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.
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.
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.