02 March 2010

Saving Science Fiction From Itself?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's essay "Barbarian Confessions," from the book Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time (eds. David Brin and Matthew Woodring Stover, 2006), is currently available on the Smart Pop Books web site, but only for a limited time (until March 5th, apparently). I was originally linked to it from SF Signal.

        John DeNardo of SF Signal terms Rusch's essay "controversial," which certainly encouraged me to read it. The controversy, I suspect, stems from Rusch's diagnosis of the condition of SF and her recommendations for how the genre can heal and remain healthy.

        The basic aim of this diagnosis involves a defense of tie-in novel series (i.e., for Star Trek or Star Wars, and the like), which is the sort of SF generally looked down upon by what Rusch calls "the Science Fiction Village," yet also the sort of SF that sells well, takes up its share of "shelf space," and -- most importantly, for Rusch -- entertains its readers. (Rusch herself has written several tie-in novels.) SF, Rusch argues, has strayed from and actively resists what makes Star Wars great: "an escape, a journey into a new yet familiar world, entertainment. A good read." Such resistance to "entertainment" began with the New Wave, the result being the predominance of "dystopian universes," "nasty ... world-building," and "insularity," along with the abandonment of "gosh-wow, sense-of-wonder stories." Therefore, according to Rusch, the prescription for SF is "more grand adventure, more heroes on journeys, more uplifting ... endings": the very stories offered by tie-in novels, which Rusch claims are "keeping SF alive."

        For me, Rusch's essay proves especially relevant with regard to James Cameron's film Avatar, particularly a strain of negative response to the film within the SF&F community. I wish to address this negative response to Avatar by comparing it to the consistently positive response to Duncan Jones' Moon, where Avatar represents SF-as-entertainment and Moon SF-as-"work" (Rusch's term). I am fascinated by and deeply appreciate both films for what they do as films and as SF. Yet, echoing Rusch, I believe Avatar will do more than Moon to keep SF alive as a thriving and relevant genre. In fact, Avatar is the kind of film (and possible novel tie-in) that can save SF from itself.

        A typical critique of Avatar goes something like, "Beautiful visuals, but the story sucks," and sucks because it's clichéd, scientifically implausible, has cookie-cutter and undeveloped characters, or is simply a rehash of other older (and better) SF works -- and those are just the most often repeated charges. (For a fairly representative response, actually, see John DeNardo's SF Signal review.) Avatar is clichéd as merely Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas in space; Pandora's floating mountains make the film scientifically implausible; Quaritch and Selfridge too easily fill the roles of evil military and corporate hard-ass, respectively, and overall the film is not grey enough with respect to its morality; finally, Avatar does poorly what Ferngully (1992) did better and first. Some bloggers/reviewers even dismissed the film without seeing it, such as posted at The World in the Satin Bag.

        Moon, however, garners praise for being "classic" science fiction, as well as for its story, the complexity of its character, and the performance by Sam Rockwell. For example, in his review for SciFi Wire, Todd Gilchrist concludes:
Ultimately, Moon is ... the kind of science fiction that we need to see more of. Not just because it's a story that collects ideas from its cinematic predecessors, deals with copies and clones and still manages to be thoroughly original, but because it's rare that something feels so real and completely fantastic at the very same time.
In this vein, comparisons are often made to "cinematic predecessors" such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Gattaca, especially for Moon's tone/mood and what I will call its hard-SF qualities. Notice how Gilchrist praises Moon's originality and realism, as well as its SF intertextuality; in his review, he also, like many, draws attention to how director Duncan Jones "maximizes his $5 million budget," achieving effects "that work just as well or better than the comparative shots that the most expensive budget could provide." Gilchrist's conclusions about Moon prove intriguing when put alongside those about Avatar, summarized just above, especially in the matter of originality: Moon is "original" in its references to other SF works, while Avatar is clichéd and derivative for doing what other SF works have already done; Moon "feels ... real and ... fantastic," while Avatar's world is implausible, unbelievable.

