Friday, May 09, 2008


Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture

There are all sorts of reasons that I'm occasionally sorry I don't live in London. Here's another one to add to the list.

This morning I stumbled upon two blog posts that discuss Neal Stephenson's talk yesterday at Gresham College's symposium, Science Fiction as a Literary Genre. Stephenson's talk was entitled "The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture".

Mssv offered a few notes about the talk, discussing some interesting highlights of what Stephenson had to say.
On Vulcan Ears: Neal recently had dinner at a very nice and respectable restaurant in New York. It was the type of restaurant that had professional waiters in their 30s and 40s, not kids looking to make a quick buck. These waiters regularly hear people name-drop famous policitians and celebrities, and they are experienced enough to not miss a beat. However, when Neal mentioned Lucy Lawless (of Xena: Warrior Princess and Battlestar Galactica) their waiter immediately spun around and joined the conversation. Neal’s belief is that science fiction fans all have Vulcan ears - they might be mechanics or scientists or waiters, and they might hide them in their pockets 99% of the time, but they sense the presence of other geeks, the ears come out and all bets as to propriety are off.
Torque Control, the Vector Editorial Blog,

The conceit of Neal Stephenson’s keynote address was to imagine what a xeno-ethnologist would make of our culture, and his conclusion was: it no longer makes sense to talk about “mainstream” versus “genre”. He described this split, between acceptable culture and a number of debased genres, as the “standard model”, and argued that it may have been accurate half a century or more ago, but was no longer relevant. However, he also defined his terms very carefully: not only did he specify that he was talking about speculative fiction rather than science fiction, he made it clear that he was using the widest possible definition of speculative fiction, to include, for example, “new historical fiction” like 300 (and presumably also The Baroque Cycle). He used “mundane” to describe all non-sf.

Sf, he argued, is unique among genres in that it has grown but remained separate. Westerns largely died (contemporary examples are all exceptional in some way, not part of a living genre; romance has become ubiquitous in film; crime has become a dominant narrative form on tv. Sf has become too common and too successful to be realistically described as a genre — hence his very broad definition of the term — but has not been absorbed in the way that romance and crime have. It remains a separate stream in our culture.

A xeno-ethnologist, he suggested, would see a “bifurcated culture”, with speculative on one side and mundane on the other. Evidence for this bifurcation: the redefinition of bestseller lists in, eg, the New York Times, to include only the types of books that the compilers of bestseller lists think should be on there (eg relegating Potter to YA); and the careers of actors such as Sigourney Weaver and Hugo Weaving, who have respectable success as actors but disproportionate fame among speculative audience relative to mundane audiences. He proposed that the unifying factor among actors achieving this sort of success was their ability to “project intelligence”; that intelligence (practical or intellectual or some other kind) was the key to identifying these characters. At this point it became clear that better terms for the split he was trying to describe would be between geeky and not, rather than speculative than not. His attempt to explain that split was, I thought, actually quite sophisticated. He argued that, in the everyday world, intelligence is not exceptional — though it comes in many forms — but that a lot of mundane fiction does not actually reflect this. In a complex world, the split is between art that encourages vegging out and that which encourages geeking out, and the latter is the stuff that has become the speculative stream of our culture. (Remember how broad his definition of speculative is: I strongly suspect he would attempt to claim, say, HBO shows, and certainly something like The West Wing.) The satisfaction of sf, he argued, was that its characters are not dumb, ie they act like we think real people would. (I leave you to decide how much “real people” is being defined as “people like Neal Stephenson”, although he was at pains, as I said, to point out that there are many kinds of intelligence.) He wrapped up with some rather strawman and largely unproductive attacks on academia as a factor behind this split, suggesting that the post-structuralist, post-modern principles of English teaching breed a sort of lack of confidence in writing about anything other than subjective personal experience.

