Wednesday, October 18, 2006

All Hail the New Medievalists!

Thanks to Paul @ Penguin for pointing me to Permanent Damage, Steven Grant's column on Comic Book Resources. Steven discusses science fiction in the second section of this blog post (the first bit in blue), where he says:

"Science fiction has become reality only at the pace (and in the areas) that commerce is equipped to assimilate it. Even if we could successfully build an android (and the Japanese, at least, are hard at work on it), they'll never become commonplace unless marketed as sex toys, and then everyone will want one. People talk about science being a false religion (ain't they all?) but science was never marketed as a religion; science fiction was... Science fiction, in its proselytizing mode, even helped the recent spread of religion by writing checks science couldn't cash, and an awful lot of people have 'returned' to religion because they've felt betrayed by The Promise Of Science. Science, of course, still works just fine and continues on in its usual clumsy fits and starts. It's science fiction that betrayed everyone. Science may deliver wonders - turns out there is much in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophies - but science fiction never settled for mere wonders. It always wants miracles, just like everyone else, and, more than that, it wants miracles to be commonplace."

He goes on to talk about the way in which the mainstream and media have been incorporating SF, focusing on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Bob Dylan's new CD, and Battlestar Galactica, making me again note that these adaptations of our tropes are NOT of the old school space opera variety that Kristine Kathryn Rusch recommends. Grant concludes:

"The interesting thing about these works is that there seems to be something in the modern American psyche that's responding to them, and it may be the secular version of that element that responds to promises of the impending Apocalypse. These aren't even the relatively benign 'dystopian futures' of cyberpunk, where government/corporate quasi-fascism is offset by the possibility of personal techno-anarchism, like a boy's adventure novel. Even most of the bleakest science fiction contains the seeds of some sort of redemption (there's that religious iconography again), but these new works are not about The End Of Days. They're simply about the end."

Meanwhile, Rebecca Ore has an interesting point to make in the comment section of Paul McAuley's post, in which she says:

"If s.f. now is selling 7 or 8 percent of the market, the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories."

Or as Ian McDonald puts it earlier in the same thread:

"Media SF has so successfuly colonised the lower ground (much as 'Friends', by being so basic, colonised much of the lower ground of situation comedy, and Buffy seems to doing in urban fantasy) that written SF needs to look elsewhere and do something different."

Which, interestingly enough, dovetails with something Steven Grant said in another section of his column, when he wasn't speaking about SF at all, but about Hollywood's constant underestimation of audience intelligence as relates to the film Lucky Number Sleven:

"The problem really isn't that audiences are stupid, though that's how they're commonly portrayed. It's that they're overeducated. Maybe not in traditional terms, but in pop culture. People grow up with movies, TV, comics. The challenge now isn't coming up with material but coming up with material audiences are unfamiliar with. (Not that familiarity isn't marketable - that's a different discussion - but even the familiar requires a new wrinkle to be really marketable; has a new wrinkle ever done anything besides make something old look older?)"

Which is another good reason not to stuff genies back into bottles.

Update: Chris Roberson chimes into the discussion with a food-based metaphor, and a really smart one at that. Not surprisingly, Paul Cornell is first to comment with his own come comestibles analogy.


Anonymous said...

A better word for the genre, without all the old bad karma attached to it, is Fantastika (used in Russia and Eastern Europe).

Star Trek, Dr. Who, Space:1999 = Science Fiction/Sci-Fi
Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Charles Stross = Fantastika

Lou Anders said...

I like the title "fantastika" and could see appropriating it for something someday, but I don't think the label is the problem. Pendulum's swing and all it takes is one or two high profile successes and then we'd see people bending over to associate themselves with the label, rather than the reverse.

A.R.Yngve said...

"The problem really isn't that audiences are stupid, though that's how they're commonly portrayed. It's that they're overeducated."

It' become a cliché that TV is turning us all into morons. Is the same being said of the Internet?