        My goal is not to argue that one film is better than the other. As I write above, I value both films immensely. Rather, my goal is to offer them as a comparative test case for thinking about the current and possible future condition of SF. Individually, Avatar and Moon exemplify what SF can do as a genre that both transports us to other worlds and shows us the state of our world, and doing so grounded in a fundamentally technoscientific and industrial/post-industrial perspective. One important affinity between the films, for example, is that both use innovations in the technology of film to tell their stories (i.e., Avatar's new 3D cameras; Moon's two separate performances by Sam Rockwell on the screen simultaneously); another affinity is a concern with the effects upon identity of alternate, cloned bodies and existence. Affinities aside, however, Avatar is indisputably a huge, global, popular success, while Moon is (unfortunately) a quietly critically acclaimed film -- and there are reasons why.

        Adam Roberts, in The History of Science Fiction (Palgrave, 2006), proposes that beginning in the 1980s, "the dominant mode of SF altered from written to visual paradigms" (301): film, television, graphic novels. Furthermore, he writes that the "greatest aesthetic impact" of SF films resides in "an idiom of striking and beautiful images" instead of "narrative, character or even, particularly, spectacle" (186-87). For Roberts, SF of the last several decades is highlighted by what he calls "poetic moments" (187), such as the ape's bone becoming a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey or images from The Matrix; Roberts also references novels, but films provide "the most resonant and beautiful images" (187). Avatar and Moon certainly succeed in the resonance and beauty of their poetic moments. Yet Avatar's "aesthetic impact" constitutes the source, the wellspring, of its massive, global popularity and hence why it is the sort of film that can save SF from itself.

        Recall that Rusch contends SF needs a return to "gosh-wow, sense-of-wonder" entertainment, to "grand adventure" and "uplifting ... endings." Such SF is generally looked down upon by the "Science Fiction Village," which does its best to guard the gates of proper SF and keep out the "barbarians" who focus on "entertaining" and "telling stories ... that the fans like to read." Rusch's brief for tie-in novels as the key to SF's survival is echoed somewhat by Sarah A. Hoyt in her SF Signal essay "The Death of Science Fiction: It Ain't Over Till the Fat Droid Sings" (available here), where she suggests, "perhaps we want to look at how the looser forms of science fiction do in movies and tv and how they reach audiences our science fiction writers can't even dream of." Hoyt urges at the close of her essay, "Allow writers to dream and they will. Allow stories to inspire dreams and the readers will come." To apply Rusch and Hoyt to Avatar, the Village wants to refuse entry to James Cameron's film even in the face of overwhelming evidence that Avatar has reached an audience unattainable by proper SF: uplifting with the entertainment of its grand adventure; inspiring with its gosh-wow visual sense-of-wonder.

        Avatar, like Star Wars before it, has exposed people to the imaginative power of SF on a massive scale and so represents the salvation of SF. I am in no way claiming that a film such as Moon thus represents the death of SF. Instead, I firmly believe that the genre needs and must produce both kinds of film, both kinds of SF. Rusch writes, "We can keep the dystopian fiction and the realistic, if difficult-to-read, sf novels, so long as we do them in moderation. They cannot -- and should not -- be the dominant subgenre on the shelves." A significant implication of Rusch's position is that SF can stir us with hope just as much as it can challenge us with a critical, jaundiced eye. Too much of the latter, however, and SF risks myopia.

        Moon captivates by its darkness, by the brilliance of how it unfolds the horror of a human being turned into a replicated commodity with a predetermined expiry date, free will only an illusion.

        Avatar mesmerises by its brightness, by the exuberance with which the colours and life of Pandora burst in front of our eyes, kindling hope and wonder. We need to see more of this kind of SF, too -- more such barbarians crashing through the walls and into the Village.

        Otherwise, some of the visitors to the Village will look elsewhere for their entertainment.

