SF Debris reviews science fiction and fantasy films, television shows, and other such debris, combining occasional serious discussions with comedy. In addition to his reviews, SF Debris has also taken his fair stab at writing science fiction, and other musings. You can encounter his work at his website.
Steven A. Michalkow: You have spent several years of your life creating review videos which go into great depth in assessing the quality of many works of science fiction and providing your interpretation of them. In short, regardless of how you come to feel about a particular piece of science fiction, your actions show that you take science fiction seriously. I’ll ask the banal question: why do you take science fiction seriously? And why should we?
SF Debris: The alternative is to be dismissive of a work simply for fitting in an arbitrary box. Literature, film, television are art forms, and science fiction should be considered a valid expression within those art forms, but that won’t happen so long as people lower their standards for science fiction (or really, all of speculative fiction). Speculative fiction often appeals to some of the most brilliant and imaginative minds, yet it is often considered puerile, leading to a vicious circle of low standards by reasoning that people expect low standards.
Take for instance SyFy, what are they now known for? Ridiculously bad films like Sharknado. And many people love Sharknado, I’m not saying you shouldn’t indulge yourself and embrace the kitsch charm. But what does it say about the genre when the network that’s supposed to be about science fiction embraces that to the exclusion of all else? When was the last time someone said “The problem with that SyFy movie was that it was just too high brow for me?” Without being ironic. “I failed to understand the symbolism of the giant queen spider eating a helicopter.”
Indeed, what does it say when the channel meant to promote science fiction is spelled with two “y”s! In all seriousness, this does seem to raise the question of genre and how an author uses it vis-à-vis the art as such. Some SF readers and viewers (as you well know) can become very particular in what they want their SF to deliver. Hard SF readers want their detailed technical machinery. Steampunk fans want something similar albeit with a Victorian flavor, so on and so forth. None of this is in itself bad, but it’s possible that the obsession over genre details at the expense of literary precision or some other non-genre purpose seems like it might potentially contribute to this blanket dismissal of the genre as such. How do you see the better science fiction writers navigating this tightrope of genre needs vs. literary/artistic needs? Do you even think this is a meaningful distinction?
Well I think it’s more a case that a good science fiction writer should tell the kind of stories that have meaning to them much like any writer should. You certainly can write other things, and write them well, because writing is a profession after all. But generally I think an artist of any type does their best work with something they are the most personally invested in. If that is steampunk then so be it, if it’s pre-Columbian America werewolf tales then that’s it, and it will draw in accordingly. A writer may find himself including other elements in the hopes of ensuring a larger audience but I think ultimately those who share that passion will better connect with them. For instance, Fifty Shades of Gray, which admittedly I’ve not read, was a smash hit even though it’s literally repackaged Twilight fanfic, because the writer and the audience shared that same passion for the ideas. It may seem an absurd if not outright insulting comparison to make, but the same principle applies in my mind: anyone can likely do it but those with the passion will likely better connect with the audience.
What do you look for in a work of science fiction? What, in your opinion, sets a bad piece of work apart from a good piece of work from a great piece of work? Do you (or should we) adopt specific criteria for judging science fiction – separate from how we think of “strait” literature?
Absolutely not, an artificial divide merely reinforces that science fiction isn’t real literature/film/television/etc. Good science fiction may have unique positive elements to it just like good romance or westerns might, but what you can do with a great work of literature you ought to be able to do in speculative fiction, so what I look for in science fiction are what I would look for even if I wasn’t looking at science fiction. One of the things that I believe is vital is being believable, which is the reason for my contempt for technobabble answers, gaping flaws in logic, and obvious inconsistencies. Science fiction fans are often caricatured for obsessing over details, and yet details are important in so many other works; where would Sherlock Holmes be without details?
