Friday, March 11, 2005

Science Fiction Vs. "SciFi"

I have a theory that there is a fundamental thematic difference between cinematic and literary science fiction. It's a gross generalization, I'll admit, but nonetheless one that I often find useful. It has to do with the different mediums' response to what I call the "intrusion."

In (a large degree of) cinematic science fiction, there is the threat of some "intrusion" on the status quo - an imminent alien invasion, an asteroid on a collision course with earth, a man who has discovered invisibility and is now stalking his friends, an unstable person given access to dangerous knowledge or new weapons, etc... The narrative that follows will be about how our heroes prevent this intrusion and return us to the normal world of the status quo. How do they stop the comet? How do they catch the monster? How do they defeat the aliens? In other words, how do we get things back to normal. For the span of the movie, we've taken the toys out of the box, played with them for an hour or two, but when we finish, we're required to put them all back as close to how we found them as possible, and the audience can go home, reassured that the world is once again as it should be.

Whereas, in (a large portion of) science fiction literature, the "intrusion" has already happened and it is the consequences which must be dealt with. And in so doing, some aspect of humanity is examined through the lens of the extrapolation. So, a comet has hit the earth, wiped out 90% of the population and created a nuclear winter. It's now 100 years later and civilization is just now reemerging. What challenges do the survivors face? Aliens have invaded, it's 300 years later, and Earth is now a planet home to two species. How do they get along? Half the population has been turned invisible. What does this do for society as a whole? How must life adjust and function? Would you hire an employee you couldn't see? Would you mind if the invisible boy dated your teenage daughter? Would it bother you if their kids were only partially visible? Do you see what I'm getting at? In other words, the status quo has been irrevocably altered. Now what do our attempts to carry on reveal about our nature? What about humankind is eternal and what of that which we take for granted is actually ephemeral?

This fundamental difference in perspective is what relegates a lot of "scifi" cinema to the realm of "pure escapism," while making the best of the written genre what some have called "the literature of estrangement."

By way of example: I believe that this is one of the reasons The Matrix Trilogy so utterly failed. Granted, there were a lot of things wrong with Reloaded & Revolutions on many fronts, and to list them all here would take up quite a lot of space, but I believe we can identify one primary flaw out of which many of the others flowed.

The first film, The Matrix, is actually a very smart movie, indeed, a movie aware of the history of the science fiction genre, which borrows heavily and knowingly from the works of science fiction writers like William Gibson and Philip K Dick. To use our vocabulary, it is set up as the latter kind of story - the literary kind - but the narrative defaults in it's subsequent films to the first kind - the cinematic variety.

The first film sets up the world of 1999, the status quo, as that which must be overcome, and establishes that the action of the film will be about shattering this illusion. Neo's last words to the machines, spoken on the pay telephone, are that he is planning on revealing a world "without rules, without controls" to an unsuspecting populace. In other words, the heroes of the film - not the villains - are the intrusion. They are not trying to maintain the status quo of conventional reality. They are trying to destroy it, and the result will be a much altered world. Their victory will be achieved when they have radically altered consensus reality. Our reality.

I remember walking out of the Warner Bros. press screening in 1999 and glancing up at a slate gray sky made unusually artificial by my mood, driving back to West Hollywood and wondering if the world really was, as the Buddhists say, merely an illusion. For that evening at least, The Matrix made me question my realities, if only metaphorically. It made me wonder about the status quo.

However, the subsequent films lose all interest in this goal. We aren't shown the world of the Matrix itself as anything more than a playground for rebels and agents again, and we don't interact with anyone human still under the illusion of "reality." Instead, the focus shifts to Zion, a drab and rather boring cavern world under threat from the machines. Zion, the last human city, has endured for countless decades or even centuries in a stable tension of humans below, machines above. But now, we learn, a new crop of giant drilling machines are tunneling their way down, and suddenly Zion, which we've never cared about before, is threatened. For the next two films, the emphasis is on saving Zion, which is accomplished by forcing a truce with the invaders. In other words, a new status quo is established, and then two films are concerned with maintaining its equilibrium. So that when we end, we are right back where we started. The Matrix still exists, the machines still exist, Zion still exists, and while the war has come to what is largely implied as only a temporary halt, drab reality reigns over Neo's initial promise of a world "without controls." It's hardly the revolution that the third title promises.

