You Were Expecting Someone Else 20 (The Book of the World)
|Well, it’s almost the right cover.|
The Book of the World was, in essence, Lawrence Miles showing off that he could write a good Doctor Who script for the modern series. He put it up on the web for a week before taking it down, but you can still track down copies with only a little bit of dedication because nothing vanishes from the Internet. The script actually dates to late 2007, making it a Tennant-era concern, and it wasn’t actually released until just before Silence in the Library, so actually is virtually a Moffat-era concern. But, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to keep Lawrence Miles around as a theme that long. He’s a wilderness era theme, and the nature of his point here applies just as well as it would closer to the time of composition. Better, in many ways, as The Book of the World is very much an attempt at showing how Lawrence Miles would have rebooted the series, and holding that discussion back until 2007/2008 would have seemed strange. The script’s concerns are very much 2005 sorts of concerns, wherever it came from.
So in the wake of Lawrence Miles’s last moment of any major significance to the course and direction of Doctor Who, let’s look at him as a whole. One of his most steadfast assertions, which carries through virtually everything he says about or in Doctor Who – and even if I’ve not covered it all, I’ve read virtually all of it – is that he is not a science fiction person. This claim must come off strangely to anybody who is not Lawrence Miles, since reading his material it’s self-evident that he is, in fact, a science fiction person. Surely only a science fiction person would ever come up with the premise of Alien Bodies, in which a time traveller discovers that his own body’s “biodata” is being used as a weapon in a futuristic war. I mean, it sounds like something only a sci-fi person could ever come up with.
Certainly his fanbase is overwhelmingly comprised of sci-fi people. I mean, this goes without saying, yes? Someone whose writing credits exist entirely in spin-off media of a sci-fi show, and, at times, spin-offs of those spin-offs, and who is buried neck deep in the cult television paratext is clearly and self-evidently a sci-fi person, right? Well, sort of right.
See, the real point Miles is making when he says he’s not a sci-fi person and Doctor Who isn’t a sci-fi show is that in his view Doctor Who is a fantasy show in the tradition of magical realism. Which, again, he’s not wrong. The logic of Doctor Who is, as we’ve said before, really a traditional British one of eccentric spaces and portals to other worlds that has as many roots in Alice in Wonderland and Chronicles of Narnia as it does in, say, Quatermass. That’s not the only tradition Doctor Who comes out of, of course – it also owes a lot to the tradition of literary science fiction that the BBC was invested in. But in essence it’s always been science fiction with the attitude of Narnia.
And yet something about Miles’s point rankles. Less because of the very savvy point that Doctor Who is not a straightforward science fiction show is somehow incorrect, but because of his claim that Doctor Who is not for sci-fi people. Which actually may be the even stranger thing to be thrown by simply because it’s so self-evident in the wake of the new series that, in fact, Doctor Who has a massive appeal well beyond the cult television ghetto. But wait. We’re conflating two things here – sci-fi and sci-fi people.
At the heart of this is a relatively complex interplay between the idea of science fiction as an iconography and as a genre. Because science fiction as a genre – I.e. As a narrative structure with a given set of conventions – is actually a relatively narrow thing that existed in the early-to-mid 20th century. And it’s a weird little beast based on problem-solving and manipulation of ideas. And it was very much a product of the technological expansion and role of science in that part of the century. It’s all very interesting, but it’s largely dated and the last time Doctor Who did anything even remotely like it on a regular basis was the Bidmead era.
As we’ve observed before, since Star Wars science fiction has really been a set of images and ideas. If it’s not too much to look ahead, let’s think about Journey to the Center of the TARDIS, especially as it’s the episode most similar to Book of the World. One of the most interesting things about that episode was the way in which the interior of the TARDIS swung back and forth between being understandable in sci-fi terms and being understandable in “the land of fairy” terms, and the way in which these competing iconographies were used as a source of tension.
That’s what sci-fi usually is these days. I mean, there are occasional exceptions whereby sci-fi in the golden age style still happens – Duncan Jones’s rather fabulous film Moon springs to mind as an absolutely lovely example over the last decade or so. But for the most part science fiction is simply a set of images – a particular flavor we put on a broader action-adventure genre. Which is fine, and I’m not going to say that the sorts of stories you can do with various flavors doesn’t matter tremendously, but the flavor isn’t the story in much the same way that the map is not the territory.
Except for sci-fi people. If we’re going to suggest what the fundamental flaw that separates cult sci-fi readings from anything that can possibly thrive in the mainstream (or should thrive, for that matter) is that even in the face of a world in which science fiction has stopped being a genre and sci-fi concepts have become flavorings and accents for other stories they persist in holding to the golden age model whereby the substance of the sci-fi ideas actually matters. They think that sci-fi is about the particulars – that the mark of a good sci-fi story is the nature of the idea. And that’s just not the way it works, except in marginal cult shows that cater to those sorts of people. (This hermeneutic also explains all sides of the question “was the ending to Battlestar Galactica any good.”)
And the thing is, for all that Miles rails against sci-fi people, he blatantly is one. In all of his work it’s the big ideas he cares about. Which, fine. I mean, I’m not going to knock it, being, by any reasonable definition, a bit of a sci-fi person myself. But it remains the case: Lawrence Miles cares about big, cool ideas. It comes through in every review, every novel, everything. So why does he declare that he hates sci-fi people? Well, mainly because he isn’t quite one. Yes, he’s got all the trappings, but there’s one teensy detail: he doesn’t like science fiction very much, and prefers magical realism.
So what we have is a writer who acts like a sci-fi person in every significant sense, except that he happens to be really attracted to magical realist ideas instead of sci-fi ones. And he’s attracted to them in a very fundamental, abiding sense such that he builds vast metaphorical labyrinths that rival the vast expanses of ideas that one could find in golden age sci-fi, except they’re built out of symbols and magic. But at the end of the day… he has the same relationship to cool magical realist concepts that Ian Levine does to references to the Troughton era.
This is, in a nutshell, what reading The Book of the World is like. It’s not that the book doesn’t have good ideas. The idea that the Earth was stolen and hidden as a book, or of the TARDIS turning into books is… astonishing. It’s a fantastic idea, and would make for an amazing episode. Nor is it that the storytelling is off. The decision to introduce the Doctor the way they do is marvelous. The gimmick of him counting how many times people have said various things to him is cute, and pays off marvelously when he gets to look at a character and just say “one.” But…
It’s a mystery with no payoff, which, fine, that’s what first episodes are, but let’s look back at the long list of times in which Lawrence Miles has actually paid off one of his high concept plot threads. Which is to say that Miles doesn’t exactly have anything you could call a stockpile of good will that makes unexplained mysteries seem viable from him. And, of course, it’s unfilmable. Miles has fallen into the trap of believing that CGI is free, and so writes a script with jaw-dropping visual excesses that are almost as bad as the infamous “night shoot of Wembley Stadium full of cats” script that caused The Invasion of Time to get made. The plot is Doctor Who by Numbers in a way that not even Mark Gatiss scripts usually manage.
But the biggest problem isn’t any of that. It’s that there’s nothing to it beyond the ideas. Lawrence Miles, by all appearances, seems to think that the heart and soul of Doctor Who is nothing more than really cool ideas and a vaguely anti-authoritarian bent. There are no character arcs here. The two proposed companions are the heights of blandness. Note in particular the mystery surrounding Marissa. Now, as someone who is thoroughly non-bothered by Clara I’m certainly not going to complain about a character who is, in effect, Generic Companion only with a mystery. But at least with Clara the mystery is very explicitly “who is she.” With Marissa? “What planet is she from” and “what species is she?” The difference is subtle, but marked. Miles’s script ultimately thinks having a cool idea is sufficient, and doesn’t care about piddly little things like character drama.
None of this would have been surprising in 2003. But in 2007 it’s bizarre, simply because it’s a rejection of so much of what demonstrably worked in favor of what didn’t. I mean, we’re still early days in the new series, and I’ve not really gotten around to a post where I just talk about character arcs and emotional storytelling and why it’s so brilliant, but can we at least take as by this point read that one of the central tenets of the Davies era is the realization that you can use sci-fi flavoring to merge together wildly different things so that, for instance, you get an action-adventure soap or a costume drama zombie flick, yes? That is, part of what Doctor Who did that was so utterly transformative was realizing that you could do the emotional drama sort of storytelling that was dominating absolutely every other sort of television imaginable by 2005 in sci-fi, or, at least, in Doctor Who.
And so it’s tempting to throw Miles onto the same pile as far too many idiots on message boards who genuinely believe that the secret to Doctor Who’s success (because, of course, a show that’s reliably in the top ten programs for the week needs help succeeding) would be if it would just act more like it were still the 1970s. But that’s not quite fair either. And there’s plenty of time in the next year or so to talk about those sorts of people. So let’s stick with Lawrence Miles in his sublime weirdness.
Because the thing we have to remember is that the “sci-fi people” approach isn’t bad in some absolute sense. The golden age of science fiction happened and was terribly important. There really was a period where Quatermass and The Space Museum were legitimate mainstream entertainment. Yes, that time is in the past, but it happened. The obsession with ideas for their own sake had a period of real creative relevance, and it coincided with a set of specific historical concerns. And what we have in Lawrence Miles is something of a one-man movement to create a golden age of magical realism – a period where the manipulation of symbols and culture is to be considered as important and seriously as rocket ships were in the 1960s. And, to boot, he was going to do it with Doctor Who.
He was wrong. Spectacularly so. But for reasons too obvious to mention, it’s a project I have more than a small measure of sympathy for. One that was not so much misguided as too weird and paired with someone too difficult to work with for massive success. This doesn’t erase its value – the fact of the matter is that Lawrence Miles is by some margin the most consistently interesting detractor of the new series, and his ideas for Doctor Who remain fascinating. The Book of the World is a lovely read. So is Faction Paradox. Really, you’re cheating yourself if you don’t read his stuff – I can’t imagine many people who like this blog who wouldn’t love Miles’s work.
But this is where his influence on the story ends, and thus where we’ll leave him – if only because he’s so quick to delete his comments on Doctor Who these days that it seems rude to analyze them at great length after this. He doesn’t want to be part of Doctor Who’s story anymore. So we’ll leave him out of it from here.
