Beaming With Vast Intelligence (City of Death)

(117 comments)

City of Death is made exactly 23% better if you assume
Richard I was one of Scaroth's incarnations.
It’s September 29th, 1979. The Police are sending out an SOS to the world. By the sales figures it appears that rather a lot of people got their message in a bottle. So, mission accomplished then. Still, they send it out for three weeks before The Buggles notice that they are radio stars and kill them. Blondie, The Commodores, Michael Jackson, and Kate Bush also make the top ten. XTC and The Damned sit lower in the charts.

In real news, the Hong Kong MTR opens, Nigeria brings an end to military rule, and Pope John Paul II, fresh from getting the ball rolling on the eventual collapse of the autocratic government of his native Poland, goes to the United States. Tragically, he’s less successful there, though barely a week after his departure a massive gay rights march takes place in Washington DC. A tsunami hits in Nice, a tornado in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and a mob of pro-government thugs hits a newspaper and the home of the opposition leader in Malta.

While on television, we have a terribly unpopular story that no reputable fan enjoyed. No less an authority than John Peel, who later went on to helpfully fix the continuity errors introduced by Destiny of the Daleks, explains that the story is “pure farce,” that “the acting was once more appalling,” that characters were “so stupid as to be unbelievable,” that he “couldn’t believe that this was Doctor Who” and that it was “getting completely on [his] nerves.” So there you go. And to think, Miles and Wood spend two pages asking whether we should take one of his books seriously.

Speaking of Miles and Wood, this is the story in which their dueling style of review finally leaps into hilarious self-parody. Miles (quite correctly) proclaims that “it is, of course, one of the best things ever” before engaging in a review that consists almost entirely of explanations of why nothing else in the Williams era works as well as this. Wood, on the other hand, spends most of his critique explaining why Miles is wrong and the rest of the Williams era is as good as this. All well and good except for the rather massive lacunae in the middle of it whereby they both fail to talk about this story. (On the other hand, Miles, in describing how sitcoms work, does inadvertently pin down the central appeal of this section of About Time - “two people who don’t like each other, trapped in a room.”)

Continuing in my designated role as the unwanted third wheel to that particular odd couple, then, let’s look at what’s actually going on here. First of all, let’s concede a core point to Lawrence Miles. Regardless of what one thinks of the rest of the Williams era, and for my part that changes every few sentences, this is head and shoulders above not only the remainder of the era but frankly above virtually everything to have aired in the series previously. It is searingly, jaw-droppingly good, and Tat Wood misses a trick in arguing that this works for the same reasons the rest of the Williams era works. I mean, what’s good about it is wholly consistent with the rest of the Williams era, but what’s really important here is what is absent.

Here Miles is basically correct, and this gets at the central problem with the previous story, which Miles saw as a program at war with itself. It is, sure, but the war is simpler than Miles makes it out to be. Miles suggests that the problem is the tension between the program’s “tradition of fantasy adventure” and its current attempts at comedy are at fault, but no, it’s really just one of those. The weaknesses of Destiny of the Daleks were almost all because of the ways in which the story tried to be Dan Dare-style space adventure. Its flaws were that it was trying to be for sci-fi fans.

This, more than anything, is the central premise that needs to be refuted. For one thing, it’s a premise that is behind almost everything that’s going to go wrong for Doctor Who in the 1980s. Doctor Who has never been for sci-fi fans. Sure, it was sci-fi for a while - most obviously in the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean it was for sci-fi fans. The 1960s were an era where science fiction was popular in general. All sorts of stuff was popular then, and ordinary people liked science fiction. It wasn’t until the falling off of popularity after the moon landing that science fiction entered a period of being marginal and for a particular subset of fans. This, ironically, is the real legacy of Star Trek. It’s not a notable program for its popularity, it’s a notable program for its failure. It’s a notable program for the fact that only a small core of hard-core devotees liked it, as opposed to the larger, broader audiences who had been enjoying science fiction only a few years earlier.

It’s only after about 1970 that doing science fiction meant doing it “for fans,” and it’s notable that for the bulk of the 1970s Doctor Who spends almost all of its time trying to be anything but science fiction. It spends five years moonlighting as a military thriller before going off and becoming a horror series for three years. Even in the Williams era you see it trying desperately to avoid being sci-fi in the conventional sense. It’s only the popularity of Star Wars that creates the horrible gravity of sci-fi for the series. One of the most remarkable things about the period from 1975-1984 in the series is that it’s a nine year stretch in which there are only three Dalek stories despite the fact that the series had the rights to them. It was one thing for the Daleks to vanish from seasons 5-8 while Terry Nation took his ball and went to America. It’s quite another for them to vanish from seasons 13-16 when he didn’t.

But this was what the 1970s producers of Doctor Who realized - that sci-fi in its conventional sense was a marginalized ghetto of a genre that only a few die-hard adherents liked. The fact that those adherents glommed onto Doctor Who from the era where it was most sci-fi (namely seasons 3-6) wasn’t just irrelevant, it was an annoyance. You can still see vestiges of this problem if you’re foolish enough to go onto GallifreyBase (and I confess that I regularly am), where you can witness the bewildering spectacle of people complaining about The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe on the grounds that it was “too Harry Potter” and that trees with souls aren’t sci-fi. The problem with this perspective, and it’s a truly bizarre one, is that many of these people appear to genuinely believe that an explanation about biopsionic luminescence or some similar piece of made up technobabble would have made the series more entertaining - as if hearing random science prefixes smashed together is actually pleasurable unto itself. Which, I mean, clearly for some people it is, but let’s be honest, that’s a paraphilia, not an aesthetic.

So the first and foremost thing to realize about City of Death is that, like The Ribos Operation before it, it’s one of the first Doctor Who stories to learn the correct lesson from Star Wars, which was that after twenty years of science fiction being popular and another ten of it being irritatingly present due to its fetishists science fiction was so well-understood that you could just use its trappings for whatever you wanted. (This is why the moment in The Phantom Menace where the entire audience realized that the prequel trilogy was going to suck was not, as many claim, Jar Jar Binks or the poor portrayal of young Anakin, but rather the line about midachlorians, which suddenly and painfully revealed that George Lucas actually thought anyone was confused or puzzled by the question of why a Muppet in a swamp had psychic powers.)

In some past entry I noted that the central brilliance of Doctor Who is that it realizes that once you have a big establishing shot of a Dalek fleet you can have the remainder of the story be the Doctor and Davros sitting in a basement chinwagging. And that’s what’s so thoroughly brilliant about City of Death. It spends all its sci-fi time on one model shot and a creepy alien mask and then uses that as a frame for a story that’s really about Tom Baker and Julian Glover insulting each other for 90 minutes with Douglas Adams dialogue. Which is fantastic, because the BBC is fairly lousy at sci-fi action sequences, but remains as good as anyone in the world at putting a camera on Tom Baker and Julian Glover while they insult each other for 90 minutes with Douglas Adams dialogue.

What doing it as science fiction lets Adams do, however, is to use the basic fun of having Baker and Glover going at it to tell a much bigger and more interesting story than could be told in a more ostensibly “realist” genre. The real heart of this story is based on  the idea of authenticity and fakery. Miles and Wood cite a bunch of quite good stuff on the difference between “worth” and “value,” but if you really want to get at the heart of what’s going on here you need to go for Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

For the most part in this blog when I opt to natter on about Marxism I have favored the French Situationists. Those for whom this blog is their primary window into the world of critical theory might therefore assume that the Situationists are the leading philosophical lights of Marxism. By and large I believe this to be true, but that position actually puts me outside the mainstream of humanities academia, which much more favors the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxists. (I think they backed the wrong horse appallingly here, and that Frankfurt School Marxism is mostly good if you want to feel smugly superior while smoking a lot of weed, which, to be fair, is actually what most Marxists in the humanities are going for) Benjamin is not actually of the Frankfurt school, having died before their foundation, but he’s tremendously formative to them. Perhaps more to the point for our purposes, however, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” his best known piece, formed the basis of John Berger’s 1972 television series Ways of Seeing, which means that the ideas were thoroughly “in the air” in British culture.

The basic idea of Benjamin’s essay is that modern media have created a fundamental shift in art in which the aspects of art that gave it power, which Benjamin names the aura of the work of art. Aura describes those aspects of art that are unique to the original - the fetishistic and almost mystical power of the real, authentic object. Benjamin suggests that mechanical reproduction has brought an end to aura, and that this means that art is “completely useless for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.”

It’s the notion of aura that is most immediately relevant to this piece. In effect what Scarlioni’s scheme has allowed him to do is to create seven versions of the Mona Lisa all of which are real - that is, all of which have aura. This (and not the spaceship stuff) is the real central sci-fi concept - the idea that it is possible to (quasi)mechanically reproduce aura itself.

The first and most obvious consequence of this is that the existing structures of art become transparently absurd. This manifests at various points of the story. In the way most relevant to the plot, of course, we have the basic absurdity of seven different collectors all of whom would be willing to buy the stolen Mona Lisa despite the fact that they could never show it to anyone, just for the sake of owning the painting. But the single most flagrant moment of mocking the absurdity of the art establishment is of course the John Cleese/Eleanor Bron cameo, which is a joke about the idea of imbuing a mundane object like a Police Box with aura simply by putting it into an art gallery and absent any actual artistry.

The real joke, of course, is that the TARDIS already possesses an aura of its own - one that Cleese and Bron’s characters are wholly incapable of grasping even if they don’t realize it. Having created a world in which even aura itself can be reproduced through Scaroth’s machinations Adams introduces the Doctor in all his mercurial glory. Here Miles and Wood nail how the Doctor is cast perfectly. If Scaroth is the one who can mechanize aura, the Doctor gets to play the role of Tom Keating.

Tom Keating is one of those people who properly understood that the only real way to become a folk hero is to become a master criminal first. Keating was an exceedingly talented art forger, which is not in and of itself a way to endear yourself to the public. But his real genius was not merely his ability to make stunningly good fakes but his ability to use them to unleash conceptual terrorism on the art world. Essentially, pissed off at his own failure to break into the art world on his own paintings he decided to just start taking the entire art world down a host of pegs.

This meant that not only did he make convincing forgeries of all manner of art and sell them to private collectors, he was a magnificent dick about it. He refused to provide a list of his fakes even after he was caught, he’d deliberately use one or two anachronistic techniques or modern materials in making an otherwise wholly believable painting, paint a layer of glycerine under the paint so that when the painting was eventually cleaned it would self-destruct, or, and this is obviously the key one for our purposes, write messages under the paint that would be revealed if the painting were x-rayed.

Keating’s paintings, befitting of his genius, now sell for thousands of pounds themselves, and there are forgers of his works now too. He is in this regard the postmodernist’s dream - a producer of artifice that becomes real in and of itself. And, of course, in City of Death the Doctor manages the exact same thing, slipping a copy of the Mona Lisa with “This is a Fake” written on it into the Louvre itself.

In this regard Adams inverts Benjamin’s rather dystopic view of the world, showing how even in an age of mechanical reproduction art is, in fact, completely useless for the purposes of fascism. The “moral” of the story as such is the point that the Mona Lisa is valuable not for its financial value but because of its beauty - because of the worth of looking at it. In this regard, of course, it situates itself in explicit opposition to the neoliberal ideal. Scarlioni serves as a high culture version of the right-wing war on art subsidies and their insistence that art should be able to pay for itself. Having six extra Mona Lisas created is in this regard a move of considerable genius - the ultimate Thatcherite expression of how art should work. (And note how Scarlioni bends the entirety of human history to the purpose of pulling off his scheme. Literally all of human history turns out to build up to a profit-making scheme. He really is an arch-Thatcherite.)

And the Doctor outdoes him not with some defense of art but with Tom Keating. Scarlioni figures out how to mechanically reproduce aura itself, so Baker one-ups him by just deflating aura and draining art of its ritual power. Crucially, however, the story’s attack on art does not stop there. City of Death is itself packed to the brim with stray bits of fakery. Some of these are small scale, and even potentially accidents: a French cafe showing English language news, the fact that Scaroth’s proper Jageroth head could never fit inside Julian Glover’s, or the utterly motiveless removal of the Julian Glover mask just to generate a cliffhanger. Others are more clever - the joke about whether the Doctor and Romana should “fly” down the Eiffel Tower that sets up an apparent moment in which they do in episode four, or the insertion of a fake “skip” in the tape in episode one. And, of course, there’s the big one: the fact that the plot resolution, far from being about the Doctor and his cleverness, is really when the brute force detective slugs Scaroth. The story itself, in the end, turns out not to be a Doctor Who story.

But of course, all of this dances around the real beauty and truth of it. The ultimate example of fakery in any given Doctor Who story is, of course, the Doctor himself.Whether it be his propensity for impersonation or simply bamboozling his way into the halls of power, the Doctor has always been the charismatic faker. His Doctorate is, by all Earth standards, non-existent. He makes almost certainly fabricated claims about having met historical figures. Even his very body turns out to be a forgery of the human form, and he continually reveals, through odd ticks or turns of phrase, his lack of authenticity. From day one when he turned out to be a fake grandfather in a fake police box living in a junk yard and sending Susan to school under a fake identity, the Doctor has been a forgery.

