MIND MELD: Which Medium is Driving Science Fiction…Books or Film/TV?
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:
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.
Off the top of your head, name your Top 10 favorite SF authors. Okay, now name your Top 10 favorite SF scriptwriters. I rest my case.
Sci-fi presented through visual media (film and television) has significantly higher audiences because, quite frankly, a lot of it demands little more from its audience than a couple of hours and the ability to focus. Reading, on the other hand, is a much more involved and time-consuming commitment that, unfortunately, appears to be losing its appeal among many SF consumers. Which is a damn shame because it is, without a doubt, the medium that is the driving force behind what the genre is and where it is headed.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that film and television don’t provide a forum for inventive science fiction ideas. They can and do. And they’ve certainly made great strides in the visual representations of possible futures. But the realities of film and television production work against them being a pioneering force whereas the literary arena allows for vaster, more daring, creator-driven initiatives. The reasons are threefold:
- What was the last truly great science fiction movie you saw? That wasn’t based on a literary property? Yes, it’s been a while, and whatever title you come up with, I’m sure I can counter with a novel or short story that did it first. Sadly, creator-driven works are few and far between in film and television. Studios are far more interested in backing a proven winner which is why sequels and established properties are de rigueur. That said, great SF movies occasionally do get made. Children of Men comes to mind. “But wait!” many will argue. “The movie was very different from the book.” All well and good and some may even prefer the movie over the book, but there’s no denying the fact that the driving force behind both came from author P.D. James’ original vision. Yes, every so often, SF fans can rejoice with the release of a Star Wars (the original) or a Firefly but, sadly, these are exceptions to the rule.
- Literary writers are limited only by the power of their imaginations (and, on occasion, their editors). Scriptwriters, on the other hand, are limited by things like the unlikelihood of their script ever getting made and the costs associated with film and television production. Getting published is tough; getting produced even more so. Especially if you’re a newbie looking to get an original concept off the ground. In the event you do buck the odds and manage to get it greenlit, there are a vast number of things that can go wrong and kill your prospective movie or television series before it goes to camera. And if lightning happens to strike twice and it does go into production, chances are good that the final product will bear only a passing resemblance to your original vision. Why? Well…
- Writing a science fiction novel can be an incredibly lonely process and yet, at the end of the day, the entirety of the work – its vision, depth, and execution – belongs to one person. In the case of a movie or a television series, however, many players can lay partial claim to the end-product (or be part of the stampede to disassociate themselves from it if things go sideways). All that rests between that original concept and its big (or small screen) execution are the producers, studio/network executives, directors, and actors who will weigh in with their suggestions on how to improve things. More often than not, said improvements will run contrary to the author’s original vision and, when push comes to shove, it’s the writers that get the shove – right off the project if they prove uncooperative and unwilling to compromise. SF is expensive! Given the kind of money at stake, studios consider it bad business not to exercise some creative control over their investments. Publishers, on the other hand, can afford to take a gamble on the new, the different, and the challenging.
All that said – despite the odds, the visual medium is capable of producing new, different, and challenging SF ideas, although you’re more likely to see it happen on television where the scriptwriters are afforded the opportunity to exercise more creative control over their scripts, as opposed to the world of theatrical features where the screenwriter is more of a hired gun and is lucky if he/she gets invited to set once filming begins (An aside: I know someone who wrote the script for a 100+million dollar feature. On his first day on set, he was introduced to the female lead. According to my buddy, upon hearing he was the scriptwriter, she looked at him “like something she’d found on the bottom of her shoe.” Ah, show business). Still, the freedom enjoyed by writers of prose fiction is hard to beat. But the professional scriptwriter can take solace in the bigger paychecks.
So who’s driving SF today? Hey, for every established author I could name, there are dozens of up-and-comers out there just waiting to break big.
As for where SF is headed? Damned if I, or anyone else, knows. And that’s the beauty of it.
