Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by rhoenix »

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2009/10/why_i_hate_star_trek.html wrote:I have a confession to make: I hate Star Trek.

Let me clarify: when I was young — I'm dating myself here — I quite liked the original TV series. But when the movie-length trailer for ST:TNG first aired in the UK in the late eighties? It was hate on first sight. And since then, it's also been hate on sight between me and just about every space operatic show on television. ST:Voyager and whatever the space station opera; check. Babylon Five? Ditto. Battlestar Galactica? Didn't even bother turning on the TV. I hate them all.
At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they'd have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

Moore then went on to describe how a typical script might read before the science consultants did their thing:

La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."

Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge."

La Forge: "No, Captain. Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."

Picard: "Well, then we're doomed."

"And then Data pops up and says, 'Captain, there is a theory that if you tech the other tech ... '" Moore said. "It's a rhythm and it's a structure, and the words are meaningless. It's not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it."
As you probably guessed, this is not how I write SF — in fact, it's the antithesis of everything I enjoy in an SF novel.

SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist (either because the technology doesn't exist, or there are gaps in our scientific model of the universe, or just because we're short of big meteoroids on a collision course with the Sea of Japan — the situation is improbable but not implausible).

There's an implicit feedback between such a situation and the characters who are floundering around in it, trying to survive. For example: You want to deflect that civilization-killing asteroid? You need to find some way of getting there. It's going to be expensive and difficult, and there's plenty of scope for human drama arising from it. Lo: that's one possible movie in a nutshell. You've got the drama — just add protagonists.

I use a somewhat more complex process to develop SF. I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don't have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects — much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.

Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast. You could strip out the 25th century tech in Star Trek and replace it with 18th century tech — make the Enterprise a man o'war (with a particularly eccentric crew) at large upon the seven seas during the age of sail — without changing the scripts significantly. (The only casualty would be the eyeball candy — big gunpowder explosions be damned, modern audiences want squids in space, with added lasers!)

I can just about forgive the tendency of these programs to hit the reset switch at the end of every episode, returning the universe to pristine un-played-with shape in time for the next dramatic interlude; even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focusses intently on revolutionary change), I recognize the limits of the TV series as a medium. Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc — but it's frequently pathetic. I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying.

The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don't tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don't find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.

PS: Don't get me started on Doctor Who ...
Grumpy and cantankerous maybe, but he did make several good points about how Trek NG and beyond simply treated technology as a Get Out of Shit Free card. Ingenuity should be shown and encouraged, but to actively be treated as a catchall solution without further thought to consequences is a bit offensive.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Thanas »

Well, he sure has a very mature standpoint in judging things he never saw.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Batman »

even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change)
And here I thought SF was merely a genre that told stories set in the future and often involved what was at the time of writing considered advanced technology as a consequence.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by montypython »

Batman wrote:
even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change)
And here I thought SF was merely a genre that told stories set in the future and often involved what was at the time of writing considered advanced technology as a consequence.
In a sense that was a form of presenting revolutionary change through technology (Jules Verne for example), so the commentator does make a valid point.

In many ways I do have to agree with the commentator's POV about the blanched storywriting of a lot of current sci-fi, one only needs to look an anime even to see development occurring over time in a sci-fi story, so being a TV series is not an excuse in itself for crap writing.
Last edited by montypython on 2009-10-13 07:37pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Stark »

No no no no no no NO! The entire genre is actually defined by accidental associations with 'classic' 20s-50s scifi. Because HE SAYS SO.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Gramzamber »

I love people who think that just because they published a book, their opinion is 100% correct and matters at all.
Yeah he's right about the technobabble, but that's been well known for decades.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Jules Verne of all people completely FAILED to show revolutionary changes because he either didn't involve all that much advanced technology to begin with (In 80 days around the World, Journey to the center of the world), had that technology restricted to a few individuals and get LOST when they died (Nemo, Robur) or just plain never showed the consequences (if any) to begin with (From the earth to the moon). Not that I see where, say, War of the World (in ANY of its incarnations) ever showed revolutionary change. Or SG-1 (if anything that one's notorious for showing how mankind REFUSES change), all of Star Wars that I know, Heinlein, Asimov...
'Next time I let Superman take charge, just hit me. Real hard.'
'You're a princess from a society of immortal warriors. I'm a rich kid with issues. Lots of issues.'
'No. No dating for the Batman. It might cut into your brooding time.'
'Tactically we have multiple objectives. So we need to split into teams.'-'Dibs on the Amazon!'
'Hey, we both have a Martian's phone number on our speed dial. I think I deserve the benefit of the doubt.'
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Stark »

Is there any social change at all? Nemo was a butthurt pirate, then he died. The 'action' of the story is just 'check out these cool batteries' and 'whoa fish outside' and 'pop philosophy'.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Batman »

