One of my favorite movies is Blade Runner, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, and set in a near future city bordering the dystopian, and which appears similar in some ways to current Chinatown in Los Angeles. SF movies, though, largely get their predictions wrong. The flying cars, massive structures and off-world colonies populated by cloned humans is much more than a stretch for 2018, as imagined back in the 1980s. (2118 would have been more believable.) Another great film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also very optimistic in that regard. Of course William Gibson, in his collection of essays Distrust That Particular Flavor states that SF is not about making predictions, really, it’s more about the current view of technology–the fears and hopes of its own time. No one really knows where technology will go, and when, although it is the basis for social change. (Think about what life would be like had the television or the cell phone or the laptop not come when they did.) It’s predicted that by 2045 a sentient computer may arise, but the scientists I interviewed for the previous post say that is unlikely as well, and again 2145 is more reasonable. About the science in films, Hollywood usually gets that wrong, too. Stanley Kubrick came close, if you accept the premise of a super race which lives forever without bodies. At least there is no sound in space, as there is in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. (Entire books could be written about the bad science in those character-focused space operas. Star Trek too, although it was more science friendly.) Even Blade Runner makes mistakes, as when the dying Roy Batty (with a four year lifespan) talks in the end about having seen “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.” Orion’s shoulder is at least 643 light years away, so unless faster-than-light travel was possible before 2014, and the clone was put into stasis, that wouldn’t be possible. Again, the numbers don’t add up. Despite its flaws, though, scientists polled voted the movie their favorite, because it asks the fundamental question who are we, and why are we here? It does this with enough style and scientific substance to elevate it above the rest. 2001 also does this, in spades, which is but one reason why that film is usually listed in the top 10 movies of all time of any genre. Why can’t Hollywood make more of these? Is there no audience for it? Puzzling. As long as popcorn blockbusters, heavy on cliches and special effects, keep opening the wallets of comic book readers, what we get instead are battle/quest movies like John Carter (more space opera, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs, but unfortunately written by its director…ie. those num$ers do add up.) Entertaining? Of course. But as Roger Ebert once put it, “there are no movies for adults, anymore.” Americans, Hollywood has decided, want entertainment devoid of meaning. I would argue that the TV miniseries The Martian Chronicles was more imaginative than many feature films being made today. A new movie of The Martian Chronicles is in development, but who knows what that will turn out to be. Will it be as bad as Galaxina, perhaps the most ludicrous SF film ever made, which nonetheless came out with a 25th Anniversary Special Edition with “storyboards,” audio commentary, galleries, extra scenes, and two complete “scripts” (including both the “original” and shooting script?) Let’s hope not. How about it, Hollywood? Turn that clunker around and shoot for the stars instead of the same old tar pit.
If you think outside its box, (and each word has one, just as each person lives inside innumerable boxes inside puzzle boxes), the word “shit” loses its repulsive emotional power and becomes just four letters on the page, with no more effect than any other arrangement of four letters. For example, rearrange the letters and you have “hits,” which has attractive power inside a Top 40 box. In Star Wars there is the evil “Sith,” another anagram. Repulsive, but not considered vulgar. As a noun, “shit” means “feces,” the inevitable transformation of food, once enjoyed and deconstructed by every body. As a verb, “shit” means to soil oneself, which also happens to every body if they reach a certain age. Yet as a word trapped within its usual box, the word is used as an epithet or curse. In other words, we have decided that this short arrangement of four letters should retain a quality of repulsion, and therefore we restrict the use of the word in speech through censorship of various kinds. Consequently, if we hear someone using the word, we assume they are “intellectually challenged” (ie. an “idiot”), with a small vocabulary and inferior education. But imagine William F. Buckley using the word, which he did (albeit not often). Or the Pope, instead of “poop.” Do you now feel cheated just a bit of the knee-jerk reaction which the title of this blog first induced?
