Science fiction movies are extremely rare

Most films that are sold as science fiction are actually action-adventure with fantasy elements that are coded as scientistic. Actual SF presents an internally-coherent future world where the differences from our world affect the environment in deep but non-obvious ways that impact the plot.

Most movies that try to pass as near-future SF play it on easy mode by making whatever tech they’re about not yet fully integrated into society, which is ultimately less interesting than something that studies how a society would realistically be changed by the speculative element. Jurrassic Park & Contact fall into this.

That’s still better than most far-future “SF”, where lots of alien tech exists but social arrangements are built on ancient or medieval models.

For all my problems with Black Mirror, it is actually pretty consistently science fiction — something that Star Trek fails at across the board.

Sense of wonder — the primary export of visual media that proclaim to be science fiction or speculative fiction — is a waste of time. If you know why an idea is interesting, and you’re a competent enough stylist to express that to a reader, then you don’t need it. If you don’t really know why an idea attracts you, or you’re unwilling to embrace that, or you can’t explain it — well, sense of wonder is just going to highlight that and make the whole thing feel cheap. Nothing ages worse than fake awe. SF is a literature of ideas, so the draw ought to be subject to analysis

This isn’t the same thing as claiming that science fiction should not have style, or that it should wear its ideas on its sleeve. Interesting ideas can be encoded in stylistic flourishes (as Gibson does). But, they need to exist, and they need to be expressed in such a way that a critical reader can, with effort, identify them. Otherwise you’re just transcribing a weird dream you had — and that’s not going to be interesting without the context to decode it.

Basically, having your Big Dumb Object be Really Big and Really Dumb doesn’t do anything by itself. What makes science fiction interesting is when it’s Really Alien in a way that has interesting knock-on effects for characters — either by showing familiar things from a perspective that reminds you how strange they are, or taking recognizable tendencies to unexpected extremes. If you’re just making the BDO big, it’s not SF but romantic art. I mean, it ain’t SF if there’s no speculation. Looking at a big thing and saying “wow” with an orchestral score isn’t speculation.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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