All of this, of course, would be mere cleverness were it not built on the foundation of a fantastic piece of character-based comedy. The cleverness and trickery is there, yes, but that’s not why the story was so popular. Nor, notably, was the ITV strike that left it as the only television in town. Sure, it helped and boosted the ratings, but notably the fourth part went out after the strike was over and ITV had resumed normal programming, and that was the episode that hit Doctor Who’s all-time ratings high. No, the reason this was so watched and so beloved is simple: it’s hilariously fun.

Because at the end of the day, that’s the heart and soul of this story. All of the great little lines, from Scaroth, from the Countess, from Romana, and, of course, from the Doctor himself. It is raucously, brilliantly funny, and no surprise given that it’s written by one of the best comic writers of the 20th century in any country.

And notably, this is also the real political content of the story. This is why it serves as a rejoinder to Benjamin’s idea that art, once mechanical reproduction robs aura of its power, becomes a tool of fascism. Because in the face of a villain who has bent the entire teleology of human progress to capitalist production the Doctor and the series itself, through glorious and unrepentant fakery, remind us of the single most crucial and effective refutation of Thatcher and the neoliberal program that there is. This story isn’t just great, it’s another one of the definitive shifts and developments in Doctor Who’s basic philosophy.

And this is something that has shown itself more and more clearly as time has gone on. Watching it in 2011, one of the most striking things is how much more like the new series it is than anything else around it. Even today one of the most straightforward paths to successful Doctor Who is to be like City of Death. Even on a level of basic formula, this is the first story in which nearly everything the Doctor says or does is a witticism. It’s the first time a writer has really gotten the Doctor to work so that he can simultaneously constantly clown about and constantly be seriously working on saving the world. The Doctor chalks his relaxed attitude up to being on holiday, but this is a fake as well. The Doctor’s always on holiday. That’s the point of him. That is, in fact, the heart and soul of the series political radicalness.

(And unsurprisingly it’s Gareth Roberts, whose admiration for this story and this era of Doctor Who outstrips almost anyone else’s, who can nail this story’s style the best. The Lodger and Closing Time are almost effortless executions of the City of Death formula. And how perfect that the villain of The Lodger turns out to be, indirectly, the Silence - another race who bent humanity to their own purposes. Even their line in The Day of the Moon about having been there for fire and the wheel echoes Scaroth’s claiming of credit for those exact two inventions.)

It is not, I think, a coincidence that the Thatcher era coincided with such an explosion of art and culture that I adore - that so many great writers and musicians established themselves during it. The reason for this is simple: this countercultural artistic production is the most fundamental weapon in existence against the right. We alluded to this back in the Mary Whitehouse entry, but here we can codify it fully.

Scarlioni can print money, wage war, and divert the entire course of history to his purposes. So let him. Let him have the institutions of power, the control over the artistic world, let him have everything. For all of that, the Doctor, in all his fake and mercurial glory, still wins for one simple reason. He’s more fun. Thatcher’s subsuming of postmodernism is, in this regard, ultimately and necessarily incomplete. She can take control of much of it, yes - allow the fluid nature of signifiers and the subjectivity of memory and history to serve her purposes. But there is one aspect of the postmodern that can never, ever be bent into the service of oppression. And over time, it is this aspect of it that will always win out. This is the true inevitable force of history, and the one the Doctor embraced when he rejected the Time Lords’ hollow and vacant joke of historical inevitability to run off on perpetual holiday. It is the content of every one of his victories and the moral force behind every moment of rage he shows.

And it is the one thing that Thatcher, fatally, lacks. At the end of the day, she’s just no fun.

Comments

The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

I don't complain about The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe because it was "too HArry potter," I complain about it because from my viewing it was a presentation of gorgeous cinematography and visual moments absolutely butchered by shite directing, shite editing, and the weakest script I've ever seen from Stephen Moffat, and I can sum up all my problems by comparing it to last year's special. Last year introduced three new characters: Old Kazran, Young Kazran, and Abigail. So too did this special, introducing the Mother, the Brother (Cyril?) and the Sister.

Compare the character arcs of the two stories. Young Kazran had his innocence of youth blossom into an understanding of love and his eventual corruption into Old Kazran. Old Kazran learned how to regain the innocence he'd lost, and to accept the mortality of the love of his life, coming to peace with it all. Abigail had less of an arc, but she fell in love and got to sing some pretty songs, so that was great.

Now Wardrobe. Name some personality traits of the Brother. Name what kind of arc his character went through. What about his sister? What did she learn? What was her NAME? Did the mother learn anything? Well, she learned her husband wasn't dead, but that's not really an arc, per se. Is that she learned she was strong? Was that ever in doubt? The woman was strong enough to hide her grief from her children, and brave enough to bring a gun along with her at the halfway point of the episode. I never thought she was weak, nor did the narrative ever imply she's wasn't. Oh, woot, now we can see that as a mother she has lots of spunk and drive, but, uh... the STORY NEVER SUGGESTED OTHERWISE!

There's nothing wrong with filler. Sometimes a show makes an episode where nothing much happens, but you get to hang out with fun characters, so it all turns out okay. But this episode is a CHRISTMAS SPECIAL. The whole point of a Christmas Special is that you either A) Celebrate the joys of Christmas or B) Use the unique nature of the Christmas "spirit" in our culture to teach characters a lesson, either earnestly or subversively. So here's my whole problem with Wardrobe: Nobody learns a goddamn thing. It's C.S. Lewis references are cursory and add nothing substantial to the narrative (thus wasting really good concepts), its use of Christmas is entirely unnecessary (thus making the claim of "the most Christmassy special ever" a lie, not to mention disappointing), and nobody learns a goddamn thing, thus making the whole "Special" aspect pointless. Yes, that final scene with Amy and Rory was excellent, but it has only the most tenuous connection to the rest of the story (the Doctor kind of learned that spending with family is important and he shouldn't be alone. Again. Just like he did in The NExt Doctor. And probably other episodes too. Jesus, Doctor, do try and retain the lessons you have forced upon you). Because it was A) Good and B) only tangentially related to the previous fifty minutes, we're left with this awkward, tacked on moment of good writing that makes all the stuff that came before it THAT MUCH WORSE. Also, whoever is doing the sound mixing needs a smack, because Murray Gold's music was SO overbearing, spelling out the tense moments (Doo doo, this is when to be nervous do doo), and ruining the dramatic moments that deserved silence (dooo doo, this is when to feeel SAAAAAADDDD two three four DOO).

"SO WHAT," I hear you cry in agitation, "DOES THIS HAVE tO DO WITH CITY OF DEATH, DO YOU JUST LIKE HEARING YOUR OWN POMPOUS VOICE WHEN YOU TYPE LARGE, RAMBLING COMMENTS ALOUD?" Well, first of all, a little bit. Secondly, you could pull back on the caps lock key, it's kind of distracting. But to really answer your question, the reason I wrote so much about Wardrobe is that I have a filthy, filthy secret.

I have never seen City of Death.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

Not ever. Not even half of an episode. I think I saw a brief clip with John Cleese, but that was IT. It's so shameful and horrible a revelation taht I compensate for it by writing rambling complaints about a banal, unimportant Christmas Special, much like a someone with tiny genitalia might go on ponychan and spends hours angrily complaining about the lack of strong continuity in My Little Pony. This is my personal tragedy, and it is a burden I am forced to bear.

Seriously, though, Bring Back Kazran Sardick. Oh, and Harriet Jones. Let's have them team up!

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willbikeforchange 5 years, 10 months ago

(And note how Scarlioni bends the entirety of human history to the purpose of pulling off his scheme. Literally all of human history turns out to build up to a profit-making scheme. He really is an arch-Thatcherite.)

One could even argue, based on the bit where it shows him crash-landing that all life on earth itself is a fake. That our "aura" of being human is itself just a copy, being as the episode suggests life itself was strongly influenced by Scarlioni being there. It's a pretty common Adams' theme actually, as it's not all that different from Earth being a giant experiment in HH2TG. In both, I think he's suggesting that no matter how life (or art) arises, it has inherent value for what it is rather than how it is created. Which also is pretty anti-capitalist, as it upends much of what the world economy is based on.

Also, I could totally see David Tennant in this episode. It seems to match his particularly quirky/cute brand of the Doctor moreso than Matt Smith's. Especially because his last full season played with the idea of fakery so much with the Chameleon Arch "technology." (Which I think itself is a bit making fun of SF - using a pocketwatch is oh so ironic.)

The only problem I had with this episode was that the long sweeping shots of Paris got a bit boring after a while. The director seemed to be a bit "Look, we're in Paris! We could afford to shoot somewhere else! Paris!" It reminded me with the obvious excitement the directors had over shooting in the desert for Planet of the Dead ("Look, deserts!").

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willbikeforchange 5 years, 10 months ago

The whole point of a Christmas Special is that you either A) Celebrate the joys of Christmas or B) Use the unique nature of the Christmas "spirit" in our culture to teach characters a lesson, either earnestly or subversively.

Except that the only Doctor Who Christmas special to ever do that was A Christmas Carol. The rest were all just set during Christmas with the Doctor running about as usual and no lessons to be learned. I mean, what lessons were to be learned from The Christmas Invasion except "avoid creepy Santa robots?"

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vitaminbillwebb 5 years, 10 months ago

Great article about a great episode. Quick question, though. I'm not sure I follow how making fakes helps art to retain its revolutionary potential while deconstructing the whole concept of "aura." I think that's what you're saying the Doctor does here, but I don't quite see how. Is it that the Doctor/Tom Keating is able to deflate the concept of mass reproduction by rendering the original just as fake? Or is it that you can't, by definition, reproduce a fake? That is: when you attempt to reproduce a fake the one thing you can't reproduce is its unique fakery. A successful reproduction of a good fake is indistinguishable from a reproduction of the original and thus not meaningfully described as "fake."

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

"Except that the only Doctor Who Christmas special to ever do that was A Christmas Carol. The rest were all just set during Christmas with the Doctor running about as usual and no lessons to be learned. I mean, what lessons were to be learned from The Christmas Invasion except "avoid creepy Santa robots?"

Well, yes, that's part of the problem. The other Christmas specials were also bad. It is what made A Christmas Carol such a refreshing change, it wasn't just another RTD SpectacleBonazaWithExplosions (Trademarked!). So my hopes for this year's special were correspondingly higher - Hey, Moffat knows what a Christmas Special should be.

But I guess he didn't.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

willbikeforchange,

I think he's suggesting that no matter how life (or art) arises, it has inherent value for what it is rather than how it is created. Which also is pretty anti-capitalist, as it upends much of what the world economy is based on.

Attacking the labour theory of value is anticapitalist?

the long sweeping shots of Paris got a bit boring after a while

He who is tired of long sweeping shots of Paris is tired of life.

The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca,

the weakest script I've ever seen from Stephen Moffat

I liked it more than you did, but I confess that after seeing Moffat once again at the superb top of his game in "Scandal in Belgravia," "Widow" really looks like a dud in comparison.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 10 months ago

well, warhol certainly helped deconstruct the idea of an "original" by silk screening his pieces so that there was no "one". that is one take.

how about this idea: in the land of no mechanical reproduction, very few people would ever have seen rare works of art owned by the nobility, much less wanted to own them. with mechanical printing presses, it is easy to let the masses see art, think about owning the art, see how much money the art is worth... all ideas that codify the idea of expensive originals in the ART WORLD, thus increasing their aura of specialness.

What Scarlioni and the Doctor do is turn that on its head by making all the Mona Lisas painted by DaVinci (so that they technically are ALL originals, just not A original) which robs it of the singular power that we're used to conferring upon the agreed upon classic works of art.

Love City of Death. For all the reasons that Philip points out.

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willbikeforchange 5 years, 10 months ago

Attacking the labour theory of value is anticapitalist?

Hm, anti-capitalist was clearly the wrong word choice. I'm going to step back because I realize I know just enough to be dangerous.

As for long sweeping shots of Paris, I'll just say that I'd rather be there instead. Or watch a travel documentary.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

willbikeforchange - You basically have it - what the Doctor does renders the ideas of "fakery" and "authenticity" suspect categories in such a way as to create a tremendous source of power within the realm of the inauthentic.

To explain in more detail would require a more thorough explanation of Benjamin than I have time for, and particularly the quote from his essay that I cited. The Wikipedia page on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," however, has at least some of the key details and will probably serve to illuminate what I'm doing.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

inkdestroyedmybrush,

well, warhol certainly helped deconstruct the idea of an "original" by silk screening his pieces so that there was no "one". that is one take.

Didn't sculptors like Rodin get there first? There is no one "original" of, say, "The Thinker," and new "originals" continue to be produced after his death.

willbikeforchange,

As for long sweeping shots of Paris, I'll just say that I'd rather be there instead.

