Escape Velocity Girl

A quantumly uncertain spoon
July 7, 2011, 12:29 am
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Uncategorized

The above graphic incarnates the history of speculative fiction as a sort of malformed terrestrial squid, wriggling, or (in a feeble cephalapodian pun) squiggling through the literary substrate, its tentacular subgenres masturbatorily  entangled. And this idea of speculative fiction as a lurid and living Gordian bio-knot seems right to me, somehow. The concept of distinct literary genres can be seen in two ways (if only – por piedad! – for the purposes of this post): as a kind of useful Tupperwaring of tropes, themes and styles for the ease of discerning/finicky readers – or as the intellectual stockyarding of the aforementioned literate, veal-stunted in cages of their own self-perceived preferences, fat-stippled flesh/wallets air-gunned for profit of paperback pushers.

According to an absolutist view of genres, Anne McCaffrey’s telepathic dragons and Mercedes Lackey’s psychic horses are crypto-taxonomical Montagues and Capulets, their homologous mental abilities the products of genetic manipulation and sorcery, respectively– and in this distinction are meant to be crystallized the comparative quiddities of science fiction and fantasy, the former generally judged as having a more intimate relation with reality, or some embryonic version thereof.  However, on a fundamental, no doubt unsophisticated, level, I just don’t buy the idea that of two sets of talking animals, one can be more fictional than the other; to my mind, all fiction, whether literary or speculative, is equally fictional and thus equally unreal. Firefly worlds spun from synaptic flashes may mimic reality, but can never belong to it in any concrete, corporeal way  – each writer a Lem-ian Mymosh the Selfbegotten, constructing “brand-new constellations, arranging them with loving care in the eternal darkness of his consciousness, which [is] his Gozmos.”

This base-level equality of make-believe-osity both invalidates any kneejerk intellectual snobbery in favor of literary fiction and undercuts the jockeying for status and legitimacy between subgenres within speculative fiction, re: Vincent Omniaveritas née Bruce Sterling’s vintage takedown of swords and sorcery in Cheap Truth #1:

“As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands.  Dreaming of dragon-hood, Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla.”

Now, while I do squee for a herpetological metaphor or four, and while I must confess to a certain ambivalence concerning magical artifacts and arboreal elves,* I reject hard sf’s claim to being somehow more “real.” My own (admittedly high-school level) understanding of scientific progress and innovation is that it rarely follows an arrow-straight path – the course of progress, like that of love, running not smooth, but along bumpy backroads and unexpected detours. For all Jules Verne’s efforts to extrapolate future means of transportation from then-contemporary technology, his Columbiad space gun bears little resemblance to the liquid-fuel rockets actually used to fly Autour de la Lune. Many of our own seemingly reasonable speculations will likely seem as quaint in a century’s time, hard sf’s carefully constructed scientific justifications for the fantastic proving no more than a house of cards, toppled by the Pompous Wind of Unpredictable Progress.

…or, to continue the architectural motif, perhaps hard sf is a Potemkin village of sorts. As Kathryn Cramer writes of the subgenre:

“…when scientific ideas and formulations are invoked in a text that does not make use of mathematics in appropriate amounts, the text relies upon other texts that do. Before science can be incorporated into hard sf, it must be stripped of its mathematical bones, so-no matter how accurate the text-science is used as a mythology. What science gives to hard sf is a body of metaphor that provides the illusion of both science and realism.”

In other (more unnecessarily obfuscatory) words, perhaps the definition of hard sf has less to do with its creators’ intentions than with the fact that its readers have faith that its flights of fancy are more than fancy. Kim Stanley Robinson may have labored to make his Mars Trilogy scientifically plausible, but, not having seen the arithmetic justifications for his speculations, I must accept the plausibility of his theories on the basis of a sort of truthiness, which is more a matter of knowing which subgenre his books have been branded (hard sf=kinda sorta real!) and of picking up on his style (in Robinson’s case, his exhaustive and, occasionally, exhausting cataloging of Martian rocks and terraforming theories broadcasts a kind of narcotizing authoritativeness). But, even were each hard sf novel to be accompanied by a companion Tome of Underlying Facts, I would still have to accept its premises on faith; for a nonscientists (or, at least, this nonscientist), the experiences of reading stories based upon carefully woven daisy chains of scientific/technological logic and those based on sui generis soap bubbles of handwavium differ but little.**

