Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Science Fiction: Alive and Killing Me

Warning: this is a rant.

One of my great pleasures--both growing up as well as now--is science fiction. Whether we're talking books, television, or movies, science fiction has slowly but surely developed a pretty sizeable audience over the years--but oddly, the majority of that audience has very strange sensibilities (I present evidence for this below). It's as if the sport of football expanded its audience ten-fold, but most of the new people had no appreciation for what the game was about--and furthermore, were clueless that they were clueless!

Exhibit A: Science Fiction not equals Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy have nothing to do with each other. There, I said it. If you disagree, you may consider yourself to be in that aforementioned clueless category.

I loved science fiction as a boy, devouring books by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, Cifford D. Simak, Robert Heinlein, and Cordwainer Smith. By today's standards you would call this "hard" science fiction but back then it wasn't necessary to distinguish "hard" from the intruders that wanted to also be labeled sci fi.

There was also a completely unrelated genre called fantasy which I had no interest in. You could find both types of writing in a bookstore, but they would be nowhere near each other physically (since they have nothing to do with each other). No one would have thought to group them together; that would have made as much sense as combining gardening books with crossword puzzle magazines.

Somewhere in the 80s, someone got the idea that science fiction and fantasy were two sides of the same coin. Bookstores bought into this idea, resulting in the combined "Sci-fi/Fantasy" section you now see everywhere. This initial baffling development was bad enough--it made it harder to figure out which books were actually about sci fi--but that was just the beginning. Eventually sci fi authors themselves were persuaded that they should "try their hand" at fantasy, perhaps driven by arguments from publishers that there was more of a market for fantasy than sci fi. Whatever the reason, many writers off and went in this direction. This all but killed off "hard" sci-fi. All the books were now fantasy books.

How sci-fi and fantasy could ever be viewed as related remains a complete mystery to me. A sci fi story presents us with a semi-plausible premise where one or more interesting things are going on--such as being set in a future time, or in a society with different rules, or after a major new invention or discovery, or taking place on a different planet, or after being contacted by aliens--but the rest of the story has to follow the rules the reader expects (the rules of physics, the rules of human behavior, etc.) and be credible. That's what makes science fiction interesting, it makes us think about things that could actually happen (some more likely than others) and how they might change us or our world and how we could or should respond and what the consequences might be.

In fantasy, this pattern is inverted: the author is freely making up all of the rules of the world, and the world itself, and anything and everything is permissible in the name of magic. It's the most unsatisfying thing I can imagine reading.

"Hard" sci fi largely died for 20 years. Only a very few dedicated authors, such as Greg Bear and Charles Sheffield (sadly now deceased) were writing hard science fiction. Fortunately, there is good news to report here: hard science fiction is making a comeback, with a new generation learning what science fiction was originally all about. It's been a long hard wait, but it's very exciting to see.

Exhibit B: Science Fiction not equals Horror

If it's a stretch to confuse science fiction with fantasy, surely no one would confuse it with horror... or would they. Apparently Hollywood enjoys marketing films to science fiction fans and getting them into the theatre, only to rudely change the movie's genre midway through and abandon the plot. Here are some of the worst offenders:

Event Horizon". Wikipedia has the gall to call this a science-fiction movie. Go read the initial plot description and you'll be intrigued. If you started to watch it you would be convinced it was a promising science-fiction movie. That is, until you get past the first half hour of the movie. Space movie turns into vampire movie. All science goes out the window, to be replaced by the supernatural, blood, and gore.

Life Force." Wikipedia is a little more honest this time, calling this a "science-fiction/horror film." Out in space, we discover an alien vessel--and some of the crew is found alive in stasis. After bringing them back to earth, voila! you're transported to a vampire movie as everyone on earth turns into blood-sucking zombies.

Exhibit C: Science Fiction not equals Martial Arts

Not satisfied to taint science fiction by blending it with first fantasy and then horror, martial arts has to get into the act. And this brings us to the ultimate example of science fiction that is not science fiction.

The Matrix." A science fiction movie with a big budget, well-known actors, and special effects. And a great plot premise. Except, mid-way through the science and plot are abandoned. Completely. The rest of the movie is about martial arts and mysticism.

Amazing, people lap up The Matrix and happily pay to see its two sequels. I can only conclude people like watching special effects and action sequences so much that it doesn't matter if there is continuity, a plot, or suspension of disbelief.

Exhibit D: Inability to Tell the Difference Between Good and Bad Sci-Fi

In evaluating what's good and bad in sci fi--and here I'm primarily thinking of television series and movies--people are making some really odd judgments these days. Perhaps it's partly due to what the book publishers and movie makers have done to us as described earlier.

Let's be clear: if someone claims to be a "sci fi" fan but offers "The Matrix" as a shining example of it, something is very wrong. "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Planet of the Apes' (the original) and "The Day The Earth Stood Still" are great sci fi movies. "The Matrix" is worse than bad sci fi, it's really not sci fi at all. By the same token, "Star Trek" is good TV science fiction and "Lost in Space" is horrible.

There were 2 television science fiction series I really liked in the 70s. One was "
UFO", the other "The Starlost", both short-lived because they couldn't find a large enough audience. I recently had the pleasure of catching up on "UFO" thanks to a colleague's DVD collection, and now "Starlost" has just come out on DVD.

Starlost had a great premise. The earth is destroyed, but before that happens the final generation launches space ship Ark to send a remnant of humanity to a new world, which will take many centuries. The ark is a huge ship that contains bio domes of different societies. An awesome setting for all sorts of interesting episodes, since each bio dome can have its own interesting culture and stories. Moreover, an accident of some sort occurred and the ark is on a collision course with a Class G star, a problem that really needs to be solved one of these centuries. This has all the makings of a great sci fi show.

Is this appreciated, by anyone? If you did a quick search online, you would conclude "No" in a hurry. There are plenty of articles on "Starlost" on the web, such as
this one and this one and this one, that claim Starlost is "the worst science fiction series ever." Frankly, I'm getting tired of it.

Worst sci-fi TV series ever? That's quite a statement. Did you not see Lost in Space? Or Cleopatra 2525?? Granted, Starlost had more than its share of production problems and was a far cry from what Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova, and Douglas Trumbull were after (the major talent left the show, the budget shrank and shrank, and it was shot on video in Canada during a writer's strike). Nevertheless, its brilliance shines through and what remained was still highly imaginative and quite watchable to avid sci-fi fans in 1973. To call it "the worst sci fi TV series ever" makes we wonder what these people regard as good sci fi, and what their criteria is. I happily just ordered my Starlost collection of DVDs, and as soon as I mentioned it to a colleague he did the same without hesitation. I predict it will sell well despite the mockery by the clueless.


William Ockham said...

You might want to expand your understanding of literary genres beyond the books you read as a boy. Take a look at book titled 'True History' (or 'True Story', depending on how you translate it from the Greek) written in the second century of the Common Era by Lucian of Samosata. This Wikipedia page gives a decent introduction. It's a fascinating work of art that anticipates many of the concerns of modern science fiction while being rooted firmly in the ancient tradition of fantastical writing. Where would you put that in the bookstore sections?

You said this:

Science fiction and fantasy have nothing to do with each other. There, I said it. If you disagree, you may consider yourself to be in that aforementioned clueless category.

I think I can convince you otherwise. I'll be at the PDC. Would like to get together there and talk about this? On an unrelated note, my company just bought Neuron ESB, so we might have a business reason to meet.

David Pallmann said...

Hey William. Sure, I'd love to meet up at PDC. I'll be there all week... easiest way to find me is at the Neudesic booth during exhibit hours. -David