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Do Science Fiction writers sound bitter?

To them [science fiction authors], "Star Wars" is nothing more than a space opera, and if the big guy in the black cloak is finally singing, that means the show is over. The saga continues no longer.

"That's the past of science fiction you're talking about," said Richard K. Morgan, the British cyberpunk-noir writer whose most recent novel is "Market Forces."


And then

What Mr. Lucas may have seen as eternal, however, science fiction writers have tended to see as antique.

"It started out 30 years behind," said Ursula K. Le Guin. "Science fiction was doing all sorts of thinking and literary experiments on a totally different plane. 'Star Wars' was just sort of fun."

"It takes these very stock metaphors of empire in space and monstrously bad people and wonderfully good people and plays out a bunch of stock operatic themes in space suits," she said. "You can do it with cowboy suits as well."

Science fiction, on the other hand, "is a set of metaphors," Ms. Le Guin said. "It's useful for thinking about certain things in our lives - if society was different in some way, what would it be like?"


Way they're speaking, you'd almost be forgiven for thinking that science fiction weren't built and sustained on the back of novels and movies and tv just like Star Wars. Bad bad people and good good guys are the standard trade in sci-fi (and much of the other genres like fantasy).

But this is my favourite quote:

"Blade Runner." Many people, including Mr. Morgan, consider the film, directed by Ridley Scott, to be one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, because it was as much about what's inside as what's outside. It, not "Star Wars," was truly ahead of its time.

"You've got the gun battles and all that stuff," Mr. Morgan said, "but the movie is very much about internal factors, like robots yearning to be humans."


Yeah, man, robots yearning to be human. Fuck. How'd I ever think that wasn't brand spanking new and well thought out? It's like, Wow, I'm wanting to be someone else. Man. What a spin. Pass me the joint--this is great, isn't it? God. I want to be someone else. I want to be a chick... not, fuck man, I wanna be Rutger Hauer!

Jesus.

In fairness, of course, the quote could be taken out of context, shifted round, done whatever, but lets for a moment assume that the idea of having a movie (or piece of fiction) structured around the question of wanting to be someone different, about wanting to change your life... lets just pause and think that this might be something unique.

Did you pause?

Did the countless novels and films and even goddamn pop songs that focused on the desire to be someone different and escape your shitty life just cause your skull to explode?

Comments

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gnosis_7
May. 2nd, 2005 06:44 pm (UTC)
Blade runner is ahead of its time. Its exploring themes like post humanism that Ghost in The Shell and The Matrix picked up on almost 20 some odd years ago. It asks the question "what is it to be human?" Does it matter that Rachael isnt organic? But it seems she has more soul than the human characters occupying the film. The line between humans and machines is so small that they have to give empathy tests to determine who is who. That film is about the world we are going to inherit where people slowly lose there humanity and become machines. The social allegory is potent too. Are we simply just social constructs? Is the social machine turning people into machines? But in defense of Star Wars this is the symbolic signifigance of darth vader. he loses his humanity and becomes a cripple bionic man when he chooses to serve the empire or the bureacratic machine.
benpeek
May. 2nd, 2005 11:32 pm (UTC)
the term 'post human' is probably the only new thing at the time.

but it is, ultimately, a variation of the what is it to be human question, which in a non politically correct universe before now was gave forward was what is it to be a man? or what is it to be woman? none of those things are new, and whether you connect it to synthetics or clones or a soldier or an ordinary man/woman stuck in his, her day job, the question has been round for as long as we could breath.

you can even, i think, find a lot of these questions in fritz lang's METROPOLIS, made in the 1920's.
gnosis_7
May. 3rd, 2005 12:54 am (UTC)
yeah but one thing that blade runner does that none of those other films do is propose a synthesis between the two which is completely contemporary and is not part of any other era. The relationship between rachael and deckard proposes a solution to the post human question. it shows a symbiotic relationship between not only man and machine but man and man based on compassion and understanding. they show the characters finding menaing and value in their existence even in the post apocalyptic world of the film. All those other films tend to do is stay within the parameters of technophobia. In fact you could argue that the finale of the matrix trilogy is totally cribbed from blade runner.

