Thursday, July 27, 2006

The State of Science Fiction

I've given two talks in three weeks on the "state of science fiction," one at the aforementioned Campbell Conference and one in New York this past Tuesday at a private luncheon hosted by a new literary agency, South Seas Solutions. This, coupled with the fact that I'm working up my thoughts for what I hope will be a witty, erudite, and thoughtful introduction to Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge, means I've been thinking a lot about current trends and directions.

One thing that I've said repeatedly over the last few weeks is that all these denials of SF in the media, these Judas Iscariot's of cinema who proclaim "yes my film is about robots and cyborgs and big space battles and genetically engineered moon cows, but it's actually a drama about people and relationships and the hazards of dairy products" are actually a last gasp of a dying perspective. In this introduction to The Year's Best Science Fiction: 23rd Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois notes that 8 of the top highest grossing films of 2005 were genre-themed, 13 of the top 20. Which means that at its broadest spectrum, the public has no problem with science fiction. TV Guide will certainly tell you that a popular SF show on the cover moves serious copies. And the San Diego Comic Con just had a record attendance of 140,000 people. It's almost as though we are becoming a society of SF&F fans all worried what the other guy thinks and apologizing to each other for our tastes when the other guy is a fan too.

I've been thinking for some time now that this knee-jerk reaction to being labeled "sci-fi" was on the way out and that we would start to see some mainstream re-embracing of the category. Now, USA Today has just given me the first positive proof of this. Look at this list of Hollywood types who aren't denying that what they do is SF, in an article in a major paper that doesn't use the word "geek" or "nerd."

And look at this quote from Lost producer JJ Abrams, who says that science fiction "is an extrapolated version of the present. If you're at war, or you find out the government is spying on you, or if you feel your civil rights are being abrogated, it can provoke you as a writer. Science fiction is never about paradise found. It stems from trouble in our own world. The best kind of storytelling is when writers turn a mirror on ourselves, and that mirror shows us a lot of conflict."

Most interesting, the article equates the fiction of HG Wells & Ray Bradbury with Star Trek, while being clear that by "science fiction" what isn't meant is "science-fiction-cum-fantasy" work like Star Wars. Obviously, this is just one journalist's opinion, and Hollywood can turn on a dime when the almighty dollar decrees differently, but for today I am most gratified.


Paul Cornell said...

Indeed, 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. In both the US and UK. Hence SF/fantasy on TV tends to get pushed towards slots where the kids might be watching. Entertainment Weekly had some astonishing statistic that the average age of a Veronica Mars viewer was something like 45. And for a show that deliberately goes after the oldsters, that stat can swing up into the 60s.

Tim Akers said...

Well, I think it's a generational thing. I think you're right that it's a dying perspective, and that the society as a whole is more open and accepting of these things. In a purely simplistic way, I suddenly know a lot of hot, 18-22 year old science fiction fans. Where were these girls when I was 18-22? Well, I married one, but she was pretty much the only one around.

That probably made less sense than I intended, but the basic point is this. Youth culture today is more accepting of science fiction and its tropes. Being a fan of these things does not automatically lead to social exclusion, as it did in my youth. This is good.

Lou Anders said...

Paul, that is very interesting. I wonder how much of this will shift as television is sold independently of its packaging - in DVDs, downloaded online, etc... As effects improve too, film and tv viewerships should merge. Certainly a lot of the two-part Star Trek episodes and some of the new Who has a cinematic feel with effects to (almost) match.

Tim, I take your point. I first went to ComicCon in the mid-90s, and the audience was predominantly male, with a subset of Japanese girls there for the manga. Last year, I was overwhelmed to see that the audience seemed evenly split between boys and girls, and that far from being the stereotypical nerds, they were lean, mean, tattoo'd. I realized that everything I was into as a kid - RPGs, videogames, comics, film - was now "cool." Oh to be 12 years old in 2006! Jealously thy name is Lou.

Jose said...

I think too many peole have been overly sensitive to remarks made by a select few. First of all literary critics save their sharpest knives for each other, taking only the odd dismissive swipe at the genre.

And secondly there's no shortage of snobbery within the genre's themselves. Back in the day I was a rpg publisher and we'd have plenty of science fiction types treat us as if we had some kind of highly infectious disease. So I always take protestations of umbrage with a healthy dose of salt.

But having said that, yes I don't think highly disparaging comments made against the genre I love but I don't pay them much mind either.

We also have to acknowledge that to many people their experience of science fiction is limited to TV and Film and much of that is worthy of criticsm.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Jose,
I wasn't referring here to comments made by critics and journalists. I was talking about all the occasions that a producer of SF content - an actor, a filmmaker, a writer or publisher - tries to duck the SF&F label being applied to their own work. I was speaking of J K Rowling claiming she "didn't know" she was writing fantasy or Katee Sackoff claiming that although Battlestar Galactica has robots and spaceships, it isn't "really" science fiction because it's not cold and lacking in character or drama. I really love Neal Stephenson, because I'm not convinced at all that his Baroque cycle is SF, and yet he is bending over backwards to make sure it's labeled as such, probably to the consternation of his agent & publisher.

Ted said...

I think it's the difference between popularity and respectability. No one denies that Revenge of the Sith was a blockbuster, but did it contain the best performance of any of the actors involved? Did any of them join the project because they loved the script? I think actors and directors try to deny that a movie (or TV show) is SF to the extent that they want it to be taken seriously. If the project aspired to be nothing more than mindless fun, they'd probably call it SF without reservation. But if they want it to be something more, they'll try to distance it from projects like Star Wars, which is synonymous with "science fiction" in many people's minds.

Lou Anders said...

I remember seeing Ewan McGregor interviewed back in the late 90s. They asked him if he would be in the (old) Batman franchise, to which he replied "I wouldn't sully my soul with that shit."

"But," said the interviewer, "You are playing Obi Wan in the new Star Wars."

"That's completely different," McGregor said. "That's our mythology."

I wondered as the films unfolded and he realized how far Lucas had sunk if he rethought those words. He's a fabulous actor, and Star Wars could have been a fabulous role for him, had somebody else written it.

As it is, this conflation of Star Wars and science fiction galls.

ian mcdonald said...

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 ses 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 verything 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 cebntury 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?

Lou Anders said...

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 very personally 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, superfriends, 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.

Lou Anders said...

As long as the previous post was and as much ground as it covered, I'm going to post Ian's comments and my response as a blog entry too, so let's migrate the discussion ot the new post if we can.

Lee Harris said...

Does anyone else appreciate the delicious irony that the use of terms like "sci-fi" to appeal to a particular demographic in a marketing sense for movies in particular is precisely the sort of insidious dystopia that is laced throughout today's tiresome world.