Why I don’t like most modern science fiction writers…

Here’s a link to Charles Stross explaining why he hates several television series of which he has never seen a single episode. His arrogant dismissal of hundreds of hours of storytelling – none of which he has even seen – and the way he drops profoundly different shows into one hat pretty much says everything about why I find so much modern science fiction (with the exception of some bright lights like Iain Banks) to be unreadable. The superficial obsession with technology, the blind categorization and genre-thinking, the tendency to be fashionably unfashionable… all of that has put me off reading quite a few authors, whose supposedly “deep” work has less to say than three minutes of Babylon 5.

And don’t think I’m a fanatical Trekkie. I do sometimes use said epithet, but that does not mean I blindly adore everything Trek: in fact, I think most of it is crap – but for entirely different reasons. I call myself a Trekkie because I see the potential in Star Trek, and because I am also capable of seeing those brilliant parts of the series for what they are: great accomplishments of art. And I do consider Babylon 5 to be the best use of television I have ever seen, and an incredible work of art, but again, that doesn’t mean I will fanatically defend aspects of it that I find to be flawed. I have no problem saying that Crusade was a mess, or that Thirdspace really didn’t work.

If you disagree with my opinions, I won’t mind – as long as you have actually seen the series in question, and as long what you’re saying has some kind of consistency. But Charles Stross is talking out of his ass: he’s condemning these shows because he believes science fiction on TV must be bad. He goes on to elaborate a theory of why this is:

Consider a script. A script consists of pages each of which represents one minute of on-screen action. It typically runs to 250 words, most of which are dialog. A 42 minute TV show is 10,500 words (a novelette, in fiction-not-script terms), but breaks down into four scenes, each of which needs a near cliff-hanger ending (prior to the advertising break, to keep the viewers wanting to see more), and a restart at the beginning (to drag in new viewers who have channel-hopped over from a less compelling production). Of each roughly 2,500 word scene, then, about 250-500 words will be wasted (dramatically speaking) on reestablishing the action, and the last 500-1,000 words goes on setting up a mini-climax (except in the first and final scenes, where you need a setup and a climax for dramatic, not advertising, purposes). Thus, the 10,500 word script actually contains about 7,000-8,000 words of meat, or 28-32 minutes of non-repetitive on-screen action to propel the story forward. (As a reference point, a 8000 word short story, to an average reading speed of 350 words per minute, takes 22 minutes to plough through. I’m ignoring, of course, the need for additional background description in the short story — stuff that doesn’t belong in a script.)

This mechanical way of looking at art is so profoundly wrong, it baffles the mind. And even if that wasn’t the case: Stross is analyzing a medium that is audiovisual in terms of text. This is about as useful as dancing about architecture: has he never heard about that “worth a thousand words” business? If the visual media worked the way Stross thinks, no meaningful storytelling could be done in them at all – no television series, no films, no painting, no sculpture… nothing at all. And why don’t we throw music and poetry out the window while we’re at it?

He’s also conveniently ignoring the fact that series like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica are building on what happened before, and don’t need to exlain everything again, so the storytelling and world-building are structured in a completely different way than in a novel or short story. As I wrote in a comment, it’s not like audiences get their minds wiped between episodes.

Finally, technology and genre. Who says that all stories set in the future or in space need to be about technology? Is it artistically wrong to use a “science fictional” setting to explore issues not specifically technological? Babylon 5, for example, delves deeply into issues of resistance to political oppression. These issues are as relevant to the situation today as to the situation 200 years ago, but the fact that they are set in the future allows them to be presented in a fresh environment. It allows the series to take elements of the past and use them in a different environment, and thus gives the viewer new angles on the matter – it takes the material out of its familiar context to allow us to think about it differently. Would Babylon 5 be more meaningful if it spent more time talking about how realistic space physics would affect the situation?

Ironically, Stross also complains that Battlestar Galactica – which he didn’t see, either – ended with a stupid twist. That’s actually almost accurate, but he’s got it all upside down: the ending was stupid because it threw out the basic questions about technology that the series had been treating until then, at times quite successfully. Yes, that’s a pretty glaring flaw, and BSG has more of them – but it also has many deeply affecting stories that do honestly probe questions related to philosophy and technology.

But no. It’s all TV, so it must all be superficial nonsense produced by the studio system for gullible teenagers.

EDIT: Apparently his dislike for Babylon 5 (of which he has never seen a single episode) comes from his belief that it portrays cultures as monolithic. And here is Babylon 5‘s answer to that, in a scene about diversity that still brings tears to my eyes.

