Like everyone else, I have watched an unreasonably large number of episodes of Star Trek in my life. Though nominally science fiction, the show could assume a variety of genres…some ‘sodes seem to have been inspired by someone rummaging through the props closet and finding a pile of old Nazi or ganster getups. (The holodeck was great for this stuff–don’t you think they would shut the damned thing down after it malfunctioned for the 842nd time? Then again, these are people who couldn’t grasp the concept of seat-belts, so go figure.). Other episodes were basically office drama in pajamas, which sometimes blended into office drama, since the schizophrenic Kirk or Borgified Picard were extreme forms of the cranky erratic boss.
Anyway, one pattern that was common to all the show’s incarnations was that it would set up an interesting and seemingly insoluble problem, and then Scotty or O’Brien or whoever would say “I’ve got an idea that’s so crazy it just might work…we could try to activate the dilithium crystal resonator by rerouting the power supply to the subspace manifold.” It’s a long shot, but it’s their only chance, and there are, after all, only 5 minutes left till the last commercial break.
I of course made up the ‘solution’ in the last paragraph, but it is no more silly than the real ones. This is annoying to anyone who likes sf because it’s a form of cheating; it’s like reading a mystery where the evidence ends up being hopelessly inadequate, but the murderer has an attack of remorse in the last chapter and turns himself in. It’s not that sf has to invoke real science, but what sf most characteristically offers is to let us feel the joy of understanding problems as it is experienced by astronomers or anthropologists or even political scientists. A deus ex machina is just a buzzkill even when the machina is a warp engine.
This is a very roundabout way to explain why I enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. The book is set in a nightmare world very much like the US in 2005, where anyone who demands civil liberties is suspected of supporting terrorists. The 17-year-old narrator has the misfortune to be near the scene of a terrorist attack in San Francisco, and is detained, threatened, and brutalized by the Department of Homeland Security (none of what happens to him strikes me as implausible under the reing of Alberto Gonzalez/Dick Cheney types). Upset by his own treatment and by increasingly deranged government surveillance, he plost to render them ineffective and (if possible) ludicrous, using his skills as a hacker. We are taken along for the ride, as Marcus explains what he’s doing as though to a newbie friend.
This is generally quite fun, and even made me a little nostalgic for my programmer days, though the level is pitched a bit low for me (I don’t need to be told who Alan Turing was, for example). It probably won’t help for me to say I enjoyed his discussion of public-key cryptography, but (as Marcus often tells us of his various pastimes) it’s more fun than it sounds.
Little Brother sometimes reads like a nerd manifesto intended to recruit the young and impressionable into the worlds of computer security and civil disobedience (there are also discussiong of the Berkeley Free Speech movement and the Yippies)…and yet, this is not nearly as annoying as you’d think, because it’s all part of Marcus’ earnest charm. He really wants you to share his obsessions, and this after all is what makes nerds likable to those of us who find them likable.
Which brings me to the other side of genre fiction, the element of social fantasy. In mysteries this often revolves around status symbols such as clothes or cars–I remember one sad Patricia Cornwell where the heroine spent pages gloating over her amazing car phone (imagine…making a phone call IN YOUR CAR!). In sf, it can involve fantasies of power (this appeals especially to the 5-year-old demo, whether in chronological or emotional age); Marcus does revel in a certain kind of power, mostly in confusing the authorities so that their hacked systems cause them to harass affluent white people instead of the brown people they usually mess with.
Or, in the case of cyberpunk, the point often seems to be that one could become the hippest hipster around, hip enough to sneer at the rest of the hipsters, with more extreme piercings, kinkier sex, more cutting-edge music, and a cooler cell-phone (hmm, we’re back to the status symbols, aren’t we?). This kind of thing gives me no kicks, perhaps because a world where such people would want to talk to me is not credible even as a fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I hang with some brilliant and beautiful people, but they’re the kind of people who go to Hanson concerts or think library science would be a fun subject or talk through stuffed sheep. Not really cyberpunk.
Marcus starts out with a bit too much of the cyberpunk attitude, but a few days in DHS pretty much knock that out of him. And anyway, he’s more of an enthusiast than a hipster–the title of this post is his comment on a live-action role-playing vampire game that he used to play. What he offers his potential teen converts is not the ability to look down on the masses but the chance to geek out with people who like you, and that a girl who is maybe not technically “H4WT” but smart and kind and cute will let you touch her boobs.
(btw, I think the idea of Star Trek as an office drama in pajamas is from Tom Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of.)