Inevitably, when someone hears that I am an SF writer, they immediately mentioned whatever SF things they happen to know about or like, expecting I, too, will like it.
This is awkward because I usually rather hate their favorite book, TV show, or movie.
Not all SF fans, or SF authors, like all SF. It’s a simple thing to say.
But it’s another thing to explain it, and they usually seem to find the fact so unbelievable that an explanation seems wanted.
My explanation almost never satisfies them, but maybe that’s because I haven’t rehearsed my sound bite. After all, everything has to be expressible in a sound bite in this era. Perhaps I should prepare one for the next time.
I can’t start out of the gate quoting Adam Roberts’ observation that sometime in the mid-twentieth century, the dominant mode of popular SF shifted from text to “visual” forms (like cinema, TV, and comics). I can’t very well explain that there was an accompanying aesthetic shift that occurred, and that SF in the visual mode does all kinds of things I don’t find satisfying, while lacking a lot of the things I crave from the genre.
It’s sort of like telling a Korean, “Well, look, I like kimchi, but I like the traditional stuff. You know, the stuff from before the days when hot peppers arrived from the Americas? The stuff your ancestors loved? The white, pickled stuff that bears no resemblance to that spicy fermented cabbage you eat with every meal.” You get blank looks. You get bafflement, and an insistence that, no, dude, what about kimchi?
The SF I love best blows my mind by being unpredictable; by taking scientific concepts and using them to stretch my imagination. You know those bowel movements that feel like you’re giving birth — the ones you have only occasionally, but which actually scare you until they’re over, and then you’re just kind of relieved and in happy shock not to have had your insides pop out and explode all over the place? That’s what a great SF story or novel can do to your mind.
It’s an acquired taste, thinking. And it’s an acquired expectation. I don’t insist that everyone should want the things I want.
But I do feel insulted by a lot of what is offered in place of that.
Take, for example, the remake of Battlestar Galactica, which to me feels much more like a bowel movement that simply took forever to end.
I get it why people enjoyed the show. I really do: despite some pretty bad writing in places, and despite the fact that it pushed a lot of my annoyance buttons — any TV show that refers to “God” and “the gods” constantly is going to annoy me, guaranteed — I can see what excited people about it. It’s like Dan Brown’s (dreadful, awful, horrible) writing: the man cannot write a character to save his life, but he can get you curious enough to wonder what’s going to happen next.
When I advised my students there are much better things to read in English than Dan Brown, one said, in shock, “But they made a movie out of The Da Vinci Code!” When I told her that they had, and they’ve made movies out of many badly-written books, the laughed and said, “Like Twilight?”
Yes, like Twilight. Like The Da Vinci Code.
I don’t know about other hard SF fans, but I find it ironic and kind of discouraging that one of the first things people think of when they hear the phrase “sci-fi” or “SF” or “science fiction” is the Star Wars series. Not because I hate Star Wars, but because the franchise is, quite clearly, an epic fantasy that decided to cross-dress, slapping on a bit of metal breastplate and some blinking Xmas lights under a helmet.
Indeed, Star Wars explicitly, excitedly, insistently lacks all the things I love about SF proper:
- an intent, honest questioning of the nature of the human species (and its mutability), especially in terms of its own self-understanding and its own dilemmas, as shaped in relationship to its tools (ie. technology)
- an exploration of science as an interface between nature and man’s conception of (and power to manipulate) the universe in which we live
- an essentially realist, empirical aesthetic, or as some bright folks out there put it, a “naturalistic worldview… free of supernatural and mystical elements.”
- a fascination with alternity — future times, or deep pasts that are alienatingly alien, or alternate worlds, or even the estranging reality of a world as seen through the eyes of another intelligent species, or of humans meeting another intelligent species
- an investment in questions that could only be posed in a post-Darwinian, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial revolution world
If you look at that list, it’s pretty easy to see why I’d revile Battlestar Galactica — though, to be fair, I watched it right to its miserable, insulting deus ex machina finale.
