Squeezing True Blood from a Stone

hbo you ignorant slut
With BitTorrent you can download episodes of True Blood faster and more conveniently than you can set up or cancel a cable or satellite TV subscription. Hypothetically, of course.

I just ordered DirectTV (“$34.95 per month(1) with two upgrades(2), including HBO (3), Starz…, and covering up to 4 TVs(4)”) and then — after some mental arithmetic and a quick conversation with Rosanna — almost immediately canceled it. Indeed, the person whose unenviable job it was to close the sale had to read me what sounded like two pages of fine print legalese. I’m amazed that anyone agrees to the service at that point (part of the legalese required me to say “yes” but I never actually was asked to, which I found puzzling). From the cancelation process (during which I was offered a lower rate and a DSL bundle — even if you plan to keep the service, I strongly suggest you try canceling it — remember: telephone operators are standing by) it’s quite clear that cancelation of such orders is very common. The person handling my cancelation seemed demoralized and fatalistic. Why? Because:

  1. the $34.95 per month is only (a) after a rebate (seriously, why? how many bait-and-switches do you think it takes before your customer gets pissed off?) and (b) only for the first 12 months of a (c) 24 month commitment which (d) costs $20/month for early termination.
  2. the upgrades are not free and increase your $34.95 (or whatever) per month to a lot more. (And remember, the $34.95 goes up after the first twelve months.)
  3. for the first three months after which it’s $15.99/month for HBO and goodness knows how much for the rest.
  4. up to 4 TVs are covered for installation, but you pay extra per month per TV beyond the first, and extra again for HD per TV beyond the first, and extra again for any DVRs. This can easily add up to more than the plan itself.

As an aside: the “foot-in-the-door” technique (a.k.a. “bait-and-switch”) is a well-known sales technique, but there has to be some point at which it ceases being effective. I would like to think that these guys have gone well beyond this point but since they’re clearly not stupid I suspect that tacking on a half-dozen extra charges that more than double the up-front cost of the alleged deal actually works. (And I never did get to find out what taxes get slathered all over the bill at the end.)

After paring down the deal to its minimum (one TV with HD reception, no DVR) it was going to cost $34.95 per month (after rebate) for twelve months and then either $65.99 or $70.99 per month for the next 12 months. HBO (et al) would be free for the first three months and then $15.99 per month thereafter. The deal includes some kind of premium access to NFL coverage for this season which we need to cancel after the season ends but before the next season begins to avoid being billed for that. And to get the rebate in a timely manner we need to process the rebate before the installation takes place.

In other words, $1200 if I don’t make any mistakes. And people think Apple’s products are overpriced.

All of this to watch True Blood via HBO Go.

This is our second attempt to get access to True Blood Season 4. Our first attempt involved trying to change our Comcast Subscription by the absolute minimum amount necessary to get access to HBO on Xfinity. (“Xfinity” is a made-up word that you get by crossing out the word “infinity”. This is because “zero” is a common word and can’t be trademarked.) This first attempt spanned almost four weeks, including several waits on hold each over 30 minutes, and two identical “escalated” “engineering” tickets that were each supposed to be resolved within 72h but were in fact never resolved. (I did receive one call about one of the tickets shortly after having thrown in the towel and canceled the whole fiasco — I believe the person called to tell me the ticket was being closed because I had canceled the subscription.)

Here’s the thing. I only did all this crap because I am, basically, an honest person. Stupidly honest, in fact. It’s not, for example, that I don’t know how Bittorrent works. If True Blood were available via Season Pass in iTunes at a ridiculously inflated price, I would cheerfully have paid for it. But nooooo. HBO wants to protect its ability to attract fools to satellite and cable TV subscriptions rather than simply giving people what they want at a reasonable, or in fact any, price.

