Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Review - TV: 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg (editors)

Stories included:
Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell
Dreaming Is a Private Thing by Isaac Asimov
The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch
The Jester by William Tenn
The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg
I See You by Damon Knight
The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley
Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II
Mercenary by Mack Reynolds
Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn
The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg
And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
What Time Is It? by Jack C. Haldeman II
Interview by Frank A. Javor
Cloak of Anarchy by Larry Niven
And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon
Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing
Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert

Full review: TV: 2000 is an anthology of science fiction stories ostensibly tied together by the common theme of being stories about television. And while some of the stories are indeed science fiction stories about television, the theme seems to be more honored in the beach than in the observance. Even so, this is a fairly good collection of short fiction.

The first story in the volume, Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell, kicks off the extremely tangentially television related stories. In this tale a human scout has crash landed on an uncharted alien planet and been captured by the local authorities. He is condemned to death, but due to a quirk of alien law, he is allowed to play a game before he dies. It doesn't matter if he wins or loses, when the game ends, he will be executed. So, of course, our hero picks a game that will take an interminably long time to complete, the better to give a relief ship the opportunity to rescue him. The only television connection in the story is that the contest is apparently televised for the populace to watch as entertainment, but that doesn't actually have any real bearing on the plot of the story. The story, like many other Russell stories, is darkly humorous and fun to read, but it isn't really about television, or the effect of television on society.

This being a collection edited in part by Asimov, one would expect an Asimov story to be included, and one is in the form of Asimov's Dreaming Is a Private Thing, which is another story that is not about television. Instead, the story is about "dreamies", a posited future technology in which people can experience the dreams of others as entertainment. The story more or less walks through the typical day of an executive running a "dreamie" production company as he negotiates with new talent, deals with old talent, and frets about the competition. There's not really much to the story other than the observation that the artists who create the product are more or less compelled by their nature to do so, unable to function in society due to their constantly overactive and vivid imaginations. The story is an interesting idea, but it isn't really developed into much more than a series of vignettes that discuss the idea and don't really go anywhere with it.

Unlike the first two stories, The Man Who Murdered Television by Joseph Patrouch is definitively about television, but it doesn't have much in the way of science fiction. The story takes the form of a dialogue between a father and daughter, with the father revealing that the reason humans have never heard from alien civilizations is that broadcast radio and television cause cancer, and smart civilizations figure this out and stop using it, while stupid civilizations don't and die off as a result. The narrator explains that he and some like-minded people that know about the connection between broadcast television and cancer have been trying to reduce the use of the medium. Unable to shut it down at the source, they have decided to reduce demand by intentionally making television programs worse and worse so no one will want to watch. This is an optimistic idea, but it seems more like fantasy than science fiction, given that the television viewing public seems to have demonstrated with shows like Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty, and Dance Moms that there is no bottom below which the quality of television programming could sink that would keep droves of people from watching.

The Jester by William Tenn is set on television, but it isn't really about television. Lester the Jester is a comedian on the down side of his career, so he acquires a robot named Rupert that is programmed to come up with original jokes. Lester's idea is to use Rupert's capabilities to acquire witty one-liners and revive his flagging career as a television personality, but Rupert's humor circuits work too well, and it turns out he is an uncontrollable practical joker. Things go poorly as Rupert first alienates Lester's fiance and then hijacks the television broadcast Lester is appearing on, but it turns out that Rupert's jokes are wildly popular, and before he knows it, Lester finds himself relegated to managing his metallic contraption's career. The story plays upon human fears of being replaced by a machine, but unlike a story like The Darfsteller, which portrays the dislocation of humanity as a tragedy, The Jester relates this story in the form of a bitterly satirical farce.

Another story that is only tangentially related to television is The Man Who Came Back by Robert Silverberg, which, to the extent that it touches on media issues, centers on the phenomenon of the media sensation. John Burkhardt, a colonist who has spent the last twenty years farming on a distant plant, has returned to Earth, becoming the first of those participating in this government program to come back. When it is revealed that he returned to win the hand of the woman he left behind all those years ago, he becomes a romantic hero. And when it is revealed that this woman is now a famous actress, he becomes a media darling. But the story takes a left turn into the real plot when it turns out that Burkhardt has picked up a little bit more than people suspect during his sojourn on an alien world, raising questions about the nature of love, free will, and, in my mind, rape. In short, if you mind-control the love of your life into loving you in return, how can it possibly be love, and isn't that a form of rape? The story is deeply unsettling, and clearly intended to be so, and the creepy nature of its plot has only become more so with the passage of time since the story's publication.

