directly influenced their choice to pursue a career in the STEM fields and explore space. That choice, in turn, helped transform science fiction into science fact, creating the bridge to the future that Leonard Nimoy spoke of. These are people who have been to space, who have worked on the Mars rovers, who have helped us understand the solar system. And they are Trekkies; in fact, while speaking, one of them mentioned James Kirk’s birth date without missing a beat. Their innovations are not, as far as I know, in the Smithsonian (which does, however, currently house the model of the original Enterprise used for filming the show); instead, these innovations – inspired by Star Trek – are literally exploring Mars and discovering the universe beyond our little planet.
Roddenberry jokes in the preface to Star Trek Lives that “we suspected there was an intelligent life form out there, and we aimed to use our show to signal some of our thoughts to them.” Perhaps, in a Galaxy Quest-esque way (and the endless number of parodies and adaptations is yet another of Star Trek‘s myriad influences), the waves of Star Trek have indeed reached distant planets with intelligent life. But even if they haven’t, Star Trek‘s impact goes quite literally beyond our planet, perhaps beyond our solar system, and definitely beyond anything anyone could have imagined. So, on a day when we celebrate such a momentous show, I want to end with the words of Gene Roddenberry himself, who recognized the immense power that a story and a set of ideas could have:
That ugly little advertising box we presently call television has an awesome potential for moving the hearts and minds of people. Whatever the reasons for the Star Trek fan phenomenon, its very existence is evidence that television is too powerful a thing to remain much longer the almost exclusive property of purveyors of ales, cakes and ointments.
If television can bend minds and capture imaginations while in its present rather primitive stage of development, what of tomorrow? It seems to me necessary that we begin to use today’s telecommunications marvels to draw all of humanity together in a free exchange of ideas, art and knowledge…or its great mind-bending potential will be used by a powerful few to own and manipulate the rest of us.
With the exact date of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary coming up shortly on September 8th, celebrations of what started as a strange little show with low ratings are in full swing. Star Trek: Mission New York promises to take over Labor Day weekend with a slew of panels, screenings, autographs, and other festivities, and this past weekend, Cherry Hill hosted a Star Trek 50 year mission tour convention.
Though much of the aforementioned convention was based around entertainment (with celebrity Q and A’s, a Rat Pack performance on Friday night, and karaoke), there was also intellectual stimulation to be had for the sci-fi nerd, including panels on Women in Star Trek, Star Trek and Shakespeare, and a discussion of the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. Two actor appearances – William Shatner and LeVar Burton – also stood out; both spoke passionately about science fiction and science, speaking of its potential and of its influence.
William Shatner began his panel by talking about what projects he’s been working on lately, but this quickly segued into a short talk about the nature of science itself. His most recent project – titled The Truth is in Our Stars, and slated for release in December – is a series of interviews with scientists influenced by Star Trek, including Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking (whom he interviewed just last week). Shatner spoke with great passion about the questions science asks – what are we all doing here? What are we? What the hell does it all mean? These are the same questions that mythology attempts to answer: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? And science fiction, as he has so often previously stated, is deeply mythological, in taking these metaphysical questions and giving them realistic answers. He made some short quips about the answers to all these questions – “we’re all vibrating!” he summarized, after snarkily suggesting that scientists talk for fifteen minutes but have no better answer to the above questions than anyone else.
But this snark was quickly replaced by deep seriousness. He looked almost enraptured as he spoke about his experience with Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku, telling the story of how, once, when he was speaking about the mathematical beauty of music with Michio, he asked him, “Kaku, what instrument do you play?” Michio pointed to his head, his brain – which, almost ecstatically, Shatner suggested was an instrument like any other, capable of touching the beauty of the universe in some way. He spoke also of Stephen Hawking, who lives in a body that doesn’t work – but his mind does. He had similarly asked Hawking once, “what instrument do you use?” to receive a similar answer – his mind.
Shatner also spoke about the very real impact of – and crosspollination between – Star Trek and real science, and, in particular, space exploration. He went back to the late 60s, when, he claimed, the achievements of the space program brought in ratings to Star Trek. These ratings, in turn, inspired scientists and the continuation of the space program. He even suggested (citing an unmentioned source) that it was the influence of Star Trek that caused Congress to vote for funding for the space program, calling Star Trek “instrumental” in getting money allocated for the space program. (as a side note, William Shatner is what one might consider a primary source on the topic, given that he was at the center of things during the Space Age of the 1960s; at the same time, I have no written sources at this time to back up his claims).
In short, my admiration of William Shatner (which was already great) has grown even more with this conversation. He seems to have a deep respect for both Star Trek (whose ideas and philosophy he said he admired, even producing a moral/political reading of Star Trek’s funniest episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and science (whose potential he spoke about with visible admiration, ending his appearance with words of admiration for the brilliant young scientists currently working at NASA that he’s interviewing for his project).
In short, when he claimed “I’m Captain Kirk!” halfway through the panel, he wasn’t joking – he seems to have James T. Kirk’s openmindedness and sense of wonder about both the world around us and the fiction that describes it.
This influence, which Star Trek had on so many lives, also touched LeVar Burton, who played Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. While Shatner had mentioned more abstractly the various influences Trek had had on scientists, inspiring them to pursue science, LeVar spoke of the way that the Original Series (of which he was a huge fan) showed him that he had opportunities as a young black kid- something he loved incarnating in Geordi, a character with a disability who is still able to pursue his passion.
He also wholeheartedly admitted that he’s a science fiction nerd, because science fiction invites us to contemplate “what if” – which, he said, are two of the most powerful words in language. He also called imagination a superpower- a thought process that essentially enables us to travel through time and space in a way that no other species can. And storytelling is what connects us to the imagination, that brings it to life. In short, though he didn’t say it in those words exactly, he spoke of science fiction as similarly mythological: just like Shatner suggested that sci-fi lets us answer the question of “what’s out there?”, LeVar suggested that it lets us ask “What if?” (LeVar also mentioned as I was getting his autograph, on the very same isolinear chip that he refused to fix for me, that his favorite science fiction author is Octavia Butler).
They both spoke about a topic that’s been of deep interest to me in my research: the relationship between storytelling and science, as well as the way that our penchant for narrative extends beyond the obvious – literature. Over the summer, I had the chance to read The Storytelling Animal, which suggests that storytelling – that is, the ability to ask “what if” and work out the consequences of potential scenarios – is not only programmed into our brains, it’s how we have survived as a species. That is, not only is the imagination a superpower, it is a fundamental survival skill of our species. And science fiction, in its incorporation of science, is particularly apt at working out those consequences and projecting hypothetical scenarios, giving it the power to answer not only “what if?” but also the more mythological question of “What for?”
