Life is too short for bad fiction

Microcons aren’t big (possible clue in the name, there) but Exeter University SF Society deserves huge credit for running them year after year after year – an unbroken line since 1982, indeed. The students get a gentle introduction to the harsh world of science fiction conventions. The – ahem – older guests get a reminder that there are still people out there prepared to love us, and put us up in a hotel for the night (“four star quality accommodation”, they say, without specifying whose stars: oh, I like these people), and the joy of sharing our accumulated wisdom and experience.

Quite apart from a very nice meal at Exeter’s Bella Italia – where paying the bill produced a nice real-world example of bistromathics – and my own talk, I particularly enjoyed Steve Green’s valiant struggle with the laws of physics and optics to present some submissions to the Delta Film Award, in a room with no curtains, flooded with natural daylight. My two favourites are available on YouTube and I commend them to all my readers.

Pigeon: Impossible is just as good as those little shorts Pixar bundles with its big movies:

And Pink Five is … well, it’s fun.

And now, because I know you’re all kicking yourselves at missing out, here is an edited down version of my talk.

Life is too short for bad fiction
Thoughts for this were sparked by a blog post from Charles Stross on 13 October last year, titled “why I hate Star Trek“. In fact he wasn’t specifically attacking Trek, rather he was attacking TVSF generally, and his gripe was the inevitable limitations of the TV medium for telling science fiction stories. Far too many of that post’s 373 comments manage to miss the point completely, responding with something along the lines of “yes, what you say is true about every other show except [insert name of favourite show here]. You really ought to try it.”

So, a couple of ground rules before I get into this.

First, please note: my purpose here is not to diss TVSF because unlike Charlie I’m quite a fan of it. So when we open this up to questions and discussions at the end, please don’t put your hand up and say something like “yes, what you say is true about every other show except [insert name of favourite show here]. You really ought to try it.”

Second, an acronym coined by Scott Adams: BOCTAOE – But Of Course There Are Obvious Exceptions. Nothing I say is intended to be the definitive statement of how things are, or even what I think. Feel free to tell me where you disagree, but don’t tell me where I’m wrong because I probably already agree with you.

Third, although a lot of what I say also applies to science fiction movies it’s primarily TV shows that I want to talk about. This is because SF movies don’t even try to put the story first: by and large (BOCTAOE) they are all about the spectacle. If I want awe inspiring effects I watch Avatar – if I wanted a story I would watch Dances with Wolves. (As a discussion generating tangent, this is why so much New Who fails: RTD treats it as a movie when in fact it is a series. But this way lies diversion so I will get back to the point.)

Let’s engage the imagination, briefly. From an unjustly neglected classic of science fiction, published in 1998, I’m going to describe the United Kingdom’s first starship. Picture it in your mind’s eye:

[I’ll cut that here because you can always just buy the book …]

If you’re following the description, I can guarantee that every one of you is imagining a different ship – even if you’ve glanced at the version on the cover, which astonishingly was drawn by someone who seemed to have read the text. If X is the number of people who read it then with 234 words of crisp, clinical prose I have created X versions of a spaceship. If HMSS was a movie – and the fact that it isn’t I can only put down to oversight on Hollywood’s part – they would spend far too much on generating an immaculate, highly detailed, utterly convincing CGI image to create exactly one version of the ship.

And in 10 years time, that CGI image would look so laughably dated. If you doubt me, look at an early episode of Babylon 5.

Now imagine – and believe me, I have imagined it, many times – HMSS got made into a series. It would have an ensemble cast, which is lovely, until one of the actors decides to move on or falls under a bus or is just not very good. They get replaced. This must be written into the plot. That was not part of the original story: therefore, the integrity of the storytelling is compromised. Babylon 5 again.

Or, a key development of the story, like the exciting orbital space battle, isn’t quite up to the abilities of the FX department. You read it in the book and think – wow! You see it on screen and think … nah. Blake’s 7.

Or, the studio decrees 22 episodes but there’s only really plot for 13, plus you have all these actors being paid to act so you really need to give them something to do. To make up for the extra you get endless padding and navel gazing from the characters that makes the viewers so irritated they just don’t bother with the next season. Galactica.

Conversely the series is such a cash cow it is kept running long, long past the end of its natural life even when it’s begging for euthanasia. Stargate SG1. (Note: may also apply to book series, Ms McCaffrey, Mr Jordan, Mr Herbert, etc.)

Conversely again, which technically brings us back to our starting point but you know what I mean, it’s a series so fresh and new that it could run and run – but the idiot studio pulls the plug half way through the first season. Any guesses?

Or it can just take a series a while to get going. Another oft-repeated comment on Charlie’s blog, mentioned earlier, where people who hadn’t read the post were flocking to defend their favourites shows or attack other people’s, was along the lines of “series 2 sagged a little but it really hit its stride with series 3”, or “the first few episodes sucked but if you stuck with it then you really got into it …” I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to stick with a sagging series on the off-chance it might improve. I want a book to suck me in on the very first page, and I want to switch on the TV and have my attention hooked at once. Life is too short for bad fiction.