But let’s be clear. We are not leaving him in any sort of failure or ignominy. No, no. Lawrence Miles gets the proper send-off; the farewell to one of Doctor Who’s great minds. Because he had a vision of Doctor Who that still fascinates, even if it does not consistently appeal. Because there was never anyone like him before, and will never be again. Because, in his own way, he was closer to the spirit of David Whitaker than anyone else who ever wrote for Doctor Who. And because even though he’s staggeringly, epically wrong about what successful Doctor Who in the 21st century would look like, even in his wrongness he remains impeccably fascinating.
So farewell Lawrence Miles. You were Doctor Who’s greatest weirdo.
May 8, 2013 @ 12:50 am
I just wish Miles would take the energy he puts into attacking Moffat and channel it into producing something new and creative. It's a shame that someone with such fantastic ideas seems to only see them in terms of how he would have made Doctor Who given the chance.
May 8, 2013 @ 12:54 am
The problem is, apparently, that there are no publishers who are willing to offer him an advance to write the kind of thing he wants to write. He was saying in 2010 that his writing career was over, for that reason.
I thought his Bestiary Of Sherlock Holmes blog showed a lot of promise, but he only got as far with that as the first story, sadly…
May 8, 2013 @ 12:59 am
Great post Phil – and I do like your send-off of him. His blog is worth a read, especially the wonderful sidebar that just cracks me up!
May 8, 2013 @ 1:47 am
Does he really put so much energy into attacking Moffat? It's, what, a blog post every few months if that, plus the odd humorous caption?
May 8, 2013 @ 1:50 am
I have been searching for a copy of that script, asking all over the internet, and most people who used to have a copy years ago have long since lost it. I have never read it, sadly.
If anyone here would be so gracious as to email me a copy, I would be extremely grateful!
My copy of "This Town Will Never Let Us Go" Is in the mail right now, your blog has made me interested in reading a spinoff of a spinoff, and that in itself is something incredible. I wish Miles would stop sitting around and start using his creativity to write something else again… But alas, that seems fated not to be for some time.
May 8, 2013 @ 1:53 am
You'd need to provide your email address before anyone could send you a copy…
Youth of Australia
May 8, 2013 @ 1:56 am
For all of the attacks on Moffat, I found quite a bit of his stuff nicked for TBOTW – the running gag about the Doctor counting people saying things is right from Deadline, a season one episode of Press Gang.
TBOTW rubbed me up the wrong way. Everyone is unpleasant, stupid and there are huge lapses in logic – why aren't there any safety rails in library? Why does the Duenna want to change the universe and why does she have a nervous breakdown at the slightest obstacle? Why is the villain clearly Alexei Sayle playing one of the Balowski Family? And having a bunch of blind, mute, brainless villains prove so much of a threat the Doctor has to summon the ancient gods to stop them because he's not smart or brave enough to do it himself…
We missed nothing.
May 8, 2013 @ 2:04 am
May 8, 2013 @ 2:33 am
Quite a ways back David Gerrold commented that Star Trek is not science-fiction.. it is science-fantasy.
May 8, 2013 @ 3:11 am
I'm not saying that publisher's aren't to blame for his lack of success, but Miles does seem to have a habit of blaming everyone but himself.
After all I'm sure Obverse wouldn't mind him writing for them…
May 8, 2013 @ 3:14 am
Well the Orignal series was more or less, or how would you explain the crew meeting Apollo.
All of which is ironic as Star Trek really defined the model of what most people think of as Sci-Fi these days.
May 8, 2013 @ 3:28 am
Obverse would dearly love to have him write for them. Obverse also, however, are a very small press who don't pay large advances.
It seems entirely possible to me that there are no publishers out there who will pay Miles enough of an advance to cover his living costs while writing the books, and that Miles won't write a novel without being paid upfront. That's sad but entirely plausible, given that his fame, such as it is, is in a niche within a niche within a niche.
May 8, 2013 @ 4:48 am
The idea of the Library was nicked from Moffat's "Continuity Errors" and stealing the Earth goes all the way back to Trial of a Time Lord… as such I found it less original than anything Miles accused Moffat of doing. And Phil's right, there's not an emotional beat to be had in the whole story — the characters are more one-dimensional than a Pertwee story.
Unfortunately this was the first work by Miles that I ever read, which means it's likely the last I'll ever read as well.
May 8, 2013 @ 4:59 am
I admit, I'm a 'sci-fi person' in Our Host's definition. (Although a real old-time fan would probably call it 'SF person' just because 'sci-fi' still stands for all of the rubbish that uses 'parsec' as a unit of time. 🙂 ) Admit? Heck, I'm proud of it. I like stories about Big Ideas that are well-thought-through, and don't just sort of gibber off into nothing when you start examining their implications.
Which gets back, in a way, to a criticism of the new series that I raised a couple of posts ago but wanted to save for Dalek. I'll probably touch on it again when we do Aliens of London. In short 45 minute stories, the room to explore ideas and look at implications is severely restricted.
May 8, 2013 @ 5:13 am
I found quite a bit of his stuff nicked for TBOTW – the running gag about the Doctor counting people saying things is right from Deadline, a season one episode of Press Gang.
Nicked might be over-stating it; I used the exact same conceit in a story back in 2002 without ever seeing Press Gang. So, you know, clearly not the kind of idea that's so cool only one person would come up with. But not necessarily lifed.
May 8, 2013 @ 5:20 am
The idea of the library was only 'nicked from Moffat's "Continuity Errors"' if you think nobody had ever had the idea of a really, really big library before that — just off the top of my head there's Borges' Library of Babel and L-Space in the Pratchett books. It's a common theme in magic realist and fantasy works.
As for "less original than anything Miles accused Moffat of doing" — you should really read Miles' Alien Bodies and then reconsider that. A fairly good summary of Alien Bodies from an old post on Gallifrey Base around the time of The Big Bang/The Pandorica Opens:
"Underneath an ancient Earth monument is a relic – in reality the Doctor – coveted by every race in the universe. As the Doctor races to understand what it is, mighty battlefleets approach. Someone from the Doctor's future is hanging around, but we never get to learn exactly what they know because of spoilers. We do know that the Doctor is a survivor from an epic Time War, though.
Meanwhile, everything we think we know about the feisty young companion (who has the hots for our hero) is turned on its head as we find out that she's been part of the set up."
Or as Millennium Dome said in his review of The Time Of Angels:
"Ah, the Book of the War again, the gift that never stops giving for a magpie genius of the likes of Moffat. He should read it, he'd find all sorts of things.
For example, conceptual beings, beings that exist as living ideas, interacting with other life forms by influencing their perceptions. One particular breed are the "anarchitects", beings that inhabit buildings, structures, statues or rather the idea of buildings and so on and make us think they are moving by altering the way we think about our surroundings. Just think what Moffat could make of an idea like that."
Then there's the whole "Doctor disposing of his own future corpse so that its secrets can't be used by his enemies" thing, which Moffat used in The Impossible Astronaut and which comes from Alien Bodies.
If Miles using the idea of a planet-sized library is unoriginal, then Moffat's strip-mining of Alien Bodies for every idea in his scripts in series five and six that wasn't taken from By His Bootstraps or The Time-Traveller's Wife is outright plagiarism, frankly.
As Teatime Brutality said:
"And that’s reinforced by how funny it is that Telly Doctor Who went from a Great Mister whose favourite EDA was The Scarlet Empress to a Great Mister whose favourite EDA was Alien Bodies. Funny in that the ‘rule’ with the novels was that Magrs books came after Miles books. The Blue Angel follows Interference. Mad Dogs and Englishmen follows The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. But it’s the other way round on telly. The “Yeah, it makes sense that he’s a Magrs fan once you know” showrunner comes before the “Obvious he’s a Miles fan because he’s a shit version of Miles” showrunner."
May 8, 2013 @ 6:17 am
If I could get a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org I would appreciate it. I've spent an hour poking around looking for this and I really have had no luck.
I managed to snag mint copies of Down and Christmas on a Rational Planet at my FLGS last night…and only had to pay cover price for them.
May 8, 2013 @ 6:25 am
May 8, 2013 @ 6:41 am
Here's a download link for all of you wanting a copy. I hope it's OK for me to post this:
May 8, 2013 @ 7:04 am
All I really remember was reading this, loving this, and then having it thoroughly ruin Silence in the Library for me by actually using the concept of a library as part of the story and not just background. Silence in the Library is a good episode, and has great moments- but it's forever ruined for me as the lesser of two stories we could have gotten.
May 8, 2013 @ 7:13 am
The Star Trek version of Apollo got his powers from a phaser-vulnerable gadget, though.
"Throughout the years I have made my position clear about the decline of science fiction. The science fiction now in existence is no longer “science.” Usually the material consists of fairy tales." — Hugo Gernsback, 1960
May 8, 2013 @ 7:18 am
May 8, 2013 @ 7:21 am
Sorry Andrew, I should have clarified, "less original than anything Miles accused Moffat of doing with Silence in the Library, the genius of which resides not in the Big Ideas but in the emotionally resonant storytelling." Of course Miles's influence on Moffat's run is obvious, but then Doctor Who across all eras has borrowed liberally from both popular and cult sources.
Still not interested in reading any more Miles, because my primary interest in storytelling these days is in character-driven emotionally resonant work, and I found zero evidence of that in Miles's script. And while I think RTD is actually better at this sort of writing than Moffat, that in no way means I think Moffat's a slouch at delivering the feels.
So, I guess, until I hear from Miles's camp something approaching value and appreciation for this kind of storytelling, and anything towards Moffat that's not dripping with bile, I'm probably gonna stay away from his stuff.
Because, frankly, I think it's the bile more than anything else I find off-putting. To put this in alchemical terms, I'm not that good at mixing Red Elixir, that transformative substance that can turn base metals to gold. I'm much more comfortable with the White Elixir that makes silver — which is to say, I'm very much a mirror-person. I react to bile with bile, just like I react to love with love. Miles' bile puts me off, his script put me off, and in general I find the arguments of his most avid supporters off-putting, despite the fact that I like many of his supporters.
But I will try. Let's see if I can make a red elixir that's not a crimson horror. (Damn Sandifer and his generosity of spirit!)
To get back to the point Phil was making it's character arcs, emotional storytelling, and witty dialogue that's made Doctor Who a popular success; the age of brilliant SF ideas carrying a franchise are over. But, and this is an important but, these aren't mutually exclusive properties. So any time we can marry the weird inventiveness of someone like Miles to the emotional sensibilities of a Davies and the sharp storytelling of a Moffat, well, that's a wedding to celebrate, isn't it?
