Monday, June 22, 2009

The Day of Small Things

I love the new Star Trek movie. Unabashedly, unreservedly, and largely without qualification -- I loves me some Trek. Seriously, I thought it was great. The reboot is nothing short of brilliant. The acting is not Oscar material, but it's good. The character development, certainly a special challenge under these circumstances, works. Granted, the bad guy is not very interesting and the climax is a bit predictable, but it's a rollicking good time, and I'm willing to say it is consistent with the old Trek, modulated to a new key for a new audience without completely abandoning the tonality of the old. Besides, Leonard Nimoy loved it (he even said so in his "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!" appearance), so I can too.

One thing missing from this incarnation of Trek, and I'm not sure I really miss it, is the heavy-handed social commentary. Roddenberry laid it on pretty thick in the original series (TOS for you geeks), and it had its place. Some of it lived on in the movies and the later manifestations from time to time. Really, however, it's mostly conventional wisdom in literary circles that sci-fi functions as social commentary, some more subtle than others, and I'm a fan of subtle.

Sometimes sci-fi offers us a chance to ponder what it means to be human. It's possible to read something like that into this new movie but it might be that as fans we're totally over that, and just want a good time with some familiar characters, a new vibe, and some way-cool CGI. It's not that we're shallow; it's just that we're not very deep.

Really, though, my fandom is actually a bit mild. I've never been to a convention or dressed in costume. I don't know a lick of Klingon. I've only ever bought one technical manual, and that was a gift for a friend, though I confess to having read some of it before I wrapped it. Okay, okay, I have read some of the novels, back in the day, and can even say I had a preference for Vonda N. MacIntyre's work. So there's that.

And I like science fiction in general, though even there I'm only mildly involved. I can boast having read all of Asimov's Foundations and Robot series, including the series where he clumsily tries to combine those worlds -- and if you know what I'm talking about, you are certifiably nerdy. But there's a huge (and by "huge" I mean really, really, unbelievably big) world of sci-fi out there, and a lot of it is not even on my long range sensors. I never even saw the new Battlestar Galactica series. Basically, when it comes to SF, I dabble.

When it comes to cyberpunk, however, I can claim a bit of street cred, or at least a certain level of scholarly familiarity. I've read almost everything by William Gibson, plus a good bit of Bruce Sterling, along with Neil Stephenson's witty, brilliant, and chaotic Snow Crash (imagine a cross between Gibson and Tom Robbins). I've seen both versions of Blade Runner (screw the director; I kind of liked the voice-overs). I've read a collection of scholarly essays on the relationship of The Matrix and cyberpunk, which I used in a cyberpunk-themed writing class. I can easily be out-fanned, but I've definitely got some inner geek going on.

The Matrix bridges the gap between cyberpunk and another sub-genre of fiction that sometimes intersects sci-fi: post-apocalyptic. Post-apoclyptic has to do with a narrative setting in which The Big One -- nuclear anihiliation or ecological devastation or cosmic conflagration -- has already taken place, and the heroes of the story must navigate their way through what's left after the end of the world as we know it.

Mad Max is post-apocalyptic (in this case, post-peak oil) but not necessarily sci-fi. Ditto The Stand. The Terminator invokes a post-apocalyptic world, though the action in the first couple of films actually takes place before the purported apocalypse via time travel. Some, like Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (as well as his upcoming 2012, which looks cool if for nothing else than the destruction scenes) are a kind of apocalyptic disaster fiction, in which the definitive event takes place in the narrative present.

This brings me to The Road, Cormac McCarthy's almost quintessential post-apocalyptic novel. The cataclysm is not identified, and neither are the main characters, who are simply referred to as "the man" and "the boy." The style is spare, even austere. Very little actually happens in the story -- there's a narrative arc but not much of a plot. It's bleak and yet hopeful in a strange way. Or, rather, it explores what hope looks like in a world where it seems that every last shred of hope has been taken away. The reader's sense of expectation is ground down to almost nothing in a kind of literary minimalism, such that the slightest glimpse of meaning or hopefulness becomes mesmerizing, even cathardic. McCarthy doesn't leave himself much to work with, and yet somehow manages to write something moving and brilliant.

Some want to make The Road into an environmental cautionary tale, but I don't think that gets it. I don't know what McCarthy had in mind beyond creating a world to explore, but I can't help but think that the world he conjures is not one we might somehow create if we're not careful so much as the one we've already inherited. We're back to the idea of social commentary, and it seems almost axiomatic that since the future is unknown to us, our prognistications -- literary or otherwise -- are always about the here and now. Apocalyptic as a genre, including the apocalyptic fiction found in sacred texts, tells us much more about the present than it does the future.

It might be cliché to suggest that the postapocalyptic geography of The Road is somehow a metaphor for the denuded nihilistic landscape of postmodernity -- but it's there. We live in a world where hope seems a luxury, where nothing really happens. We've reached Francis Fukuyama's "end of history." The cataclysm was not nuclear annihilation or environmental collapse but the implosion of meaning. Such things, or peak oil or something else, could still happen, but they'll be but bumps in the road, anticlimactic blips in a world with a narrative arc but no plot.

And yet, as bleak and crochety as he seems, McCarthy does not leave us without hope. Instead, he leads us to look to the faint glimmers, the tiny pinpricks of light, to ratchet down our expectations so that joy can come in the shape of small things. Just as musical minimalism uses repeating patterns to slow down our musical metabolism so that the slightest change becomes significant, McCarthy's narrative minimalism brings us to a place where the otherwise insignificant breaks forth with abundance of meaning. "Who despises the day of small things?" the Hebrew prophet Zechariah asks rhetorically. Who indeed.