In short, LeVar and Shatner both spoke with amazing understanding about a topic that I’ve been focusing on as an academic for some time now; at the same time, they gave these talks at a venue that more than proved them right: a 50th anniversary celebration of Star Trek. Star Trek really does showcase the mythological, magical power of storytelling in general and science fiction in particular.
It’s a little bizarre to return from a convention that’s less than 15 miles away from me and call it a trip, but that’s what it was- I chose to stay at the con hotel to spend as much time as I could and take in everything! As a preview of the con reports and write-ups to come, here are some highlights, funny moments, and interesting tidbits from the con.
Overheard at the convention: “my husband’s downstairs partying with the Klingons.”
I was told this by a fellow Trekkie who was taking an elevator up with me while enjoying a Stun Punch, one of the specialty cocktails the hotel created for the event. It’s a step below the Vulcan Death Grip in terms of knock-out power. Speaking of Klingons, I’m guessing these were the ones the aforementioned husband was partying with:
Fuzzy Tribbles invaded the convention
The Fuzzy Tribble (which is not alcoholic enough to make everything fuzzy unless you’ve had, well, as many of them as were on that space station) was another popular drink; yours truly consumed several in the company of William Shatner while preparing for my panel on the Impact of Star Trek at next week’s convention, Star Trek Mission NYC:
The Omnipotent, Omniscient Q Continuum Assures us there’s nothing to see in Hillary’s e-mails.
One of the first questions John deLancie was asked was whether, as Q, he would bring back all of Hillary Clinton’s deleted e-mails. Without a beat, he answered “I’ve read them all. There’s nothing there.” Speaking of politics, deLancie prefaced his panel by saying we’re welcome to ask him questions, but he is not constrained by truth. “I should run for high office,” he suggested.
The Song “Red Rain” was dedicated to all the redshirts
Every Creation Entertainment convention includes a karaoke party, and this con was no exception. Karaoke was hosted by Connor Trinneer and Dominic Keating, who joined fans onstage to sing along. One fan dedicated the song “Red Rain” to all the redshirts in the audience.
If you can’t find the Garden of Eden outside Moscow, you should probably see an optometrist
This was possibly one of my favorite moments of the convention. One of my favorite lines in the original series is “The Garden of Eden was just outside of Moscow. It must have made Adam and Eve very sad to leave” (said in a thick Russian accent). Seeing that I was actually in Moscow this summer, I came up to the microphone during the Q and A to say “I have a bone to pick with you. I was in Moscow this summer, and I couldn’t find the Garden of Eden.” “Where did you look?” he asked me. “Everywhere,” I insisted. (I visited three Moscow airports this summer, which I think pretty much covers the entire periphery of Moscow). “Then I suggest you see an optometrist,” Mr. Koenig said flippantly.
Michael Dorn is most certainly not a merry man
He hated that line.
LeVar hated wearing Geordi’s visor but loved the line “COOLANT LEAK!”
That’s the line he wants to be remembered by. He also refused to fix my isolinear chips and asked for a hug instead:
At least he signed the isolinear chips, which should totally make them function better:
LeVar Burton is a huge sci-fi nerd
His favorite author is Octavia Butler, and he thinks imagination and storytelling is what sets us apart from all other beings.
Gates McFadden has done some naughty things with Brent Spiner
I have no idea what this was actually about. No context was given.
Chekov eventually found the nuclear wessels.
They’re in Alameda.
Sybok attacked Captain Kirk
But the ever-unflappable Starfleet Captain was more than ready to defend himself:
NOMAD invaded the convention, and needed to be out-logic-ed by yours truly:
Kira Nerys has the most feminist agency of all the Trek women.
The first day of the con included a wonderful panel on women in Trek by Amy Imhoff, Tanya Lemani, Nana Visitor, and Sue of Women at Warp. They discussed feminist issues in Star Trek, and as it turns out, Kira Nerys has even more feminist agency than Captain Janeway! You can read more about these thoughts at an interview Amy did with Nana at Star Trek: Las Vegas.
Rom knows how to rap
As evidenced here:
Captain Kirk is a Womanizer
Disclaimer: he really isn’t. I’ve literally written essays on this topic. But for whatever reason (probably having to do with the fact that the very handsome William Shatner was cast as Kirk in the role of a leading man, and was asked by other actors to teach them how to play the role of a leading man), it’s stuck. From the fans to the Rat Pack performance on Friday night, everyone kept complaining that Kirk took all the ladies.
Kirk and Spock are just friends
I collect sci-fi art, and acquired some beautiful pieces in the vendors’ room at this convention. One of them, available from Lightspeed Fine Art, is a gorgeous piece commemorating Kirk and Spock:
It’s entitled “Always Friends.” They seem to have omitted the “brother” and “lover” part. Personally, I would go for a title such as “Always T’hy’la” for a work in such beautiful tones of purple.
The astronauts at NASA once complained about the difficulty of putting together a spaceship model.
“It’s not rocket science!” William Shatner told them. They didn’t like that.
Geordi would prefer paper books rather than ebooks
LeVar insisted that Geordi’s visor would make him see through Kindles to the electronics inside. He and Kirk would agree on the value of paper books:
Bashir was the hottie of DS9
According to Max Grodenchik, they have Rom the storyline with Leeta because they wanted Bashir unattached, since him having a girlfriend made the female fans upset. I guess Dr. Bashir inherited the womanizing mantle from Captain Kirk….
Thanks to MAC Cosmetics, you, too, can now wear Spock’s eyeshadow!
Of course, there’s no guide for how to apply it, but at least now there’s a line of Star Trek products for the ladies and the Vulcans:
Gates McFadden wants you to vote
She wasn’t the only guest at the convention to provide political commentary (William Shatner even suggested a political reading of “Trouble with Tribbles,” and John deLancie made a Q-esque quip about current politics), and she also wasn’t the only one to provide a call to action. Gates told us that no matter what, we have to go out and vote this November, while John urged us to remember that Roddenberry’s future was one of tolerance and bright light – and urged us to embrace that and move forward with hope and expectation.
As has often been the case, it’s been a while since my most recent update. With the obvious apologies offered, I have a few blog-related announcements.
