Thursday, June 28, 2007

The New SciFi

That SF is Respectable vibe is working it's way through the bloggosphere again, stirring up all sorts of thoughts in Yours Truly. It started when my friend and author Dave Hutchinson sent me a link to an article by Gareth McLean in the Guardian entitled "The New Sci-Fi," which echoes sentiments expressed here and, oh, everywhere about both the new levels of sophistication that SF TV like Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Lost, and Doctor Who represent, and the increased level of respect this is affording SF in the mainstream.

McLean's article is interesting, and seems to take three tacks:

1. That advances in CGI and reduced costs associated with same make "mainstream" television audiences more capable of accepting the wonders of science fiction and fantasy as legitimate, by presenting them in compelling, quality special effects in a way not capable at any other time. As McLean writes, "For starters, the advances in CGI and the relative inexpense of creating it for the small screen has meant that sci-fi and fantasy have become more believable and spectacular." Hey, no need to suspend your disbelief when its more human than human!

2. That the tensions and terrors of a post 9/11 world make people more interested in drama that addresses these tensions head on, as typified by BSG when it takes a hard look at terrorism by making it a tool of the protagonists. I was particularly struck/amused by this line, which sets SF telly not on a par with mainstream TV, but above it, in terms of the sophistication of its engagement with reality: "The only other major US drama to do so is 24, and its all-guns-blazing approach is to the detriment of any thoughtfulness."

3. In contrast to point 2, that these same tense times also make people more susceptible to escapism. "Tim Kring, creator of Heroes, concurs... he didn't set out to make a post-9/11 show - but 'the wish-fulfilment aspect of the show feeds off a feeling that the world is a scary place. Issues like global warming and diminishing natural resources and terrorism are issues that seem really out of control and huge. That these ordinary people may be coming along with special powers and can ultimately do something about these larger issues taps into a sense of helplessness we may feel.'" Sentiments hinted at again when McLean writes (emphasis mine), "As Doctor Who supremo Russell T Davies notes, albeit while emphasising the optimism of his own show: 'We live in a time of terror.'"

The article goes on to discuss how science fiction has gone from being a dirty word in Hollywood, something relegated to the interests of teenagers, to being what the studios want to the exclusion of everything else. Of some forty-five shows picked up by US networks for series this coming season, apparently roughly one quarter have some SFnal content. As McLean says, "Somehow, though, the suspension of disbelief that sci-fi and fantasy often require was too much for television audiences to swallow, and there the stigma remained. But Battlestar Galactica, along with the likes of Lost and Heroes, has changed that. All three shows are prime-time in America - Lost and Heroes on ABC and NBC respectively. Those are networks and not cable channels. This is a big deal."

The article concludes: "Science fiction and fantasy have changed and, in turn, are shaping other genres... BSG is the vanguard of a slew of sci-fi and fantasy shows that work within their genres, within our times, and - most importantly - as good old-fashioned emotional, engaging dramas. The producers of these dramas have created credible, cool shows - ones that are earthier and more grounded than many apparently firmly placed on this planet in the here-and-now. The drearily domestic but strangely alien Brothers and Sisters, I mean you. Why gaze at navels when you can gaze at the stars?"

Then, right on the heels of the Guardian article, I see that my friend and award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer is busy being his usual fascinating and erudite self in an interview conducted by author John Scalzi on the Ficlets Blog. Cutting to the heart of the matter, Scalzi asks, "Why is there this disconnect in the minds of non-SF readers between what they think written SF is, and what it is in your book and others?"

Rob's response: "I really think a large part of the problem is Star Wars, which has become indelibly etched in people’s minds as the standard example of science fiction. But it’s not – it’s science fantasy, or some other category – and it has almost no extrapolation, and no real moral or emotional dimension, and that’s what most people think SF is.’s an uphill climb to get people who don’t already read science fiction to try the genre; you can see in many cases the look of disgust on their faces when you hand them an SF book. And, of course, there’s Sturgeon’s Law, which says that 90% of SF is crap, so it’s not true, despite what some SF evangelists say, that if you get them to read one they’ll be hooked for life. A lot of SF is pretty unreadable, even by hardcore fans, but the best stuff has new and important things to say to everyone about what it means to be human."

As if in response to this observation, Infoquake author David Louis Edelman has launched a major discussion on his blog with his post, "Introductory Science Fiction Books for Literary Readers." David writes:

"Let’s say your readers in question are already discerning connoisseurs of quality literature. They’re not typically readers of so-called pulp novels or airport thrillers. They would think nothing of bundling down with a Philip Roth or a Don DeLillo or a Barbara Kingsolver or something that The New York Times Book Review would approve of. They know who Michiko Kakutani is, and they were reading Cormac McCarthy years before Oprah ever heard of him. But as soon as you mention the words 'science fiction,' they picture Klingons with light sabers jumping off spaceships with big-breasted ninja assassins in tow and bug-eyed monsters in hot pursuit while a supernova goes off in the background. What do you hand to these people to convince them that there’s a lot of intelligent literary science fiction that’s worth reading? "

The 60 or so comments that ensue are well-worth reading, though there does seem to be some confusing as to what constitutes "literary" fiction vs. popular fiction, and I would humbly suggest that rather than pursuing a niche readership that's smaller than our own, SF would be better served in convincing readers of popular fiction that science fiction is quality entertainment with something for all ages, adults of both sexes included, not that it's quality literature.

It is, after all, a genre, not a style. SF isn't a like a school of anime where everything produces must be a carbon copy of a house style, though that is how it is oft viewed from the outside. McLean's article, however, is the latest evidence in my argument that this is changing. Or, as Rob Sawyer says later in his interview, "As I said at the outset, good science fiction has things of value to say to everyone."


Tim Akers said...

Yeah, I think it's important to distinguish between the literary value of sf and the popular value of sf. There's already a pretty strong movement in the genre to identify with the literary side of things, a movement that maybe gets too much press time. The very fact that there are whole segments of our population that refer to their work as "speculative fiction" is sufficient evidence of that. SpecFic. Yeesh.

Ted said...

The Guardian piece was also discussed over at Torque Control, here.

Ted said...

In particular, I'd like to point out Abigail Nussbaum's comment in the Torque Control thread, where she notes that topicality seems to be the main reason shows like BSG are getting more attention. Topicality certainly isn't the worst reason to like a show, but it's neither necessary nor sufficient for good SF.

Lou Anders said...

Ted, thanks for the links. I am particularly interested in Abigail's closing comment: "I don’t think McLean’s attitude has as much to do with genre prejudice or ignorance as it does with a prejudice against fiction for fiction’s sake that is becoming more and more prevalent in the literary world. One increasingly comes across the attitude that a work of fiction’s worth is measured by its topicality, and by its being grounded in, or in direct and easily identifiable reference to, a palpable truth. The real is being held up as superior to the fictional, not just in the fantastic genres but in the mimetic one."

Lou Anders said...

You know, on further reflection, all these valid criticisms notwithstanding, the point of McLean's article was to try and interest outsiders in science fiction who might otherwise not regard it and that's a laudable endeavor in my book.