How Not To Produce New SF Media

While reading Lou Anders’ blog, I came across this two-page article by Mark Harris lamenting the lack of originality in science fiction TV and movies. It is an anecdotal argument that is presented, but a compelling one nonetheless, as it cites many recent releases (I Am Legend, Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens vs. Predator, Star Trek, Philip K. Dick adaptations, etc.) and their origins in properties more than twenty years old.

I don’t think that old properties necessarily mean current iterations are unoriginal (the modern Battlestar Galactica is different from its predecessor in every meaningful way but one — the initial premise), and the trend of remakes is hardly limited to science fiction, but the observation is still valid. However, Harris goes on to suggest that science fiction needs to be saved from its fans, and expresses the following desire: “I wish a great writer or director with no particular affection for the genre would let his imagination loose and see what it yields.” He then cites Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example of this working, but conveniently ignores Arthur C. Clarke’s role in that movie and book.

My bigger concern with this wish is the rather myopic view of science fiction as a whole. The suggestion is that science fiction fans producing these media are more interested is worshiping what has gone before than creating something new; I would argue that those people aren’t science fiction fans. For this retreading of old ideas is similar to the reinvention of the wheel that tends to happen when a writer that is not a science fiction writer produces a science fiction novel — however good the novel may be, and however well-written, it tends to be based around ideas and concepts well known to fans of science fiction. (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake comes to mind here, as mentioned in this review by Robert J. Sawyer; the same is true of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) Even the submission guidelines of science fiction magazines reiterate this point — you have to know what’s out there before you can create something new.

Thus, suggesting that people who have no affection for science fiction are going to be the ones to produce “original” content seems rather counterintuitive. I would suggest that the people best acquainted with science fiction would be the best chance for producing original content. This is certainly true of written SF — while there is a lot of unoriginal and derivative fiction out there, there’s some mind-bending original stuff, too. But that’s only possible when the writer knows the genre well. Leaving the future of the genre in the media to people who have no affection for it, no understanding of it — that is the surest way to reset the genre back to square one and lead us back to the beginning of everything we’ve already seen before. To save science fiction media, more control needs to be given to the creators at the forefront.

That is, in essence, the argument Anders was making in his blog entry, voicing support for the notion put forward by this open letter to the Sci-Fi Channel. And it seems eminently sensible to me, too.

Of course, this is the era of the Internet, so it might not be too much longer before creators can take the forefront themselves. But that’s a topic for another time….