Is Serious Sci-Fi Dying?

PopMatters ponders The Death of Serious Science Fiction:

[Science Fiction has] been dominated for decades by a single storytelling dynamic. Instead of reaching for intelligence and stretching the boundaries of imagination, it decides to take hoary old clichés, lots of narrative formula, and one man’s F/X laced legacy, and completely rewrite the rules of acceptability. Where once the speculative spectacle questioned the existence of man within the cosmos, today it’s all Westerns with robots.

In the last four decades (leaving everything before the ’60s out of the equation for the moment) there have only been eight serious sci-fi triumphs—movies that readily define what one means by a thought provoking, inventive approach to speculative subject matter. In conjunction with the equally important TV triumphs of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Star Trek Saga (including all recent TV incarnations), this influential octet – Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Dark City, The Matrix, and most recently, Children of Men – represent real attempts to address the category’s myriad of issues and possibilities. Scattered among this collective are intriguing also-rans like Silent Running, Solaris, Blade Runner, Gattaca and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. While some may argue for a missing favorite—Alien, The Fifth Element, I, Robot—there is a significant reasons why these movies fall outside this discussion, primary among them, their lack of an inherent allegorical nature.

[via Big Dumb Object]

16 thoughts on “Is Serious Sci-Fi Dying?”

  1. Hmmm. I thought that Children of Men was an overly-long chase movie. The reason for the chase was an excellent sci fi premise, but mostly it was a chase movie in and action movie vein.

  2. I think there is definitely an argument to be made about the death of thought-provoking science fiction. It has certainly turned from the slower-paced, question induced concepts that drive stories like I, Robot, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Island of Dr. Moreau, and many others. There is no real question in these stories; they’re plot-driven effects movies.

    I think, though, that there are some small presses out there (mine included) that are trying to bring that back. There is a lack for this type of writing, and there are those who write that style. I like science to be questioned and to be pondered and hypothesized about. It makes for very good reading.

    Thanks for the link and post.

    Note: Children of Men was definitely driven by action, but there was also a very sincere question raised in it, which I thought was nice. I did, however, miss the boat a bit of being a better-than-average film.

  3. Bill’s arguement seems to hinge in the idea that serious SF must have a “inherent allegorical nature.” He then completely fails to back it up. As I’ve stated in the past on this very board, this argument (made by many about what constitutes “good” SF) falls apart if applied to SF literature. For example: the transhumanist work of Stross and the esteemed Mr. Wright’s Golden Age could hardly be considered allegorical, yet deal with ideas and issues squarely in the “speculative” vein.

    I find it funny that he considers Dark City (bald aliens randomly ineffectively rewriting the memories of abducted subjects in order to learn what makes the race tick) serious while Fifth Element (a time-release alien plot to protect the earth with a weapon triggered by our better nature) isn’t.

    And The Matrix is allegorical? Shudder.

  4. I thought when you’re using bits like “inherent allegorical nature” you’re getting a bit too high-minded about a particular subject. Sci-fi can function on a great number of levels and they REALLY don’t have to be allegorical. It doesn’t HAVE to be a metaphor for how modern society is functioning, or failing to function, or whatever.

    Star Wars can really be just a war…in the stars.

    I tend to read “is sci-fi dying?” articles the same way that I read “are books dead?” articles, in that mostly, it’s just not true. Sci-fi, like all things, evolves.

    A lot of the things sci-fi was originally about are done. Sci-fi was to show us the future, but somehow we now live in “the future,” and sci-fi’s mission, in a way, is fufilled.

    (And not every piece of sci-fi was a mission. Was Dorsai a serious allegorical work? Nah.)

    If you imbue sci-fi, or anything else, with a lot of deeper meaning and “inherent allegorical natures” that aren’t there, and then point to the LACK of them as proof that it’s “dying,” then it’s a circuitous argument. I could say that all true science fiction takes place on Mars and has scantily clad women, and then declare that true sci-fi is clearly dead.

  5. Pete, you say “somehow we now live in “the future,” and sci-fi’s mission, in a way, is fufilled”.

    I seriously disagaree. We live in yesteday’s future. There’s plenty of current SF literature talking about tomorrow (and yet, somehow, today at the same time).