Take the film Signs for example. Shyamalan does a fantastic job portraying the potential end of the world via alien invasion from the perspective of a small group on a farm. At the time it was a commercial and critical triumph. Now if you mention the film to anyone, all they’re likely to bring up are the gaping plot holes, because those so undermined the film that nobody can take it seriously any more. And that’s sad, but it’s the truth, and it’s part of the reason science fiction has to be created with that same level of craftsmanship that other works demand. This applies to any form, the same principle applies, an extension of the old curse of science fiction: bad special effects. We laughed at the ship that was clearly a model on a string but today the ship is so real you could touch it, but it doesn’t matter because far too often the film or program containing it is ridiculous. At least people decades ago were doing the best they could with the technology that existed, what’s the excuse of people who can show you an army of alien warships you’d swear we’re watching on the news but can’t build a story around it that’s would be worth watching?
I think you are absolutely right to subject SF work to the same level of narrative scrutiny as any work of narrative art…particularly works that choose to operate on that level. That being said, there is a tendency for several SF critics (particularly internet critics for some reason), to play the “spot the plothole” game. Unlike you, several of your online peers seem to reduce the art of criticism to identifying as many narrative gaps as possible in an effort to render the ultimate summary of the work as “SHIT!” To me, making a fetish of plot as such is almost like making a fetish out of specific genre conventions. Doing this to excess, do we run the risk of limiting ourselves to basic linear narratives in SF? For example, does it even make sense to talk about plot holes in David Lynch movies or The Prisoner? Do we run the risk of marginalizing non-linear, non-narrative art by doing this? In doing so, does that also feed into the loop where SF is not taking seriously by those in the literary/artistic circles who do?
Well different works do need to be approached with different mindsets – it’s one thing to poke holes in a straightforward film and quite another in a surreal work since bringing logic to the surreal is like bringing a foam #1 finger to church. Anything that is intended to be logical should be able to stand up to logic, or at least logic within a rule’s set. Invisibility, for instance, is illogical, but we’ll accept its existence so long as it’s consistent, if it’s “you can’t be seen but you can be heard” we go along with it, but if suddenly you can’t be heard while invisible you should have a good explanation or else somebody screwed up, and to ignore that is to undermine the integrity of the medium. But if something is more experimental in its structure then a different set of criteria applies because we’re moving into an area where reason isn’t applicable.
Because let’s admit where this image of fans mostly comes from: the stereotypical nerd who obsesses over irrelevant details, and this is typically associated with science fiction television, film to a degree, but mostly television. But a few things to note are that most of the mistakes they note are with writers (or creative staff changing things) who don’t have a science or science fiction background. Before he worked on Star Trek Brannon Braga tried writing pornography, Michael Piller worked on Simon & Simon, people who knew how to write, but without the mindset, so when they make a big deal about not beaming through the shields one week and then they beam through it the next to save the day, that may seem like fan nitpicking, but it belies the central problem: the shields are not shields, they are plot devices, cardboard trees being moved about the stage to tell the story, except we wouldn’t accept it if someone said this tree was actually a rock (except, of course, in science fiction when trees can be silicon-based!). Those kinds of things break the verisimilitude of the work for the fans because it shows where the writers’ priorities lie, and it’s not with the science fiction, and in those terms isn’t it reasonable to be unhappy that people don’t care about science fiction in your favorite science fiction show? It’s basically the same as my earlier point about connecting with the audience on things you love, because even though Piller and Braga both created some really great episodes and I don’t doubt were doing the best they could to make a show they could be proud of, you could see the difference between them and someone like JMS who clearly just loves science fiction, and while he may give us some stinkers still seems to better connect with his audience as a result.
For quite a long time, science fiction was relegated to the status of pulp fiction – regardless of its popularity or critical appeal within certain circles. Even today, while some pieces of science fiction attaining a kind respectability and even a place in the literary cannon, there still seems to be a bit of unease within the “pure” literary circles regarding science fiction. It is almost as if there is a kind of begrudging which will acknowledge that science fiction should not be dismissed outright as a genre on the condition that they can ignore it. Am I being too negative in my interpretation of the situation or is there something to this?
