All mediums are equal – an end to science fiction tribalism

Jonathan McCalmont @ 20-08-2008

Another month, another inadequate pay-cheque. More empty days and suffocating nights alleviated only by cheap hooch, regrettable takeaways and the occasional all-too-brief orgasm. This is your life… and this is the return of Blasphemous Geometries.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

The critical language of science fiction is balkanised according to the media form which the work being discussed belongs. Jonathan McCalmont suggests it is the critic’s place to encourage a merging of genre’s disparate media tribes.

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Previously I have written about the fact that there are no rules to genre and the fact that science fiction is a predatory sub-culture. Both of these facts stem from the fact that to talk about genre, or any other political or cultural group, is to talk first and foremost about people. This means that what we think of as science fiction, horror or fantasy are all ultimately shaped by group dynamics, and there is one particular demographic that, as humans, we are particularly prone to – tribalism (bikinis and tropical islands not included). [Awww, no bikinis? 🙁 – Ed.]

In 1939, the journalist E. H. Carr produced the book The Twenty Years’ Crisis, in which he laid down the foundations of the political doctrine known as Realism. Drawing from the tradition of thinkers such as Machiavelli, Thucydides and Hobbes, Realism states that the international system is utterly anarchic and full of states that will act only in their best interest regardless of any moral considerations. While the definition of ‘best interest’ might have evolved over the last seventy years, the image of the world as being full of selfish, greedy nation-states has proved remarkably long-lasting. Certainly longer lasting than the human equivalent of realism developed by Arthur Bentley in a book called The Process of Government.

Bentley saw government (and, by extension, any human endeavour) as a process of tribal warfare, with any task invariably devolving into in-fighting whereby alliances both formal and informal manoeuvre to take control of the agenda. For example, when Tube workers go on strike in London, they are simply using what they have to get a larger slice of the pie. No different in essence to when large corporations lobby and threaten to close down factories in order to get the most advantageous tax regime, both are power-blocks competing for resources like crazed Pokemon trainers.

Indeed, according to Bentley and the Realists, all debate and morality are simply forms of political signalling; the dropping of key words and phrases in the hope of attracting support from people who identify with these phrases. This process is not always subtle and popular values evolve over time; when was the last time you bought a car that boasted militaristic levels of power? But then again, some forms of political signalling make unfortunate returns.

This same process of tribal warfare applies to the evolution of genre.

Many literary movements acknowledge this fact by issuing manifestos that draw attention to their ‘differences’ from the mainstream of genre. Cyberpunk even had its own house journal, edited by Bruce Sterling and full of broadsides aimed at the rest of SF. What these manifestos do is proclaim a group’s distinct identity from the mainstream of the culture and, by outing themselves, the signatories seek out other like-minded writers and thinkers. But as well as seeking creative allies, groups can also try to make their values better represented by the bulk of the culture. For example, whenever an award shortlist is announced, the most common complaint will be the lack of women writers on it.

This unhappiness is not a result of any particular book going unrecognised; rather, it is an attempt to get other SF fans to give greater acknowledgement to women writers as a whole. Conversely, it is rare that people complain about all-white shortlists because, aside from a genuine and saddening lack of non-white authors, literary SF simply does not have a sizeable power-block devoted to increasing the visibility of non-whites as a matter of principle.

Tribalism, while occasionally leading to a healthily Darwinian culture of continual change, can also present itself as hostility or intolerance of other tribes. This is something that I am admittedly prone to.

Every year, when the Hugo shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form is announced I begin to grind my teeth like a coke fiend because, every year, the shortlist tends to ignore what I consider the best genre films of the year. In fact, this year I even went so far as to label the Hugo nominators ‘multiplex scum’ and propose my own superior shortlist. Similarly, when the Worldcon Guest of Honour Lois McMaster Bujold suggested that Romance is a part of the genre landscape and tried to include it in a metaphor relating to blood types, I immediately thought that Romance should probably be thought of less as a blood type and more as a form of anaerobic stomach bacteria, on the grounds that everything it touches turns to shit. But I am not the only tribal creature in genre.

When the SF critic Paul Kincaid had the audacity to give a lukewarm review to Pat Murphy’s The Wild Girls, fans sprang into action claiming he lacked the critical framework to properly review a work of young adult fiction. Translation: we do not want your kind here. Similarly, critical pieces about The Dark Knight and Hellboy II have been met with hurricanes of piss issued by fans who struggle to accept an ‘outsider’ putting down a film they like. But aside from sarcasm and hostility, provincialism can take a less confrontational but equally damaging form, particularly when it comes to different media.