The first of these is that I’m slightly expanding the focus of this blog. You may have noticed the changed “mission statement” over on the right. While this blog has primarily focused on TV shows and the ideas behind them, I hope to expand it to explorations of science fiction and geekiness in every form. There will be more convention reports, write-ups of interesting panels with thoughts relating to sci-fi, science and technology, and geek culture, and posts about geeky travel. I’ll be focusing more on the way that media and sci-fi not only reflect our world, but predict and shape it. In short, I’ll be looking far beyond the TV screen. Science fiction, media, and fandom (or geekdom) – and their intersections, in all of their possible incarnations – will be the focus.
With that said, I have a few exciting announcements about some real-world projects I’ll be engaging in – and of course, reporting on here.
is that I’ll be a panelist at the upcoming Star Trek: Mission NYC Convention from September 2-4. I’ll be on two panels: Literature and Star Trek with the lovely Amy Imerhoff on Friday at 3pm, and a panel on the Impact of Star Trek on Sunday at 4pm with Devra Langsam and Stuart Hellinger (Organizers of the first-ever Star Trek convention), Keith R.A. DeCandido, and Robert Kaul. The convention is also packed with other panels, guest appearances, set replicas, and many other fun opportunities, so of course I’ll be writing a convention report (or several), touching in particular on the interesting and intellectually stimulating ideas I come in contact with.
And, since it’s Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, one convention is obviously not enough, so I’ll also be attending Creation Entertainment’s Star Trek convention in Cherry Hill this weekend. This one promises to be less “intellectual,” with fewer panels and more guest Q&A’s, but I still plan to faithfully report on the happenings.
And, of course, as always, there’s a number of other conventions and Sherlockian events on my plate – how could there not be?
I’ve also been given the amazing opportunity to be the head of Media Programming at Philcon – the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference, at which I’ve been a panelist for the past two years. This is the oldest literary sci-fi conference in the U.S., and it’s an honor to be part of putting it together. I’ll be writing more in the coming months about the process of making a convention happens, as well as reporting on the panels post-conference.
In the meantime, I hope to keep updating with lots of convention reports, TV show commentary, geekdom issues, and thoughts on science fiction and science fact. Stay tuned!
A little belatedly (and by a little I mean a lot), here’s a write-up of the last day of the con (in two parts).
Sunday started off with a panel with Rachel Luttrell and Paul McGillion, which Rainbow Sun Francks promptly joined (and refused to leave, not that anyone minded). This is the first time I’ve seen Rachel at a Stargate con in four years of going – she’s always had other commitments; I must admit, on my first watchthrough, I wasn’t a big fan of Teyla, though that’s changing slightly as I rewatch Atlantis. Still, I feel that with Teyla, there was a gap between what the writers intended intended (a strong woman and leader) and what actually happened (a character who consistently made badly thought-out decisions without foresight because the writers didn’t know what to do with a strong woman….which is a problem they strangely didn’t have with Weir). Partly due to this motivation, I asked Rachel, Paul, and Rainbow whether there was anything they’d chance about how their character had been written (besides dying, I added jokingly, as that’s something that happened to Ford and Beckett). Rainbow nonetheless said dying, but Rachel gave a more interesting answer: she talked about how interesting it was that Teyla came from what seemed like a matriarchal society, in which she was unquestionably a leader, and that there was a lot to explore about that kind of society and her role into it that the writers didn’t delve into as much as they could’ve. It’s an answer I agreed with – I’d have liked to see more of Teyla’s society, and more of her being a competent leader. In addition to this interesting answer, Rachel also graced us with some of her beautiful singing:
After that, I devoted much of the day to getting autographs with various celebrities who were offering them (and pointedly avoiding the Stargate novels panel) – quite a number of the celebrity guests were offering their autographs directly, which meant that I got to chat with them quite a bit, and in fact, have some mini-sagas to tell via autographs.
The first autograph I got was from Andee Frizzell – the Wraith Queen. Andee had been hanging around the hotel the entire weekend, interacting with guests, and we shared a fun moment when I walked out of the elevator to discover her and a bunch of people pointing confusedly at a thong lying on the floor. It was just there – no explanation, but a leopard-printed thong. I quickly snapped a picture of Andee making the most hilarious confused face as she pointed at it, though it’s a photo Andee would rather I not share (she gave me a lengthy talk about enjoying the con “in the moment” rather than spending it all snapping photos. I might disagree, but it’s a picture of her, so I’ll respect her wishes in the matter). In any case, the “thong saga” continued as I asked Andee to autograph my Stargate: Atlantis DVD set, on which I’m collecting the entire cast’s autographs. She wrote me a little message:
Later, I went to get Rainbow Sun Francks’ autograph (which required standing in line behind a gentleman who had made the most amazing Stargate replica). I asked him to sign the same DVD set, since he’s an Atlantis cast member, and the only season DVD in that set that had Rainbow on it was the same one Andee had signed – conveniently. So, of course, I recounted the whole saga to Rainbow so that he would understand why Andee was asking about her undies. Rainbow, of course, was amused, and totally went with it, penning this as his autograph (fun fact: he has the most neat, careful handwriting I’ve ever seen, but which also takes forever to write because it’s so neat and careful, so I swear, I stood there for five minutes waiting to get that autograph!):
I later stopped by Andee’s table again to show her the results of what she’d started and Rainbow’s contribution, which she found utterly hilarious. And who knows? Perhaps next year they’ll have another Atlantis celebrity guest who will sign that same DVD and wonder what’s going on with those undies.
But for the moment….I guess the secret is out. I left my undies in Rainbow’s room. And a few other things, too….
I also stopped by to get autographs from Suanne Braun (as I mentioned in a previous post) and Peter Williams. The two of them were doing their own “impromptu” photo op – you and your Goul’d overlords, because Creation isn’t very good at thinking of clever photo op combos – and of course I jumped on the opportunity to take a photo with two stunning, sexy deities (even though I had made one of them kneel the day before). We snapped a few photos, though I unphotogenically turned out terrible in all of them (although Suanne and Peter were pretty picky about how they turned out, which is why we snapped three – until Suanne and Peter were satisfied with how they looked, them photogenic people. I let it go. Me looking good in a photo isn’t going to happen).
I also had time over the three days of the con to stop by the vendors’ room extensively, spending more money than I probably should’ve. In my defense, I bought certain items that were of academic interest to me, which I can therefore justify as ‘research materials’ (to myself, at least) – for example, I bought a lot of concept art for Atlantis, as I’m working on some research on cities and spaceships in science-fiction, and thus studying the thought process behind the creation of Atlantis could be a useful resource.
