Wednesday, June 21, 2006

That Skiffy Smell

I have to say this: I really, really liked Scott Edelman's recent SciFi Weekly editorial, "Erasing the Smell of Sci-Fi." Scott tracks all the recent tv personalities, producers and actors, who have been bending over backwards in interviews to to distance their obviously science fiction-themed shows from science fiction, on the basis that it's not SF because it's good. Or about characters. Or what have you.

He quotes Carlton Cuse, show runner and executive prodcer of Lost, who understands that genre does not inherently dictate quality or lack thereof, but is a form, into which quality writing can fit, as well as it can fit anywhere:

"No matter what genre you write in, ultimately the stories are reducible to stories about the human condition. And I think people forgot that you could do that in the science-fiction genre. Stephen King is a great example of someone who writes books, for instance, that are very high-concept, and maybe they're horror or fantasy, but when you get right down to it, it's really about the people that populate those books. That's what's engaging about him as a writer. ... You could do that in a hospital show. You could do it in a law show. You could do it in a cop show. But hey, you could also do that in a science-fiction show. And they seem to think that you couldn’t until this show came along."

Format-prejudice is ugly. There are moments of real beauty and insight on Sesame Street. And I have seen some terrible Shakespeare in my time. The muse can strike anywhere, and most of any genre (including the "genre" of mainstream literature) is bad, with only a tip at the top of the iceberg that is truly something to behold.

I don't like the move right now to make "science fiction" a dirty word, to repackage science fiction books to look bland and nongenre, and I don't think people should be embarrassed about liking SF. Oddly, it seems similar to the way people (especially in the media) are embarrassed by the tag "liberal" these days. I want to scream that it was liberals that freed the slaves, emancipated women, enacted child labor laws, ended segregation.... Just as it was the vision of science fiction writers that built the world we live in today, because you have to imagine something before you can begin figuring out how to put it together. We are embarrassed by its most forward-looking thinkers, when we should be celebrating them.

Update: Can I just add how much I am starting to like the blog Meme Therapy? It's mix of science and science fiction is spot-on important. Here, a quote from geologist Robert Peckyno, supports what I'm trying to say above:

" I think that science fiction is critical to progress in science. Visionaries who radically change the world are often thought of as crackpots and fiction has been the inspiration for many great ideas. Tsoilkovsky, Goddard, Oberth, Von Braun and Korolev are collectively the foundation of rocketry today - every one mentioned being inspired by the Jules Verne story 'From the Earth to the Moon.' Arthur C. Clarke suggested orbiting relay satellites allowing world wide communication in 1945 - decades later it arrived. Go to any NASA facility and you will find desks with model 'Enterprises' and 'Starfuries.' Science fiction helps to provide the dreams and puzzles that todays engineers and scientists try to bring to life."

Second Update: The wonderful Louise Marley has posted some thoughts on her journal that dovetail nicely with what Scott Edelman is saying. Louise points out that perception does matter because:

"...our genre only gets seven per cent of the market. That's why fine books like The Time Traveler's Wife and Wicked aren't marketed as science fiction at all, but as mainstream. It's a matter of perception by the reader. But how do we address this, and why is it this way? All of us who publish in our little ghetto of genre have had the experience of someone who doesn't normally read sf/f picking up one of our own works because of friendship, and being surprised at how much they like it. You know, that familiar sentence that begins, 'Well, I don't normally read science fiction . . . ' My thesis is that, actually, they do, but they don't know it. "


Jose said...

I'm not bothered about the apparent stigma myself. SF as a genre is clearly ascendant. The trend you discuss is annoying but its what I'd call a high class problem.

We're spoiled for choice when it comes to a lot of excellent science fiction nowadays in a plethora of formats. So ultimately what a few flakey hollywood types who just happen to be contributing to aforementioned sf content say about the label isn't really that important to me.

I've heard anecdotaly that Olaf Stapledon wasn't aware that such a thing as "science fiction" exsisted until years after he wrote several seminal works in the genre. I'm willing to forgive such people their ignorance.

Lou Anders said...

Well, ignorance of the genre is one thing. Knowledge + disavowal is another. But I take your point.

And yes, some folks will never see beyond the label and that's there loss. But then, some folks will never see beyond the label "jazz" or "opera" or "cartoon" either.

