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New Directions: Mind the Gap
© Lou Anders

For a long time now, I've been increasingly disheartened by the dichotomy between televised and literary SF. So much so, in fact, than when people who have learned to associate me with SF make the inevitable "Oh, so you must watch Star Trek" assumption, I have evolved a stock reply that I whip out with as much self-righteous disdain as I can muster.

"I don't watch any Science Fiction television whatsoever," I reply, quickly adding, "Unless Futurama counts." And with allowances for the occasional foray into the broad category SF that constitutes the Buffster's Vampire Slaying, that's pretty much true.

Once upon a time, SF Television was true SF. Back in the days of Star Trek: TOS, The Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone, science fiction television strove to present the new, the challenging, the bizarre. Those series set out to show us that the Universe was a weird and unfamiliar place, and the farther into it we pushed, the less like home it would seem. In their way, TNG, DS9, and Babylon 5 sometimes seemed to follow in that tradition, presenting stories that showed how different cultures evolved from different biologies and other-than-Earth environments. But their brilliance was unrecognized by a new and growing public that (maddeningly!) thought Voyager was definitive of good drama, and that (most inconceivably!) thought Hercules and Xena had anything worthwhile to say about the complexities of human interpersonal relationships.

So after five fulfilling years as an SF journalist skulking happily around the corridors of Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9, I left the City of Angels and full-time magazine writing primarily because of the change in the television landscape. Having lost myself in the pages of literary masterworks as splendid as Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, PKD's The Divine Invasion , and Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, I was horrified lest anyone think that this thirty-something wasted his time with the likes of Andromeda and Cleopatra 2525. God forbid that they think I watch Enterprise, and I'd rather tape an entire season of The Fortune 500 Club than be caught watching an episode of Lexx. (I did watch one episode, out of the same sort of morbid curiosity that makes you dig beneath a scab—as well as a sincere desire to avoid hypocrisy by vehemently deriding something I had never seeen. It featured a carrot-monster that forced its way up each of the crewmember's rectums in turn, with frequent fart noises and several long scenes of people sitting on a toilet, which, I believe, licked their butts with a giant tongue. Would that I were joking…)

Perhaps the SciFiChannel programming markets itself directly to the saddest core of the convention crowds, while the network players, in their desire for the big numbers that mean big advertising dollars, are afraid to present anything that challenges the status quo malaise of the American LCD. Whatever the reason, television SF is fast becoming a vast wasteland that contains little or nothing of value or interest buried beneath its rising and insipid dunes.

For its part, cinematic SF fairs marginally better than its television counterpart. And while the vast majority of SF movies are really little more than "boy's action" flicks, even some of these manage a baseline of respectability. The Terminator films, for example, brought a level of seriousness and "believable danger" that had been lacking from the action genre hijinxs of the Lethal Weapons and Die Hards. It was also passable SF, and no wonder, as it's no secret that Cameron stole the concept from one of the best writers in the business.

In my mind (and with the usual caveats about my over-generalizations thrown out for you nitpickers), the dichotomy between filmic and literary SF is caused by a fundamental difference in what the two mediums are trying to accomplish. Science Fiction Literature, it its purest form, is about exploring the impact of new sciences and new developments on the human race. Its maxim is to show the audience something that they haven't seen before. (That Jolene Blaylock did this in the pages of Maxim is an irony that is just too wrong for words. But I digress…) In the science fiction literary work, a hitherto unknown SOMETHING is introduced to humanity, and the story sets out to explore the result. It throws out an X Factor, and then examines how humankind is forced to change, to adapt, to cope with this new intrusion. Science Fiction Film, however, is all too concerned with preventing the intrusion—with preserving the status quo against any bringer of change. An asteroid or an alien invasion is threatening the Earth—how do we stop it?

Essentially, "true" SF is about societies undergoing transition or societies viewed after a transition. "Action in an SF setting" is just the inverse, as the plot of the movie revolves around preventing the very transition that would qualify the film as true SF. In presenting just such a scenario, such high profile "SF" films as Aliens, ID4, Sphere and Armageddon are little more than brainless action movies clothed in science fiction settings. Whereas lesser celebrated films like Gattaca, 12 Monkeys, Strange Days, Dark City, and eXistenZ are "true" SF. (Also, by this definition, Woody Allen's Sleeper is actually one of the great SF films, presenting, as it does, a world in which sexuality has been supplanted by technology and its impact on one very human being. And has anyone noticed that Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is still the only film to accurately portray the "effect before the cause" logic of time-travel paradoxes? And, in showing a world where the future "history" is created by our heroes' time-travel—rather than a world in which an alteration in history must be prevented or corrected by the hero—it also fits our bill.)

Truthfully, the Matrix trilogy is the brightest ray of light that I see upon the horizon. In presenting a story in which the consensus reality is a contemporary American status quo, and our heroes' goal is to smash this reality all to hell, it is actually the most commercially successful work of real SF in decades. Producer Joel Silver says he views the film as every bit the benchmark that Blade Runner was in its day. Whether his forecast bears out, or whether all we have to point to as its progeny is the slow-mo karate scenes of Charlie's Angels and Scary Movie, remains to be seen. Hopefully, with two more Matrix installments yet to come, and a wealth of SF literary projects under option, we won't have to wait another 20 years till our next benchmark arrives.

Still, sometimes I want to go back in time to 2001 (the film, not the year) and project a cinema of SF that took Kubrick's work as its impetus and inspiration, rather than Lucas'. It would be a very different landscape we looked back on now indeed.

LOU ANDERS is an editor, author, and journalist. In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, an Internet company which provided books and short stories for free online reading, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He has published over 500 articles in such magazines as Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact, released from Titan Books Ltd in December 1996, and the editor of the anthology Outside the Box, released from Wildside Press in March 2001. Currently, he is at work on two more anthologies and a novel.

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