Metropolis is certainly an influence on blade runner. but blade runner is certainly the first film of its kind.
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 01:41 am (UTC)
i don't know. i don't think that kind of relationship climax is enough to suggest a new meaning to me. you could read it simply as deckard finding love in a woman and being able to overcome her faults, which in this case is her origin. that kind of argument plays into a lot of other films.

also, blade runner, to me, appears to be a film that is much of its time. around the same peroid there was a film called SLIPSTREAM, which had mark hamill in it as a hunter of escaped andriods. unfortunately the computer here at the office won't let me access the imdb.com to check the year it was filmed. but even before that there are films like lucas' THX, and LOGANS RUN and a bunch of others. sure, you can argue the technophobe angle of it--but i reckon you can argue it just as well for blade runner. in the end i don't think that deckard is so much accepting technology as he is accepting that she can be a woman (and he does leave the tehcnology ridden city).

but it's all much of a muchness, i guess. i think there was a peroid of thought around that time hat was influencing sf film, but i'd be reluctant to say that blade runner was the first of its kind.
stephen_dedman
May. 3rd, 2005 01:59 am (UTC)
SLIPSTREAM was released in 1989, BLADE RUNNER in 1982; granted, this is the same decade, but they're hardly contemporaries in the same way as, say, THE MATRIX, THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR and DARK CITY. And the closest SLIPSTREAM comes to breaking new ground is when it tries clawing its way out of its grave after a well-deserved burial.
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 03:45 am (UTC)
well,i didn't say SLIPSTEAM was good :) just thought it was made earlier, but apparently not. fair enough.
angriest
May. 4th, 2005 03:11 pm (UTC)
Man, are you going to be sorry when I finish my current Bad Film Diaries...
stephen_dedman
May. 5th, 2005 01:10 am (UTC)
Oh God, you're not going to agree with me again, are you? You know how people panic when that happens.
stephen_dedman
May. 3rd, 2005 01:51 am (UTC)
Metropolis, unlike Blade Runner, never considered this question from the android's point of view (neither did Star Wars, except for C-3P0's line "We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life.", which at least implies that a droid can think of itself as alive). That idea, however, does date back to Shelley's Frankenstein (which Aldiss makes a good case for being the first sf novel), and is at least hinted at in the Whale films. (Star Wars, btw, was also influenced by Metropolis in its visual style, if nothing else; have you ever seen McQuarrie's original designs for C-3P0?)

While I love Blade Runner even more than Star Wars (or even The Empire Strikes Back), and I think its look as well as its treatment of sf ideas was more influential on written sf than the Star Wars series, much of its power comes from its source material. It's a 1980s film based on 1960s sf novels. Star Wars, OTOH, is a 1970s film based mostly on 1930s space opera serials.

That said, would Blade Runner have been made if not for the commercial success of Star Wars? I doubt it (and it certainly wouldn't have starred Harrison Ford). So in a commercial rather than intellectual sense, yes, Star Wars has been a huge influence on later sf film.
llbatt
May. 3rd, 2005 02:53 am (UTC)
It's also a valid argument to say that Star Wars would not have been made it not for the critical success of 2001:A Space Odyssey and the commercial success of Jaws. In fact, it's a matter of record that the film itself was only completed when Spielberg intervened with the studio to release the money necessary for completion when Lucas ran grossly overbudget.

As far as influences go, Lucas has stated that he cares not a whit for SF per se, and that his direct influence was the structure of 30s serials. One can only assume that he felt subject matter was allied to structure, or that he'd seen nothing beyond Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon. As an aside, I've always felt that the makers of Blade Runner owed a larger debt to the Alfie Bester short story "Fondly Fahrenheit" than they were willing to admit, in that many of the central thematic concerns are much more directly linked to that story than "Do Androids...?", which takes a somewhat different tack to the movie.

what cannot be questioned is Star Wars' effect on a somewhat moribund filmic genre: the explosion of SF movies, both bad and good, that followed cannot be denied. I think a film like Bladerunner may still have been made, but would the budget and star have been thrown at it? Perhaps not.