Can't argue with that. But watching City of Death is cheaper.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 10 months ago

Well, this is another instance where I'd love to contribute something really intelligent but I'm physically incapable of doing so because I have nothing to add. "City of Death" is of COURSE one of my all-time favourite serials and for exactly the reasons Phil pointed out. What else IS there to say? Tom Baker is brilliant. Lalla Ward is spellbinding. Julian Glover is magnificent. John Cleese is delightful. Douglas Adams knocks it out of the park.

"City of Death" shows off everything that was so great about the Graham Williams era and what it could pull off when given the chance. My only regret is that it wasn't like this all the time. Because it could have been, you know. If Big Finish doesn't go back to this era it's doing itself and its listeners a tremendous disservice.

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5tephe 5 years, 10 months ago

I can't be sure, as there are conflicting versions of this story floating around the internet, but the idea of six people wanting to buy stolen Mona Lisas isn't that absurd:

http://everything2.com/title/The+theft+of+the+Mona+Lisa

I first came across the story in William Goldman's "Which Lie Did I Tell?", but as he spends the last chapter of that book alternately claiming and then denying credit for writing "Good Will Hunting" I was never sure how much truth there was to it all.

At the very least, the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, and only returned two years later.

For those of you who don't want to bother reading the link above, the con goes like this:

Conman approaches 6 marks, known to be unscrupulous collectors, and tells them that in a few months he will be able to sell them the most valuable portable object on earth. They will know when that happens. All they need to do is then send a cheque for the amount they are willing to pay for it to the conman, and if they are the highest bidder, they will receive the the object. If not, then he will tear up their cheque, and they are none the worse off. The conman then thanks them for their time, and leaves.

In the meantime a forger friend of the conman's has been doing what he does best, and doing it well.

A couple of months after the approaches are made, headlines across the globe proclaim: Mona Lisa Stolen. Six unscrupulous collectors collectively choke on their toast. They then proceed to reach for their chequebooks.

A week or so later (and this is the good bit) ALL SIX of them receive a very well forged Mona Lisa.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, the ex-cleaner at the Louvre who stuffed the original under his jumper calls up the conman (who had asked him to steal the painting in the first place), and tells him he has the goods. To which the conman replies:

"I don't want it."

The brilliance of the scheme is obvious: the conman never claimed he would be selling the Mona Lisa, and didn't steal it himself, but when two years later it is finally recovered, the shamefaced marks can't turn him in, without revealing that they actually thought they were buying stolen goods.


Like I say, not sure of the veracity of it all, but that article claims it was all reported in 1932. And it's a helluva good story.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

countercultural artistic production is the most fundamental weapon in existence against the right

Such as the Berlin cabarets of the 1930s that, as Peter Cook observed, "did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler"?

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

Cook's observation, clever as it is, commits the irritatingly typical fallacy of treating a sub-100% success rate as equivalent to complete impotence. After all, it's not like anything else prevented the rise of Hitler. The argument can be adapted to shoot down any claims that it is possible to oppose toxic right-wing politics.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 10 months ago

@Ian

They may not have prevented it outright, but they were a voice of opposition and that's inherently important. Art and discourse may not change the world in and of themselves, but they sew the seeds of independent, free and radical thought, and that's something you can't reduce out. It will have a legacy that lasts well beyond the furthest point we can predict.

By the way Phil. as an aside I want to commend for your impassioned defense of and obvious appreciation for the underground artistic movements of the late 1970s and 1980s. You and I share the same taste in musicians, at least from what I can tell, and it makes me smile to see you speak so glowingly and so reverently of them because they mean a lot to me too. Seeing the way the political and cultural climate is shifting in the United States at least it reminds me of my positionality and allegiances and renews my sense of inspiration.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

Christmas specials without a message? I think you're forgetting the jaw-droppingly bold moral of "Voyage of the Damned" - money is a prerequisite for happiness.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

I thought the moral of Voyage of the Damned was "WOO! KYLIE!"

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

But of course, Hitler's toxic right-wing politics was successfully opposed. It just took a lot of bullets and bombs.

More relevant to the present discussion, the explosion of counter-cultural art and satire in the 80s did bugger all to undermine Thatcher and the right. Indeed, the creators of Spitting Image have said that, in retrospect, their work did more to improve Thatcher's image than to oppose her.

Politics is hard graft. If you want to make a difference politically, you need to get involved with mass movements, hammer out a political programme, campaign to get popular support for your politicians, and so on. It involves a lot of delivering leaflets, knocking on doors and getting barracked by angry strangers in community centres.

Mass campaigns, trade unions, friendly societies and of course political parties - all these can be said to have provided meaningful and effective opposition to the right. (As indeed their opposite numbers opposed the left, not least in 1930s Bierkellers.)

The connection between art and political change is tenuous at best. The idea that art is an essential, fundamental or even just a powerful tool in opposing right-wing politics is a comforting delusion held by people who care oh so deeply about politics but can't be arsed with the hard and often frustrating work of actually doing anything politically effective.

Art is a vital part of human existence, but it is no more a fundamental part of political change than it is a fundamental part of stellar nucleosynthesis theory.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

I thought the moral of Voyage of the Damned was "WOO! KYLIE!"

This, on the other hand, I agree with entirely.

My wife and I have a major disagreement about Voyage of the Damned. She thinks it is a sub-par and disappointing story. I think it has Kylie in a maid's outfit and kinky boots.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

I think successful opposition to Hitler's politics would have involved about six million fewer dead Jews. I also think that most of what you describe is a later step in political progress. The prerequisite that one must get involved in "mass movements" already gives the game away with the prerequisite of an existing mass for the movement. What you describe, in other words, is how positions that are already within the mainstream jostle for supremacy. I don't think it's how ideas wedge themselves in the mainstream nor a meaningful process for the wholesale rejection of ideas already within the mainstream.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 10 months ago

@Ian

But art can inspire people-As I said It's not going to change the world on its own. It's legacy is in inspiring people to take action by giving them a voice to relate to and reassuring them they're not alone in the daunting task of tackling hegemony head on. It's not a means to an end to itself, but it is a soundtrack and a call to arms. After all, a lot of art comes out of artists having something very important to them they want to talk about.

Also, when you reach the point where the entire system itself is against you (as it was for counterculturalists in the 1980s and as it is for them again now), trying to use it to your advantage is a fruitless waste of time. Organisation is indeed important, but what you need is organisation outside the designated and approved channels provided by the hegemony. What you need is something like, say the Occupy movement in the US, the mass protests in Europe and the revolutions in the middle east.

@Phil

What I took from "Voyage of the Damned" more than anything else was "Oh look! It's Clive Swift!" and "Heh. RTD is referencing 'Starship Titanic'. Cute."

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

New mass movements can and do arise, of course. They don't even need to be all that massive. No2ID is an example of a movement that grew up very quickly from just a few people in the UK and was plainly successful in influencing political discourse, such that one of New Labour's particularly illiberal policies was stalled until it could finally be abandoned by the more liberal government that was elected in 2010.

I have held political office. (Executive Councillor in the city of Cambridge - the local government equivalent of a cabinet minister.) I also, as it happens, spent several years heavily involved in experimental theatre. So I have quite definitely a foot in both camps, and I am speaking from some experience when I say that countercultural artistic endeavours have bugger all to do with actual effective politics.

Why I think it's worth arguing about is that too many people doing various types of non-mainstream art genuinely think they're making a useful and effective political stand. They're wrong, and while I wouldn't want them to abandon their art, I do wish they would channel some of their political passions into actions that are less fun, but more effective.

After all, if the right mobilises mass movements and works hard to get out its vote while the opposition spends all its time in theatres and art galleries, there's only going to be one winner.

In fairness, though, I should acknowledge one artistic accomplishment that did directly provide me with a toolkit to be an effective politician. Yes, Minister.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

I think successful opposition to Hitler's politics would have involved about six million fewer dead Jews.

You seem to be committing the irritatingly typical fallacy of treating a sub-100% success rate as equivalent to complete impotence.

Hitler was stopped. The cost was very high, and victory came to late to prevent his regime exacting a terrible toll - but the toll would have been all the greater had it not been for all the bombs and bullets, tanks and planes. Greasepaint didn't play much of a role.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

I don't think anyone seriously believes that art and politics have that directly pragmatic a connection.

On the other hand, to use a US example, I think there's a strong case that the coming out of popular entertainers and the existence of television shows like Glee and Modern Family have done more to advance support for gay marriage than every political campaign combined, and that the public mainstreaming of same sex relationships has been far more effective than counter-organizing in countering anti-marriage equality campaigns. Viewpoints on that issue have moved at more or less a fixed rate as an older generation dies and a younger generation is by default more tolerant, suggesting that it is a cultural shift driving the politics, not a political shift as such.

As for the Hitler issue, I don't think what I'm saying points towards that fallacy at all. I'm saying that military intervention after the fact and aesthetic opposition prior to the event are not exactly comparable. The cabarets provided a failed opposition to Hitler's rise. The military response, though obviously effective, was not an opposition to his rise at all.

Or, put another way, at least the cabarets were there in time to help.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 10 months ago

@Ian

I'm sort of with you there. As someone who's involved in both countercultural art and actual countercultural political movements I'm the last person to defend apathetic armchair philosophizing. I trained in extremely radical academia that is as much about social movements as it is research, conferencing and publication so I'm well aware of what it takes to make a difference: Meticulous observation and inference and a ridiculous amount of communication and trying to get your voice, and those of the voiceless, out to anyone who will listen.

However, I probably wouldn't be in the field I'm in now if it wasn't for the art and music (and subcultures themselves-it helped an incalculable amount that I found the right group of people at a crucial point in my life) that spoke to me and inspired me such that it helped crystallize my worldview and figure out who I was and where I stood. No matter how much you say art isn't the singular answer to sociopolitical issues and no matter how much I'll agree with you, that's an aspect of art that absolutely cannot be denied.

The other side to consider is that art can provide an outlet for people who have no other communication channels: I'm thinking of disenfranchised poverty-level people in inner cities who may not be able to spare the time, money and effort to create a gigantic social movement but who might be able to paint a mural about how they feel. I once worked with a sociologist and artist who dedicated her life to that very cause.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

@WGPJosh

Art can certainly inspire, but political convictions - and the drive to political action - come from all sorts of sources and are different for different people. Religion is surprisingly common, even in the UK. For me the roots are actually, I think, in science (which I insist is a fundamentally liberal pursuit). For many people it's about concern for the environment (local or global), concern for the well-being of their neighbours, or outrage at some gross injustice.

I dare say there are some people involved in politics who have got there through an artistic inspiration, but as far as I know I haven't met any. (Mind you, I can think of one example: Alex Wilcock has a post somewhere about how Doctor Who made him a liberal.) As I said above, I don't insist there is no link between art and politics, just that it is a tenuous one - and if you want to make a difference to the political world, the way you do it is by going out there and getting stuck in to actual politics, not by countercultural artistic expression.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 10 months ago

@Phil

You keep beating me to the good responses, making me feel redundant and inadequate! ;-)

Don't forget people like Lady GaGa and, to a much lesser extent, Ke$ha. As for making gay marriage mainstream, there is a dark side to that however: It's sort of a two-steps-forward, one-step-back deal because in order to make it legitimate, there's had to have been a kind of concession on the part of activists to spin gay marriage into something "palatable" for their opponents in an effort to compromise that winds up reinforcing hegemony anyway, just with caveats. Here's a great article about what I'm talking about: http://www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com/gayrights_lip.html

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

Viewpoints on that issue have moved at more or less a fixed rate as an older generation dies and a younger generation is by default more tolerant, suggesting that it is a cultural shift driving the politics, not a political shift as such.

But does that not suggest that the TV programmes are in fact irrelevant, or at most are reflecting an already-existing demographic change, rather than causing or even leading that change?

The military response, though obviously effective, was not an opposition to his rise at all.

It certainly was an opposition to his rise to ruler of all of continental Europe west of the USSR and the complete eradication of all Jews from those territories, which was were he was headed had, say, Churchill accepted his offer of peace with the British Empire instead of sending in the bullets and bombs (I severely doubt the Americans would have got involved without Britain as a base, and Stalin, while always unpredictable, could quite conceivably have been satisfied with merely beating him back to the border had the Germans war on two fronts not provided him with the perfect opportunity for a land-grab.

You seem to be writing as if Hitler's rise ended when he had control of Germany. But Czechoslovakia, France, and Poland, among others, would point out that he was most assuredly still rising long after reaching the top of the tree in Germany.

Also, when you reach the point where the entire system itself is against you (as it was for counterculturalists in the 1980s

Ah, yes, that would be why it was impossible for counterculturists like Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, for example, to get their message out to the public using mass media: because the entire system was against them.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 10 months ago

@Iain

There I do agree with you, but, as Phil said, there's no way to seriously claim art and politics have a direct link and that's not what I'm saying. Sure most of the decisions I've made and the actions I've taken come out of a righteous anger and indignation at injustice and inequality. On the other hand, I'm not going to pretend my struggle wasn't made easier or my personal path wasn't enriched by having a soundtrack to go along with it. My art and music is more for me than anyone else of course: Maybe what I'm saying is I'm attracted to the kind of art and subcultures I am because of my convictions and not the reverse. Even so, they both kind of reinforce one another I feel.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

Phil:

You were the one saying that countercultural artistic production is the most fundamental weapon in existence against the right. I just think that's bollocks. Mass organisation is the most fundamental weapon in any political struggle.