In the time I wasted making one call to Comcast, I could have torrented the first episode and had the others drop automagically onto my hard disk overnight. Incidentally, for the three weeks we were subscribed to HBO via Comcast and yet unable to actually watch any HBO content, this would have meant illegally downloading content we were legally entitled to watch but couldn’t. That would be a fun lawsuit.

The Case Against PBS (and NPR)

The new Republican House Majority is, among other things, trying to cut off all government funding for public broadcasting. I don’t know how exactly how much money is involved, but I believe that in budgetary terms it’s approximately nothing. The reason behind this move is quite transparent — PBS and NPR are perceived as having a liberal bias (as Stephen Colbert says, “the truth has a liberal bias”) and thus, in this time of fiscal emergency, we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money to subsidize it.

It doesn’t help that NPR does, of course, have a liberal bias. (In fact pretty much all news organizations have a liberal bias because, in general, educated and informed people have a liberal bias.) But let’s stick to the point: NPR does, no question, have a liberal bias — especially in a country where a progressive tax system is considered some kind of communist plot.

No-one, of course, has suggested that the obvious solution to NPR’s liberal bias would be to fully fund it with public money, the way the BBC, say, works. (Of course, the BBC has a liberal bias too, right?) I think proper public broadcasting is sorely needed in the US but (a) it’s never going to happen, and (b) we have many, many bigger fish to fry. So, to quote the Cat in the Hat, so so so…

Speaking as a latte-swilling, compact-fluourescent-lightbulb-installing, Carbon-tax-loving, iPad-browsing, Democrat-voting, Toyota-driving pro-animal-rights liberal-but-the-locals-think-I’m-socialist: I agree with the Republicans on this one.

Government funding of PBS and NPR is nothing more than a subsidy for the rich. How did I reach this conclusion? Scientifically of course!

Exhibit 1: the only way to watch Sesame Street is in High Def.

Sesame Street (which runs at a healthy profit, thanks) isn’t shot in the standard definition “safe area”. In other words, when they’re supposedly teaching your kids to count to 7, if you’re watching Sesame Street on a standard definition TV you can probably only see five and a half things. Leave aside that I’m pretty sure Sesame Street is next-to-useless for teaching kids to count (it used to be useful for other things, but that stuff is harder to measure so it got stripped out).

So for a decent Sesame Street viewing experience I need cable or satellite TV (with a high-def decoder)* and high def TVs. But if I get an el-cheapo cable subscription I can watch Nickelodeon which isn’t adapted to standard def by sticking it against a piece of wood and banging nails through it, and actually has some content.

* Note: correction. You can of course get PBS over-the-air for free on a high-def TV. But almost no-one watches TV this way or is going to switch over to antenna just for PBS, and for time-shifting etc. you need an entire high-def food chain (e.g. high-def DVR).

Our local PBS affiliate basically rotates 5-10 episodes of Sesame Street for months on end, despite having a back-catalog of hundreds of episodes. And bear in mind that the latest episodes of Sesame Street are built out of hopelessly outdated, recycled content. It’s great that my kids are learning about photography in terms of sending film off to get developed. That’s damn useful.

I’m also sick of Sesame Street being sold to me for $20 for a 43 minute DVD full of unskippable ads explaining how great it is that my money is going to education programs in India. I hope all those kids have high def TVs and film cameras.

And, by the way, the best way to watch PBS kids’ shows is Netflix, because most of the corporate sponsorship gets stripped out and you can watch it on demand. (Of course you also realize that a typical run for a PBS kids’ show is 5 episodes, vs. 20+ for a Nick show.)

Exhibit 2: the best NPR experience is XM Satellite Radio.

The only way to listen to NPR without getting week-long fund-raising drives (for those of you not living in the US, these involve huge amounts of advertising along with lengthy and tedious interruptions to scheduled programming) is to subscribe to satellite radio. (I nearly subscribed just for that.)