The harder, more challenging trilogy to write would have been the one concerned with events inside the Matrix, where we saw the contemporary population rise up in Neo's wake, wake up to their potential, and begin to radically alter their realities according to their own desires. Where we saw the recognizable world of our own turn-of-the-century reality begin to alter. Where we saw a world without controls, where anyone could learn to fight like Bruce Lee, or leap tall buildings in a single bound, or even fly. The movie trilogy we were promised and never received was the triumph of the "intrusion" over the status quo, the movies of actual transcendence at the close of which nothing would ever be the same again. Ever. This would have kept the emotion of the first film on its upward arc, and provided a much, much more satisfying conclusion. A truly revolutionary one. That we were not given this trilogy is nothing short of a betrayal, one whose results may be, I fear, a return to Hollywood's status quo of unexceptional "scifi" films that owe little to their literary counterparts. Thanks to the Wachowski brothers, smart is the new dumb.

Oh look, is that another comet heading our way? Whatever are we going to do to stop it?

33 comments:

Jeremy said...

Lou,

great to see you've started a blog. I'd like to request that you turn on your RSS feed-- what this allows people to do is subscribe to your blog with a reader that notifies them when new entries are up. It's in the settings of blogger-- I'd be glad to help if you need it. My email is jeremy@tuginternet.com and my AIM is FBJeremyT.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Jeremy,
Thank you for this suggestion and your kind offer. We've just turned on an XML feed, but not an RSS feed yet.

Cheryl said...

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Lou!

Interesting post. I'm wondering if you have been following any of the recent academic debate (particularly Farah Mendlesohn's work) about the nature of SF and fantasy. What you describe in SF cinema is very like fantasy-style plots. It doesn't really matter whether the intruders are martians, daleks, vampires or elves, they are still a menace that has to be overcome. And of course almost every Michael Crichton plot follows this outline.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Cheryl,
Thank you very much. Although I was thinking of Crichton as an obvious example, yes, I've not seen the Farah Mendlesohn debate you mention. Can you point me in that direction?

pkbab5 said...

When I watched the first Matrix, I loved it. When I watched the second and third, I felt so extraordinarily dissatisfied, and I couldn't figure out why. It seemed to me as if they left the story unfinished, no, as if they never even continued the story from the first Matrix. And I couldn't explain it except in a very vague way.

You have completely put your finger on it, the source of that feeling. I agree with your analysis. Good literary science fiction is about going out exploring, expanding, advancing, doing more and being more. Sci-fi on TV and in movies is generally just good for giving your brain a nice break from a long day at work.

So, since you figured out what went wrong with the Matrix, have you figured out yet what went wrong with Star Wars? Is it just the absolute horribleness of Hayden Christiansen's acting (or lack thereof)? Is it a permutation of the same problem with the Matrix? Or something completely different?

Oh, and love the blog. Very very cool. I have a website, but it's only interesting if you want to learn C++. Maybe when I start my research I'll join you in the blog world...

Cheryl said...

I did a brief overview of Farah's taxonomy of fantasy in an article back in Emcit #92. The paragraph on Intrusive fantasy is the pertinent one.

And interesting question would be to go back and look at the movies and categorize them as follows:

1. Movies in which the intrusion is defeated by clever use of science (ie an SF-like story);

2. Movies in which the intrusion is defeated by heroism, or simply because the good guys are Good (which would be a more fantasy-like plot).

My guess is that you'll find mostly the latter.

Lou Anders said...