The thing is to get the egos out of the way. It's the egos that generate the bile, that turn the elixir into poison. Which is hard. Really hard. It's hard not to look at the face of the person creating the work, whether it's Miles sulking in his tiny cupboard of the universe or Moffat smugly mugging his way through another (necessary) promotion of the greatest show on earth. But we have to. Just like we have to get our own egos out of the way to get on with the great work.
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May 8, 2013 @ 7:21 am
I tried to read TBOTW when Miles first put it out, and I'm afraid I didn't get very far. It was simply incompetent as a piece of drama writing, to the point of being painful. Which was a great disappointment, as I was and remain a massive fan of Miles's prose.
It's not just at a technical level that the script would work better as a prose story than as TV drama. It's also at the conceptual level.
The Earth being stolen and hidden in a book is a fine idea – for a book. For a TV show, the Earth should be stolen and hidden in a TV show.
Say what you like about Silence in the Library, at least it gets that bit right.
May 8, 2013 @ 7:23 am
Try Dead Romance. You may well like it. If you do, wonderful, try more of Miles's stuff. If you don't, stop.
May 8, 2013 @ 7:49 am
Jane — see, that I can accept, though I've never actually watched Silence In The Library, I can certainly believe that it's better than The Book Of The World, which is far from Miles' best work. And most of what you say there I can go with, too.
Miles definitely is capable of character-driven storytelling — as Iain says, Dead Romance is very much driven by characters rather than by 'big ideas' or plot.
(And indeed Miles does have an appreciation for character-driven storytelling — one of his biggest problems with post-2005 Who is that he thinks Who should be 'proper drama' and have more in common with I, Claudius than with Star Trek).
And I definitely agree with you about the 'not mutually exclusive' bit. What I would say though is that none of those styles, either, are necessarily superior to each other, even taken in isolation. I, Claudius is a magnificent piece of work, even without any 'big ideas', but Greg Egan's Orthogonal trilogy (which is a trilogy of SF novels based around rigorously extrapolating the physics of a universe with a different geometry to ours, and has no human characters at all) is also a magnificent piece of work.
I do hope, incidentally, that you don't consider me to be one of Miles' bile-filled supporters, because I agree with you about the egos.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:02 am
I just want to third this- you seem really determined to dislike Miles Jane, which I find disheartening. I really do think that you'd like Dead Romance- it's character driven, it thrives on mirroring, and it's essentially a story of how the large and epic effect one woman's life. Told through a very vivid, very human, narrator.
I also would caution you against getting Miles' attacks on Moffat intertwined with him as a person. Yes, he did go down a dark, bile filled road after about 2008. But that shouldn't take away from the fact that he did wonderful things before that. But please check out Dead Romance, you'd really like it.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:04 am
But the Library in Silence of the Library is more than just background — it's the central metaphor of the work! It advances the Library concept by making it into an evangelium, and in so doing establishes the closest thing to a religion or spirituality an atheist can have. We're all stories in the end, and the Library is the final resting place of every story in the Universe. And we will be saved, because the Little Girl will save everyone without judgment. (She, not the Doctor, is the true hero of the story.)
Sorry, but that's far more beautiful than anything in Book of the War.
And it's not like I'm saying this is a particularly "original" idea. The idea of a mystical library isn't new in Western Occultism — the Akashic Records of theosophy, for example, or the Book of Life in the JudeoChristian tradition. Nor is the idea of the Universal Library brand new in genre fiction, as Andrew Hickey points out.
Silence in the Library plucks the jewel of the idea, polishes the sharpest facet (death), and puts it in the lotus flower of a character-driven emotional story. It smashes different genres together, which is what Doctor Who does best. This particular fusion weds the magical realism of Borges, the esoteric SF of Philip K Dick, and the emotional sensibility of Audrey Niffenegger. In this respect it's much a "library" insofar as it pulls from so many books!
In one respect you're right — a metaphor isn't the same as a literal. Silence in the Library isn't really about libraries, it's about life and death, and it uses our familiarity with books and libraries to explore those larger concerns. End in the end, though, I really can't fault it for that.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:35 am
there are no publishers out there who will pay Miles enough of an advance to cover his living costs while writing the books,
Has he tried Kickstarter?
May 8, 2013 @ 8:40 am
there's Borges' Library of Babel and L-Space in the Pratchett books
As well as, mutatis mutandis, Dickson's "Final Encyclopedia." Though the mutandis are important.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:49 am
But the boundaries aren't set in stone. Genres aren't defined by a set of necessary conditions; they're more often defined by a (hard to alter, though not necessarily unalterable) cluster of core cases, and other cases get included based on relations of similarity and/or genealogy to the core cases.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:57 am
Gerrold was right. That's why he walked off Star Trek: The Next Generation at the end of the first season. Well, that and Roddenberry being basically insufferable to work with.
Which is a damn shame. I wish he'd stayed around to meet Michael Piller and Ron Moore.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:03 am
I'm looking forward to the discussion of character drama, especially as I, like Miles, actually find it a bit overvalued as well. At least as a fiction writer: I can definitely appreciate it done well as a critic, though I'm not terribly fond of the fixation on arc-based character development prevalent in modern TV.
I like character moments when they come generatively out of the setting and in smaller, more intimate and resonant moments weaved throughout a show's other events and ideas. Doing a big Myth Arc about unrequited love or drug addiction or growing up tends to turn me off.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:16 am
Season 1… grrrr, gnash…
May 8, 2013 @ 9:21 am
He did go on to explain his reasoning, which I can't actually remember fully. I don't have a problem with his comment, mind you – proper hard science fiction may not be able to be something that could sustain a weekly TV show with regular protaganists. So you need contrivances like warp drive so that the crew of the Enterprise still remains in the same setup they were in when they started their journey, as opposed to the situation that the characters of 'The Forever War' find themselves in every time they go out into space.
That said, who remembers 'Star Cops', which tried to be less fictiony, more sciencey? (as I recently saw it, enjoyed it, and regretted the absence of any more of it).
May 8, 2013 @ 9:24 am
And the idea of people 'encapsulated' in books is part of the Read or Die light novel/anime series circa 2000-2003, so there's that.
Also… while I understand the people who urge taking Miles' work apart from his diatribes, I completely understand and sympathize with those who can't separate the two. I enjoyed Orson Scott Card's early work, before I knew much about him; going back now, after finding out about his homophobia and associated zealotry, I'm not sure I could stand to read it.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:28 am
There is a huge, huge difference, though, between urging armed revolt against the US government for not banning same-sex marriage, and making mildly rude remarks about someone you don't get on with any more…
May 8, 2013 @ 9:31 am
I can enjoy character drama to some degree, but I have to agree that it's grown to dominate to an unhealthy extent. And agree completely with the liking for character moments that develop naturally out of the action, as opposed to structuring the action to force character development.
As I said above, I do consider myself to be part of the Old Guard, as it were. A good story has to have a plot and ideas, in addition to character; stories where plot and ideas are completely subservient to the character development are as unsatisfying to me as stories based entirely on ideas are unsatisfying to character fans.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:36 am
Well, yes. But I wouldn't characterize Miles that way, either. I used to read his blog on occasion; but his style of vicious, hyperbolic argument (and even insult) finally turned me off completely. 'Mildly rude' doesn't cover it, sorry; he goes full-bore nasty far too often for me to like him.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:43 am
Agreed, many thanks.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:49 am
The thing is, Gernsback isn't the one who gets to define it. He came about well after the people who did.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:53 am
I was going to make a nitpicky comment on one aspect of this essay, but it kind of grew out into its own essay, so:
May 8, 2013 @ 10:11 am
proper hard science fiction may not be able to be something that could sustain a weekly TV show with regular protaganists
I don't know — Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books are pretty hard sf, but also character-driven, and I can imagine them as a tv series in the same league as West Wing or Mad Men or CSI.
May 8, 2013 @ 10:21 am
There are some folks these days who deny that Verne was a science fiction writer. I grump about them here and here.
May 8, 2013 @ 10:25 am
Well, they would more be mini series, no? Hard sci fi would be easier to achieve with mini series or anthology shows, I think. Of course, the Mars books don't have any exotic technology like FTL travel, so I suppose one could make a series from them with the Mars setting… I should go back and read past the first Mars book, though, before saying anything else, because even that reading was a long time ago – I found KSR's more recent eco-disaster books a drudge to get through, so have avoided him for a while.
May 8, 2013 @ 10:31 am
And some more thoughts on Verne here and here.
May 8, 2013 @ 10:36 am
No! I shall not have this slogging of of the first season! Is it great? Not at all. It's unbelievably flawed and given the behind the scenes turmoil it's a miracle TNG even got a second and third season. But the groundwork for the great show it becomes is laid here: Check out "Where No One Has Gone Before", "The Big Goodbye" and the eery, unsettling story arc woven through "Coming of Age" and "Conspiracy" that first showed us all was not well in Starfleet's San Fransisco Garden of Eden. There are also a few underrated hidden gems like "The Arsenal of Freedom", which is practically Douglas Adams material, and "Symbiosis", whose critique of Big Pharma resonates better today than it did in 1987-8.
TNG was capable of doing things in its first season it was never able to do again, a consequence of the uncertain experimentation that defined it at this point in its history. I'm also of the mind killing Tasha Yar/forcing Denise Crosby out was a mortal, self-inflicted wound on the show's philosophical and ethical core that perfectly symbolized its ultimate inability to quite take its premise to the logical limit.
Yes, TNG gets infinitely better once Roddenberry is exorcised from it, but the first season is also the year that set the course for the show it becomes, for better and worse.
May 8, 2013 @ 11:07 am
Star Cops is great, though let down by some production decisions.
My top tip for Star Cops is to watch the first episode, then immediately rewatch it with Chris Boucher's DVD commentary. He is so fucking Eeyorish, it's hilarious. It starts something like this:
COMMENTARY (OVER THEME MUSIC) Hello, I'm Chris Boucher, I wrote this show, and here's the first thing I don't like about it.
And just wait till he gets going on the subject of booths.
With a little bit more love from the BBC. Star Cops could have been the one hard SF show that succeeded. Unfortunately, I think the time has passed for popular hard SF. It's tied to a Werner von Braun, White Men in Space vision of the future, and nobody but a handful of ideologues believes in that any more.