Science fiction is a mountain. The literature is the snow on top. As it melts, it runs downhill, feeding into the streams that become the rushing rivers that is the ocean of media. The media measures its audience in the millions, and is therefore the aspect that most people see. Far fewer climb the mountain – it’s a much harder journey than just dipping your bucket in the ocean, but affords special pleasures and richer rewards. The sea is big enough now that it feeds itself, producing science fiction that is informed only by other media science fiction. And, of course, the ocean now informs the snow as well – as ideas in the media are absorbed back into the literature – but the trickle from the snow on top still flows down, slowly being absorbed by and informing the waters below. It’s vital the source always flow downhill, no matter how big a pool its destination. Because without it, the ocean will eventually dry up.
Science fiction is a fictional testing ground for dreams and philosophies, a way to discuss and dissect the core nature of human existence, to explore not just how people do things, but why.
Visual media can obviously communicate certain aspects of science fiction better than print. Science fiction movies and TV programs can graphically portray incredible battles fought against bizarre creatures on hostile and wondrous worlds. Teams of technologists, cadres of computer wizards work together to dream up these fantastical sights and then to put them on a screen for all the world to see. Viewers get the sense of actually being there, surrounded by the action. But it’s a hard-edged experience. What you see is literally what you get. There’s very little left to the imagination.
Not so with print. That’s all about projecting images inward rather than outward, engaging not just the gut reaction but also the mind’s eye. It’s best done by the loner, the solitary scribe offering up a written account of the oddities and conjectures unspooling within a single imagination. Print still works in science fiction, just as it always has. There’s nothing so terrifying as monsters fabricated within the confines of a reader’s own head; there is no love greater, no courage stronger than that which comes from deep within a reader’s own heart.
The best science fiction movies tend to be those based on short stories. That’s as much material as a movie can handle within its severely limited time span. Novels can go on for hundreds, even thousands of pages, leisurely taking the time to explore in great depth what it is that makes human beings different from all other creatures on the earth and off it.
It’s not a question of choosing one or the other. There’s more than enough room for both. The visual to make you gasp with awe and wonder and run shrieking from the room, print to make you sit down and think.
It’s impossible to know for sure. I know I entered into S.F. in the fifties through comics, and TV and film, and then became a reader. So for me those were the mediums that led me to fiction. But then, is it crime films that drive crime novels. I think it’s a trade off, really, and one drives the other. It’s always easier to see a movie than read a book.
I’d say in both film and publishing that the bean counters are driving science fiction, and this threatens to homogenize the genre. Because movies are potentially more profitable than novels, this would incline one to say that films are the driving force behind science fiction publishing, and that publishing’s traditional goal, the selling of books, has been affected in that the publishers seek out the franchise product, the trilogy, mass produced escapism that appeals to the widest possible segment of a dumb-downed audience in hopes that the product may be adapted to video games or films or both. Of course there are notable exceptions to this, but as a general statement it’s true enough. But it’s not that simple.
Real science fiction, that written without cynicism, without an eye toward possible movie options, books that are written mainly because they wanted to be written…that’s another matter. It’s my feeling that they will continue to be written and to prosper and fail as the case may be; but many will be relegated to the small presses, where not many will read them. This time has been called the Golden Age of Small Presses, but what that means for authors is that they’ll be read by two or three thousand readers, significantly less in many instances. Thus science fiction of this sort is imperiled by the status quo, by the profusion of unaccomplished Internet writers, by movies that share a handful of basic plots, by studios capable of rendering brain-dead the work of writers like Phil Dick and others. It’s too soon to say, but the signs–declining readership; a marketplace in which the traditional novel contained within a single volume (like say, Lord Jim or The Great Gatsby) is now called a “standalone” so as to differentiate it from the proliferation of multi-volume bug-crushers; etc – are not good. Speaking personally and not a little optimistically, I remain convinced that the mid-list writers who create the majority of the field’s idiosyncratic visions will struggle along somehow, though likely not without holding down jobs that supplement their fiction income. Occasionally one of their ideas will float up and become an element of the creative/commercial process, and that idea will then be worked to death, retooled and dressed in different clothing until it becomes a cliché. The sensibility of greed and the aesthetic of maximum accessibility that inform the making of movies will increasingly inform the publishing world.