However, given a choice between the two, I know which I'd sit down to watch again...
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 03:52 am (UTC)
one of the questions i find interesting is not if blade runner would have been made, or if the money would be there, or either those things, but rather why it is that sf writers get so worked up about the film, like is being shown in that article. to me, the lucus films and the work of someone like le guin aren't even compariable, so why not simply say, 'lucus was influenced by serial television, whereas i'm influenced by gender politics.' (used THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS as an example.)

it's not like anyone has to find this one text, film or oherwise, that best explains a genre. it's a wide field with a lot of depth. why not simply talk about it in those terms, rather than how they do?
llbatt
May. 3rd, 2005 03:58 am (UTC)
Agreed. I certainly m,ake no secret of my loathing for all things Star Wars, but that has more to do with my disadain for them as bad SF and bad film, than my need to identify with a particular brand of genre. Would I rather see a film of, oh, let's say (he says, scanning his bookshelf) Brunner's The Stone That Never Came Down? Not really. Would I rather the films that do see the light be well-made? You bet.

It's a very simple response for me: I'm sick of having to come out of cinemaa replying "No, that's NOT what I write" to friends.

I'd rather judge films as films, for the most part. Bladerunner is a good film: well-made, compelling, fascinating. (Obviously, we're talking voiceover-less version), Star Wars is a piece of crud. It would be a piece of crud if it was a Western (which it is, really). If the SF film is bad SF, or the comedy film is unfunny, or the mystery film not mysterious, that makes it a bad film, as well as bad genre.
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 04:09 am (UTC)
now, you see, i actually like star wars but feel nothing for blade runner. voiceover, voice over less, it's all the same to me. whereas star wars nurtures the child within me, since i was pretty much six or seven when i first saw them.

but, my reply is not about that.

what bugs me about sf cinema (or, indeed, cinema in general) is its lack of original thinking. here i'm not talking about if something is good, or bad, but rather that a large portion of the ideas are actually taken from books and articles and short stories. these things get adapted for the screen, when, in truth, there was no reason for it. did blade runner need to be adapted for the dick book? of course not. could it have been a stronger film without it? who knows. maybe.

as dedman pointed out, pretty much everything that is a sf film comes from sf literature, so it's always behind the curve in the trend. but, because of it's dominance in cinema, it's seen as a end of the trend--i mean, does it really matter to the cutting edge of sf film what star wars does? hardly. does it matter what these authors say? again, hardly, excpet they like to voice their opinions when their work is butchered.

my theory is sf cinema needs to be pushed away from using texts as the basis of its work. it's impacting that many books have a question at the end that begins with, 'would this make a good film?" which is ridiculous.
llbatt
May. 3rd, 2005 05:11 am (UTC)
Granted, but I think that's a general complaint about cinema per se. Studios are looking for sure things, rather than taking risks on untried original scripts. The rationale seems to be that if people bought the book, then people will want to see a film version.

The parallels between studio/independent filmmakers and big house/independent book houses are apparent in the choices of subject matter and format.
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 06:17 am (UTC)
sure, that's the rationale behind using books, but it has gone beyond that. now you find readers who want it to be a good film, writers who want their work optioned--that it's like a goal to have, and not just for the money, but because it might also break them into hollywood...
llbatt
May. 3rd, 2005 06:45 am (UTC)
As if having your work optioned is the highest accolade a work could attract. Sad, really. And you look at someone like Michael Crichton, who wrote Jurassic Park because Spielberg asked him for something he could film, and the amount of money that gross hack caricature is pulling in, and ask yourself: is it me that's getting the wrong end of the stick?

