20050724

Capitaine Flam and the death of scientific optimism

This Friday, I was goofing off at work, mostly because I was just waiting for the rain to stop. I had used my bike in the morning and didn't fancy pedaling in the rather strong summer storm that was in progress. I eventually came across this site and begun quizzing a co-worker on which songs he remembered. Now I feel quite old, because he didn't remember any of them.

I surprised myself enjoying the Capitaine Flam (Captain Future in English and Japanese) theme song. It's disco! It's kitch! But it's also a blast from the past.

I had never followed that particular series that much (preferring Albator to a large extent--seeing reviews of the two series, I sort of understand why). However, there's a particular episode that's still in my mind.

The good Captain finds himself stranded on a planet, his ship stuck somewhere in orbit. Together with other strandees, he builds a small ship from raw metal (how in the world can he do that? No machine shop, nothing... Anyway...). Unfortunately, the thrust system in the ship requires calcium to work, and there's no source on the planet. The Captain tries to sacrifice himself, but another strandee is quicker and walks into the power plant, letting his dead bones fuel the ship. All others escape, but rather gloomily.

Now, my recall of this episode may not be complete. Also, as I found out by checking out a few sample clips to refresh my memory, the animation was awful, the Captain was a stereotypical macho scientist-soldier with a density level approaching that of a neutron star, and overall, it felt very different from regular anime, plot-wise. But this particular story remains; it was a rather heavy-handed way to teach a kid that bones contained calcium, but it stuck in my juvenile mind. So, this is why I wanted to find out a bit more.

It turns out the series is based off an old pulp serial written by Edmond Hamilton in the 50's. Apparently, it got imported in Japan in the late 70's, and the Japanese really ate it up, despite all sorts of stupid plot devices, really weird concepts (one of the crew members was the brain of a dead scientist enclosed in a levitating cube filled with nutritive fluid--in the anime, it's a saucer-like device instead, but they kept the overall concept), a solar system with life on every planet (the anime places the action in different solar systems to make it a bit more plausible), a satellite around the sun, and a lot of other silliness. Curtis Newton, aka Captain Future, is the least plausible thing in the series, gifted with nearly superhuman brain power and reflexes. There's also a lot of silly stuff, like time travel, interdimensional travel, various human subtypes on every planet of the solar system, etc. etc. etc. And the total unconcern for safety around nuclear devices that filled pulps from that period.

It doesn't mean the series had no redeeming points. Newton is strong, fast, a perfect shooter, but still wins most fights through cunning and his superior scientific knowledge. Maybe unrealistic, but it did value brains over brawn, and although it was definitely meant to be wish-fulfillment for the target audience, it still made the pulp more clever than, say, plain superheroes. The text had some scientific explanations in them; some were completely bunk, but they were existing theories at the time. Keep in mind that before we sent probes all over the solar system, the fact that it was devoid of life was unobvious; we had only one planet as an example, and it's literally teeming with life of all kinds. But I think the main redeeming point is the sense of adventure, the optimism towards science, the sense that justice would prevail. Modern fiction is definitely more complex and mature for not being so optimistic, but it's also somewhat depressing, especially in the light of the events of the last few days.

So, what have I learned from this trip down memory lane? First, I've found out why the anime felt different from other anime at the time; it was actually an American story, which explained why it felt somewhat "average" in some ways. Still, I think it's an important anime, because it's one of the few that did adapt Western concepts; even if they were somewhat juvenile concepts, they are still part of our culture.

Second, I learned that I'm still very nostalgic about such series. I wish they were more easily available. People in France have better access to those; we in Canada are too small a market to matter much, unless the US cares. And the US doesn't care about most old anime series, because they were horribly dubbed and sometimes hacked to pieces and turned into some sort of composite anime.