Hi PK,
Ah Star Wars....
I'm almost afraid to address everything that's wrong here. In all fairness, David Brin has an excellent essay, which may still be archived on his website (www.davidbrin.com) and is, if you'll forgive me, reprinted in my anthology PROJECTIONS: SCIENCE FICTION IN LITERATURE & FILM, in which he examines the philosophical/political problems underlying all the Star Wars films. Which is, essentially, that its central narrative (the corruption and redemption of Darth Vader) derives from a nostalgic and misplaced love of feudalism, so that you have a world where a man may commit genocide on a planetary scale but, because he saved his own son in the last minutes of his life, is redeemed and allowed to enter Jedi heaven. Star Wars is a world where noble lines rule ("the force is strong in this one") and the only choice for commoners is whether to pick the good or the bad king.

But leaving aside issues with this philosophical bias, taking it at face value, we can still find inherent flaws in the second (current) Star Wars trilogy even in terms of its own value system.

The third trilogy is supposed to be about the corruption and fall from grace of Darth Vader, a story which Lucas doesn't even begin to address until the second film of the trilogy. He wastes the first in a bizarrely misinformed attempt to establish the child Anakin as a role model for children, an agenda that reaches beyond the big screen and infuses even the ad campaigns around the films release.

Do you remember the nauseating cola commercials where a young boy is afraid to go to his first day of school. His parents take him to see Episode One and he reasons, "Anakin went to Jedi School even though he was afraid. So I guess I can too." Good job, kiddo. Have a Pepsi. I hope you grow up to be a Dark Lord of the Sith too.

Then Anakin blunders through a story that doesn't seem to involve him, ultimately saving the day by accident. There's no driving narrative. The very first Star Wars (A New Hope) has a clear narrative through line - farm boy receives cry for help from a princess, comes to her aid, blows up villains fortress. It's a simply stated plot everyone can understand and reiterate.

What's the plot of Episode One? A corrupt politician deliberately manipulates his own planet into a siege situation and subsequent war against overwhelming odds on the slim hope that if they survive he can ride the sympathy vote into the highest office in the galaxy. The Jedis thus attracted by the chaos happen upon a virgin-born slave child who blindly saves the day. This is an unmanageable plot. Throw in an aged, out of favor Jedi knight who opposed his orders wishes to train a young maverick. Generally, that's a set up for the rogue character to prove everyone else wrong. In this case, Qui-Gon Jinn is an idiot when you think about it. As is Palpatine, since his whole scheme depends upon the Jedi's discovery of a Golden Child of forcedom if his own planet is to survive the horrendous situation he's put them in...

Okay, I'm going on to long. Star Wars fails because Lucas can't decide whether to let Anakin be the good guy or the bad one, and the narrative bounces back and forth erratically between these conflicting urges. Also, the real story, the one that should have been told - is that of the Jedi's bravest, strongest knight, its Lancelot, Obi-Wan's most promising student, being seduced by the dark side of the force and falling from grace.

Instead, we have the story of the kid everyone knew was trouble, being reluctantly schooled by a master(Obi-Wan) who didn't want him taught, and this despite the warning of a suspicious Jedi council, growing up to being a hotheaded young man you says "I'd be a good despot if you gave me the chance" to his bride-to-be, slaughters a whole tribe before he gets married, and then (surprise!) turns out to be the rotten kid everyone had him pegged to be from the start.

Lou Anders said...

"It is possible to argue that the whole of science fiction is simply a set of immersive fantasy stories in which the nature of the fantasy world is entirely explained with scientific theories and extrapolations."

Bingo, Cheryl!

I just read your article, and I'm fascinated. Has Farah posted or published her taxonomy anywhere?

I'm interested in Wolfe's notion that a genre form is defined by the emotion - or lack thereof - that it engenders, but like you, I think I disagree with this definition.

Regarding your point above - I set out to distinguish "science fiction" from "scifi" by the timing of and reaction to the intrusion. In ther former, the intrusion is embraced and absorbed, often well before the events of the narrative. In the latter, it is repulsed.