There is an attempt to bring hope and uplift to literary SF: the anthology SHINE, edited by Jetse de Vries, and scheduled for release in April 2010 through Solaris Books. According to de Vries, SHINE will be a collection of "optimistic SF" stories, as quoted on Futurismic. The SHINE blog can be found here.


John D. said...

Thanks for the link!

Though you can't tell by the way I worde that tidbit, the use of "controversial" was Rusch's -- it was her blog I got the link from. (I'm usually good at attribution. It figures when I forget to, someone would pick it up. And so it goes... :) )

Mike Johnstone said...

You're very welcome. :-)

Thanks for the clarification on "controversial."

Going to Rusch's blog ... ah, yes, there it is.

S.M.D. said...

I think saying that I dismissed the film is painting my post in an inappropriate light. I simply said that it will not be a great movie, but it will sell craploads of tickets regardless. It should also be noted that all of my predictions were right. It made a killing at the box office, it's story was so terribly cliche that just about everyone, even those that liked the movie, had to mention it, and that the film has largely been hailed for its visuals more than anything else.

I don't consider acknowledging those truths, even without having seen the film (I was predicting, after all), as a dismissal. A dismissal would have been me saying very little at all in condemning the film (i.e. "it's going to suck; I won't see it...that's all.").

In any case, thanks for the link!

Mike Johnstone said...

Thanks for your comment, S.M.D.

Respectfully, your post is quite clearly dismissive of Avatar, and one sense of dismiss is "to treat as unworthy of serious consideration."

Phrases such as "it's going to suck something awful" or "Avatar is destined to failure" or "It will be a CGI-laden suckfest" or "there's no point seeing the movie" or "expose itself to the public for what it most likely is: crap" can't be construed as anything other than dismissive and a dismissal, I think.

A key problem with your predictions is that they rely solely upon the trailer and what others have said -- not the evidence of the full text, so to speak.

You mention the "wooden acting we're expected to see," but I don't imagine too many people would say Zoe Saldana's performance is "wooden," and Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully with an infectious enthusiasm for experiencing his new world that is anything but "one-dimensional" or "stiff."

You also suggest that there are no "surprises" in the film, as the trailer reveals all we need to know. Yet why is knowing that "the good guy is going to win" a reason not to see the film? The interest is in how he wins -- in how he gets himself to the point of winning, in what happens along the way and what might be the consequences. In this respect, Cameron's script is masterful and purposeful.

As well, you claim that Avatar will be all CGI flash and no "substance," no story. On one hand, the international reaction to the film I think shows your prediction to be off the mark: no film in recent memory has inspired and ignited the worldwide level of discussion and debate about its subject(s) and issues: race/racism, anti- or pro-military, environmentalism, anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, etc. On the other hand, Avatar's global box office take, much of it generated by repeat viewings, suggests that the film offers more than simply "lots of pretty," that it offers a world and characters that people have become invested in.

Moreover, one person's cliché, for example, is another person's archetypes, allusions, and intertexts. Is Avatar's story familiar in its basic plot structure and the function of its characters? Sure. Yet that plot structure and those characters have never been put together in this way before. Cameron's reliance upon such familiar elements is deliberate, for they are the materials of a good story and good storytelling. How he puts them together constitutes his originality.

Then again, even if Avatar is praised mostly for its visuals, those visuals are anything but clichéd or lacking in substance. They are profound in their own right. They are an incredible aesthetic and technological achievement.

I'm more and more thinking that Avatar has become a really fabulous gauge for competing notions of originality and story and substance, and other such value-laden notions. If anything, Avatar perhaps reveals a kind of anxiety about originality and story and substance in SF&F. Why must originality, for example, mean moral shades of grey, conflicted and ambiguous characters, unpredictable events, self-reflexive and nuanced social and political sophistication, and so forth? Why can't originality be telling a good, satisfying, captivating story that -- as Rusch would have it -- entertains?

gordsellar said...

