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April 13 2007

Writers, Directors Fear 'Sci-Fi' Label Like an Attack from Mars. Serenity gets a mention at the end of this article about how, if you want to sell fiction, it better not be called "Sci-Fi".

At the bottom of the page, readers can vote for their favourite "closeted" SCi-Fi classics. Serenity is listed with a brief blurb:

"Space battles, check. Mad scientists, check. What sets this apart from older, popcorn-munching sci-fi of the type that people now struggle to dissociate themselves from is that the gee-whiz-wow glorification of technology is absent. No supership, no latest-greatest ray guns. Just people working with what they've got. The "un-sci-fi" writers aspire to evade the temptation and restrain their props and setting from overshadowing their characters. Serenity and Firefly are notable victories."

Funny enough, Serenity is already way out in front of the pack.

ARRRRRRG!!! I could just tear my hair out every time this comes up. Science Fiction has been on the cutting edge of literature for as long as I've been reading, which is like .... well, never mind. Quick now .... Sydney Sheldon or Dan Simmons? Jackie Collins or the late great Roger Zelazny? Any number of fill-in-the-name clones writing about the domestic angst of soccer moms, or Ursula K. LeGuin?
And when will the anti-SciFi/Fantasy snobs figure out that the tradition of quality writing in the genera has long since made it's way to the screen, big and little?
I have to believe that Ron Moore's comment was tongue in cheek. Otherwise, I think Katie Sackhoff should beat him to death with a shovel.
Yeah, sure, Battlestar Galactica isn't sci-fi. Uh-huh.

That's gotta be the stupidest thing I've heard in a long time -- at least since I heard people from another planet reciting lines from a Bob Dylan song...
OK, firstly, there is absolutely no way in Hell i'm voting for 'Serenity' ahead of 'Slaughterhouse 5' especially this week but I just couldn't anyway, sorry Joss but i've a feeling you'd understand.

Nextly, man, how long is this attitude gonna last ? Science-fiction is the last subversive genre, the last place we can look to for an unashamed treatment of the 'big ideas', the things that really matter to ALL of us and yet it's still the object of snobbish scorn ? Since the beginnings of the genre it's been about something from imperialism to socialism/progressive liberalism to freedom and the nature of truth to what it means to be human (or not). It's emphatically not (just) lasers and spaceships and swapping spit with green space-babes FFS.

Personally I don't think SF is dying, I think it's just becoming so ingrained it's subsuming mainstream fiction (when Kazuo Ishiguro writes a book about clones you know sci-fi has taken root) no matter how much the literati (watching you, Atwood) may want to deny it.

(and I really hope Ron 'earned his spurs on Next Gen/Deep Space 9' Moore was just being facetious because, at its best, BSG is an exemplar of science-fiction, in current TV terms, bar none)

It's not entirely successful, BTW (falls apart a bit in the last act and it's a bit derivative), but I saw 'Sunshine' last weekend and it's a great, old fashioned, 'proper' sci-fi film. It has science (some a bit dodgy admittedly), it has big ideas, it's even set in space. There are no green babes though ;).

(it looks absolutely beautiful too. Funnily enough another excellent sci-fi film made for around $40 million which appears to have every penny, plus a few, on screen)
It's classified as comedy, drama, romance and fantasy

What confuses me is why scifi is avoided and fantasy is not? To me the two genres have always been associated, and it's my impression at least that the audiences overlap. So why one and not the other?

"science fiction" summons images of "space battles, aliens, mad scientists, time travel and the like ... fantasy with testosterone."

Testosterone-fueled films are constantly filling the theaters. Are they not doing well? I thought that was the target market for most movies.
Um, I'm not sure that their mention of "speculative fiction" is the best example of folks running from the "sci-fi" label - Heinlein used it, as they mention, as well as Doris Lessing and many other sci-fi authors, but it was generally in addition to their use of the "science-fiction" term, and they are both authors, I'd venture to say, that have helped push sci-fi more into the mainstream...

SAJE: "Personally I don't think SF is dying, I think it's just becoming so ingrained it's subsuming mainstream fiction (when Kazuo Ishiguro writes a book about clones you know sci-fi has taken root) no matter how much the literati (watching you, Atwood) may want to deny it."

Yup, I think so, too, Saje, and countless other examples too numerous (and difficult when you're lazy, like me) to mention... including Margaret "The Handmaid's Tale" Atwood (what's her deal, Saje?) In fact, Joss et al. discuss your example in that TIME co-interview with Neil Gaiman:

NG: ...The materials of fantasy, of all different kinds of fantasy, the materials of SF, the materials of's pop culture. It's tattooed on the insides of our retinas. As a result, it's something that's very easy just to use as metaphor. You don't have to explain to anybody what a vampire is. You don't have to explain the rules. Everybody knows that. They know that by the time they're five.

JW: We're getting to a point where you don't have to excuse them, either. Where popular culture as a concept is itself popular, so it isn't as marginal if you say, oh, this has a fantastical element to it. People are okay with that. Part of that is the post-modern sort of we're-in-the-know, everything-is-referencing-everything. Which can actually be annoying after a while. But part of it is also an understanding that what's going on in society that is popular is maybe worth looking into.

NG: We're also in a world right now in which mainstream fiction borrows from fantasy. A world in which Michael Chabon wins a Pulitzer with a book with a load of comics characters in it. I no longer know where the demarcation lines are. My stuff gets published in some countries as fiction and in some countries as fantasy. It's just where they think it will do best in the bookshops.

TIME: One of the best novels I read this year was Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. They don't come much more highbrow than Ishiguro, but this was set in an alternate universe where humans are being cloned and having their organs harvested. Not only can Ishiguro do that, he can do that and hardly anyone even remarks on it.