Now you've given me the idea that "imminent intrusion" stories can still belong to the former category if the means of repulsion is a rational/scientific rather than heroic one. Interesting what this does to the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for one example.

Jeremy said...

Fantastic Discussion. I think you're spot-on with the flaws of the direction of Star Wars, particular in your point that Lucas basically wanted to have his cake and eat it too, depicting Anakin as good and bad somewhat simultaneously.

Also, thanks for turning on the atom.xml file, Lou. That works great with RSS readers. That was exactly what I was looking for. For those of you with readers, point your reader at http://www.louanders.com/atom.xml

Lou Anders said...

Thank you Jeremy.

Regarding Lucas' cake: I think this conflict is at its most obvious & awkward in Attack of the Clones, especially if you look at it from Amidala's perspective. Anakin tells her:

1. I've been obsessed with you since I was eight and you were much older than me.

2. I'd be a despot if given the chance.

3. I just murdered a whole tribe, including all their children.

Her response is to marry him. Now, what in the world does this say about Lucas' perception of women and their choices?

Sean Williams said...

Re. "literary" vs "filmic": I wonder if what we're seeing here is the familiar divide between "good" and "popular" that divides all art forms. The words don't necessarily mean the same things, but there are unspoken assumptions attached to each of them, at least in my mind. Say "filmic" and I think of things like The Matrix or Bladerunner or Star Wars, movies which have a lot to say but aren't in the same league (whatever that is) as 2001 or critically-lauded book-form SF. My partner Kim has recently been trying to examine this divide in her PhD thesis, following it back to Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and casting the fantastic/realism split as one parallel to nature/reason. Heroism often relies on instinct rather than reason, in which case there's that split again.

Cheryl said...

Lou, I think you need to come to ICFA. That's where all this stuff gets talked about (around a pool in Florida over cocktails).

Farah's working on a book. Dunno what the status is. I think it got sidetracked by the YA thing.

Lou Anders said...

Cheryl,
I do need to come to ICFA. It won't happen this year, but maybe next.
Sean,
Kim's thesis sounds fascinating too. Not sure about the "good" vs. "popular" divide. Where would something like GATTACCA fall?

Anonymous said...

Stop me if you've heard this before: The two MATRIX sequels are different because between 1999 and 2003, something significant happened in the real world, and this affected the Wachowski Brothers as much as everybody else...

That is, 9/11.

Remember how Morpheus was referred to as one of the world's most wanted terrorists in the first MATRIX movie? Could you imagine an anti-establishment hero AND terrorist in a mainstream movie after 9/11?

Actually, I had issues with the first movie PRECISELY because of the terrorism angle... and this may have disturbed even the filmmakers themselves ("Is Morpheus, on some level of interpretation, Osama bin Laden, declaring holy war on the decadent West?")... so much so, that they decided, consciously or not, to abandon that angle in the next two films.

And I'm not holding this against them! Maybe the decision to shift the story's emphasis after 9/11 wasn't an artistic success... but a moral one.

-A.R.Yngve
http://yngve.bravehost.com

Lou Anders said...

A.R.,
You have an interesting take, though I fear the decision wasn't so much a moral one as a marketing one, to leave teh Matrix more or less intact and teh same in preparation for the upcoming Matrix Online game.

Anonymous said...

Aha! :)

So THE MATRIX, in the end, becomes just another trademarked "franchise" which will perpetuate itself with merchandise, and soon fade into artistic oblivion.

But hey, create your own movies or books... no one says you have to buy all the Matrix merchandise because it's "cool" or "meaningful". (It's neither.)

-A.R.Yngve
http://yngve.bravehost.com

P.S.: Check out this ultraviolent cyberpunk story, "The Hakker Dispatches" which also pokes fun at The Matrix:
http://www.neometropolis.com/hakker.html

Now this is truly subversive stuff... no merchandising, no videogame, a no-nonsense antihero who never speaks a line of pretentious mumbo-jumbo, and commits REAL computer crime.

