Wherever and whenever it’s set, this genre’s most special effect is its ideas – things that Tinseltown generally leaves on the cutting-room floor
If science fiction is a genre of ideas, is there any wonder Hollywood doesn’t get it?
Look. There are are only two truly great science fiction movies. The first is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, written in collaboration with Arthur C Clarke. The second is Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and adapted from Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. You may disagree with this statement. You would be wrong. Let’s move on.
News that Ridley Scott is returning to the rich source material of Philip K Dick will raise hope among fans of good SF that the new BBC mini-series of The Man in the High Castle will equal the heights of Blade Runner. Faint hope, perhaps, as Scott is slated only to executive produce, and the BBC’s track record with SF adaptations is less than stellar, but hope nonetheless.
Many of the Philip K Dick adaptions to hit our screens following Blade Runner have dragged those hopes lower still. A slew of star vehicles and forgettable summer blockbusters including Total Recall, Impostor, Minority Report, Paycheck and Next replaced PKD’s dark and complex vision of the future with formulaic Hollywood action movie plots. The same has proven true for other classic SF authors from Issac Asimov (I, Robot) to Richard Mathieson (I Am Legend) – films heavy with CGI but stripped of the single most important element that made the original books great: their ideas.
It is often said that science fiction is a genre of ideas. The best of it brings together threads not just from the physics or chemistry, but from the arts, politics, philosophy and beyond. The best SF authors are natural autodidacts, synthesising often disparate areas of knowledge to produce their own distinct visions of reality. And the best of those visions offer invaluable insights into the modern world as we experience it.
When science fiction succeeds on screen, it is because it preserves the ideas and visions that are the heart and soul of the genre. 2001 traces the evolution of humanity, from bone-wielding ape-man to intergalactic star-child, stopping off midway to suggest that our current state of evolution is perhaps not as advanced as we might like to think. Blade Runner is a story about empathy, and humans’ ability to dehumanise one another when it suits our needs. Neither are comfortable ideas for audiences seeking the brain-numbing experience that is Hollywood’s stock in trade. The Man in the High Castle speculates that, whichever side wins the war, the same oppressive forces end up in power. In an era of increasing cynicism about our democratic process this is a timely notion, but whether it’s one the BBC will choose to broadcast into every home in the nation remains to be seen.
But film and television are becoming braver in the ideas they choose to propagate to the masses. Smaller scale, lower-budget productions such as District 9 and Moon have succeeded in capturing some of the unique energy of SF and have proved with their success that audiences are not satisfied with the trappings of SF alone – they want the ideas at its heart.
So perhaps when Hollywood catches up with the current crop of talented SF writers, we’ll get to see their true visions shining from the silver screen. If so, I’ll happily queue up to see Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, or The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang. Which SF authors will you be willing to pay the price of admission for?