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Future imperfect – sci-fi TV shows

Saturday, June 22, 1996

?Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it,?  runs the famous line. That?s all very well, but now there?s a televisual corollary: ?Those who are ignorant of the future are condemned to repeat the present.?

In some ways the future?s never looked brighter. Big-budget science fiction shows are entering the tv mainstream to an extent undreamed of by the creators of the original Star Trek; even Dennis Potter?s final work for television, Cold Lazarus, was pure science fiction.

This weekend sees a Star Trek convention at Dublin City University, and next week two of the cast of The X Files arrive in Ireland to promote a new video spin-off from the hugely successful series.

The computer-generated special effects used in shows such as Deep Space 9, Space: Above and Beyond and Babylon 5 are universally spectacular, and more people than ever are prepared to admit they watch science fiction.

However, maybe the future?s not so rosy after all, as the current crop of shows are united by their pessimistic view of things to come.

The shows are all set in an uncertain future where humans are not the most powerful beings around. Old certainties cannot be relied on and, partly as a result of our own actions, our survival is far from assured.

Babylon 5 is perhaps the most ambitious of the programmes. Where the original Star Trek had a five-year mission, Babylon 5 has a ?five-year story arc,? and bills itself as a ?novel for television?.  The structure is less episodic and more linear than other shows, making it initially hard to follow, but the quality of the writing repays the effort.

The universe in which Babylon 5 is set has been carefully fleshed out by the show?s creator Michael Straczynski, giving it a plausible depth of perspective. The eponymous space station was designed to act as a floating neutral site for delicate negotiations between the humans and the four main alien races.

In these negotiations and in sporadic military skirmishes, the humans are regularly outmanoeuvred by the more powerful and cunning aliens. To complete the grim picture, a conspiracy at the highest level has led to the Earth government being taken over by the Shadows, the most powerful and mysterious aliens of all. Babylon 5 is left to fend for itself, and the prospects don?t look good.

Deep Space 9 , a spin-off from Star Trek – The Next Generation, is also set on a vulnerable space station. It too is threatened by a superior alien race, the Dominion. The show preserves the Next Generation?s commitment to politically correct concepts: the station commander is black, his first officer is a woman and there?s also room for a Klingon, a camp English doctor and our own Colm Meaney. But such matters as race and gender are shown to be trivial in the face of imminent destruction by scary aliens.

Space: Above and Beyond is similarly dark. Like Babylon 5, it draws on a complex backstory to paint a picture of the world already riven by a destructive battle against man-made artificial intelligences. The present day sees the main characters, a gallant band of marines, fighting against an alien race that is nightmarish in its brutal efficiency.

The humans are stretched to the limit, and our heroes repeatedly end up muddy, bloody and lucky to survive. It?s like the Vietnam War in space, complete with a total absence of glory and suggestions of government collusion with the enemy.

Finally, there?s Star Trek Voyager, the most recent branch of Gene Roddenberry?s tree. Here too, there is none of the customary optimism over exploring new worlds and new civilisations. With a nice twist, this show goes back to the roots of epic travel.

Like the original Odyssey, the hardest journey is shown to be the one home. In a freak accident, the crew of the Voyager are stranded millions of light years from Earth, with only their warp drive to get them home. 

All this is a far cry from the original Star Trek, where Captain Kirk brought his pioneering brand of American imperialism to benighted aliens throughout the galaxy. With a sideline in sexual conquests (?On Earth, we call this kissing?) he was in no doubt that humans would flourish and technology would save us all.

This brings us to the crucial point about science fiction tv shows – although they?re set in the future they are wholeheartedly concerned with the present.

And what the current shows reflect is a contemporary uncertainty and loss of confidence in big ideas such as progress and God. We?re not as clever as we thought we were, we?ve over-extended ourselves and now it?s all we can do to keep things together.

The X Files is, of course, also part of this trend. Although it?s set in the present day, its mixture of supernatural stories and conspiracy theories ally it to Babylon 5 and Space: Above and Beyond. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and we are being let down by those in positions of responsibility.

The original Star Trek was a product of the Cold War certainties and 60s belief in technological advance, and the current crop of shows mirror a much more messy and uncertain present. Maybe there?s also some millennial doom setting in as we approach the year 2000.

A thousand years ago, people rushed to get their new cathedrals finished before the year 1000 to assuage their fears. Maybe we watch science fiction TV shows to do the same thing.

(first published in The Irish Times, Saturday, Jun 22nd, 1996)

Articles Irish Times

Born Curious – Interview with Jostein Gaarder

Thursday, June 20, 1996

‘To study philosophy increases your identity, giving you more strength as an individual. If we learn a little about thinking, it gives us a stronger self, because philosophy doesn’t ask questions like ‘what have you got?’, but ‘what are you’’.

Jostein Gaarder talks like an evangelist. The author of Sophie’s World, the best-selling novel that doubles as an introduction to philosophy, has an unquestionable commitment to the cause of questioning everything.

