Fear and Self Loathing in Science Fiction

mirror_spock.jpgThe other day, IO9 posted a rant called Why Science Fiction Still Hates Itself. The premise being that because Eleventh Hour and Anathem are hiding their science fiction-ness and because the new Star Trek movie is being made for “fans of movies” instead of Trek fan, this means that science fiction has to ‘hate’ itself enough to hide its SF geek and stealthily make its way into the mainstream.

Admittedly, the mainstream does not take to SF in droves, except for the odd movie. Quick, what was the last pure SF movie to make it big? The Matrix. While the superhero movies of this summer show that people are willing to accept those types of movies, the SF elements there are in the background or couched in scientific terms. But to say that this is a result of SF hating itself is, I think, wrong. It’s not that SF authors, or the community, is engaged in self-loathing, it’s that the mainstream is not willing to accept ‘science fiction’ on its own terms.


IO9 compares the ratings fortunes of Fringe and Eleventh Hour, and attributes the upward rise of Eleventh Hour‘s ratings to its ‘deny science fiction’ strategy. Now, after two episodes, Eleventh Hour hasn’t had anything too science fiction-y, unless you want to count human cloning as still in the SF realm, though I’d argue that it’s now closer to science fact, and people realize this. I think the ratings appeal can be thoroughly explained by its CSI lead in, and I expect the ratings to drop in the future as I don’t think the show is all that compelling.

Now Fringe is more overtly science fiction, and it seems to be slowly falling in the ratings. Why? Because while it supposedly deals with ‘fringe’ science, to most people the stuff that happens is much more ‘science fiction’ than ‘somewhat science’, and they are tuning out. X-Files worked because: a) it was written better than Fringe and b) aside from the mythology shows and the odd episode, it dealt more with supernatural and horror elements than science fictional ones.

This is not the fault of science fiction, or any self-loathing that the community might feel, it’s all about the mainstream’s ‘loathing’ of science fiction. If you want to get the most eyeballs for a TV show or book, you have to hit the mainstream, and they aren’t willing to accept a pure SF show/book yet. That explains why Anathem wasn’t being touted as SF and why the new Trek movie is trying to appeal to ‘fans of movies’.

They then go on to say that it’s not the ‘science’ that is scaring people off, it’s the ‘fiction’. They explain how science has become a respectable pursuit and how science may help ‘save the world’ and so on. They also say that, while science has become part of everyday life, which seems to me they are ignoring a whole host of people who distrust science, science fiction has not. They then jump to the erroneous conclusion that it is the science fiction community that is responsible for this lack of acceptance, and not the mainstream. Wrong.

It’s not the SF community that kills science fiction show on TV (Surface, Threshold, Firefly), it’s not the SF community that makes publishers hide the SF in their books (Anathem, Yiddish Policemen’s Union, The Road). No, it’s mainstream. The fear and loathing isn’t on the SF community’s part, its the mainstream’s. Taking books, movies and TV shows to task for not touting their ‘SF-ness’ is exactly the wrong thing to do.

That’s why ‘stealth SF’ is a good thing. It gets the ideas in front of the ‘mainstream’ and in a way that is acceptable. More of this is needed. We, as a community, ought to be pushing the good SF books and shows hard, but not in the context of being good SF, but in the context of being just plain good. Eventually SF ideas and concepts will be accepted by the general public and even if they aren’t called ‘science fiction’, we’ll know they are, and the SF fans will have won the battle for acceptance, even if everyone else doesn’t know it.

5 thoughts on “Fear and Self Loathing in Science Fiction”

  1. This article is part of the problem. So what if Anathem (which is yet one more Stephenson book I won’t read) or Yiddish Policeman’s Ball is not touted as SF? So what?!? Worrying about that fact is another example the inferiority complex that infests the thinking of too many SF fans. Can’t books just be books? Can’t movies just be movies?

    Divide and subdivide until we’re down to one genre per fan.

  2. Regarding films, it seems to me that most get turned into religious “messiah tales” or have some spiritual element more than any SF book I’ve ever read. It’s boring and turns people away because it’s yet another “chosen one” story. Meanwhile, the Star Trek shows of the 90s, and related material, were like corporate business stories in space, and were rather dull. Captain Picard looked like a constipated business exec most of the time and was boring because if you were an adult, there were fifteen guys like him at work.

    I think that serious, not silly satire like Starship Troopers, military SF would get good attention. Also, stuff like Iain Banks writes would be great. You have fun and interesting material mixed with politics. Anyway, you need to get writers and directors who aren’t interested in religious allegory, or have some need to ruin the work by making it a comedy.

    Overall, it sees to me that many film/TV writers aren’t SF fans but know elements from other films, which were never/rarely well done.

  3. Paul, that’s a great point, it’s part of the picky perfectionism, and tribalism, I hate about western culture. Much of it is reinforced by marketing as well.

    It’s an artificial way to feel special.

  4. The fear and loathing isn’t on the SF community’s part, its the mainstream’s.

    That is basically what IO9 was saying too.

    It’s an interesting question, to ask where does the distaste for genre science fiction associations come from. Science fiction has pulp roots, and has always had an ambivalent relationship with so-called literary fiction. Even some science fiction authors grew up experiencing the genre as a semi-illicit pleasure.

    Often the distaste is well deserved. The genre’s plotlines, settings and characters are silly, cartoonish and irrelevant to the tastes of mainstream audiences. Most believe science fiction is all about spaceships, aliens, robots and time travel. To a large degree that’s exactly what it is.

    Authors have been avoiding the science fiction ghetto from the beginning (H.G. Wells) or doing their best to escape it to pursue literary repectability (Heinlien, Bradbury, Vonnegut).

    Lately the publishing industry has become genre-segregated to an absurd degree. Books are presold in finely divided subgenres and shelf space is precisely allocated. Most genre book consumers are looking for familiarity and continuity, which is detrimental to the whole basis of speculative fiction.

    Stealth SF is a good thing. That’s because true SF is grounded in logic and rationality — the scientific method — even if it’s about nominally impossible things. Our society is in danger of being overwhelmed and lost in fantasy, wishful thinking, dreams and prayers. Some more mainstreaming of SF, imagination based on a framework of reality as we know it, would be good for our society and for everyone who knows that survival depends on facing the truth about our world.

Comments are closed.