Ted said...

Hey Lou. I'll echo Cheryl's comment; the distinction you make between cinematic and literary SF sounds a lot like a generalization I've heard about SF versus fantasy and horror. In fantasy and horror, the characters' goal is to maintain the status quo against change, while in SF, change is inevitable, and the goal is to deal with it. I can't remember who it was, but I believe someone once phrased it as "fantasy and horror are conservative, while SF is progressive."

This is an enormous generalization, of course, much broader than the one you made about cinematic and literary SF, but it does suggest some interesting ways to look at stories. Something that I often find myself thinking about when reading SF is what Greg Egan said about burning the motherhood statement. He noted that a lot of SF starts out positing a radical and disruptive discovery or invention, only to end up reaffirming the most traditional values like motherhood. One can see in Egan's stories a desire to fully explore the logical consequences of an idea no matter how disquieting they might be.

Scott Westerfeld said...

Lou-

The intrusion/altered world divide is also roughly analogous to the old creative writing teacher's distinction:
Someone goes on a journey, or,
A stranger comes to town.
Although, I guess the person going on the journey is the reader in the case of sf, unless there's a frozen Buck Rogers framing device.
I have an article about this in _Seven Seasons of Buffy_, the Glenbella book of sf writers pontificating about the series. Basically, I make the claim that Buffy starts as an classic elastic-intrusion style narrative, with everything going back to the way it started at the end of every episode (albeit, with comic slapdashery, as in the following dialog . . . COP: "The usual? Kids on PCP?" MAYOR: "What do you want to tell them, the truth?" COP: "Right. Kids on PCP."). However, it seems to me that Buffy slowly evolves into an altered world, with the hidden agendas growing ever larger in scope, including the government, etc. (And the magical effects, as in "Hush" or "Superstar", dipping into world-altering sf territory.) Basically, once you start sleeping with the witch, the werewolf, and the vampire, you're entering an altered world.

Lou Anders said...

Ted,
This reminds me of John Clutes' argument that genre fiction began with the development of notions of geological time and evolutionary change and the subsequent resulting fear that the "engines of history" that turned the world could shake us off and turn on without us. He argues that horror deals with this anxiety by placing the future in the past, as something already lived through and experienced (via the transformations and descecrations of the genre). Fantasy posits that the present is imperfect and that the perfect world exists elsewhere in a counter world accessible through the portal, down the rabbit hole, on the other side of the looking glass. And science fiction places the future, well, in the future, and advocates taking charge and helping to birth that reality by actively suggesting what it might be.

Lou Anders said...

Scott,
I like your take on Buffy very much. A long time ago, I had a discussion with someone writing an thesis on the evolving metaphors for which the character of the vampire stood, from fear of the Old World in Stoker's original to fear of AIDS in more contemporary works.

Daniel said...

Just discovered the thread….thought I’d just toss this out there:
At its core, I think Science Fiction is about new ideas. New ideas, I’m thinking, tend to come about as a result of change or bring change themselves. So really, sci-fi should have a moment of intrusion as its central theme or plot.
Cinema, being a visual medium with very very strict rules on format (time, budget etc) appears to use Sci Fi as an arena for a story. (or franchise, going back to the idea of popular vs. good). With some exceptions (off the top of my head…2001) it looks as though the films that try to stay true to Science Fiction literature (ideas, change) don’t necessarily do well at the box office. Case in point, Blade Runner. From what I’ve read, Blade Runner wasn’t a successful film….back then. It’s good. It’s popular, but among FANS of sci-fi. And both Gattacca and Blade Runner do something similar Lou pointed out about the first Matrix film. Our heroes going against the status quo- not trying to destroy it physically, but rather, trying to destroy it’s hold on their lives. (Deckard’s attitude towards Rachel, despite her being a replicant. Vincent striving for a goal denied him for being invalid) These films are not popular in the mainstream. But they are popular with Sci-Fi fans because of their ideas. Which is what garnered Sci-Fi Lit it’s following since way back when. (Though I have to admit, sometimes I think the real star of Blade Runner was designer Syd Mead)

“Central to SF is the idea as dynamism. Events evolve out of an idea impacting on living creatures and their society. The idea must always be a novelty….There is SF because the human brain craves sensory and intellectual stimulation before everything else, and the eccentric view provides unlimited stimulation, the eccentric view and the invented world.” – Philip K. Dick

Not saying I agree with the above 100%, but I think PKD was on to something.

