The death of Sci Fi... sort of • 6 January 2008 • The SnowBlog

The death of Sci Fi... sort of

Wow, sci fi get's a bad press. As I think I've observed before, it's so unpopular that good sci fi ceases to even be sci fi. It gets honorarily promoted out of the category. It gets rescued by mainstream literature. It gets discovered, like a diner waitress being selected for a Vogue cover. Worse still, to paraphrase and sort of read between the lines, luminaries like William Gibson seem to think that sci fi is dead. Well, not dead exactly, but quite possibly no longer practical. Bill (as I might call him if we were buds) Gibson tells a story from 1994 of receiving a fax from a fellow sci fi writer. The fax contained a press cutting about how Elvis Presley's daughter was marrying Michael Jackson. Next to the story were handwritten the words: "This makes our job more difficult". By which his friend meant that we were entering the era where fact was routinely stranger than fiction. You could try to outpace reality, but you'd probably just sound giddy and manic, or you could soberly project forwards the interesting trends of today and risk writing sci fi that's less futuristic or outlandish than the morning newspaper. Imagine it's 1990 and you read this blurb: "It's 2008 and something is wrong with Earth's climate. It turns out that since the industrial revolution humans have been inadvertently altering the weather and now our species is under threat. But a crazed evangelical sits in the White House, obsessed with bombs and war, hateful of science, who believes that we live in the End Times and that Islam and Socialism, not CO2, are the real threats. Corporate behemoths control Congress while an oblivious populace sits glued to their 'reality TV' shows - a form of Twenty-First Century video entertainment in which everyone watches everyone else compete for pointless celebrity. A deadly sexually-transmitted disease rampages unchecked across the Third World while the U.S. Army is encamped in the Middle East, making sure that the dwindling supplies of oil go to fuel the Fifties-style gas-guzzlers that America is still in love with. The space program is forgotten, 'survivalists' are no longer cranks, they're 'security consultants' earning millions and obesity is becoming a new plague in the West while among the have-nots starvation is as common as ever." I mean, come on! It's not remotely believable. It's like something written by a depressed sixth-former. An article at Wired echoes the theme. If it's good, then it can't be sci fi. In the world of books, sci fi has been spinning down since the Sixties. Clockwork Orange, 1984, Brave New World and (for some reason) Childhood's End were all books I was required to read for school in the Seventies. And after school I used to trawl the sci fi shelves in whatever my local Waterstone's was called in those days looking for cool new adventures to immerse myself in. Then, sometime around the early Eighties, the flow of sci fi began to dry up. The two bays of sci fi books I knew so well became 'Sci Fi and Fantasy' - and new fantasy titles gradually edged out the stagnating, dwindling sci fi offering. Every few years I try to find a sci fi author I like, but they're few and far between. The two notable exceptions, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, have both moved away from sci fi in such an orderly fashion, book by book, that if you graphed it, you'd get a straight line. William Gibson has retracted his stories into the present; Neal Stephenson has receded into the past. And I think I detect a hint of irony, because William Gibson got into sci fi in the first place partly because he saw its fallow acreage in the Eighties and realised he could move in unopposed and start raising crops. But now reality is squeezing him out. And yet... On the one hand, how else are we going to work out what we think about things unless we do it through sci fi? It's not like we're going to have a national debate about cloning, say. As my failed attempts to interest anyone in reading The Shock Doctrine have brought home to me, the only way to get people to think about the future is to make it fun, a game, entertainment. And on the other hand, CGI is like a monster that's got loose and now it's feeding, growing strong, and is all set to rampage across the visual landscape of our culture chomping on everything in its path and refusing to be stopped. All the unmakeable movie pitchs of the past are about to become makeable. You just know that in creative meetings somewhere in the Los Angeles Basin, Hollywood execs are challenging each other to think of 'impossible' movies - the more impractical the better - because what better way to showcase the new VFX technology and blow people's minds than by filming the unfilmable? Mark my words, some time in the next decade, someone will decide to make a movie from the Book of Revelations. But I would still maintain that written sci fi is possible. I just read Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I have quibbles with the story - or at least I have differences of taste - but it managed to weave an interesting yarn while tricking you into thinking about what the world would be like if status could be automatically calculated as easily as counting hits on a web site. And what if switching to a new body was routine? And what if that aforementioned status replaced money because mechanisation had removed the scarcity of inanimate objects? And what if, within all that futuristic weirdness, the story revolved around friendship, romance, ambition and the search for a bit of job satisfaction? I think sci fi is still 'doable', but I think it's getting tougher and tougher to make it genuinely thought-provoking and genuinely accessible at the same time. I don't think you can just transplant a Western or a war story onto a space craft any more. For a reminder of how not to do it, the ultimate in bad sci fi is still that slice of frozen time: Lost in Space - the Sixties TV show where in the future, everything will be exactly like 1960, but sprayed silver. You can't just tinker with the technology and call it The Future. You have to figure out what will become of our friendships and fears and jobs and health concerns and prejudices and aspirations. Or, on the other hand, you can forget about sci fi in book form and simply write a sci fi movie script that has shapeshifting magical telekinetic giant alien monster robot mutant exploding... everythings. And then let Michael Bay take a whack at it.


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