The gay rights issue is interesting, and you do have a point that a broader societal change is driving institutional political change. I'm sceptical that Glee and Modern Family are all that crucial, if only because they haven't been around all that long, although one could easily find older examples. The coming out of prominent public figures is likely to be a more important and fundamental part of that shift in attitudes. But there again, I'll confess to not being so familiar with the US scene, but certainly here in the UK there was considerable mass organisation pushing that coming out process, not least from Stonewall. (I also wonder, with no real data, how much the AIDS epidemic did to change attitudes, as it became very clear that many well-loved entertainers were indeed gay. But that's a much larger discussion.)

On Hitler, I don't think I'm courting controversy by saying the military opposition would have been all the more effective if it had started sooner.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

SK - It would only suggest that if an alternative explanation for what would motivate a constant rate of change were also proposed.

As for Hitler's rise, I don't think the specific inflection point between rise and fall changes my point, which is that there is something to be said for the opposition that gets there first. (And in response to Iain's point about military response starting sooner, it couldn't have, though. I mean, we genuinely don't want a precedent that pre-emtpively overthrowing an undesirable elected government is acceptable. Military response couldn't b there in time.)

Speaking of Iain - I stand by that. Fundamental being, in this case, synonymous with foundational. No political movement exists without aesthetic backing. You cannot get to mass political movement without first going through art. Art is the starting point - the initial response.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

At the risk of being pedantic (and starting a massive off-topic series of arguments), I'd advise caution on the interchangeable use of the terms "science fiction" and "sci-fi". The term "Sci-Fi" carries a pejorative connotation due to its use by critics to distinguish "science fiction" from the work of hacks. "Sci-fi" is fantasy with science fiction props.

John W. Campbell, Jr: "It's Science Fiction if, presuming technical competence on the part of the writer, he genuinely believes it could happen. Otherwise, it's fantasy."

One could get away with "speculative fiction" as a catch-all for sci-fi, science fiction, and fantasy though.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

William Shirer is quite emphatic in his view that a military response by the UK and France to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia would likely have led to the fall of the Nazi regime in short order.

But that's a side issue. Your main point is this:

No political movement exists without aesthetic backing. You cannot get to mass political movement without first going through art.

I disagree, but am willing to be convinced. The mass political movement of which I have been a member for a decade and a half, during which time I have campaigned, stood for election, participated in internal party committees and held executive political power, is the Liberal Democrat party in the UK. What would you suggest is the aesthetic backing of that particular political movement?

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

@Keith,

Yeah, but Campbell was full of shit. Science fiction, Hard SF, sci-fi and science fantasy are all just slightly different aesthetics.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

Iain Coleman,

I have held political office. (Executive Councillor in the city of Cambridge - the local government equivalent of a cabinet minister.) I also, as it happens, spent several years heavily involved in experimental theatre. So I have quite definitely a foot in both camps, and I am speaking from some experience when I say that countercultural artistic endeavours have bugger all to do with actual effective politics.

But electoral office is some way downstream (well, at best) from the kind of political change that's under discussion here. By the time a political candidate gets around to being elected on a pro-X platform, grassroots efforts have in most cases done the lion's share of swaying public opinion toward X (some examples: gay marriage; the u.s. civil rights movement; women's rights; religious toleration; the end of slavery, especially in places other than the u.s.), and cultural and artistic influences

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jsd 5 years, 10 months ago

I interrupt the regularly scheduled academic discourse to say:


Romana: You should go into partnership with a glazier. You'd have a truly symbiotic working relationship.
Duggan: What?
Romana: I'm just pointing out that you break a lot of glass.
Duggan: You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.
Romana: If YOU wanted an omelette, I'd expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames and an unconscious chef.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

(cont'd)

have played a much more important role at that first level.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

@Iain: I'm not sure where one draws the line between referring to something as a particular aesthetic and referring to it as a genre/sub-genre, but the terms have more-or-less definite meanings: "science fiction" is defined by "scientifically possibility" (Hard SF is a subgenre. I'd argue that "science fantasy" is nothing more than a contradiction in terms). Campbell, who was the editor of ASTOUNDING, came up with a formal definition for the magazine in the 1930s (I think), long before the term sci-fi was coined by Forest J Ackerman (hence why Campbell's definition is an either-or between the terms "science fiction and "fantasy"). Of course, you get all sorts of headaches with what counts as scientifically possible.

Some people take this stuff a lot more seriously than I do (check out rec.arts.sf for examples) and would take great umbrage at someone referring to Arthur C Clarke as a "sci-fi" writer, for example.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

Iain - I would think that the backing of something as large and complex as a political party would be large and disparate - though it's tempting to suggest that Doctor Who is a fairly good answer to the question. But I think one is more likely to find concrete sorts of support if one looks at specific issues or cause than if one looks at a political party in all its material messiness.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

Is Romana channeling Bastiat? She's in the right city.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

I would suggest that people who would take serious umbrage at the conflation of "science fiction," "sic-fi," and "SF" when all three are self-evidently differently abbreviated versions of the same term are prime examples of why I suggested that this sort of approach is best described as a paraphilia instead of an aesthetic.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

I think scientific possibility, at least if interpreted strictly, is too narrow a standard for "science fiction"; it would throw out too many paradigmatic cases (e.g., arguably all those involving FTL travel).

Orson Scott Card offers a different argument against the scientific-possibility standard: many fantasy stories involving wizards and dragons might really be scientifically possible if we assume a secret nanotech/bioengineering grounding or the like, but we still usually count them as fantasy -- and Star Wars, despite much that's not possible, as science fiction -- because these are really aesthetic-feel concepts (unicorns vs. spaceships). I'm not sure whether I agree with Card or not, but it's a point.

In my experience, "sci-fi" is not the name of a certain kind of science fiction; it's rather a somewhat dismissive term for the entire genre.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

I would suggest that people who would take serious umbrage at the conflation of "science fiction," "sic-fi," and "SF" when all three are self-evidently differently abbreviated versions of the same term are prime examples of why I suggested that this sort of approach is best described as a paraphilia instead of an aesthetic.

But a) wasn't it you yourself who were trying to use "SF" to mean a particular subgenre of science fiction just a month ago?

And b) re "sci-fi," many ethnic slurs are abbreviated versions of the acceptable term, but that doesn't make a preference for the acceptable term over the slur anything odd.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 10 months ago

Well, yes, because I specifically needed the distinction in question. And even then, I found it necessary to clarify the distinction before making use of it.

I'm also skeptical that any term referring to a genre that is (let's face it) enjoyed mainly by middle class white males has much resemblance with racial slurs.

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David Bateman 5 years, 10 months ago

History repeats itself. The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. The Tories are in power. Doctor Who fans complain about the show. The main point of any Christmas Special is it's fun... at Christmas.

Great blog btw.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

@Philip: Hey, I figured you'd welcome the opportunity to further define the Doctor away from science and more in the direction of fantasy, but fine, keep using your sloppy colloquialisms. ;)

Seriously though, this brings me to a point regarding the recent Christmas special. Though I doubt anyone hated the episode just because of the lack of technobabble explanations ("biopsionic luminescence or some similar piece of made up technobabble", as you put it), I can see why that would bother people. To someone who considers the Doctor a man/alien of science and the show's universe as being a decidedly non-magical one, having something occur that is treated like magic seems like something of a betrayal on the part of the writer. Even though the sonic screwdriver behaves much like a magic wand nowadays (a particular annoyance of mine), it is still a high tech gadget.

I would liken it to an episode of CSI if the team solved a murder by calling in a psychic to get a reading on a blood spatter pattern. Either way, the mystery was solved based on the clues at the scene, but the magic version is not consistent with the premise of the show.

That said, the Christmas special failed for me just because it was a bad story.

@BerserkRL: With "scientific possibility", I have often seen a certain degree of leeway in the science fiction community, usually stating that it can make an allowance for one non-plausible thing (eg: FTL, psychic powers). I never really liked Card's POV, but I can see where he's coming from though.

I think the uses of the term "sci-fi" based on my experience and yours may be related (I also hear the term "skiffy" being used derogatorily). It may be precisely because it is considered "fantasy with science fiction props" that it gets a negative connotation, but I can't say for sure. I have definitely seen it used solely as a derogatory term though (it doesn't help that they use terms that can easily be confused for one another - SF = science fiction, or speculative fiction, etc).

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Jesse 5 years, 10 months ago

Science fiction is a genre defined by the presence of one or more of a constantly evolving collection of themes and plot devices: space colonization, imaginary technologies, time travel, alternate history, etc. While sf often (but not always) involves scientific extrapolation, it is untrue that something has to be possible or plausible to qualify as sf. This idea is often cited within certain sectors of fandom, but it falls apart on contact with the texts that have actually historically been described as "science fiction."

The relationship between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is a subset of fantasy.

"Sci-fi" is an abbreviation that caught on in the Star Trek/Star Wars days, and it was met with strong objections by fans and writers who disliked the effects of Star Trek, Star Wars, and their imitators on the sf world. Those old enmities have faded since then, but some folks still don't like the term.

I think it's a stretch to see City of Death as a critique of Thatcher. Concentrated power + seeking personal profit = all sorts of things, not just "neoliberalism."

This is the best of the pre-Cartmel serials.

That is all.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

@Iain "My wife and I have a major disagreement about Voyage of the Damned. She thinks it is a sub-par and disappointing story. I think it has Kylie in a maid's outfit and kinky boots."

I've been involved with aeroplanes and the related distress all day, so I am aware the topic of discussion has moved on. However, I think I can resolve the disagreement between you and your wife with a simple phrase:

These are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

Science fiction is a genre defined by the presence of one or more of a constantly evolving collection of themes and plot devices: space colonization, imaginary technologies, time travel, alternate history, etc

No, it isn't. It's a type of aesthetic sensibility; it's an evolving artistic movement with traditions and influences like any other artistic movement. What makes something belong in that tradition is not what it contains, but how it treats what it contains. Hence for example you could have a book which has a spaceship, or time travel, in it, or an alternative history, which is not in the class (Fatherland, for example, which is a political thriller that happens to be set in a history that didn't happen (technically the same as ever historical novel -- Wolf Hall isn't historically accurate -- just a little more obviously), and does not at all belong in the same class as The Man in the High Castle, which is actually about the idea of what it means for history to be different, and is therefore clearly in the tradition)), just as there can be books which involve no spaceships, no advanced technology, no anything which didn't actually exist, but are still in the genre (and beloved of those who like the genre) because they bring the artistic sensibilities of the genre to bear (Neal Stephenson writes them these days).

I always use 'sci-fi', specifically to annoy the supercilious kind who find it annoying. The whole 'it's not "sci-fi", it's "SF"' thing is a quite hilarious piece of reverse snobbery, and I love the way that those who complain about the 'literary establishment' being 'snobby' can be the same ones who get sniffy about terms with such lack of awareness of the irony (but then to be fair, they are pretty much the definition of 'lack of self-awareness').

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

Remember when Kylie was young enough to play the character she was supposed to be in Voyage of the Damned?

I do, but only just.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

"I have held political office. (Executive Councillor in the city of Cambridge - the local government equivalent of a cabinet minister.) I also, as it happens, spent several years heavily involved in experimental theatre".

I think I'm right in seeing an element of self-parody here.

"countercultural artistic endeavours have bugger all to do with actual effective politics."

It's wrong to see politics as springing from art, or vice versa. Oppositional social movements produce people who communicate the message of the movement by capturing the popular imagination. These are often called "artists". They also produce people who can mould and mobilise the mass. These are often called "politicians". The politicians and the artists will eventually hate each other, but the movement won't get anywhere without both.

"The mass political movement of which I have been a member for a decade and a half, during which time I have campaigned, stood for election, participated in internal party committees and held executive political power, is the Liberal Democrat party in the UK. What would you suggest is the aesthetic backing of that particular political movement?"

That is why you fail. To be more specific, if the Liberal Democrats actually had any ideas which inspired art, those policies would also inspire voters. This problem is not, of course, exclusive to your party.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

And as someone who (a) was once a member of the Social and Liberal Democrats (sic) and (b) sometimes delivers leaflets door-to-door for the Labour Party, I hope I'm not coming across as too unsympathetic. I certainly can't see Ed Milliband inspiring a symphony any time soon.

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

I can't even see E.Mill inspiring a wolf-whistle.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

"a genre that is (let's face it) enjoyed mainly by middle class white males"

This is interesting. Is it true?

