Friday, June 15, 2007

Long Live Sci-Fi!!!

Fellow sci-fi lovers, ALERT!!! According to one apparently high-brow writer, Bill Gibron, we don’t really love sci-fi- we love actioners, dramas, thrillers merely posing as science fiction. True, intellectually stimulating, speculative science fiction is all but extinct, according to Gibron. I quote:

“There are several villains in this creative cabal, elements and individuals that want to see the motion picture category cater to fanboys, geeks, and the easily entertained. But it seems a real shame that the one literary ideal best suited for the most visual of all mediums is constantly countermanded by issues that have nothing to do with either artforms’ visionary nature… Instead of reaching for intelligence and stretching the boundaries of imagination, it [sci-fi film] decides to take hoary old clichés, lots of narrative formula, and one man’s [George Lucas’] F/X laced legacy, and completely rewrite the rules of acceptability. Where once the speculative spectacle questioned the existence of man within the cosmos, today it’s all Westerns with robots.”

Gibron defines “serious” science fiction thus: “Serious science fiction questions and speculates…” (for his full text, click here)

Which causes me to ask, “Are our current science fiction pictures void of that questioning, speculative spirit? Are they all robots, mutants, spaceships, and big guns with no scientific backbone?” I would state that speculation and questioning have never been more present in sci-fi films than they are now. Despite the obvious pulp posers, sci-fi films have not ceased to explore, to envision, and to question our world. In any great science fiction work, going back to H.G Wells and Jules Verne, speculation has never taken precedence over story and character. Regardless of genre, story and character drive any great film, not mere visionary ideas. Moreover, spectacle is the instrument of speculation in science fiction- it always has been, from Metropolis to The Matrix.

I take some great examples of this from Gibron’s list of the last surviving sci-fi movies. 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the film paragon of science fiction, was a wonderful display of mind-blowing ideas. However, the engine that kept that story moving was essentially a thriller template. That engine allowed the audience to stick around long enough to enjoy the meatier speculation taking place. Did this diminish 2001’s “serious” sci-fi status? No, it propelled it to the upper echelons of both film and sci-fi. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a story of a midlife crisis and discovery; one might even label it escapist. Was it lacking in spectacle, just OMG moments of pure awe? Certainly not. The Mothership (as long as we’re discrediting F/X) blew every young child’s mind and had us watching the skies for years to come, questioning and wondering. As in 2001, the story, characters, and the spectacle drove us forward to those visionary moments.

Without spectacle and human characters and stories, the audience is alienated. And it’s not because we are afflicted by some mass plague of ADHD. It’s because we demand a human connection with our films; we want our sci-fi to show us something un-thought of, unseen. Think, for instance, of the beginning sequence of 2001, with the ape-men and the flying bones. Even to this day, as a mature appreciator of film, I have a hard time digesting that scene. It’s not until we get to that core conflict of Dave and HAL that I become invested enough in the movie to care about the other ideas. The Matrix, on the other hand, has me by the throat from the get-go because it hits us right away with a critical human conflict, a lone female freedom fighter running from the Man. Kung-fu, F/X, and some of the biggest shootouts we’ve ever seen don’t detract us from its incredibly transcending themes- they illuminate and enhance them.

I believe that these same principles live in other films and TV shows that did not make Gibron’s list. I believe that true sci-fi is not dead. Serenity’s premise of the origin of the Reapers was as speculative and searching as any great sci-fi. Minority Report’s questions regarding intrusion of justice into privacy (as well as its myriad of tiny speculations on marketing, identity issues, and manufacturing) are the stuff of the best sci-fi. Terminator 2 raised important questions regarding artificial intelligence and artificial ethics. And let us not forget that subtly sci-fi treat which is Lost, especially with its recent launch into space-time issues created by the Island’s unique magnetic properties. Even the recent flood of zombie films and literature are speculative science fiction at heart.

Yes, true science fiction lives. As in any time, we have our films that are merely gratuitous (I’ll be the first to denounce Aliens vs. Predator as true sci-fi). The genre will continue to evolve, to absorb properties of other genres, and to produce its winners and losers. But that quality will always be present in a great many of them either explicitly or implicitly. Long live science fiction!