I think that’s exactly the problem, and I think it’s in part due to science fiction being employed in comic books for so long, even worse than pulp because comic books were dismissed for so long as being for children. Indeed, I think pulp, comics, and speculative fiction are such great bedfellows because they have such diversity to them, such freedom with what they did and could do, but in that same vein, people could dismiss all based upon a small sampling.
Yet, take a story like “Judgment Day” from Weird Fantasy. It could be told without being a comic, but it would lose so much. And it could have been told without being science fiction, but it would have lost even more. The story is of a robot society that a human astronaut comes to judge to see if they’re ready to join Earth’s great galactic civilization, but he decides they’re not. Because there is an absurd divide in the robot society. He witnesses the manufacture of the robots and they’re absolutely identical except the final step, where they receive either orange or blue coloring, and all of one’s opportunities are determined on that arbitrary distinction. So they’re rejected for now, and upon returning to his ship we see the astronaut now free to take off his helmet… and reveal that he’s black. This was sixty years ago and this “childish” story was showing the absurdity of race relations in America when the Korean War had barely ended. It’s not just the twist reveal, the note that the educator used for the orange or the blue robot, the thing that made them think they way they did was “the parents and relatives and environment and the school.” There is a recognition of how this self-reinforcing kind of problem worked. Now lots of stories have been told about race, but how many have presented it for the absurdity that the problems truly are and why they continue in a mere eight pages? And yet how often is this work mentioned in the mainstream? Effectively never, which is ironic in a way, that mainstream works of art marginalize other works for being a comic book or science fiction.
There are, of course, some exceptions, but I think the stigma hasn’t been lost and it is reinforced by bad science fiction. If science fiction fans will swallow garbage, then there must be something wrong with their sense of taste.
In some sense, you are making the point (both here and in your reviews) that in order for SF to be taken seriously as an art, SF needs to be taken seriously by its audience. I know this is a difficult question to ask in the aggregate, but these days, do you find that the audience for SF takes the work more or less seriously than other genre audiences? Do SF audiences take SF more or less seriously than they have in the past? Why might that be?
Well I think it’s important to distinguish the media because they are heading in different directions at the moment. SF film has gone the direction of mindless blockbuster due to the expense of special effects that try to top the last one and make the best trailer. SF television has gone in the direction of shorter seasons without the throwaway episodes they used to have and spend more time exploring the implications of their narrative situations and the resulting effect of it on people. SF in print seems to have remained the same to me, so I’d say it’s a case of more seriously with television, less serious with film, and the same with print.
As far as comparison goes to others, I think it’s complicated. Some people become obsessed with a romantic relationship between characters in a work – any work – because they feel it is something special. For the same reason, fans of a particular idea presented by an SF work can obsess over it because it’s something special they’ve found.
The science fiction of the late 1960s and the 1970s seems to be an interesting case to explore in this regard. This is the time where we being to see some of the most significant output of writers like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. Outside of a tiny sliver of the older generation of SF writers, Dick, Ballard, and a few other works of the 70s seem to have found a quicker path to “literary respectability” than their predecessors. What do you make of that? Is there something particular about their moment in time or their aesthetics which might explain this?
There is, I think, some degree of acceptance among counter-culture at this time, and that may have allowed a bit more of a movement of science fiction into this demographic that might not normally have embraced it. Much the same way that today’s “geek culture” has gone mainstream and brought interest in comic books and video games to a very large audience, I think there was a degree of interest in science fiction from people seeing it exploring ideas that were not typically associated with the topic, and for using it as a means to question things counterculture itself was questioning. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, for instance, was torn to shreds and yet had a place within counterculture. I think respectability came because of this influence, by its appeal to this emerging cultural force.