Well, as per TNG, technically, yes. People are suddenly all 'peace mon' and shooting back (even if you've been shot at FIRST, repeatedly) is frowned upon if not outright forbidden. I think that counts as a noticeable social change from the modern world OR traditional TOS :D
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'Hey, we both have a Martian's phone number on our speed dial. I think I deserve the benefit of the doubt.'
'You know, for a guy with like 50 different kinds of vision, you sure are blind.'
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by montypython »

Batman wrote:Jules Verne of all people completely FAILED to show revolutionary changes because he either didn't involve all that much advanced technology to begin with (In 80 days around the World, Journey to the center of the world), had that technology restricted to a few individuals and get LOST when they died (Nemo, Robur) or just plain never showed the consequences (if any) to begin with (From the earth to the moon). Not that I see where, say, War of the World (in ANY of its incarnations) ever showed revolutionary change. Or SG-1 (if anything that one's notorious for showing how mankind REFUSES change), all of Star Wars that I know, Heinlein, Asimov...
I was more referring to his 'Paris in the Twentieth Century' rather than the other more famous stories of his, although social change in mainstream or pulp fiction tends not to be covered very much.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Gasphemer »

I have to admit, technobabble for technobabble's sake kind of bothers me and makes my interest level go down.

And I said bounce the gravitron particle beam off the main deflector dish
that's the way we do things, lad we're making shit up as we wish
the Klingons and the Romulans they pose no threat to us
'cos if we find we're in a bind we just make some shit up!
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Batman wrote:
even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focuses intently on revolutionary change)
And here I thought SF was merely a genre that told stories set in the future and often involved what was at the time of writing considered advanced technology as a consequence.
He describes it in a rather shockingly pompous way, but the basic idea is not unusual. A lot of people feel that "real" sci-fi should involve some hypothetical change to society (the revolutionary change he speaks of) and then show us how humans might behave in that altered reality.

Star Trek does actually attempt to do this, but in an incredibly childish fashion. There is no serious attempt made to show how humans might realistically behave in their imaginary future world. Instead, they describe a utopian future where technology has magically solved every flaw in human society. It's a lot like the religious assumption that "God's Kingdom" would be paradise because the unbelievers would be gone and only devout worshipers of God would remain: the logic seems sound to them but it's utterly preposterous to a thinking person.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Nieztchean Uber-Amoeba »

Man, I actually had to read Stross' books to discover that he's pompous and dumb. I wish I had read this article 6 months ago.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Charles Stross wrote:I can just about forgive the tendency of these programs to hit the reset switch at the end of every episode, returning the universe to pristine un-played-with shape in time for the next dramatic interlude; even though it's the opposite of real SF (a disruptive literature that focusses intently on revolutionary change), I recognize the limits of the TV series as a medium. Sometimes they make at least a token gesture towards a developing story arc — but it's frequently pathetic. I'm told that Battlestar Galactica, for example, ends with a twist ... the nature of which has been collecting rejection slips ever since Aesop (it's one of the oldest clichés in the book). But I can even forgive that. At least they were trying.
He is confusing the medium and the message. He chose a legitimate target in post-TOS Trek, but then illegitimately expanded his criticism to other shows; specifically B5 does not have the features he decries (or very little of it) - treknobabble (technobabble), reset button at end of each episode, etc.
His claim of what is "real SF" also applies only to a small quantity of written SF as well as audiovisual SF - so whether the medium is book or TV (or movie), his message applies across all.
Also, he is limiting what SF is - there are great stories that do not even involve human societies - simply examining some human or alien individuals.
Ron Moore's revelation about how ST:TNG was written is old news - and is a pattern that is probably unique to post-TOS Star Trek.

Doctor Who is entertainment, not meant to be realistic, and possibly does teach something about the "human condition", even if accidentally. Anyway, it's been the distinction for decades (whether valid or not is another story) that if you want to read or write about the "human condition" then should do mainstream literature.
Star Trek and its ilk are approaching the dramatic stage from the opposite direction: the situation is irrelevant, it's background for a story which is all about the interpersonal relationships among the cast.
Again this is more a criticism mainly applicable to Star Trek, and shows the problem when a putative SF show tries to be more like usual non-SF shows. Maybe they are over-concerned with the "human condition" at the expense of good story and SF (and even so, they still did manage to fit in some good SF stories in amongst the flab).