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  1. I spotted the story of Mr. Stross’s sci-fi hatred earlier today on Slashdot. I must say he was on my list of interesting authors to pick up and read one day, but now I have removed his writings from that list. It’s very rare for me to be disappointed so deeply by someone; Mr. Stross has managed to let me so down that I think I should register this as a record of sorts.

  2. JM

     /  October 14, 2009

    One of the comments in the linked article is right: “apanese animated sci fi seems to take some more risks than western TV sci fi, like a recent show that had characters trapped in a repeating time loop, so the creators of the series decided to depict this by animating the same events happening 8 episodes in a row, much to the fans consternation and outrage.”

    Haruhi is genius. I can see why you would dislike it, given the artstyle. But do yourself a favour, watch Cowboy Bebop at least. It’s the most constitent sci-fi show you will find, not a single bad episode, most of them are simply brilliant, featuring humour, intelligent writing and stunning animation alike.

  3. @JM: I promise I shall give it a try someday. I won’t just bash it without seeing it.

  4. JM

     /  October 14, 2009

    I hope so. Don’t prejudge it because of it’s anime origin. As a series it goes beyond the boundaries of genre. Actually, if you want, I can send it to you next week.

  5. I wouldn’t do that; I have certain aesthetic problems with anime, but that doesn’t mean I will ignore the plot or the characters, and if I enjoy it I will say so. If I don’t enjoy it for purely visual reasons, I will also say so, but will not pretend that the plot sucks just because I don’t like the drawing style.

  6. Having met Mr. Stross 2 months ago at a small con in Copenhagen I knew he was not fond of “space opera”. Otherwise, well, he has strong opinions and I had no reason to find him or his views unreasonable at the time.

    To find such a bitter hatred was, however a bit of a surprise to me. Agreed that the sweeping statement was, to say the least, a major disappointment.

    I like to watch/read different kinds of SF, an I have read his latest novel “Saturn’s Children”. Ironic that this novel is space opera of a sort, with a nice twist. More ironicis that it does not, however, strictly speaking fulfil his own requirement of being about the human condition in a SF setting, since [SPOILER] the protagonist is a robot and humanity is extinct in the story [/SPOILER].

    I did like the story, but would be *bored to death* if that would be the only kind of story I had access to.

  7. Having met Mr. Stross 2 months ago at a small con in Copenhagen I knew he was not fond of “space opera”. Otherwise, well, he has strong opinions and I had no reason to find him or his views unreasonable at the time.

    I also always had a rather positive impression of him.

    To find such a bitter hatred was, however a bit of a surprise to me. Agreed that the sweeping statement was, to say the least, a major disappointment.

    Exactly. Let people dislike what they will, but throwing everything into the same category and proclaiming it all to be crap – without ever having seen any of it? That’s just strossing.

  8. Monkey Love

     /  October 19, 2009

    The link about what Ron Moore said was very helpful, though.

  9. I just noticed the worst generalisation of them all in Stross’ blog post I did not notice at first because it was in paranteses) :

    “modern audiences want squids in space, with added laser”

    WOW !!!! talk about a sweeping generalisation, the implied denigrating remark about B5 pale in comparison.

  10. Well, he has the superpower of knowing what all modern audiences want – without even watching TV! Clearly, he has unique supernatural abilities… or he’s just another strosser.

    It’s amazing how out of touch with reality he is, isn’t it? To him, everyone who watches television is stupid by definition.

  11. Could we say that he is a bit like the Vorlons or Shadows .

    He should have been a guiding light, but he has forgotten ….

    (or is that too kind ?)

  12. “Exactly. Let people dislike what they will, but throwing everything into the same category and proclaiming it all to be crap – without ever having seen any of it? That’s just strossing.”

    In his next post “Meta” he claims that he did say that he did not consider it crap, but that is countered by the paragraph (of the *hates* post where he says :

    “The biggest weakness of *the entire genre* is this: the protagonists don’t tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating “tech” to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context; yes, there are some gestures in that direction, but if you scratch the protagonists of Star Trek you don’t find anything truly different or alien under the latex face-sculptures: just the usual familiar — and, to me, boring — interpersonal neuroses of twenty-first century Americans, jumping through the hoops of standardized plot tropes and situations that were clichés in the 1950s.”

    He cannot run away from that, though he seems to be moderating his view, having thought a bit about it.

    ..and to his “squids in space” comment : “errr what ?? How did you know I wanted that ? – oh wait , I do not – maybe I am not modern”

    btw I noticed he closed the thread [due to link spammers]

  13. My impression is that basically he’s saying “it’s crap, but you’re allowed to like it.” Apart from just how condescending that is, it still doesn’t solve the problem of shoving an entire medium/artform into the same category without having seen it.

    No matter how he turns it, he’s talking out of his ass.

  14. BTW that “diversity” scene is one of my favourites of Season 1, too

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