A Science Fiction Primer

PLAN 9 FROM 2001
It’s all SciFi. Both have spaceships, both have men in spacesuits. Both have numbers in the title, What’s the difference?

I’ve often wondered why science fiction isn’t as widely popular as I think it ought to be.

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since the bad old days of hiding your pulps inside a copy of Playboy so you wouldn’t catch a ribbing for reading that crazy Buck Rogers stuff:  “Science Fiction will rot your brain!” they’d say.  “What are you wasting your time for with that trash!?!”  Consider yourself lucky if you escaped with book or magazine intact.

Over the years the genre has achieved a greater degree of respectability, but still nowhere near the Olympian heights I believe it deserves (and by that I don’t mean the Greek myth reference but rather the Martian one of Olympus Mons).  If anything I’m more puzzled now than I was during that earlier era.

During those pre- Star Wars days it was quite possible to come up short when asked why you were reading such socially unacceptable fare.  We’d not yet had scores of scientists and engineers publicly declaring the debt they owed to the literature;  government had not yet convened think tanks that included acknowledged masters of the genre; geeks were wedgied rather than being asked for help with a PC problem; and – despite a few critically acclaimed films and the odd television show – the genre itself was not a money-making powerhouse.

Today we’ve got all those things and more: science fiction has found an (uncomfortable) place in academia, it is routinely assumed that scientists and engineers received their inspiration from the genre; the military uses its tropes in recruiting fare; aspects of the genre are littered throughout top Box Office draws and endlessly engaged with on gaming consoles everywhere.

Yet there remains a curious disconnect, one borne of ignorance, lack of vision, deliberate obfuscation, miscues and a bizarre love-hate relationship.  The ideas of science fiction, the imagery of science fiction, the possibilities of science fiction and its escapist qualities are widely accepted, feted, marketed, while the essence of science fiction itself, even the name of the genre, and most specifically the root and heart of science fiction remain conflated with that “Buck Rogers Stuff”.

Obviously I don’t know all of the reasons why this is;  why the toys are accepted throughout our society while the toy makers are relegated to second-class status; why the imagery evoked by mind-bending concepts is eagerly sought (usually accompanied by explosions), the concept itself poo-pooed as unreal and unachievable (and yet, at the same time, we live in a world populated by the previously unachievable that was originally inspired into existence by science fiction authors);  I certainly hope that the easy answer is not the only answer – that the mainstream audience is just too stupid to be able to grasp the high-falutin, complex, sciency nature of the genre (though there is something to be said for the influence of the pressure of marketing’s approach of appealing to the lowest common denominator with product targeted for mainstream fare).

In looking for better answers I believe that I have hit upon at least one possibility when it comes to media offerings from the genre.  This possibility has been hinted at innumerable times, usually found in discussions regarding the “golden age of science fiction” (10 or 12 or 14 or 16 years old).  The trope goes something like this: science fiction literature is rife with concepts that one picks up gradually, through context. This background knowledge is a prerequisite for appreciating (even enjoying) science fiction literature.  An older reader asked to engage with the literature does not have this background and soon becomes hopelessly lost and confused by references to FTL or time travel paradox. With younger readers everything is new and initially undefined.  Reading without understanding or comprehending everything found in a story is the standard experience for non-adults.  Therefore, science fiction literature poses no greater barrier than any other form of literature.

I believe that there’s something to that concept, but I think it goes deeper and is more complex a problem than has heretofore been discussed, particularly when it comes to media fare, which is arguably (don’t argue, you’d lose) exposed to a much wider and more varied audience than the literature itself.

Let me put it this way:  the initial barriers posed by the familiarity problem mentioned above are further complicated by the nature of the media fare that non-SF readers encounter (which might be used as a spur or draw), because so much of what is labelled as “sci fi” is, frankly, either not science fiction, weak science fiction or, in support of Sturgeon’s Law, crappy,trashy science fiction.

Incidentally the above has historical antecedents.  During the first decade of SF’s existence as a genre, the majority of its stories were published in a variety of pulp magazines, Amazing Stories among them.  At the beginning of SF’s second decade, John W. Campbell Jr., (now at the helm of Astounding) began to try to shape the genre into something beyond bug-eyed boojums and brass brassieres.  Thoughtful and evolving SF began to appear on its pages, while the covers (and story titles) remained as lurid and pulpy as before.  On the face of it there was nothing that really distinguished  the older, pulpier form (which in many cases could be legitimately criticized for its formulaic, uninspired nature); a reader could easily be misled about the entire genre, depending on which pulp they spent their 15 or 25 cents on.

five pulps
The July 1939 issue of Astounding is considered by many to be the first full expression of Campbell’s editorial influence. The other pulps displayed would all have been on the stands at the same time as the Astounding. Despite the interior difference, there is little that distinguishes one of these magazines from the others so far as a newsstand peruser is concerned.  Incidentally, Astounding and Amazing were charging 20 cents, the other three 15 cents.  Was the extra nickel viewed as an indication of higher quality – or did it push readers to the less expensive fare? (Astounding July, Amazing July, Startling July, Thrilling Wonder August, Science Fiction August, all 1939.)