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

@SK
I always use 'sci-fi', specifically to annoy the supercilious kind who find it annoying. The whole 'it's not "sci-fi", it's "SF"' thing is a quite hilarious piece of reverse snobbery, and I love the way that those who complain about the 'literary establishment' being 'snobby' can be the same ones who get sniffy about terms with such lack of awareness of the irony (but then to be fair, they are pretty much the definition of 'lack of self-awareness').

I pretty much agree with you on this point.

I tend to be a little more patient with the science fiction “snobs” due to the derision the genre gets from the “establishment” types who can’t even be bothered to learn about the genre, its conventions, or its definitions, but who dismiss something like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE because they think it is the same thing as BUCK ROGERS. I imagine if people dismissed Lord Byron’s Romanticism works because Danielle Steel’s books are in the Romance section of the bookstore, his fans would get rather tetchy and anal retentive about definitions too. :)

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Jesse 5 years, 10 months ago

SK: I think Fatherland is a science fiction novel. But I grant you that a non-sf story can have sf elements. I don't think the Oz books are science ficiton, but I think Tik-Tok is a science-fiction character.

Wm: My understanding is that in the US, organized "media" fandom (i.e., fandom oriented towards TV/movies) is actually majority female. Or so I've been told on various occasions, such as here.

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

I think Fatherland is a science fiction novel

Why?

And 'because it's set in an counterfactual' is begging the question.

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Jesse 5 years, 10 months ago

Then I'll beg the question, because that's my answer. Though I'll add that I think there's plenty of material widely understood as sf that doesn't engage these ideas on a level any deeper than Fatherland does.

And with that, I need to leave for DC. No further debating for me today.

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

It's not so much that it doesn't engage with sci-fi ideas as that that's not even what it's trying to do. It's trying to be a conspiracy thriller; it's written as a conspiracy thriller; it works as a conspiracy thriller.

What difference is there between it and Enigma beyond the slight difference in the degree to which the history is imagined?

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

Further to what SK said, for the story to be classified as "science fiction", the "science" aspect has to within the realm of possibility and has to be integral to the story. This is why so much of DR WHO can't be classified as science fiction.

For example (spoilers ahoy), in Arthur C Clarke's Hugo-winning short story THE STAR, a scientist has a crisis of faith when he discovers that the star of Bethlehem heralding the birth of Jesus was a supernova that destroyed an alien civilization.

"[O]h God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?"

The entire story depends on the scientifically-possible discovery shaking the character's faith. If you remove the science, then it is no longer a science fiction story, even if you turned it into a conventional crisis-of-faith story and set it on a space ship.

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

Further to what SK said, for the story to be classified as "science fiction", the "science" aspect has to within the realm of possibility and has to be integral to the story.

No, it doesn't. Don't be stupid. It simply has to exist within the literary tradition of sci-fi.

Coming up with arbitrary rules like 'it must be this' or 'it should not have that' is a completely wrong-headed way to go about identifying a literary, or indeed any artistic, movement. It's about who influences who, and who is writing for who else's readers, and so forth.

It's now what you write, it's how you write it, and who you write it to impress.

(You could easily do the Clarke story without the science and still have it be science fiction, just as you could do it with the science and not be science fiction: if you concentrated more on the internal aspects of the character's crisis of faith it would turn into a literary existentialist story, for example).

A good recent example is: why is Spares sci-fi, but Never Let Me Go is not?

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 10 months ago

I know the discussion is on something entirely different right now, but I only just had this realization about what kind of story Doctor, Widow actually is.

The family is a typical example of a soldier's family from British war stories, who meet the Doctor and with him explore a strange new world in which such realist characters don't belong thanks to a magic blue box. They save the day thanks to a combination of luck and some scientific background from the more knowledgeable Doctor.

It's a Hartnell story. Just the kind of story Phil said at the end of his book that the new series wouldn't do again.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

On the question of whether the science-fiction element has to be crucial to the story -- I would resist treating this as equivalent to its being crucial to the plot. If a science-ficiton element is crucial to the aesthetic ambience of the story, why isn't that a way of being crucial to the story?

Philip,

I'm also skeptical that any term referring to a genre that is (let's face it) enjoyed mainly by middle class white males has much resemblance with racial slurs.

Really? I'd understand your response if I'd suggested that the use of "sci-fi" was somehow comparable in seriousness to racial slurs. But of course I didn't. My point was just that both function pejoratively. Can't there be pejorative terms that apply to genres enjoyed by middle class white males?

SK,

I always use 'sci-fi', specifically to annoy the supercilious kind who find it annoying. The whole 'it's not "sci-fi", it's "SF"' thing is a quite hilarious piece of reverse snobbery

Objecting to a pejorative term is snobbery? How do you figure?

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Jesse 5 years, 10 months ago

It's not so much that it doesn't engage with sci-fi ideas as that that's not even what it's trying to do. It's trying to be a conspiracy thriller; it's written as a conspiracy thriller; it works as a conspiracy thriller.

I don't think "science fiction" and "conspiracy thriller" are mutually exclusive categories. Is The Manchurian Candidate science fiction? I think so.

Coming up with arbitrary rules like 'it must be this' or 'it should not have that' is a completely wrong-headed way to go about identifying a literary, or indeed any artistic, movement. It's about who influences who, and who is writing for who else's readers, and so forth.

Yep. And Fatherland was influenced by science fiction, insofar as it is based on an idea that emerged from the sf genre. I don't think the author independently dreamed up the idea of an alternate history story.

(Conversely, I'm not inclined to classify Cyrano de Bergerac's The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon as sf, because at the time it was written there was no science fiction tradition from which to borrow the idea of exploring the Moon [and because the tradition that did finally emerge didn't owe much to Cyrano]. For most of the 20th century, on the other hand, a story about visiting the Moon was sf territory. Until 1969, that is, when it could alternately be a realistic novel about the space program.)

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

@ JEsse "Is The Manchurian Candidate science fiction? I think so."

I disagree. Given the period in which it was written and filmed, I suspect many of the people who worked and viewed the movie wouldn't have considered it as such. While elements of the plot are scientifically unlikely, the film never presents anything happening within it as anything other than plausible, and I think the Cold War audience would have thought it plausible too. MC never tries to handwave the conditioning with any kind of sci-fi technobabble, it presents it as a fait accompli. Futher, having watched the film many times I've never found the mental conditioning to be anything "fantastic." For me, MC is a taut political thriller that happens to have mental conditioning as its narrative engine.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

>??No, it doesn't. Don't be stupid. It simply has to exist within the literary tradition of sci-fi.

If you are going to be uncivil and accuse me of being stupid, you may not want to follow it with an assertion based on a tautology. All you've done here is bleed the term "science fiction" of all meaning.

"Hey, I just wrote a science fiction novel!"
"How do you know it is science fiction?"
"Because it is within the literary tradition of science fiction."
"I . . . see. So by what criteria do you determine that your story is in the literary tradition of science fiction?"
"Ah . . . well . . . it has a spaceship and a ray gun in it. Other science fiction has used those things."
"So, science fiction is fiction that features spaceships and laser guns?"
"Well, not necessarily. You can also have aliens, time machines, and wormholes to parallel universes as well."
"Wait a minute, so the science fiction literary tradition is just a random assortment of stories containing things that don't presently exist that someone arbitrarily decided to label as 'science fiction'? So why don't they call LORD OF THE RINGS science fiction then?"
"Ah . . . "

You can probably see where I'm going with this. The traditions of literary science fiction were developed by people telling stories dealing with the effects of scientific/possible extrapolations from the real world (a point I admittedly did not express well previously, as I should have mentioned it dealing with "extrapolation" from what we currently know, rather than simply saying science).

>Coming up with arbitrary rules like 'it must be this' or 'it should not have that' is a completely wrong-headed way to go about identifying a literary, or indeed any artistic, movement. It's about who influences who, and who is writing for who else's readers, and so forth.

Scientific extrapolation is not an arbitrary rule, it is its defining characteristic. This isn't like saying the story MUST have specific PROPS to be science fiction, though the "props" are generally the result of people coming up with scientifically plausible tools and concepts. If science was not a necessary part of it, then why would anyone bother devising the term? You would just call it fantasy and be done with it. It would simply be fiction about stuff that isn't real - some of which may be possible and some of which may not.

?It's now what you write, it's how you write it, and who you write it to impress.

I see. So since Orwell was not writing 1984 to impress science fiction fans, then it doesn't count as science fiction? How about WE? Or BRAVE NEW WORLD?

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

>?(You could easily do the Clarke story without the science and still have it be science fiction, just as you could do it with the science and not be science fiction:

No you can't; this is a ridiculous assertion. The story IS about the character's crisis of faith resulting from the fictional extrapolation by Clarke that the Star of Bethlehem was really a supernova. It isn't ten pages of the protagonist pouring over Hubble pictures, followed by him falling to the ground and shouting, "It was the Star of Bethlehem! You maniac! You blew it up! Damn you, God! Damn you to hell!" The character struggles with his faith and reveals at the very end what has caused it.

...if you concentrated more on the internal aspects of the character's crisis of faith it would turn into a literary existentialist story, for example).?

Just because the story is science fiction doesn't mean that it can't be classified as an existential story as well.

How would you do THE STAR with a non-scientific explanation and still call it science fiction? Replace the supernova with pissed off leprechaun? Nope, that would be fantasy. Leave out the explanation altogether? That won't work either; then it would just be a conventional story about a guy losing his faith.

?A good recent example is: why is Spares sci-fi, but Never Let Me Go is not?

Who says it isn't? I'm not familiar with either of those, but according to wikipedia, it was nominated for Best Science Fiction Film, so clearly someone thinks it is. I gather NLMG is an alternate history story, which certainly could qualify it as science fiction.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it is an easy, well-defined classification. You have all sorts of sub-classifications which can span different genres and you can argue forever about some allocations.

Part of the problem with coming up with an all-encompassing definition of the genre is that the people writing in it (eg: were telling stories of things that do not exist yet are scientifically possible) created a number of concepts (lets use "laser guns" as an example) which are now so common knowledge that anyone can easily appropriate those props for their stories, even when the story is really just a western in space. Sure, your story has the tools developed by science fiction writers, but you aren't necessarily writing ABOUT science fiction. I imagine this scenario is what makes many people mad when someone criticizes them for liking the genre.

And then there is the matter of how forgiving you are willing to be on what you consider scientifically possible, but that is an ever bigger can of worms that I do not want to open.

Whew, I'm exhausted from writing this. (sorry about the formatting errors - it wouldn't let me post without making some changes. Not sure what I did wrong)

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

Wow, such wrongheadedness.

Actually 'sci-fi' isn't a pejorative term. Lots of people (like me) say, 'I'm a sci-fi fan,' or, 'I love a good sci-fi movie.' The only people who think it's a pejorative term are the snobs who think that the stuff they read and watch is so superior to the stuff that mere 'sci-fi' fans watch,which is just like 'Westerns in space' or something.

And it's exactly those snobs I'm trying to annoy. If I didn't care so much about annoying them I'd use my own personal preferred term, which is 'scientific romance'. But I do, so 'sci-fi' it is.

I also don't understand the point about Orwell. 1984? Blair died in 1950, he wasn't around in the year 1984. He did write a novel with a similar title, but it wasn't called 1984, it was called Nineteen Eighty-four. Are you perhaps getting confused? Have you heard of the novel, but never read it, or seen the title written down anywhere, and so got the wrong idea in your head?

Aside from that, well, boys, being as amazingly, completely, utterly wrong as you are right now... welcome to the internet. You'll fit right in.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

Hopefully a final response on all the political stuff:

The bottom line is this. The foundation of political thought is philosophy, particularly moral philosophy. The most important tool in political action is mass mobilisation. Some artistic work can, of course, be associated with all of that, but it is neither fundamental nor essential. Artists or art theorists who think otherwise are fooling themselves. (In fairness, all academic fields are prone to similar forms of self-aggrandisement. The tales I could tell you about physicists...)

@BerserkerRL "By the time a political candidate gets around to being elected on a pro-X platform, grassroots efforts have in most cases done the lion's share of swaying public opinion toward X" - yes, of course I know that. Did you really think I didn't know that?

@Wm Keith "To be more specific, if the Liberal Democrats actually had any ideas which inspired art, those policies would also inspire voters. This problem is not, of course, exclusive to your party." - it's a fair point. Indeed, during the 2010 Cleggasm, a load of clever and funny graphics suddenly sprang up all over Facebook. It's the idea that art is of fundamental importance in politics that I disagree with.

@Phil "But I think one is more likely to find concrete sorts of support if one looks at specific issues or cause than if one looks at a political party in all its material messiness" - from my own involvement in specific issues or causes, I can assure you it's material messiness all the way down.

And one last observation to hopefully bring this massive digression vaguely on topic: I've just looked up the figures, and more people voted liberal Democrat in the 2010 General Election that watched Doctor Who the following Saturday. Thus proving there are at least some LD voters who are not rabid Who fans. Or at any rate, there were.

Right, that's it. Now to be rude about Hard SF.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

The idea that science fiction, or some subset of science fiction (generally called Hard SF) can be meaningfully demarcated by its scientific plausibility or possibility is terribly naive, and does not survive contact with actual stories that are solidly within the SF canon.

