The Trouble With Science Fiction

Over the years, I’ve been developing an aversion to modern science fiction — both literary and cinematic. So, in the true spirit of blogging, I thought I’d share some of my complaints and suggestions with the world that is the Internet. Here goes.

My chief complaint is that science fiction these days is all too frequently just about the science, never the fiction. In fact, a great deal of it reads like a lengthy, flowery technical manual, or like something written by a futurist. Nowadays, very little time is taken in character development or plot structuring. This problem plagues sci-fi movies with an especial severity. Now, many will no doubt protest that the “sci” is what sci-fi is all about, but I beg to differ. To me, it seems  that sci-fi should only ever be deployed as a tool to allow the telling of stories that aren’t possible in other genres. For example, there are few genres that can so eloquently explore the ramifications of mankind’s creations the way AI-centric sci-fi does. Interspecies tolerance — or lack thereof — speaks potently about our own tolerances and intolerances of each other, in a way that is frequently more poignant and direct than the literarily bogged-down novels of the past.

There is of course a much more serious problem with modern science fiction, and that is that it all seems to be written or filmed by a bunch of pimply adolescent technophiles with about the same amount of imagination as the average armadillo. Most science fiction novels — at least those by the “up and coming” writers — seem to be getting uncomfortably close to the gauzy rococo fantasies explored in the fantasy genre and Japnese anime (I must take a moment to warn my readers, I am terribly un-fond of anime. I think that it’s a bloated, stereotyped medium that Westernizes more sloppily than almost any other Japanese format). While I have no problem per se with either of these, I think that they tend to make the work clichéd and uninteresting. After all, how many angsty twentysomething protagonists with blue hair do we really need?

And as for the lack of imagination, if imagination were oxygen, then somewhere in the world would be a huge pile of asphyxiated sci-fi writers. About seventy-five percent of them would be screenwriters. It seems to me that there are about five science-fiction plots out there, and that whenever a young writer wants to get into the business, they simply pick one, add on some extra bits, throw in some filler, and call it a day. Now, this may indeed be the way that most novels are written — after all, there is only a finite number of plots out there, they’re bound to get re-used eventually — but the problem with that is that science fiction is a very dense pocket of literature, and any excess overlap brings it dangerously close to homogenity. What happened to the Arthur C. Clarkes, the Charles Strosses, the Isaac Asimovs, and the Phillip K. Dickses (Yes, Dickses. I am going out of my way to avoid being juvenile here, give me a break.)? What happened to the ebullient, enterprising spirit that made sci-fi great? After all, as I said before, science fiction is merely a stepladder to reach the previously-inaccessible reaches of literature. What happened to the galaxy-spanning civilizations, the beings composed of ions and magnetic fields, the self-made destructions of civilizations, and the kind of remarkable creativity of a story like Asimov’s “The Nine Billion Names of God”?

Here are my suggestions to my fellow writers of science fiction, in my standard, convenient, lazy, bulleted format:

  • Don’t be afraid to step outside of humanity. What science fiction really needs right now is somebody with the talent to make readers feel connected to a character of an entirely different species. Anyone who can do that — or has done that — with any elegance can have my pocket protector.
  • Don’t rely on archetypes and stereotypes. If your writing has become the standard test-of-the-hero’s-mettle stuff, then smack yourself in the face with your manuscript.
  • Only use sci-fi where it is truly needed. Some stories can be told much more elegantly within the confines of a far less exotic genre. Imagine if John Steinbeck had been born a generation later, and had tried to express the beautiful themes of Of Mice and Men as a space opera. The mind recoils.
  • Don’t, I repeat, don’t be a slave to the genre. Sci-fi does not necessarily need pitched space battles, homogenous gray-skinned aliens, and advanced weapons to be great. Isaac Asimov did it without aliens altogether. Arthur C. Clarke went beyond the whole “Take us to your leader” thing. And Charles Stross went — and is going — beyond the idea of humanoids as the only viable kinds of aliens. And none of the previous needed any kind of blinky, flashing lights or space battles to do what they did. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, don’t write anything that resembles any science fiction movie produced in the last thirty years.