The genre is reshaping itself. The mainstream is writing science fiction; science fiction authors are writing out of the genre. Barring a technological breakthrough or cultural paradigm shift that makes self-publishing a viable option for quality fiction, the most talented of these writers will drift into the mainstream, leaving behind a writhing, suppurating mess from which the arms and legs of elves and princes and dark lords and romance writers protrude, and this mass eventually will coalesce and harden into the new “science fiction.” I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing-it may actually prove to have been a blessing in disguise. But probably it does not auger well, and the ultimate future of print science fiction will be found on the backs of cereal boxes and in the scripts for interactive games.
The driving force behind science fiction is now television – and, the reason, almost 100%, is Lost.
The series had a spectacular first year, a weak second and third year (with the exception of the finale), but has come back stronger than ever in the fourth season, now concluding. And whereas science fiction was always a flavor in the series, in this fourth season science fiction has become a mainspring. Desmond’s mind projecting back and forth through his body in time is one of the best science fiction time travel stories ever told – right up there with Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps,” and the movie 12 Monkeys. (See my Desmond 1 and Desmond 2 for more.) In addition to that, we have some intriguing time anomalies on the island – which seems to be in a slightly different time than a ship just a little off the island. Great science fiction.
Other fine science fiction has also made its way on to the television screen in the past year – especially Journeyman and New Amsterdam. And The Sarah Connor Chronicles is doing a fine job of continuing the Terminator saga.
Great science fiction novels are still being published, and great movies still being made – but television is clearly where the future is.
The driving force remains the written word. I haven’t watched any network series, science fiction or otherwise, in a quarter of a century, but I keep up with the movies, which are always ahead of TV anyway.
The problem, of course, is dividing the technology, which is clearly state of the art, with the stories, which are not. As good as the Star Wars films may have looked, they were telling 1930s stories. The Enterprise, its crew, its plots, were clearly mired in John Campbell’s Astounding Stories of the 1940s. Even The Matrix, which had a 1990s cyberpunk look to it, had a typically dumb pulp plot: don’t out-think the evil agents, just out-karate them.
One of the detriments is that the big budget films, and especially Lucas, Roddenbury, and their imitators, have conditioned the movie audiences (never the readers) to think that science fiction -must- have great special effects, pointy ears, cute robots, and the like. So when you come to some brilliant science fiction that doesn’t have any of that, or even any special effects at all, such as Charly or Dr. Strangelove, most movie fans don’t even think of it as being science fiction.
The literature will always lead, because a book that sells even 35,000 paperbacks these days can be successful, and since the author doesn’t have to please 20 million less discriminating moviegoers, he’s free to take the high ground, and let it trickle down to the moviegoing masses 30 or 40 years from now.
The future of science fiction is probably online, in a blend of written material, video and other media. The best science fiction of the future will be open source and collaborative, blurring the distinction between “creators” and “fans” to an increasing degree. As more people read e-books instead of paper books, and movies and television are streamed over the web, you’ll see more people consuming science fiction online. And there will be obvious advantages in opening things up to collaboration. One major difference between science fiction and most other genres is worldbuilding. And the more people you have involved in your worldbuilding, the bigger and more realistic your world can be. So the most compelling science fictional worlds online will be ones that are, at least to some extent, open-source.
TV and movie SF represents the wisdom of crowds, or perhaps the unconscious of crowds. That is to say, it’s a summing up, by tiny steps, of how the mainstream views SF concepts. The look of military SF, the idea that the concept of ‘the Marines’ might still be valid in the future was developed by Aliens, Starship Troopers and a hundred knock-offs with no ideas of their own. But the weight of those knock-offs counts culturally too, serving to create an agreed vision of the future. The move from alien invasion to alien abduction happened in telefantasy too.
