I just finished watching the eight episodes of the first season of Night Sky on Amazon Prime. Like the little dumpy lady from that famous Wendy’s commercial, I kept asking “Where’s the science fiction?” Don’t get me wrong, I loved the story, well most of it, well the Sissy Spacek and J. K. Simmons storyline. And yes, the show does feature an interstellar portal system so it’s obviously science fiction, but is it really?
The main storyline focuses on Irene and Franklin York, a couple in their seventies coping with growing old and becoming less capable of taking care of themselves. I completely identify with their situation. For decades Irene and Franklin have made over 800 visits to a distant star system to view the landscape from a panoramic window of an interstellar transporter. They have always been afraid to leave the transporter room, so they just enjoy the view. We learn all of this fairly quickly in the first episode.
Then the story shifts to their mundane problems. The heart of the series is the married couple’s relationship, but their story is complicated by other users of the transporter system. I shall not mention them specifically because I don’t want to spoil the show for you. At first, I thought the show was going to be like Clifford Simak’s novel, Way Station. Or maybe a bit like Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. Night Sky does include elements of both, but only barely.
As the show picks up the action becomes a boring thriller. People are being chased and killed. We get a heavy that can kill a person by snapping their neck – boy that sure has become cliche. There are two mysterious factions that use the transporters, neither of which are aliens. The first season seems to be setting things up for the real action that will unfold in the second season.
But here’s my gripe. Science fiction is more than an interstellar transporter and a distant world. Real science fiction speculates about possibilities. It speculates about the possibilities of technology. It speculates about the future, either by extrapolating current trends or imagining new possibilities. It speculates about how stories are told. It plays with ideas. The best science fiction gives us something new to think about.
Science fiction is not good guys being chased by bad guys even if they use matter transporters. Irene and Franklin sat on their secret for twenty years because they didn’t want their lives ruined or have their home taken away. That was selfish. And they never used this wonderful gift other than to get out of the house on some evenings. That’s poor speculation by the writers. Real science fiction would have imagined how it would have changed their lives like Simak did in Way Station.
I often find modern science fiction missing the science fiction. Oh sure, modern science fiction loves the trappings of science fiction, the well-worn settings and themes of old science fiction, but it seldom tries to imagine new science fictional speculations.
Think about all the possibilities Irene and Franklin could have experienced with an interstellar transporter, especially ones that would have been realistically meaningful to a couple in their seventies. Something that went beyond the old movie Cocoon. And especially something that didn’t involve guys with guns. Guns have become such an integral element in our movies and television plots, and that has become so fucking boring.
A story about Irene and Franklin York finding an interstellar transporter has so much damn potential that it seems like a tragic waste to turn it into good guys versus a bad guys plot.
Real science fiction imagines something new. I miss that in science fiction. That’s why I ask, where’s the science fiction.
James Wallace Harris, 6/30/22