May 8, 2013 @ 11:24 am
I am reminded of these two excellent Cracked articles:
The 5 Most Ingenious Worlds Ever Invented by Science Fiction
The 4 Types of TV Show That Need To Go Away
May 8, 2013 @ 11:44 am
I'm a big advocate for season 1 of ST:TNG. In the essay above, Phil talks about the difference between sf as a literature of ideas, and sf as a collection of images and tropes. Most of Star Trek occupies the latter space, but – gloriously! – season 1 of TNG lies very firmly within the former. However unlike most golden age style sf, it mostly doesn't explore scientific or technical ideas – it's speculations are primarily sociological. It takes Roddenberry's utopian social ideas seriously, and attempts to show how such a society might work by juxtaposing it against other, often very sharply drawn, social systems (such as the matriarchal, honour based society in the much derided, but actually rather wonderful, "Code of Honor"). Most fascinatingly, it's open about the fact that Star Trek's future isn't a capitalist one, and it's happy (most notably with its portrayal of the Ferengi, and in stories like "Symbiosis") to show capitalism in a bad light. Later seasons of TNG retreat from and weaken this agenda, but in its early pure form it's rather fantastic.
May 8, 2013 @ 11:54 am
I mostly agree here-I think Star Trek: The Next Generation and early Deep Space Nine were quite sociological on the whole, though TNG was always a bit more tentative about dealing with this then the first season was hinting towards (most notably in the the direction it wound up going with the Borg and the slightly irritating number of logic puzzle plots in seasons six and seven). I do really appreciate the direction the show went in later years though, and actually do prefer it and think it's just as much a collection of images and tropes in its own way: I just wish they'd been able to blend it with the experimental zeal of year one. And kept Tasha Yar.
And you're a very, very brave person for trying to defend "Code of Honor". I'd just like to go on record and say that's all on you 🙂
May 8, 2013 @ 12:06 pm
Also, as Nick says, season one sees TNG at its most flagrantly radical: You won't see the anti-captialist screeds of "The Last Outpost", "Symbiosis" and "The Neutral Zone" in later Star Trek (or at least not in the same form), and even "Encounter at Farpoint" was far bolder and more leftist than people give it credit for being. Once the show settles in and its production team stabilizes around "The Wounded" in season four it finds new ways to be radical and Deep Space Nine picks up this thread, but Ira Behr sort of throws that good will out the window by derailing the show's premise with his sloppy handling of the Dominion War arc IMO.
And also there's Voyager, which we don't talk about.
May 8, 2013 @ 12:10 pm
Further nitpicky comment following on from Ununnilium:
as I said the last time this came up, if Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed aren't science fiction, what are they?
Other works that seem to qualify as sf but don't fit the men with blasters and slide rules solving problems model: The Sparrow; Helliconia; The Drowned World; A Canticle for Leibowitz; Last and First Men; and last but not least, 1984.
(It's arguable that none of the last three have more than minimal attempt at writing characters, but that's not because they've got men with slide rules instead.)
May 8, 2013 @ 1:18 pm
Aaand more thanks over here!
May 8, 2013 @ 2:19 pm
A lovely reply, Ununnilium.
I think Phil's take is still more or less valid, insofar as it reflects the mainstream's view of SF. Of course we all know it's a lot more than technological gimcracky and sciency stuffs bent to the future, but that was largely the perception of SF in the previous century. Verne's Journey was all about a scientific exploration of the Earth's interior, Wells' time machine is technological and provides a view of the future, and Shelley's monster is of course brought to life through the marvelous discovery of electricity.
Even a quick leaf through David's list below reveals interplanetary expansion, androids, alien words, a post-apocalyptic future — these are all firmly the markers of the SF genre, regardless of their literary merit.
In general, though, SF as a genre was expected to adhere to some kind of scientific perspective, to explore some kind of interesting concept or idea in a way that at the very least paid lip service to some kind of scientific method, and that's significantly changed since Star Wars.
Star Wars changed the name of the game — crucially, the genre was no longer expected to explore sciencey stuffs, and more importantly, no longer expected to promote a materialist/realist philosophy. With the popularization of The Force, the genre became a ground for "fairy tales" — or better yet, Myth — and accepted not for any particular philosophy, or adherence to certain genre conventions, but for the gloss, the iconography. We don't need to know anything about the scientific underpinnings of the Death Star, we just need to know it's an Evil Moon of Technology that will Destroy the World. We want to Blow It Up.
Again, this is how SF looks on the outside — it's much bigger on the inside, as you eloquently inscribed.
When talking about Doctor Who, we can honestly say that it is SF — and with 100% equal honesty, we can honestly say it isn't. That's because there's more than one perspective that holds when it comes to the genre. It looks like SF, so it "is" SF, because SF today is so much about iconography, at least in the mainstream, which is where Who currently resides. And it "is not" SF because it really hasn't been concerned with science or a philosophy of materialism/realism in many decades.
If anything, Who is most interested in exploring that paradox of being and not being at the same time. Surely this is the most alchemical marriage around?
May 8, 2013 @ 2:47 pm
Okay, I'll put Dead Romance on my list. I might not get to it for a while, but y'all make it sound appealing, and I can't pass by any opportunities for the eucatastrophe of a Second Chance.
Andrew: no, I don't see you spewing bile, but you're certainly a vociferous Miles supporter and I'd be wary of coming across biliously when tossing words like "plagiarism" in the direction of any professional writer. (Likewise, I have to be wary of coming across smugly — such is the nature of associativity!)
In particular, the quotes you've selected, while not your words, represent an attitude that's rather acrimonious. I'm not sure it's actually reflective of your position — I think you're personally motivated to defend Miles rather than attack Moffat, which are really two different things.
Travis: I think there's an important distinction to make between Miles and Card. My reluctance to engage Miles has everything to do with being put off by his ego, his style of critique, and his interpersonal relations as evidenced by his online presence. And that reluctance is very strong!
But Card is a completely different ballgame, because he's actively promoting the most vile of philosophies, in the realm of real-world politics, and his writing all the way back to Ender's Game reflects that despicable mythology. For all my qualms with Miles, the sphere of personal, intimate hatred is nothing compared to the sphere of deliberate, systematic hatred. Yes, they both engage in hate speech, but that's about where the similarities end.
I really don't expect to find an undercurrent of hate in Miles's "wilderness" prose," nothing like the pseudo-justification for an appalling reactionary conceptual framework engineered into Card's work.
May 8, 2013 @ 2:49 pm
He did go on to explain his reasoning, which I can't actually remember fully. I don't have a problem with his comment, mind you – proper hard science fiction may not be able to be something that could sustain a weekly TV show with regular protaganists.
I dunno. I think hard SF on TV could work, but it'd have to be more near-future than Star Trek. Of course, "hardness" isn't really linked to science-fiction-ness.
Unfortunately, I think the time has passed for popular hard SF. It's tied to a Werner von Braun, White Men in Space vision of the future, and nobody but a handful of ideologues believes in that any more.
Socially realist hard SF exists. Heck, check out Moon, namechecked in the entry by Dr. Sandifer. Wonderful stuff.
May 8, 2013 @ 2:50 pm
I would argue that the best way to understand genre is by way of the cladistic model, which I'm shamelessly stealing from evolutionary biology. In this model, the criterion for grouping entities is not shared features (which runs into the problem that, for instance, 1984 and Star Wars have virtually no shared features that are not also shared with non-sf literature) but common ancestry.
I would therefore argue that it's a mistake to try to define science fiction as being a particular mode of exploring ideas (mostly because that would make O. Henry a science fiction author) or as a particular set of signifiers (because there is very good science fiction that doesn't have spaceships or time machines or robots). Rather, I would argue that the science fiction genre is a set of texts which have as their primary influences the ur-science fiction texts (Wells, Verne, et al), plus the texts which have those texts as their primary influences, etc. As a fun side effect, this allows us to watch the formation of subgenres around particular influential texts.
At least, that's what I'd argue in my less cynical moods. In more cynical moods, I'd argue that genre is a marketing tool invented by publishers as a primitive precursor to Amazon's "Customers who bought this also bought…" and science fiction is whatever Barnes and Noble shelves in the science fiction section.
May 8, 2013 @ 3:04 pm
@Berserk: "I don't know — Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books are pretty hard sf, but also character-driven, and I can imagine them as a tv series in the same league as West Wing or Mad Men or CSI."
It's the character-driven story telling the rules the roost in scripted drama these days. And sure, Red Mars could work as a TV series, as long as it's got compelling characters whose stories can parse out episodically. It's the same for Game of Thrones on HBO — it's firmly in the fantasy genre, but it gets all the love for its characters. Look at most reviews, and those reviews will break down the stories by character.
Again, this is the big lesson Doctor Who's been running with since Davies brought it back. You can do just about anything, tell just about any kind of story, as long as you've got compelling characters. And what makes characters most compelling are their internal conflicts, when they're forced to choose between their needs.
That's what makes the Doctor so fascinating — he needs to be free, he needs to explore, and of course he needs to survive, but he also needs to see justice done, and at his best, to uphold a semblance of dignity for all sentient life. When these needs conflict, there's the juice driving the story.
So a Mars series could do just that — the need to survive explored through the terraforming and sciencey sciences, couple with the need to live together, to build community, justice, and of course vie for power — and I expect those other concerns would likely take precedence for a successful show, because those are the needs most people actually have to grapple with in this day and age.
In the end, doesn't this just belabor Phil's point, that SF boils down to a gloss, an iconography?
May 8, 2013 @ 3:04 pm
I should note, one major difference between this and cladistics is that in cladistics species generally only diverge, while a given work of fiction can have many influences. That just means that while an organism is only ever in one clade, a work of fiction can be in multiple genres at once.
Star Wars, for example, has strong influences from both the Buck Rogers style of pulp-adventure SF (which has a strong claim to being SF in this model, since it descends from Verne by way of the pulp magazines of the Golden Age) and post-LOTR Manichaean fantasy, so the correct answer to whether it is fantasy or science fiction is, "Yes." (That would also serve as the correct answer to whether it is crap.)
May 8, 2013 @ 3:13 pm
There are some folks these days who deny that Verne was a science fiction writer.
Augh. Yeah, the attempts to say "but anyone who's, y'know, a good writer couldn't possibly be writing science fiction!" are… unpleasant.
(Also: You write well about this!)
I think Phil's take is still more or less valid, insofar as it reflects the mainstream's view of SF.
Well, it probably represents the mainstream critical view of SF, but the audience – who, as is often true, has a very good feel for these things, even if they couldn't put it into coherent words if you paid them – has a pretty good intuitive understanding of it.
With the popularization of The Force, the genre became a ground for "fairy tales" — or better yet, Myth — and accepted not for any particular philosophy, or adherence to certain genre conventions, but for the gloss, the iconography.
Hrm. See, this was… kind of exactly what I was disagreeing with?