This plugs into thoughts I had last year, inspired by John Seavey's comments about "cult fiction". Here's what Seavey said:
Ultimately, I think the only thing they have in common is that they all present the world, in some way, as stranger than real life. This is most overt in science-fiction, which is why I think that it all tends to get lumped in as sci-fi, but even the non-science-fiction series like '24' or 'Alias' show a world which is bigger, more dangerous, more exciting, and more vivid than the one we live in every day. (And sketch comedy shows, almost by definition, explore a "stranger than life" idea to its logical conclusion--like the Lumberjack sketch, for example.) I think this is what we're attracted to, the idea that we live in a super-interesting universe, and that these are looks around the corner to the bits that we don't usually see. Bits where kids can build a working space shuttle out of stuff they send away from on cereal boxes, bits where hidden wizard academies teach the sorcerers of tomorrow; bits, in short, that we can always imagine ourselves just about to stumble into.
There does seem to be some kind of commonality amongst the kinds of entertainments that obsess geeks like me. Continuity-laden superhero comics, novel series with extensive world-building, television shows with rich settings and intricate threaded storylines, immersive games both tabletop and online, et cetera. In the realm of television, it's not just genre shows like Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Lost, but also Rome and Deadwood and West Wing. There is a kind of intense devotion to these constructed worlds I've only encountered with other geeks, whether the devotion is to an entirely imagined world like Middle Earth or Narnia, or the image of the world presented in Rome or Deadwood.

In the comments to my earlier post, Lou Anders talks about "richness of milieu & continuity," and that got me thinking about Seavey's "stranger than life" comment, and suggested to me that perhaps if all of these examples weren't stranger than life, they were definitely more interesting than life, richer and more detailed.

If, as the poster on Torque Control (Niall, I think?) opines, Stephenson's definition of "speculative" is broad enough to "suspect he would attempt to claim, say, HBO shows, and certainly something like The West Wing," then it may be that he's talking about much the same thing.

A few months ago I participated in one of SF Signal's Mind Meld roundtables, on the subject of "Today's SF Authors Define Science Fiction," and my half-joking response included the following bit of nonsense:
So what is science fiction, then? Well, I've just about given up on the question entirely. Lately I've trended more and more to something that might well be called Anti-Mundane-SF (hey, should I start a movement?), in which everything I like is science fiction. Why not? I like Lost, is it science fiction? Sure, you can make a strong case. And Pushing Daisies? Absolutely. Hell, James Bond does all kinds of stuff that isn't possible in the real world, so we'll call that sf as well, and if we have Bond we'll take Superman and Batman as well. And we'll claim as sf The Venture Bros and Avatar the Last Airbender and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. What the hell, toss in Flight of the Conchords too, I'm sure they did something sfnal at some point (for all I know New Zealand could be imaginary...).
I was, though, only half-joking, which means I was also half-serious, but now, a few months later, I'm starting to think I was more or less entirely serious. Taken together, Seavey's "cult fiction" and thoughts about immersion in worlds more interesting than reality, my own addled attempt to label everything I like as "science fiction," and Stephenson's discussion about speculative fiction being not a genre but instead a separate cultural stream seem to be pointing at something. Just what, I'm not sure yet. A "bifurcated culture," such as Stephenson describes? With the stuff that encourages "geeking out"--active involvement with entertainment, as opposed to simply consuming--appealing to the geeks?

In the discussions that followed Clay Shirky's "cognitive surplus" talk, I saw a lot of people objecting to what they saw as Shirky's classification of all television as mere consumption. But what I think Shirky was actually talking about was the "vegging" type of entertainment that Stephenson discusses, a non-immersive, non-interactive type of entertainment that stands in opposition to the "geeky", interactive and immersive type. The evidence is that any number of the "Wikipedia-scale projects" that Shirky says could be mounted if people watched less television are being mounted by people that watch quite a bit of it. Not just the Alternate Reality Games that are becoming increasingly common, marketing machines for genre tv and movies, but completely grassroots, ground-level enterprises. Every week, at about 10PM on Thursday, I head over to Lostpedia, to begin to take part in the international, collaborative process that is the digestion of the latest episode of Lost. This isn't standing around the watercooler the next day talking about the funny bits of last night's Gilligan's Island, this is an ongoing intellectual exercise carried out by thousands--millions?--of people ever week, who aren't just viewers, they are participants.

