Anti Science Fiction snobbery – my protest. Post a Day #160

Started this post before the subject of today’s Post A Day came up but nice to be able to tie it in all the same! Having read this article last week, I felt inspired to comment on the ridiculous idea that some writers feel the need to insist work is not science fiction.

First, let me give you a premise. It is the mid 21st century. The Earth has suffered irreversible ecological damage. But we have a back up in the form of a recently discovered planet that has an earth-like atmosphere and can support life. A small group of humans set up a colony there and await the arrival of the transport ships bringing the survivors from Earth. This team of scientists creates clones to help build the colony. Sometime in the brief history, a disease wipes out a fair proportion of the populace. The clones are blamed and are ordered executed (though many escape or are allowed to leave). There is something not quite right about this plant; there seems to be no native species other than grass and certainly no animals. Further, some of the colonists are reporting seeing dead people, especially those killed on the planet. During the course of events, a human skull is found buried. Clearly human, it is radiocarbon dated to several thousand years old.

You would be forgiven for thinking that such a television series as described above would qualify in several ways as “science fiction” wouldn’t you?

Not according to the Producers of the series “Outcasts” (which is what I have just described above). Read the quote and gasp if you will:

But it’s not sci-fi in the sense that we’re not like Star Wars: we’re not putting in lots of flying spaceships and they’re not wearing metal suits! It’s very character-led and it’s very human. Maybe it’s a new genre. The French have a wonderful term for it, ‘la drama de l’anticipation!’ It’s imagining a future for the human race but it’s not about creating something that would only show on a sci-fi channel because this is for BBC One at 9pm. It’s very much a piece that needs to feel accessible and about human stories and real people’s lives.

Seriously… read that again “spaceships”, “metal suits”, “its character-led”.

This is the sort of anti-science fiction snobbery I thought we had grown out of by now. The BeeB’s slow starvation of Doctor Who in the 1980s showed that it had become embarrassed of the genre. Its return in 2005 has been to popular and critical acclaim. Under Matt Smith, it has become a global phenomena. Outcasts was quietly euthanised in March this year. It was poorly handled, badly written, tedious, clichéd and only became interesting in the last two episodes. The fact that it treated its potential ready-made fan base as morons and pretended that they were doing something new and original demonstrates hubris on the person who made the comment above. Science fiction fans are a much more discerning bunch than we are ever given credit for and we were not fooled by ‘Outcasts’. We are not inclined to mull over the complexity of imagined concepts simply because your book, series or film has “space ships” or “metal suits” or in the case of the link I provided, scantily clad women riding snakes.

SFX, the superb science fiction magazine that has been going since 1995 took great delight in mocking the producers of the BBC series ‘Bugs’ who, when the magazine contacted them to do a piece of the series, instead of accepting the chance of free publicity, chose to dismiss the magazine’s staff that their series was “not science fiction”.

This should be the first lesson for a writer: Don’t treat your audience with contempt.

The biggest furore of recent times was the exclusion of science fiction from the BBC’s World Book Night in April. The BBC stood accused of sneering at science fiction; the letter jointly signed by an astounding number of writers stated:

“The BBC World Book Nights self-indulgent coverage gave the general public the misleading impression that novels are only for an elite, and that unless you’re reading Dostoevsky, preferably in the original Russian, you’re wasting your time on trash.”

A hefty dose of unhelpful hyperbole there, but as a science fiction writer I understand the depth of feeling about this issue. There is still a view among most people that if you like science fiction, you are a Trekkie and your love of science fiction doesn’t go beyond that. Science Fiction need not contain a single space ship.

1984 is arguably the most identifiable and has provided so many ideas and words into the vernacular. How often does the media use words like “Orwellian”, “double-think”, “thoughtcrime”, “Big Brother”, “Room 101”, “Thought Police”. If you read The Daily Mail or the Telegraph, probably every day. Yet for all its futuristic themes it is a novel that explores totalitarian government. Similarly, “Brave New World” is a social criticism of mass production and the worship of commerce. Both of these widely acclaimed novels are science fiction and neither has a single space ship or metal suit! We need look no further than John Wyndham for social commentary. I have touched on this issue before so in the interests of not re-treading old ground, I won’t give any more examples.

