Comments on my previous post "The State of Science Fiction" inspired enough of a response on my part to warrant spinning off a second blog entry out of the burgeoning comment thread.
Specifically, in response to Paul Cornell's comment that "movie producers don't mind being 'science fiction', while TV producers do. That's because: movie audience, lots of young men. TV audience: lots of old women," Ian McDonald offered the following:
"Paul's right about the difference between TV and Film production, in that film is very much a medium of genres whereas TV always has it's eye on overall network viewership (there's an immediate 'defect' mechanism on every remote control: there's always an immediate alternative, and increasingly TV is splintering into a long tail of niche digital channels) and network demographics. Asimov's hasn't put Kirstin KatherineRusch's article on where she sees the future of SF going --she sees the salvation of the genre in YA-style 'Star Wars-esque' space opera with cheerable heroes and booable villains (OK, I'm not being whiolly objective here). Me, I see the very thing you're talking about in your post as the future for SF: the genre I feel is going through a period of uncertainty --fantasy is kicking its butt all over the bookstores-- where core question are being asked: what is SF? What makes it SF? What is it for? What is it for now, in July 2006? What is a 21st century SF like --and I, for one, don't think it's necesarily back-to-basics space opera (though there must always be some of that, because it's fun) because that has been so well colonised by the visual media. Things are moving, I think, when you can quote something like JJ Abram's comment. There is a mainstream audienceout there who will enjoy SF minus the geek factor --how do we write books for them?"
Which prompted my long-winded response:
Ian, you are speaking at the heart of my primary concerns these days. The disparity between SF cinema and SF literature has been one of my chief obsessions for years, enough so that I edited a nonfiction anthology on the subject. But I think that - do in part to the Long Tail economics that you reference, in part do to the decreased cost of filmmaking, and in part to the increased importance of secondary markets like the DVD boxes set (see Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, we're seeing the rise of the niche and an increase in "narrative complexity" - as well as a general increase of everything, which means that quality SF&F is beginning to emerge - whether we're talking about accurate blockbuster renderings of The Lord of the Rings on one end of the scale, or low budget "low-fi, sci-fi" like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Primer on the opposite side.
There's a great quote from David Foster Wallace which I encountered in Chris Anderson's The Long Tail which says:“TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.”
And I think we're seeing, if not the end of that - Fear Factor isn't going anywhere - the end of the era where that is everything and all. In the same way, perhaps the macro-category of science fiction will survive by migrating into niche categories - I haven't seen Rusch's article (when is it out?), but the Space Opera which she endorses (and which John Ordover claimed was the future in his Campbell conference talk) may be one end, mainstream appropriate of SF into works like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife may be another, and rigorously extrapolated, 21st century relevant SF such as your latest represents may be a third. I think that, in edition to the Star Wars style space opera that Rusch mentions, writers like John Scalzi and Chris Roberson also represent the future of the genre. I see both writers as good "gateway" authors, stepping stones between Star Wars and more rigorous fare. Roberson, in particular, always underpins extremely rigorous physics to his adventure tales, while the upfront narrative is grounded in accessible prose and engaging characters.
Star Wars will, of course, take care of itself, but the million dollar question is how do we drive consumers who enjoy films like Gattacca, Primer, Eternal Sunshine etc and readers of Time Traveler's Wife, Never Let Me Go etc. to writers like yourself, Paul McCauley, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Michael Swanwick, China Mieville, et al.
I'm personally feeling very vindicated by the new Batman Begins, because this is the Batman I've been insisting I've been reading about on and off since I was six, but it's taken decades and decades for the rest of the larger world to see the Caped Crusader as anything more than Adam West, Super Friends, and Michael Keaton. There are, of course, two Batmen - the Dark Knight that 30 plus year olds read about, and the kid-friendly cartoon character used to sell a buttload of plastic toys.
In the same way, there are at least two SFs, conflated in a good deal of the minds of the wider world with the lesser SF. But, as I said in the post, I think the tides are turning. It hasn't been that long - merely a few decades - since rock stars appropriated the titles and themes of SF novels for their music and SF writers were respected authorities in news shows and documentaries. The perception that it is purely escapism is a recent phenomena, one end of a pendulum that probably swings back and forth, back and forth, beginning with HG Wells on one end and Plan 9 from Outer Space on the other. I see the pendulum swinging back our way now, coupled with a rise in interest in the space program (re: the recent Titan probe), the dot com billionaire's with their own rockets (Virgin Galactic, et al), the aforementioned USA today article, the increased "gadgetization" of 21st century life, and the growing political/environmental awareness of the bloggosphere. All of which leads me to conclude that science fiction shall rise again, yee-haw.
Update: The amazing group blog Meme Therapy, which is fast becoming my favorite blog on the web, weighs in on the debate retro-preemptively, with a Brain Parade question, "Science Fiction often gets a bad rap. Do you agree with this statement? And if so, who or what is to blame?"
As always, the brilliant John Scalzi demonstrates that rather than going to all the trouble to formulate my own opinions, I can shortcut the labor by just appropriating his: "What I would love to see is SF lit make a play for mainstream readers, by any means necessary. Put the books in covers the mundanes can grok; give them some stories they don't feel like they're missing the joke on; fight to get stories where people are instead of where we wish they would go. Of course, it's easy to say this and more difficult to do. But the fact is: SF has a fine image. It's up to SF literature to get a piece of it."
Excellent opinions also from Paul Levinson, Jeff Patterson, and Suan Marie Groppi.