Keith has mentioned Clarke's "The Star", a fine story. A story which features manned interstellar travel, in which star systems are first explored by human visitation rather than telescopes or robots. This is not at all scientifically realistic.

It is, as I say, a fine story, and one which does rely on scientific trappings and scientific concepts. But in terms of scientific or technological rigour, it's on a par with Blake's 7.

There is a meaningful aesthetic distinction between a story like "The Star" and, say, "Star Wars". However, this is not a matter of consistency with actual science, however much some fans would like to make it so.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

@SK:

Well, I hope you'll excuse me if I don't hold my breath waiting for your science-free version of Arthur C. Clarke's classic science fiction story, or even an explanation of how you would pull it off. But then again, if I got trounced that thoroughly, I might be tempted to nitpick someone for writing "Nineteen Eighty-Four" as "1984" as well.

Perhaps you can regale the "sci-fi snobs" (you know, people who refuse to be non-snobbish by referring to the genre as "scientific romance") with your insights on how the science fiction genre is defined as "fiction in which the science is in the tradition of science fiction".

You don't have to worry about welcoming me to the internet, I've been here for a long time.

Long enough to know a troll when I see it. Thanks for saving me the trouble of wasting my time on your posts.

@Philip: Sorry that this devolved into what it did. I will not continue it.

@BerserkRL: You raise an interesting point about plot versus story. I'd have to think on that one.

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

'Fiction in which the science is in the tradition of science fiction'? I think you must have mistyped there. How could science be in a literary tradition? Try again and we might be able to tell what you mean.

You don't have to worry about welcoming me to the internet, I've been here for a long time.

And doesn't it just show?

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

@Iain: I'm going to have to keep this brief so I won't address everything here, but the issue isn't whether the things you listed are realistic, so much as it is that they are not IMPOSSIBLE that puts it in the field of science fiction. Granted, I haven't read it in some time, and I don't recall how much detail went into describing how the scientists got out there, etc, but I welcome the chance to revisit the story so thanks for that. :)

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

Keith:

I await your treatise on the Transfinite Drive with eager anticipation. All I ask is that you remember me in your Nobel acceptance speech.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca,

While elements of the plot are scientifically unlikely, the film never presents anything happening within it as anything other than plausible, and I think the Cold War audience would have thought it plausible too.

So you're saying that it doesn't count as science fiction unless it's implausible. And others are saying that it doesn't count as science fiction unless it's not implausible. I don't see the rationale for either claim. I don't think forward extrapolation of present science is a necessary condition for science fiction, but it does seem sufficient -- whether the forward extrapolation is moderate or extreme.

The traditions of literary science fiction were developed by people telling stories dealing with the effects of scientific/possible extrapolations from the real world

True. But a) literary traditions are organic developments, and b) their defining conditions are cluster-concept-ish rather than necessary and sufficient conditions.

If science was not a necessary part of it, then why would anyone bother devising the term?

Sure, but "science" and "effects of scientific/possible extrapolations from the real world" are not the same concept.

You would just call it fantasy and be done with it. It would simply be fiction about stuff that isn't real - some of which may be possible and some of which may not.

But there are obvious options in the space between the view you're defending and "fiction about stuff that isn't real." There's a reason that Star Wars is usually considered science fiction (even though it's not scientifically possible and certainly isn't about extrapolation) and Lord of the Rings isn't. Spaceships and lightsabres are obviously science-y impossible things while dragons and magic wands are non-science-y impossible things. You can't say there's no criterion when most people are applying the criterion reliably.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

SK,

Blair died in 1950, he wasn't around in the year 1984. He did write a novel with a similar title, but it wasn't called 1984, it was called Nineteen Eighty-four. Are you perhaps getting confused?

Are you perhaps getting confused? The novel Nineteen Eighty-four did have an author, but he wasn't named Blair, he was named Eric Arthur Blair.

Actually 'sci-fi' isn't a pejorative term. Lots of people (like me) say, 'I'm a sci-fi fan,' or, 'I love a good sci-fi movie.'

A term can be pejorative without everyone who uses it intending it to be pejorative. White people from older generations sometimes use "coloured people" that way.

The only people who think it's a pejorative term are the snobs who think that the stuff they read and watch is so superior to the stuff that mere 'sci-fi' fans watch,which is just like 'Westerns in space' or something.

Counterexample: I think it's a pejorative term, and I like Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. (and have just been defending their status as science fiction). And I know plenty of others who do likewise. Your characterisation of us is simply inaccurate.

'Fiction in which the science is in the tradition of science fiction'? I think you must have mistyped there. How could science be in a literary tradition?

When it's not science per se, it's science in stories, that's being described as being in the tradition of science fiction.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

Iain Coleman,

"By the time a political candidate gets around to being elected on a pro-X platform, grassroots efforts have in most cases done the lion's share of swaying public opinion toward X" - yes, of course I know that. Did you really think I didn't know that?

What I thought you didn't agree to (because what you'd said seemed to entail its denial) was the upshot of my entire sentence, not just of the first half you excerpted.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

So, how about that "City of Death"?

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talestoenrage 5 years, 10 months ago

Yeesh, lots of sci-fi/science fiction hate in here.

I normally don't find much to say on these entries, much as I enjoy them, because I haven't seen the episodes in question. But for the issue of art as meaningful resistance, I always saw it less as "this performance shall change the world" and more "I need to do SOMETHING or else I feel like I'm going to lose my mind." A subversive art show might not convince a repressive regime to loosen up, but it's a way to show you don't consent to their actions, yet hopefully doesn't cause you to actually be killed for dissent. But I'll admit that's not a very hopeful way to look at it, since it carries the implication the art won't do anything to improve things.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

@BerserkRL

Oh, no, I'm not saying that things have to be implausible in order for a movie to be science fiction. I'm saying that the way in which the movie itself is presented has never been that it's mind-control was something the Commies couldn't do. The tropes of science fiction tend to rely on the fantastic as what is important to the work. The characters in Star Trek aren't impressed by the fact that they fly in space, but the way the show is presented to the audience is predicated on our desire to see "strange, new worlds," ones that we can't see ourselves because they are extraterrestrial and fictional.

Manchurian Candidate never has a marketing moment where someone goes "Thrill At THe Terror of Mind Controling Commies!" in a good old-fashioned pulp serial sort of way. It isn't tonally a science fiction piece, and I think if you were to play it with a bunch of science fictions films, it would stand out as being out of place.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

Perhaps we could define science fiction tentatively as "fantastical stories with a naturalistic aesthetic".

The "fantastical" bit is fairly obvious: whether it's terraforming Mars or blowing up the Death Star, SF portrays things that are very far away from happening in the everyday world.

By "naturalistic", I am invoking the naturalistic principle of modern science. All complex phenomena are in principle fully explicable in terms of more fundamental physical phenomena. For example, the circulatory system is explained in terms of fluid dynamics and electrodynamics, which are in turn explained by microscopic physics. At no point do you invoke any kind of "life essence" to explain why the heart pumps and blood flows.

Another aspect of naturalism is that we expect future scientific theories that explain new phenomena to reduce to our current scientific theories in the physical regime that we already understand. For example, Einstein's relativity theory reduces to Newtonian mechanics at low velocities, and we expect whatever quantum gravity theory that eventually supersedes relativity to reduce to Einstein's theory at low energies.

So what? Well, this means that whatever hyperdrives or ray guns our sci-fi heroes have, everyday objects will still behave the way we expect, people will still use the same fundamental principles of engineering, and so on.

So, no ghosts in the machine, and familiar things behave in a familiar way. Also, unfamiliar things behave in such a way that, whatever made up principles they operate under, those principles don't seem to be inconsistent with current scientific understanding.

Now, I need to draw a very important distinction here. SF is often said to be based on extrapolation - that is to say, taking known scientific theories and extending them in some plausible way. In fact this rarely happens in SF, and is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about whatever handwavey, made-up pseudo-sciencey plot device the author decides to use being something that is made to seem, by whatever presentational devices, to be something that does not contradict known science in the appropriate limit. This doesn't require any scientific rigour on the part of the author, it just demands that the gosh-wow tech is presented in a particular way. It's an aesthetic, not a technical, criterion.

Still, it allows us to make a useful distinction. Gandalf can clear a snowdrift with magic fire, because he is a divine being. His magic fire is not simply an emergent property of microscopic physics, nor does it reduce in some limiting case to mundane fire. It is a non-naturalistic phenomenon. A sci-fi hero, by contrast, might clear a snowdrift with a flamethrower, solidly consistent with known science and engineering. Or he might use his phaser gun, which fires a high-energy beam of Zecton particles to heat up the snow. There's no such thing as Zecton particles, of course. But in physics we are quite used to new particles being discovered, or new quantum fields, and these are indeed the kinds of things you can direct in a beam and that give up energy as heat when they collide with other matter. It's important, too, that the phaser has a finite power pack - the Zecton particles must be portrayed as satisfying conservation of energy, while Gandalf's staff has no such requirement.

Basically, the S in SF is not really about science. It's about scienciness. As long as the things presented in the story are sufficiently sciency, it will read as SF - and I've outlined a bit of what it means to be sciencey.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

talestoenrage,

A subversive art show might not convince a repressive regime to loosen up

But the repressive regime isn't the primary target audience of subversive art. It's the general populace.

it carries the implication the art won't do anything to improve things.

Tell that to Vaclav Havel.

The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca,

The tropes of science fiction tend to rely on the fantastic as what is important to the work.

Not always. Most of Jules Verne's sf novels involve very slight extrapolations of current technology -- next-year stuff rather than next-century stuff. (And some of them involve scientific [e.g. geographical] but not technological extrapolations, whether moderate [Hatteras] or extreme [Center].)

It isn't tonally a science fiction piece

Well, it isn't tonally that kind of science fiction piece.

I think if you were to play it with a bunch of science fictions films, it would stand out as being out of place.

But 2001: A Space Odyssey would also seem out of place if played among 1950s space-monster movies. So that test doesn't settle whether it's an inter-genre or intra-genre conflict.

Iain Coleman,

By "naturalistic", I am invoking the naturalistic principle of modern science. All complex phenomena are in principle fully explicable in terms of more fundamental physical phenomena.

But even most scientists don't believe that any more. Bell nonlocality is the most extreme counterexample, inasmuch as (at least on many interpretations) the arrow of explanation goes from the system as a whole to its components. But there are more moderate examples; a scientist doesn't have to reject Hilary Putnam's point that macrolevel explanations are superior to micorlevel explanations when they carry greater generality.

At no point do you invoke any kind of "life essence" to explain why the heart pumps and blood flows.

Depends what you mean by "life essence." Do you think a Michael Thompson Life and Action type of view is inconsistent with the scientific approach?

So, no ghosts in the machine

By that criterion a lot of works traditionally regarded as sf are going to be tossed out.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

@ BerserkRL

"But 2001: A Space Odyssey would also seem out of place if played among 1950s space-monster movies. So that test doesn't settle whether it's an inter-genre or intra-genre conflict."

Depends on how you present the films. 2001 would play as a serious, moody exploration of the tropes of the early work. In a fifties piece, we have improbable rockets, noisy space, crazy aliens. In 2001, that tradition is inverted. Space is silent, the spaceships behave as realistically as sceince then understood, the aliens are so abstract to be beyond our understanding. Inserting MAnchurian Candiadate into that doesn't make any sense, it has no connection to either tradition.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

Depends on how you present the films.

And likewise for Manchurian Candidate. Show it as one end of a continuum of mind-control thrillers ranging from highly plausible to highly implausible.

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Tom Watts 5 years, 10 months ago

Politics is not much fun, really, for all the reasons Iain sets out. I'm an elected Conservative in local government, so our experiences may be similar in some ways. Maggie wasn't there to be fun, but to provide a grounding for people, including artists. A rational financial grounding of course, rather than a moral one. Zizek refers somewhere to Heidegger's remarks on the "inner truth and greatness" of the National Socialist movement, and notes that no one ever seems to need to refer to the inner truth and greatness of, say, liberal democracy. Zizek thinks that Heidegger took the right turn in the wrong direction (a political turn), but as a Conservative and a democrat I think the primary mistake is in the concept of a truthful politics. It's true that politicians lie every time they open their mouths, but that's because they're not making art or philosophy. I wasn't aware of the existence of fine distinctions in terms of categorising science fiction works before, but now that I am, they do feel potentially useful. I'm reminded of Milton Babbitt's attempts to find a name for the kind of music he and his colleagues produced: complex music, research music, serious music, etc etc. "Contemporary classical" is very unsatisfactory, but the struggle to nail it down more precisely can be an instructive one, for all sorts of reasons.) As a Tory of course, I've nothing against snobbery – for those who like engaging in snobbery. Everyone has their own pleasures, and those with similar pleasures tend to clump naturally together. It may be, as BeserkRL implies, that those science fiction works that are remembered by posterity cross genres or mutate genres in the process, and the science fiction category itself gets forgotten. As a naive child, I imagined this would be the case: once teleports and video phones were part of our daily routine, the galactic adventure would just become social documentary! Off topic, I ended up this morning on the Den of Geek site and read the Iron Lady review, and the appended comments, in which MT is called, probably by people too young to remember her, a repulsive bitch, a fuck pig, a nazi bitch, a psychopath and a meglomaniac. Now doesn't that make you warm to her? Your explanations in a previous post of the excessive quality to Thatcher loathing aren't quite sufficient it seems to me. What my friends at AV Maniacs might call the batshit insanity of the Thatcher haters is a phenomenon which Slavoj Zizek ought to take up – it's beyond me. Your treatment of Servalan should be fun. But if Thatcher flyting is like anything, it's like Pound's early Inferno cantos, and the condoms of black beetles. Not a healthy masturbatory energy, even, but a ghastly sort of dry straining. Again, DH Lawrence, who'd have liked Maggie, would have been on the case.