As an aside: our local public radio station (APR) plays nothing but music from 9am to 3pm, making it useless to me during the day. If I want to listen to music there’s Pandora and iPods. We don’t need radio stations for music any more. I used to donate to APR, but stopped when I switched to listening to a Birmingham station (WBHM, which we barely receive). When APR called me during fund raising, I politely told them I switched stations. When they asked why, I said I didn’t want music all day and they hung up on me.

I love All Things Considered, Fresh Air, This American Life, On Point (which we don’t get here), Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and a bunch of other NPR shows. But I have no doubt these programs will survive without public funding. I similarly have no doubt that many avid listeners would cheerfully pay for them (e.g. the only complaints about the paid This American Life App are that it sucks as an app), and I’d prefer honest advertising over mealy-mouthed sponsorship statements. (Apparently, “It’s not advertising if there’s no call to action“.)

Exhibit 3: There’s this thing called the Internet. Look into it.

You may recall that PBS and NPR were products of the Johnson administration. TV and Radio were the happening media back then. We didn’t get a network of publicly-funded newspapers. Well, that was then this is now — we don’t need public TV or Radio.

There are arguments that public broadcasting is necessary for local coverage. I suspect that local coverage will work just fine without it. Heck, replace each local public broadcasting affiliate with a Facebook page. Done. I’m really not sure that PBS and NPR shouldn’t just be turned into one big website anyway.

The one big problem left for us city folk (if you generously categorize Tuscaloosa as a city) is what to listen to in the car if you refuse to pay for satellite radio. (A quick check revealed that the amount of money we’re talking about saving is not nearly enough to buy everyone in the US an XM Satellite subscription. Oh well.) The answer is podcasts. Glad I settled that.

As for the folks living in rural [insert state here, I’ll go with Alaska] who don’t have access to broadband — stop voting Republican.

Hamilton’s Void

One of the more interesting news stories today concerns Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of US State Department diplomatic cables. The takeaway point is that there’s a use-by date on confidentiality, and while predictions that we’ll live in a world without privacy may be (slightly) exaggerated, the idea that one can bury the past is clearly obsolete.

I recently finished The Secret History of MI6 (I read the Kindle version — on my iPad — which, like pretty much every ebook I’ve read, is rife with egregious typographic and layout errors — I don’t know how many of them are shared with the print version). I don’t recommend this book to anyone not interested in stories of bureaucratic infighting. Operational details (“spy stories”) are pretty much thin, since this kind of stuff was purged from the records pretty methodically. How much was spent on office supplies was recorded for the ages. I mention this only because this is very much not the world we’re living in today.

Failing to Predict the Present

Science Fiction has been, it seems to me, almost crippled by the pace of real technological advancement. It’s hard to think of a SF story from before 2000 which doesn’t seem ridiculous given our current state of advancement. Even great books, such as (say) A Fire Upon the Deep or Earthlight need to be read “with allowances”. Theirs is a speculative future without decent cellphones and laptops. I remember saying to colleagues in 1992 that the Newton had just made every SF novel obsolete, because it represented technical capabilities beyond pretty much anything anyone had predicted* and the Newton’s initial failure in the market did not mean the demise of either the underlying idea or the technology behind it.

(Note: * Hari Seldon had something a lot like a Newton, only better, in Asimov’s Foundation, which was something of a tour de force in terms of tech ideas.)

It’s understandable for a SF writer not to take future developments into account (after all, if they really knew, they’d have better things to do than write science fiction). Even the venerated Arthur C. Clarke completely missed miniaturization (in Earthlight, scientists living on the moon have filing cabinets full of paper records; in one of his memorable short stories (whose name escapes me), a spaceship crew is reduced to using abacuses to calculate a new orbit after their ship’s two onboard computers both fail) — and this was despite its having been the central feature of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (I continue to ignore the later installments).