But I also bought some more fun things, like some science-fiction prints for my collection of sci-fi art (of which I try to buy a piece at every convention I attend):
I also snagged a couple control crystals that were used on the set of Stargate as props, purchased from Stitch’s Loft- the same awesome people who had uniform replicas and concept art. Unfortunately David Hewlett wasn’t at the convention to sign one of them for me, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll be at next year’s con so that Dr. Rodney McKay can sign one of my control crystals:
Then, it was time for the last couple panels of the day: Corin Nemec (with Cliff Simon, another con regular) and then Michael Shanks. I remember little from Corin’s panel, unfortunately, except that he was sweet and adorable. Michael’s panel was, of course, hilarious as always.
Michael Shanks is one of those actors that can evade questions like a politician while making you feel like he answered them, and simultaneously making everyone laugh so hard they’re crying (yes, it happened to me). Since Daniel Jackson is a really popular character who was around from the very beginning of SG-1, he’s obviously been doing cons and getting questions for a very long time – which means that he gets questions about miniscule details like “what was Daniel doing for the year he was ascended?” This led him to jokingly say “see, this is what happens when you have conventions for a show that’s been off the air for ten years!” Nonetheless, he answered the questions goodheartedly – even while fake-angrily asking “what am I, an expert on ascension?” when people wouldn’t stop asking him questions about ascension. And, of course, he used William Shatner’s trademark line of “you people need to get a life!” when it turned out that a good portion of the audience had seen Mega Snake, a TV movie that apparently was embarrassing enough that he doesn’t want to talk about it very much. (Of course, he meant it all goodheartedly, but his fake exasperation at some of the questions fans ask is just so much fun).
And that was the panels for the day! In my next, wrap-up, post I’ll talk about the photo ops I took that day, as well as some thoughts about actor-fan relationships in general.
A couple of days ago, I attended a panel at the Free Library of Philadelphia sponsored by Geekadelphia – Philadelphia’s geek blog. Gathering together local sci-fi authors, historians, and fans, the subject of the panel was the past, present, and future of science-fiction in Philadelphia, though the panel quickly evolved into a more broad discussion about the past, present, and future of the genre. Here’s a number of the interesting points raised at the panel, many of which bear further thinking about – and many of which, I think, have bearing on the various topics discussed on this blog.
You can read more about the various people on the panel at the event page here. Before I begin, I must also note that the panel took place at one of my favorite places in Philadelphia – and one of the most science fiction-y: the central branch of the Free Library. Located on the Parkway, this beautiful building has rows upon rows of science fiction books, often boasts guests like Kate Mulgrew (Katherine Janeway) and Chris Hadfield (an astronaut), and has an amazing roof deck with a gorgeous view of the city and its skyscrapers (and for me, the twinkling lights of a large city always evoke a sense of possibility that science fiction also gives me). Here’s a photo, taken on my phone:
On that note, the panel fittingly began with a question about the way that Philadelphia’s past is linked to science fiction. The first, and most intriguing answer, came from historian Siobhan Carroll, who suggested that we’re living in the decayed version of William Penn’s utopia. He designed Philadelphia to be this perfect city, laid out on a grid, and of course we’re living in the dystopian version of it:
We talked about dystopias quite a bit, with someone bringing up an interesting point: if someone is writing about their real, contemporary experiences and they’re dystopian, does that count as science fiction, or does that fit somewhere else on the spectrum of genres? If the experience is “real,” can it still be sci-fi – or do we put it in the biography and memoir section? (a question that is increasingly relevant given the state of affairs in the U.S. today- a question I will return to in another post). This led to a joke about a new (and utterly terrifying) genre: dystopian non-fiction (a genre that likely already exists, in the satires of Stephen Colbert and the like, but which really could bear more academic exploration).
This, naturally, brought up the topic of the relationship between the present and the future in science fiction, since most dystopias are set in the future (despite the dystopian potential of contemporary life). A question and concern that the panelists especially tackled was how far in the future an author must go to write science fiction. Especially with the pace with which technology is advancing today, where yesterday’s sci-fi rapidly becomes today’s technology, how far ahead should you think when you write sci-fi and how far in the future should you set your story? If you set it in the near future, do you run the risk of reality outpacing you?
This led to a comment made by one of the panelists that technology is advancing so fast today that it’s hard to keep up with it as a sci-fi author- things are becoming reality faster. This, though it wasn’t explicitly mentioned, is in line with a lot of thinking about technological advances: Ray Kurzweil and a number of transhumanist thinkers point out that technology advances at an exponential rate. That’s why they think we might eventually reach the Singularity – because of this exponential rise in technology, we’ll use technology to create better technology until we reach the Singularity. That, of course, places the sci fi author in a bit of a conundrum, because now there’s a shorter ‘timeline’ on the sci-fi things they write about and invent before they become “real.” Of course, as Michael Swanwick pointed out, even if you do thinking about inventions that then come to pass, your thinking wasn’t wasted, because science fiction is always about the implications and meaning of technology as much as the actual technology – and even if Google invents something before you write about it, those considerations will be valuable to your formation as a thinker and writer of science fiction.
This led to a funny story about William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame, of course), who attended a Worldcon sometime in the 70s or 80s and was given a card as the key to his room instead of an actual key. That was the moment, he insisted, at which he realized the stuff he was writing about was real.
Another thing we talked about is diversity – and, naturally, the ‘fiasco’ involving the Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, and this year’s Hugo awards. (For a quick summary, go here). The consensus seemed to be that what’s changing is not who writes sci-fi and fantasy (people of color and women and queer people have always written in the genre), but who gets noticed – and what kinds of stories they write. People who aren’t white men are increasingly getting noticed as writers in the genre and getting recognition and awards (like the Hugos). That’s what the Puppies are fighting against: that recognition, but the very fact that it’s noticeable and something for them to fight against means that change is happening, and progress has been made already. A very important aspect of this is the fact that diversity is not a “trend,” as many like to call it today – it’s more the realization of the importance of that diversity and its recognition when it does exist.
And to finish up, here’s some more fun tidbits about other connections to Philadelphia:
- Philcon was apparently the first sci-fi convention and, naturally, took place in Philadelphia
- Asimov and Heinlein and Delaney all lived in Philadelphia
- They were all also part of sci-fi-esque government-related think tanks.