We must also make note of those science fiction writers who are or were scientists and highly qualified in their respective fields. Carl Sagan, author of “Contact” was an astrophysicist. So too is Alastair Reynolds. Arthur C. Clarke was a physicist who invented the communications satellite. Isaac Asimov was a biochemist. Stephen Baxter has degrees in Mathematics and Engineering.

Finally, I wish to comment on the absurd notion raised at the beginning that science fiction is never about character. True, hard science fiction is usually about the exploration of concepts of technology and future sciences; soft science fiction (though I prefer the term social science fiction) discusses social themes; space opera largely concerns exploring galaxies and the variety of civilisations and beliefs.

But to say that science fiction lacks characters or characterisation is an amusingly bizarre accusation to make, even if you don’t actually say it, and the person who made the accusation produced a TV series full of bad characters that barely qualified as wooden. But anyway, cheap shot aside… such an accusation may be true if you only took Star Trek as your yard stick, particularly The Next Generation (which I feel was terrified of characterisation). Characters rarely, if ever seemed to change. Ridiculously, Commander Ryker is temporarily promoted to Captain after the Borg destroys a significant proportion of the fleet. In the next episode he is demoted back to Commander! Clearly Starfleet had a ready supply of Captains infinitely more qualified than Ryker who were temporarily unavailable.

Now compare that to the most engaging characters in Babylon 5. Watch Londo Mollari go from buffoon with delusions of being in high government (amongst whom he is a joke) to mass murderer, war criminal and then liberator and finally Emperor of a civilisation heading for collapse. See also G’Kar go from bad-tempered, uncouth, bully with a small-dog complex to freedom fighter then spiritual leader determined to elevate his people through enlightenment and co-operation with the other races (this is Nigel Farage becoming Gandhi). These profound changes are believable because of how characters were carefully crafted early on. No characterisation, I ask you?

Kim Stanley Robinson is a master of creating strong characters who develop around or alongside the plot and the ideas he wishes to explore. I’ve said it before, but his Three Colours Mars novels are an exercise in building a new world in every conceivable way. Once we get half way through “Green Mars”, we move away from the science and associated problems of colonisation and onto how society should be formed, politics, philosophy, religion and social values and the big question of the colony’s relationship with Earth. If any modern science fiction writer will be considered part of the literary classics in future, you would do well to bet on Kim Stanley Robinson and I guess by then the idea of how Mars was colonised or the discovery of an icy Stonehenge on Pluto will miraculously find itself excluded from the list of science fiction and included in the genre “literature”. I ask… why need they be mutually exclusive?

5 thoughts on “Anti Science Fiction snobbery – my protest. Post a Day #160

  1. Mark

    I agree that the best science fiction (and fantasy) is about characters and ideas, but the worst of it definitely falls on the idea side of the post, and leaves us with the kind of stuff that doesn’t work as fiction. As I mentioned in my post, we’re still recovering from the pulps, but I agree with you — I see no reason why SF can’t be BOTH literature, and about ideas

    1. mgm75

      Yeah, I agree with that sentiment. Bad ideas ruin science fiction too. Technobabble is usually used as a thinly veiled deus ex machina for example, and one of the worst examples of lazy writing.

  2. Dylan Hearn

    Love the rant and agree with the sentiment. Sadly, while the audience for science fiction in all its forms has grown significantly in recent years, there are still a large percentage of the population put off by the label. I’ve received so many reviews for my book which start with “This is not the sort of thing I usually buy…” or words to that effect, that then go on and say how much they enjoyed it and for (implied: non-science fiction fans) to read it too. They are both wonderful and disheartening at the same time.

    1. You’d think that the popularity of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Under the Dome and others who escape me right now would have gone a long way to dispelling those myths. I think we’re winning, though.

      I’m about 1/3 the way through your book and let me reassure you it is the sort of stuff I usually read!

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