Obviously, not everyone who watches or reads these kinds of entertainments participates at the same level. On the far end of the spectrum you get people who wear Star Fleet uniforms to work every day or who prefer to speak in Elvish, and at the other end you have those who do nothing but watch the twinkling lights of some space opera or vampire hunting show with their brains turned off, with no more intellectual engagement than they'd have watching Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire Midget. And there are doubtless devoted viewers of mindless reality shows, the ultimate in vegging consumer product, who devote their lives to building huge databases of references found in them, as well. But those are outliers on either side, I think, and there's a large middle ground of geeks who do engage with these entertainments--whether you call them cult fiction, or speculation, or just plain science fiction--on a level that you don't find in regular, "mundane" entertainments.

So what does this mean for those of us who create entertainments in the first place? Is there a kind of checklist of qualities and characteristics that, if a piece of entertainment has enough, then the geek audience will engage? And, perhaps more importantly, are there elements that, if omitted, will mean they stay away? Perhaps the corollary to this kind of immersion is the cold-water-in-your-face realization that a particular "more interesting than reality" world isn't more interesting, after all. I've discussed before shows like Heroes or X-Files or Alias that appeared to me originally to hint at big mysteries that the viewer was invited to puzzle out over time but which, eventually, were revealed to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. Isn't that the sting at the end of this tail, that viewers who do get immersed will be more disappointed when an entertainment fails to deliver its promises than a "vegging" audience would be by an entertainment that just limped along in its mindless way?

Mmm. I don't know. What do you people think?

Amen, across the board. Agree with almost everything you say here and how you've synthesized from these various threads. Love the term "cult fiction" - could almost convince me that it's nearing time to drop the SF label and move into the wider world.

Yes, I do think there are attributes one can include in a narrative to encourage (if not guarantee) hooking into the geeking out portion of the audience. Dovetails with my own recent thoughts that TV needs to work out its major arcs from day one, because, yes, the audience will be turned off. And this isn't new - remember the anger at the end of Twin Peaks? There's a show laden with geeking out potential - imagine the wikipedia site that would have grown up had the technology existed - and which had no payoff whatsoever.

What we've got are shows with enough drill down potential to hold, but none of them have managed to deliver at the payoff yet - so we've got something like X-Files - which managed to hold most for about 5 seasons before the emperor had no clothes, and Heroes, which has lost most after one, and BSG - which has managed to pull almost to the end of its run. This, too, is the reason for the failure of Matrix Reloaded and Reolutions. Certainly the effects were better, the stunts bigger, the actors the same, the look'n'feel all there - all enough to work for the veg-out audience portion. But it broke down on the level of narrative, refusing to pay off what it set up and didn't work for the geek-out audience.

Although I championed Journeyman as a tremendous show (and it was, start to premature finish), one of the reasons that I believe it failed to catch is that it held its geek-out cards close to its chest, only really dolling them out after the third or fourth episode. My wife spotted this at the time, and said, "This is a better show than x, but it's not going to catch with today's audience if it doesn't move the backstory forward faster." And she was right. Instead, it was paced like a 90s show, giving its audience time to get to know the characters and learn just what time travel meant before introducing all the shadowy agencies at work behind it. Mistake.

You've got to front load it all now, hang out all your signs that say "there's a lot more in back of this you'll want to know", don't sit on anything, and be that good enough that you can keep it coming right to the well-thought-out ending. The bar has never been higher.

Me, I can't wait for like 20 years from now, when somebody dusts off that old property Babylon 5, the title of which everyone knows but most people don't know what it was about, and do the total Ron Moore remake of it, BSG-style. That's be my favorite show when it happens. Since it does have an arc that pays off. The frame is all there, but today we have much better bricks.
I'm not sure whether "all bets as to propreity are off" when a fan meets another fan in a mundane situation, but I think the nature of the relationship between the two fans can change very quickly when they "recognize" each other.
A friend of mine used to say that she liked using "frell" when talking to strangers because if the other person recognized the word he or she was probably someone she wanted to talk to.
And, Locus used to list things like Georgette Heyer novels under the heading "associational interest." I think a lot of things in that category may also qualify as "stranger than life" fiction.
I've been thinking a lot more about this the last few days, in particular the business about promising immersive-level mysteries and then failing to deliver, as I caught up with the last three episodes of BSG.

