Dystopia In Current Science Fiction

One unfortunate trend in speculative fiction (in my opinion) is the ongoing indulgence for dystopia. To be clear, I think dystopia is fine if that’s your story. The problem is that publishers seem to be gravitating to it in great numbers of authors. Maybe all authors are writing it these days. Or maybe in the drafts and scripts negativity is rising to the top. Three exhibits …

Juliette Wade’s first novel, the first in a series (of course) is set off planet Earth in a decaying underground society. The reader gets the idea humans settled some faraway planet and had to go below the surface to survive.

No matter. The book is a coming-of-age story in a city of castes, politics, and an inbred aristocracy. The science fiction is very much in the background, just a device to set up a totally imagined society.  Mazes of Power could just as well be historical fiction in some European city-state. Speculative fiction like this is easier to write: a different research is needed. Ms Wade gives the reader very little of the background for the planet and how it was settled. When the rest of her series gets published, we might find out more. Not too much research was needed here–just imagination.

It’s a good first novel. It’s not a great book. We don’t get much of the setting. Some chapters run slow and some go fast. There’s little wonder of the otherworldly like there is in some science fiction.

Simon Jimenez also has a first novel. This one is set in a galactic empire (and on its fringes) thirteen centuries in the future. This one I enjoyed more. The narrative is sprawling, not just in terms of space travel. The empire is run by a callous and cruel corporation (something of a cardboard “character” I know). There’s a nuclear family of sorts–a female ship’s captain and a mysterious teenage boy who suddenly appears on a distant planet. They connect as “foster” parent and child.

The book treats the disconnect for space travelers who experience weeks while time passes in years for people on planets. In the background, the corporation is researching space travel like we see in Star Trek and Star Wars: faster than light so the reach of human society can more easily extend in terms of economics, culture, population, and even tourism. They crush those who get in their way, or try to do an end run around them.

Mr Jimenez balances a sense of wonder about the universe with the human cost of people back home aging a generation while the ship’s crew experiences just a few months in deep space. Then there’s the character development, which is good, and the plotting, which moves along nicely.

Toward the end of the book, things come crashing down on the protagonists, and all seems lost. But the surprise ending has been set up, and when the reveal began, I smiled to myself. (Small spoiler: it involves music.) I recommend this book. One of the most delicious bits: I loved the easter egg from this classic sf tale.

The Star Trek braintrust has also assimilated dystopia. We join the greatest captain (my opinion) of all future time in his retirement. Apparently, the Borg, the Dominion, and an apparent revolt by androids has really spooked the Federation of Planets. Despite the demise of a major foe, galactic society has turned inward. According to the title character, they’ve lost their moral compass in the bargain.

There are conspiracies nestled in the heart of Starfleet, and the once-heroic captain of the Enterprise must endure the sufferance (and even an f-bomb) from younger players in the game. He assembles a crew of outcasts and after three of ten episodes, the adventure is finally engaged.

I was pleased to see Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (whose fiction I’ve enjoyed) on board to keep the new ship running. Seeing old characters (and one darn fine actor) back in play is certainly the highlight. I think Star Trek does less well telling a story over ten episodes. This one did. That’s an additional indulgence of streaming tv.

Star Trek’s strengths have included ensemble casts. True, there are capable actors in CBS’s latest incarnation, but not much development. An actor like Patrick Stewart can carry a show. But I miss the stronger supporting characters. This ship’s crew is interesting enough to want to know them better.

I give the ten-episode arc a C. Good enough, and wrapped up in something of a surprising way. But it was a little too easy. Like CBS’s other new Trek, this one benefits from excellent fx and a cinematic feel. The lead actor gets an A. Averages out to a solid B to B-plus.

There were a lot of easter eggs in this program. Most were fun. I think a better season-long plot line would have been to do what they did with Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Surface an old adversary like the Kelvans of the Andromeda Galaxy or the clicking cloaked aliens in this episode.

Star Trek: Picard is a very good show. It’s not yet great. But I recommend it.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in On My Bookshelf, science fiction, television. Bookmark the permalink.

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