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June 20 2006

Erasing the smell of sci-fi. Sci-fi Weekly writes about how people don't want their work to labeled as sci-fi, even though it is (Firefly, Serenity mention).

And here I thought Star Wars was fantasy. ;)
I really hate it when sci-fi is widdled down to the tiny catagory of OMG SPACESHIPS!!!11

And the fact that actors and producers are saying that their stuff has more of the human condition than sci-fi-- What's more about the human condition than Star Trek? Most of the orrigional series and Next Generation were complete alagories for live moral issues (particularly racism in the first series), and DS9 deals with wartime in a way that's stunningly relevant to our current situation.

Science fiction, when it's done well and not "dime store editions" is meant to be about humanity. The entire point is to show that someone sitting in a living room watching tv or reading a book has something in common with a hero in a fantastic situation.

So many people loved films like Eternal Sunshine, and so many more people would've loved Firefly and Wonderfalls if given the chance. It's about time people stop living in denial. There are more sci-fi fans in the world than people realize, because some people don't realize they ARE sci-fi fans
That's almost as bad as JK Rowling claiming that the Harry Potter books weren't Fantasy.
In defense of the attack on Jay R. Ferguson's comment on Surface, the article clearly starts that the comment was taken before the show started airing, so therefore Ferguson would've only been talking about what he knew so far from shooting, which would've been basically nothing - Surface grew into being sci-fi, I would argue that it wasn't really identifiable as a sci-fi show before it started finding it's feet.

On the actual issue... I agree that there is a really bad stigma associated with the genre, but that stigma exists for a reason - because there is some really, really bad sci-fi out there - why would anyone want to be placed alongside things like Charmed or Mutant X?

And I don't necessarily think that only sci-fi shows do this - everybody likes to say that their show has drama... "CSI isn't procedural, there are character arcs!"... "ER isn't just a medical show... there's real characters and real drama!" - what's the difference?
Pleanty of shows fall to genre stigma, but there's an image of sci-fi geeks portrayed as overweight or scrawny men who wear thick glasses, know higher math, can't get dates, and wear pocket protectors.
There aren't really sterotypes that go along with lawyer shows and medical dramas--although I do have some probably unfounded opinions of "elimidate" fans
As Sturgeon said the reason 95% of sci-fi's crap is because 95% of everything is crap and mainstream dramas have their fair share of dross too.

Also, I know the precise definition of science-fiction is a murky area but 'Charmed' is categorically not sci-fi. It's one of the clearest cases of fantasy i've seen (no logic, arbitrary 'solutions' to problems, fundamentally irrational). Mutant X you could make a case either way for if the desire took you (not sure why it would, IMO it's really very, very bad ;). Same thing applies to Star Wars - what's the force if not magic ? - among numerous others.

I think the people denying their sci-fi roots are simply not fans. Since the very beginnings of the genre it's tackled huge social questions and featured real people with interesting interpersonal dynamics (e.g. 'The Time Machine' about the class divide and socialism, 'War of the Worlds'/'Foundation' about imperialism). Fans know that good sci-fi isn't just about technology or spaceships it's about the people using the technology or flying the spaceships. Though I think some hard sci-fi can reasonably be crticised for poor/non-existent characterisation where the science/puzzle elements take centre stage and this was especially true in the 50s and 60s (nowadays we have folk like Greg Egan writing extremely 'hard' sci-fi but as it applies to people and their beliefs and hopes).

Then of course there's 'soft' or social sci-fi which might not feature technology at all (or at least not as we'd recognise it). I'd put most of Ray Bradbury's stuff into this category (much of which is possibly more fantasy than sf) along with big chunks of PK Dick (it's not that he isn't a sci-fi author, it's just that he doesn't write hard sci-fi). Novels like 'The Sparrow' by Mary Russell which is set on an alien planet but is pretty much about the nature of faith, redemption and forgiveness and the tragic gaps in communication when any two foreign cultures collide also fall here.

In short, more than any other type of fiction, i'd say sci-fi is about the human condition. Not just as it is now but as it might be in tens, hundreds even thousands of years time. I'd argue that people that don't accept that are judging based on a stereotype and haven't really looked at the genre in any detail.
I know where you're coming from redtenko, now think about being a woman and having to deal with that!!

My love affair with sci-fi began with my Father reading me the Foundation Trilogy as a child, got beaten out of me in elementary and middle, and severely personally repressed in high school (to avoid said fights again). Now my joke of "I can't be a geek, I was a cheerleader" is just that - a joke, but I still get nervous when someone asks me what I'm reading, or when I'm about to turn on the Sci-fi channell on Friday nights.

