Fear and Self Loathing in Science Fiction
The 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.
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