(Which isn’t just insulting in its anti-science, anti-tech stupidity. I mean, the big reveal is that God did it? That’s it? Come on. George R.R. Martin’s right: too many people don’t know how to write endings anymore.)
Need I rehearse the points?
An intent, honest questioning of the nature of the human species (and its mutability), especially in terms of its own self-understanding and its own dilemmas, as shaped in relationship to its tools (ie. technology).
Er, yeah. There’s humans, and then there’s robots called cylons, and then there’s these other robots (also called cylons) who are basically human except they can resurrect. Oh, and then there are some other humanlike robots who can resurrect, who made the other humanlike robots, but they forgot who they are. But basically, they are all kinda sorta human.
And then they all agree to give up technology and cities and stuff because we’re not ready and need a clean start. Or something.
An exploration of science as an interface between nature and man’s conception of (and power to manipulate) the universe in which we live.
Science in this series is surprisingly thin. There’s some medical science — all of which looks to be basically in line with our medical science ten years ago. You’d think a spacefaring colonial society with the technological advancement to run FTL (faster-than-light) starships might have actually figured out and implemented better treatments for cancer than we have now; or even just figured out and implemented the stuff we’ve figured out, but not yet implemented.
As for the rest of the science, well, again, it’s amusing that in a spacefaring colonial civilization, only one apparent scientist survives annihilation. (Maybe there are more, but somehow Baltar has control of the fleet’s scientific research resources and labs and so on… really?) You’d think they would have more scientists, since science is the bedrock of their interstellar society. You’d think that maybe five or ten scientists would have survived, and not just one dude named Gaius Baltar. And they would be checking that cylon-detector code, uncovering whatever software tricks he used to hide his results, and landing his ass in the brig right from the start. Though, then again, Baltar’s forcible conversion and constant god-bothering is about the least scientist-like behavior I can imagine. Well, unless he was a physicist (some of them do go theo-obsessive, I don’t know why), in which case, why’s he coding a clyon-detector app?
Science? Well, there’s spaceships that go boom and stuff. But even the science in the finale is just meh. There’s a great explanation of that here, along with a critique of the disastrous finale.
An essentially realist, empirical aesthetic, or as some bright folks out there put it, a “naturalistic worldview… free of supernatural and mystical elements.”
An investment in questions that could only be posed in a post-Darwinian, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial revolution world.
Ha ha. Ha!
I won’t even bother. And no, it’s not that the series deals with religion: I’m fine with religion being presented as part of an SFnal society. I have a problem when it’s as central to a very advanced civilization as it is in our primitive one, though. I was momentarily ranting about this a few weekends ago and said to someone, “Yeah, like a spacefaring civilization with the ability to run faster-than-light ships is going to be run by religious nuts.” Then I paused, and said, “Of course, look at us today…” It’s not unimaginable… it’s just so pessimistic and depressing to think it, and I think it’s a bit unlikely.
The thing is: religion has been at science’s throat all along, and so if you’re making an SF narrative, and you privilege religion and supernatural religious concepts as fact in terms of your worldbuilding and metaphysics — if there really is a god pulling strings behind the scenes — then you’re automatically deprioritizing the science part of it… and, as I see it, dooming the science part of your science fiction.
(You’ll also be avoiding a lot of the more interesting questions possible in SF, which makes me wonder: why are you making an SF narrative in the first place? Is it because you like spaceship battles and funny costumes? If so, well, please frack off. )
But you may be surprised to find that it’s the absence of this one that really bugged me:
A fascination with alternity — future times, or deep pasts that are alienatingly alien, or alternate worlds, or even the estranging reality of a world as seen through the eyes of another intelligent species, or of humans meeting another intelligent species.
Where to begin?
The robots are robots, but they’re kinda human. Like, kinda very human. Like almost undetectable in their non-humanness. Which in practical terms means, they’re human. No estrangement or alternity there, really, especially once their resurrection capacity ends.
But I’ll confess: it was the Western, late-20th/early-21st-century-ness of it that bothered me most. Star Trek and Star Trek:TNG (the only series I know at all), as much as they often just metaphorized 20th century dilemmas, issues, and conflicts, at least had the decency to suggest a civilization unlike ours — a post-scarcity, unified world society emblematized by the Starfleet uniforms.