I also still get asked why I read so much, or watch those "space" shows so much. Apparently, it indicates that I think I'm "better than" (to quote Badger) everyone. Worse are the folks that do understand why you read, but then dismiss you because you're reading what they deem to be crap.

As an aside, a Browncoat friend of mine tried to convert some of her buddies, and ended up in the middle of an intervention. Apparently, they took offence at what they deemed was the degregation of women depicted in Firefly, and showed it to some higher ups in their church ("here, watch this - it'll corrupt you!"). The funny thing was that one of the guys declared that all sci-fi was misogynistic and racist.
Wow. I had to chew on that for a while!
Thats a real shame, that science fiction seems to have a 'smell'. It is also a shame that science fiction gets confused with fantasy so easily.

I have often thought that with the pace of technological change in the modern world that we all ought to be reading good quality speculative science fiction. It is like doing our homework for the future.
Same thing applies to Star Wars - what's the force if not magic ?
Chi, an all encompassing universal life force that follows precise rules in order to achieve balance between light and dark. Basic premise behind much of Asian medicine - and since I'm not about to write off Asian medicine as fantasy,...

Yeah, but its Chi as run through the patented George Lucas Pseudo-Science Midichlorian Makin' Machine © ® ;) Its like the George Foreman Grill, with more money and less sense of humor ("I think George Lucas gonna sue somebody!").
Oh go on Loiosh, you know you want to ;). How about accupuncture good, consumption of tiger testicles bad ?

I'm aware of the taoist, zen and other Eastern religious connotations of The Force but i'd be very interested in watching (preferably in controlled circumstances) anyone, no matter how adept with Asian medicine, who can make objects float no matter their mass, control other people's minds directly and leap from or to great heights. That's not chi to me, that's surely magic.

(trust me, i'd be channelling my chakra left right and centre not to mention eating crystals for breakfast if I thought it would give me those kinds of abilities ;)
*moves Saje's keyboard using only the power of sugges--- er, his mind* Did you see that thing move?!!?
"TV series don't survive or fail due to the level of obvious sci-fi content—as always, they succeed or fail due to their level of quality.

I strenuously beg to differ on this one point, Firefly being the prime example of this not always being the case.
Hey where's this thing gooooop[]789+. Wow. Really moved.

The chi is indeed strong in zeitgeist.

(see in a sense you actually did make my keyboard move. Well, the keys anyway. * makes zeitgeist read this post using only the wiley ways of the jedi * ;)

Yeah, agreed petranef, if only shows made it (or not) based purely on their quality instead of network politics, advertising budgets, marketing approaches and lead-in shows. World would be a better place (OK, it's not up there with world peace but I think it'd make things slightly better ;).
Also, I know the precise definition of science-fiction is a murky area but 'Charmed' is categorically not sci-fi. It's one of the clearest cases of fantasy i've seen (no logic, arbitrary 'solutions' to problems, fundamentally irrational)... Same thing applies to Star Wars - what's the force if not magic?

Bitest thy tongue Saje. I haven't seen enough of "Charmed" to comment on it but lack of logic, arbitrariness and irrationality are not the hallmarks of fantasy. Good fantasy worlds have rules and logic - the rules just don't happen to be the ones that apply to our reality. Case in point, our own beloved Buffyverse. Vampires are clearly fantastical. They violate all sorts of physical and biological laws. Yet, they also portrayed as subject to specific rules which presumably have an internal logic. Direct sunlight kills. Can't cross the threshold of a home without being invited in. When a rule is broken, as when Angel goes into Kate's apartment without an invitation, it is not arbitrary, but specifically shown as having some significance - there is something there more powerful than even the ordinary rules of vampire-kind, something which is on Kate and Angel's side.

On the other hand, there is a large category of stuff that is clearly fantasy in terms of violating all kinds of scientific laws, but markets itself as science fiction by coming up with pseudo-scientific explanation for their impossibilities. I would put the "Star Wars" Force into that category. Also the X-men. Kitty Pryde can phase her body through solid objects because she has a mutant gene. Nothing irrational about that. We as readers agree to suspend our disbelief in the ability of a girl to violate the laws of physics, as we are to believe that a vampire doesn't draw breath, so can't for instance give mouth-to-mouth resucitation, but can speak (voices being produced by the action of air passing across our vocal cords).

