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Science fiction only now ‘character driven’? January 28, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

This piece in the Guardian has quite an argument at its heart :

Call it the Tim Peake effect. Science fiction has always been as much about the human condition as saving the world from an alien invasion, but now a new wave of films and books are taking that interest one step further and developing an existentialist genre set in outer space.

An author, Katie Khan argues that:

…we are seeing a move towards more heartfelt science fiction. “I think you can trace it back to the popularity of Chris Hadfield [the Canadian commander of the International Space Station in early 2013] and his use of social media. Since then, Nasa has also made great use of social media – as did Tim Peake. What we’re seeing is a closing of the gap between what seems possible and what could never happen, and that opens the door for very human stories to be told amid the escapist fantasy of heading into space.”


Khan cites 2015’s The Martian and last year’s Arrival as examples of sci-fi films with heart, and it is true that both place our desire for connection at their core. Arrival, which nods to the great emotional sci-fi film of the late 1970s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is particularly concerned with how we communicate both with alien life forms and, crucially, with those we know best.

The success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and recent spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, both of which are character-driven, also suggests that there is a growing desire for sci-fi that makes time for human relationships.

Well, it’s an idea. But I’m dubious. The article mentions Interstellar from 2014, but the idea that that was inspired by Hadfield, seems a bit unlikely. And this seems historically quite blind to previous waves of SF – the 1960s including 2001: A Space Odyssey, but many more were influenced precisely by issues in relation to technology and humans. Silent Running. Solyent Green. A Clockwork Orange. Close Encounters. Star Wars itself, and so on. Soviet SF, where does it end?

Some of these films were pretty bad, some were pretty good. But all were positioned precisely in the area of the issues mentioned above. And let’s not even talk about television science fiction.

As for books the proposition could not be more wrong. The idea that SF is only now examining the human condition is… unusual. I’ve boxes groaning under the weight of novels and short stories that have done and continue to do that since… well I can’t really name a date. Even being kind and saying it was the New Wave of SF in the 1960s that changed things ignores so many fine writers who came before that and did tackle with both technology and the human.

It is true that there seems to be a recent wave of big budget SF films but I’d have to go checking to see if this genuinely was different to previous half decades or whatever.

BTL comments point to the fallacy in the following:

“The idea of putting a man on Mars is no longer a great leap of imagination,” said David Barnett, whose novel Calling Major Tom was inspired by the moment in 2015 when British astronaut Peake called the wrong number from the International Space Station. “In the 1970s and 80s, space travel felt like something out of science fiction, but now it’s part of modern life, with astronauts tweeting and going on YouTube, and because of that, putting space travel in a book doesn’t freak out non-sci-fi fans as much as it might once have done.”

Really? The 1970s and 1980s, the time of Apollo, Skylab, the Space Shuttle? Compared to today space travel felt more everyday, less precarious, because it felt as if it was becoming normalised. Whereas today it feels as if it is not impossible that humans might sometime relatively soon leave even low earth orbit. I think that latter is unlikely. But not impossible.


1. 6to5against - January 28, 2017

I havent’ read large amounts of Sci-fi, so I’m not pretending to an expert view on this. And perhaos that is where the Guardian writer is coming from too? Whenever you come across a idea that is new to you, its always tempting to believe that it must be new to everybody else too.

So, ignore the point that this development is new, and take her point this way instead – that there is a divide in sci-fi between human dramas using science to create a backdrop and as a way of developing the plot, and those sci-fi books that are really all about the imaginary universe they inhabit, rather than the people who inhabit that universe.

Too much of the former put me off the genre years ago. I think Asimov might be a key figure in that type of writing? But then I discovered HG Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ a few years ago and was blown away by it. Sci-fi it most certainly is, but the book could survive almost intact as a human-based invasion story.

And isn’t there another divide too, between fictional worlds based on wild speculation (Interstellar) and those that are maybe just
speculative (the Martian).