    But yeah, what makes a serious SF film? To me, anything with a “what if?” question that makes people think. Children Of Men? Definitely (the immigrant topic is very relevant in the UK at the moment). 28 Weeks Later? It has running zombies but asks a very intriguing what if question.

    Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind? Gattaca? Primer? Yes.

    Minority Report? I, Robot? More or less, a bit diluted maybe, but just because they are action films doesn’t mean that they aren’t good speculation.

    And Dark City? ! ?

  6. Allegorical or not, DARK CITY was an impressive and thought-provoking movie in a way that the MATRIX, which dealt with the same theme of a conspiracy that hides reality, was not. The MATRIX was a wire-fu film that took place in a science fiction background; DARK CITY was a science fiction film through and through.

    All that aside, I think the article does not make a coherent argument to support its point: by dismissing all films before the 1960’s, he dismisses, for example, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, all respectable science fiction movies in an age when most sciffy flicks were about giant ants.

    Also, by dismissing all films before 1960, he lacks a sense of perspective crucial to making any argument about ongoing trends. If the article had been written in the 1960’s, we would look at THIS ISLAND EARTH and WAR OF THE WORLDS, and in despair decide that big-budget special effects movies ruled the screen, and thoughtful work like DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was not to be seen again.

    In a day when nine of the top ten highest grossing films are science fiction films, it is odd, it is absurd, to declare the science fiction film dead. Not only is SF not dead in film, all the major ‘tentpole’ film releases for this summer are, if not SF, then fantasy, comic book, supernatural pirate stories, or some related genre.

    If, on the other hand, the article is only lamenting the death of hard SF, all I can say is hard SF has never been very welcome in film.

  7. In reading the article I just think Bill Gibron (Film & TV Columns Editor) has maybe done a little too much “editing” and is burned out. His prose sure reads like he is burned out. I get that way with Sci-Fi every now and then. I just don’t publish my catharsis. He did.

  8. James: “Pete, you say “somehow we now live in “the future,” and sci-fi’s mission, in a way, is fufilled”.

    I seriously disagaree. We live in yesteday’s future. There’s plenty of current SF literature talking about tomorrow (and yet, somehow, today at the same time).”

    I think we’re talking about the same thing here. The future we live in now is, in a few ways, like the future that was predicted in Ye Olde Classick Science Fiction, and in a lot of ways, we live in a future that sci-fi failed to predict on a grand scheme. Either way, we live in a future that the Asimov’s, the Bradbury’s, the Nivens predicted.

    There is absolutely plenty of current SF talking about tomorrow and today, sure. It is, as with all things, different from the SF of yesteryear, and a lot of it is damn good stuff. It certainly fills up my shelves.

    Maybe I should have clarified that sci-fi’s original mission was fufilled. Just because the first five year mission has been done, doesn’t mean there aren’t continuing adventures to be had. The joy about the future becoming the present is, you have a brand new future to look at and predict.

    That’s fine by me. I don’t see SF as being anything like dead. It’s just changing. That’s something SF can constantly do.

  9. I think there are two points that are being missed in this discussion:

    1. The question is: is serious Science Fiction dying?

    2. There is a very distinct difference between the Science Fiction of literature and sci-fi of film.

    First, serious Science Fiction, to me, is dying in a way. There has been a tendency for the past twenty-five years towards a very Post-Modernist view of the future and so Science Fiction has become more of an outlet for political jargon and anti-propaganda works. There are very few pieces out there that truly offer up a genuine question and then, in turn, offer a plausible answer at the end.

    I think the word serious should be more clearly labeled as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Science Fiction in a traditional vein. There are certainly writers now who are writing in this tradition, but I believe that the attention span of the average reader now is so scattered, that stories are turning to focus on technologically-inspired action stories. Now, I like a good action story, but there are few of them that truly raise a question.

    Secondly, that particular article seems to be centered on a discussion about film. In a way, he’s right: serious, question-raising Science Fiction films are falling by the way-side and being replaced by sci-fi works – a la I, Robot and Independence Day. They’re good action films, but they’re focus is on just that – action. Sure you can argue that there is a question raised in both: what happens when A.I. runs amok; what happens when aliens invade? However, in the end, it comes down to “the bad guys lose, and the good guys win”. Problem solved, question not addressed.