Comic books in general are exemplars of that pseudo-scientific explanation. An exception would be Thor who is clearly a fantasy character. Contrast him with say Spiderman, who gets his powers from having been bitten by a radioactive spider. In terms of how they are presented, Thor is a fantasy character, Spidey a science fiction character. But they are both equally unbelievable.
Superman would be another 'sci-fi' character who's actually nothing of the kind.

I would argue that some fantasy has a set of internal rules it follows but that there is no requirement within the genre to have a set of rules which can't be subverted (unlike with science-fiction where the point is often to solve a problem by a unique or original application of the rules and waving a hand and saying 'it's OK, physics doesn't apply here' would be, err, somewhat frowned upon ;).

You mention the breath issue in the Bverse and I agree it's a matter of suspending disbelief but this is exactly the kind of arbitrary device you can get away with in fantasy but shouldn't be able to in sci-fi (i'm not saying people don't try). How can Angel speak or smoke or appear puffed out when he doesn't actually breath ? Because that's just the way vampires work in the Buffyverse. It's the demon, it's magic, it's pixies. Basically, it doesn't require explanation or to make the kind of sense we expect from reality (even Buffy's reality, where Angel can't give the kiss of life but can clearly breathe out when necessary i.e. when smoking). It has a kind of metaphorical consistency (no 'kiss of life' from a dead thing) but not a physical one. And for fantasy that's OK.

As you say, established rules should be followed even in fantasy (that's just plot consistency) but new rules can be added on an ad hoc basis at the whim of the writers, a point you make very neatly for me by mentioning the 'invitation rule' being ignored at the behest of a higher power in Angel (powerful moment though it was). As long as you have 'higher powers' (or magic) actively working in a world you can pick and choose which rules are observed at will (and if there's an internal inconsistency ? The higher power did it). Hence, arbitrary.

I do accept though that accusing fantasy (in general) of not holding to logic or being irrational was a bit harsh and sweeping of me though I did mean irrational in the sense of avoiding the application of reason not 'bonkers' ;) ([rant] I was specifically applying that to 'Charmed' a show which routinely encourages its heroines to 'search their hearts', 'listen to their emotions' and just generally do everything except think about the problem in a rational way. Because you see women can't be rational can they ? They're all about feelings. I find the whole 'men think, women feel' outlook very frustrating, especially wrapped in a show which is claiming to advocate female empowerment [/rant]).

edit cos what is it with me and sense ? Must we always be strangers ? ;)

[ edited by Saje on 2006-06-20 23:00 ]
Firstly, I kind of disagree with the assertation that just because something is classified as sci-fi doesn't mean that it may isolate certain audience members. I just don't think there's any way of getting around the fact that there has long been stigma against certain genres of film which are seen as uncool or geeky, sci-fi and fantasy being among them.

Of course there are unashamedly ouvert fantasy or sci-fi films like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars which have managed to obtain huge success. However I think the very fact that something is in a sci-fi genre can put off some members of certain groups. People just tend to associate different genres with different types of people- a rough guide would be women like romantic comedies and dramas, men enjoy violent action films with car chases and explosions, and geeks enjoy sci-fi. Of course these are mass generalisations which I don't agree with and which are blatantly untrue but many people do hold these perceptions.

I think that's partly the reason why Lost so often attempts to straddle the border between "realism" and "sci-fi". I also think it may be the preference of the writers to develop a unique show that suits their purposes, much like Alias quickly introduced the fantasy elements of Rambaldi instead of maintaining a completely realistic premise (if you can accept the idea of an attractive but not particularly imposing college student routinely infiltrating the warehouses or office buildings of evil organisations, unarmed, to steal objects or destroy data etc.) to make the show more interesting.

But I do think an element of that is safety, and I think if they were to completely immerse themselves into a world of sci-fi and fantasy then the audience might decrease significantly. Of course, it may not, but I believe that they could be setting the tone based on the audience reaction. Just look at how astounding Buffy and Angel were on a regular basis, and developed a loyal cult following and critical success, however could never quite reach the mass audience even if they will be forever embedded in pop culture and DVD players around the world.

I think Firefly is an even more extreme example. My brother, who I have convinced to watch several shows before, has witnessed me watching Firefly a few times and dismissed it as a "stupid cowboys in space" concept. However inarticulately expressed his definition, it does show that the very concept of Firefly can be unattractive to a broad audience that is used to a diet comprised mainly of shows and films set in a more dramatic and less plausible version of our world, where people can survive getting shot by multiple bullets and Jack Bauer can stay awake for days at a time whilst foiling terrorist plots, and those housewives can experience every single domestic drama imaginable.