No, we don't need to know anything about the scientific underpinnings of the Death Star, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing that links it to the Foundation Trilogy or 2001: A Space Odyssey other than a coat of paint. (Heck, the Force is pretty much on the same level as the Monolith on that last one, isn't it?) And frankly, Star Wars has a pretty coherent ethical/political philosophy. Yes, it's a simple and kind of obvious one, but it's one that avoids the missteps of a lot of other attempts to take on similar issues.
It's really not the iconography that makes Star Wars science fiction. It's the ideas. And just because those ideas aren't thoroughly materialist doesn't make them not valid explorations of the possibilities of the universe.
May 8, 2013 @ 3:18 pm
Indeed. All of these center very much around ideas based in new technologies, undiscovered facts about the universe, and reasonable extrapolations into the future of our current society. I mean, heck, A Canticle for Liebowitz is itself the foundation of a major subgenre of SF, the post-apocalypse.
May 8, 2013 @ 3:30 pm
In more cynical moods, I'd argue that genre is a marketing tool invented by publishers as a primitive precursor to Amazon's "Customers who bought this also bought…" and science fiction is whatever Barnes and Noble shelves in the science fiction section.
You know, I've heard this many times, and it's never made sense to me. Genre, to me… it's been about finding similar stuff to the things I liked, yes, but it's also been about puzzling out why and how they're similar, so I can find stuff that really shares the aspects I like.
May 8, 2013 @ 3:41 pm
I don't remember if I've mentioned this here before, but not long ago, I started reading through a large repository of (mostly traditional) Science Fiction short stories, and it suddenly occurred to me (along with a bunch of other surprising revelations) that, structurally, the "classic" Sci-Fi story mould is actually not very much like narrative fiction. Structurally, classic science fiction follows the structure of a joke. There's a setup; details are included only insofar as the serve the ultimate point; characters are broad archetypes; and the story ends on a "punchline", where nothing in the story needs make any sense or have any real value except in light of the punchline.
I suspect this is why science fiction comedy is such a good fit.
May 8, 2013 @ 4:34 pm
Everything I need to know to understand Star Wars I learned from other genres. It's a mashup of war movies, westerns, and fantasy. It's dogfights, guns and swords and derring-do, an evil empire to fight, and a matter of believing in one's self.
Fighting the Evil Empire? War-movie logic. Infiltrate to find the blueprints/evil plans? War-movie logic. Blasting our way through stormtroopers and Tie Fighters? War-movie logic. The Death Star sequence is narratively the same as firing an arrow into the missing chink of armor on a big-ass dragon — the technological details of an energy bolt through the ventilation shaft mere window-dressing.
There's no lauding the inventor, and no heroism in discovering any underlying scientific truths. Star Wars is populated by characters from Westerns — with Han Solo as Clint Eastwood, and Luke Skywalker as Errol Flynn. Leia's the love interest, the robots are comic relief, Vader's the Black Hat — literally. Obi Wan isn't a scientist, he's a mystic.
I don't need to know a lick of science or science fiction to understand Star Wars at all. Certainly not Foundation or Space Odyssey! All of its "SF" ideas are a gloss in service to other well-established tropes.
It's quite different with Space Odyssey. The whole premise of the movie relies on our understanding of science and technology — and most importantly, the philosophy underpinning them. It's about the evolution of the species — no, wait, it's about the Space Program, and goes so far as to depict as realistically as possible what that is actually like. The choice to understand the monolith in the way that's laid out comes right out of a philosophy of scientific materialism. Yes, the Monolith and revelations thereupon serve to refute that philosophy, or at the very least to expose its limitations, or even come out the Other Side through them, but it's very much a concern of the story.
The same goes for Shelley's Frankenstein. The whole story is driven by scientific concerns, and the reaction against those scientific concerns. It's a warning against the hubris of scientific materialism, and the most crucial action — the monstrosity of the monster — arises because Frankenstein refuses to acknowledge the monster has a "spirit," refuses to love his creation, to really step into the role of God he carved out for himself. Frankenstein doesn't make sense without understanding Science and the concerns we have about scientism.
Crucially, this concern (whether it's pro-science or anti-science) is no longer necessary for a work to be considered "genre-SF." All it needs is that technological, futuristic gloss. And I love the gloss! I really do think that's all that's needed for a work to qualify as "SF", the Old Guard be damned.
Importantly, though, what made Star Wars such a hit was not the gloss. What made it a hit was its revelry in spectacle, and effectively delivering the narrative staples it borrowed from all those other spectacular genres.
May 8, 2013 @ 4:38 pm
I like this cladistic model. It explains the how and why of textual similarity, and it works across a variety of genres!
May 8, 2013 @ 5:00 pm
structurally, the "classic" Sci-Fi story mould is actually not very much like narrative fiction. Structurally, classic science fiction follows the structure of a joke.
A lot of Ray Bradbury's short stories are like that. Which is particularly interesting because even though they are totally of that golden age of science fiction, many of them have only a passing concern with the "science." Books like The Illustrated Man are much more fantasy-like, but are all about that "twist" at the end that you rarely see in narrative fiction.
Personally, I consider myself a SF fan, but not in terms of the obsession with world-building. I'm much more interested in how the characters interact with that world, especially from a sociological point of view. That's why I like dystopias and stories where the characters are in completely alien cultures like Ursula K. LeGuin.
May 8, 2013 @ 5:04 pm
While much more character-based, I'd also submit almost anything by Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five is all about the character's internal experience, but it also has time travel and aliens. It's questionable as to whether or not those are imagined, but it's the interplay between technology and reality that gives it the drama.
I think dystopias are a little more difficult because many of them aren't very "sciency" at all, unless you count social science (which I would as that's my background, but many SciFi fans wouldn't). For example, The Handmaid's Tale, which has consequences caused by environmental destruction, but is really about the society.
May 8, 2013 @ 5:12 pm
That reminds me of this really fantastic poster: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2011/03/14/interview_with_history_of_science_fiction_artist_ward_shelley.html I particularly enjoy finding all of my favorites and where he chooses to put them…
May 8, 2013 @ 5:34 pm
I gave KSR's Mars books as an example because they fully exploit both character-driven sf and scientific-idea-driven sf without sacrificing each to the other.
May 8, 2013 @ 5:38 pm
Star Wars changed the name of the game
How much does Star Wars introduce that wasn't already reasonably firmly implanted in pop culture by Flash Gordon and the like?
May 8, 2013 @ 5:44 pm
Not all early future-dystopia sf focuses crucially on technological developments. Brave New World does, but 1984 doesn't. (There are a couple of mild technological advances, viewscreens and such, but the book wouldn't be radically different without them.) Likewise for Iron Heel, Anthem, It Can't Happen Here, etc.
May 8, 2013 @ 5:45 pm
Ununnilium: Huh? Isn't that the same as my cynical take?
Thanks, jane! I'm sure someone somewhere beat me to it and worded it much more professionally, but I'm still pretty proud of coming up with it.
I do have some empirical backing for it. Nothing I've recorded in any formal way, but I've been watching webcomics since very nearly their inception and the process of genre formation has been what I would have expected with this model. For example, in the first half of this article I talk about the early development of the campaign comic from the original source work, to a more popular work heavily influenced by it, and from there through works influenced by that original: http://mlpomo.blogspot.com/2013/04/welcome-to-herd-friendship-is-dragons.html
Storiteller: If that poster is what I think it is, then I want. Unfortunately, clicking for the hi-res version gave me a 404 error. =(
May 8, 2013 @ 5:51 pm
exists =/= popular
I don't know, maybe I'm reading my own views into the general populace too much, but I think that your basic High Frontier Hard SF gained its popular power from the fact that it is what people expected the future to be. Nowadays, only a tiny fringe still believe in that. Could a populist TV drama sustain itself under these conditions? I doubt it.
It's much like Threads (or The Day After, if you really must) gained its power from the fact that we really did think this was something that could happen at any moment – and would happen, more than likely. With the Cold War safely over, Threads retains its quality but loses its popular potency. I wonder what an audience of under-30s would make of it today?
May 8, 2013 @ 6:02 pm
Obviously I should have picked an example other than Card. He was the most recent example I could recall for an author being called out for their personal behavior, but too strong of one.
Maybe John Ringo or Eric Flint would have been a better choice, except that Ringo appears to write a style I hate anyway, and the events were quite some time ago. (Both of them attracted my negative attention back in the rasfw days, for a highly confrontational chip-on-shoulder disputing style, combined with semi-personal ad hominum attacks.)
I think the larger point is still valid, though; while there is a certain value in trying to separate art from bad qualities of the artist, I can easily understand when people have trouble doing so.
May 8, 2013 @ 6:12 pm
The archive version still works: http://web.archive.org/web/20110312052854/http://scimaps.org/submissions/7-digital_libraries/maps/thumbs/024_LG.jpg
May 8, 2013 @ 6:25 pm
I admit this thread bothers me, especially the implication that all TV must be character-driven drama. Do I enjoy character-driven drama? Certainly! Is it the only kind of storytelling I enjoy? Not even slightly. Do I want it to be the only kind of programming on TV? Hell no.
I love a good character drama; I still remember Hill Street Blues with a lot of fondness. But I also love a good puzzle story. I love a good 'examine the implications of a Big Idea' story. I like a good smart (i.e. clever, witty instead of LCD) comedy. I even like a good adventure yarn.
That's something else I was trying to get at, in the post on sexuality in Who that never got finished. I enjoy different things at different times, based on my mood and my circumstances of the day. And I want to keep those options open, not have everything straitjacketed into one style of storytelling. (Monocultures are boring!) Sometimes I'm in the mood for character drama, and I'm glad that's available. But sometimes I am emphatically not in the mood for character drama, and then I really want there to be a show that focuses on something else instead.
Is this really that hard to understand? There's room for a whole spectrum of written work. There's room for many different styles of movie, even if one trend can often push everything else out of the spotlight for a while. So why the insistence that TV must be thus-and-so?
May 8, 2013 @ 6:29 pm
exists =/= popular
Yeah, but I was just rebutting the idea that hard SF is innately Ninteteen-Fifties Social Roles In Space. Popular is a different thing. I think you could make it popular, though, but you'd basically need someone of at least RTD-level skill, if not Lambert-level, who was really invested in the possibilities of the genre.
May 8, 2013 @ 6:58 pm
Structurally, classic science fiction follows the structure of a joke.
It's true – though I think that's part of being so based around short stories. When you have only a few thousand words to make your point in, the sting-in-the-tail is effective no matter the genre.