I recommend reading Gibron’s article and then tell us what you think. Do you side with Gibron? Is science fiction on its deathbed? Or does it continue to thrive? What movies or TV shows (if any) carry on the sci-fi legacy?


  1. Talk about blather. He lost me at "inherent allegorical nature."

    I think Mr. Gibron is looking for an excuse to bash Lucas so he assembles as many metaphors as possible and couches his hatred for the Space Opera genre in the guise of learned discourse. Science Fiction will always have people thinking of far away planets and rocket ships and dark futures just as romance movies will always have people struggling with relationships, westerns will always have horses and horror movies will always have a bit of suspense and blood.

    My favorite part is where he says the genre is dead and then he rattles off 13 movies that are not bad, as long as we don't count anything before the 1960's. We'll, you know, 40 years and a dozen movies? Pretty good track record if you ask me. I mean, there's a reason a sci-fi film hasn't ever won a major award.

    The problem is, most movies are fiction. They are horror and drama and comedy, but they're usually fiction. Slapping "science" in front of it doesn't make it suddenly smarter. It's a bad name anyway, just accept that it's a Flash Gordon genre, whatever helps him sleep at night.

    And I'd like to mention some he overlooked. Naked Lunch, Brazil, City of Lost Children, Sphere, Event Horizon, Donnie Darko, V for Vendetta, 12 Monkeys and Truman Show. Some of these aren't great movies, but they are also not typically considered "sci-fi." For my money they were just fine as a vehicle for questioning and assessing the world around me.

    I'm only now reading Vonnegut (I know I know) and even he was quick to point out that science fiction is nothing more than a regular story with a bit of technology thrown in. So what? It's a broken genre to start with, why all the big words trying to figure it out and call it "dead?"

    I also have a reasonable explanation why one may think it's no longer viable. No flying cars. Had we actually responded to the creativity pre-1960 and built up these societies we envisioned so long ago, maybe our sense of wonder wouldn't need to be infused with dirty, horrible, devastating stories about what our world could be like scant days or months from now. We no longer have faith in our future, is it any surprise our literature reflects this?

  2. Thanks, Mr. Austin, for your comments. I think your last comment hit it right on the head. Our sci-fi today doesn't fit Mr. Gibron's view because he is clinging to the speculations of a time past, the speculations of Asimov, Bradbury, and their contemporaries. The anxieties of their times, however, are not the anxieties of our time. We live under the constant shadow of terrorism, global climate change, genocide, and viral outbreaks. Is it any wonder that our sci-fi is almost obsessed with what happens right before, during, and right after a global apocalypse?

    No, worries about the space time continuum and artificial intelligence just can't hold a candle to the more pressing fears of our day. Gibron's sadly limited, outdated, and unauthorized definition of sci-fi will remain frustrated because its world no longer exists.

  3. I, like Mr Gibron, believe that Sci-Fi is dead, but only because it was never really alive. Sci-Fi has many forms, and as Mr Austin said, the name Science Fiction does not really do what it encompasses justice. I am sure i read a intro to an anthology by Mr Asimov himself that said the same. There are numerous factions of Sci-Fi, in all its forms, and i am primarily a fan of one particular faction, as it seems Mr Gibron is.

    This faction is that of "classic" Sci-Fi short stories, usually from the so called "golden age" of sci-fi. These are exemplified by the short story works of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein(ie, the big three). These stories typically use fictional technology to create a circumstance where the "human condition"(i hate using that phrase but i have yet to find a replacement that suits) can be analyzed, and force the reader to think about issues for themselves. This type of Sci-Fi is not limited to short stories, or even strictly to "sci-fi", however this is where it is most prevalent.

    This is what i concider to be "true" sci-fi for me, for two main reasons.
    1. Its the type that i most enjoy.
    2. It is the type of Sci-Fi that is most distinct as a genre.

    Sci-Fi is almost always lumped in with Fantasy, and for good reason. Fantasy takes the reader to a far away "fantastic" place, and enthralls the reader with a adventure. This is exactly what a lot of so called Sci-fi does, particularly a lot of sci-fi novels, and the majority of sci-fi films. This is obviously a gross generalization, but i hope you get the point.