One of the best stories in the volume is I See You by Damon Knight, however the story is yet again, not really about television. Instead, the story centers on the development of a new technology that could best be described as a "time telescope" that allows the user to look backwards at any previous point in time, and pretty much at any point in space the viewer might select. The new technology spreads like wildfire, as people realize they can look back to learn the truth about mysterious historical events like unexplained shipwrecks. But before too long, people realize they can turn their time telescopes on their kids, their neighbors, their parents, and their enemies, and all privacy becomes a thing of the past. Children look back to watch their parents conceive themselves, the police look back to solve crimes, obsessed fans look back to watch their favorite stars or starlets have sex, and so on. But then comes the realization: people from the future are certainly looking back on the people of the present, and no one is safe. The story is both humorous and frightening.

Among all the stories in the book that aren't about television, one that was turned out to be remarkably prescient about the direction television programming would go in the future. Though it was first published in 1959, The Prize of Peril by Robert Sheckley seems to have predicted the rise of reality television. In Sheckley's imagined future, Jim Raeder is participating an the most popular show on the air: A reality show in which a single "ordinary" person agrees to be hunted by condemned criminals for the enjoyment of the viewing audience. The only catch is that if they track Jim down before the end of his week on the run, his pursuers will kill him. The story digresses to show Jim climbing the ladder of potentially crippling or deadly reality programs until he got his shot at the "big time". In a twist that also seems to be disturbingly prophetic, the viewing audience is invited to become part of the action, with the opportunity to help or hinder Jim, which seems to presage the behavior of audience members on shows like Do You Want to Be a Millionaire where some people will deliberately try to steer a contestant away from the correct answer if they can. Science fiction is not an attempt to predict what will happen in the future, but rather an attempt to tell enjoyable stories that may examine the effects of particular types of technology or social changes to the world, but in this case, Sheckley hits pretty close to home with an imagined reality that seems all too familiar, and all too depressing.

Another story involving the potential of death on television is the humorous Home Team Advantage by Jack C. Haldeman II, although the story isn't so much about television as it is about sports, and specifically baseball. In the story, a team of humans has lost a critical baseball series to a team from Arcturus, with the stakes being that the winner gets to eat the loser, all reported by a newscaster who seems remarkably similar to Howard Cosell. The fans vote on which human gets eaten first, and the entree selected is something of a surprise, but the story contains one even further final twist at the end. The story is somewhat surreal, and fairly funny. Haldeman has another story in the volume, the very brief What Time Is It?, which imagines a use for faster than light travel to indulge the nostalgic feelings of wealthy men who yearn for the television programs of their youth.

Continuing with the "at best tenuously related to television" theme, Mercenary by Mack Reynolds posits a future in which treaties have limited warfare to only those technological advances invented prior to the twentieth century. In a further oddity, this rather quaint albeit bloody form of warfare doesn't merely take place between nations, but also between corporations. In a final quirk, society in general seems to have reverted to nineteenth century sensibilities, and social class has become almost a caste system. The protagonist in the story is Joe Mauser, an ambitious veteran mercenary who has participated in numerous corporate engagements. He signs up with the Vacuum Tube Transport corporation, a company that is tangling with a larger and better financed rival, a decision that is seen as a bad move as Continental Hovercraft had retained the services of the legendary commander Stonewall Cogswell. But Mauser has a trick up his sleeve that he thinks will turn the tide of the battle in favor of the hopelessly outclassed Vacuum Tube Transport. The story is about television to the extent that such conflicts are apparently televised, but it is mostly about class conflict, and human ingenuity even in the face of severe societal restrictions. The story is one of the best in the book, but the television angle is so tangential, that one wonders why it is included in this particular collection. Moving from the field of warfare to the field of warfare by other means, Without Portfolio by James E. Gunn imagines what would happen if the functions of the Department of State were handed over to an advertising firm. The story imagines how international diplomacy might be conducted if one of the parties pursued it like a business, complete with propaganda, coupons, and discount offers. On the surface the story is merely a piece of satirical humor, but it also imagines a better future in which the relations between nations might be ruled by law and contracts rather than chaos and disorder.

The Idea by Barry N. Malzberg is definitely about television, but only to serve as a vehicle for the real story. A television producer named Howard has an idea that is described as "educational", but which is resisted by everyone he pitches it to. Eventually the idea is made into a television pilot, and it bombs horribly. Howard's wife watches it, curses him and leaves with his children. He is sued as the "man who almost destroyed America", and at the end his lawyer tells him that sometimes an idea comes before the world is ready for it, and the messenger is then vilified. And this is what the real story is about: what happens when an idea comes along that the world is not ready for, and what happens now that we have the means to distribute that idea widely. The story stops just short of really examining these questions, content to merely raise the idea that men with ideas ahead of their time are despised by those around them. The implications of the ability to rapidly disseminate information via television is explored more fully in Committee of the Whole by Frank Herbert, in which a rancher named Custer stumbles upon a new piece of technology that seems like it will revolutionize the world, and he uses a Congressional hearing on grazing rights to make it public. The actual technology at issue - easy to make and powerful portable lasers - alters the balance of power in the world from the group to the individual, but what makes the new technology capable of such a paradigm shift is that Custer is able to spread the knowledge of the advance in an egalitarian manner, and that is accomplished via live television.