The Death Star sequence is narratively the same as firing an arrow into the missing chink of armor on a big-ass dragon — the technological details of an energy bolt through the ventilation shaft mere window-dressing.
Ah, but the thing is – this is a point that shows how science-fiction it is.
Simply, the "shoot the weak spot" thing isn't something that would be out of place in either a dragon attack or in a World War II bombing run. (Indeed, wasn't much of the dialogue from that scene taken from the classic movie The Dam Busters?) But the thing is – a dragon is a self-propelled force of destruction. The bombing run is targeting a piece of landscape. But you can't find anything in either genre that is both of those things, as the Death Star is. There's certainly nothing deployed in WWII that was big enough, and while you can stitch one together out of fantasy tropes – let's say, a floating island with a mage performing a ritual for a "blow up city" spell? – eventually you're realize that you're actually just putting a fantasy gloss on sci-fi tropes.
And really, that's the thing – yes, it takes influence from a lot of places, and no, many of those places aren't science fiction. But that doesn't make it not science fiction – not when it has so many characters, plot points, and aspects of setting that directly use science fiction ideas as the basis of their role in the story.
How much does Star Wars introduce that wasn't already reasonably firmly implanted in pop culture by Flash Gordon and the like?
May 8, 2013 @ 7:03 pm
Yeah, I'd say that both 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale are both definitely science fiction, despite being about extensions of social trends rather than technological ones.
May 8, 2013 @ 7:07 pm
Froborr: Well, what I'm saying is that a genre isn't just "people who liked X also like Y". It's that there's some specific common thread between X and Y that is a specific reason why you would like both – and that specific reason is the thing that defines the genre.
May 8, 2013 @ 7:10 pm
Have any of you ever read the unused Leigh Brackett script for Empire Strikes Back? My god, it's full of so many impressive ideas — as well it should be, seeing as how it was written by one of the gods of Golden Age sf. The whole sequence on the ice planet alone scared the living hell out of me just by reading it; it's the "base-under-siege" done BEST.
It also seemingly had a less manichean view of the Star Wars universe; oh, Darth Vader's still evil, but the dark side isn't external… it's you. It's all that's bad within you, the potentiality that could grow if you let it.
As a first draft, not everything is resolved satisfactorily (Han Solo has a rich stepfather he has to go off to see at the end), but my god, it's… well, it's not Lawrence Miles, it doesn't go THAT far, but… so much potential.
Not sure if it's online anymore, but I have a copy. 🙂
(Oh, and this was a great entry, Phil! This and the "Unquiet Dead" have me relieved; I was worried, there… 😉 )
May 8, 2013 @ 7:44 pm
This may be my favourite thing I've written about genre.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:06 pm
Oooh, Flash Gordon, good point. Fu Manchu meets Sword and Sorcery; all those battles with Flash and the monsters could just as well be Greek mythology. And it's all spectacle, just excuses for Flash to flash and flex his muscles. It's really just a glossy framework for bog-standard adventuring.
But there's a couple key differences. First of all, we have a scientist: the regular supporting character of Doctor Zharkov. He's an inventor, he builds the rocket ship that gets everyone to the planet Mongo, and while it's more likely that Flash will escape the weekly predicament through brute force or a timely intervention by Princess Aura, there are times Zharkov will provide a technological fix — a device to make you invisible, or a plot to blow up atomic reactors.
Because we have a scientist, we have the basis for a metaphorical relationship to the rest of society — and here, the science is firmly under the heel of empire, or at the beck and call of the Hero.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to the original point being made, there's historical context. Flash Gordon starts in the pulps, on the tail end of the adventure-mode that dominated SF — this is just before the ascendency of "hard SF" and its emphasis on Science and Ideas and solving puzzles with cleverness, which goes on to rule the roost until Star Wars comes along.
Importantly, both Flash Gordon and Star Wars achieved mainstream popularity because of their adherence to narrative tropes outside the rubric of "golden SF." The most successful SF is where it's subservient to other concerns. Doctor Zharkov SF — and better without Doctor Zharkov himself.
Again, I think Phil's larger point about how to understand Miles is pretty spot on, from what I can gather. With Miles we get stories are oriented around a Big Idea, and exploring that idea and its entailments in depth. That's the main point of his work, regardless of his magical-realist intentions. It's that idea-exploration that's one of the key narrative tropes pretty much exclusive to the SF genre, that isn't just gloss.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:27 pm
Part of the problem is you need to sell big idea TV to people. And it would be difficult considering the fact that people want and like character drama. Maybe a streaming service could do a series of miniseries, or something like that…but if you want a big show with great production values, good acting, and behind the scenes talent you need money. And money means networks, which means broad appeal.
May 8, 2013 @ 8:47 pm
@Uni: "And really, that's the thing – yes, it takes influence from a lot of places, and no, many of those places aren't science fiction. But that doesn't make it not science fiction – not when it has so many characters, plot points, and aspects of setting that directly use science fiction ideas as the basis of their role in the story."
I'm not saying that Star Wars is not science fiction. Simply the gloss of SF is sufficient — ray guns, aliens planets, robots, and a little bit jiggery-pokery.
But I think it's fair to say that its narrative tropes are firmly in the adventure traditions, as opposed to the "hard SF" tradition, the so-called "golden age." There aren't any scientists, and "science" isn't invoked. There's no big puzzle to solve — the narrative thrust of the story doesn't climax over the Death Star schematics, but over the adventure tropes. The big moments are when Luke finds his faith, when Han Solo returns to fight, when Obi Wan sacrifices himself to become a disembodied voice.
There's very little time spent on any technical or scientific details, and these are used simply to propel us to the next fight scene. To the next big thrill, the next big emotional. We don't care how the holographic messaging system works, we care about Princess Leia's message itself.
But you make a good point about how powerful the gloss is — it's a gloss, but it's by no means superficial. The thing about SF, which Doctor Who grasped so well, is that it thrives on fusion, on smashing together all kinds of other genres and ways of telling stories. It also lends itself to scale — the Death Star is impressive because it's a moon-sized Dragon that functions as an Enemy Base.
But I still insist that it's ultimately a gloss. This is why: it doesn't matter at all how the Death Star's weak spot works. It could have short-circuited the main computer, taken out the bridge, destabilized a fuel rod, cracked open a faulty structural support like an egg — the technical details don't change the actual story: All that matters is that Luke makes the shot, and we get a Big Explosion.
And again: this doesn't mean it's not SF. What it does is go to show that the "golden-age hard-sf" tropes are not the be-all end-all of science fiction. Which, really, the New Wave already did, the New Wave was never really a part of the mainstream. Star Wars was mainstream, it was big, and it showed — it proved — that the gloss of SF is powerful enough on its own to make something resoundingly SF, period.
If anything, it's the iconography of SF that wields the greatest power of all the things we associate with SF. Now how's that for a bit of magical realism?
May 8, 2013 @ 9:03 pm
Froborr I've never met someone I've disagreed with on as many things as I do with you, but still maintain respect and a powerful urge to continue discussing things we disagree on. You say things that other pele would get quite a tongue lashing for, but all I've got is "Jolly good or you. I don't agree, but I can see your point."
For the record: Star Wars is awesome, and nothing is going p change that for me.
I like your definition for Sci-Fi but I feel like it's missing something.
May 8, 2013 @ 9:08 pm
@Travis: "…sometimes I am emphatically not in the mood for character drama, and then I really want there to be a show that focuses on something else instead."
For a show to be popular, it really has to have character drama woven into it. As Doctor Who shows, character drama isn't mutually exclusive with other dramatic concerns — comedy, puzzles, Big Ideas — but it is mutually exclusive with "not character drama."
And in this day and age, given the kind of money it takes to make anything in the cinematic televisual form, it has to be made with popular considerations in mind. There's an exception for movies, because those are essentially one-offs, and even there, if they're being made to avoid character drama, they're being made at a loss. One-off losses are acceptable; recurring losses, not so much.
The number one reason people engage stories is to understand people — themselves and others — and to get an emotional payoff, which is usually predicated on an investment in characters themselves. Until TV can be made really cheap, which might be not ever, you'll probably have to resort to other kinds of media to escape character drama entirely.
And yes, sometimes we need that escape. We don't have limitless supplies of empathy.
May 8, 2013 @ 10:04 pm
"The Last Outpost" is remarkable, probably the most openly anti-capitalist TNG ever gets. Previously unseen space-profiteers the Ferengi finally show themselves, and turn out to be violent pig-men wielding whips, like evil-capitalist caricatures from a post revolutionary Soviet propaganda cartoon. But most telling is the sequence early in the episode where the ship's crew discuss the Ferengi, where we see that they either don't understand or are openly contemptuous of capitalism – it's clear that in TNG's future capitalism hasn't just been superseded, it's been utterly discredited and forgotten. It amazes me that in 1987, while Ronald Reagan was still President, Roddenberry managed to get a big US corporation to film and broadcast this stuff.
May 8, 2013 @ 10:39 pm
But the "golden age" of sf was never confined solely to "hard" sf. Unless Flash Gordon and John Carter of Mars count as hard sf. Surely they're the tradition on which Star Wars is drawing, narratively. (As opposed to the visual look, where the chief influence on Star Wars is actually 2001.)
May 8, 2013 @ 11:51 pm
I cannot fully bring myself to agree with that second article, as by that second article we would no longer have "Castle", and "Castle" is one of my current must-watch shows, so. 🙂
May 9, 2013 @ 12:17 am
The Death Star's not just a dragon. It is a man(sic)-made engineered object. ('That's not a moon.') It does appeal to anxieties about human engineering and hubris.
The point of my list is that most of them aren't exploring hard sciences, and some not promoting a materialist philosophy. And certainly nothing on the list is about promoting materialist philosophy as such.
May 9, 2013 @ 12:34 am
Froborr is I think largely right. (If you want academic backing for the idea as applied to literature in general, Alisdair Fowler's Kinds of Literature is an argument for genre as family descent, including cross-fertilization.)
Talk about genre has the problem that the critics like to set up rigid categories for ease of discussion, whereas artists go more I want to write something like the stuff I enjoy and admire, only not quite the same.