So, if you hadn’t gathered by now, my contention is that because TV inevitably depends upon the real world limitations of budget and actors, as a medium for telling a good story it is immediately and by its very nature compromised. It may be compromised massively or very limitedly, and either way it is possible to make programmes that are perfectly watchable and enjoyable even by me. But it is still compromised, in ways books are not. Books have an unlimited FX budget and an infinite cast. TV may be pretty good: books will always be better.

The point of reading or watching SF is the SF. Very often, it’s not that an SF show doesn’t have SF in it: sometimes it has way too much, at an unexamined, superficial level. A single season can rattle through concepts at breakneck pace, each of them worthy of a novel all to themselves, but giving just enough time to introduce them before moving on to the next episode. While I was writing the novel that is even now in my publisher’s inbox, an urban fantasy set in modern-day Salisbury, time and again I was thinking: “aha! I can …” shortly followed by “… oh, but Buffy or Angel did that.” In my novel, this development would have been a major turning point in the plot: my own modest contribution to the century old gestalt of modern science fiction. To Buffy, it was simply a way of getting out of one scrape and into another: they didn’t examine it or think about it and had no intention of ever doing so.

Sometimes this is a very good thing indeed: sometimes it accidentally leads to greatness. First example: the TARDIS. This worked because, even though the simplicity of both the police box and the console room were forced on the BBC by limited budget, by their simplicity they became timeless. They were never examined that closely because in the very nature of the series, they didn’t need to be. The Doctor is a traveller and a loner: therefore, 99% of the time the TARDIS was the only TARDIS around and the Doctor was the only Time Lord. In each adventure he was almost always stuck in what was, for him, a less technologically advanced society and therefore we never had to look too closely at the implications of the Doctor’s own society, the possessors of such mastery of time and space. (And frankly it all went pants when they did.)

Second example: the Star Trek transporter. This was famously introduced because the FX budget didn’t cover being able to show ships landing and taking off all the time. But, by the time we reached Voyager a transporter was standard equipment on any starship, even down to shuttlecraft, yet the show never explored the implications of that kind of technology in any kind of depth. I was impressed at one point in Voyager – quite possibly the only point that Voyager impressed me – when the doctor delivers a baby by transporting it straight out of the womb. I like that kind of thinking. (Sadly the child in question grew up to be the utterly dispensable Naomi Wildman but so it goes.) But, in a society that has mastered mass-energy conversion to the point where replicating a perfectly made cup of tea obviously uses less energy than boiling a kettle (because that’s what they do), why do they still even bother with turbolifts to get between decks?

Time and again, TVSF bumps into what in storytelling terms is just sloppiness, because those are the inherent limitations of the medium. I enjoy TVSF and I enjoy books, the same way I enjoy pizza and chips and I also enjoy a good garlicy Bolognese that I have lovingly prepared to my exact specifications, washed down with a carefully chosen red wine. I might have the pizza and chips more often – but I still know which is better.

So, because I believe in only offering positive criticism (unless negative is the only viable option, or just more fun), let’s look at how TVSF can – or could – do it right.

First, I gladly acknowledge that much TVSF plants seeds that can be further developed in the written form. A lot of my own science fictional development can be traced to the Target Dr Who novelisations. I have also already given examples of where TV series struck science fiction gold.

Sticking with moving pictures, though, one obvious way around the limitations of actors and FX budgets is to do something as an animation. That is why Futurama is so astonishingly good as science fiction. As in a book, an animated character only needs to change when the story requires it, not when the actor gets pregnant or fat or bored.

Futurama is of course obviously a cartoon and I wouldn’t want to say that good TVSF can only exist in cartoon form. Let’s get a bit ahead of where we are now, technologically. CGI is getting to the point where human actors and collections of pixels could soon be indistinguishable. I want it taken to the next stage – CGI actors that look utterly human but who have never existed before. (Bad luck on the human actors, but it was their career choice [and as someone pointed out after the talk, humans would still be needed for the body mapping].) They could have starring roles in a TV series where they can be watched and enjoyed without any audience preconception creeping in.

Dr Who’s concept of regeneration, something else that has entered our culture and which made the show unique, was another of those serendipitous ways of getting round the real-world – in this case, the star of a show badly needing to retire at the height of his show’s success. It wouldn’t have happened if Dr Who had only existed in book form, but it happened in the series and it was one of the series’s defining moments. But, now we’re where we are, would it not be cool if in a couple of years Matt Smith were to regenerate into a CGI character? There would be no press releases about his choice of clothing, no scratching of heads and saying “who?” when we hear the good news – no distractions at all, in fact, to being able to sit back and just enjoy the show purely on its merits as a bit of SF story telling. And if they decided to pull another regeneration on us, it would be a complete surprise, in a way that hasn’t happened since Hartnell became Troughton (and like Ecclestone was meant to be), not heralded over a year in advance like what’s-his-name.