Saturday got off to an earlier start than I usually prefer (which is about noon), but if it’s Stargate, it’s worth getting up at the ungodly, coffee-less hour of, like, 10am. Thus, my second day of the convention started off with two back-to-back panels by two wonderful ladies: Andee Frizzell and Suanne Braun, both of whom were part of the cabaret last night, but who also took to the stage this morning to regale us with fun tales.
Andee usually makes a tradition of having each person who comes up to ask her a question tell her a fun story about a convention experience before they ask the question (or just tell her a story about a con experience). Unfortunately, most of my con stories that are memorable enough to tell are not PG (it’s not my fault Jason Momoa got very drunk last year and did unmentionable things!) so instead I sat back and enjoyed listening to other people’s con stories. I don’t remember many of them now, though a few were quite hilarious; all I remember is the “tutu for charity” – a tutu that a couple of fans brought to cons and asked celebrities to don. For every celebrity that put it on, they donated money to charity, and, of course, Andee heartily agreed (there’s few things she won’t do while at a Stargate con). The next day, Peter (Apophis) heartily donned the same tutu at the same moment I was walking by with my camera actually charged and on, so I snapped this serendipitous photo:
Next, Suanne Braun utterly charmed as all once again. She regaled us, in particular, of a story about how she was mistaken for Gillian Anderson, of X-Files fame. To be fair, Gillian was a redhead at the time, and the X-Files was filming in the same hotel she was staying in….and to make matters worse, she’d just gotten back from filming the “bath scene” in the Hathor episode, in which all the little plastic snakes they put in the tub with her melted from the hot water, making her reek. Meaning that there’s now a couple of very avid X-Files fans who think that Gillian Anderson smells very, very bad.
That’s, unfortunately, all I remember from these two ladies’ panels, but afterwards came the photo ops, and I got one with both of them. Andee and I faced off as Wraith queens – a pose inspired by the last time Andee had attended this convention, when she’d autographed a photo for me. I had told her my name is Anastasia, and she immediately made the connection with the Russian princess/grand duchess, addressing the photo to “the little princess” and signing it as “your queen salutes you!” In keeping with this idea of Andee as wraith queen and me as a rival ruler, Andee and I did a stare-down (she was unsure of quite the pose I wanted at first, but quickly caught on, and the result turned out quite well):
The absolute best photo op, though, was the one I took with Suanne. I thought it was rather short-sighted that in the episode, Hathor only seduced men, so I asked her if she would do me the honor of seducing me. (Clearly, I have a thing for the sexy ladies of SG-1, because a couple of years ago I asked Amanda Tapping to seduce me and “make my boyfriend jealous.” You can see the spectacular result below.) The result turned out pretty fantastically, with me looking really happy to be seduced by a gorgeous woman. When I got an autograph from Suanne the next day, I showed her how the photo turned out and we fell into discussing the gender dynamics of the episode a bit; essentially, she agreed with me that the fact that Hathor seduced only men was shortsighted, but was an inescapable product of the fact that the episode was filmed in 1997. Maybe if the same episode were done today, things would be different (with the right showrunners and network, of course).
I also got another photo op with Peter Williams, because I couldn’t resist; he, and everyone else, kept making jokes about how he really is a god and how you should bow and kneel before him (my friend Allison mentioned in her write-up of the con that she’d totally be his consort), so naturally I went “hmmm, a guy who acts like he’s a deity. Why don’t I make him kneel?” Which is a)typical Ana b)exactly what I did. Granted, he didn’t quite kneel – his knees didn’t actually touch the floor (I can see all through your antics, Apophis!) but with the angle of the photo, you almost can’t tell. So, behold, Apophis kneeling before the true deity:
After a break, during which I ran back and forth between the vendors’ room, my room, and autograph tables, as well as hunting for cash (because some people, lovely actors that they are, still haven’t figured out that in the 21st century no one carries cash), came Rainbow Sun Francks’ panel. This is the first con I’ve been to that he’s been at, so I was really excited to see his panel. Plus, I’d seen Rainbow hanging around the hotel for the past couple of days, chatting with other con-goers; he seemed really friendly, open, and down-to-earth (fun fact: he asked me what was going on during the karaoke and I explained that it was the karaoke without recognizing him, because, yes, I have a terrible memory for faces and it’s actually really embarrassing. I’ve probably walked past dozens of famous people I didn’t recognize. Think of all the autographs I probably could’ve gotten!)
His panel didn’t disappoint either, although at this point, I don’t remember much about it except that it was both fun and funny. I can also add, however, that Rainbow crashed pretty much everybody else’s panel at the entire convention, which absolutely nobody minded, The one thing I do remember from his panel is that he showed us a lot of exclusive pictures: he’d gone through his hard drive a few days previous and found a lot of photos from the shooting of Atlantis that he’d never shared with anybody, so we got to be the exclusive audience. He asked us not to take pictures of the pictures, and I respected his wishes, so although some of the photos were outright hilarious (mostly of David Hewlett and Paul McGillion looking as unattractive as these two beautiful people could manage). I later joked at Paul’s autograph that Rainbow should’ve printed out his utterly unflattering photos of Paul for him to sign. Rainbow, who turned out to be right there, (which it took me a while to notice, because I’m oblivious), asked me when he could’ve possibly had time to go to Kinko’s. I kindly offered to go to Kinko’s for him (“if you’re so busy, I’ll do it!”), but to which he pointed out that although I’m a lovely person, he doesn’t know me and isn’t about to hand me his entire hard drive. I suppose he had a point, but damn him, I wanted to be trusted by a guy named Rainbow!
Right after Rainbow’s panel was that of David Blue. He plays the title character of Stargate: Universe, and at that point I’d seen exactly one episode of Stargate: Universe, but I decided to stay for the panel anyway, and I’m glad I did, because David also turned out to be really fun. It turns out that he’s a geek like us, and he talked happily about games and TV shows he liked and pretty much outright admitted that he’s a geek. He even brought up slash fiction (yes, he went there!). Rainbow, who was in the room at the time (crashing everyone’s panels, as always) had no idea what that meant…I think David declined to explain, but the ensuing situation was hilarious! David also said that he was told by one of the SGU producers exactly where season three would have gone…but refused to tell us the slightest detail about it, in case there was still that 1% chance that a third season would get made in some way, somehow, somewhere. Seduction didn’t work in coaxing this secret out of him, unfortunately, so I had to leave it be. Granted, I haven’t gotten to the season two cliffhanger yet, so he could’ve told me absolutely anything and I wouldn’t have been able to argue with him, but still….