Archeology of the Future
May 9, 2013 @ 3:06 am
One thing that's interesting to me in this discussion regarding genre is that it shows that you use very different things to create a story to those you use when you consume it. With Miles he's oddly bound by the fact that he wants to place his ideas into Doctor Who, as if Doctor Who who were a genre but can't do this because it makes an end product that wouldn't be his 'genre of Doctor Who'. Similarly with Star Wars it's well documented just what genres Lucas drew from in its creation but that doesn't really tell us what genre its in. We know that by how it feels to watch it. Philip K Dick kept trying to write novels that weren't in his home genre. His publisher made him add a SF conceit to 'A Scanner Darkly'. His final novels don't feel like SF yet they are because we know he is a SF writer. 'A Maze of Death' for example feels very SF but 'Valis'? Not so much.
But for Miles I just think 'maybe Doctor Who isn't the home for what you want to do.'.
May 9, 2013 @ 3:20 am
Eh? No one's responding to my points? :-/
May 9, 2013 @ 4:20 am
@Berserk: I wonder if there's a bit of semantic slippage here. That lovely History of SF poster you linked to has "science dominant" as the main descriptor of "the golden age" — with "dominant" being key. This period of SF isn't confined to the "hard" variations, but that mode largely overshadows it.
@David: Good point about the Death Star, and how it functions well within the typical rubric of SF. But isn't this conferred simply by the SF gloss itself? This "moon" is actually a technological nightmare. From a Jungian perspective, that's a potent image that's highly suggestive of subconscious fears and anxieties about technology. The fact that technical discussions of any sort are kept to a minimum, and that so much fantastic tech is woven into the everyday lives of the characters such that it doesn't even need comment but is taken for granted only supports that underlying thesis.
And yes, you're quite right, SF is much more than "hard" or "pulp" — but from the mainstream I think that's largely the perception. I'm sure there's all kinds of sub-genres and distinctions to be made with detective novels and romances, but as I'm not particularly invested in those genres I wouldn't catch any of those nuances on my own.
@Matthew: Never read the Leigh Brackett script. Didn't even know one existed. But it's a good point that Star Wars could have been done in the "hard" style. That such a choice was available and discarded is telling, isn't it?
May 9, 2013 @ 4:34 am
It's not so much that Brackett's script was discarded — she only did a first draft before she died, so obviously any rewrites would be carried out by someone else (and Lucas changed his mind about a couple of major plot points after giving her the story outline, so rewrites would be needed no matter what the quality of her script was).
May 9, 2013 @ 5:31 am
Thanks for finding the working versions, BerserkRL! That's a very cool graphic. And thanks again for linking it in the first place, storiteller!
Ununnilium: Hmm… but doesn't that assume that everyone who likes (for example) science fiction both likes it for the same reason, and likes all of it?
Theonlyspiral: Thanks! I enjoy discussing with people who disagree with me, too. I have no interest in changing your liking for Star Wars; I myself can't stand it, however. It lies firmly in the realm of "things I liked as a kid but can't tolerate as an adult," like Slurpees or He-Man. (As opposed to things I liked as a kid and still like, like Doctor Who and Ducktales.)
David Anderson, thanks for the book suggestion, I'll add it to my list from the earlier thread! I dunno, I actually think it's mostly fans, publishers, and booksellers that want rigid categories; most critics and artists alike seem to prefer more flexible ones with lots of overlapping.
Are you familiar with Brust's somewhat-tongue-in-cheek Cool Stuff Theory of Literature?
May 9, 2013 @ 5:34 am
His final novels don't feel like SF yet they are because we know he is a SF writer.
That doesn't make any sense to me. Asimov was an SF writer but that doesn't make his nonfiction or mystery books SF.
Though I'd say Valis actually fits perfectly in (and is arguably the endpoint or limit case of) the same mystical school of science fiction to which Arthur C. Clarke belongs.
May 9, 2013 @ 6:09 am
Does it cover Luther? I feel like the TV show types are broad enough even concepts that are doing something interesting using a tried and true base would disappear.
Life without Luther just isn't worth it.
Archeology of the Future
May 9, 2013 @ 6:14 am
Another example is JG Ballard. He was a SF writer because I knew he was a SF writer, though how I would have worked that out in isolation if I'd read Cocaine Nights, Crash and Millennium People first rather than The Atrocity Exhibition, Vermillion Sands and High Rise I don't know.
I absolutely love The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. It's a post apocalypse soggy-seventies style novel you can imagine making a 'Survivors' style serial. It's so SF. Nowhere on the cover does it in any way give the idea that it's genre. Maybe the author didn't think it was genre? Faber and Faber certainly didn;t market it as such.
I'm wondering if it's possible to not realise you are writing a genre work while you're writing it? Or do savvy authors just try to cover their genre tracks?
May 9, 2013 @ 6:23 am
Still, like Star Wars before it, Empire ends up being an opera in space. It doesn't hit the "hard sf" beats in the climax. No, it's all about Vader's revelation that he's Luke's father — after Luke's come so far to believe in himself under Yoda's tutelage. It's about Lando's betrayal of Han Solo, and Leia's capture — after they've started to form a relationship. The narrative conventions aren't beholden to solving puzzles by understanding a scientific principle, nor about exploring a Big Idea, which are the core conventions of "hard" SF.
Phil's right, "hard" SF is a ghetto. It matters to very few people. And that's because the primary reason we "do stories" in the first place is to explore the narrative of living life — dealing with our experiences, and especially our emotions and our relationships to other people. This is not, shall we say, the primary intention of "hard SF."
And that's not to say that conventional storytelling is "superior" to "hard SF" — only to delineate the primary intentions in different kinds of stories, and why some intentions work for a broad mainstream audience while other don't.
May 9, 2013 @ 6:48 am
Yeah — in the original storyline Lucas gave to Brackett, Vader wasn't Luke's dad (in fact the ghost of Luke's dad appeared in Brackett's script), and a change like that obviously alters the whole structure of the story.
"that's because the primary reason we "do stories" in the first place is to explore the narrative of living life — dealing with our experiences, and especially our emotions and our relationships to other people. "
I'm not at all sure that's the case. Certainly a reason, but only one of many. This reads to me a bit like saying "the primary reason we listen to music is to dance".
There are many stories which are definitely not about that, even slightly. There are stories as intellectual puzzles, like Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie books or much hard SF; there are stories in which the primary fascination is the building of a consistent world unlike this one, as in many fantasy novels; there are stories which exist primarily to advocate a political or religious viewpoint, pure farce like Wodehouse, stories (particularly in film and TV) that exist purely for visceral thrills, stories whose primary purpose is as a vehicle for a particular formal technique…
And some of those things primarily appeal to very small audiences, but others definitely don't. The appeal of the 'cosy mystery' and of the hard SF story are basically the same appeal, in fact (as you can see from reading Asimov's attempts at combining the genres), and I believe Christie is still the world's best selling author.
May 9, 2013 @ 7:13 am
Big ideas and character drama are not exclusive, of course.
May 9, 2013 @ 7:13 am
Here's the correct link on the Places and Spaces website – I'm not sure why the Slate link is broken: http://scimaps.org/maps/map/history_of_science_f_132/ You can buy it for $45: http://scimaps.org/store/ A co-worker of mine has one that she inherited from someone else, which I totally want to steal because she's not a SF fan (or "SF fan").
May 9, 2013 @ 7:29 am
I'm wondering if it's possible to not realise you are writing a genre work while you're writing it?
I seem to recall Margaret Atwood being very insistent that she's not a science fiction writer, which would seem to imply that she doesn't think The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake is science fiction.
May 9, 2013 @ 7:32 am
It also seemingly had a less manichean view of the Star Wars universe; oh, Darth Vader's still evil, but the dark side isn't external… it's you.
See, I thought that was part of the point – that that was, essentially, what the scene with Luke in the cave where he fights Dream-Vader was communicating. (That said, this script sounds really cool. <3)
But the "golden age" of sf was never confined solely to "hard" sf.
This. After all, that's what invoking Flash Gordon shows – that science fiction has always had this aspect to it.
But isn't this conferred simply by the SF gloss itself?
I've got to question the use of the word "gloss" at this point. Surely, a gloss, being on the surface, wouldn't contain the things that go below the surface – the concerns and the ideas that drive the images we see here.
Still, like Star Wars before it, Empire ends up being an opera in space.
Indeed! That's why they call this subgenre of science fiction "space opera", with dozens of definitely-science-fiction examples in it, like Lensman, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and
And this is an important thing – something being of one genre doesn't preclude it from being of another. You can have a story that's simultaneously science fiction and adventure, or science fiction and romance, or science fiction and mystery, or hell, even science fiction and fantasy – though defining such a mashup would require me to define "fantasy", which is a way harder task than defining SF, lemme tell ya.
May 9, 2013 @ 7:36 am
Froborr: Not quite. It's more like, for all science fiction fans, there is something about science fiction that, for them, adds to a story, makes it better. That doesn't mean that all stories with this will be ones they like, much as, as a Doctor Who fan, there are episodes you don't like despite them containing Doctor Who-ness. And this thing can mix with other types of thing.
May 9, 2013 @ 7:39 am
Interesting. I believe I agree. I also believe that, if we were honest about what a genre is, there would be a hell of a lot more, and nearly every work would be acknowledged as using/belonging to several of them.
May 9, 2013 @ 8:04 am
Which is just the tip of the ice burg when it comes to the problems with Margaret Atwood. The woman has been writing Science Fiction for years and the only reason she doesn't want that label is she's afraid of he work getting classified as Genre work and becoming less exposed.
May 9, 2013 @ 8:37 am
@Ununnilium: Hmm. That would suggest that either "someone who likes a lot of science fiction stories" and "science fiction fan" are distinct categories, or that someone who likes a lot of science fiction necessarily does so because of generic elements, rather than coincidence. I'm virtually certain the latter is true, not sure how I feel about the former.
May 9, 2013 @ 8:39 am
Ballard disliked the term 'Sci-Fi' and on a number of occasions (primarily in New Worlds magazine) maintained that he preferred the term 'SF' which he explained should stand for 'Speculative Fiction'. He also suggested that the 'Science' part of 'Science -Fiction' should, encompass the sciences of psychology and sociology for instance as well as physics and chemistry: hence 'The Atrocity Exhibition' and much of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius experimentation. This approach certainly covers the 'what -if?' 'joke structure/twist ending angle and allows the inclusion of, for example, 1984, Metamorphosis, Star Wars and indeed Doctor Who. Where this leaves jane's compelling argument about Hard SF glosses and Froborr's very convincing cladistic model I'm not sure.