It’s much less forgivable for SF writers to miss current and past technical developments. The lack of support for voicemail and call waiting in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s communicators is hilarious. One of the frequent, small satisfactions of the Stargate franchise is that it’s set in the present, and the characters are constantly pushing the envelope of existing technologies, such as when the Stargate Command started launching drones through the stargates for reconnaissance (and later, air support). One of my favorite ever scenes was when SG-1 was teaching people to use P90s and showing how for practical purposes they were far more effective than high-tech goa’uld weapons.

Which brings me to Peter F. Hamilton’s recently concluded “Void” series (The Dreaming Void, et al). I’m a little under halfway through as I write this, and I’m going to try to avoid spoilers. This isn’t a review per se since I can’t review what I haven’t finished reading. (Now, if I were a professional reviewer things would be different.)

My first exposure to Peter F. Hamilton was his Night’s Dawn Trilogy. This is a huge, spawling, kitchen-sink space opera — but with zombies (before the zombie craze really took off).

In a sense, Night’s Dawn reminds me a lot of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos (“Cantos”? Seriously?) — both are big, rich, complex settings torn apart by war and “monsters”. Hyperion seems like a more serious and disciplined work, while Hamilton’s books are something on the line of an explosion in a typewriter factory. Hyperion itself is, in my opinion, something of a masterpiece (albeit a pretentious one — it’s a riff on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) but the follow-ups are increasingly ragged. Night’s Dawn feels more like a huge slab of work chopped into pieces and sold as a trilogy (or sexalogy in reprint). There’s no appreciable quality drop — the whole thing is a solid B while Hyperion starts as an A and fitfully declines to a C. (Maybe that’s C and B to D before grade inflation.)

Commonwealth vs. Culture

The Void strongly reminds me of Iain Banks’s Culture setting, but while both writers are somewhat slapdash — “I won’t bother you with details because, frankly, I haven’t bothered with the details myself” — it seems to me that Banks is simply better at keeping balls in the air (both plot-wise and conceptually). That said, he doesn’t generally try to keep nearly so many balls in the air.

If we do a bit of conceptual mapping — Banks’s Culture is a highly advanced machine/human civilization that’s very, very high tech. Machines are characters in the stories and have full human rights. It operates in a Galaxy full of civilizations among which it is one of the most powerful, mainly because most civilizations as advanced as the Culture choose to “sublime”. Earth is not part of The Culture, but an example of a pre-Starflight world in whose affairs The Culture meddles. The most interesting Culture novels examine the way The Culture interacts with external societies, notably the markedly less advanced (Use of Weapons), less advanced (Player of Games, Consider Phlebas), and more advanced (Excession). While there is some discussion of The Culture’s internal affairs, it is pretty cursory and, in general, The Culture doesn’t really work at all internally so getting into detail isn’t going to help too much.

Hamilton’s Commonwealth is a highly advanced human/machine civilization where the machines are, aside from when they are running human personalities, appliances. (This is perhaps a conscious dramatic decision, or even an attempt to differentiate the setting from The Culture.) In general, the machines act a lot like Culture machines, but they don’t “talk” and aren’t treated as characters.) The Commonwealth operates in a Galaxy full of civilizations among which it is one of the most powerful, mainly because most civilizations as advanced as the Commonwealth choose to become “post-physical”. Earth is the center of the Commonwealth, and is ruled by a giant computer into which the combined minds of many of its citizens have been uploaded. Surrounding Earth are “Higher” worlds inhabited by augmented humans living lives of essentially unlimited wealth and leisure on worlds largely united by wormholes, and beyond that some kind of ill-defined market-driven diaspora of ordinarily high-tech worlds. People live as long as they want and can “migrate inwards”, going from relatively normal, to “higher”, and then uploading.

And if I may make one final analogy — the titular Void in Hamilton’s universe is a lot like the titular Excession in Banks’s novel of that name. The big problem with the Void is that it’s been around a heckuva long time and no-one seems to have made any sensible contingency plans (which, given the level of technology available, would include relocating to a safer galaxy).