I'm a bit late for your discussion. My own writing about Avatar definitely fits your description, even if I am also one of the authors contributing to SHINE.

Here's a question that hit me reading your point just above, in the last comment:

Why must originality, for example, mean moral shades of grey, conflicted and ambiguous characters, unpredictable events, self-reflexive and nuanced social and political sophistication, and so forth? Why can't originality be telling a good, satisfying, captivating story that -- as Rusch would have it -- entertains?

I'm not so sure that people are actually saying one needs to create a nuanced, shades-of-gray, complex-characters narrative in order to be original. I think they're saying that those are necessary to make a story that doesn't on some level insult the intelligence of its audience.

The question being, why would shades of gray, nuanced sophistication, complex characters, and the like be thought mutually exclsive with the ability to entertain? Not to put words in your mouth, but certainly your final comment does imply this... and, maybe, that most regular folks can't really handle all that complexity and sophistication if it's thrown in while they're supposed to be getting entertained.

I would like to think otherwise, but I haven't really seen an SF film in a while that I thought approached the complexity, nuance, and sophistication of a good SF novel. (For the record, I wasn't much entertained by Moon or Avatar; I won't say such films shouldn't get made, maybe, but I will say I wished a smart SF film -- one with shades of gray, nuanced sophistication, complex characters, and so on -- would get made, so I could be entertained and satisfied by cinematic SF too.)

I don't believe we have to gut SF of all of its intellectual and philosophical content for it to survive or to speak to people. Rather, I think one of the beauties of SF is that all kinds of thing are possible within it: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Octavia Butler's Kindred, James Blish's A Case of Conscience, and the Star Trek novelization. Indeed, one of the beauties of SF is that philosophical depth and knee-slapping jollity and hair-raising adventure can all coexist in the same book.

To excise out any part of this range of traits and capabilities is to insist on improverishment -- and if Rusch is correct that economic improverishment will follow if we lop off the task of entertaining readers, as some contemporary SF apparently does, well, but an equally alarming intellectual and cultural improverishment is bound to follow if we accept the idea that entertainment and all that other brainy stuff cannot coexist in a book (or film). Right?

Mike Johnstone said...

Thanks for your comments, Gord.

I agree wholeheartedly, in fact: narratives with blurred moral boundaries and complex/ambiguous characters can be -- and are -- definitely entertaining. I don't at all believe the two are mutually exclusive (neither does Rusch, I suspect), yet the tone of the reactions to and criticisms of Avatar within much of the SF&F community has been dismissive of the film distinctly because it doesn't tell an "original" story, where originality seems to mean a certain level of "intellectual and philosophical" gravitas.

I actually think Avatar is more layered than most give it credit for being. My other posts on Avatar discuss this matter, for the film, as I see it, entertains on the level of pure story and visual wonder as well as provokes thought and debate on the level of a range of sociocultural issues. There are few films, let alone SF texts specifically, that have achieved the sort of global cultural penetration of Avatar, whether in defense of the film or to critique its politics and so forth.

As I write in my post and my comments to S.M.D., and as Rusch observes in her essay, SF should include both Avatar and Moon, both narratives geared primarily at entertainment and narratives that are more challenging aesthetically and intellectually. One of the true joys of SF, for me, is its "philosophical depth," its "brainy stuff." I don't think that Rusch is arguing for what amounts to a "cultural impoverishment" of an SF that does only "knee-slapping jollity and hair-raising adventure." Nor am I.

Rather, I wonder if the point at stake is more that (literary) SF risks greater insularity and a steadily dwindling market share by not entertaining more -- which Rusch links to narratives that provide hope (as opposed to unrelieved dystopia), something that Avatar certainly seeks to do. I further wonder, then, if in today's world there is a discomfort and uneasiness with hope. Could SF be thus uniquely positioned to produce hopeful narratives that entertain in ways that are also complex, nuanced, and sophisticated?

Regarding that question, there is a reason Avatar has achieved such success beyond its big budget and pretty visuals ....