And where does Star Wars fit in? I’ve never really seen it as science fiction. None of its key plot points, nor the fictional world it inhabits, arise from a scientific concept (do they?). Similarly for Star Trek. I think both are a sub-genre, really. More fantasy than sci-fi.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2017

That’s a fair point – I don’t like ‘genre’ as a term but I think a lot of fiction that might be in such subcategories can have issues of characterisation and yes, I’d strongly agree that emerging from the ‘pulp’ era it wasn’t great – though as you say there were exceptions then and before (WoftheW is a great great book and a lot of Wells still stands up IMHO). That said by the 60s matters had changed and for the better and markedly so across a range.

There’s definitely divides between various areas – some writers refuse to write about faster than light because they think it impossible, etc, etc. But I do think more broadly characterisation is good in general now and sometimes fantastically good.

Re SW and ST, yes, they’re not hard SF, or rooted in tech or science. Though they’ve elements of it (battered spaceships or seeming scientific approaches used more or less cosmetically). I certainly agree SW is close to fantasy.

My absolute favourite films in SF are Stalker and 2001 and they’re both driven by different dynamics and yet very similar, Stalker is more character driven, 2001 more about the lack of humanity and character. Written SF is a bit different, there’s such a range isn’t there? James Tiptree Jr. is still one of my favourites and she wrote fiction that was explicitly character driven while still pretty hard SF in places – or Ian Watson and Christopher Priest, where does one stop?


CL - January 28, 2017

Popular Russian SF authors the Strugatsky brothers said the secret of their success was ‘that they wrote about “adventures of the spirit, and not about adventures of the body” ‘.
They wrote ‘Roadside Picnic’ on which the movie Stalker is based. And many others. ‘The Doomed City’ is very good,-although I’m not so sure it should be called SF.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2017

They were fantastic writers – two of my favourites of theirs are Beetle in the Anthill, Prisoners of Power, Hard to be A God, and The Time Wanderers – all set in a Communist future Earth society and loosely linked. I would love to see films based on BitA and TTW. Hard to be A God has been filmed twice I think, the most recent one is a looser adaptation and mean to be very harrowing.

Roadside Picnic is good too. I agree, they’re not not entirely SF, there’s strong fantasy elements (and literary aspects too).


lcox - January 29, 2017

Yes, I think the reviewer really just illustrates that she’s never heard of the distinction between hard scifi (driven by real or imaginary developments in science and their possible implications, or playing with ideas as to what might happen if the rules of the universe were a bit different) and other forms. There is definitely scifi pulp, and space opera (though some of the latter like Lois Bujold is excellent). But anyone half-familiar with e.g. Ursula LeGuin (a regular Guardian reviewer btw) ought to be well beyond cliches that suggest all scifi is about the technology. It’s lazy journalism – a bit like reviews of vegetarian restaurants that express delight that not all the customers wear kaftans and sandals.

For readers of this blog Ken McLeod’s Fall Revolution series (crudely, Trots in space) is highly recommended btw.


WorldbyStorm - January 29, 2017

Le Guin is a perfect example, and then there’s feminist SF, etc… Ken has commented here now and then!


2. ivorthorne - January 28, 2017

I’m reading a lot of GRRM’s 1000 world short stories and novellas at the moment. They’re from the 70s and 80s. They’re pretty representative of the time as far as I know and themes like unrequited love etc. are pretty strong in them.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2017

Did you read Tuf Voyaging? I love that book. Light, but great fun. And then there’s Meathouse Man which is anything but.


ivorthorne - January 28, 2017

Loved Tuf. There were plans for a sequel but I doubt we’ll ever see it. There’s a good chance there will be a show though.

Meathouse Man is incredibly depressing. Good though. Did I mention depressing. It’s somewhat autobiographical as well.

Fevere Dream is probably a nice medium. It could make a decent movie.


WorldbyStorm - January 28, 2017

I hadn’t heard about a sequel, a pity it was never written.

Yeah there are some great stories by him. I love his capacity to write across genres.


Ivorthorne - January 28, 2017

I understand that the genre crossing was as much a practical thing as anything else. When publishers were looking for horror, he started writing more horror stories etc.

Ultimately, it made him a better writer. ASOIAF has some great scenes where there is a well crafted sense of dread. I suspect that is something he mastered in part because of the time he spent writing horror. The Sci-fi elements in ASOIAF are there as well (but only if you look hard) and I suspect that it is set in the same universe as Tuf, Meathouse Man etc.


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