I do wonder, though, if there is, or ever was, some sort of sweet spot for hard sf, a point at which the average reader’s understanding of the scientific bases for such narratives was more profound than a facile-ity with genre jargon (genrargon?). Though Newton may have had to piggyback on a giant or two before being conked by his apocryphal apple, his resulting Laws of Motion seem simple enough (the experiments used to illustrate their meaning yielding visible, physical results) to have perhaps been comprehensible to hoi polloi of ye olde tymes (assuming hoi polloi not cerebrally stunted by malnutrition, black buboes, i tak dalee). And, thus, said unwashed masses could have enjoyed a genuinely informed understanding of the advanced concepts of Newtonian “gravity” and “inertia” as employed in contemporaneous hard sf-this, of course, in a magical slipsteam land, in which 18th century sf had progressed past the zygotic, and plebians possessed ample hours to devour scientifically-sound tales of interstellar derring-do.***

From what I understand, the the intellectual “buy-in” required to conduct or comprehend cutting-edge research-its nuts, bolts and terrifyingly complex concatenations thereof-has rather increased in the last few centuries; one cerebellum no longer sufficient, but rather Stakhanovite computers and collectives of contemporary Newtons required to advance “upward, not forward, and always twirling….” And if indeed scientific knowledge is complexifying and increasing at such breeding-bunny pace, then the foundational facts of works of hard sf will only become ever more abstract to the chimerical average reader (if one accepts the above-disputed premise that the subgenre is defined by an actual correspondence to reality, rather than by a posture or style vis-à-vis the same). Perhaps I lack the necessary geek credentials to comment, or aimlessly pick brain-bluebells, on a topic as potentially inflammatory as genre definitions (narrative, not science, having been my Stargate-way drug to sf), but, from a subjective experiential standpoint, I can objectively non-pre-pro-scriptively assert that, to this reader: dark energy=pixie dust

*and while there is little as exhilarating to read as bare-knuckle bile in criticism (see anything by Anthony Lane, or this splenetic and splendid  gastro-takedown in Vanity Fair, the inventive and eloquent vituperativeness of which reaffirms my faith in humanity far more than any Hallmarkian pablum-atic kumbayosity)…the question of whether gastrointestinal juices can actually have knuckles being conveniently not within the purview of this blog…

**I would argue that there are also-somewhat attenuated-comparisons to be made between religion and hard sf: the Book of Revelations builds its eschatological prognostications on a body of myth believed true by true believers, just as hard sf frankensteins plausible or probable futures from scientific scraps (I do not, however, wish to paint all would-be Cassandras with the same brush, there being, clearly, differences between predictions based upon religious belief and those on reason, my point being rather that such differences are not always as profound as they might appear prima facie).

***’Struth, Sir Isaac! ‘Twould seem the beryl beasties with ocular orbs of demonic diameter knew not that that that doth go up, so shall it ever come down. Yonder their sky chariot burns in the inferno and yea, verily, saved we have been by your principia mathematica!

image via, painting by Ward Shelley

“Physicist, heal thyself/Submit to Alien Pleasure Rays…”
January 22, 2011, 7:42 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Uncategorized

Men’s magazines (to say nothing of atrocious movies starring Mel Gibson) make a mint purporting to answer what some represent as one of the most profound mysteries of the Universe: What Women Want. Science fiction (and the occasional slumming scientist) addresses what might actually be one of the most profound mysteries of the Universe: What Do Aliens Want?* Assuming the existence of said aliens (it being sine qua non to the sensicality of this inquiry) and acknowledging the un-PC-ness of blurring (likely) myriad cultures, civilizational temperaments and tentacular physiologies into an Edward Said-ian extraterrestrial Other, engaging in speculative psychoanalysis in anticipation of a big date/First Contact makes a certain amount of sense: in order to increase the probability of sexy time/survival, should one greet the Other with processed Theobroma cacao and carbon allotrope adornments, or leis made of viscera and a gift basket of first-born? Herewith, a random assortment of theories from equally random sources on what, exactly, interstellar organisms desire in their heart of hearts of squidgy silicone-based blobs:

1. Intended annihilation of the human race: the mere existence of our pink-brown fleshiness being a profound insult to carapace-d superbugs, whose xenocidal intent can only be thwarted by the odd couple chemistry of Independence Day‘s Goldblum and Smith. Salvation through Hollywood casting and canned quips. Or through the grooming of a pre-adolescent military messiah as in Ender’s Game, in which the Bugger-Formics’ hostility is prompted by a somewhat improbable misunderestimation of mankind’s sentience. Kumbayas are likely to be of little use in this scenario and the cozy comfort of a beneficent god and harp-scored heaven remote.