Now, in terms of being a “rollicking good read”, the Void seems to be right up there with Night’s Dawn. It’s pretty good fun, there’s a lot of good ideas and quite a few bad ones. It’s competently written, there’s plenty of action, and it hangs together quite well.

But as I read this series some of the overlooked details irk me more and more. There’s an old joke to the effect that anyone can see the wheel and predict cars, but it takes a SF writer to see the wheel and predict traffic jams, and a really good SF writer to see the wheel and predict parking meters. This is where Hamilton basically fails as a SF writer. He’s seen a lot of wheels and predicted a whole lot of cars and a few traffic jams, but he never sees the parking meter. Banks usually sees the parking meter, although he may choose not to dwell on it.

I want more life, fucker.

Let’s consider the absolutely central concept of personalities as software. This is perhaps the single most pervasive concept in science fiction today and for the last 20 years. (I can remember long conversations about it with friends when I was in college working on ForeScene, which would be circa 1985. Let’s just say we came up with a lot more parking meters than Hamilton has.) The idea is that a human brain/body is hardware and a personality is software. You can back up software and “run it” on alternative hardware (e.g. a sufficiently powerful computer) or load it on a new body (e.g. if the original is killed). In Hamilton’s Void this is called “relifing”. One of the major characters lives in Earth’s hivemind, and is relifed for a diplomatic mission. It’s no big deal.

This is utterly stupid. It makes no sense. And Iain Banks gets this in a way that Hamilton simply fails to.

In Excession there’s a hilarious scene where a modern Culture warship finds itself about to engage a suborned fleet of obsolete Culture warships in combat. Assuming that its attack run will be suicidal, the modern ship backs up its mind. It then feels an enormous sense of liberation, knowing that it is going to die and feels that it would be horrible to deny its new self the memory of this feeling and makes a new backup. The point is that in the Culture, despite all the technology, death is death.

You could explain away these problems in a setting which did not treat personality as software, but as soon as you decide personality is just a bunch of bits the consequences are pretty much lethal. (E.g. if you make the argument that the Universe is infinite and that therefore there are infinite perfect copies of everything, you can’t demonstrate that your “personality” isn’t shared among all the perfect copies of you. This lets you do things like teleportation and even backing up your body with quantum theoretic arm-waving rather than data/cpu arm-waving). The fact you can duplicate your copy of Excel and run it on a new computer doesn’t make it the same as the original — a fact you can quickly verify by running both at the same time.

(One of the ideas I’ve started toying with as a result of all this is the idea of a quantum-entangled backup — which I’ll call a “Schrodinger Clone” — where you make a duplicate of your body in such a way there’s a 50% chance that the “you” that continues “living” is the copy. If you come to a sticky end before your next backup the waveform is collapsed so that the copy was the one who died. Otherwise, you collapse the waveform to make your “active” copy the original, back it up, and then throw away the old backup. Note that death is still death, but the “self” with longer continuity leads a privileged “life”. Death still sucks for the copy, of course.)

Similarly, an SF writer can make the case for “teleportation” not being equivalent to dying and being duplicated if, and only if, the mechanism is fundamentally “space origami” and not replication. (I might add that Iain Banks’s “displacers” satisfy this rationale, and show how much more rigorous his underlying concepts are than most other writers’.) It’s very sad that in Star Trek (TOS) there’s an episode which explicitly requires transporters to be replicators (the main characters all die of old age owing to a disease and are “restored from backup” using the transporters), which means that using one entails being vaporized and having a new copy created at the destination (i.e. Star Trek transporters kill you). Note that it follows as a simple corollary that the Enterprise can reuse its security officers (they should probably keep trying new ones until they find one that’s competent, though). Similarly, there have been several episodes of Stargate: SG-1 and Atlantis that hinge on wormholes being replicators and not “folded space”. It’s pretty annoying for SF writers to be willing to completely destroy their settings this way.