JW: It's Remains of the Clone! It's absolutely just his sensibility, with that one little twist that you have to call it science fiction or fantasy to an extent. Nobody would not consider it a serious classical novel.

Oh, and finally:

SAJE: "OK, firstly, there is absolutely no way in Hell i'm voting for 'Serenity' ahead of 'Slaughterhouse 5' especially this week but I just couldn't..."

Yeah, I hear that. I'm gutted. Kurt Vonnegut was so influential on my earliest understanding. He's part of my psyche, I think.

Whedonesque's own Nebula1400 wrote this article at syfyportal about losing Kurt Vonnegut this week.

Bye, Mr. Vonnegut... *sniff*

"What is literature but an insiderís newsletter about affairs relating to molecules, of no importance to anything in the Universe but a few molecules who have the disease called 'thought'."

"A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.Ē - Sirens of Titan

"If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still -- if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I am grateful that so many of those moments are nice." - Slaughterhouse-Five

Testosterone-fueled films are constantly filling the theaters. Are they not doing well? I thought that was the target market for most movies.

Sure, but it's just how the pendulum swings with these labels.

The 70's and 80's were all about Sci Fi in the theaters and tv... from the high to the low, whether it was adventure, (Star Wars, Battlestar, Buck Rogers), comedy, family oriented, (ET, Coccoon) action movies (Terminators, Predator, Running man), horror (Alien, The Thing), romantic (Starman) it was all aliens and spaceships. And I'm not even mentioning the hundreds of knock-offs and imitations of those movies.

The only fantasy movie in the purest sense of the word around back then was Lucas' Tolkien rip-off 'Willow' and that didn't do all that well.

Now, after LotR, it's pretty much the other way around. Spaceships are dead. Dragons and heroes with swords are in. Even the Pirates movies have swords, magic and giant mythical monsters.

In the 50's and the 60's, westerns were huge. Now they barely even exist. Different times and all that. I have always said that Serenity's problem wasn't lack of big name actors; it was the fact that nothing with a spaceship in it that doesn't have Darth Vader in it as well, can hit mainstream success right now. Just how the times go. 5-10 years from now that might all be switched around again.

All my life, comic book movies were either non existent or ridiculously bad, and no studio wanted that label. Now they're the biggest money makers. Go fig....
Ah, i've actually read that interview previously and then obviously 'filed it away' QuoterGal. Seems like that Whedon bugger has, once again, programmed my mind. Out of my brain you Purple Thought-Generator !

(I can remember throwing things at the TV when 'Never Let Me Go' was released and some reviewers were debating whether it was science-fiction because "the characters were so well drawn". Grrr. Keep meaning to get one of those foam brick things cos sooner or later something's gonna break ;)

That's a nice piece Nebula1400, if you're reading. Gets the essence. There is, indeed, "a hole in the world".

Jane E mentions it in her blog ...

And so did Warren Ellis in his email thingy:
I have writer's disease with Vonnegut:
was always afraid that if I read too much of him, I'd end up sounding like him. Like Thompson, his deceptively
relaxed, rhythmic colloquial style is too appealing to me. Lots of news stories are using a quote from "God Bless You, Mr Rosewater," and its bitter music is completely seductive.

14 novels in 84 years. 30 when he published his first novel. Two years older than I am now when he did "Cat's Cradle." 46 or thereabouts when he wrote "Slaughterhouse-5." Still in his early 20s, working as a POW in an underground factory, when we firebombed Dresden, an act he later described as "a work of art." 1984, and Vonnegut attempts suicide with booze and pills, ruefully noting later that "I botched it." May 1944, and his mother Edith gets it right. Six months later Vonnegut is captured by the German army after days wandering alone in the countryside.

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. Itís hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Itís round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, youíve got about a hundred years here. Thereís only one rule that I know of, babies ó 'God damn it, youíve got to be kind.'"

Jane E. makes some interesting observations in an entry from last year about what people think is Sci-Fi.

We talk about shows that are character-driven and shows that are story-driven.

...what if there's a third division? It seems to me that the shows which we are most liable to call "Sci Fi" are often driven by something that is neither character nor story. ... I would contend that these are (drum roll) idea-driven.

She goes on to say she feels that most people who say they don't like "Sci Fi" really mean they don't like idea-driven stories.

So with Firefly, Buffy and Battlestar being character-driven shows, those people might not view shows like these as "Sci Fi."
I had to go maverick and vote for Hyperion, surely one of the greatest SciFi novels ever written. And when I posted first on this thread, I didn't even catch the part about "at the bottom of the page there's a place to vote ....", my mention of Dan Simmons was coincidental.
I'm also thinking of a few novels that should be on that list, notably Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" and Fredrick Pohl's "Gateway".
And since they're including short story collections,(The Martian Chronicles) what about Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and a collection of Roger Zelazny's short stories and Novellas, the name of which escapes me but it included the classic "He Who Shapes".
And surely there should be some mention of Samuel R. Delany, one of the most brilliant and original SciFi voices of the twentieth century.
Sorry, my inner SciFi geek just got away from me :)

Excuse the multiple edits, I can't spell when I get enthused.

[ edited by Shey on 2007-04-14 11:12 ]

[ edited by Shey on 2007-04-14 11:14 ]
I've always preferred the term SF because it encompasses so much.
I once gave a talk on SF to a bunch of people who said they didn't read it and would never read it. First I read from the jacket cover of a Robin Cook thriller which took place in a hospital where questionable experiments were going on. Then I read from a SF book which took place in a hospital where questionable experiments were going on. I'd hidden both covers and asked them to guess which one was SF.
I did that a number of times and of course, ended with Margaret Atwood. She may deny she writes it, but we know better.

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