Michael L. Wentz said...

I think the focus should be on the story, first and foremost. A good story will naturally fit into some genre somewhere, but I find the desire in today’s society to “label” everything a bit disconcerting. Who cares what genre it is in the end. If the story is good, it should stand on its own merits. I think the only purpose that labels serve is to give people the opportunity to prejudge something before really investigating its worth.

Although, I can see how all of us in the SF community got into this mess. Over the last several years, SF has seemingly focused more on science first, then story, with characters thrown in at the end, if there’s time (and enough money to print a few more signatures). The science is a critical part of what makes SF so special, but I read more and more book reviews of critics who take apart the science of a novel, while devoting little time to really critique the story.

If the focus is on good solid stories that everybody can enjoy, then I think this whole genre argument is moot. People read, go to the movies, and watch TV to immerse themselves in fantastic stories. If the SF community focuses on giving the public these great stories, the label will not matter in the end. People will be too busy enjoying themselves to care.

Jose said...

I don't read reviews personaly they're too subjective and your-mileage-may-varish to be of much use to me. And I don't want to know the books details, I just want to know if I'll like it. I go by referrals from mates with similar tastes. A hearty thumbs up is usually enough to get me cracking the book's spine, no details please.

Here in the UK I have no shame in mentioning that I'm into SF. I haven't experienced any negative stigma to the genre over here.

Lou Anders said...

What reviews are you reading? Seems to me like all the old guard are complaining that the science has been leeching out of the fiction for years now, while fantasy looms and true science fiction dwindles.

But I agree with you that telling a good story is of foremost importance. Not, however, sole importance, else why work in this genre at all?

Lou Anders said...

one of my favorite moments recently came when talking to the owner of Crosshaven Books, a good indendent bookstore here in town. The owner explained that she didn't read SF, and I thought, "here it comes." But instead of saying she found it cold or geeky or childish or any of the expected criticisms-out-of-ignorance I was prepared for, she said she thought it was very smart, challenging and important material - over her head, not beneath her contempt. Crosshaven, btw, is interested in expanding their SF section. They are online at and I urge anyone in the south east interested in encouraging them to give them some support.

Paul Cornell said...

I've thought about this a lot, and I have to say, I think SF did this to itself. People with character based stories want to say 'it's not science fiction', because science fiction has often (genuinely) meant stories without characters. You and I know that there's lots of characterful hard SF, but there's also, still, lots of non-characterful hard SF, and that's what people are distancing themselves from. Nobody in big budget film-making says 'it's not SF' because they have different issues about character. In short, I have sympathy with those who do this, because they're doing the only thing they can, often while being SF fans, to fan a real smell away from them.

And, erm, the liberals didn't free the slaves, did they? Although you might say Lincoln was an economic liberal, that term has swayed in all directions, and Churchill chased it across three parties.

Lou Anders said...

I knew someone was going to call me on my, ahem, liberal use of the term liberal. But I think you still take my point.

As to science fiction having done it to itself, possibly, but no one judges the latest James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell as being on the same level as Sneaky Pie Brown the crime solving cat, even though they are both in the same genre. I think the stink can be overcome, and will, and this distancing we are seeing now may actually be part of it. Back in 1992, when TNG was at its height, there was no stink associated with Trek. You saw young married couples with their kids at the Pasadena conventions, and people had "Picard and Riker in '92" and "Star Fleet Academy" stickes on their cars. Back then, you either watched TNG or Melrose Place on Monday Nights, and I remember being in a pre-Starbucks coffee shop in Chicago and hearing four different tables whispering "Spock is going to be on Next Generation tonight! Spock is going to be on Next Generation tonight!" and I realized that TNG was mainstream. They dropped this ball and they dropped it HARD, and the stink rushed back in, but for a brief period quality broke through to mainstream recognition, which is what's happening to Battlestar Galactica now. Also, as a long time Batmaniac, let me tell you the stink of Adam West clung on to that franchise for decades and decades, but it's gone now. All it took was one film to do it right and the smell dissipated.

Also, this is largely a problem the film/tv industry & its news media has with itself - obviously the general public don't care or SF&F wouldn't overwhelmingly dominate the boxoffice.