Those are my thoughts. Enjoy.

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Merry Something, Happy Something Else, etc.

Around this time of year, my cynicism tends to get a big boost. After all, what feeds cynicism better than the commercialization of a holiday that was originally — I think — supposed to be about goodwill towards your fellow humans and stopping your gluttonous hoarding for a moment to help your neighbors. Exacerbating this flaw is the endless stream of political correctness that makes any mention of the holidays that fall around December 25th about as clumsy as me on a unicycle. Add to this the endlessly repetitive Christmas soundtrack, and not only am I cynical, but I also have the urge to stick a long needle in both of my eardrums.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m gearing up for a rather serious rant, so if you’re not in the mood — and you’re probably not, given the fact that every other cynic on the planet is ranting right about now — then you’d best get out while you still can.

If you’re reading this, then you’re still here. I can’t understand why, but then again, I also can’t understand what’s so attractive about watching golf on television, so I won’t criticize. Anyway, the big rant:

  • As I get very tired of being a typical sarcastic cynic sometimes, I thought I’d put this rant at the very top of the list: I’m absolutely exhausted with all of the cynical people ranting about the holidays (holidays with a lowercase H). I mean, a time of year with so much money and corporate power behind it is not likely to go away soon, and history has proven that we cynics have little power to change the status quo. There are probably more productive and less hypertension-promoting uses of your time. After all, the only thing worse than actually having to listen to “White Christmas” is hearing somebody bitch about it for an hour and a half. That said, I’m going to be a good little cynic and contradict myself in the next bullet point, so that I can get some good ranting done.
  • It is obligatory for any cynic to complain about the music around this time of year. Supposedly, “White Christmas” was the song that made Irving Berlin great. To me, it’s the song that makes him an evil bastard with an aversion to other peoples’ continuing sanity. It’s gotten to the point where I’m no longer dreaming of a white Christmas, I’m having sweat-soaked incontinent Christmas nightmares. I know that’s a bit extreme, but anybody who’s heard “White Christmas” for the thirtieth time knows exactly what I mean.
  • The aforementioned political correctness is the next item on my ideological hit list. I’m so tired of hearing and reading the word “Holiday” and the phrase “Happy Holidays” that I would actually prefer someone to come up to me and say “Have a very crappy winter. I hope you die of exposure on a street corner.” While I think equality should be one of humanity’s foremost goals, I think that whoever is responsible for promoting equality really needs to learn to pick their battles. After all, as a quasi-Buddhist semi-atheist former Christian, I don’t think I’d honestly be offended if a Jewish person came up to me and wished me a happy Chaunukkah (forgive me if I misspelled that), or if someone wished me a happy Kwanzaa. I think that any excuse that we can find to wish each other a happy anything should be seen as valuable, and not nullified by trying to wish people a happy everything. And what’s worse, wishing someone “Happy Holidays” bears the stink of an attempt to broaden one’s holiday marketing demographic.
  • If I see one more suburban white family with a Doppelg­änger family of decorations on their front lawn, I may not be able to override my instinct towards destruction of property. Now, I should point out that I’m not (yet) so cynical as to be opposed to any Christmas (“Holiday”) decorations. I’m really very fond of a tasteful string of multicolored lights. It’s nice to occasionally mark a special day by doing something really peculiar like draping a bunch of tiny lightbulbs on your house. However, it seems that people (especially the aforementioned white suburbanites) are incapable of stopping there. Therefore, we end up with nativity scenes complete with full-size wise men, Santa Claus and reindeer, inflatable snowmen, little spinning things, animatronic wireframe reindeer, and whatever other random shiny blinky things the family can come up with. I — and I get the feeling I’m not alone in this regard — immediately begin wondering how much napalm I could make without attracting attention the moment I see a lawn so hideously decorated.