    It’s a healthy discussion, though, because there are a lot of writers out there who believe that publishing houses don’t want traditional Science Fiction anymore, and it’s not true. Sure, there is a strong tendency towards action-driven stories, but more and more small presses are emerging that want to step away from that and provide their readership with traditional Science Fiction that truly does raise a question and provide that plausible answer.

    Thanks again for the article and the discussion. Look forward to comments.

  10. Those are good points, JB. I think you’ve hit on one of the reasons I find classic science fiction stories so appealing. They focus on the single conceit, they ask the question and examine the implications of those questions.

  11. Serious “sci-fi” has always been a scant portion of filmed science fiction. Is it dying? No more than usual.

    As for serious written SF, I think that is just as strong as ever. Whether it is marketed as Hard SF, Soft SF, etc., it is doing pretty well (if my Mount To Be Read is any indication).

  12. There were definitely moral/privacy issues raised in Minority Report that made it “serious Science Fiction”, beyond it’s action oriented plot elements.

    As for allegorically representing essential questions of our times, more and more I respect the first three Star Wars episodes for showing what happens when a republic crumbles.

  13. Science fiction is dead. The main thrust of sci-fi always was Mankind travelling out into space, for better or worse, always finding new planets, new aliens, different wonders and horrors and challenges. Smug writers like Arthur Clarke and Asimov made smug little predictions about moonbases and colonising other solar systems; more realistic writers like Phil Dick showed us how dull it all might be.

    But look at the reality. We can barely reach the Moon – even if we could, there’s nothing there worth having. We can’t reach Mars. We can’t terraform Venus even if we could get there. After the NASA moon landing program was cancelled in the seventies, in the eighties sci-fi turned into what it remains: science fantasy. I believe we now know, even if we don’t admit it openly, that the Earth is the only planet we’ll ever live on – that it is totally impractical for us ever to leave this world. I believe this explains why we’ve all gone a bit crazy in the last thirty years or so; the global human psyche, if there is such a thing, has turned in upon itself in ways Moorcock described.

    I fail to see why Iain Banks’ sci-fi books sell; they are neither original nor inspiring, dealing as they do with the fantasy jump between the sort of Star Trek world of huge spaceships travelling wherever they please throughout the known universe, and the reality of the here and now: the cold, hard, unpleasant fact that we have not developed the technology to lift us effectively off our rock, and show no sign of ever being able to so develop it. We’re stuck here. That’s the reality. And that’s why science fiction is dead, and smells bad.

  14. I know I’m replying to a 3-year-old post, but man, do I ever disagree with the last poster!

    Speculatory sci-fi is still what might be; the (possibly very small) possibility of those “smug little predictions” coming true. I don’t want to get into a huge rant here, but it’s my personal belief (and, I think I can say, that of most sci-fi fans) that anything that scifi predicts has a chance of coming true at some point in the future, within reason of course.

    So screw your pessimism, I am right, you are wrong, also you suck.

  15. Can somebody please explain why are there no Isaac Asimov movies out there. Seriously, do Foundation books not deserve to be put on film?

  16. Why are there no Isaac Asimov movies? Because I.A. is too high-brow, too wordy, and too deep for the network/studio executive filter that limits what we get to see. It’s that filter that  cancelled Caprica, almost killed B5 and BSG, and forced the original Star Trek to refilm its pilate. It’s a real certified miracle we got Dune (twice, if you include the TV mini-series) and Tolkein’s trilogy though I can make a case that much of the deep thought in both of those movies is effectively hidden beneath the action. Really when the cable channel dedicated to science fiction thinks WWE wrestling is an appropriate item on their schedule, what do you expect?

    Sadly, I think Sci-Fi is at least taking a hiatus if not out right dying. The Sci-Fi section of the local bookstore looks more like the Romance section, granted with ripped Vampires and Werewolves instead of ripped Cowboys. There’s still good stuff there, but its harder to find than it was a few years ago. (Sigh,) all things move in cycles, and I’m afraid we’re on a down swing — both Sci-fFi and the general intelligence quotient of the human race.

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