Certainly, prose SF is always first to any given concept, but public awareness depends not on one movie, but on dozens of Sci Fi Channel movies of the week, parody, advertising use, etc. That public awareness is important, in that SF seeks to portray what happens ‘if this goes on’, and such satire only really bites if the public recognises the truth of the future being described, as used to be the case with Arthur Clarke’s descriptions of the vastly agreed-upon post-Apollo future of humanity in space.
So at the moment, to some degree, in this matter of the public’s collective unconscious vision of where it might all go, what’s to be done and what’s wrong right now, TV and the movies are indeed taking the lead, the superhero trope, Lost and Battlestar Galactica all, for instance, asking ‘is my instinct about what the look on that person’s face means enough, or do I need some greater insight into their nature in order to be safe?’ Dick got there first, but the development of that thought has happened largely outside of prose.
Science fiction in movies and TV certainly has more money and larger audiences. To the public, this is what science fiction is, but I don’t fully accept the premise of the question.
Movies and TV are driven by money as much as anything, whereas written science fiction is driven by ideas, and there will tend to be more originality in the written work. Written work gets optioned, when it becomes popular enough, and becomes movies and TV shows. In that sense, there will always be some component of science fiction driven by the written word.
Similarly, I don’t see either TV or film being the sole driving force now or any time in the foreseeable future. The media are too often interchangeable for one thing, with TV shows being made into movies, and movies being made into TV shows, and both are interchangeably watched on TV and the internet.
There have been some clear trends over the years, and some direct comparisons are possible by concepts that have lived both on TV and in movies. Let’s start with some of the trends in both mediums and see where they’re going.
First of all, good special effects have become cheaper. TV can now do what only movies used to be able to do. Movies still have more money to spend and continue to push the envelope, but since the 1930s screening of King Kong it’s clear that simply adequate special effects coupled with a good story are sufficient to engross audiences. We’ll have better effects in general in the future, but I don’t see this as being a fundamental trend, although I’m hoping to be blown away by something new in the future. TV has shown another trend that’s a positive advantage over movies: TV can do longer story arcs with a lot more character development. TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and mini-series of Dune can tell stories that movies simply cannot manage. Even the extended director’s cut of David Lynch’s Dune has to resort to gimmicks and summary that are not very engaging (others have said worse).
There’s a dark side of this trend. Character quality and development have increased in such TV shows, but seemingly at the expense of speculative elements. Once a premise is set, often the sf becomes background, and episodes rely only on characters without significant interaction with the unique situations. The creator of Battlestar Galactica has said that his show is not science fiction, but drama. A recent New York Times article about changes at the Sci-Fi Channel reveals that they are moving away from traditional science fiction toward a broader, vaguer “What if” concept that attracts more diverse demographics (e.g., women). I find this a little strange as in principal cable channels can attract niche audiences, but perhaps in the same way MTV and VHI changed their programing for ratings, changing from their original concepts, so too will go the Sci-Fi Channel.
Science fiction movies, on the other hand, do have to keep with a big, speculative concept. This is essential for marketing, if nothing else, and is needed to make an effective pitch. Movies have their own weaknesses, however, and often the concepts get spoiled by too many people messing around with the ideas. In general, TV creators can exercise a lot more control of their creative vision. Only a handful of directors in movies have had such control; Kubrick and Cameron come to mind, and theirs are among the best sf movies out there.
Finally, I wanted to say a few things about movie/TV cross-overs. Here are some I remember: Star Trek, X-Files, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Logan’s Run. Galaxy Quest is its own strange hybrid. Sometimes the movies were better and more influential, sometimes the TV series. This isn’t very scientific, but I think it makes the case that neither clearly wins.
In conclusion, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to having a single driving force. Movies and TV both do different things well and poorly, and we’re going to have both important for sf. I hate to waffle, but that’s how I see it.
Written science fiction. Media science fiction are the shadows on the cave wall cast by the Platonic forms of written science fiction.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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