2. Incidental annihilation of the human race: Stephen Hawking made headlines relatively recently by arguing that an alien incursion “would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” In other words, we can expect stellar smallpox and a nouveau Trail of Tears (the moon standing in for Oklahoma in this somewhat insensitively flippant comparison), depopulating the planet in anticipation of a land or resource grab, the question being what, exactly, in our terrestrial cornucopia (gravel? catfood?) stimulates the exobioforms’ salivary analogues. Of course, man himself could easily be the gold dust in this tale of intergalactic prospecting: fresh-squeezed human juice the taste du jour as in War of the Worlds, our orifices prized by extraterrestrial bestiality fetishists, our deep-fried love handles the ideal incubators for their marshmellowian spawn. While not all these scenarios entail extinction, insult, injury and indignity are guaranteed.

3. Annihilation of the human race through its transmutation or “transcendence”: in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, the Oankali (Medusa-skin-ed humanoids) are driven by genetic imperative to enact a program of hybridization with the post-apocalyptic remnants of humanity, emulating a kind of triple-XXX Mary Poppins and sweetening their medicine (enforced speciation) with a spoonful of sugar (trippy tentacle interspecial intercourse). In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, the Overlords husband mankind towards dissolution into an undefined universal Overmind; homo sapiens as a semelparous species, consumed in the evaporation of the Earth as its children tally-ho to the realm of the immaterial. Eugenics writ large and catastrophic for those of us primitively purebred.

4. Enlightenment of the human race: according to Archangel Uriel (otherwise known as Ruth Norman, the co-founder of the Unarius Academy of Science), extraterrestrials want nothing more than to apprise mankind of the indestructible energy-based nature of reality, a reinterpretation of the first law of thermodynamics tarted up with pinhead prophets, glitter-vision and karmic reincarnation. The Special Circumstances division of Iain M. Banks’s Culture has an equally evangelical, if a-religious, mission: to fast-track species’ civilizational development and nudge them to play nice in the intragalactic sandbox (this paternalistic interference occasionally entailing a body count). And, as advanced by an anonymous Internet poet-prophet, our putative extraterrestrial playmates desire above all else that mankind accept their gifts “Of pleasure tools, telepathy, Empath Juice and Wisdom Weed/Of bulging bulbous sacks of alien eggs and seed.” Those who object to the interference of current international institutions (UN, ICJ, etc.) may find such paternalistic alien intrusions insupportable, but hey – at least the copulation is consensual in this scenario.

5. Absolutely zippo: Perhaps the little green men or “grays,” as they are known in conspiracy theory parlance, profess a Prime Directive or policy of noninterference, having been brainwashed by late night Star Trek reruns beamed past the Kármán line, in which case the future is in our hands, the chil’ren are our future, ergo the chil’ren are in our hands (cliched blah-blah) and those of us SETI-enthusiasts or Fox Mulder-delusionals/hopefuls are doomed to disappointment. Or perhaps Lovecraft was prescient in his description of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, ancient and imponderable extraterrestrials, so awesome in aspect and overwhelmingly powerful that humanity would register as little more than an especially inconsequential and easily swatted gnat. In which case, we are le screwed.

*and really, this parallel is rather complimentary, implying a parity of inscrutability and (theoretical) omnipotence between us be-uterus-ed and mankind’s hypothetical future extraterrestrial overlords.

photo credit:

Sci-fi Naked Eye
August 22, 2010, 8:53 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Real Worlds, Uncategorized

Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System, which is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum, purports to show the planets as they appear “in reality,” the photos reverse-engineered from the black-and-white or partial images beamed back from our kino-eye mechanical surrogates: Galileo, Pathfinder, Viking, et. al. The exhibit is an implicit rejection of the Technicolor trickery of Hubble images, in which the universe appears a pirate’s chest overflowing with gas-giant gems, Impressionistic swirls of color ready-made for the dorm room walls of an undergrad punning on the de rigueur decorative “Starry Night.” In a counter-intuitive way, the toned-down colors and simplicity of composition of the photos makes the “beyond” seem even more alien; while I would bet the Horsehead Nebula holds pride of place on countless desktops, Benson’s minimalist Uranus, a powder blue circle in a square of black, represents an existentially threatening, visually minimalistic view of the universe, which is, after all, approximately 96% empty to the naked eye.