Correct answer: nope. Crichton is a literary pile of shit who will be forgotten as people are leaving the funeral service.
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 06:50 am (UTC)
sure, but what crichton is is the new kind of author. (well, i suppose he's not new since he's an old bean, but still.) no one will remember him--which i'm sure won't bother him when he's dead as it won't bother me if no one remembers me--but as literary figures to inspire new authors go, he's one of the new wave.

it's much worse than those following in kerouac's footsteps.
llbatt
May. 3rd, 2005 06:54 am (UTC)
Deliberate crass commercialism being at least slightly more reasonable than derivative pretentious wankery.

I'm holding out hope that Matthew Reilly will throw himself on Crichton's funeral pyre. With or without assistance. It's all the same to me...
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 06:58 am (UTC)
whatever stops him have a voice about literature.

anyhow, me, i'd rather have the wankery. at least derivative pretentious wankery says you loved the literature and you're there for that.
angriest
May. 4th, 2005 03:13 pm (UTC)
I think Crichton will be remembered. Not well, but he will have a presence when future generations come to talk of 20th century popular fictions.

100 years from now, however, I think only Stephen King will be mentioned in the way we talk about Dickens today.
benpeek
May. 4th, 2005 10:51 pm (UTC)
i don't know about king. maybe. it's a different culture we live in from dickens', so the path that he followed from then to now will be a different one for king. but hey, maybe. who is to say? personally i'm not real fussed about who will be around in a hundred years. it doesn't interest me.
stephen_dedman
May. 5th, 2005 02:47 am (UTC)
I suspect this depends on how you define 'untried original scripts'. I read recently that 30,000 original scripts are registered with the Writers' Guild in an average year. These are read by unpaid interns, and the very few that they don't reject MAY be optioned. Fewer still are greenlighted. I suspect that the studio's rationale for sometimes buying the rights to books or short stories rather than 'untried original scripts' is that a published story has already gone through a similar process, and is likely to have the basic elements they're looking for - a somewhat coherent story, likeable characters, readable prose, speakable dialogue, etc.

But the number of people who buy and read even a bestselling novel is insignificant compared to the power of the Force... oops, I mean insignificant compared to the number of tickets that need to be sold for a big-budget movie to be profitable. Even literary classics and cult favourites may not register on the radar of the greenlight guys or the stars.

And have any of, say, Adam Sandler's movies ever been based on a book? Or Vin Diesel's? Technically, they count as 'untried original scripts', even if they're commissioned by a studio and rewritten by 17 writers of whom no more than 5 can get a credit (if 'credit' is the appropriate word).

That's why there are so many movies being made now based (at least nominally) on computer games, the more durable superhero comics, TV series that have been re-run on US TV for 30+ years (even if they've been forgotten in Australia), and the works of authors whose work has already been adapted for commercially successful films (Crichton, Clancy, Grisham, Dick, etc.): these have 'brand name recognition' that few books can achieve even if they stay in print for decades. And do you think the studio heads care if the 'original' scripts for these bear little or no resemblance to the source material? (Okay, maybe a little, IF they remember the way reviewers enthused about how faithful the films of LotR and Harry Potter were to the books, at a time when the films based on 'untried original scripts' were being panned and the Oscar for original screenplay went to a non-US film. But I suspect most don't.)

Remember, many of us contributing to this debate voluntarily read mountains of slush hoping to find something brilliant. We know how little of the stuff we receive is even worth the small expense of printing and distributing a few hundred pages, or even putting on a website, much let investing tens of millions of dollars developing it into a movie. Most people don't do this and don't want to, and studio heads are in the same boat (though in their case it's probably a 14-carat yacht). They prefer to let underpaid masochists like us do that sort of scutwork for them, while they concentrate on things that they're sure the public REALLY cares about, such as Vin's biceps and Angelina's nipples. And sometimes when I'm reading slush, I really can't blame them.
lyzbeth
May. 2nd, 2005 11:49 pm (UTC)
I wanna be Rutger Hauer.
How did you know???

