Science Fiction… and Beyond!

Charles Stross has a blog post up. He is a science fiction author of fair acclaim. I have only read one of his books, Singularity Sky, and it suffered from that classic SF symptom of Good (Great, Even) Ideas But Nothing Else Good At All, Really. Anyway, he wrote that he hates Star Trek (and most SF on TV) and has finally figured out why: it doesn’t fit with his definition with SF. That’s not what he said verbatim, but after copying part of an interview with a writer from Star Trek, he gives his definition. He writes, “SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don’t currently exist.” Star Trek and its ilk (BSG, B5, all the subsequent ST spawn) don’t fit with this definition, which makes them bad.*

This is ridiculous, of course. His definition is perfectly valid, but so are others (the definition of SF that birthed Firefly, for instance). Where he treads very dangerous water is his apparent obliviousness to the validity of those other definitions.** I’m about to say something inflammatory, so avert your eyes if you are trigger-y: that sort of insistence and that sort of exclusionary attitude (I am Right and therefore you are Wrong) is what starts wars.

The thing is… The thing is that people are different. That’s why they define things differently and care about different things and etc. It’s sometimes called taste, when you’re talking about what things people like and dislike, but it goes way beyond that. It’ll be easier to narrow the field if I focus in on something, so I’m gonna do that. That something is gonna be… uh… oh, I know! Books. Gasp!

So. Let me start with an anecdote. My brother’s ex-roommate and friend of ours, Elisa***, and I were talking one day when we hadn’t known each other very long. It came out during the conversation that Wicked is her favorite book. I was… surprised. Now, I’ve read Wicked and pretty much liked it and thought it was a good book and all, but. Come on! The musical is way better! The musical’s a wonderfully unexpected exploration of a deep friendship, both ups and downs, between these two strong female characters. With music! The novel explores what evil is and what it means to be evil and stuff. In other words, the musical is about character relationships (and music!), whereas the novel is about a specific theme. The latter moves slowly and goes off on tangents and none of the characters are likable (they are, in fact, mostly disturbing). I thought it was an interesting book, and I don’t regret reading it at all, and I in fact think it is probable that it’s even a good book by most accounts. But your favorite? I had to know why.

And, as it turns out, the answer is simple. Elisa loves explorations of theme. She loves other things, too, of course, but having a strong developed theme is what makes or breaks a book for her. It’s also what will keep her enthralled when other things are lacking. I only like theme. A lot of time, though less often now that I’m an old fart (of 23), a novel/movie/play’s theme will go over my head, so obviously it can’t be what I read for. Thankfully, the theme of Wicked is as explicit as it gets, and our conversation about it became much more productive after I found that out, because now we could talk about evil and how each character, even the setting and the plot and really everything, revolved around it. And not how everybody was unlikable and sometimes the plot was slow, etc. (As a sidenote, I think it’s really important to have these conversations with the people you talk to about books. Find out what they read for. It helps not only with conversations like these, but also helps you when you want to recommend or buy them a book!)

The things we like and dislike, the things we live for/read for/watch for, are multiple and not uncommonly competing (too much characterization gets in the way of pacing, for instance). Taste, and its larger unnamed buddy, is that area of balance where Our Things are all represented in a way that is pleasing. To us. To me. That is what I care about, after all. Me. The quintessence of perfection that is me! *cough*

Bottom line, don’t think that what you think is right. Do try to find out what other people think. Read a lot, and talk about books. Make definitions, but be flexible! Drink lots of water. If you stumble, get right back on that geriatric horse and continue to rule your own little universe like the benevolent god you are. And, uh, watch Emperor’s New Groove.

*He followed up that post with one that says, “All you people are equating me saying I don’t like something with me thinking it’s bad!” (paraphrased) I don’t really buy it, though. By his definition, ST is bad science fiction and maybe also bad storytelling. What he needs to say is that his definition isn’t the only valid one.

**To bring the conversation back quickly to my post on conventions, he is defining SF in a way that excludes some obviously popular conventions, which creates tension. OTOH, he’s very aware of which conventions of SF he likes, which helps him seek out entire books/etc he will like and to talk about SF on a more meta level. Even if it’s exclusionary.

***Name changed, but it’s from one of her favorite TV shows, Gargoyles.


One thought on “Science Fiction… and Beyond!

  1. Wow, you brought up so many interesting points in this post that I’m not sure what to respond to first. Well, except for saying the the Emperor’s New Groove is a completely awesome movie and I love that video.

    The post you linked to on science fiction is interesting, not least because I found myself instinctively disagreeing with most of what he said about Star Trek without quite being sure why. I’m sure I could go on at length about my ideas regarding science fiction, but this is maybe not the place. Mostly, I guess I’m just sad for Charles Stross, because as you said, there are lots of definitions of science fiction, and I wish he was able to enjoy more of them. I mean, I love Star Trek. And I love Firefly, which takes science fiction in a completely different direction. And I also love Doctor Who, which goes in yet another direction. All these shows use science fiction in completely different ways to say different things, and I feel like I understand more for having seen that range.

    You said that it’s important to find out what definitions other people are looking for, which I think is a very good point. I know I used to get confused and worried when people said they didn’t like Lord of the Rings (the books), until I realized that these people like (and dislike) different things than I do in books. Sometimes it can be hard to keep an open enough mind, but, as in your example of you conversation with Elisa, it’s usually rewarding when you do so.

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