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.