/flippant
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 01:32 am (UTC)
it's what every girl wants ;)
stephen_dedman
May. 3rd, 2005 03:34 am (UTC)
While Lucas has expressed admiration for 2001, and its influence is apparent in some of Star Wars's visuals and the way its characters relate to technology, there's plenty of evidence in the films and in Lucas's interviews that he has much more love for the serials (THX 1138 begins with a trailer for Buck Rogers) and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom. I suspect he was also inspired at least partly by Silent Running - not just the robots, but also the budget :-)
deborahb
May. 3rd, 2005 06:04 am (UTC)
Maybe they're not so much bitter as bored. Lord knows I get sick of hearing about Star Trek whenever I mention that I write 'spec fic'.
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 06:15 am (UTC)
you know, i don't think i have had one person bring up star wars or star trek when i say i write spec fic. the closest i've gotten is harry potter, and that's my mum, saying, 'will you make money like harry potter?'

anyhow. they could be bored. it's the same stuff they say in response to star wars all the time.
deborahb
May. 3rd, 2005 06:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, because they keep being *asked* all the time. That's gotta be tedious...
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 06:52 am (UTC)
yeah, but if news media has taught me anything, you can twist any question into what you want. they're not stupid people that bunch--they could be going in different directions with it.
deborahb
May. 3rd, 2005 08:54 am (UTC)
True.

And also, the media can twist any answer into what they want.

Maybe all we really need is media training. Works for politicians...
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 11:29 am (UTC)
hmm. next time i get asked what an author needs to know, i might just say, 'how to manipulate the press.'
frogworth
May. 3rd, 2005 07:14 am (UTC)
I do think Blade Runner was a much more influential movie than Star Wars on written sf, but at least as much of that is in its aesthetic as in its content. Of course it's based on a Phil Dick novel, and has hints of Bester and others in it - but has any media sf, whether film or TV, really been really innovative? (Maybe radio: see HHGTTG)
But huge amounts of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk is pervaded by that drenched, dark, part-Japanese cityscape of Blade Runner. Even Neuromancer came out two years later! Although some of the short stories are from 1981 (Blade Runner's '82) and "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" is from 1977)...

And I think you're misunderstanding Blade Runner and most probably Morgan (whose quote was no doubt culled from something about 10 times as long) when you reduce it to "Wow, I'm wanting to be someone else". That's not it at all: more like, what makes someone really Other? Is there such a thing? It can be interpreted as a dramatisation of the Turing Test (she behaves like a human, so isn't that enough?) - although it's arty and maybe not as deep as we fans impute to it, it's unusual in that it takes questions about AI seriously, but (yes, in the voiceover-less version) does it in a way that doesn't infodump or preach. I think what Blade Runner's about, more than anything else, is "What is artificial? What is real?" (certainly a Dickian question) and "What is human?" (in a broad sense)

Star Wars, on the other hand, really is backwards-looking. Its politics and morality are as simplistic as '30s-'50s US space opera, the story is archetypal high fantasy, inherited from all the myths and legends, there's no interest in anthropological concerns (all the aliens are basically human, and the robots are either basically human or basically pets), nor any kind of hard science.
That said, I enjoy the original Star Wars trilogy immensely, no small amount due to the nostalgia. But as Morgan says in the NY Times article, biotech, nanotech, the influence of technology (in a more nuanced way than just '80s technofear) and so on are central themes in today's sf, as well as post-humanity, post-scarcity and such concepts.
The closest the new Star Wars gets to biotech is fucking midi-chlorians, Lucas's inane scientific basis for the Force. I mean, please.