City of Death is magnificent, isn't it?

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SK 5 years, 10 months ago

Perhaps we could define science fiction tentatively as "fantastical stories with a naturalistic aesthetic".

Or perhaps we could stop being stupid, and accept the obvious, which is that literary genres are artistic traditions and therefore are not things that are defined by checklist criteria but reflect groupings in the great family tree of artistic influences.

What's a romantic poem? It's not 'one produced in the years 1786-1820'. It's not 'one that addresses political concerns using a numinous aesthetic'. Both of those are simultaneously too wide and too narrow -- as must be any attempt to define science fiction using criteria, including the one I have just quoted.

It's one that occupies a certain place in the great chain of influences.

Sci-fi is not different.

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elvwood 5 years, 10 months ago

I remember someone saying once that SF (or whatever version of the genre name you prefer) is "what I am pointing at when I say SF". Which is a pretty useless definition, but probably closest to accurate. For me, it's something like the definition in Iain's last post: it's SF if any impossibilities/implausibilities are presented as coming from a scientific worldview. It doesn't have to be current science - tales of the luminiferous ether can still be SF, and so can stories with FTL travel. So the Pern books are SF and the Harry Potter books aren't.

Of course this isn't the whole of my definition, otherwise anything without impossibilities or implausibilities would count as SF. And there are blurry edges anyway. But that's why my first quoted definition is probably more accurate. Still, it explains why the Missing Adventure The Sorceror's Apprentice is definitely SF - or indeed most of Doctor Who.

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Wm Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

"So you're saying that it doesn't count as science fiction unless it's implausible. And others are saying that it doesn't count as science fiction unless it's not implausible."

We're back to Douglas Adams and his Infinite Improbability Drive.

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Alex Wilcock 5 years, 10 months ago

I dunno – I’m ill / away for a couple of weeks, and another posting-and-thread reaches near-Target-Book length. Happy New Year!

I can’t even start to join in with much of it, but as Iain’s name-checked me, this is the best version of my “How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal” of at least three on the Internet.

A few quick thoughts…

For me, the height of the Larry-Tat “two people who don’t like each other, trapped in a room” sit-com (which I know you’ve done recently, and I missed) is for The Stones of Blood, in which Tat’s come-back raises the stakes so far that it may as well end ‘…and you don’t love me any more!’ As it happens, I think David Fisher’s the outstanding writer in the Williams Era; I like City of Death but I don’t love it to bits as much as several others of the time, including more Fisher (and one that’s much more Adams). I love the writing, the music, the direction, the performances to begin with – most of all the running through Paris that some would cut – but the bits done badly (the chipboard café and Louvre…) jar with the bits done brilliantly, while the sci-fi at the end seems too earnest, as well as out of character: Romana’s happy to change history? Then only changes her mind once the Doctor celebrates genocide? Oh, dear, no, to both.

Bit of your piece I loved: that the Doctor’s always been a forgery.

Bits that I laughed at: “countercultural artistic production is the most fundamental weapon in existence against the right,” on which I mostly agree with Iain’s real-world critique while accepting that it can have an effect on some people, just not a predictable or mass one, and its matching “And it is the one thing that Thatcher, fatally, lacks. At the end of the day, she’s just no fun.” Which was, of course, entirely true, but entirely missed the point: that the “left” of the ’80s (barring some of the comedy which did more to bolster than dislodge her) was even less fun. I grew up in the ’80s, and it’s certainly when my politics came into focus, so for me both the Tories and Labour seemed equally horrible. The main difference was that the Tories seemed interested in making converts, while Labour only seemed interested in screaming traitor against anyone who didn’t precisely fit into their tribe (how times change).

In so much as art was an effective weapon in the ’80s, it was effective against the left, both because of Thatcher-flavoured art’s rhetorical success and because Foot-flavoured art was so good at shooting itself in the, er, foot. You might be interested in an old article of mine on your sort of territory of politics and art that makes an equal and opposite case to your assertion: “Did the Tories Win Because of Howards’ Way?”

Put simply, the far cheaper British cousin of the US supersoaps had far more fun in its culturally Thatcherite (though she’d probably have hated its sexual mores) way than more heartfelt left-wing playwrights’ dramas: grim; bleak; losers. I look at the rival narratives in more detail in my article – and why I identified with neither – but if you think art can only be effective against the right, you need to get out more. Of course, you might sneer that that’s not really Art because it’s ‘decadent’, but that’s back to Berlin in the ’30s…


Also, in terms of countercultural reflection, I’d say that Twenty-first Century Doctor Who has been far better – and more satirical – when up against a Labour Government (even when made by significant Labour supporters) than it has been in reacting to the current Coalition Government… Though it’s easy to argue in favour of your point by suggesting that the previous Labour Government was way to the right of the current one (and it’s unarguable that it was far more authoritarian).

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Tom Watts 5 years, 10 months ago

The best art comes from an argument of the artist with himself, it's often said. Otherwise you end up with Ken Loach – fun for the converted. It's why in punk Crass were so empowering: from Feeding of the 5,000 to 10 Notes – what other band in history has made that kind of journey, all argued fiercely through? A lot of what seemed at the time to be oppositional TV was pre-set with Thatcherite spring guns – eg. A Very Peculiar Practice, which at the time, and to casual viewers now, seemed like a protest against the commercialisation of learning, but which in retrospect saves its cruelest polemic for the Left, the old Left and the wet left in particular.

Tat's words on Stones are eloquent, although I've never noticed the dew on K9.

I can't agree that RTD Who was countercultural in any sense. It was with the grain and the expectations of the New Labour viewer from beginning to end. Even Tennant's character arc matched that of Blair, granting the Doctor the nostalgia tour at the end that TB had always hoped for. And the soft anti-racist, anti-war messages were always more designed to soothe than confound.

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

@BerserkRL

Touche. Really, mt opinion of MC's genre comes down to the truthiness I feel in my gut, which is that the movie is thriller, not sci-fi, and that the man who wrote it and the people who made it would not have considered it sci-fi. I know, I know, Death of the Author and all that, but this is what my person feelings are on the matter.

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Axel 5 years, 10 months ago

Science Fiction is like pornography.
To paraphrase Potter Stewart in Jacobellis vs Ohio - we cannot intelligibly define it. But we know it when we see it.

I think the same is true of any major artistic genre 'cos art is subjective.

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Tom Watts 5 years, 10 months ago

Pornography is for wanking. The difference between porn and erotica is the difference between a baseball bat and a ceremonial mace. Sci-Fi is for thrills, SF for cerebration, and science fiction... no, I still haven't got it.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

@Iain:

You stated: "As long as the things presented in the story are sufficiently sciency, it will read as SF."

I would like to address this with a thought experiment, and I would like to get your opinion on where you think this falls down. [Note: I keep saying scientific "extrapolations" to denote something arising from a discovery/breakthrough not currently present in society, be it androids, laser guns, etc.)

Example: Suppose I take a script for GUNSMOKE (which I assume we can all say with certainty is NOT science fiction) and do a global "Find and Replace" such as: change “guns” to “lasers”, “horses” to “robot horses”, “stage coaches” to “hover cars”, "bank robbers" to "aliens", and "gold in bank" to "Zecton particle gun", then move the setting to an Earth-like planet, but change NOTHING else about the plot. We still have robbers rolling into town, intimidating some people, stealing something, and getting arrested or shot to death at the end, but we just changed the props with which it was done.

(B) Would I be telling a science fiction story?

If yes, then we are declaring that the presence of SF props and "sciency" descriptions alone is "sufficient" for a story to be called science fiction. After all, it wasn't science fiction until I added the props to the script.

So by extension, if I write an episode of HOUSE and have him discuss how his cane is really a Zecton-powered support device (and he goes to great length to describe all of the traits you ascribed to Zecton particles in your example), but then it is never mentioned again and he just goes on to cure his patient as usual, would this be sufficient cause to label the episode as science fiction?

I do not believe many people would argue in favor of that. If you agree that my version of HOUSE is not science fiction, then you are admitting that the aesthetic as you described is not sufficient to define science fiction.

(continued)

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

(the continuation)

Perhaps one would object to this conclusion because SPACE GUNSMOKE has a larger number of SF props than HOUSE, so HOUSE fails as SF solely because it doesn't have a sufficient number of sciency things.

Ok then. Lets change the scenario. Keep everything the same as in the pre-edited GUNSMOKE script, but with only one change: set the story on Metebelis V. Everything takes place on a planet that is like Earth, except there are three moons and the sky is fluorescent green. This is never discussed in the story, it is just there to look at in the odd scene (compared to Dr House's lengthy discussion of Zecton particles).

(C) Is this a science fiction story?

If yes, then again we are defining the genre by the presence of the aesthetic trappings, so my HOUSE example still stands (with a Zecton-powered support device).

Well, you may say, "The joke's on you because I don't agree that SPACE GUNSMOKE is science fiction anyway."

If that is the case, then movies such as STAR WARS or SILENT RUNNING aren't science fiction either and the definition is insufficient. Why is that? For the same reason my SPACE GUNSMOKE script wouldn't be science fiction: because the story is not ABOUT those scientific elements (eg: not the same as in THE STAR), they're just conventional stories that swapped some equipment.

For example, lets say Robert Heinlein declares: "STAR WARS is not science fiction, because the story is not about how the science affects the characters." How can he say that the science doesn’t affect the characters when they fight with laser weapons, and the villain uses cybernetics to survive, and they interact with robots? Because the story is not ABOUT how the presence of robots affects their lives. It is not ABOUT the ramifications of being kept alive in a cybernetic suit. It is not ABOUT the ramifications of developing weapons that use lasers. In short, it is not ABOUT the extrapolations from current science. The fact that the characters have access to science fiction technology is incidental to the story. It is like SPACE GUNSMOKE, only with Force powers (it also isn't scientifically consistent with reality either, but that is incidental to my case). Instead of swords, they have light sabres. Instead of guns, they have blasters. Instead of castles, they have a Death Star. Now we just make the wise man a Jedi knight, and a few of the characters will now be aliens instead of foreigners. And the plucky farm boy will be the same, except he'll live on a desert planet.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

Keith:

Interesting thought experiments. I will readily declare SPACE GUNSMOKE to be science fiction. The more difficult and thought-provoking case is Zecton-augmented HOUSE. To me, that feels like not-SF, and I'm trying to put my finger on why. I think it's because House's Zectonic cane is so apparently divorced from the otherwise real-world setting. You could frame this as an issue of credible extrapolation: if House is able to have a Zectonic cane, then surely technological mastery of Zectonic particles must have changed the world in other ways, and we should see them. However, I resist that particular framing. I think it is more of an aesthetic thing: the science-fictional world should be in some way an alien environment distinguished by its sciencey trappings. The minimal version of this might be the SF story in which some new invention drives the plot - here the story is about the change in our environment that is wrought by the sciencey plot device, while most other SF stories are set in environments that already incorporate this sciencey strangeness. House's Zectonic cane feels more like magic than science (or scienceyness) because it doesn't fit in the world of HOUSE, and yet its not-fitting is never a story issue.

Another show that is interestingly not-SF is SPOOKS. This regularly features technology which simply doesn't exist. However, the conceit of the show is not that this is a fantastical world in which this sciencey tech is real: rather, it is that this is really what is going on behind highly secure doors here in the real world. The fact that this is bollocks does not make it science fiction.

In short, I think wht I'm getting at is that SF is set in a world that is different from our own, and that these differences are portrayed in sciencey terms. Plunking some sciencey device into a world that is otherwise portrayed as being our own world does not make a story SF, unless the story is about how this devices changes (or threatens to change) this world.

Does that make sense?

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

I would add that Star Wars has never been very science fictiony. It's Low Fantasy in a space setting, at least until that midichlorian bullshit showed up.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

House's Zectonic cane feels more like magic than science (or scienceyness) because it doesn't fit in the world of HOUSE, and yet its not-fitting is never a story issue.

I think I get what you are saying, and as far as how you define the "present world" SF, I think we are pretty closely aligned (I wouldn't use "sciency" though, but that is secondary at the moment).