Writers always seek the best word to use, drawn from their experience and vocabulary, and this also leads them into considering how culture perceives these symbols. The best writers labor over constructing sentences in such a way that new revelations of insight into a character’s complexity can be mirrored in the reader. Consider James Lee Burke, a mystery writer who never uses clichés, and always works for new combinations and depths. Another way to write involves using short sentences, seeking emotional reactions by hammering home viscerally-charged phrases, and not caring so much about subtle or deeper understanding. Think James Patterson. Patterson outsells Burke, and while both use the word “shit,” Burke would never use a cliché (except in dialogue) such as “he screamed like a stuck pig.” To Burke, that phrase is a box he thinks outside of. To Patterson, it is just another tool in his arsenal to produce more books. (He started as an ad man, after all.)
Now consider society and culture at large. How often do we find ourselves influenced by the “groupthink” or “doublethink” which television’s box assimilates and then regurgitates back to us in an unending feedback loop (because that’s the most efficient way to maximize profit)? The answer to that is every time we turn on this “boob tube.” Which is why reading is more important to the preservation of the imagination, and to thinking outside that box of boxes. Words have meanings–and form concepts–but those concepts are fluid, and meanings tend to change over time. Both poetry and good music point toward concepts which words only seem to hint at. Great prose does this too. There is alchemy involved. Magic, if you will. With imagination as a tool, you find it easier to think outside whatever boxes trap you. You see people differently, and yourself as well. In contrast, my sister went to a local Goodyear with a leak in a radiator hose the other day, and they tried to charge her $300 to replace it. They perceived her as gullible: a woman in a box. So a $5 length of rubber hose, a $2 clamp, and 10 minutes time became $90 for parts and $210 for labor. Likewise, the Pentagon routinely gets charged millions for parts that cost thousands. Programs advertise “free money from the government.” Entitlement fraud is rampant. Pork barrel projects are considered political “rights.” This is because Uncle Sam’s box is in being perceived as a “sugar daddy.” In my own case, two of my novels were perceived by agents as being “outside the genre box,” meaning cross-genre and hard to market. “Is it mystery, scifi, literary, adventure, romance, or what?” I was asked. “Well, it’s all of the above,” I replied, inevitably leading to the response, “not for us.” But don’t readers want to be unable to guess the ending? Apparently not. We prefer McNovels with predictable experiences. We want politicians who promise change, yet we don’t want any change (think doublethink.) This is exactly why prejudice doesn’t go away. We condemn it, yet still encourage it. Illogical puzzle boxes inside cardboard boxes.
Any single man will tell you that they are perceived differently when in company of a woman. Suddenly, you are “there,” where before you were invisible. A similar cultural box bases social acceptance on whether you are married. In restaurants, when alone, I am hustled to make my order, hustled to eat my meal, hustled to pay the check. When dining with friends or my sister, there is a completely different attitude. The difference is that of being a serial killer versus a standup comic. Polite urgency versus “genuine” compliments and effusive smiles. Likewise, hotels and cruise ships base their rates on double occupancy, so if you try to book alone you are often asked to pay as much as two people. And there is no service which matches single travelers in this predicament. (Only one ship out of hundreds doesn’t charge a “single supplement fee,” and so if you don’t want to travel where it goes, you’re out of luck.)
Boxes exist everywhere, (racially or sexually-motivated, age-related, or religion-based) and we are the unfortunate cargo. Those who stay inside these boxes, seeking group popularity, will never become the next Steve Jobs or William Gibson or Lady Gaga, and we keep ourselves inside these boxes by giving in, following trends, watching game shows, accepting the status quo of values and “opinions” (which are engineered for us.) The media’s objective is to keep us in boxes which can be marketed to. Politicians are all about boxes they can control. Culture is about preserving boxes that, when stacked to the high heavens, block real creativity and individuality by presenting more-of-the-same, and judging anyone who deviates as “inferior.” Which is also why, when you go to most movies, or turn on Direct TV, what you usually get (while acquiring diabetes, attention-deficit-disorder, Alzheimer’s, and obesity) is just more “shit.” Noun.