(Note that my “Schrodinger Clone” concept could also work as a teleporter, or in fact be a teleporter. Thus, if your “Away Team” dies horribly then, actually, they never left. Sucks to have been them.)

But hey, it’s fun to read. Right?

Look, I get that SF is, in large part, a simple escapist fantasy genre. It’s simply a set of building blocks with which to tell good action stories. I’m not saying that Hamilton’s Void is horrible and not worth reading. Far from it. It just seems to me that there’s a much more interesting story to be told if the basic assumptions were to be examined more carefully, and that the pervasive underlying assumption that being uploaded into a hive mind or restored from backup “not dying” is a constant irritation.

And there are some brilliant ideas I haven’t even touched on in Hamilton’s Void. To begin with there’s the whole idea of the “gaiafield” — some kind of technologically implemented telepathic field that lets people share emotions and (notably) dreams. And then there’s the whole idea of the Void itself, and the whole techno-religious thing. And I quite like the story of the Waterwalker thus far (I won’t say anything more than that). Much as with the Night’s Dawn trilogy there’s so much stuff to like in these books that the not insignificant amount of really bad stuff is simply overwhelmed.

It was Purgatory after all

Yup I guess that was a shark in the rear view mirror.

It was clear from the start that the story could not stretch beyond a season or two without being resolved or completely rethought. Admitting that, and pitching the show as a limited series or mini-series, would have meant going to cable or working with much smaller resources, and you can’t blame the show’s creators for not wanting that. But it always made their protestations about how the show threatened to get away from them ring a little hollow.

From No Longer ‘Lost’, but Still Searching (NYTimes) — a much more sympathetic view of the conclusion to Lost than my own, which nevertheless reaches similar conclusions.

I lost patience with Lost during the horrible mess that was season three. It seemed clear at the time that the writing team suffered a creative crisis as a result of suddenly finding themselves converting a three year arc into a five-plus year arc. The resulting lost ratings then forced them to accelerate the arc, which in turn restored ratings and led the arc to get re-extended. In a sense, you can’t really blame the writers for the result, although it seems to me that they still could have done much better.

You can’t really blame the actors, either. The acting is pretty much excellent (up until the last episode, where the actors are suddenly forced to play their characters very differently in the alternate universe). Indeed, the final episode put enormous strains on almost everyone, not least among them the composer who seemed, having done nothing but “scary stuff coming” and “omg WTF?!” music for six years, to be utterly incapable of handling schmaltz. Is there a good way to score the kind of sentimental dreck that padded out the finale? Faux Jaws or Terminator riffs accompanying kiss kiss flashbacks might actually have made them less annoying. We may never know — you can’t reset your brain and watch this crap again for the first time.

I wanted to like the finale. My bar was pretty low. Remember when the creators claimed that there was a non-magical explanation for everything? I’d put that down to Fargo-esque (“based on a true story”) chutzpah… It will work better if you refuse to assume a magical explanation for as long as possible.

I would have settled for some kind of indication that the creators had a vaguely coherent idea of what was going on, versus simply slathering on incomprehensible crap over each new glaring hole. (I would describe Lost to friends as an onion where you start halfway in, and when you think they’re about to peel a layer you discover they’ve actually pulled out and are showing you a new outer layer. The simple version from a friend is “it’s a show that asks more questions than it answers”.)

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions and not answering them, or even answering them with more questions — if the questions are interesting of themselves. But Lost‘s questions aren’t deep and meaningful, they’re more along the lines of “Bear? Where the fuck did a bear come from?” Replace the world “bear” with any noun-phrase representing anything found in the show and that’s the kind of question Lost asked and never answered. Dharma Initiative. Bomb shelter. Underwater base. Submarine. Smoke monster. Glowing cave. Giant statue. Temple. Heavily armed group of people living in the woods. Village.

