More stars, less wars, please

Just one day after I posted that item about Robert J. Sawyer’s disappointment with the effect that Star Wars has had on the popular perception of science fiction, the New York Times ran this story on other sci-fi writers who similarly gripe that it’s about bloody time George Lucas put an end to his space opera.

At one point, the reporter writes:

Like science itself, science fiction has evolved since the days of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the end of World War II, the genre has shifted its focus from space and time travel to more complex speculations on how the future, whatever its shape, will affect the individual.

Well, this is a bit misleading; there was more to Wells, at least, than mere flights of fancy (“space and time travel”). As Sawyer notes in the article I linked to a couple days ago:

Science fiction has always operated this way, he says. For example The War of the Worlds wasn’t about Martians invading Earth, it was H.G. Wells making a political statement about colonialism. The Time Machine isn’t about the year 807201, it’s about the class struggle in Great Britain and the widening gap between rich and poor.

“You can’t read science fiction in any kind of deep meaningful way without understanding that it’s a commentary on the present.”

For my money, the more meaningful criticism in the New York Times story is this one:

Those effects were a double-edged light saber, however. The first “Star Wars” film helped usher in an era of highly technical filmmaking where character development sometimes took a back seat.

“We’re still stuck with this legacy of — ‘Oh yeah, sci-fi, that’s when you have a big budget and lots of special effects,'” Mr. Morgan said.

I do think this is a legitimate point. One of my longstanding gripes about current science-fiction movies, at least, is that they are all too frequently made under the assumption that they have to be space-battle movies. Just look at the Star Trek franchise. The TV series was free to be a different genre every week (comedy, tragedy, family drama, medical drama, courtroom drama, the list goes on). But with only one or two exceptions, the movies are all space-battle movies of one sort or another — some good, some awful, and what’s notable is how the really good ones are made with conviction, whereas the awful ones throw in the “action” more or less because they have to. (The two quasi-exceptions are ST:TMP and ST4:TVH, but even here, both films involve major threats to the planet Earth — and ST:TMP in particular got carried away with the big budget and lots of special effects!)

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  • You see, this is exactly why I have an enduring appreciation for those old no-budget BBC SF shows like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. When eye candy simply isn’t an option, the only thing you have left is good scriptwriting. When you’ve got no crutch to lean on, you have to do your damndest to walk.

    Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate high-quality special effects as much as the next person. But they’re not where the empahsis should be, otherwise what you end up with isn’t a movie (or a TV show), it’s just a video game that you can’t even interact with.