Next came the highlight of Saturday: Joe Flanigan’s panel. Joe’s pretty much a staple at Stargate conventions – I have yet to attend one that he hasn’t been at, which also pretty much means that I’m rolling in Joe Flanigan autographs at this point (perhaps I’ll do a sweepstakes one of these days). Joe’s always a joy to have onstage, because he’s really well-spoken and educated and says really interesting things about television and the media. He’s also a bit shy (as far as I can tell), so this is the first time he’s actually done a solo panel. It didn’t disappoint: he said a lot of really interesting things, many of which I livetweeted so I wouldn’t forget. For me, the most intriguing tidbit he mentioned was about television today: he said that we’re in the “Golden Era” of television for viewers – something that David Hewlett and Torri Higginson also mentioned to me at their meet and greet a couple of years ago. It seems to be the consensus that when it comes to storytelling and quality, television is slowly replacing movies. Joe did add that that doesn’t mean it’s a golden era for actors – he mentioned in particular that there’s a huge disparity in how actors get paid, in that some make millions while others probably make what’s barely above a graduate student salary (for me, this was a really intriguing insight into how the media I consume is made). Which, I guess, puts us viewers on the glamorous side of the screen (for a change!) I mentioned to Joe at autographs that I thought what he said about TV today was really interesting; I only had a few seconds to say it, because as usual, autographs were very rushed, so he didn’t have much of a chance to respond – but I’m still glad I got to thank him for the wonderful insights that he, as usual, provided behind the scenes. Joe also talked about how TV characters have changed: traditionally, he said, TV show characters would be “people you’d want in your living room,” whatever that means, while these days that may not necessarily be the case. (As someone tweeted, I’ll take Joe in my living room any day).
Another interesting insight Joe gave is into his character. Someone asked him if he could change anything about the way Sheppard was written, and the only answer Joe came up with (as far as I recall, anyway), is that he didn’t like it that they wrote Sheppard to be a genius and a MENSA candidate – he didn’t think that was the right way for the character to go. I personally loved that Sheppard’s a genius who took a completely different life path from McKay (or, rather, I love it on most days), but I didn’t always. An ensuing question was why Sheppard refused to be in MENSA after he tested into it, and Joe suggested it’s because MENSA has too many rules, and Sheppard doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who likes rules. (No, really?)
Other than that, a large part of Joe’s panel entailed him waxing poetic about Iceland, where he recently vacationed (and tweeted about) and where he apparently ate whale…thus making eating whale a recurring joke throughout the panel. Not quite sure what’s so funny about that myself, but then again, I’m a Trekkie. Save the whales! And that, alas, is all I remember from Joe’s panel. Which is really just a clue that I should write up these con write-ups right after the con, and not two weeks afterwards (being a procrastinating perfectionist is the worst, and not just because of the tacky alliteration).
The evening ended with a couple of events: a costume competition, where there were some fantastic costumes on display, and autographs with Joe and Paul, and the gold dessert party – which wasn’t particularly exciting (it never is). I enjoyed walking around and taking photos of all the centerpieces, some of which were utterly gorgeous, and a couple of the celebrities (Andee and Suanne) did come by our table, but for the most part the celebrity presence was rather lacking at our table. We did have a lot of fun dancing to silly pop music with Andee and Sharon, however, so there’s that.
And after that, shenanigans probably ensued, but I, like a responsible adult who wanted to be awake for the next morning’s panels, actually headed up to bed at a reasonable time. Because I’m a killjoy like that.
Every time I attend a science fiction and fantasy convention, I inevitably end up at a panel on a topic such as “Science and Magic,” which explores the relationship between things like mythology, legend, magic, and science in speculative fiction. In fact, the topic is pretty much a staple at such conventions, and with the inevitability of a physical law, someone on the panel always brings up Clarke’s dictum, also known as Clarke’s Third Law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
What I want to do in this post is to look at this relationship between technology (or science) and magic as an issue of perspective (by which I mean, the level of evolution and development of a human society and its technological/scientific knowledge). In a sequel post, and building on these issues, I’ll look at this relationship between science and magic as a literary device in speculative fiction. In both posts, however, I’m going to draw on fiction to explain and elucidate, because, being a literature scholar and all, fiction tends to be the way that I navigate reality.
Taking a long and broad look at speculative fiction, Clarke’s dictum is easy to accept, because magical equivalents for advanced technology abound in fantasy – and in science fiction, the stuff of fantasy is often explained via technology. For example, in Star Trek, a Replicator can manifest food and other items out of thin air – rather like magicians in pretty much every fantasy book, including Harry Potter, can make things appear and disappear. Transporters can make people appear and disappear similarly – just like wizards in Harry Potter can (Dis)Apparate. Technology that can erase or alter memories abounds in Star Trek and Stargate – rather like, say, Memory Charms in Harry Potter. In Stargate, the characters can become “invisible” by going out of phase – just like Harry Potter can put on an invisibility cloak or Frodo can put on The Ring. In any number of fantasy novels, including Harry Potter, there are prophets and prophecies – and in Stargate, there’s similarly a Seer who can see the future. In Star Trek, Stargate, and Michael Crichton novels, time travel is possible via the intricacies of quantum mechanics, spatial anomalies, and gravitational fields. In Supernatural, the same is possible because angels can magically send characters back in time.
In short, what is a piece of technology in one work of fiction is magic in another- and the consequence is my point: that the distinction between science and magic is a matter of perspective. Just as much of the technology in Stargate and Star Trek can seem like magic to us, the technologies we have today (cell phones, airplanes, remote controls, Siri) would appear to be magic to human beings thousands of years ago. And yet, so much of the seemingly magical technology from futuristic science fiction is technically scientifically possible. Making items appear out of thin air? Well, we’re not quite there yet, but scientists are talking about 3D printers as the forerunners of replicators. Technology that can erase/alter memories? Scientists have managed to implant false memories in mice, a feat that can likely be taken even further. Prophets and prophecies? Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, but quantum physics (in which the regular sequence of cause and effect does not apply) and probability can provide predictive models that mess with your mind (check out, for example, Michael Crichton’s Timeline).
Thus, to quote another esteemed scientist who also often gets brought up at “Science and Magic” panels, Michio Kaku:
“It is our destiny to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared.”
