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Number 837, September 6, 2015

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Blue Indian Motorcycle

Science Fiction: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
by Jeff Fullerton

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Been a rotten summer in Greater Appalachia.

Between a death in the family, turtle problems and vehicle problems—the pages of escapist literature have been looking rather appealing in recent days. Not that I'm ready to give up on life in the real world—but at times—science fiction is like comfort food for the soul in the way that it often takes me to a better time or place. Either in that future time that has transcended the problems of the here and now—or to times past when it was still fashionable to be hopeful, optimistic and visionary. But I repeat myself.

I should begin with the Good—which encountered—actually in real life a few weekends ago when I saw an Indian Motorcycle in the parking lot of Rural King which was the high point of my day while returning some shirts that turned out the wrong size. Aparently the Chinese definition of "Medium" is our definition of "Small"!

Could not help but think of Wild Bill Bear and his posse in Roswell Texas when I saw that Indian sharing a parking space with a couple of other bikes on my way out of the store that afternoon.

Leading to a photo and a text message to the author of that novel which I purchased a couple years ago. Which was how I learned of the existence of this rather ancient brand of motorcycle that was popular in the early half of the 20th Century. And then my friend Ray enlightened me to the fact that Polaris had acquired the brand and was making them again. A week later, I discovered a new dealership on Rt 30 at the turnoff to the nursing home where my Uncle Budd is staying for a while. When I told him about it; he said the Indian is the best motorcycle ever! Which I also relayed to El Neil.

Indian Motorcycle Dealer

I guess it had to be in order to be the mode of transport for Wild Bill and his men in Roswell Texas.

Then I told my uncle a little bit about the story of Roswell Texas comparing the cross country race of various parties to reach the fallen saucer to the race to a stash of money in . He could relate to that. The story will make one helluva movie someday if someone has the courage to produce it and not butcher it in the fashion of Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters. It definitely qualifies for Good SF. Two other Heinlein novels—Starship Troopers and Red Planet were given decent treatment by Hollywood. There are a few other SF novels that qualify somewhat. Various versions of War of the Worlds and the first version of Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide come to mind. The second version of the former with Keanu Reeves—aside from technologically superior special effects was a disaster. And not long ago I read a synopsis for a remake of the latter that looked like a potential disaster among End of the World disaster films. Instead of the star Bellus and it's accompanying planet Zyra (a somewhat plausible scenario of a low end red dwarf shooting through the solar system)—it was Alpha Centauri. Which for reasons known to those with even some working knowledge of astronomy and celestial mechanics would be impossible.

Which brings me to what differentiates different types of science fiction—Good, Bad and Ugly.

The best definition of "Good SF" I ever heard was probably from an interview of Isaac Asimov and Samuel R. Delaney by a theologian discussing religious themes in Science Fiction in the early 1980s not long after the controversy broke over a story about a messiah figure that was a sapient alien creature similar to a praying mantis that one might expect to turn up in the bar scene from Star Wars or among the associates of Mr Thoggosh in Forge of the Elders! At the time that one was the most memorable topic—but over the long haul I never forgot what Isaac said about the definition of Good SF being more about the reaction of people and societies to changes in the level of science and technology than about how spectacular the spaceship or the weapons might be.

Some of the best of the good of course are by the classic authors of 20th Century vintage. Aside from Heinlen, there is Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke who wrote good novels with good science that were also treated decently by the movie industry. Asimov's I Robot which inspired an episode of the Outer Limits late in the black & white era and a cartoon version that preceded the movie starring Will Smith. They didn't do too bad of a job with that one. And the theatrical version of Clarke's 2001 Space Odyssey turned out well. The John Carpenter version of The Thing From Another World was remarkably close to the original John W. Campbell novel Who Goes There? and a quantum improvement over the 1950s version starring James Arnez as the Frankensteinesque plant man which wasn't too bad—but a poor substitute for a shape shifting alien life form that could infect and duplicate everyone it came in contact with. I saw the 1982 remake and then read the novel that gave me even more goosebumps!

And that was probably my initiation into the more hard, serious SF in my early adult life when I began to discover the classic writers of the Golden Age and the works of more recent authors. In the same anthology as the John Campbell novella was Heinlein's Universe: which was my first introduction to the concept of a multi-generation voyage to another star system in which the mission had gone wrong and the population of the starship collapsed into barbarism and superstition; believing the ship they were traveling on was their entire universe. I got a more upbeat version of the same from George Zebrowski's Macrolife in which humanity takes to the stars in huge vessels the like of Dandridge Cole's hollow asteroid colonies and becomes transcendent of life on planets which seemed prone to get bogged down in social problems and war. That novel touched me very deeply with its sweeping saga that fit very much the definition of Good SF set by Asimov & Delaney. Two others that had a similar effect were John Brunner's The Crucible of Time and Vernor Vinge's Marooned in Realtime. Someday I must give those special treatment because they are so good. They would make great movies. So would my only H. Beam Piper novel so far—Uller Uprising. And I'm sure the other one I must read someday—Lord Kalvan of Elsewhen.

Enamored as I was in my younger days (and I still am) about space opera themes the likes of Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek—I must give some treatment to Bad SF. Those were somewhat ridden with a lot of cliches and bad science. Especially bad was Lost In Space that was so infamous for bad astronomy and everything from space cowboys to talking carrots that is fun to watch even to this day for shits and giggles!

I once heard that shows like that and the original Star Trek series were so bad that they were good and I actually must agree. In part it had a lot to do with the fact it was the only thing I knew in the way of the SF genera and it was generally an upbeat message of a future worth having as opposed to dystopian end of the world stuff. Like many of the Saturday morning cartoons—mostly Hannah/Barbara which were what initially got me interested as a kid in the late 60s and fueled expectations that space travel was going to become routine and accessible to us in my lifetime! Possibly falling into the honorable mention for good might be Johnny Quest which actually had some reasonably serious science and adventure in the plot lines. Then there were others less serious that I still love to this day despite being less scientific. But it's still comfort food for the soul to look at something like Space Ghost or the Herculoids on You Tube once in a while. Someday I'll have to look up Sealab 2020 which is about to be outrun by the timeline of current events in the fashion of 2001 Space Odyssey & 2010!

And last but not least there is the Ugly.

Perhaps the best and most humorous example would be my poor ailing uncle's assessment of the first theatrical version of Star Trek in the late 70s featuring a "sexy" bald female alien and a lot of boring scenes with flickering light and dark which he dubbed "Test Pattern" back in the day! And then there were the lizards and young alligators made up to look like dinosaurs in Irwin Allen's version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World which got recycled along with many costumes and props into various episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space and Time Tunnel.

Thought the lizards that were modified to look like dinosaurs were pretty cool but even as a kid I was a bit weirded out by the idea of a monitor lizard with a glued on neck frill and stegosaurus plates on its back being referred to as a "Brontosaurus" and a "T-Rex" egg that someone brought back as a souvenir hatching out a Tokay Gecko with some horns for show. In the absence of the computer wizardry that made the Jurassic Park enterprise possible—it was the cheaper alternative to clay animation.

But I think the one that takes the cake for the baddest science fiction at it's worst was The Fifth Element movie with Bruce Will's and Milla Jovovich. It was hailed as "The Star Wars of the 90s".

Whoever said that was either kidding or melting some serious stuff under their tongue.

They should have just made Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money instead. At least it would have made a good sequel for what has to be the best parody of bad Science Fiction ever known. It did to Star Wars what Blazing Saddles did to the Wild West opera. Best belly laughs ever and unlike most of the above it was intended!

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