Anno Stella Bella

Star Wars

Blessed be the Force!

As long as I’ve been picking my own reading material, a huge fraction of it has science fiction. I’ve been doing that picking since about 1963-ish, so let’s just call it 50+ years. Up until around the mid 1990s, it would have been hard to name a science fiction book or movie I didn’t know (and in many cases, own).

But somewhere near the end of the last century science fiction became a full-fledged mass-produced commodity that through sheer over-exposure became dull and uninteresting. In a way, I blame George Lucas and Star Wars, so I split SF into two eras:

Before Lucas (B.L.) and Anno Stella Bella (ASB).

That’s a riff on Before Christ (B.C.) and Anno Domini (AD) that tries to follow the pattern in as many ways as possible. The key one being that both are about how an individual and his work divides the world into two eras.[1]

Over the years, I’ve found that fans of science fiction view the two eras in distinct ways. Part of it is how much the rolls of fans expanded in the ASB era. That is really the first point here:

Lucas brought science fiction into the mainstream. He showed the bean counters that it could be (massively) popular.

A great deal of SF since then seeks to recapitulate that monster success. But Star Wars isn’t really science fiction; it’s a fairy tale. It’s just been dressed up with science fiction trappings (like robots and spaceships and blasters, oh my).[2]

The greatest science fiction is the fiction of social ideas (with a science-y flavor), so to the extent one is “a science fiction fan” due to Star Wars, one is still sitting at the children’s table — which includes most television SF along with a great deal of movie SF.

But today I write neither to praise, nor to bury, Lucas or his Stella Bella.

For Sci-Fi Saturday, I have another topic in mind:

The premise that science fiction has declined in the ASB era.

This turns out to be a difficult thesis to prove (either way). Crucially, one needs to define an objective criteria for quality, and that’s a real challenge.

Forbidden Planet

Shakespearean! (Not crap!)

Among science fiction fans, Sturgeon’s Law (originally: Sturgeon’s Revelation) says that 90% of everything is crap. This obviously applies to science fiction.

With good reason. Most art is crap.[3]

Some suggest that, per Sturgeon’s Revelation, 90% of SF always was crap (true), and of course still is (true), but there’s so much more SF now (true) that it just seems like science fiction has gone downhill.

True? Maybe. Maybe not.

In terms of quality, I honestly don’t know. I have thought about ways to define objective criteria…

One might analyze the word vocabulary used by decade to see if modern SF has a smaller vocabulary. I’d be willing to put a few bucks on a bet that it does. (Does Google have tools to make this analysis possible?)

More challenging would be an attempt to codify and compare the concept vocabulary used by decade. Is there less complexity in modern SF compared to that from the B.L. era?

Plan 9

So infamously crappy (and yet oddly engaging) that it has become a cult classic.

Is there a significant difference in the quality of television and movie SF compared to the written form?

Is the perception of low-quality (if it’s a valid perception at all) due, in part, to media forms playing such a big role in the modern era?

I think most would agree books are “better” than movies or television if the nuances of storytelling matter. It is usually true that any movie of a book leaves out much of what is in the book.[4]

So it’s possible the low bar of movies, and the even lower bar of television, combined with all the science fiction done in those mediums, is what makes SF seem “gone to the dogs” to us old fans. (I’m by no means the only one who thinks this.) The written form does seem capable of still delivering the goods.

But even so, my perception remains, and I finally figured out why.

Simply put:

Science Fiction has become well-plowed ground.

And it’s pretty hard to write, say, a time-travel story that hasn’t been done.[5]

All the old themes have been well-explored: time travel, space travel, space ships, space battle (time battle), space politics, space corporations, space aliens (and planets), space robots, space vampires (and ghosts), space doctors, space construction workers (space bars!), space police and private eyes, space diplomats and politicians, space spies, and even space burglars.[6]

Robots and AI are a common theme these days, yet these stories (certainly the robot ones) have roots in ancient golem mythology. Isaac Asimov (one of “The Big Three” of science fiction) wrote robotics AI stories back in the 1950s.

Lucky Starr

Ancient memories!

(Asimov and I go back to the very beginning of it all for me. His Lucky Starr series is among the first SF books I can recall reading!)

Genetics is a theme that offers some new ground for science fiction. That’s a fairly new technology that we can tell new tales about (although the science does go back a ways).

Nano-machines also offer some possibilities, but ultimately those are just (tiny) robot stories.[7]

Perhaps the bottom line is that, after nearly 55 years of SF, it’s hard to see any new science fiction that doesn’t seem to borrow from lots and lots of past stories. They might be new to those without that history, but all I see is old hats.

If, as ever, only 10% is really any good, but that 10% struggles to find new and interesting ground, then it’s easy to see how it can feel as if the genre has gone downhill. (I find I have a similar view of music.)

There are (at least) two key aspects of “good” (i.e. “quality”) art for me. One of them involves the skill of execution, and that aspect applies to all art. The other involves originality, and that is increasingly difficult as artists explore a genre over time.

Many seem to focus a great deal on the former, but I think a true appreciation of art must also involve the latter. Which means that all genres and mediums of art “tap out” over time.

I’ll leave it there for now, but I suspect I’ll return this topic down the road.

Stay original, my friends!

Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage (1966)


[1] I like the terms a lot, but let’s not get too carried away comparing Lucas to Jesus. Certainly the eras ushered in by both have endured and changed the world, but the parallels of a metaphor don’t make the map anything like the territory.

In fact, to be quite honest, given the full body of his work, I’m more inclined to compare Lucas to someone from the other side.