That is, if we take the view that science and technology are constantly progressing and developing (a positivist, progressivist view of science that I subscribe to), then we are constantly creating technology that is newer, better, faster – possibly even at an exponential rate (and maybe one day our technology will be so complex that it’ll become sentient, but that’s a discussion for another day). Given this constant progress and invention, and enough time, the things we invent will seem like magic in relation to the technologies we used to have. Science and magic are a sort of continuum, a constant process through which magic becomes science. And in this case, Kaku’s statement provides a description of the normal state of human society: constantly progressing and creating new technology and becoming gods, again and again, in relation to our past selves.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m advocating some kind of mythical or religious attitude towards technology. I don’t think the robots are going to evolve and destroy us by raining down divine fury (despite what, like, every movie ever made has said). I don’t think we’ll destroy ourselves by creating technology that dehumanizes us. I certainly don’t think we should treat technology as some kind of divine, incomprehensible force that we cannot control. I think technology, like anything created through human ingenuity, simply deserves a healthy amount of respect – respect for the fact that we, as humans with vivid imaginations, will continue to create things that once seemed liked magic, and that those things can give us great power. In this way, the things we see as magic (as opposed to scientifically explainable phenomena) is a function of the level of development of a human society – such that, as we evolve and advance as a race and come up with new inventions, technology and scientific explanations will replace the things we once saw as magic and myth. Thus, to say that the distinction between magic and science is a distinction of perspective is another way of saying that it’s a distinction between the levels of advancement a human society can achieve. A human society at a certain state of development will have a drastically different outlook on the world than that same society years in the past or future. As a society advances, we understand the world better, and the things which we saw as magic, we will see as science; the things we explained via myth, we’ll be able to explain via physical law. And so what was once magic will continuously become science as society develops.
There is a particular Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that, I think, illustrates this fact perfectly. “Sub Rosa” is an episode which, until the last five minutes, seems to be a fantasy Gothic story: Beverly Crusher returns to her family’s home planet, which is inspired by and looks exactly like 17th century Scotland, where she’s haunted by a ghost who has haunted all the women of her family, and brought misfortune upon them. He is attached to a particular family relic (a glowing candle) and appears only to the members of her family. Now, in a progressive science-fiction show, that kind of story might seem extremely out of place: ghosts? Hauntings? Omens? Those things don’t exist in Star Trek’s positivist universe. But I recall not being phased by it in the last- partly because, at the time, I was in this mindset of thinking about science and magic as the same thing (literary device), and partly because the following conversation between astrophysicist Jane Foster and her advisor in Thor came to mind:
Jane Foster: Well, “magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.” Arthur C. Clarke.
Erik Selvig: Who wrote science fiction.
Jane Foster: a precursor to science fact!
Clarke is an excellent choice here, not only because of the aforementioned Clarke’s dictum (a version of which Jane presents here), but because Clarke was an author of hard science fiction who pretty much invented the geosynchronous satellite. He created fantastic (in the loose sense of the word) stories based on science, making the larger point that “magic” is just advanced science we don’t understand yet. That’s what makes a ghost story possible on a science fiction television show. And sure enough, it turns out that the ‘ghost’ is a non-corporeal creature made of energy, that is kept alive by the plasma energy from a candle passed down through the women in Beverly Crusher’s family – a form of energy which can have a negative effect on the human body and affect the planet’s weather control system (thus causing all those dark and stormy nights).
In fact, the episode itself is like an elaborate version of an Ann Radcliffe Gothic novel – significant here because, according to science fiction scholar Eric Rabkin, Radcliffe is one of the precursors of science fiction. Jumping onto the 18th century trend of writing Gothic fiction (involving castles, hauntings, curses, magic, and mayhem), she added a twist: at the end of her novels, all the magical and supernatural stuff was explained rationally. Disappearances were explained by secret passages, ghosts and hauntings were just plays of light and voices from behind walls, and so on. As Rabkin argued, what science fiction really does is take this move – this scientific explanation of the apparently fantastical – and move it from the end of the story (where it’s found in Radcliffe’s Gothic tales) to the beginning or the foundation of the story.
And this becomes a perfect illustration of the fact that the difference between magic and science is a matter of perspective. In the case of Star Trek, the story starts out as a Gothic tale, forcing us into the perspective of a viewer of fantasy watching a haunted house story, but intersperses it with suggestions that there is a scientific explanation. At the end, like in a Radcliffe novel, the scientific explanation is revealed, and all the Gothic trappings have rational explanations. From a literary point of view, it’s a masterfully created episode because it forces the viewer into two simultaneous perspectives: a fantasy one (drawing on the aesthetics and tropes we associate with fantasy and the Gothic, such as ghosts and haunted houses) and a science fiction one (based on our knowledge that Star Trek is a positivist science fiction show). Without the final ten minutes, the episode could function as a Gothic tale – with them, it becomes an episode of science fiction. This juxtaposition is illuminating, because it reveals that the distinction between science and magic is one of perspective. To a 17th century individual, it would be perfectly possible to take this kind of story at face value, with magic and haunting being actually what’s going on. To a 21st (or 24th) century individual, however, such an explanation is harder to accept, and to someone watching Star Trek, it’s natural to seek the scientific explanation. And, at the end, this rational, Radcliffian explanation is provided- showing that the same story, told in two centuries (or, really, three- the 17th, 20th, and 24th), changes genre, from fantasy to science fiction, as the plot device behind the story moves from magic to science. And in the process, the connection between magic and science is revealed: a connection that is a matter of perspective. For as a reader of one century, we would see as magic what as the viewer of another century would see (and accept) as having a scientific explanation.
It is a literal illustration of both the nature of science fiction and of Clarke’s law – that magic and science are connected on a spectrum, and it is our development, our place in our own history of humanity, in relation to this technology, that determines whether what we see is perceived by us as science or magic. This means that, technically, you could probably rewrite most science fiction stories using magic, and most fantasy stories using science. A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, seems like quintessential sword and sorcery: knights, king and queens, castles, magic, prophecies, dragons… but what if Westeros just exists on another planet, which has a different kind of orbit, and thus the long winters and summers of that world, where a combination of evolution and different environmental pressures created creatures such as dragons and humanoid (as opposed to human) people?
This might not be a useful way to think about Westeros, but it does demonstrate that, in some ways, we only perceive the stories as fantasy (as opposed to science fiction) because of a perspective, given to us by the author, that tells us the story is fantasy – a perspective completely in line with the feudal society of Westeros and its level of technological development. We’re seeing the story, after all, from the viewpoints of Westerosi characters – to whom the occurrences of their world would be magic. But to a more advanced society (us, I’d like to think) perhaps there could be a scientific explanation. That doesn’t mean we should start looking for it, or start reading Game of Thrones as a work of science fiction – it is, unequivocally, a work of fantasy (especially in its focus on a feudal society), but it is an interesting exercise.
