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Willamson Lectureship

Back on April first I was one of the featured guests at the annual Williamson Lectureship at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales New Mexico, and please hold the  remarks about me being the April Fool’s joke. 🙂  ENMU is a small college town out on the eastern plains of NM surrounded by ranches and peanut farms, and it was the home of the legendary science fiction writer Jack Williamson.

For those of you who might not be familiar with his work Jack sold his first story THE METAL MAN to Amazing Stories in 1928, and had his final novel, THE STONEHENGE GATE was published in 2005.  He died the next year at the age of 98.  Jack is the only man I ever met who is credited with adding words to the English language.  To wit — genetic engineering, terraforming, psionics, humanoid.  Jack was a friend and a mentor to me and I treasure every memory of time spent with him.  Even with Jack gone I love going to Portales for the lectureship, to spend time with his family and friends, and visit the extraordinary science fiction library collection named for and endowed by Jack.

The topic of this years Lectureship was Six Minutes into the future: Science Fiction/Fantasy in Film and TV.  This year there were two guests, myself and my good friend, and fine writer, Michael Cassutt.  Both of us write science fiction novels and both of us have worked in Hollywood.

I took the optimistic look at S.F. in movies and TV, and I thought I’d recreate my speech here for those of you who might be interested.  After a wonderful and very funny introduction by Connie Willis I took my place at the podium, and lowered the mic to my midget level.  Connie had mentioned my work on Star Trek: TNG so with that context in mind I began —

“I bet you all thought Star Trek: TNG was just a television show.  Not so according to Professor Courtney Brown of Emory University.  To quote from Professor Brown’s book — Cosmic Voyage — “My original goal was to learn whether ETs were somehow manipulating the minds of the writers so that they would come up with the ideas for the show.  I assumed that the ETs wanted human culture to become more open to the complexities of galactic life and popular television shows would be one way that ETs could indirectly mold the collective thinking of the broader public regarding such things.”

Because Brown has the ability to do remote viewing the professor has it on good authority from the Martians living under Santa Fe Baldy mountain that the idea for the Star Trek series was inspired by aliens to get humanity accustomed to the idea of working with alien races in a Federation, and not only that, but specific episodes were suggested to someone on the show via a brain implanted telepathy device.

My friend and colleague, Rich Manning, who worked with me on Trek sent me the newspaper article about Professor Brown and his theories and assertions, and during our discussion Ricky asked rather plaintively, “But why did the aliens beam us such shitty stories?”

Now, I don’t think I have an alien implant (pause) but of course the Martian would WANT ME TO THINK THAT, WOULDN’T THEY?

And lest you are worried about the intentions of the Baldy Mountain Martians Professor Brown has it straight from the Martian’s brains that their only desire is to seek our help to return home.  Really.  They promise.

But seriously, while Professor Brown is clearly a couple of sandwiches short of a party tray, and while I’m certain Emory University is rethinking the wisdom of tenure — I think he actually makes an interesting point.

I think the triumph of science fiction over entertainment — movies, television and games — is valuable.  I think it’s important to offer a vision of a future with space ships exploring distant planets, humans stepping beyond the confines of this little ball of dirt, and maybe meeting other intelligent life, and having a conversation about life and love and art and sports.

Because of the desire to attract the holy grail of movie audiences — the teenage boy, many S.F. movies tend to be about alien invasions and brave human freedom fighters with lots of guns and lots of explosions.  Examples abound — Battle: Los Angeles, V.  Battlestar Galactica, Independence Day, theTerminator films.

Forgive me  a brief aside, but it’s interest that in almost all of these scenarios the aliens (and robots) always want our women and our water.  It would be nice if Hollywood hired a few science fiction writers, or even a few scientists to disabuse them of these silly notions.  Water is one of the easiest resources to find — comets, ice covered moons such as Jupiter’s Io and Europa, the rings of Saturn, and basic biology makes it pretty clear that our women wouldn’t do the aliens a lot of good except as sexual novelties.

But there have also been examples of peaceful interactions between humans and aliens in entertainment.  All of the Star Trek franchise, Babylon 5, Alien Nation, E.T., and I’m sure you can think of many more.  Since drama is about conflict of course problems arise within the framework of these shows and movies, but none of them start from the premise that all aliens are evil and must be killed.

Confession time — I’m an X-Box gamer, and a game I’ve particularly enjoyed is Mass Effect and it’s sequel Mass Effect 2.  In it you build a human/alien team to save the galaxy.  There’s a lot of shooting along the way, but they are presenting a world with many cultures, religions, attitudes and worlds to explore.  There’s even a chance for alien romance.

I live with a foot in each camp, both novelist and screenwriter.  On the bookshelves science fiction has been pushed aside by fantasy and it’s new modern cousin, urban fantasy, and by zombies… lots and lots of zombies.  Which is a sub-genre that leaves me rather cold.  Where do you go with zombies?  What is a zombie’s character arc?

I read both science fiction and fantasy (in all it’s forms), but I prefer hard S.F.  An editor made an interesting point to me regarding fiction today — much of it is a fiction of death.  Vampire lovers, zombies, ghosts.  It makes cross-species romance with werewolves seem healthy.  There is nothing about these books that is particularly uplifting or inspirational.

Much of fantasy is the fiction of nostalgia, and comfort.  It postulates a structured world where people know their place in society.  A simpler less confusing world and one in which order can be restored through the actions of one great hero and usually a magic sword.

Science fiction has broken into three threads — evil alien invaders and brave freedom fighting humans.  The post apocalyptic worlds caused either by nuclear holocaust, or biological or environmental disaster, but all of this destruction is brought about because of human venality and short-sightedness.  And finally we have the optimistic kind.  The kind of science fiction that Jack Williamson wrote.  Stories that celebrated human ingenuity, a “can do” attitude that promised us a future filled with excitement and adventure and discovery.

And maybe a world filled with other intelligent beings who might want to have a margarita with us and talk about football, and listen to Mozart and read a Jack Williamson novel.

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