The photos at the exhibit that generate the most awe or attention, however, seem to be those of Earth; during my visit, a mid-western mother enthused to her red-headed brood over images of the Great Lakes, while Japanese tourists sat apathetic and unseeing in front of a photo of golden Io’s four hundred flaws – mosquito stings in the myth, volcanic eruptions in reality. Their reactions seemed a confirmation of the provincial cast of the human brain; though we’re told as children that our imaginations have “wings,” Icarus-like we can only fly so high. The familiar-made-strange is more wondrous to most than the merely strange.

Viktor Shklovsky coined the term остранение (defamiliarization) to describe this artistic effect, writing,

The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Michael Benson’s photos zoom out kilometers from the quotidian waves and motorboats, discarded beer cans and tadpole hatcheries, turning the Great Lakes into a cluster of  terrestrial tears; the alien-view makes viewers see anew. This, of course, has implications for science fiction, begging the question: are all the wormholes, crinkly-forehead-ed humanoids and handwavium tech really just window-dressing meant to “defamiliarize” or de-cliche love, hate and threadbare narrative scaffolding? Does setting our human dramas against against inhuman backdrops lend them a sheen of grandeur? Or, perhaps, through a reverse-остранение,  does Google-mapping  an imaginary universe with plot points make the empty expanses of the real deal somehow more pedestrian or comprehensible? The stars are no longer ginormous super-really-hot spheres of gas billions of years old scattered across a three-four-twelve dimensional stretch of infinity, but depots of futuristic truck fuel, garbage dumps for Cylon fleets, oversized lightbulbs to be switched on or off with nuclear circuitry, way-stations during the TV hero’s journey of whats-his-name, who, after all, isn’t all that different from you or me.

One novel that deftly sidesteps Shklovsky’s theory is Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks, which is often labeled “space opera,” a genre admirably honest about its use of ray guns to tart up Australopithecine-ancient themes of lust and revenge. During the first 95% of the book, Bora Horza Gobuchul, the shape-shifting protagonist, is set up as proof positive of the Great Man theory of history – the one person in the galaxy with the skills and background to infiltrate a Planet of the Dead, retrieve a brilliant, dimension-hopping Mind, bring an end to a conflict so mind-bogglingly bloody it must be surely be the War to End All Wars, and grant the Idirans victory over the machine-led Culture, which doubtless is mere years away from eliminating all biological life. Except…Horza fails and dies, it turns out the Mind was relatively inconsequential, the Culture not only wins but fails to perpetrate indiscriminate genocide, and the war itself turns out to have been no more than a minor blip in galactic history. Despite Consider Phlebas‘s post-Singularity, interstellar setting, Banks is relentlessly realistic, undermining any attempts to correlate the vastness of the novel’s geography, the sophistication of the characters’ ray guns, with any significance of plot: a man tries to do something, fails or succeeds, and dies, none of which ultimately matters – science fiction as backdrop for the most quotidian story possible, belonging, as it does, to all of us.

photo credit: NASA

“Star Trek fans, prepare to be disappointed”
March 1, 2010, 9:29 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Real Worlds

Having served time at a glossy publication, in which it was de rigeur for all blurbs, articles and blarticles to open with the journalistic equivalent of a come-on, I am sympathetic to writers who magpie together copy (it’s far easier to hook a reader with a collage of cultural references and in-jokes than simple, declarative sentences). However, the following equation should always be kept in mind:

(linguistic cuteness)-(in-depth fact-checking)=(an incoherent and potentially audience-alienating article)

i.e. make sure your brilliant references makes sense in the context of the text, i.e. avoid pretending to a Mariana Trench depth of knowledge if you’re really more comfortable in the proverbial kiddie pool (as everyone generally is when it comes to almost everything). I write in reference to a recent article in New Scientist that purports to prove the impossibility of human near-light-speed travel–and, by extension, claims to dash the warp drive wet-dreams of every be-unibrow-ed Trekkie/er the world over.