I think you are spot on in bringing up both the acceptance of SF in the 1960s/and 1970s counter culture milieu and the acceptance of SF and/or “geek culture” into the mainstream these days via comics and video games. Mass appeal can certainly be a double edge sword. The quality of the work seems somewhat dependent on the culture you blend into or are spawned from. In a way the overload of comic book films as primarily action vehicles seems to gloss over some of the more innovative work to have come out of comics (no one has yet succeeded in bringing Sandman to the screen for example). As a result, the simplistic and dismissive view of comics can thus reinforce itself. Do you think, as SF becomes more mainstream, it faces various pressures to become less speculative? Is their any way to combat that or is that just the nature of the beast?
The number one weakness of SF outside of print is special effects, because those are both necessary to the work and expensive to create. It’s certainly possible to create something with inexpensive effects that still looks good, but at this point it is assumed that any kind of SF is going to look epic, and so with that in mind, it’s no surprise that comic book films seem to emphasize that angle. And it seems to be something inherent with the system, when we get a Star Trek movie, it has to be a mainstream action film because it’s expensive and so it needs to be safe. There’s talk of Stargate returning, but basically disregarding the three series, because as much as that would irk the fans, it’s safer to appeal to the larger film audience because, after all, if the Stargate series were popular enough to pull in the audience they would still be on the air. So long as film is a business, it will be handled in a business way by major studios, and few independent films will be able to do science fiction and not seem laughable because of the effects needs.
Let’s veer away from literature for a moment. With the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who this year, and the soon to arrive 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the question of the artistic merits of classic television science fiction has been on my mind. These two series in particular seem to occupy the pinnacle of the landscape of science fiction for much of the world. Few other works of science fiction (including highly respectable science fiction literature) have obtained such a popular following or such a deluge of critical analysis. Even though many fans would acknowledge that both Doctor Who and Star Trek have produced their fair share of disappointing episodes, there still remains something utterly compelling about these two series. What is so particularly special about these programs? At their best, are these series significant works of art?
Absolutely. They may have had to overcome technical hurdles but they usually worked to make the stories themselves work. They obviously had some plot holes. The idea of the captain and first officer deliberately heading into danger on purpose just to perform reconnaissance is ridiculous, and the logic on display in Doctor Who was often quite questionable (From early Doctor Who, I find it hard to believe the Doctor would condone a machine that exists to prevent “evil thoughts” like in “The Keys of Marinus”). But lots of undeniably significant works of art have problems, the famous “Rosebud” of Citizen Kane that, as many have pointed out, was uttered with no one there to hear and so how did they know it was his last word? Or take The Wizard of Oz, which shows the villain’s weakness is the same one seen in Signs and it comes out of nowhere, the ultimate adversary is thwarted by accident! But so what, they’re still classics, and so too are many science fiction works, of which Who and Trek are a small part, and I’d say their nature as science fiction makes them more memorable in many cases. Gunsmoke was a classic western show that was on the air for decades, yet how often do people mention it?
The only people who mention Gunsmoke are generally also waiting for death. The huge (relatively speaking) and long lasting popularity of Star Trek and Doctor Who is very interesting. It could be argued that the longevity of these shows must be do the their ability to capture and articulate our collective understanding of either the human condition or the human imagination. Is there something particular about SF which can capture this a way other types of work (i.e. Gunsmoke) do not?
Speculative fiction is mostly unique in its requirement to build a place as much as a story. So while other works can come and go, fascinating places will stick in the imagination. Even in works where the setting changes, the world of it remains memorable, so that even someone who isn’t necessarily a fan of the genre will remember things from it that likely wouldn’t be remembered about other works. However enjoyable they might be, they’ll be replaced with the new thing and fade away. I’d say the endurance of Greek mythology is proof that this isn’t something new. Ask someone for a non-historical tale from Ancient Greece that doesn’t involve the gods and you’ll almost certainly get a shrugging of shoulders, but those with that mythological element are the ones remembered. It was the fantastic elements that made those stories memorable, even more than the important themes and messages. It’s probably something in us that makes that which is beyond us, whether it is science or magic, a tool of the imagination and something to leave an indelible mark upon us.