Although And Madly Teach by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. isn't really about television per se, it is about the dangers posed by a society that relies too much on technology to replace human interaction. Mildred Boltz is a teacher from off-world who has returned to Earth to take a lucrative position. She discovers that she is expected to teach students via television, and she will be judged on her ratings. She is determined to actually try to teach her students, whereas many of her fellow teachers have resorted to providing nothing more than salacious entertainment for their students. But Boltz is determined to teach her students, and to do so she reintroduces classroom instruction, much to the dismay of her superiors. The story illustrates both the power of television, and its severe limitations. The story is not so much about television itself, but about how a tool is used, and why it is the user of the tool that is important and not the nature of the tool.

Interview by Frank A. Javor is a brilliant piece that is actually about television and how those who present information to us via that medium lie to us, and how advances in technology may make it possible for them to lie even more. Given the myriad ways that newscasters often dishonestly manipulate what they are reporting via selective editing, reverse cuts, and reordering clips, one has to be somewhat disturbed by the addition of the emotional manipulation technology imagined by Javor, and makes one wonder whether the disclaimer the broadcaster is required to give at the end of his piece would actually be imposed should such technology ever come to actually exist.

There are some classic science fiction authors who seem to be the darlings of the libertarian crowd. Heinlein is one of them. Larry Niven is another. And when I read their fiction I can't help but thinking that the libertarians aren't paying attention. In this volume, Niven offers Cloak of Anarchy, a story about what seems to be a libertarian's fantasy, but because Niven isn't an idiot, he presents the fantasy for what it really is: a nightmare. In the future, when cars are no longer useful, the San Diego freeway has been turned into a huge "free" park. The only rule is a prohibition on hurting other people, enforced by floating cameras that stun any participants in violent acts. People accept that they can do anything they want in the park, and it is a place for people to act out whatever desires they have, from merely having picnics, to strolling around naked, to throwing rocks at the cameras. But when someone disables all of the cameras as a social experiment, things are suddenly not quite as idyllic. Gangs assert their authority over the only sources of water, extorting favors in return for a drink. Women who had previously felt comfortable ambling through the park naked find themselves hunted by would-be rapists, and so on. The libertarian anarchist fantasy devolves into a dystopian terror in just a few short hours, and the fact that it does seems to be a clear message of Niven's thoughts: libertarian anarchist societies are no place that anyone would actually want to live.

And Now the News by Theodore Sturgeon is another story only tangentially related to television, but is even more insightful now in the age of the internet than it was when it was first written. MacLyle is an ordinary man who lives an ordinary life until he becomes obsessed with reading the news in newspapers, listening to the news on the radio, and watching the news on television. The overload of information drives him mad, although it is a very peculiar form of madness that is particularly polite. He makes provisions for his suffering wife and then retreats to the countryside to become a hermit. A well-meaning psychiatrist journeys out to find MacLyle and attempt to cure him. It turns out that MacLyle has lost the ability to speak or read, but via intensive work, he is cured, with somewhat disastrous results. With the volume of information pouring in to the typical person's head via twenty-four hour news channels, the constant stream of data from the internet, and updates via smartphones, it seems like most people are now in MacLyle's position, which is a somewhat disquieting thought.

In contrast to Sturgeon's story is Very Proper Charlies by Dean Ing, which focuses on attempts to cut off the flow of information purportedly in the name of security. Everett is a officer working for the FCC charged with attempting to prevent terrorists from getting their actions on television, with the government more or less operating on the theory that terrorism thrives on publicity, and therefore to starve them of publicity will cause terrorism to dry up. After being almost blown up in the course of his regular duties, Everett gets involved in a project to discredit the terrorists by putting on a program that makes fun of them while at the same time suppressing any real reporting on terrorist activity. The program more or less works, but it isn't without cost as the villains respond rather disagreeably, resulting in a back and forth of intrigue and violence. The story seems in some ways to presage the modern paranoid attitude towards terrorism, including the idea that the media needs to be reigned in in the interest of security. The only real difference is that rather than having the government's paranoia imposed upon them, the entire media apparatus essentially voluntarily agrees to be muzzled by the authorities, more or less drawing a strained equivalency between the threat of terrorism and the U.S. national mobilization for the war effort in World War II.

Overall, this collection is an interesting read, although several of the stories have been overtaken to some extent by developments in technology. Stories that have televisions and radios that require their vacuum tubes to warm up before they operate seem rather quaint now, but in most of these tales the form of the technology is not as important as the effect that technology might have on humans, both individually and as a society. And the insights that are presented here are, for the most part, still fresh and just as insightful and chilling now as they were when these stories were first written. Granted, a fair number of the stories in this book are only about "television" in the most tangential way, but the truth is that most good science fiction isn't really about technology anyway. Science fiction at its best is about us, and these stories, full of questions and speculations about how humans interact with one another through mass media, are definitely about us.

1977 Hugo Award Nominees

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