One more way TVSF could tackle some limitations of the medium is the mini-series. The 1984 movie of Dune had fantastic visuals but still sucked golfballs through a hosepipe because the movie had to be butchered down to usual cinema length. Whereas, the 2000 mini-series was actually quite good. It suffered from the occasional reused effect, and the Fremen’s CGI blue eyes tended to wink back to normal if the actor turned away from the camera; but because it wasn’t a big movie event, it could use cheap character actors, so you weren’t distracted by familiar faces; it had the time to explore the source material thoroughly; and it had a definite beginning, middle and end so the cast weren’t subject to real world vagaries like dying or getting fired.

So, to sum up: TVSF good, written SF better, any questions?


Very little of what follows is a spoiler because you’ll work most of it out for yourself in the first five minutes, leaving you with 2h35m of brain candy to absorb.

Avatar doesn’t have a fresh idea in its pretty little head but its head is very pretty. If you’ve seen Tarzan (fantastic tree-hugging jungle escapades), Dances With Wolves(out-of-town boy goes native), Aliens (bone-headed military with technofetish hardware) and the work of Roger Dean then you’ve pretty well got it – but it joins these well-established dots very nicely, with not a single bad performance and nary an unconvincing special effect. Sigourney Weaver – well, naturally, excellent. The aforesaid hardware will appeal to anyone who grew up on Gerry Anderson. Even the bad guys are a little better rounded than in Aliens – the chief civilian would really rather not massacre innocents if he can possibly help it, and the chief jarhead has a job to do which, okay, he relishes a little too much.

The story really is engagingly naive and would have us forget every example from history of what happens when more and less technologically advanced peoples collide. Even in Dances with Wolves, Dunbar knows he’s only checked the advance temporarily: he and his friends must head west. Anyone who thinks, at the end of this one, that the humans won’t be back in far greater force is a fool. “Nuke the entire site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure,” Sigourney once sagely uttered in an earlier Cameron movie. Nukes wouldn’t be needed in this case, just masses and masses of weed killer.

Then there’s the whole questionable morality of turning so totally upon your own people. I can understand disagreeing with them to the extent that you go and live somewhere else but a massacre of these proportions just isn’t on. We’ve been told that one check on the power of the colonists is public opinion back home, but when word of this gets back to Earth, surely politicians will be elected on the sole mandate of shipping the weed killer to Pandora. And, fatally, it actually gives a bit of sympathy to the chief jarhead. “How does it feel to betray your own people?” are his not unreasonable dying words.

So, zero advance in science fictional story telling but astonishing advances in the visual medium of telling stories. Even without the 3D, the alien world would inspire awe and the 3D itself isn’t intrusive. I could comfortably wear the 3D specs over my own glasses and everything on screen looks completely natural. There is no gratuitous waving-things-at-camera to remind the audience they’re watching in 3D and you half – but only half – forget it’s there.

Whether a story needs that kind of visual telling is another matter. This one doesn’t. I would love to see Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss, which is a factual 3D documentary filmed around the wreck of the Titanic. That would be worth the extra effort. As it is, the 3D is a tool but that’s all. Technologically, anything that makes the user jump through one more hoop to achieve an effect is doomed to failure, even if that hoop is as simple as putting on a pair of special glasses. (The behind-the-scenes people may of course be jumping through no end of hoops – that doesn’t matter.) 3D will have arrived when viewers can comfortably snuggle down in front of the TV equivalent and watch it with exactly as little effort as they can switch the TV on now.

The CGI effects blend seamlessly with the real actors, so you can see 12-foot blue skinned humanoids and human beings travelling in a futuristic helicopter without once spotting the joins. And yet, when I think back on it everything including the humans appears in my mind’s eye as a Playstation-quality generated image. Strange.

And finally, a prayer. The marines are so obviously of the same ilk as the ones in Aliens that I could well believe this to be the same universe … and therefore, please God let no idiot studio exec decide that what the world really wants is Aliens and/or/versus Predator and/or/versus Avatars.

Even a broken clock gets it right twice a day

I remember once reading a short story featuring a boys’ school set on a spaceship. The ship was travelling from (probably) Earth to (probably) some colony world. Scientific accuracy was not rigorously enforced: witness the fact that the ship had no artificial gravity (so far, so good) and so everyone on board wore, um, weighted boots. In fact, I think one jolly schoolboy prank involved surreptitiously unlacing one boy’s boot so that when he tries to come up to the front of the class his foot and leg float upwards, to general hilarity.

I must have been about 7 or 8 and I’m pretty sure it was included in a collection of similar gosh-wow boys’ adventure tales. I’m guessing it wasn’t a forgotten gem by some big name author.

But chiefly I remember a wonder material called, I think, viviform. As I recall this was a putty-like substance that could be moulded by hand and would then set diamond-hard. Useful for almost anything, really. I’m sure it played a key part in the plot, though I can’t remember what or why. I didn’t know it at the time but my generation was probably the first that really reaped the benefits of things like blu-tack and silly putty, and so viviform made sense. Much more than the school on the ship – which was essentially a terrestrial classroom; no prophetic visions of learning technology or anything like that – or the weighted boots, I know this made me think “yeah, why not?” Which is a very important think for a science fiction writer to have.

Why do I mention this now? Because someone seems to have invented viviform, that’s why.