[2] If you doubt this just consider how much child’s merchandise there is. Or simple the fact that very small kids adore Star Wars.

Yoda Bear

Fozzie!

“Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” is the dead equivalent of “Once upon a time.”

The story is about a Princess and a lost Prince (who thinks he’s a commoner) who oppose an evil emperor and his evil wizard (and all the king’s troopers). There is also a white knight and his faithful squire. Plus Fozzie Bear!

[3] By which I mean: trite, unoriginal, shallow, uninspired, unengaging… stuff like that. A term often used is “motel art” — a reference to the almost invisible pictures found hanging on the walls of cheap motels.

(Which is not to say all art is pictures. Literature is art, too.)

[4] It bugs me even more when they add new things that change the book.

[5] In addition, SF has become a commodity, and there is always a “least common denominator” aspect to a commodity. They are intended for mass consumption and must therefore appeal to the largest number possible. This almost always dilutes quality.

[6] It’s even harder to be original in the Fantasy realm. Tolkien and a few other early writers plowed that ground very well (our mythology and parables had already begun to explore it). Once you’ve done dragons and wizards and monsters and swordsmen a few times, there isn’t much more to be said.

[7] Tiny and giant stuff goes way back in storytelling. Gulliver’s Travels, for instance. Early SF movies carried on the theme. A personal favorite of mine is Fantastic Voyage!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “Anno Stella Bella

  • dianasschwenk

    reminds me of that, ‘nothing new under the sun’ theme in one of your previous posts Smitty. ❤
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, to the extent art reflects the human condition (which hasn’t changed in many thousands of years), art hasn’t changed. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy chases girl in spaceship.

      The technology changes (not a lot of computer-generated fractals in the 1600s), but the song remains the same. As I you said yourself commenting on that post you mention: “greed, compassion, conceit, love, hate, lust, grace, arrogance, wisdom, peace, war, etc.”

      Yeah. All of the above. 🙂

  • Steve Morris

    Most movie SF is simply a modern twist on the super-hero theme, which itself is a development of the Western. One of the effects of Star Wars is that it (deliberately) infantilised the genre, and so it’s inevitable that the form has gone downhill artistically. It’s now a kid’s genre, instead of an adult one.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Most movie SF is simply a modern twist on the super-hero theme, which itself is a development of the Western.”

      That’s a good point about Westerns! Most of them are superhero stories, aren’t they!

      (I have a friend who has complained more than once that my DVD collection is light on Westerns and War movies. He’s right that there are many classics in both genres, but I’ve never been terribly interested in either. See Machinery Rules.)

      I think superhero stories might be an archetype that crosses cultures and goes as far back as storytelling itself. The Greeks had Jason and the Japanese have Samurai stories. The lone hero who often possesses exceptional (or supernatural) abilities probably appears in most cultures.

      (A while back, I went through a period of being really into the Chinese wuxia movies. I realized that those were the Chinese equivalents of Superman and Wonder Woman and so forth.)

      “One of the effects of Star Wars is that it (deliberately) infantilised the genre,…”

      Exactly! Just think how many movies are based on toys or video games. Many movies are little more than amusement park rides (and a few are actually based on them 🙂 ).

      I’ve been pondering the infantilization of culture recently, and I wonder if there’s an inverse correlation with social stress. The more a society feels stressed, the more it reverts to the remembered safety of childhood?

      America changed — in both good and bad ways — in the 1960s and 1970s. For us, civil rights, the Vietnam War, the Hippie revolution, and the Watergate scandal, all shook up the country and created major social stress that’s only grown since then.

      The world has gotten increasingly complex, and I wonder if people retreat from all that into a simpler world of video games and mindless movies and distracting television (or drugs or drink or religion or whatever).

      In a sense, it’s all opium.

      • Steve Morris

        Superhero stories go all the way back, don’t they? Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Babylonian myths, … and they’re still around in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and of course Star Wars.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, you find hero stories of some kind in every culture I know. Native American tribes have some really interesting and kind of fun “just so” stories involving lone heroes, for instance.

        Some think, with regard to cinema, that Rocky (1976) begins a genre of film sometimes called, “One man against impossible odds.” Often the opponent is nature or a competing team. Die Hard (1988) raises the bar into the bullets and bombs genre where the opponent is “bad guys.”

        But it’s just a new medium for an old, old story. 😀

      • Steve Morris

        Didn’t the Japanese respond to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with Godzilla? And Vietnam gave birth to movies like The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver. So stress can play out in all kinds of different and interesting ways. In fact, it’s a strong contributing factor to the development of art. Think of Goya’s paintings of war and death.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Indeed, a great deal of the best art comes from pain or other negative experience. “The Blues” is a whole musical genre based on pain, loss, oppression, or sorrow. Many of the great artists are very tortured people.

        When people are happy you get kitten videos, paintings of people with huge eyes, songs about quaffing beer,… stuff like that. Not a lot of great stories about people having a nice day. 😀

        (Per your post about sadness, perhaps one value is that we get great art out of it.)

      • Steve Morris

        Yeah, more suffering required 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        My Buddhist friend tells me it’s a defining characteristic of life!

  • Steve Morris

    One (relatively) new area you didn’t mention is the Singularity-related theme, e.g. Accelerando by Charles Stross.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, good one! We might find some early seeds of that in cyberpunk — which is another newish genre.

      As Lady Di commented (above), there are timeless themes that deal with being human and technological themes that change as they reflect how human society changes. Only recently could there be a story about a mind living inside a computer, but the story is fundamentally with reference to the ageless human mind.

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