The fact is that sci-fi is usually a much more underground thing which can occasionally build into something huge, like how Star Trek or Doctor Who were sustained by loyal fans and Veronica Mars (although not sci-fi is still kind of an interesting genre mix) is being supported by its fans right now. The Western genre is definitely not very popular anymore, and most people would associate it with one of those dreary, ancient looking films that you might catch on TV at the weekends, when those of us who have seen "The Wild Bunch" might know better.

The fact that Firefly and Serenity mixed those two genres was maybe a part of why a lot of people failed to "get it", or give it a chance. But I don't think either sensibility should be sacrificed because they contribute so much to the themes, characters and general tone of the show, although I do think some of the Western elements were definitely less emphasised in Serenity (say just for example, in the score) perhaps just to make it an "easier sell".

And I do agree with Sean Maher when he emphasised the characters and story over everything else, because essentially that is the most important thing about drama. If you have lots of action and pretty CGI but a terrible plot, dialogue and characters, you might still have a thoroughly enjoyable, brainless popcorn flick, but people will soon forget it.

The one thing that was so exciting for me about Serenity was seeing those nine characters again. Seeing how they felt, what they were saying, how they were interacting with each other. And when the title appeared and the camera swung around Serenity with the score booming, the hairs on the back of my nech pricked because I was excited by what the ship represented, the heart of the show that promised the return of these characters. As much as I loved the mule chase or bar fight scene, they were honestly just window dressing because much more important to me was how these events were affecting our characters.

Following the siege, when River is standing with her face partially illuminated, holding two weapons, surrounded by a pile of Reaver bodies, not only was I thinking, "Oh my God, that was the most amazing fight I've ever seen!" I was even more in thrall to what that represented, when River finally had the clarity to recognise her abilities and was willing to sacrifice herself to save her brother and friends.

And although I may have veered off the point several times, I think basically that people's insistance upon classification is just bound to have an affect on people's perceptions, and I think that the emphasis should always be on the story and the characters.
Sean Maher was right - Firefly is NOT sci-fi. While "space opera" sounds derisive, putting Firefly in the same category as Star Wars may prove more palatable to some. At any rate, Firefly is good fiction.
There's good sci-fi (Star Trek, Farscape) and there's bad sci-fi (where do I start?). Lost is not sci-fi - and I am hardly a fan so I won't get into what else it's not.
Good sci-fi will have all the elements of good fiction. Bad fiction - whatever the genre, will not.
my roomate, who is a forensics major, hates it when I turn on Bones because she feels the holograms they use are too science fiction. She is actually a sci-fi fan, who I easily pimped firefly upon, but the genre crossing seemed to activate something in her brain that makes her revolted by Bones
Maybe she's just jealous of the cool toy ;).

Similarly, I have a mate who just cannot watch anything with computers involved unless it meets the highest standard of realism ('Swordfish' had him in virtual apoplexy but, bad as it was, I managed to laugh - both at the film and my pal, hey, what are friends for ? ;).
I'll buy your clarified fantasy description. In the sense that you describe, fantasy is arbitrary - the author can choose to follow whichever laws they wish (but if it's well-written there is internal consistancy), whereas sci-fi at least must give an appearance of adherence to scientific reality. I'd say there is a continuum, with pure fantasy at one end and at the other the kind of hard science fiction that people like Arthur C. Clarke used to write, where he could actually produce the equations on which a story was based. And in the middle listing to one side, the kind of story where the author creates a plausible seeming reality without needing to polish all the nuts and bolts for our inspection - Necromancer is a good example, I totally buy everything that goes on in there, and listing to the other, those that don't have any plausibility but if it's good you'll go along for the ride, anyway. I would put Star Trek in that category by the way. Faster than light-speed warp travel? Maybe someday. But a galaxy full of humanoids with interchangeable technology, the ability to interbreed, and the same general social structures - all of whom speak English? Fire up the technobabble Scotty, we need to get out of here. I'd say Star Wars kind of has it both ways. The space ships and robots make it science fiction, but it deliberately taps into those fantasy archtypes - wise old wizards who control powerful forces with a gesture of the hand, not to mention coming back from the dead. Anyone else notice how Christopher Lee plays exactly the same character in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, the great wizard gone bad. Just with a neater beard in one.