In Battlestar Galactica, the characters dress, talk, eat, think, and act like modern Americans, full stop. Sure, there are tiny deviations, like how, when they cuss, they pluralize the word “god.” But their military garb is essentially our military garb; their drinking culture is essentially our drinking culture; their politics are so familiar I think of them as barely a funhouse mirror reflection of our politics. We’re supposed to believe that the business suit worn by millions of men in the postmodern world today was also worn by the majority of men in another civilization 150,000 years ago that developed in some other corner of the galaxy, by a difference species that, somehow, evolved to be basically like us.
When I complained about this, my friend Chris said, “Well, what are they supposed to wear?” I imagine that’s precisely what everyone involved in the envisioning of Battlestar Galactica would say to, and while I can’t fault Chris for it — his literary loves are not the same as mine, and he finds other things to hang attention onto in a TV series — I certainly do fault people who make SF TV shows lazily.
Because that’s how I read the question: it’s laziness. Not the laziness of budget restrictions leading to the use of forehead-aliens (those aliens that are made alien by makeup tricks on their foreheads, as in the Star Trek franchise), because trust me, having done some short film work, I get it about budget and logistics and special effects. I really do.
But the laziness that precludes bothering to imagine a culture that differs from modern American culture even as much as some present-day cultures on Earth do, that’s a laziness I can’t excuse. The laziness of not even bothering to assemble something that mixes up real-world Earth cultures — a pseudo-Confucian strict hierarchic social system here, a penchant for wanton violence by the powerful (a la the ancient Romans) there; the cultures of BSG’s colonial society could have been compelling and authentically foreign. Instead, they ended up being the forehead-alien equivalent of American culture, plus a little forehead alien Greek mythology thrown in.
This is why, though I did (especially in the first couple of seasons) find the characters relatively compelling enough to ignore the prattling on about God, the science-ignorant writing, the lack of interest in a philosophical inquiry into consciousness, human nature, and technology (beyond Robots are bad! Robots are scary!), I felt a kind of bad taste in my mouth even early on. Everything we’re shown in Caprica, prior to its fall, suggests that the people there might have kicked back and watched How I Met Your Mother on a weeknight. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, fine, tell it: but don’t expect me to believe the society doing it lived in the deep past, on the other side of the galaxy, and had just fought an interstellar war with its robotic slaves, but somehow looks so much like ours that they even sit around eating sushi rolls and talking on the phone while being set up for blind dates.
It was dumb, lazy and dumb dumb dumb. If you want to know why, you’ll need to be prepared to read some novels, to find out BSG hasn’t really caught up with the cutting edge of SF proper as it was thirty or forty years ago. Because, my friends, that is the sad truth: TV and cinema SF tends to just lag behind written SF by a generation or more. Is it because the people making visual SF tend to get stuck on other visual SF? Are they just not reading enough? I don’t know, but it sounds likely to me.
(Then again, I’m sad to admit, I’m just not reading enough these days to stay current, or even start to catch up.)
And that’s why I tend not to like SF TV shows. In fact, though I very rarely read fantasy in print form (unless it’s horrific and dark, as in, Lovecraftian, for example), I tend toward liking fantastical or supernatural TV programs more. Dead Like Me and Being Human and Life on Mars are prime examples. (The latter clearly is fantasy, not SF, if you ask me.) The SF I like on TV is usually billed as something else — a comedy series like Red Dwarf or Better Off Ted, for example. In fact, the TV show that has most consistently given me the closest feeling to a hard SF story was a Canadian science faction series called Regenesis. I loved the series, and someday I’ll probably watch it again from start to finish. (My review of the series, written just before I finished it off, is here.)
I know, I know. Someone out there is thinking, “What about Dr. Who?”
What about it? I liked it when I was little, but haven’t seen the new ones. Does it sound like I’d like it? All my writer friends here do, but they also, I suspect, think my objections to the BSG series (not the finale, I hope, just the series) are nuts.