A summary of the science: According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity travelers interact with space and time differently depending on their respective speeds. Meaning that the crew of any superfast fictional ship flying through syndicated television would experience space as highly compressed. Although interstellar space is only sparsely seeded with hydrogen atoms (two per cubic centimeter), the aforementioned crew with its pug-nosed perception of space (i.e. smooshed) would experience this wisp of matter as a veritable hailstorm when traveling at near-light speeds. The kinetic energy of the atoms would increase accordingly, creating a wave of radiation sure to kill said crew dead. Tres tragique.

From this the author of the article implies that Roddenberryian warp speed travel is an impossibility. There are, ahem, a few things wrong with this conclusion:

1. The author has got the mechanism of warp speed plain wrong. The USS Enterprise doesn’t rev up like a race car from 0 to 60–it jumps off the scale, creating a “warp bubble” with its “warp drive” that “warps” the time-space continuum, pulling its destination closer while maintaining a relatively low velocity. Sort of like how a hypothetical person in the midst of a hypothetical Next Generation marathon could hypothetically have two larges with extra cheese delivered without ever leaving the also-hypothetical couch. No cell-destroying radiation wave, no perilous midnight quest to Dominos, no problem. (for a more, uh, technical explanation, see here)

2. There is something logically unsound about using the rules and research of one system (our current reality) to critique cherry-picked premises of another system (any alternative or fictional reality). For example, Federation ships come with these nifty things called “deflector shields” that are specially designed to bounce away interstellar debris, pesky hydrogen atoms, etc. Hence the fact that Star Trek is not an incredibly boring show about watching irradiated corpses decompose in fast-moving ships. The problems the article claims to expose have been anticipated and nullified in the Star Trek universe by yet other technologies; ergo, what the author is really saying is just that warp speed (or, rather, her inaccurate conception of the technology) would not work with the level of technology we have now in this, our current universe. Um…duh? Had they operated according to the same logic, early aeronautics engineers would have scoffed at the possibility of jet propulsion, arguing that the heat and speed of such engines would necessarily create crispy-fied, wind-flayed toothpicks out of any hypothetical biplane aviators foolish enough to test them.

Now, I am certainly not one of those head-in-the-nebula-cloud enthusiasts who bristles at any intrusion of actual science into my perfect, pretty scifi terraria. But at the same time I would hope that articles applying current scientific research to fictional or speculative worlds would take the latter as seriously as the former. After all, we’re all just augurs poking through entrails, trying to divine a future none of us will ever see. For some, those entrails are lab results and statistical models. For others, words and flights of fancy.

photo credit: NASA CD-98-76634 by Les Bossinas

Frank R. Paul’s Quartz City on Mercury
February 21, 2010, 9:35 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Uncategorized

While it is something of Popeye-ism to say all fiction is fictional (“I yam what I yam”), science fiction is often thought of as more fictional, as it generally involves settings or characters or events so far from our definition of the here and now and “real” as to seem impossible or, at the very least, improbable until the coming of some remote future (the existence of which is itself speculative as no one now alive shall live long enough to attest to its reality). However, works of science fiction are often told through a proxy, a human (or human enough) “straight man,” whose presence mitigates or contextualizes the strange, an explorer from the near-real who voyages into the unreal, who acts as a pinkiehold of familiarity for an audience/readership dangling above an abyss of unfettered imagination (to put it rather floridly…). While this strategy is certainly not restricted to the genre (compare Sex and the City’’s relatively-normal narratrix Carrie with her cartoonish bffs), I would argue that its presence, rather than absence, is the rule in science fiction narratives.

Which is, perhaps, why Frank R. Paul’s illustrations for mid-century pulp magazines Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures are so arresting. His front-cover illustrations were tied to text and accordingly featured square-jawed spacemen and pneumatic blowup dolls fleeing from/attacking various tentacled or robotic intergalactic baddies. The back covers, however, were something far stranger: a pseudo-scientifically-explained ketchup-and-mustard toned tour through the architectural wonders of far off worlds . Though it is possible to divine shades of the Chrysler Building in his Golden City on Triton (no man can entirely disentangle himself from context and culture), the pictures are free of proxies: wasp-colored androids, portly seal princes and crimson bat-cat crosses aplenty, but no cut-and-paste humans to wink at readers and say “Look how weird this all is! But-never fear!-Team America is still the center of the Universe.” (for a survey of Paul’s oeuvre, see this excellent site)

Of course it’s far easier to evoke the fantastic in a static art form like illustration, which has no element of duration, no hundreds of pages or minutes over which the creator must try to maintain the integrity of his utterly alien vision. But imagine the saga of the Elder Things in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness narrated not by ill-informed geologist William Dyer, but by the half-vegetable beasts themselves. Or James Cameron’s Avatar without the crutch of a human framework, in which the audience can appreciate the extravagant CGI imaginarium that is Pandora without being spoonfed the appropriate oohs and aahs by everyman Jake Sully.