Sure, Star Wars is to sf what The Lord of Rings is to fantasy, sortof. "Please, that's not what I write". But fair enough - when something's the most popularly recognized example of a form, and is in so many ways not representative of what certain proponents of that form do, they're not gonna be happy. In that sense, cyberpunks and post-cyberpunks, anthopological sf writers and so on are going to say "Well, if you want to think of an example of media sf, Blade Runner is much closer to what I do than Star Wars is". I would say it's also a better film, not just because I like its aesthetic, but because I think it's more honest about people and society, and it's forward-looking because it's of its time, whereas Star Wars is backwards-looking because it's of an earlier time, indeed represents a nostalgia for a simple archetypal view of the universe, with Good and Evil, big battles, sword fights, and magic! Compare Blade Runner's sardonic background use of advertising, for instance, and its dogged refusal to make any characters Good or Evil.
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 11:43 am (UTC)
>And I think you're misunderstanding Blade Runner and most probably Morgan (whose quote was no doubt culled from something about 10 times as long) when you reduce it to "Wow, I'm wanting to be someone else".

no, i'm just reducing blade runner to a simple premise. after all, it's what is done for star wars, and countless other films. truth is, you can read a thousand different meanings into each of the films--that's the trick of critquing a work to give it meaning. you can, for example, make star wars out to be a marxist revolutionary text, with lucas exploring the rise of the workers up against those in control... just as you can argue that blade runner is, in fact, questioning what the other is, and is cutting humanity of bones and flesh and offering a philosophical treatment of if these things must be connected to flesh and consciousness or otherwise.

the trick with critiquing anything like that is that it's not about the actual work, but about the time and society we live in. the critique exists independently from the work, which is fine. which is why i can freely reduce it to a nub and then rebuild it with a different outlook. it's just what you can do, so long as you can make the text back up your opinion.

personally, i don't think blade runner or star wars are honest about people and society. but then, i don't think it's their place for it, so i'm not worried about that. as for it's visual look, it does appear to be one of the early western films to embrace the rain soaked electric tokyo vision of the world, which i quite like.
frogworth
May. 4th, 2005 06:37 am (UTC)
Nevertheless, I got the impression that your diatribe there was sparked by what you interpreted Morgan as saying, which was "unlike Star Wars, Blade Runner is ahead of its time, not Star Wars, because X", and you felt X = "like, man, I wanna be someone else".
I don't think you're just giving your own reading here, just one of many, oh let's be all po-mo. I think you're lambasting Morgan for thinking Blade Runner's got something to it - "No it doesn't, it's just..." But as you admit, that's just you reducing it to one simple premise. You can do that, sure, but you can't then attribute it to someone else, who is (perhaps) building an argument out of a different set of premises regarding that work.

Admittedly, my own defense of Blade Runner is based on premises that are probably not the same as those specifically referred to by Morgan in his "but the movie is very much about internal factors, like robots yearning to be humans" quote. Still, "robots yearning to be humans" = "I wanna be someone else", sortof.
Maybe it's because I know Morgan's work, so knowing that his work is at least as much influenced by Blade Runner's aesthetic, and questions of personal identity in a more nuanced way than escapism, that I'm more willing to attribute more to him. Whatever.

Thanks for, as usual, sparking interesting debate.
benpeek
May. 4th, 2005 07:35 am (UTC)
well, if it makes you feel better, i was kicked off by morgan's comments. i haven't read his books, but the write ups on them appear to have a bit of a blade runner leaning--though more into coporate politics, from what i understand. but the comment he was quoted on was, really, ridiculously simple and faintly idiotic. whether it's cut down or not from a larger comment, who knows, and that's why i never said morgan was an idiot, since i've had the impression he's quite intelligent.

but that comment was stupid, really.

still, they're the kinds of comments that allow people to kick off chatting. i like them for that.
frogworth
May. 3rd, 2005 07:17 am (UTC)
I meant to say, by the way, that although the NY Times article's not actually too bad, the blanket use of the term "science fiction writers", especially with only two actually quoted (and two very different writers!) is a bit disingenuous... How about Sean Williams, who writes Star Wars tie-ins? etc...
benpeek
May. 3rd, 2005 11:33 am (UTC)
actually, they quote four writers, but it's no real difference. it's the same kind of article that gets dragged out whenever a science fiction film does well, and the authors say (or are quoted) as saying the same thing. there's no real information for anyone, and it doesn't actually give an opening for anyone wanting to read a difference piece of sf, outside the authors listed.
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