Superman, definitely fantasy masquerading as sci-fi. Like I said, comics books are rife with it. Never stopped me loving them though. Does Marvel still give out no-prizes for explanations of clearly impossible phenomena? One reason I never cottoned too much to Wonder Woman in my peak comic book-reading years (or Thor for that matter), I just didn't like obvious fantasy mixed in with my psuedo-science. It violated my sense of internal consistency. (Of course as a kid I also found cartoon talking animals disturbing in much the same way).

And rant all you wish about "Charmed." I've only seen about 15 minutes of it, and those didn't make me anxious to see anymore of it. If I were hearing differently about it here, I might make the effort, since I have to admit my first foray into Buffy left me unmoved, but of course it was the middle of season 5 and I hadn't any idea of what was going on. It was having heard so much about what an intelligent show Buffy was that finally made me go back and start from the beginning. Nothing I've heard about "Charmed" makes me inclined to invest the time to watch more of it, especially since I have all of BG to get through in my tv-watching time, and season 2 of Veronica Mars, once it's out, given that the goram, fraking baseball game keeps bouncing it off the air.
Yeah, completely agree that there's no hard and fast cut-off point between the two, it really is a continuum.

Star Trek is a tricky case since in some ways they do try to stay plausible. For instance in ST:The Next Generation they tried to 'retcon' the anomaly you mention about so many humanoid species by basically stating that all the humanoid species in the Trek universe were actually seeded by aliens from one original type, hence the similar body plans (and ability to interbreed). But then they have a lot of hand-waving like the universal translator which allows them to communicate with anyone at anytime or the infamous Heisenberg compensator which allows a fundamental tenet of quantum physics - which Star Trek professes to adhere to - to be totally circumvented, in this case to allow the transporter to precisely measure the position and momentum of atoms and their components simultaneously (when one of the creators of TNG - maybe Michael Okuda ? - was asked how it worked he apparently replied 'Very well, thank-you' ;). It's basically fantasy that follows sf conventions and uses a lot of the genre's tropes.

(not sure, BTW, if you meant 'Necroscope' a series of books by Brian Lumley about a guy who talks to the dead which is, to me, pure fantasy or - and I suspect this is the one you meant - 'Neuromancer' the sci-fi classic which actually has quite a lot of either cutting edge current tech or plausible future tech but, as you say, deliberately doesn't explain how most things work, presumably to create the exciting feeling of being slightly out of your depth in the reader while still engaging them in the story. Quite a fine line which Gibson straddles pretty well IMO)

Personally, I can accept quite a lot from fantasy so long as it's clear up-front that's what it is. Wonder Woman for instance was (AFAIK) created by a god and can fly which straight away makes her a fantasy character and given this I just basically turn off my reality checker (though I still look for plot and story consistency) and settle in for some entertainment. Hovering just inside the sci-fi portion of the spectrum we have Spider-Man who isn't totally implausible with a few tweaks (he'd have to go barefoot for example ;) since we know geckos can climb very smooth surfaces thanks to the milions of tiny 'hairs' on their toes. It couldn't be radiation though and it couldn't just be spider DNA he aquired (and while strength far greater than a normal man is fine, being able to lift tons is pure fantasy). Hey, Marvel where's my prize (or where isn't my no-prize ;) ?

edit because i'm an idjet and it's 'Necroscope' by Lumley not Necromancer which makes it pretty clear what barboo meant and renders the parenthesised comment unnecessary (which I only noticed while surfing Amazon today and am obsessive enough to fix 5 days after the event. But I don't have a problem. Oh, no. Not me ;)

[ edited by Saje on 2006-06-26 18:38 ]
I just wanted to jump back in (GREAT posts all, especially enjoying Saje and barboo's back and forth) and say that anyone (and I'm looking at you accio angel who says Lost is categorically not sci-fi has obviously not been paying attention to it :)

p.s. - Fury mentioned in an interview that the network was always pressuring them to tone down the sci-fi and/or fantasy(fantastic perhaps would be a better word) elements of Lost.
Thanks zeitgeist. Not much to add, as we seem to have agreed to agree here, except that I absolutely meant Neuromancer (darn Bill Gates technology again, showing what I typed and not what I meant) and totally agree with Saje's assessment of it - great, very edgy novel (is edgy still in).

And they did show VM after the ballgame so I got to see the episode with the creepy car rental guy people have been talking about. Definitely something unsavoury about that fellow. I'm sure I've seen him somewhere else too, and not as an actor. Maybe on the news. Has he been indicted in one of the recent political scandals?

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