Sure, his criticism that what we see depicted on screen is 21st (really 20th) century Americans has substance, but that is mainly a fault of the TV studios and their executives, not SF itself.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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rhoenix wrote:Grumpy and cantankerous maybe, but he did make several good points about how Trek NG and beyond simply treated technology as a Get Out of Shit Free card.
I think his actual point is more along the lines of 'in science fiction, the technology of the setting shouldn't just be tacked on'. He doesn't make that point particularly well, however.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Darth Wong wrote:[Star Trek does actually attempt to do this, but in an incredibly childish fashion. There is no serious attempt made to show how humans might realistically behave in their imaginary future world. Instead, they describe a utopian future where technology has magically solved every flaw in human society. It's a lot like the religious assumption that "God's Kingdom" would be paradise because the unbelievers would be gone and only devout worshipers of God would remain: the logic seems sound to them but it's utterly preposterous to a thinking person.
Then why did Stross enjoy TOS so much when all the social revolutionary stuff it dealt with was pretty much an extrapolation of what was happening in western society of the day? Sure, TOS had a Russian on the bridge, but then they replaced the USSR with the Klingons. Stross is just coming across as another old-school sci-fi fan wearing rose-tinted glasses who loathes the new, edgy shows(and honestly who among us hasn't taken a shot at at least one of them?)
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by rhoenix »

Ford Prefect wrote:I think his actual point is more along the lines of 'in science fiction, the technology of the setting shouldn't just be tacked on'. He doesn't make that point particularly well, however.
Upon re-reading, I'll grant you this one, and take it to heart just as much for my own writing. After all, none of the details should just be tacked on.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Isn't the new Battle Star Galactica exactly what he claims to want from science fiction? The name of the show kept popping into my head repeatedly as I read through this article. The guy wants situations that we can imagine and have profound effects on the society depicted; with technology that is an integral part of the setting rather than an ancillary thing that could be replaced by almost anything. How much more that can you get than super-hacker robots trying to wipe out humanity, damn near succeeding at it thanks to their proficiency with hacking and large number of nuclear weapons, thus forcing the tiny number of survivors to wage a desperate fighting retreat into uncharted space?
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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I bet he's never seen it, and is pre-judging it based on the fact that Moore produced it.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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^He even says so in the article.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Batman wrote:Jules Verne of all people completely FAILED to show revolutionary changes because he either didn't involve all that much advanced technology to begin with (In 80 days around the World, Journey to the center of the world), had that technology restricted to a few individuals and get LOST when they died (Nemo, Robur) or just plain never showed the consequences (if any) to begin with (From the earth to the moon). Not that I see where, say, War of the World (in ANY of its incarnations) ever showed revolutionary change. Or SG-1 (if anything that one's notorious for showing how mankind REFUSES change), all of Star Wars that I know, Heinlein, Asimov...
With War of the Worlds (which is H.G. Wells, by the way) the revolutionary change was a social one (I.E. as a critique of nationalism) as a consequence of alien invasion, rather than a technological one. Stories like the Invisible Man (about racism) or the Time Machine (classism in England). The big change in War of the Worlds is that the Britain gets its imperial shit stomped by an even bigger superior power for which it has little defense against and the author in the story (as an extension of HG Wells) points out that the Martians aren't any different than the British in that regard with the treatment of "inferior peoples", it's just that the Martians were higher on the food chain.

THAT'S where the science fiction lies. At the time it was written, that was some major league heavy stuff (though it keeps needing to be updates and is saddled with an utterly outdated ending that writers are too chicken to just edit out).
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Gil Hamilton wrote:THAT'S where the science fiction lies. At the time it was written, that was some major league heavy stuff (though it keeps needing to be updates and is saddled with an utterly outdated ending that writers are too chicken to just edit out).
Not all writers. Alan Moore's take on the War of the Worlds mythos is interesting and refreshing. (in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2)
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

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Adrian Laguna wrote:Isn't the new Battle Star Galactica exactly what he claims to want from science fiction? The name of the show kept popping into my head repeatedly as I read through this article. The guy wants situations that we can imagine and have profound effects on the society depicted; with technology that is an integral part of the setting rather than an ancillary thing that could be replaced by almost anything. How much more that can you get than super-hacker robots trying to wipe out humanity, damn near succeeding at it thanks to their proficiency with hacking and large number of nuclear weapons, thus forcing the tiny number of survivors to wage a desperate fighting retreat into uncharted space?
Negative. Your point maybe true for first few episodes but nothing afterwards. BSG is worse than trek in creating a plausible universe. Its the anti trek with all of treks failings in a different flavor. Treknobabble becomes mysticism, soulless main characters become angst ridden unstable personalities, the borg and their continued failing to nick voyager parallel the cylons and so on.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by Drooling Iguana »

The thing is, Star Trek does often deal with disruptive, revolutionary change. It just tends to occur mostly on the planet of the week rather than in the regular casts' society. Doctor Who even moreso. This guy just seems to be railing against the more popular forms of science fiction to make himself seem more high-brow.
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Re: Why Charles Stross hates Star Trek

Post by JGregory32 »

Glad to see I'm not alone in hating most of star trek.
Can anybody actually enjoy the books nowadays? I tried to get into the Star Trek Engineering series but after the third book I found myself bored, uninterested, and annoyed at how often they use the transporter, of the tricorder to neuter what might be an interesting story.
I actually find Dan Abnetts "Gaunt's Ghosts" and Tanya Huff's "Confederation" series much more interesting because they don't neuter the story*
*The ending of Valor's Trial notwithstanding.
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