An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr President

In the wake of Neil Armstrong’s passing away yesterday, it seems that most of the world is in mourning. It was, to me, extremely touching to see you using your Twitter feed to pay your own tribute to him. I agree with you, that Neil Armstrong was a hero of all time.

I think Neil, and both what he did and what he represented, showed the very best of the human spirit. Through Neil, we reached out from this world and touched the universe beyond the sky. In all of our achievements to date, that has to rank most highly.

It inspired generations down the line, all the way to me. Even though it was long before my time, the names Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, as well as Armstrong’s words as he took those first momentous steps, have always resonated deeply with me.

So what better tribute could you, America, and the world make to such a great man, than to carry on in that spirit? Apollo 11 showed us how much mankind could achieve, when we put our mind to it. That hasn’t changed. We can still dream big, and make those dreams come true.

I believe that we can put a man on Mars. I believe we can do it easily within my lifetime. And though I will never see dawn on the Red Planet with my own eyes, I know that my children, my grandchildren and my descendent down the line can do so.

The USA leads the world, and in space travel particularly. Few institutions have as much respect around the world as does NASA. Whilst I believe that any manned mission to Mars should and must be international, it is foolishness to thing that there is anyone better suited or better able to lead it than the USA and NASA.

You are frequently referred to as the most powerful man in the world. If that is true, what better way to show it than to make the announcement and pledge the money to put a human being on the surface of Mars in the next twenty years. It can be done, and in doing so we can inspire generations to come to be their best and accomplish all that they can. What better way to lift the people of planet Earth out of their petty troubles and disagreements, and realise the extent of their abilities?

As I said, I wasn’t able to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon. My parents were, and have spoken of it to me many times. But I know that I can have the same experience, watching an astronaut taking the first steps on Mars. And, Mr President, you have the power to make this dream of billions a reality.

Yours hopefully

Matthew S. Dent

SF writer and lifelong dreamer

Save Our Sci-Fi

If the future of humanity does begin with a choice, I fear SyFy have made the wrong one.

So, earlier this week BSG spin-off series Caprica was cancelled. I’m not going to spend this blog entry moaning specifically about that, for two reasons. Firstly, I’m quite behind on the series, only a few episodes in, and thus haven’t decided whether it will meet it’s potential (but rest assured, the potential is there). Secondly, there are plenty of other people across the interwebs doing just that.

No, my complaint here is a more general trend indicated in the cancellation; that of good sci-fi television being cut short without being given a real chance. Or worse, being positively brilliant. Firefly is the obvious example, but far from the only instance.

I remember when I was growing up, the TV schedules were full of science-fiction. It wasn’t all good, but it was certainly there. The Star Trek Franchise was working its way through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager (not to mention several films- some of them even good). The X-Files was giving us conspiracy theories and aliens being investigated by an FBI duo with a taste for sunflower seeds and interesting pronunciation of the English language. Babylon 5 was doing something, though quite what I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never actually watched an episode. Stargate SG-1 was taking us to distant worlds through a bowl of jelly, with MacGyver as a tour guide.

And there were myriads of smaller, lesser-known sci-fi shows floating around. Five seasons of Andromeda, with Kevin Sorbo whizzing about as Hercules in space, for Christ’s sake. And five seasons of pseudo-philosophical nonsense with Earth Final Conflict (both, incidentally, mining the last vestiges of the late Gene Roddenberry’s imagination). If even these more obscure things managed to prosper, hopefully it will give you a hint of how strong the genre used to do.

Nowadays, they seem to struggle. Aside from the utter bollocks of Firefly’s cancellation (midway through one of the best first seasons I’ve ever seen from a TV series, of any genre), there are a host of similar cancellations littering the path. The demise of the mutated Stargate SG-1 and misguided spin-off Stargate Atlantis probably won’t be much mourned, but back in the 2003 outstanding Australian offering Farscape was given the chop too. Since then Dollhouse (Joss Whedon’s other sci-fi project) has been given its marching orders, lesser-known but still praise-worthy Denying Gravity was denied a second season, as was Flashforward (not a patch on the book, but still better than Lost by a wide margin). And that’s to say nothing of the countless great ideas which have undoubtedly been turned down.

What I think this amounts to, in my opinion, is a shift in the perception of sci-fi. It just doesn’t seem to be cool any more. The only science-fiction series that I can think of to have run its full course rather than being prematurely cancelled is Caprica‘s parent show, Ronald D. Moore’s sterling remake of Battlestar Galactica.

When you factor in the Sci-Fi channel’s bizzare and much-documented name change to SyFy, I think we have to accept that TV studios are not keen on the genre any more. The flagship genre representatives at the moment are X-Files lookalike Fringe (which is fantastic, and if they go anywhere near it with an axe I’m going to have to resort to violence), bold reinvention of the original franchise Stargate Universe, and the BBC’s reinvention of the Doctor Who franchise (which may be facing difficulties of a different sort, before too long). Of course, you have the V remake, but I think the less said about that diluted cat piss the better.

Is there a deeper root to this downturn? Are people not dreaming of the future any more? Do we not look up at the stars and dream of what could be out there? If you look at real world events, such as Obama’s attitude towards NASA, you might think so. I don’t know the answer to that one, but my favourite television genre seems to be under siege at the moment.

Hollywood has never gotten sci-fi. They’ve made token efforts, and sometimes done fairly well, but the extended possibilities of a TV series, of a long story arc, has always seemed the natural home of video science-fiction to me. If it’s going to be allowed to vanish from our screens, I fear not only for the genre, but for humanity’s approach to the future. Science-fiction is, to me at least, imagination incarnate. It is the ultimate “what if?”. And I think we really do need that.

Maybe you disagree, but all I’m really saying here is give sci-fi a chance.