The Edison Effect

I’ve seen several posts, comments, et al. describing the late Steve Jobs as “the Thomas Edison of the 21st Century,” an undeniably true statement. It seems unlikely that anyone else could come along and take the title.

As a writer, though, I find myself looking at the effect of Edison’s inventions – the phonograph, movie camera, and lightbulb, if you hadn’t paid attention in the fifth grade – the ways they affected society, business, even government both in the short term, and across decades as others refined and improved on them. How will the things Jobs created (no quibbling about “invented,” either; Edison had a research lab just like Jobs did, and he still gets credit for the invention itself) have changed the world by the end of the 21st century? What will his inventions (the Apple ][e, Macintosh, Pixar, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, if you weren’t keeping score) have become by then?

Edison’s movie camera has less resemblance to the Red camera of today than the Apple ][e or 1st generation Mac resembles the Macbook Air. There’s a lot of ground to cover before the Mac, the iPhone, or the iPad have altered society to the same degree as movie cameras, recorded music, or affordable lightbulbs. Spend just a few seconds pondering that one and you can see how little the world we live in would resemble one without any one of those three inventions.

So this brings me to what is more-or-less my point: how do we, as authors, delve into that future and see some of where society will go with these devices and the habits (and industries) they create? P. K. Dick saw autonomous robots that could hear what was said to them and respond with words, but he described those robots as having thousands of, essentially, tiny tape decks that could play back the individual words & phrases required to react to the human and his or her words.

Golden Age SF managed to foresee a lot of things, but none of the predicted technologies (that I’ve ever noticed) included digital storage media. Tape and disks abound in old SF. The uses of lasers are also under-predicted. How do we avoid these mistakes?

Trick question, of course; we don’t; because they aren’t mistakes. The things successfully “predicted” by SF tend to get invented in the real world promptly following their debut in fiction. Heinlein’s waldos and waterbeds came from his books, not from a vacuum.

So we do what we can to see where technology is going, in a way that will be believable to the reader and – most importantly – serves the story. The future world Steve will continue to create for decades to come will take care of itself.

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Why aren’t there any good Heinlein movies?

To many of us who grew up with SF, gaming, comics — in other words, us geeks — and especially those of us who now are raising our children with the same joys, the options today offer the penultimate paradise of entertainment:  Superhero movies are digging deeper into the pantheons of Marvel and DC.  (Jonah Hex, fer cryin’ out loud!)  There are something like nine major films based on Phillip K. Dick stories.  Wal-Mart and Target have exclusive versions of video games.  World of Warcraft has a higher population than several nations.

Add to that the ability that both Hollywood and directors have displayed in recent years: to get it right.  The Narnia films have the look and feel of that world nearly spot-on (even if the story details were changed).  The Lord of the Rings movies are and will be a high mark in literary cinema.  The Harry Potter series has faithfully reproduced everything from the Nimbus 3000 to Bott’s Beans.

So where are the Heinlein movies?

Television shows?  SyFy Channel miniseries, for crying out loud?  The father of modern hard SF, the creator of some of the most enduring ideas in science fiction, the first author to break out of the pulps and into “mainstream publishing,” and there has been virtually nothing made from his stories since the 1950’s.

There was The Puppet Masters in 1994.  There was Starship Troopers in 1997.  Then nothing.  (Ignore the sequels.  They exist only in the same parallel universe that allowed the filming of Highlander 2, 3, and -shudder- 4.)  Why haven’t they made film versions of “If This Goes On-“ (also known under Revolt in 2100), The Man Who Sold the Moon, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Starman Jones, or dozens of others. Not to mention the Big One, Stranger in a Strange Land.  Explain to me how Life-Line couldn’t stand up on its own, even as a short film.

My guess is that Virginia Heinlein was so disappointed in the adaptations made out of Puppet Masters and Troopers that getting anything out of the master’s vaults and into the light is now just about impossible.  In both instances the characters, setting, dialogue – even the world of the story – were excised, almost completely.  Character names were retained, along with the one-sentence version of the plot.  Heinlein’s name was seemingly left on the films only to attract fans.

So now the rights to his stories are harder to find than a member of the Howard Families.  When EscapePod, the brilliant science fiction story podcast, wanted to celebrate their 200th episode with one of his lesser-known short stories, they were eventually able to get it released.  But it took a very long time; long enough that episode 200 was made available just after episode 206.

I’m not blaming the late Mrs. Heinlein, or the Heinlein estate, for this protective attitude.  With everything that R.A.H. believed in and worked for, to have one of his most-read books turned into the action/CGI/Vietnam “statement” that Paul Verhoeven made it was, to put it mildly, enragingly disappointing.  Imagine what Troopers could have been if he had only kept the powered armor of the mobile infantry.  Imagine what it could have been with the world around the story intact.  Think of Puppet Masters if key elements like a human colony on Venus and ground vehicles with airborne abilities had been retained.

Unbelievably, it seems that this logjam may be breaking loose.  The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is reportedly in development, as is Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.  I sincerely hope that the rights-holders of Mr. Heinlein’s stories have learned to be cautious in what they sign over to screenwriters, and that Hollywood has learned that, when it comes to geeks, at least, holding true to the source material is the best way to make a fortune.