Monday, April 5, 2010

Death of a genre

A genre is in trouble when the general public can't even define it. And that, I am convinced, is the current state of science fiction.

As an SF author I meet two types of people at book signings: committed SF fans and -- in much larger numbers -- passersby. Too many passersby make comments like: "Oh, like Harry Potter." (Or Superman. Or Lord of the Rings. Or Twilight. Or, or, or ... insert the non-SF media titan of your choice here.) Interestingly, not: Oh, like Star Wars, Star Trek, or Terminator, let alone any literary SF example.

Yet people understand the scope of other genres. Historical fiction is fiction in an historical setting. Westerns are fiction set in the Old West. Fantasy deals with magic, myth, and monsters. Mysteries are stories centered on solving crimes. Technothrillers are action stories that involve new gadgets (most often, weapons).

Why is it not equally self-evident that science fiction is storytelling that involves science? Why do many people conflate science fiction, stories about the possible, with fantasy, stories of the impossible? 

Corporate America has not helped. Many bookstores interfile SF and fantasy. The Sy Fy Channel, having even shunned the label Sci Fi, makes no distinction. (And don't even get me started about wrestling on Sy Fy ...)

Do SF authors help their own cause? Maybe not. Modern SF often includes a few as-far-as-we-know impossibilities, tropes, in the interest of exploring other topics scientifically. Without the FTL trope, as one example, it's hard to write about a rich range of alien environments and extraterrestrial biospheres. But like most anything, too many tropes are a bad thing -- and movie/TV "science fiction" is generally so trope-laden, so full of the impossible, that viewers can't be blamed for conflating "science fiction" with "anything weird."

Take the recent Star Trek reboot. It's got: FTL travel, time travel, alternate universes, wacky "red matter" that's sorta/kinda like antimatter, extraterrestrials, teleportation, telepathy .... And with all that handwavium, the plot still doesn't hang together.

Meanwhile the occasional excellent Hollywood science-fiction product (like Gattica, Moon, and The Arrival) goes un-promoted and all but unnoticed.

Perhaps, through misuse, science fiction has become a meaningless term -- beyond rehabilitation. Maybe we need a new name for fiction that deals with scientific knowledge and reasoning. A reboot for, not a mere franchise, but an entire genre.

Candidate names, anyone?


sidpcobain said...

That would be the "Star Trek" reboot.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Sid: you are, of course, correct. Stoopid synapses!

I corrected the post. Many thanks.