    The only difference between these sci-fi works and fantasy is that what one calls magic, the other calls science. As Clark(his third law) said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". While mine is not the point he was trying to make, i think it makes mine quite well as well. Most Sci-Fi movies and novels are, at their core, indistinguishable from fantasy.

    What i consider "true" science fiction, however, does not try to whisk the reader into a fantastic world of wonder. In fact the opposite. A good Sci-Fi short story can whisk you away to its world, change your perspective on issues, and make you think about what it discusses, without you even realizing that it has done so. In sci-fi short stories, the more unobtrusive the technology used(in terms of both the level of imaginary technology used, and its seeming importance to the plot), the better the story is.

    This "true" sci-fi is very difficult to do well in novel and movie form, which is why most have failed, or not even tried, to put it in these forms. Whenever i go to a sci-fi movie, i hope it will be a true sci-fi film, but it is invariably not. There area a few exceptions, such as 2001(in its day anyway), and more recently, Primer. Most, however, are just fantasy(or action in the case of a lot of blockbusters), "in space".

    For sci-fi lovers like (apparently) Mr Gibron and i, Sci-Fi movies are not so much dead, as still born.


  4. Braedon makes some great points. Namely, the definition of science fiction is subject to many different interpretations. Also, that what I would term "heavy" sci-fi is difficult to translate to film, which is inherently made for a broad swath of the population and demands some degree of marketability. I mean, let's face it: Hollywood isn't spending hundreds of millions of dollars just to enlighten people. Needless to say, the writings of Clark, Asimov, and Heinlein (whom I neglected to mention) have had a tough go at the mass media market.

    However, to make a blanket statement that sci-fi is dead is to say that because other sci-fi doesn't meet your definition and the stuff that does meet your definition is non-existent in the media that all sci-fi is dead. I would reinterrate what I said in my post: sci-fi has never pervaded nor been so widely accepted as it is today. Does it look like the psychadelic, radiation-paranoid sci-fi of the mid-20th century? No. Is it changing, merging with, and influencing other genres, like the blobs in a lava lamp? Certainly. Is it any less science-based, speculative, or questioning than in the past? No. In fact, today's cynical audiences demand more scientific plausibility than ever before. Look around, it is all over the megaplex and primetime. I think we have only grown so accustomed to it.

    So, I'm sticking to my guns. Sci-fi lives. But it is now an evolved hydrid. If you love it, don't be so quick to pronounce it DOA.

  5. Yip, don't get me wrong, i realize that the Sci-Fi movie industry is alive and kicking(and i still watch, and enjoy watching, every Sci-Fi movie that i can). I was just trying to explain where Mr Gibron seems to be coming from in saying that Sci-Fi is dead.

    It is only my favorite form of Sci-Fi that hasn't made the transition to movies very well.

    O, btw, keep up the awesome blog posts Marcus. People are reading, despite the low comment count :).


  6. I have to add, because it didn't occur to me before, that the few sci-fi (and by the way, does anyone have a problem with it being called sci-fi?) stories from 'the golden age' that have tried to make it to main stream really haven't done well.

    I'm all for stories like I, Robot and Solaris and 2001 and Starship Troopers. These four represent the biggest push of the classic sci-fi authors for me and aside from 2001, did horrible at the box office. Does that mean the genre is failing, because the screenplays aren't good? Who here loved Battlefield Earth as a story but hated the movie. Who here squirmed watching Bicentennial Man? Who thought the Hollywood version of Starship Troopers was closer to John Steakley's "Armor" than the original Heinlein book?

    Probably all of us. To me Dune was pretty good sci-fi, but it was so religious and removed from Earth that it was more fantasy. The problem a lot of these run into is very few people are making sci-fi movies that aren't recreations or adaptations. Adaptations will always suffer because of the length of the story, adaptations will always suffer because they will be compared to the original. I'd love to see an adaptation of Foundation or The Forever War, but it just wouldn't make sense, it'd have to be 17 movies.

    Dan Simmons book Ilium and Olympos (good idea, horrible ending) is a good indication that science fiction as a form of expression really isn't dead, I think it's just the short attention span of movies that have a hard time capturing the essence of it. It's easier to make a person laugh for 90 minutes or have them fall in or out of love with the main character than it is to change someone's way of thinking about social constants. It's easier to do it with 500 pages.


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