Third, I feel that although the way pulps looked at the world were very naive, they served a purpose. I doubt the grunge movement would have come to exist if kids had been reading that kind of stuff instead of hanging out in bleak suburban malls. But nowadays, there seems to be three kinds of media that younger people consume. Squeaky clean, mind-numbingly dull shows like Barney the dinosaur, which, frankly, insult kids' intelligence (compare those to intelligent shows like Passe Partout if you have the chance, and you'll understand). Violent or disgusting cartoons, who are all pretty much the same and are really cookie-cutter shows to sell toys and such. And the things they aren't supposed to watch, and are usually depressing, trash/destroy music videos or series. Hardly uplifting material. Combine with news media that scream "fear! fear! fear!" all the time, hardcore porn that treat women like things, and wonder why you shake your head at the decline of social mores. Even adults aren't immune to such treatment, and kids are like sponges.

I am not advocating censorship in any form. All kinds of material have their place. But can't we get a breath of fresh air once in a while? That may explain why super-hero movies and Lord of the Rings are such resounding successes--they are breathes of fresh air. Unfortunately, they're also old material, and require suspension of disbelief. They also tend to be past-oriented, and I feel that future-orientation is one of the strong points of western society.

I guess I'm itching to see something like this corny, stodgy Capitaine Flam, but updated to modern standards. No need to make it violent or dark or anything; just remove the blatant macho elements, the rather dangerous use of atomic devices, make the science a bit more plausible (even if that means you have to introduce hyperspace, even though that's as implausible as everything else), and maybe we'll have something. It may not be that marketable nowadays, but dammit, I'm sick of wallowing in guilt over all the defects of my society, and I'm also sick the only optimists appear to be idiots (i.e., right-wingers) who are in denial over today's problems. Those problems are solvable, and we should be working at solving them instead of denying they exist or accepting them as the inevitable byproduct of modern civilisation.

Take the widening gap between the rich and poor in industrialized nations (or better yet, the gap between industrialized nations and non-industrialized nations). This is indeed a problem; it's returning us to a feudal-like system, with corporate employment replacing serfdom. Sure, it's not as many hours, not as physically demanding... But those are superficial differences; the work owns you, just like it owned the serf. The left likes to say this is the byproduct of a capitalist system; the right likes to say that everybody gets richer this way, even if the rich are much, much richer than the poor. Both attitudes are problematic, because they both perpetuate the problem. If the left wins, you just get a different clique with all the riches (remember the USSR?) If the right wins, as they are right now, it only gets worse. If you read older sci-fi novels, there's a huge contrast. The world is owned by the average majority. The heroes are sometimes richer than the average, but they show very little greed. Of course, they're also paternalists, and tend to patronize "the little folk", but despite that, the whole feel of stories of this era is much more hopeful than what I see these days. It seems, in fact, that those heroes wish for a day where they won't be needed anymore, and where everyday people will be able to live in peace.

There are other aspects of modern life that aren't being seen in the same way as they were in those novels. But this is starting to be quite long, so I won't go there.

If there was one thing those old stories did that isn't really done anymore, it was to teach elementary science concepts in the guise of a space adventure. In a crowded world like ours, "hard" science is losing relevance because the hard problem is becoming how to interact with all those other 6 billion people sharing the space with you. But in space, nature reclaims its place and survival comes from scientific thinking once more, just like it did on Earth before we started to tame it. The paternalist, gun-toting Captain Futures weren't the essence of such storytelling; the ability of humans to figure out who nature works and how to make the best of it was. I'm sure it would be possible to have good, entertaining stories with interesting characters without turning it into a dark, depressive mess many modern sci-fi stories end up becoming. And it would also be possible to have such heroic stories without resorting to super powers, or without wallowing in distortions of medieval history. If anyone knows of an author who does this, let me know.

As for myself, I intend to give it a shot--to see if I can pull such a thing. My own fanfics, although edging towards medieval/modern hybrids (and left unfinished, shame on me!), do try to have such an atmosphere. When I wrote them, it felt "natural;" so I don't think I'd have to force myself. The main problem will be to figure out an interesting plot with solid scientific basis (but not necessarily too solid--after all, the pulps weren't that solid about many things!), and come up with interesting characters.

Wish me luck!

1 comment:

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