Just to be clear, this is what I *think* you are saying:

If it is set in the present world, then the story HAS to be about the ramifications of the sciency thing existing (eg: SPOOKS is not SF), but if the setting is fantastical then it doesn't matter if the science affects the story or not (as in either SPACE GUNSMOKE version).

The part I am not onboard with (apart from the definition of the genre hinging on which of 2 types of story it is) is where we define the more fantastical science fiction, because whereas here the "must be ABOUT how the science affects things" standard applies solely to the "present day" SF, I would apply it across the board to both versions.

Please correct me if I am misstating this:
You contend:
(1) that the HOUSE script is not SF
(2) that this does NOT prove that the "sciency" aesthetic is insufficient to define the genre,
(3) because the gimmick was divorced entirely from the plot.

However, the second SPACE GUNSMOKE variant (lets call it GUNSMOKE: METEBELIS V) is just a cowboy story occurring on another planet and that incongruity did not disqualify it as SF, despite the elements not fitting together while never being a story issue. (Actually, I'm not 100% certain you agreed that BOTH versions were SF, or just the larger-scale "find and replace" version. I'll assume you did unless you correct me)

In HOUSE, we took a sciency gimmick (Zecton cane) and just plunked it into a conventional episode of HOUSE with no connection to the plot. (NOT SF)

In GUNSMOKE: METEBELIS V, we took a sciency gimmick (the planet, or if you prefer: the different sky and additional moons), and plunked it into a conventional episode of HOUSE with no connection to the plot. (SF)

This seems to suggest that a fantastical sciency setting is *sufficient* for a story to be science fiction. If so, then we've reduced the definition of science fiction to "anything with sciency props" again. As a result, a story that should NOT qualify for the science fiction genre ends up in it.

I contend that unless there is some qualifying difference to explain why GUNSMOKE: METEBELIS V (SF) differs from Zecton-cane HOUSE (not SF) enough to make one SF and the other not, then the aesthetic definition doesn't seem to work. The end result is that the definition of science fiction does not hinge on the type of world it is in (present vs fantastical), nor the apparent sciencyness of it, and that the story MUST be ABOUT the ramifications of the science, regardless of where it is. Therefore STAR WARS, SPACE GUNSMOKE, GUNSMOKE: METEBELIS V, and Zecton-can HOUSE are not science fiction.

Note sure how much sense I'm making given how many times I've re-written this post, but all these fake shows I've been writing are starting to give me a headache, so I better end it here.

@The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca: I also consider STAR WARS fantasy. I picked it because the aesthetic definition being used would seem to include it as SF on the basis of it being in space and using blasters, etc.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 10 months ago

Fantastical fiction is about a certain thrill of entering imaginatively into a world that is manifestly not our own.

SF is that subset of fantastical fiction in which the sense of otherworldliness is delivered via sciencey language and imagery.

I think I could go with that as a definition. Like all literary/artistic definitions it has grey areas and edge cases. It does, however, at least have the advantage of including everything that is commonly called SF, whereas definitions that rely on rigorous extrapolation from known science, or on the story being about the ramifications of science, exclude a lot of works that are pretty much universally defined as SF.

The edge cases we've spoken of are:

1. House with a Zectonic cane. In this case the otherworldiness is such a trivial part of the setting that it does not deliver that crucial thrill of exciting strangeness.

2. Spooks. In this case, the conceit of the show is that the technology on display is not actually otherworldy at all.

There are broadly two ways of presenting this otherworldly environment: you can simply have it as the existing background of the story, or you can start in our world and transform it into another world by means of some sciencey plot device. The fundamental point, that the story presents a strange world justified through sciencey means, remains consistent. [We could make the corresponding point regarding magical fantasy, which presents an exciting other world that is justified through magical means. This other world can be an existing story background, as in The Lord of the Rings, or a character from our world can be magically transported to Fairyland.]

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Wm Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

Heavens above, this is starting to resemble one of those "Should telefantasy magazines cover Ally McBeal?" arguments.

To which the answer is, yes, because she's married to Han Solo.

But we didn't know that at the time.

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

The idea that science fiction, or some subset of science fiction (generally called Hard SF) can be meaningfully demarcated by its scientific plausibility or possibility is terribly naive, and does not survive contact with actual stories that are solidly within the SF canon.

If I talk to Harlan Ellison about Hard SF, we know that we are NOT talking about a series of SF centered around the softer sciences such as psychology, and that we ARE talking about a group of science fiction stories related by rigorously worked-out scientific extrapolation, based on hard sciences like physics. If I say HardSF is racist because there are almost no black people in BLAKE'S 7, he would laugh in my face (and rightly so), so to say it isn't a *meaningful* demarcation is not correct. Some may quibble about whether the odd story is sufficiently "scientifically plausible" to justify inclusion in the genre, but we don't say "Romanticism" is a meaningless term because people argue over what fits in the aesthetic (and I'd say that is a much more vague term than science fiction).

Genres are made up of stories that share common traits, some of which are *necessary* and some of which are *sufficient* to justify being assigned to that group, though it may also rely on a family resemblance approach whereby you assign it because it shares a quantity of a limited number of traits, say "5 out of 8 traits", that are common to the genre. (Obviously not defined with a fixed number -- though that is how psychiatrists diagnose illness using the DSM -- which is why there are some genres that can't be summed up by saying it has to have one particular trait)

Some genres are more rigid than others. Some only have a couple *necessary* traits, such as a "whodunit" (a story in which a crime is committed and the culprit is not revealed until the end), or an "inverted detective story" (a story in which the identity of the perpetrator is known at the beginning). It doesn't mean it can't belong in another genre as well (make all the characters monsters and it could also be horror), but when I say I read a whodunit, you may not know it was a fantasy story, but you do know I didn't read a story where the killer was revealed on page one.

(To Be Continued)

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

(continued)

The difficulty here seems to be that you use the term "science fiction" in a broader sense than I do, more akin to how I would use "speculative fiction", so it is like we're trying to come up with one definition for two different things.

You demarcate the genre from fantasy by saying (roughly) that it uses sciency language and imagery to convey the fantastical rather than magic. So you define the genre as having the mutually exclusive, *necessary* traits of sciency words and imagery vs magicy words and imagery.

I demarcate it by saying (roughly) that the defining mutually-exclusive *necessary* traits are "consistent with scientific reality as we know it" vs "not consistent with reality as we know it."

You say MY definition excludes too many things that should be included by YOUR definition, I say YOUR criteria include too many things that should be excluded by MY standard. Each is consistent within it's own logic.

To me, your definition means many things that could not possibly happen in reality are allowed ("The earth gets sucked into a black hole, so Dr House uses his Zecton cane to knock it free of the event horizon and everyone is fine"), which by MY standards makes it fantasy (or speculative fiction, as that is a catch-all term), and vice versa.

I see no way to reconcile these opposing views. We could go into historical precedent, etc, but I don't think there'd be any value in doing so, so I say we'll have to "agree to disagree", shake hands, and move on. Though I have enjoyed this discussion.

PS: I'll save you a seat at my Nobel award-winning presentation of the Transfinite Drive if you save me a seat at the Hugo awards when you tell a group of SF giants that BLAKE'S 7 has the same scientific rigour as Arthur C Clarke's THE STAR. :)

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Keith 5 years, 10 months ago

@Wm Keith: I'm fine with that being retroactively OK. After all, it IS Han Freaking Solo!

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 5 years, 10 months ago

@Keith

Harlan Ellison never returns my calls.

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Alan 5 years, 10 months ago

I am frankly amazed to read a protracted discussion about "Space Gunsmoke" that never touches on the fact that Star Trek was sold to the executives as "Wagon Train in Space." Nor has anyone touched on Sam Peckinpah's famous comment about Star Wars -- that it was a western that would by its nature destroy the western as a viable genre of Hollywood storytelling.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 10 months ago

I think Space Gunsmoke and the like would be science fiction. They'd just be bad science fiction.

This was actually done to one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories. He wrote a short story titled "Beware!," a mash-up of NYC detective story and Ruritanian romance, that he was unable to sell (probably because it was one of his weaker stories, essentially written while asleep -- as even the unimaginative title suggests). So Burroughs agreed to let an editor rewrite it in order to get it published. The editor changed the cars to hovercars and the guns to zapguns, and otherwise left the story almost unchanged, publishing it as "The Scientists' Revolt." Both versions are in print, for anyone who feels like reading a bad story and a worse story bound together.

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 6 months ago

SK:
"I always use 'sci-fi', specifically to annoy the supercilious kind who find it annoying. The whole 'it's not "sci-fi", it's "SF"' thing is a quite hilarious piece of reverse snobbery, and I love the way that those who complain about the 'literary establishment' being 'snobby' can be the same ones who get sniffy about terms with such lack of awareness of the irony (but then to be fair, they are pretty much the definition of 'lack of self-awareness')."

BRAVO.

Chris Claremont once deeply annoyed me when someone used the phrase "sci-fi" and he responded, "You mean 'skiffy'?" Snobbish bullshit.

"Sci-Fi" as a term was quite popular long, long before there ever was a STAR WARS. Forry Ackerman, that wonderfully obsessed goofball, coined it, clearly as a variant on the popular term "HI-FI", as in, "high-fidelity recording" and/or entertainment system-- before the advent of the "STEREO system", or simply, "Stereo". Thus I place it as a 50's thing. And weren't there so many wonderfully fun, imaginative (and quite often cheap and tacky) "sci-fi movies" in the 50's?



Keith:
"in Arthur C Clarke's Hugo-winning short story THE STAR, a scientist has a crisis of faith when he discovers that the star of Bethlehem heralding the birth of Jesus was a supernova that destroyed an alien civilization."

Never read the story, but I did see THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode based on it. Quite good!



Alex Wilcock:
"Romana’s happy to change history? Then only changes her mind once the Doctor celebrates genocide? Oh, dear, no, to both."

Romana did not realize it would change Earth's history, only Scarroth's. Also, she did not have The Doctor's long-term "history" with The Earth to fully comprehend what a "small" change as the one he proposed would entail, until The Doctor explained it. And it wasn't genocide... as far as he was concerned, they were already long-dead!


Keith:
"Suppose I take a script for GUNSMOKE (which I assume we can all say with certainty is NOT science fiction) and do a global "Find and Replace" such as: change “guns” to “lasers”, “horses” to “robot horses”, “stage coaches” to “hover cars”, "bank robbers" to "aliens", and "gold in bank" to "Zecton particle gun", then move the setting to an Earth-like planet, but change NOTHING else about the plot. We still have robbers rolling into town, intimidating some people, stealing something, and getting arrested or shot to death at the end, but we just changed the props with which it was done."

I'm pretty sure there were a handful of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA episodes just like what you described here. (And one of them guest-starred a James Bond!)

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Jesse 5 years, 6 months ago

"Sci-Fi" as a term was quite popular long, long before there ever was a STAR WARS.

I think you're right about when "sci-fi" was coined. But didn't it become more of a mass-market term outside the world of science fiction in the Star Trek/Star Wars era?

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Jesse 5 years, 6 months ago

Sorry -- that should say "outside the world of science fiction fandom."

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Daru 5 years, 6 months ago

Hello Everyone,

I have been moved to post due to the above discussion. I want to respond in what will appear a very simple manner compared to the genre-splitting complexity.The following is only my own response.

I like stories - and regarding the (interesting!) chat about "Science Fiction" and other associated (or not) terms, I have to be honest that I am not interested.

It does not in any way bother me what genre or sub-genre a story does (or does not) fit into and whether where an individual story should be placed.

I like my stories to work - and if they work I like them. In the most friendly tone possible on the net, it matters not to where (I.e. which genre)they are "from".

So - 'City of Death' I agree IS a cracking tale and I love it!

Cheers folks

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arse bandit 4 years, 4 months ago

One reason this story is head and shoulders above the rest of the Williams era is that Julian Glover is capable of giving as good as he gets in verbal repartee with Tom. Up until now, all Tom's adversaries have been cantankerous straight men like the Captain, the Graff Vynda-K, Davros, the Marshall etc - all perhapsd one stage away from becoming Batman TV series supervillains - that Tom can run rings around.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 4 months ago

I don;t think any of my favourite Chistmas specials meet your definition *except* A Christmas Carol - One Foot In The Algarve isn't even set at Christmas, nobody celebrates the joy of Christmas or learns anything in A Christmassy Ted, because experiencing joy or learning things both kind of go against the nature of the show, the various Jonathan Creek Christmas specials are mostly focused on solving crimes and UST, just like all the other episodes.

On the other hand, the Star Wars Holiday Special *does* fit your definition, so it's presumably "better"...

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Katherine Sas 3 years, 6 months ago

The Christmas Invasion wasn't about what the Doctor learned, it was about what Rose learned.

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Eggert 2 years, 12 months ago

The woman was strong enough to hide her grief from her children, and ... iclownmaske.blogspot.de

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Henry R. Kujawa 2 years, 2 months ago

Just saw "THE STAR" again. Fritz Weaver played the scientist.

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