I think you're right, Lou, in that the standards are much higher now than they were even ten years ago. Definitely in television and movies, and probably in comics and prose, as well. There are any number of great comic and novel series of the past that started off fairly shaky, and took a while to find their legs. (I often hear readers advised to start reading Gaiman's Sandman with the second trade collection, which perhaps significantly was the first trade of the series to be issued.) I'm not sure that audiences now would be as forgiving. So things have to be good right up to the end, but they also have to be good right from the beginning.
I think that Locus listing regency romances is a perfect example of the kind of thing I'm thinking of, Bill. There is a huge overlap, I've found, between readers of science fiction and fantasy and readers of well crafted historical fiction. I think it's that the skills of "worldbuilding" employed to construct a convincing future Earth or secondary fantasy world are from the same toolbox that a writer like Patrick O'Brian or Bernard Cornwell uses to create a convincing past world, and invites the same kind of immersion and involvement.
By an odd coincidence, I was just thinking of Sandman and how it needed a few issues to find its feet (also how it started off set in regular DC Continuity with appearnaces by the Martian Manhunter, etc...). And look at something like ST:TNG which needed FOUR SEASONS to find its feet. You would NEVER get that kind of allowance now. I'm not caught up on BSG, but I'm excited by Ron Moore's trilogy for UA, as going in for three, and just three, might really help him construct a story with a beginning, middle and end.
I've just caught up with BSG this last weekend, so I'm perhaps a little less than optimistic about Moore's upcoming trilogy. I'll definitely check it out, but having been burned once, I'll be twice shy.

And that raises another issue, I suppose. How many creators--whether television show runners, comic scripters, novelists, etc--essentially lose their audience for good when they fail to deliver on the big mysteries? Chris Carter was a hot property at one point, with something like four high profile series to his credit, but after The X-Files completely fizzled in the final seasons, the big mysteries revealed as nothing but smoke and mirrors, he hasn't really been heard from since (and it's perhaps telling that his only new project since is a film based on X-Files, perhaps trading on the lingering affecting people have for the earlier seasons?). I can think of a few other examples in comics and novels, as well, people who built large followings over a series, and then lost them, seemingly forever, when the series fails to deliver in the final analysis.
Which is why as soon as a tv exec has a hit show, he abandons it to underlings and tries to set up another show as fast as possible - during which period the original show suffers from the lack of attention, and then it goes down, and then pulls the subsequent deals down with them.
Excellent point. Of course, is the exec is the reason that things are suffering in the first place, it can be a boon. The best thing to happen to Lost was JJ Abrams stepping away and letting Damn Lindelof and Carlton Cruse essentially run the show (while he went back to running Alias into the ground). And Star Trek: Enterprise didn't get good until Berman and Braga stepped away and let Manny Coto run the show (and when they came back for the final episode, it was to produce worst episode the show had seen in years).
I'd just like to add that we should be careful not to conflate a bunch of different distinctions: "shows I like/shows I don't" isn't necessarily the same as "shows that inspire widespread participation/shows that don't," which is not the same as "genre shows/mundane shows"; nor are any of these the same as "well-written shows/poorly-written shows." There are people out there who are fiercely engaged with shows that you or I have never watched, and some of those people are very smart. There are great TV shows that don't inspire their own wikis; some don't even last more than a season. Etc, etc.

Last year there was a discussion here that I think has some relevance. In particular, see the quote from Umberto Eco about what makes a cult movie; a couple more of Eco's criteria can be seen online here.
All very good points, Ted. I tried to hedge my bets above a bit, since I know that there *are* non-genre shows (and shows I don't watch) that do generate that kind of involvement among their engaged fanbase. But I'm probably guilty of conflating my own tastes with a show's objective quality and ability to appeal to an audience, as well (unless, as I've suggested before, my tastes *are* objective...)

And many thanks for the links. That discussion on Maureen's blog in particular has interesting parallels with my thoughts on this, that I'll have to consider. It's been too long since I read Eco's essay, too, and I'm now tempted to track down a copy of Travels in Hyperreality and revisit it.
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