Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Magic Trick

GR not only was smart at re-creating the Wells approach to the future, he re-instituted the Wells rules of science fiction. Though he seems to have felt embattled about insisting on them, he did insist.

GR had probably first read Wells when he discovered the early s/f pulp magazines, like Amazing and Astounding and Science Wonder Stories in the 1930s, when they reprinted a lot of Wells. By the time he was working on Star Trek, he probably wasn't conscious of what he'd absorbed from Wells. But he could have just as easily absorbed Wells' approach through the other writers, and through the osmosis of reading and the practical feedback of writing.

But Wells articulated these rules with great clarity. Many of the strategies of what Roddenberry would later call the Believability Factor could be found in Wells. When seven of his science fiction novels were published together in a 1934 American edition, Wells wrote a preface explaining his method. Variations or different expressions of them were promulgated by contemporary s/f writers like Theodore Sturgeon.

First, there was the new fantastic element the story introduces, like a time machine, or invaders from Mars. Wells called it "the magic trick." The trick itself has to be at least plausible, and science provided the rationale. Wells called it "an ingenuous use of scientific near actual theory as possible."

It also helped if this element could be "explained in commonplace terms." So Wells could suggest that the time machine moves you through time like a railroad train moves you through space, or a balloon moves against gravitation and takes you into the air. He could describe what it looked like in familiar terms---nickel bars, quartz rods, ivory and brass--without needing to really say how a time machine would actually work.

But in addition to some intrinsic plausibility, the trick worked best if it is surrounded by other elements of the ordinary---by the familiar. You must "domesticate the impossible hypothesis," Wells wrote. It was also important to limit the number of magic tricks, Wells warned, or the whole reality would be called into question. "Nothing remains interesting when anything may happen."

Part of creating a credible world was also a key to science fiction's function: integrating the human into the science and the fiction by placing believable people in plausible if unprecedented circumstances.

"Then it becomes human," Wells wrote. "'How would you feel and what might not happen to you' is the typical question, if for became invisible?"

The intent finally is "to keep everything human and real...the whole interest becomes the interest of looking at human feelings and human ways, from the new angle that has been acquired."

This is crucial to a successful "Wagon Train to the Stars." But it is also a key to the function of a Gulliver's Travels in space---to creating the context for allegory and comment. Examining the human feelings is crucial to using the science fiction form to examine "contemporary political and social discussions," in the manner (writes Wells) of Jonathan Swift.

These principles had become integral to science fiction since Wells, and Roddenberry emphasized some of them in his initial proposal. There was the fantastic ("Space is a place of infinite variety and danger") but also the realism (the stories would "feature highly dramatic variations on recognizable things and themes.")

The Star Trek universe was self-consistent: that was a rule. It also became a vital element in how Star Trek grew into a mythology by accumulating so many different stories told by so many different storytellers. No one person could have created it, yet the mythology would not exist without the original design and intent, the rules that resulted from a vision and the limitations and opportunities of form, in a certain time and place. In a sense it was a self-organizing universe, but it also depended on being nourished from the outside by new knowledge and new talent.

But it wasn't simply the nature of science fiction that was Roddenberry's concern. He was making a television drama series. "Drama is people," he said. "Too much of science fiction is about gadgets and not about people."

Imagining the two together---the gadgets and the people-was the province of the best science fiction. Not everyone agrees that science fiction has anything useful to say about the future.. "From the point of view of futures studies, sc-fi is of little, or no, value," says the preface of What Futurists Believe published by the World Future Society.

But one of the futurists published in that book disagrees. In the introduction to his book, Profiles of the Future (read and admired by Gene Roddenberry while developing Star Trek), Arthur C. Clarke writes: "...I would now go so far as to claim that only readers or writers of science-fiction are really competent to discuss the possibilities of the future...A critical-the adjective is important-reading of science-fiction is essential training for anyone wishing to look more than ten years ahead. The facts of the future can hardly be imagined ab initio by those who are unfamiliar with the fantasies of the past."

The passion for the future, the curiosity about how humans fit into the universe, and about the relationships of humanity and technology, all would be important to Star Trek's stories and their continuing vitality and growth in ideas. The intent that became a tradition of absorbing stories into the integrity of the Star Trek universe, to inspire and nourish new stories, therefore also grew a mythology: a universe of stories.

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