March 31, 2011

It’s Sci-Fi – Deal With It

In the words of the Clarkesworld reader, let me tell you a story . . .

It’s a story that takes place on Earth, but it’s not quite our Earth.  On this other Earth, medical breakthroughs in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically increased the average human lifespan over 100.  They also allowed for human cloning, which was used to create children who were raise for one purpose – spare parts.  The story I want to tell you is about a small group of those children as they grow up.

Just based on that, what genre do you think this story falls into?  I mean, c’mon, you’ve got alternate history, major leaps forward in medical science, and clones, for fuck’s sake.  If this ain’t science fiction, nothing is.

It also probably sounds familiar.  Michael Bay made a movie with a similar idea, The Island, which, aside from Scarlet Johansson, had little to offer aside from the usual dumb action science fiction clichés.  In other words, the main characters learn they’re in a dystopia and try their best to fight the power.  It was better when it was Logan’s Run.

That idea also describes (in broad strokes) Never Let Me Go, by British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of the Day, in addition to the original screenplay for Guy Maddin’s odd, mournful, and wonderful The Saddest Music in the World.  So, he’s not exactly Arthur C. Clarke or Phillip K. Dick. 

However, regardless of Ishiguro’s pedigree, he’s written a sci-fi novel.  And the 2010 movie adaptation of it, directed by Mark Romanek, is a sci-fi movie.  In that way, he’s a bit like his countrywoman P.D. James, who stepped outside her usual mystery genre to pen a dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men.  That, too, was made into an excellent film, directed by Alfonso Cuaron.  Although many writers tend to stick to one genre (or one genre per pen name), crossovers aren’t all that unusual.

So why do so many people, when talking about Never Let Me Go, try their best to deny that the book/movie is sci-fi?  Sarah Kerr, in her review of the novel in the New York Times, wrote that the:
so shocking – in such a potentially dime-store-novel way – that it's hard to believe at first that it issued from Ishiguro's desktop.
She continues:
[i]s he setting up house in a pop genre – the sci-fi thriller – in order to quietly upend its banal conventions . . .?
In other words, what the fuck’s a literary heavyweight like Ishiguro, who won the prestigious Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day (Never Let Me Go was, itself, shortlisted for the Booker), doing slumming in genre fiction?  It must be to “upend its banal conventions,” right?  Couldn’t be he wanted to use the freedom that sci-fi provides to ask delicate, though provoking questions about the human condition, could it?  ‘cause, you know, that’s never happened.

The same attitude came from Romanek with regards to the film.  In an interview, he said:
I wasn’t making a science fiction film.  I was making a love story that had a science fiction context.  Science fiction is sort of between the lines of the love story.  So my thinking on it was that I wasn’t making a science fiction film.  I wouldn’t describe it as a science fiction film that’s sort of pedestrian science fiction, I would describe it as a love story where the science fiction is this subtle patina on the story.  The science fiction-y things that we could have done that might have been more overt, like futuristic buildings or this or that gadget, I mean.
Sorry, Mark – you were making a sci-fi film.  The story uses medical advances that are well beyond known science to ask tough questions about life, death, and what it means to be human.  Just because you don’t explain the tech or have shots full of a gleaming futurescape like something out of Blade Runner, doesn’t mean it’s not sci-fi.  In fact, some of the same questions are asked by Blade Runner itself – would anybody argue with a straight face it’s not sci-fi?

The miscalculation in this, is seems to me, is in thinking that sci-fi is about stuff – technology, gadgets, spaceships and the like – rather than people, which is the purview of “serious” literary writers and movie makers.  But all literature – hell, all art! – is about people, in the end.  Even the hardest of hard sci-fi, like Rendezvous With Rama or “The Cold Equations” are ultimately about fantastic science impacting human beings.  The hard truth of "The Cold Equations" means nothing without the human cost, after all.

The distinction between The Island and Never Let Me Go isn’t genre – it’s approach (and, arguably, quality).  Where The Island goes for the obvious, Never Let Me Go is more thoughtful, less flashy, and, in the end, more deeply disturbing.  To be fair, however, The Island probably makes for a more “fun” viewing experience, so choose whichever fits your tastes.  It’s all good, as they say.

What really rankles me about attitudes like Kerr and Romanek is that it attempts to wall off certain works from the genres they so clearly fall into, because the genres are the purview of  “low” art or “entertainment.”  That’s a distinction without a difference.  Quality, or what readers/viewers perceive as quality, wins out in the end regardless of genre.

It’s also staggeringly elitist.  Genre stories about cloning and associated issues aren’t worth shit when they’re walled off in Analog or what have you, but when a “serious literary” writer wants to explore some interesting issues, it’s brilliant.  She can come in, slum around a bit with us hacks, and then leave to enlighten serious readers.  No need for the well heeled to sully themselves with the pulps.

In the end, of course, none of these petty genre squabbles really matter.  Once a book or movie is released, it’s out in the world.  Whatever the creators or the critics say, it is what it is.  I’d just appreciate it, as a fan and writer of the genre, if folks could just lighten up and admit they’re making sci-fi.  It’s not the end of the world, ya’ know.

UPDATE:  George R.R. Martin gets at the same attitude I'm taking issue with in an interview at the New York Times Arts Beat blog, talking about the forthcoming HBO version of Game of Thrones:
Q. Is the fantasy component of 'Game of Thrones' still a hurdle that it has to clear to reach a wider audience?

A. I suppose you could call it a hurdle to some extent. But on the other hand, I’m 62 years old and in my lifetime I’ve seen an enormous change in this. When I was a kid, reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction, it was considered, like, total trash. Teachers would take away the books from me in school – this is Heinlein and Asimov they were taking away – and say, well, it’s good that you’re reading, but you should read a real book, not this [stuff]. Science fiction and fantasy have both gotten considerably more respectable and certainly the audience has gotten larger. In literary culture, you see writers using science-fiction and fantasy tropes. In many cases, they’ll say, 'I’m not writing science fiction or fantasy – it may look similar, but it’s not.' There’s still that little thing: 'I don’t want to be put in a cave with the geeks.'

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