Let's face it, with movies, and the machine that is movie making, it's really hard to get new ideas accross when you consider the people making them are thinking $$$ and risk.

http://rantaroscasejournal.blogspot.com/

Jörn Grote said...

Just discoverd your blog. Your analysis of Matrix 1-3 is brilliant, now I can put the finger on why I hated Reloaded and Revolutions, yet liked Matrix immensely.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Daniel,
Yes, you're talking about the use of SF as "setting" rather than as narrative force. Though I think that what Syd Mead was landmark (particularly when you consider it's influence on Japan, who reprocessed Balde Runner and sent it back to us as manga). Previously, American SF cinema dealt with the future as though there had been a hard break with the past. Everything new, gleaming, shining and silver. What Syd did was apply a European sensibility to American SF. Just because the Brits built the Millenium Dome doesn't mean they tore down Big Ben. Europe is a land where the future is constantly being erected amid the structures of the past, and Blade Runner's genius is in building its future city amid the bones and sinews of Los Angeles.

Hi, Jörn!
Thank you. What's really sad is that the ancillary material for The Matrix, The Animatrix, the stories on the website, etc.. are still very, very good. They might have done better to film that as a prequel and then follow with a single resolution. An idea that was discussed at one point early on.

Hal Duncan said...

Great post, Lou. I've been worrying at this myself recently. While I think it's not totally bound to literary vs cinematic, I think your distinction between SF and Sci-Fi as pro-intrusion and anti-intrusion is pretty solid. My own theory is that there's two quite distinct processes going on - fabulation and formulation.

SF, a process of fabulation, is generally using the fantastic (and therefore intrusive) element as a central conceit, to my mind. The structural importance of that fabulous element, the fact that everything thematically pivots around the intrusive unreality, might well make it much more likely that this intrusive unreality gets treated sympathetically.

Sci-Fi, on the other hand, I see as a process of formulation, where the fabulous elements (and the heroes, and the villains, and the background features, and pretty much everything else) are ciphers, generally interchangeable symbols that can be clicked into place in the heroic formula. Unlike SF, where the conceit is more of a hook the more original it is and the more intriguingly gnarly it is, with unexpected twists and turns, in the way it's extended through the text, Sci-Fi as formulation is designed to offer the simplest and most basic thrills and chills in forms as familiar as possible. Sci-Fi is, I think, in that sense, deeply committed to the familiar, pledged to give the reader or viewer the heroic fantasy they expect. I could see why that conservatism of form would carry through to a conservatism of themes.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Hal,
You're onto something with your ideas of formulation. I might suggest that the very same mythic structures I'm calling attention to in my Fonzarelli post are responsible (via their incorporation & codification into the Hollywood formula screenplay) for the production of "scifi as setting” as opposed to science fiction as provocative narrative in cinema. Likely, since it was the direct application of the theories presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that gave us Star Wars, the film almost single-handedly responsible for SF being branded as “escapism” to begin with.

Iain J Coleman said...

I think you have to be a bit careful about making "things don't get back to normal" a defining characteristic of science fiction, as you are in danger of having a definition of science fiction that includes neither The War of the Worlds nor Frankenstein.

