In search of science fiction
Every year I compile a list of the new movies that I consider to be true science fiction as opposed to fantasy. In recent years the task has become thankless. In 2015 there were just seven movies on my list, and none of them were great.
They range from Ex Machina, which recycles the same scenario that Automata studied so brilliantly in 2014, to Advantageous, which fumbles every scene and smothers its debate in a dismal futuro-feminism rather than try to engage its audience intelligently.
Infini took a humdrum virus outbreak into space, while Self/less tried to assume that I hadn’t read any of the genre literature on the same subject.
And then there was Air, which disastrously turned out not to be an adaptation of a Philip Ryman novel.
As despair crept in, SF almost redeemed itself with The Martian, though it leaned too heavily on its influences. It wasn’t just Ridley Scott trying to remake Robinson Crusoe On Mars. It was Ridley Scott trying to remake Gravity.
Indeed, it was a Gravity clone to the extent of repeating that movie’s Wall-E-style space propulsion, only this time it wasn’t Sandra Bullock with a fire extinguisher, it was Matt Damon punching a hole in his glove and flying around like Iron Man, something the source novel proposed and dismissed as ridiculous.
Had Damon’s character truly been able to “science the shit” out of the situation, he would have known that a hole in his glove would mean he’d simply whiz around and around like a Catherine wheel. If he truly wanted to shift his center of gravity, he’d do better to punch the hole in his groin. Or was he worried about fart jokes?
And finally there was Blackhat, which some will complain wasn’t SF at all—it was a technothriller—but in company this poor, I’ll take whatever I can.
Look around, and you wouldn’t know just how dire things have become for scientifically-literate science fiction. In his editorial to the February 2016 edition of SFX magazine, Richard Edwards gushes: “Has 2015 been the most exciting year for sci-fi and fantasy ever?”
Wait, you’re protesting. Despite the title, SFX doesn’t claim to be a science fiction magazine, and Edwards used that somewhat derisory “sci-fi” terminology to show he meant the wider non-specialized definition of the genre, rather than one based on science and plausibility and even a basic understanding of Newtonian physics.
But then, a few pages in, “community editor” Jordan Farley presents the results of a solicitation for readers to list their best genre movies and TV programs of the year. One respondent obliges:
“Jurassic World, Ant-Man and Mad Max: Fury Road have been superb. For TV Hannibal and The Flash. Also loved Tales Of Halloween, The Final Girls and Lost After Dark.”
Farley snorts in his response: “I’m obliged to point out that Hannibal isn’t science fiction, but we’ll let you off because it’s ACE.” (His capitals.)
Hey Jordan, were any of the movies and TV programs listed actually “science fiction”? As far as I can see, not one. All fantasy, all down the line.
Indeed, for me, picking up one of the popular magazines on science fiction is like picking up an astronomy magazine only to find that most of the pages are devoted to astrology.
Don’t get me wrong. I love and revel in the cosplay/geekspeak/comicbook excesses of “sci-fi” fandom. It’s a vibrantly inventive, colorful and inclusive place, full of good humor—people who love what they do and understand it’s just for laughs. More power to them.
But I also love the rigor of what Gernsback called “scientifiction.” Though it quickly became degraded (and, contrary to modern perception, the pulps were publishing fantasy from the start—and the golden age was riddled with it), at heart SF was intended to be a genre of scientific plausibility.
I like rules. No matter how outlandish my stories, I like to be able to root them in a nuts-and-bolts physical universe in which things need explanation before you can use them to drive your plot.
A good example is my latest novel, Grand Funk Central, which dives headlong into urban fantasy only to rationalize every single aspect of it as if they were all acts of science.
Much that casual genre observers would term “hard” or “true” SF is fantasy to me. For example, I find it impossible to reconcile travel backwards in time with the universe as we understand it, and hence I consider it fantasy.
And here’s the rub. SF is perfectly fine with travel backwards in time, and much else besides. Psychic powers, say, or invisibility, or telepathy, or zombies. In order to alert potential readers that your novel is not fantasy, you can no longer use the term “science fiction” to describe it.
Which is why I never do. For lack of something better, I simply describe myself as a writer of thrillers.
Why should this be preferable? For the answer, look at the latest James Bond installment Spectre, which suffered lukewarm reviews but which I think is one of the best movies of 2015.
Though I risk fisticuffs with rosy-eyed fans of the franchise, to me Daniel Craig is the best Bond we’ve ever had. Yes, even better than him.
Craig’s thuggish Bond brought a sense of reality to the character that was sorely lacking. He rooted the series in real people having real reactions to real situations.
Compare Craig’s Bond to the charmless and trite fantasy that is the Mission: Impossible franchise. M:I‘s only positive quality is that it coopted all that was bad about the Bond franchise so that Bond itself didn’t have to play those gee-whiz games anymore. From Tom Cruise hanging off a plane in the latest installment, it’s big bonkers bangs all the way.
Bond, of course, isn’t intended to be science fiction, and rarely tips fully over into the genre. There are few gadgets in Spectre: just an exploding watch and a car with an ejector seat. There’s less SF gadgetry than, say, in a typical episode of CSI.
There is one undeniable SF gimmick, however: Q injects Bond with “cutting edge nanotechnology” which will enable MI6 to monitor his location and vital signs from anywhere on the planet.
Of course, this feeds into the movie’s theme of total surveillance (big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to watch ’em), but that theme isn’t SF either. It really doesn’t take two hours of people slugging each other to understand that drone strikes and automated spying lack the human touch of operatives on the ground.
And the “smart blood” is irrelevant to the plot, so it’s not as if Spectre is predicated upon its SF iconography. Bond could have worn a tracker around his ankle, like criminals do.
Spectre‘s villain, a sadly underutilized Christoph Waltz with none of the urbane menace of his role in Inglourious Basterds, resides in the franchise’s best-ever lair: a meteorite crater in a Moroccan desert.
In the heart of the crater, Waltz proudly exhibits the meteorite itself. There’s more sense of wonder, and more pure science, in this one scene than in the whole of The Martian, but what made Waltz cluster his astronomical observatories inside the crater walls where they have a restricted view of the sky?
So far, so good. Now, imagine this: during one of those scenes in the goodies lab in London, Q gives Bond a special watch. “What does it do?” Bond asks. “It tells the time,” Q quips (as he does in Spectre). “Oh, and if you turn the minute hand back 13 seconds, it skips the wearer back 13 seconds in time.”
Thirteen seconds isn’t much. Just long enough, at the denouement of the movie, for Bond to deflect the bullet that killed his love interest and turn the tables on the villain.
Can you hear the howls of protest?
A time travel gadget would tip the movie into fantasy. Fans would be outraged that it’s a cheap fix, that it robs the movie of its dramatic drive, and that it makes a mockery of the human and political issues and relationships that led up to that point.
I’d agree with them. And yet science fiction has no problem with time travel gadgets. The example I just proposed is how the movie Galaxy Quest ends. Galaxy Quest may be a parody of SF fandom and conventions, but it is respectful to its genre, and its audience doesn’t feel cheated by the Omega 13 device.
Science fiction is so steeped in this kind of fantasy that we all take it for granted. But what the thought experiment shows is that we’ve reached the point where something that isn’t science fiction is more scientifically rigorous than something that is!
Even high fantasy plays by a more stringent set of rules than most SF does. At its worst, SF seems to have no rules at all.
And surely there’s something wrong with this, when science fiction was supposed to be the genre that the smart kids read?