The one great thing about Lost, and this is no small thing, is that it added to mainstream TV a new vocabulary of acceptable narrative devices. But before Lost had completed its shark-jump, other TV shows had picked up its tools and made better (more disciplined) use of them. I’m thinking in particular of the show Damages, but you also see similar narrative games in Dexter and True Blood. Indeed, I’m sure that there are plenty of examples of, for example, multilayered flashbacks being used to build out plot and narrative that predate Lost, but Lost used it almost exclusively, and for a while it worked. Damages did the same thing, and did it better. It also layered its arcs so that it would have been perfectly satisfying as a single season show, and yet it is still surprising us with links to the first episode in season three.

It’s not like the writers of Lost ever wrote themselves into a corner from which there was no obvious way out. Lost was always pregnant with possibilities that were never narrowed down. So Lost‘s failure to make, at least, a little bit of sense is very disappointing. One thing that occurs to me, and I think many others, is that the big reveal was going to be “they’re in purgatory” (which seems really dumb and yet would be a better arc than what we got) but that so many fans guessed this they tried to make it something else, and failed.

It was purgatory after all. But for the viewers.

The future is not what it was. Accept it and move on.

In the British paperback market, having a gigantic spaceship on the cover of a book used to mean "it's science fiction" regardless of the substance of the story. Suffice it to say that there are no gigantic spacecraft in "The Face" and no indication anywhere in this picture that the artist read the book or had it in mind when he created the picture.

One of my ambitions is to write a science fiction novel. Or two. I have some fairly elaborate ideas sketched out, but I’m a little short of spare time right now. I also don’t think that creative endeavors such as writing are a “zero sum game”. Science fiction is in a pretty dreadful state right now, and it’s no use to me if it withers and dies before I get around to making my contribution to the genre.

Here's the latest printing of the same series (this is volume 1, the second volume is very similar). Note what looks like some kind of space carrier on the cover. Aha, it must be "science fiction". (You can guess how many "space carriers" figure in the series.)

Here’s the basic problem: for a hundred years or so science fiction writers have been pretending that “the future” will involve interstellar travel by faster-than-light travel. Sure, there are notable exceptions who write stories set in near-future dystopias (e.g. much of Philip K. Dick’s work, all of William Gibson’s or Neal Stephenson’s work, or David Brin’s Earth and The Postman), but in large part we haven’t advanced beyond E. E. Doc Smith’s “60 parsecs/hour” via “inertialess drive”. Certainly SF in popular culture, which means TV and movies, is essentially a species of fantasy with spaceships and energy bolts instead of dragons and wizards. (Not that this kind of fantasy can’t be fun!) The flipside of the problem is that most science fiction ignores or negates the advances in technology in fields other than warp engineering. Star Trek features fabulous spaceships but no voicemail.

I’ve complained elsewhere that SF does a lousy job of envisioning a future that grapples with today’s problems. Where is a science fiction setting which addresses energy conservation the way the original Star Trek addressed racism? At least BSG had something to say about the War on Terror, but as a piece of speculative SF it was simply dreadful; we can’t make anything remotely resembling the Galactica, but we have firearms way beyond the crap they were using.

It doesn’t help that the few writers who have taken a stab in this direction, e.g. Pamela Sargent’s Venus series and Kim Stanley Robinson’s horribly overrated Mars trilogy, have written ridiculously overlong and generally dull doorstops.

I’d like to see a speculative science fiction setting (on network TV or in a decent series of novels, say) that is not near-future (e.g. Star Trek timeframe or beyond) and does not go beyond our Solar system. Ideally, it wouldn’t make stupid assumptions about, say, the rate at which we can realistically terraform other planets, but let’s not expect miracles. I’d also like to see a speculative science fiction setting that involves interstellar travel using some kind of plausible technology and deals with the implications rather than wishing them away.

I have two fairly solid ideas for settings that satisfy these constraints (I think I have an actually brilliant idea for the second); what I don’t have is a good idea for a plot. Maybe I’ll just steal something from Shakespeare.