The idea that populist sci-fi will generally have a comforting ending that affirms cosy normality has a lot going for it. However, even this is to some extent culturally determined. In a deeply conservative culture such as the contemporary US, it fits perfectly. But if you look at two very popular TV sci-fi shows from late seventies Britain - Survivors and Blakes 7 - you see something different. Survivors is a classic case of dealing with the consequences of an intrusion, in this case a plague that wipes out almost all of humanity. Blakes 7 features a heroic struggle to overthrow an oppressive interstellar Federation and restore freedom to the masses - a struggle that ends in total defeat for the heroes. Insofar as the Federation is portrayed as having encroached upon and usurped a legitimate political structure, the intrusion persists despite all efforts to set things to rights.

Both of these programmes were popular, high-ratings success stories, still remembered decades later by casual viewers. This suggests that the kinds of populist conservative stories that you find generally unsatisfying in the mass media are contigent upon the broad political mood of current US society, and that populist entertainment in other societies - which will tend to reflect the popular mood, almost by definition - may have very different characteristics.

peter hollo said...

Hi Lou,
Great to see you've got a blog, and great to read such an excellent first post! Oh and cool to see peeps like Cheryl Morgan and Ted Chiang posting :)

Oh look, is that another comet heading our way? Whatever are we going to do to stop it?
Obviously we have to get all the science fiction writers together and they'll figure it out.
Which Niven & Pournelle book was it in which this happened? A Mote In God's Eye?

Lou Anders said...

Hi Iain,
I appreciate your comments about the political climate into which the media is offered! I've only seen the first 10 or so Blake's 7s, but admired the show and am aware of the brilliant ending.

I'm also interested in the food for thought all these comments are generating. I started out trying to make a (broadly generalized) division between literature and cinema as pre- and post-intrusion SF. Cheryl showed how some pre-intrusion can still be "pure" SF by the means of the repulsion (heroic vs scientific). Now your comments correctly point out the Atlantic divide in cinematic renderings of the intrusion. Perhaps we are evolving toward a different distinction, akin to the popular vs good distinction Sean Williams made: subversive vs. conformist. Wasn't it Brian Aldiss who said "It wouldn't be science fiction if it wasn't subversive?"

Hi Peter,
Thank you and yes, I believe it was Niven & Pournelle!

Lou Anders said...

Everyone following this debate needs to go out and get a copy of the April/May issue of Asimov’s, so that they can read Norman Spinrad’s latest On Books column, "No Surrender?", which, among many other things, offers a workable definition of science fiction that underscores its importance in the grand scheme of things. He writes that “all true science fiction is centered on the interaction of the external surround—the physical, political, cultural, linguistic, anything and everything—with the lives and consciousness of the character. If it does this, and there is any speculative element in the externals of the fiction universe at all, it is true science fiction.” Spinrad goes on to argue that it is science fictions ability to create belief that makes it a transformative literature and that it is this very characteristic that is in threat of extinction in the current publishing and political clime.

Note however that Norman’s article spoils too much about Iron Council’s plot, so if you haven’t read China Miéville’s latest, go to page 228, 2nd column, halfway down, and start from "So why wasn't Iron Council written as science fiction?" to the end. (There are other spoilers, but none so damaging).

Many of Norman's thoughts in the article dovetail nicely with the recent Popular Science article on Stross & Doctorow entitled “Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind?”, which argues that as the future becomes harder and harder to see, fewer and fewer writers are willing to tackle it head on, opting instead for fantasy, alternative history, and far-future space opera with no clear connection to the present.

Anonymous said...

Does SF written today have no clear connection to the present? Perhaps not...

"Sometimes words have two meanings." (Led Zeppelin)

Lou Anders said...

An argument can be made that the focus has shifted, away from near-future SF to Space Opera without a clear here-to-there throughline. Even Iain Banks admits, when pressed, that his Culture may not have evolved out of Earth society, as he's not sure we have it in us to reach their level. If you'll forgive me touting one of my own, one of the aspects of John Meaney's brilliant Nulapeiron Sequence that most excites me is the way his story-within-a-story draws a very precise connection between our very near future and the universe of his swashbuckling space opera, believably suggesting we could reach such a state in a few hundred years time.

Xan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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