Media SF – in all of its varieties – is firmly and uncontestably rooted in the literature (whether it acknowledges its sources or not).  The problem for the audience of media fare is that the mainstream definition of “sci fi” is overly broad, encompassing bad examples along with the good and offering no inherent means for distinguishing one from the other (other than perhaps reviews, but how many non-fans bother to read – or even understand – such? Evaluating a geeky review requires tools, experience and prior knowledge that is not in their purview).  AND, accompanying this inadequate definition is the ever present familiarity problem.

Evaluating a media offering as good or bad or something in between is of course largely subjective, though I’d argue that it is far less so when approaching the extremes of badness or goodness.  Few will argue that Plan 9 From Outer Space is an exemplar of good SF film fare.  Equally few will argue that 2001: A Space Odyssey is NOT a faithful presentation of Science Fiction on the big screen.

It is because the audience is so much larger for media SF that this issue becomes one of major import.  What is happening (presuming the relative accuracy of Sturgeon’s Law) is that 9 times out of ten we are exposing uninformed (potential audience/potential market) and ill-prepared viewers to BAD science fiction.  In the short term, probably no big deal.  In the long run we’re educating the literature’s potential audience right out of the genre.  What adult person in their right mind, after viewing a poorly constructed and confusing film labelled as SF is going to scurry off to Amazon and drop some dollars on an SF novel or two?  (And why has no one in the past eight decades managed to attach promotion of the genre’s literature to the media fare in any kind of long-term, generalized manner?)

We’re already suffering from the fact that screens are largely replacing the printed word.  That’s not an indictment of e-readers or e-books. Literature presented in that form is suffering the same fate as printed books; more and more people are turning to Netflix, Hulu, game consoles or other visual forms at the expense of literature and the trend shows no signs of abating.  (I’m waiting for the first graphic novel or comic that has no words, just pichurs;  it will sell and sell big and pretty soon it will be back to hieroglyphs for everyone….)

Doom and gloom aside, what I’m looking for is a way to fold an explanation of SF’s contextual background together with a rating of some kind for individual media presentations.  “SF Content 76% : SF Plausibility Quotient 2.7*” (*on a scale of 1-10).  A short review would accompany this rating, a review in which the focus is an explanation of the tropes utilized in the content, along with an assessment of how plausible they are.  The faux example presented here would fit fairly well for a film like Star Wars.  The content is recognizably science fictional in nature (starships, aliens, robots, blasters, augmented humans) while the manner in which these tropes are utilized in the story is relatively non-plausible; sciency hardware is mixed with fantasy elements, the good guys have far greater accuracy with the same weapons tech used by the baddies, technobabble is completely divorced from reality (Kessel Run) &c.  (It would also be important to stress that these ratings are not an assessment of the product as “good” or “bad” fare – many of us still enjoy groaning our way through Plan 9 from time to time – but only an assessment of a specific element of the product.  Like assigning a painting to a particular school and evaluating how well or poorly it engages with the requirements of that school.)

The objective for such a system would be to establish a repository and find ways to publicize that resource in a manner that associates it with new media releases.  Although it might resemble another take at the review process, the purpose would not be to provide a more in-depth, geeky review so much as it would be to establish in the minds of the non-fan the basic idea that SF media fare is not monolithic; there is both variety of type and variety of quality.  One would hope that with such a metric available, those unfamiliar with the genre would be encouraged to evaluate it with a bit more nuance.  Rather than coming to the conclusion that all SF is dreck based on a single (bad) exposure, they’d be able to separate out the SF elements and apply the yardstick to it;  they’d have a better means for evaluating how representative of SF that particular presentation was.  Instead of becoming negatively inclined towards an entire genre, they’d restrict the negativity to a single property that “didn’t do SF so well”.

I strongly suspect that a large percentage of the population that believes that it doesn’t like SF is mistaken.  Their assessment is largely based on ignorance of the genre and (prolonged) exposure to bad examples.  If we can find a way to tie media SF back into literary SF – a way to use the enormous floor traffic of media offerings – it can’t help but increase the reader base.

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1 Comment

  1. The trouble is, almost all media ‘sci-fi’ is both bad science fiction and bad (or not very good) television or film. And its presence, popularity, budget, marketing and general cultural saturation is always going to massively overwhelm the impact of mere books. I can’t help but think people either get it or they don’t.

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