Science fiction presents itself to us through different mediums, most notably through the written and visual. Have you ever wondered who owns it? Lou Anders has, and he submitted the following question:
Q: Although science fiction was born on paper, sci-fi presented through visual media (film and television) has significantly higher audiences. Which medium, then, is the driving force behind what science fiction is and where it’s headed, and who is driving it?
This is like asking who is driving the food presentation industry, MacDonald’s or the French Laundry. They both work in food, to be sure, and they’re both good at what they do. But what they do is different enough that comparing the two in a general sense is silly.
To speak in wildly oversimplifying terms, written science fiction is about speculation; visual science fiction is about spectacle. The distinction was there from the beginning of science fiction as a visual medium: Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la Lune was made not because Méliès’ cared about showing men getting to the moon, but because he cared about showing off his state-of-the-art effects skills. Look at the list of the most successful science fiction films over the last three decades and you’ll understand how much spectacle is privileged over speculation. It doesn’t mean visual SF is doing something wrong; it means it’s doing something fundamentally different than written SF.
Written and visual science fiction have different goals, so to say one is driving the other (or that either is driving both) isn’t accurate. It’s more accurate to say that each influences the other in a more or less indirect way. Visual sf influences written sf (to go to another, different metaphor) very much the way movies are currently influencing Broadway: Popular movies are now being turned into hit Broadway musicals; Popular sf movies, TV show and video games are turned into profitable book series. Written sf influences visual sf very much the way avant-garde musicians influence pop music: Glenn Branca influences Thurston Moore, who influences Frank Black, who influences Liz Phair, who influences Avril Lavinge, who sells trillions of albums and mp3s to bunches of 14-year-old girls who would pepper-spray Glenn Branca if he walked up to them in public.
For his part, Branca might be entirely horrified at the idea that he’s in some small way responsible for Lavinge’s smash #1 hit “Girlfriend.” But on the other hand, it is catchy. It has a nice beat, and you can dance to it, as long as you don’t think about it too hard. And as you can connect Branca to “Girlfriend,” so too can you connect, say, Olaf Stapledon to Heroes. But being connected is not the same as driving the field. That’s more like being in the backseat, shaking your head and saying “you should have taken that left. Now we’re going to have to detour through all this crap.”
Suffice to say written and visual sf will drive themselves, independently, and that’s fine. And when they get hungry, one will pull over at MacDonalds, and one at the French Laundry. But which at which? Well, think: which one has more money? Yes, the irony, it burns.