Monday, December 29, 2008

The Curious Case of Good Sci-fi

I saw the Benjamin Button movie today. It was pretty good, all things considered, even if it was incredibly sad at the end. At some point I found out that it was based on a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which was a shock to me, probably because I can only name one other book by him. (Granted, they changed a lot for the movie. Put it this way: If you were to sum up the movie in one sentence, that would be all that it has in common with the book.)

One thing really struck me, though. To me, the movie was obviously sci-fi, yet I feel somehow like most of the people in the theater would have disagreed with me. There is a widespread perception that a sci-fi movie has to be fairly shallow, set in the future, and involve one or more of lasers, aliens, and time travel. I consider this a shame, because most things that fall into this category are terribly uninteresting. (I'm making a distinction here between entertaining and interesting: Entertaining's value is while you're in the theater; interesting's value is more when you're thinking about it afterward. Good movies will have both, but the latter is more important.)

I used to be extremely upset that sci-fi and fantasy are lumped into one genre, but it makes a little more sense to me now. There's kind of a gradient between the two, and the major dividing factor is how much of a break the story makes with reality. At the sci-fi end of the spectrum, the world is basically recognizable, except for a small change which drives the story. For example, Paycheck was an excellent sci-fi movie (and book). (The small change is spoiler, so I won't give it away here - read the linked article if you're curious.) At the other end of the spectrum, we have stuff like The Lord of the Rings, where the entire world is replaced.

Sci-fi seems to take up most of the spectrum; stuff like Star Wars is really more fantasy, but it still gets labeled sci-fi. For some reason, most people get their impression of sci-fi from the fantasy end of the spectrum, even though the interesting stuff is generally clustered at the other end. That's what I usually call "good" sci-fi - broadly, it proposes a small tweak to the world as we know it, and then explores some of the consequences. The fact that much of what I consider to be "good" sci-fi won't even be seen as sci-fi by most people will probably irritate me for some time to come.


Kiriska said...

I have no idea what other people label things, so I don't have a good grasp of what is considered sci-fi or fantasy or where to draw the line. But regardless of what category anything belongs in, the best stories are those you can immerse yourself in the easiest and those whose environments you can relate to. That's why Paycheck is awesome. You could imagine it happening. The technology was upped, but it was believable to an extent. This is why GitS: Stand Alone Complex is awesome. This is why Firefly is awesome, and this is also why Harry Potter is awesome.

The more you break from what people know and are familiar with, the harder it is to make something good. This might be why I could never get into a lot of what I would consider fantasy -- Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, things involving dragons, etc. (Though to be fair, I've still yet to see a Star Wars movie all the way through, new or old.)

Æther said...

Personally, I think you're splitting hairs over the difference between the two. Typically, the whole world will change in some way no matter what you tweak. I will note that the changes that result in what you consider sci-fi are usually under-emphasized, which has always annoyed me. History would in no way be the same for many of the small tweaks that I see, yet somehow the writers see fit to make it so. The world as we know it should be turned upside down. It's why I like fantasy much more (no offense to your sci-fi, I like it at times), because I can immerse myself in a world that usually makes more sense since it was built from the ground up. I guess it's easier for me to imagine an alternate universe rather than this one altered.