Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Master: Science Fiction edition

If there's one genre of entertainment of which I'm trying to become a master, it's science fiction. In fact, I would consider science fiction a hobby of its own; even though it transcends a variety of media and hobbies, the way in which they all tie together under this genre . Since I was a kid, I have been drawn to sci-fi as a genre in all forms of entertainment: literature, movies, TV, video games, and board games. It's crazy to think about the sheer amount of content that is generated each year that could be considered to be SF, not to account for the decades of history of the genre to investigate. I know there's no way I could be a master of all aspects of SF, or even just of one sub-genre, so I focus on trying to keep up with some of the general trends and watch and read the most universally acknowledged entries, whether by critical consensus or commercial success. But it's certainly not easy to do, so I thought I would take some time and evaluate my current status of SF mastery in several forms of media.

Literature: My interest in "mastering" the genre was piqued when I took a class in university on SF. We read short stories and 13 novels, many of which I was rereading. (I skipped a couple at the time, but they're still on my list to read.) The professor picked a fairly standard list of books to represent the history of the genre, but he openly acknowledged that he could have just as easily picked several other sets of novels and the genre would have been just as well-represented in terms of scope. Even within the accepted canon, there are hundreds of books that could be considered "must-reads" in order to fully understand the genre. I stopped trying to be overwhelmed by that list a few years ago, and I began to compile a list of SF books that I would like to read, based on commercial success, preference for authors, and critical reception. I took the list of Hugo and Nebula Award winners, cross-referenced them to see which novels were acknowledged on both lists, and derived a list of novels from which to start. I also have a list of "classics" that I try to work my way through. I would estimate that every second or third book I read is SF, and I try to alternate the classics with more modern entries from the genre. A cursory examination of my collection on Goodreads reveals that I have 67 SF books that I own to read, and a total of over 100 SF books on my "to read" list in general. I really enjoy my forays into the genre, and I look forward to continuing to expand my understanding of SF as I read more and more of the classics. Evaluation: close to mastery (maybe one year away).

Movies: In any given year, there are anywhere from 10 to 20 movies released that fall under the general "sci-fi" descriptor in addition to several TV series that fall under that category. It is rare that I miss out on a SF movie, since they require less attention in a way and they provide an easy escape and resolution - especially the weaker entries to the genre. In any given year, maybe two or three of those movies are actually good enough to be worth re-watching, with several just worth watching for the sake of the discussion. I still have quite a few that slip under the radar, but it usually ends up being about one movie per year that I miss. For example, for each of the last five years, I found one SF movie that I still need to watch, starting with 2012: John Carter, Another Earth, Never Let Me Go, Moon, and Hellboy II. If I were to go back a little further, into the late 1990s and early 2000s, I would add Minority Report, Contact, Gattaca, Donnie Darko, and Soderbergh's Solaris to that list, and I could go back even further and add classics (Gilliam's Time Bandits, Spielberg's Close Encounters, or even Fritz Lang's Metropolis) to that list. I don't really prioritize movies in this list, but I just watch them as I can, trying to alternate more classic movies with more recent entries (as I do with literature). I figure that at least knowing the movies I want to watch is a good step, and that I can just keep on chipping away at the ones I haven't seen. Evaluation: close to mastery.

Television: This is where I find the biggest challenge in keeping up with SF. Unlike novels and movies, which are self-contained entities that take a limited amount of time, SF TV shows demand a large amount of time and attention to do well. There is more SF out there on the small screen than there ever has been, and it's easy to be overwhelmed by the scale and scope of some of these endeavours. As much as I lament the premature demise of Firefly, at least the amount of content is manageable. We are currently partway through Season 3 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and we have been stuck for awhile because it just takes so long to go through each season. I can't imagine trying to pick up a series that I missed, and there have been quite a few: DS9, Babylon 5, Voyager, Doctor Who, Lost, and Fringe, to name a few. I might get around to them someday, but it's more likely that I'll leave them behind and just pick up something else. Then again, maybe this is the perfect time to pick up a new show, as the only SF show I'm watching right now (other than working through TNG) is Futurama. Maybe this is the time to finally get into Battlestar Galactica, especially since I picked up the first three seasons last March for a total of $30 at a thrift store; they're just sitting on the shelf, waiting for me, taunting me. But I have a deep dark confession to make: I have not actually watched a full episode of the original 1960s Star Trek. Ever. I know it seems ridiculous, but I just never watched it as a kid. Maybe I should make that a project for a couple of months: watching all 69 episodes before the new movie comes out. By the way, did you know that in 1968, all of the nominees for the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation were episodes of Star Trek? That kind of feat has only been duplicated by Doctor Who, which, in the past seven years since its relaunch, has won six of seven Hugos for Short Form Dramatic Presentation, along with having 19 episodes nominated (out of a total of 37 nominations for all programs). Maybe I have to start watching Doctor Who now...sigh. Evaluation: More than average knowledge, but a long way to go for mastery.

Video Games: The area in which I'm the most behind in my SF intake is video gaming. I haven't invested in 6th or 7th generation consoles other than Nintendo, so I never got into a lot of series: Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Bioshock, Resident Evil, Gears of War, or even Halo. I'm not sure I would play them, since I'm not a huge fan of FPS games anyway. I do have some SF influence in my video gaming: I'm still working my way through Portal, and the game I'm playing through now (Star Fox Adventures for GameCube) is a SF. I do play a lot of the Metroid series, which is one of the classic SF video game series. But I still might have to pick up a PS3 or 360 and catch up on the last decade of SF video games. Evaluation: nowhere near mastery.

Board Games: I've actually started playing a lot more science-fiction themed board games lately. I have been deterred by a lot of them, often owing to how the theme often seems to overshadow the gameplay, especially in teaching a game to others, but I'm starting to reverse that trend. I own several games that have a primarily SF theme, including Cosmic Encounter, Race for the Galaxy, Chrononauts, Starfarers of Catan, Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, Killer Bunnies and the Journey to Jupiter (even more SF version), and our recently acquired Evil Baby Orphanage. A number of other SF-themed games are either on my list to acquire (Galaxy Trucker, The Resistance, Among the Stars, and RoboRally) or to play (Battlestar Galactica, Core Worlds, Eclipse, Eminent Domain, Jump Gate, King of Tokyo). I don't see myself getting into the Twilight Imperium style of games that take several hours for one play, but I'm definitely looking to expand my SF board game collection. Evaluation: learning, working toward mastery in a couple of years.

So, after some self-evaluation, I've realized that I still have a long way to go before I achieve mastery in SF. I know I have a lot of experience in the genre, but I still feel like there are significant enough gaps in each area that I could not consider myself a master of any kind. Then again, SF is the one genre that I could actually see pursuing in a Master's degree, so maybe that's how I could actually achieve mastery. That, and a lot more time invested in all forms of SF media.

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