And here a disclaimer-I happen to quite like the aforementioned novella and film, and I understand that the proxy trope is so prevalent precisely because it generally works, but as someone with an over-expansive  imagination I do occasionally wish for a science fiction that is less self-referential and self-centered, in which the Universe is more than a super-humongous mirror in which humanity is endlessly reflected. Perhaps such stories do exist in vast numbers (pardon moi, my ignorance is showing), or perhaps their absence can be explained by the difficulty of monetizing movies or books in which the heartthrob hero is a flagella-flailing protozoon and the ingenue an amorphous cloud of radiation…but wouldn’t such narratives be kind of, sort of, super-really awesome?

“Funny thing is, for a spaceship, she doesn’t do that much flying.”
February 15, 2010, 11:56 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds

I’ve always envisioned space travel through Star-Trek-colored-glasses, the Universe as a vast ocean, dotted with galactic atolls that fade (or zip) past the portholes of aerodynamically curvaceous space-boats.  And most science fiction space travel conforms to this maritime metaphor. Not so Doctor Who, with its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which, in terms of conveyances, is gleefully “none of the above.” With its camouflage unit/chameleon circuit/cloaking device locked on a 1960s British police box, the TARDIS is decidedly non-aerodynamic (though aiming for aerodynamism in the relative vacuum of space is a bit like tilting at windmills) and non-futuristic (its wooden exterior is aesthetically almost steampunkian). But what does the TARDIS mean for narrative (not dimensional) time and space? Herewith, a scattershot of thoughts:

1. Though warp speed conveniently makes distant locations accessible within a 42-minute time slot, travel in the Star Trek universe still involves an investment of time and, accordingly, the physical distance between two points is still significant (the central tragedy of Star Trek Voyager is that, even in the 24th-century, one can be irrevocably far from home). But in Doctor Who, tardic travel involves no more than yanking and banging a few mysterious bits of metal and, sooner than David Tennant can flash his rakish grin, you’re galaxies away. Which begs the somewhat-zen question: if a journey takes no time, is it still a journey? If there is no downtime, no hours spent watching the road/wormhole zoom by, can there be pathos in distance? Answer: only when the TARDIS is thought to be irrevocably lost (see “The Impossible Planet”)–a straw man plot device as Doctor Who without its trademark magical box would make about as much sense as Buffy The Vampire Slayer sans vampires.

2. Instant gratification, something-for-nothing, is the name of the game when it comes to the TARDIS. “Hey attractive Earth girlie at least 880 years younger than me, want to see the formation of Earth or perhaps a planet made of diamonds? Just take a split-second ride in my tricked out TARDIS!” Or, similarly, “Hey stressed-out Doctor Who writer, need to come up with an episode post haste? Just choose a premise from all of fictional time and space with the added bonus of not having to provide a method/means/rationale of/for travel!” The TARDIS ship/plot device means that the show is essentially an infinite science fiction playground. Stories can vary wildly episode to episode, while problems of continuity and fixed points are limited to details of the TARDIS and characterizations of the Doctor and his companion du jour.

3. However, though the time/space teleportation mechanism is certainly convenient (the cure-all of speculative fiction), it is by no means arbitrary (and here the superficiality of my Who-ian knowledge begins to show–I refer only to Russell Davies’ recent run, never having seen the first, oh, 26-years of the series). The Eccleston/Tennant Doctor is a character on the run from his past (a tricky proposition for a Time Lord with a correspondingly tangled time line), having been forced to destroy his entire civilization, family, etc, cue the sobbing violins….The ADD of the show episode to episode, the Internet-Age-esque accessibility of endless distraction (thanks to the TARDIS), are a perfect refuge. If one never puts down roots, no need to remember those long lost. Adventure, not introspection! (which only makes the inevitable moments of melodramatic remembrance all the more affecting, le sigh, le sob–see “The Sound of Drums.”)