The unprecedented rise in the popularity and visibility of genre over the last twenty years means that now people can enjoy SF, Fantasy and Horror as text, television, film, comic or game. Unfortunately, while there is a good deal of overlap in terms of demographics, the different media all have their own scenes. Game websites cater to gamers, literary websites contribute mostly to book-readers and discussions of genre films tend to owe more to cinematic critical language than they do to genre-specific language. Each of these scenes even have their own summer conventions.

While there are divisions between fans of SF and Fantasy, the real fault lines in genre fandom lie not at the level of subject matter but at the level of the medium through which genre is experienced. All of these different scenes have a tendency to look inwards. Indeed, it is no accident that thirteen out of the thirty nominees for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form have been based upon books or short stories; Hugo nominators choose works derived from their ‘home’ medium as they lack the desire to engage as much with film as they do with books. This pattern is repeated across the genre with SF films drawing from previous SF films and SF games drawing from SF games and so on.

Mercifully, a melting pot is beginning to form. More and more fans base their frames of reference upon multiple media, thereby creating a market for ‘mixed’ magazines such as SFX. Even pillars of the literary sub-culture such as Interzone boast excellent film columns while large sites such as io9 and Suvudu spread their coverage across books, films, TV and games.

The challenge for 21st Century genre criticism will be to encourage all of these discrete conversations to merge, creating one great conversation in one common language – so that game designers can react to short stories as much as they do to films or other games, while short story writers will draw as much from RPGs as they do from comics and TV series. Critical advocacy should not be limited to content, it should also embrace form.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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6 Responses to “All mediums are equal – an end to science fiction tribalism”

  1. ShaunCG says:

    I very much agree that tribalism can be a depressingly provincial thing, and that extending oneself outside self-imposed borders is rarely anything other than a good thing. At the same time, it’s tricky to build up a self-confident critical vocabulary for many different mediums. Then again, this might just be because I’m young and have a tendency to compare myself to very experienced writers and critics.

    Still, in terms of enjoying material from different mediums, I think most people flit between them these days. It’s interesting that we are seeing both the disintegration of distinct subcultures (the “graying of fandom”) at the same time as the growth of intensely atomised subcultures (e.g. grindcore fans).

  2. ShaunCG says:

    Grindcore fans may not be the best example, actually, as it’s gone from a bedroom in-joke between extreme metallers to yet another thing the trendy haircuts have started doing badly. But you get my point: there are no big movements and scenes any more, just hundreds of small ones with a large amount of overlap.

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Yup, I think that most people do now flit between the different media BUT I also think that the different media have their own distinct scenes where most of the discussion goes on.

    Similarly, if you compare a genre film or book to a videogame, it’s generally intended in a pejorative fashion but I think that games can frequently (because of the differences in the nature of the different media) have interesting things to say when they adapt material from other forms and make it their own.

    The same goes for film where discussions frequently revolve around whether or not an adaptation “got it right”. That assumes the primacy of books over film and I don’t think that that is in the least bit correct.

  4. ShaunCG says:

    Mmm, you’re right. There is some crossover here and there (the last issue of Foundation I read, which I think was 101, had an interesting article that discussed Lost as a TV show that is based around videogame narrative conceits – and actually got me watching a few episodes, which nothing else has managed) but it’s fairly limited. I think it does tend to get shouted down a lot of the time, the most famous example I can think of being games journalist Kieron Gillen’s “new school journalism”.

    Games can be very interesting but it’s tricky to really do something different. Today it’s almost impossible commercially – BioShock had some interesting ideas but failed to follow through on them – as videogames have ossified into fairly strict genres. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in independent gaming (Braid being a recent and fantastic example) but that tends to be limited by the resources available, not to mention potential inexperience.

    Still… it should be talked about more, and critics especially should at the very least be familiar with the differences between and possibilities of different mediums. As Charlie Brooker said in response to “a game will never move you like a film can”, “well maybe it’s not supposed to, you fucking thicksicle!”

  5. Tom Marcinko says:

    Theater and the novel were disreputable for long stretches of history. Film only (relatively) recently became respectable (whatever that means) as an art form. I can still remember a grade-school teacher telling us that the book is ALWAYS better than the movie. I know she was just trying to encourage us to read, but come on… (Same future-shocked teacher assured us that rock music was worthless.)

    The idea that TV and comics are inherently lower forms strikes me as a holdover from the 50s. What Jerry Seinfeld said of comedy also strikes me as true of sf: Movies are not necessarily a step up.

    Recently I said on another site that the collected WATCHMEN is as good as it gets in any medium, and I’m stickin’ to that.

  6. Jason Stoddard says:

    All you need to do is look at ComicCon versus WorldCon:

    ComicCon: embraces comics, film, games, books, whatever . . . attendance grows every year–now at 125K people.

    WorldCon: insular science fiction audience, deeply skeptical of anything that isn’t on paper–unstable attendance, 5-7k people.