‘For me philosophy is not something just cerebral, it’s also a question of sensuality. When I ask the questions ‘who am I? what is love? what is Nature? what is the Earth?’ I’m talking about physical things. And I don’t think at all that my mind is more important than my body – philosophy includes both.’

In his new book, The Solitaire Mystery, he underlines his argument that the best introduction to philosophy is to hang on to something of you childish curiosity.

‘We are born curious. Young children ask curious questions: ‘does God exist? Why do the stars twinkle? How go birds fly?’ he says.

While the idea that adults have a lot to learn from children is hardly new, what is new is Gaarder’s assertion that it’s through such apparently childish questions that we can make a start on the more difficult work of Descartes, Socrates and Hume.

‘You don’t have to teach children philosophy, they are philosophers already. It’s more important to teach adults. As we grow up we get so accustomed to the world, the world becomes a habit.’

Gaarder, himself a boyish-looking 44, was for many years a philosophy teacher in his native Norway, where all students going to university have to take an introductory course in philosophy.

‘It’s not a coincidence that the writer of Sophie’s World is a Norwegian,’ he says. Nor is it a coincidence that the teaching in the book is set within the framework of a novel.

‘I think that the story is our mother tongue. Our human brain is made for stories, more than it’s made for storing information. A good teacher is a good storyteller, and I’ve done both. And in Sophie’s World I did both too.’

The surprise publishing success of recent years, the novel concentrates on a 14 year-old girl receiving philosophy classes from a mysterious teacher.  As the narrative develops, the reader gets a history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Sartre.

To begin with Gaarder was surprised at the success. ‘It seems as if the English word I’ve used most in the last 2 years is ‘baffled’.  When I sent the manuscript to the publishing house, they hesitated, and when they decided to publish it I wrote them a postcard thanking them for doing this completely non-commercial act.’

Now he has a couple of theories as to the world-wide success of the book.  One is the palatable mixture of entertainment and philosophy, and the other is a universal desire to find out about important issues.

‘One thing I’ve learnt out of this is that human beings are human beings; we have the same needs and ask the same questions, ‘ he says.

Asking questions is all very well, but Gaarder is adamant that philosophy has practical benefits for society.

‘What is happiness? What is a good life? What is a just society?  These are questions that don’t have a specific answer. But it’s crucial that all generations find their own answers to these questions.’

‘It’s extremely important that we encourage young people to ask these questions, because if you don’t ask the question, you have no possibility of achieving that happiness or justice.’

He also sees philosophy as a unifying force in an increasingly fragmented society. ‘All societies need to have something in common, but we’ve lost the physical meeting place in the centre of town. We now have television, and as long as we only had one TV channel it served as the nation’s meeting place.

‘But in the 80s there was this explosion of media, and we lost the common platform. There are lots of people living in the great cities of the world who aren’t part of civilisation, in that they don’t know anything about their spiritual background. For me this is a question of identity – I feel I have a wider and deeper identity than my physical body: I’m a Norwegian, I’m European, and I’m a member of the human race living at the end of the 20th century.’

One political attempt to create this ‘common platform’ is the United Nations, an organisation Gaarder has a lot of respect for. One of the characters in Sophie’s World is a major in the Norwegian contingent of the UN peace-keeping force in the Lebanon.

‘The greatest practical achievement of philosophy is the Human Rights charter produced by the UN in 1948,’ he says. ‘Statements like ‘All humans are equal’ were not taken out of the air, they were based on philosophical reflection – you see traces of John Locke and Voltaire and others.’

The Solitaire Mystery, Gaarder’s new book, has a similar story within a story framework to Sophie’s World, but there is more fantasy and no overt philosophy teaching.

‘All my books are philosophical, but Sophie’s World is the only philosophy book. With that book I had no artistic ambitions, no literary ambitions.’ he says. ‘The Solitaire Mystery is more sensual than Sophie’s World – it’s more dependent on story, and destiny and love.’

The book follows 13 year-old Hans Thomas as he travels with his father from Norway to Greece to search for his mother who’s gone to Athens to find herself. On the way, Hans Thomas finds a finds a tiny book which contains a story about a shipwrecked sailor who lands on an island inhabited by living playing cards.

The two stories are closely interconnected, with the motif of playing cards used to illustrate the need for philosophical curiosity. It’s the joker in the pack who asks the important questions about who we are and where we came from.

‘I think we are all born jokers in life’s game of solitaire,’ says Gaarder. ‘As we grow up and get used to the world we become the boring eight of clubs or nine of diamonds. But there is still a joker living in all of us, and many things in life can bring it out. For instance, we fall in love and we see the world in quite a new way.’

This ability to marvel at the world around him shines through in his work.

‘When people get old they start looking in a new way at this fantastic enigmatic fairy tale we live in. It’s sad if you have to get old or ill to see this, and here I think that literature and philosophy can bring us into contact with the joker in all of us.’

Two more of Gaarder’s books will soon be available in English – The Christmas Mystery appears in November, and Through a Glass Darkly early next year.

For Gaarder himself, after some promotional work in England this week, he’s off to a new cottage by the sea in southern Norway. To contemplate the fairy tale of life.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday June 20th, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish Times