May 9, 2013 @ 8:49 am
The question is in part when you want to treat sci-fi as becoming a separate genre from "pulp" and "adventure stories." I'd argue that happened in the golden age, and that it was stuff like Asimov and Clarke that led to understanding sci-fi as fundamentally different from Conan the Barbarian, for instance. And that Star Wars marked the point where sci-fi returned to being one of a stable of flavors that a particular type of narrative could take.
I'm certainly not going to say that the flavor is irrelevant. But it's not the point of the exercise either.
May 9, 2013 @ 8:54 am
The appeal of the cozy is in its characters, and in the narrative voice. In the best cozies, the mystery is solved by understanding the quirky people in the quirky environment. One of the stock characters in the cozy is, therefore, the busy-body-nosy person who gets into everyone's business and can explain to the detective/reader all the different motives that may be in play.
It's much the same for Christie. Poirot and Marple have to figure out the people of the small opera to solve the mystery. Yes, there's clues for them and us to detect, and that's an important part of the genre that many people glom onto, but without the human element the stories wouldn't have such verve.
But that also highlights an important undercurrent of the procedural — whether it's the detective or the scientist, the underlying assumption of the genre is that we can make sense of the world, which is an important folk belief. So these stories often have characters that aren't as deep or complex as real people, in order to make the mystery solvable — and that's why so much genre work of this sort gets derided, while a story like No Country For Old Men — where the hero doesn't win — gets such praise.
But yes, your larger point stands — we have all kinds of reasons for telling stories. But time and time again, the stories that have the biggest impact on mainstream culture, that have the widest appeal, are those stories which are concerned with generating an emotional reaction in the audience, a reaction which is most easily and consistently elicited through vivid characterization. Star Wars may not have the deepest characterization, but it's still oriented around the character beats, emotions, and choices when it comes to the majority of its narrative climaxes.
May 9, 2013 @ 8:55 am
Yes, science fiction has always had its pulp, its adventures — but there's a faction within the SF community that typically points to the "hard" subgenre as "proper" SF, the sort of SF that's deserving of praise and respect, the sort of SF that's the "point" of SF. They're wrong, of course, and so much of the "New Wave" and its emphasis on "speculative" fiction was a reaction against that.
As to the usage of "gloss," I understand it's problematic. Yes, it refers to the surface, to iconography, but that does not mean the gloss necessarily lacks substance, that it's inherently superficial or unworthy of consideration. The gloss of iconography is distinct from the underlying structures of narrative. Sometimes the gloss is clear, showing the concerns that inform the work.
For example, we can tell the exact same story of Star Wars — in terms of character and narrative beats — in a fantasy setting, or a historical, or a WWII flick, what have you. Those genres all have their own gloss. Importantly, the gloss of each genre communicates different concerns, because different images are invoked. And so yes, the meaning of Star Wars would change.
What this shows is that appearances matter. Everything that "is" appears to "be" — "appearance" is a part of "being." It's not a substitute for being, it's not the whole story of being, but it plays a huge role in being. (This gets to the heart of the "magical realism" that Phil speaks of. Manipulating a symbol — which a maneuver in the realm of gloss — actually has power. It's not all-powerful, but it has an effect. We rely on visual processing a great deal.)
Here's another way of parsing it out. In Seymour Chatman's "Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film," he makes a distinction between between "the story told" and "the telling of the story." The former is about character, plot, setting, existents. The latter is about narrators, medium, and storytelling conventions; it's about expression.
The SF gloss of Star Wars reaches into both realms of story and expression, but not entirely. Through iconography we find out about the setting and the stuff we'll find there, and it reveals an anxiety about technology, but the plot and the characters come from other genres. The "telling" of the story doesn't rely on "hard" SF conventions at all, but on the narrative conventions of war movies, westerns, and pulp adventures — including SF pulp. For example, we "hear" the screaming spaceships: in "hard" SF, these effects would be silent. We can safely say that the concerns of Star Wars aren't about technological verisimilitude, but generating an emotional response to the action. The same action with WWII biplanes would accomplish the same emotional response, but the WWII gloss would point to a different set of anxieties.
Star Wars is space opera — and space opera functions primarily through a science-fiction iconography while employing the narrative conventions of other genres.
May 9, 2013 @ 9:04 am
Can't argue with most of the episodes that people have listed as from season 1 as being pretty good. How on earth did 'Conspiracy' get made in Roddenberry's presence..? And why was there no follow up??? I should be kinder to Season 1 as it was still getting its sea legs. Of course, had later seasons not upped their game considerably, TNG would have left a far smaller mark on the world.
May 9, 2013 @ 9:38 am
Le Guin has managed to get Atwood to allow that some people use science fiction to cover what Atwood calls speculative fiction. Atwood still uses science fiction for golden age pulp and derivatives. Judging by the eponymous novel within a novel in Blind Assassin, I don't think Atwood is entirely dismissive.
May 9, 2013 @ 9:50 am
I feel that the diversity within sf is such that there isn't any single element that all sf fans will like when added to a story. Perhaps some attempt at world-building? But that doesn't distinguish sf from some kinds of fantasy: e.g. Game of Thrones or Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series.
May 9, 2013 @ 10:44 am
Assad: The main reason for the lack of follow-up is that they decided to revamp the basic idea and make it the Borg.
May 9, 2013 @ 10:50 am
See, the thing is, I'm not sure there is a difference between "flavor" and "genre". That is, a science fiction adventure to me seems to be like a smoothie made with chocolate and banana – is it a banana drink that's chocolate-flavored, or a chocolate drink that's banana-flavored? Is it an adventure with science fiction flavor, or is it a science fiction story with an adventure flavor? They both seem equal to me.
May 9, 2013 @ 11:04 am
Froborr: I'd definitely agree with the latter. The former… hm. It's very possible. Certainly, in an era where, for example, many of our big action movies are science fiction, you can be an action fan who likes a lot of science fiction movies.
David: I think the heart of science fiction is probably something like… taking an element that exists in our world and extrapolating from it. (Whereas fantasy maybe might be taking an element that seems impossible, treating it like it's real, and seeing what happens. Except wouldn't that make FTL a fantasy element? Well, maybe it is. Hmmmm.)
May 9, 2013 @ 11:15 am
IIRC, they changed it to the Borg because Cybermen are WAY cheaper than freaky chestburster puppets.
May 9, 2013 @ 11:25 am
Oh wow, I totally screwed up. That last sentence in my last comment should have been "I'm virtually cetain the latter is NOT true…"
I don't think it's possible that everyone who likes science fiction does so for the same reasons.
The problem with trying to draw firm lines between any two genres is that you can't, because there are works that are both. Science fiction and fantasy in particular are inseparable; there's really no definition of science fiction I've ever seen that doesn't end up including at least one of Star Wars, "The Dreams in the Witch-House," or "The Magic Goes Away."
It's not that surprising that they're so hard to separate, really, given that science is more or less just a form of magic that actually works.
May 9, 2013 @ 1:02 pm
See, I think they're different things, but things that can be combined.
May 9, 2013 @ 2:28 pm
Also, it takes a certain amount wishful thinking to say that the audience goodwill didn't take a big hit at the point where they rolled out the muppet.
May 9, 2013 @ 3:30 pm
Absolutely they're different things, but closely related, interpenetrating things. Genres are less like bins and more like clouds.
May 9, 2013 @ 6:20 pm
Right, but the presence Big Ideas will not eliminate any concurrent character drama, which would be an issue for someone who's trying to escape character drama itself.
May 9, 2013 @ 6:23 pm
Genres have a radial starburst-like structure. Set theory is the wrong metaphor.
That goes for categories in general.
May 9, 2013 @ 6:25 pm
I dunno, when I was seven years old the "Conspiracy" muppet freaked me right the fuck out.
May 10, 2013 @ 6:01 am
Can we really discuss the limits of audience goodwill and muppet aliens on a Doctor Who board? 🙂
May 10, 2013 @ 10:34 am
The following isn't proposed as a definition, just as one (maximally permissive) way of thinking about it:
"Speculative fiction" as a whole consists of work in which the background milieu is different (perhaps a lot, perhaps just a little) from the actual world (present or past).
Speculative fiction that's presented as consistent with present-day science or an extrapolation thereof is science fiction.
All other speculative fiction is fantasy.
May 10, 2013 @ 11:30 am
The problem there is that pretty much all fiction is set in a background milieu that differs from the actual world, because fiction runs according to narrative logic while reality runs according to causal logic.
May 10, 2013 @ 2:30 pm
I think Atwood makes a pretty convincing reply to the charge that she's being a big meanie on this question: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/14/margaret-atwood-road-to-ustopia
It's long, but the part that people who are obsessed with fine distinctions in genre would be interested in is up at the beginning. If you read through to the end, though, it's stunning how juvenile the "why won't she call it science fiction?" comments sound coming after it.
May 10, 2013 @ 3:22 pm
It seems Atwood uses a similar cladistic model to the one idea, the only difference is that she regards Verne-descended and Wells-descended as two separate genres and I regard them as one.
"The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names. What I mean by "science fiction" is those books that descend from HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, "speculative fiction" means plots that descend from Jules Verne's books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books."
May 10, 2013 @ 4:38 pm
@Froborr: But we experience our own lives as a kind of story too. Maybe on paper the actual world objectively follows causal logic, but once we're talking about my world, the world I experience, it seems to follow narrative logic: we interpret what we experience selectively to give us the illusion (or if we're feeling sufficiently alchemical, it's not an illusion so much as "the only kind of 'reality' that deserves to be named such") that our lives follow something like narrative logic, because that is the way our brains want the world to work.
May 10, 2013 @ 6:06 pm
So does, e.g., Wells' War in the Air count as Vernean rather than Wellsian?
And why is War of the Worlds "impossible"? Because extraterrestrial life is impossible? Or because specifically Martian life is impossible? If the latter, that wasn't known then. And Verne's books have scientific inaccuracies in them too (including stuff that was known).
And of course Well's Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters is a deliberate echo of Verne's humans shot to the moon in metal canisters.
May 11, 2013 @ 2:49 am
Luther isn't specifically mentioned but — while I haven't seen it personally, from what i know about it — it would probably fall under "A Complicated Male Antihero Runs Shit" and, if we were to stretch it a bit, "A Man and a Woman Solve Crimes and We Hope They Eventually Have Sex" (since I gather there's UST between Luther and his nemesis).
I dunno. I do love me a bit of Dan O'Brian and Cracked.com. but I think they're chasing the wrong horse on this one.
May 13, 2013 @ 8:37 pm
Thanks so much for that! I had an unread copy, lost in a hard drive crash, and had been unable to locate it again on the net.