This science-magic spectrum also explains, I think, the talent with which certain science fiction shows manage to blend science and magic (or mythology, and religion), thematizing this issue of perspective and development I’ve focused on. Three shows come to mind as excellent examples here.
In Stargate and Star Trek, a common plotline involves demonstrating that the source of myths and religions, both on Earth and other planets, is just really advanced technology. The entirety of Stargate is premised on liberating the galaxy from the Goul’d, who are worshipped as gods by most of the Milky Way, but who simply use incredibly advanced technology to dominate other planets and convince them of their divinity. These Goul’d are behind most Earth mythology: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and it later turns out that other aliens (the Asgard and the Ancients) are behind a number of Earth’s other myths (Nordic and Arthurian). This artful blend of myth and science, in addition to creating great worldbuilding, shows how this whole thing is an issue of perspective. Wizards like Merlin, who can disappear at will, are explained by beaming technology; non-corporeal beings are really just a really advanced race who has evolved to become energy. Telekinesis and healing powers are a function of the super-evolved brains of other races. In short, any trope that has ever been part of any Earth mythology finds in Stargate some kind of interplanetary, evolutionary, or technological explanation. To pre-modern civilizations, these things seemed like magic, which is why the Goul’d were worshipped as gods by the ancient Egyptians. To our stalwart modern heroes, though, it’s just technology that they can take apart and use- so that, inevitably, a handful of pre-evolved civilizations on other planets end up thinking that they’re some kind of divinity.
In fact, to return to the aforementioned Thor, which Kyle Munkittrich compares to Stargate in a pretty fantastic article, Marvel’s Thor appears like a god to us just like the Goul’d did to the ancient Egyptians, because they’re both using technology so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic. And this juxtaposition of Thor and Stargate makes evident that it’s all a matter of perspective –in relation to the Goul’d, we see science, but in relation to Thor and the Asgardians, we see magic. In one story, we’re the advanced beings who can take apart the technology and figure out how it works – and in another, we’re wowed by beings that seem like gods. But, in both cases, there really is a rational explanation – and at some point, our society does (or will) evolve enough to figure it out.
This is a theme that also consistently pops up in Star Trek (the episode that comes to mind is “Who Mourns for Adonais?”), where it turns out that the gods of Earth mythology are just really evolved beings – – and Kirk, as a representation of an enlightened humanity, knows and proves this by the end of each episode.
I think that’s what’s so appealing to me about the fifth Star Trek movie (my favorite) – because it deals precisely with this issue about the line between the scientific and the mythical. Following in the footsteps of Radcliffe (who rationally explained magical occurrences) and Sherlock Holmes (who endeavored to disprove the supernatural on a regular basis), Kirk and Spock set out on a scientific quest: to discover whether God exists. It sounds like an oxymoron, because the nature of the Judeo-Christian God is precisely that you have to take his existence on faith. But, like the heroes of Stargate, what Kirk sets out to do is to discover whether “God” is just a story, an incredibly evolved entity like the Q continuum – or an actual omnipotent being that transcends scientific explanations and the laws of the physical universe as we know it.
In short, it’s the confrontation between a fantasy universe and a science fiction universe. If magic and science are a spectrum, a function of a race’s development, then what Kirk sets out to prove is literally Clarke’s dictum: that there is nothing inherently magical about the most magical of things – God himself – but that, like everything else that we have understood as myth and legend, it has a rational explanation. And, this being Star Trek, it predictably turns out that there is a rational explanation, involving a powerful, evolved, but still flawed entity that wants the Enterprise. And along with proving Clarke’s law, Kirk also proves Kaku’s statement that we become the gods we worshipped and feared – or, if not us, then some other alien civilization will evolve enough to become “God.” And if this alien being (or civilization) can, then perhaps humans can, too. In fact, with its positivist bent, Star Trek consistently seems to subscribe to the idea that any kind of “God” is just the product of evolution– highly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s “The Final Question,” in which humanity collectively evolves to become “God.” It’s the ultimate representation of magic just being really advanced science – and the claim that there is nothing beyond that advanced science.
In contrast to Stargate and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica provides an interesting juxtaposition. As far as I can tell on the basis of having watched slightly over two seasons, divinity and religion in the show is not about the level of development of a certain technology – it is, instead, about things like faith itself (as in, say, Supernatural). Throughout the show, as humanity attempts to figure out its past, find Earth, and determine if God exists, they’re not on a quest to find a scientific explanation for God, or write probabilistic models to explain all the coincidences that make Roslin seem like a prophet. They’re a pretty advanced society, technologically – they have spaceships that can travel in hyperspace and they did kind of create a sentient robot race- but their approach to religion is much more “primitive” (for lack of a better word) than that of Stargate or Star Trek: it’s the good old-fashioned debate of “we have no concrete proof that God exists, but also a Hell of a lot of near-impossible coincidences. Could God exist?” It’s a far cry from Star Trek’s “Let’s take the Enterprise into a black hole and use our sensors to see if an omnipotent being exists.”
Thus, I think that these kinds of stories – Sherlock Holmes confronting the supernatural, the heroes of Stargate or Star Trek finding technological explanations for myths and religions, etc – is kind of a metaphor for our own development as a species. As humans, we create myths to explain the world around us – Helios drives his chariot across the sky to make night and day, Hades kidnaps Persephone, which results in the seasons – and so forth. These are magical explanations, but as humans evolve and society develops, we understand more about the world around us (the Copernican theory, for example, which explains the sun and the seasons) and come up with scientific explanations and technological means for the stuff of myth. Thus, the natural development of humanity is, I think, a constant shift in perspective from magic to science – and these fictions are metaphors for, or literal incarnations of – that shift. Quantum physics explains how you can become invisible and travel through time, beaming technology lets you appear and disappear, and suddenly all these things the gods of myth used to be able to do can be done by evolved and developed mortal beings. Whether it’s the Goul’d, the Q continuum, or some other being, the humans of the story always discover that it is nothing more than just another being – that the magical, mythical world has a rational, scientific explanation. Which is something humanity is constantly discovering about the world around us.
Further reading: my write-up of the science vs. magic panel at Detcon 1