The SciFi Superiority Complex: Elitism in SF/F/H
By Tee Morris
12 July 2004
When I was putting together my review for Van Helsing, I hopped on to IMDb.com to double-check cast names and character spellings. Some of the comments posted were less than favorable, but that is to be expected as it is impossible to please everyone. However, reading these jaded comments coincided with an e-mail I received from a friend inside the con circuit, an e-mail concerning her con's general attitude toward having a media track. Apparently, it "dumbed down" the convention, and was hardly worth the time or effort to be mentioned, regardless of the track's impressive panel attendance numbers.
Reading these comments, both for Van Helsing and this con's media programming, brought to the forefront a concern that I've been dealing with more and more as an author, an issue that will—I have no doubt—be given new life thanks to this latest film from Stephen Sommers. I'm talking about elitism. Not in the world as a whole, but in our own corner of it. Elitism in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.
I entered the professional writing scene in 2002, so I'm relatively new to this side of the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror world. But I knew before signing the contract that part of a writer's job is to promote, and that unlike mainstream literary genres, SF/F/H has a unique network of promotion: the convention circuit.
I've hit a lot of cons since my first book rolled off the presses. It's been a real education, and I've also been having a ball, no complaints or regrets along the way. . . .
Well, maybe that's not entirely true. One particular convention revealed an undercurrent of this industry, a faction of SF/F/H that carries extremely strong opinions concerning media interpretations of our genre. In a nutshell, this faction believes that movie and TV SF/F/H dumbs down the genre, appealing only to the lowest common denominator of fan. A few of the con's guests were heard proclaiming on their panels that the real difference between "Trekkies" and "Trekkers" was not a generation thing, but people who understand and respect the science of Star Trek versus people clueless to what true Science Fiction is. "Media fan," this enlightened few continued to state, is the best blanket statement used for the lemmings following Buffy, Farscape, or Babylon 5. In her article "Capclave 2002: Whither the Fen," Jean Marie Ward of Crescent Blues eZine commented that, "A number of writers and fans argued that anyone who wanted to join their 'club' needed to play by their rules. They talked down Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the many iterations of Star Trek, then wondered why the dozen or so under-thirties [the younger side of the fan spectrum, more familiar with the media offerings of SF/F/H] turned to the writers who shared their interests."
I myself have experienced such scorn. I've had award-winning authors make mocking faces during my answers to a media question from the audience and one award-winning editor literally speak over her shoulder to me, her back being the only thing I was granted to make full eye contact with, all because of my position on media SF/F/H. The more I watched and listened, and the more I witnessed with my own eyes and ears, the more it was impressed upon me that media fans were deemed as mindless drones not smart enough to read, and not needed by those in the literary circles.
Maybe these "enlightened few" in the genre need to get that knot out of their spacesuits (you know the one I'm talking about, and where it is!) and face the truth: media SF/F/H is what continues to make this genre a popular one. Google-search the top twenty grossing films of the past few years. Fifteen of them are in the genre of SF/F/H. If you adjust the money numbers to include films of the past, half are in our genre.
And if the media is so beneath us as an expression of SF/F/H, does this mean that television shows from Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone, Robert Bloch's original Star Trek episodes, Harlan Ellison's hand in Babylon 5, or Stephen King's X-Files script are nothing better than mindless hack jobs? Hardly. These writers didn't step down from some lofty position of literary excellence, but merely stepped up to the home plate of television to raise the bar for other writers of SF/F/H media offerings.
Media productions as widely successful as Farscape, the Star Trek franchises, Babylon 5 and others do not attribute their accomplishments to their accurate depiction of space travel, physics, and biology. Their success is seen and heard in their intelligent stories. Their scripts are not great departures from their literary counterparts, but merely told in different mediums, appealing to the dreamers in all of us.
Media SF/F/H has propelled this genre into the mainstream, with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek leading the way. It is the media that gets people interested in the genre, reaching beyond the select few that continue to be subject to a negative stereotype. There is still a risk to come out and say, "I am a fan of Science Fiction," even with the genre's presence in the mainstream. Proclaiming one's love for SF/F/H immediately conjures images of socially challenged individuals with nicknames like "the great unwashed," "basement dwellers," or the blanket term "geek."
Still, the fans are out there. (Perhaps we are "The Truth" Chris Carter talked about. . . .) I'm one of them. I initially discovered acceptance for who I was, what I had to offer, and was promised a utopia of ideas, backgrounds, and interests. . . .
. . . But the deeper I descended into fandom, the more my eyes were opened to a mindset that the "Gene Roddenberry Pool" was horribly contaminated, and it is high time to run the genre through a Pür water filter in order to flush out the media pollution. It is the great contradiction in a sub-culture such as fandom which prides itself on acceptance.
I found that this negative attitude towards media SF/F/H stems from the low-quality productions that syndicated television currently offers, and perhaps when you use such examples as Beastmaster and Mutant X there is a strong argument to make. I would also agree that nothing beats reading the genre. Media SF/F/H reaches the masses in a far easier manner than literature, and for those fans who limit themselves to only television and film as their SF/F/H intake, they're missing out on some incredible wonders created by new modern authors such as Wen Spencer, Walter H. Hunt, Tony Ruggiero, and others. I would not, though, support the elitists in their blanket statement: "All media SF is unintelligent and damages the credibility of our genre. . . ." Certainly not in relation to all media SF/F/H of past, present, and future.
Even The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, a Fantasy film that did the impossible in winning the 2004 Oscar for Best Motion Picture, has been rejected by elitists as sub-standard for the genre and its reputation. As I stated earlier, I know you can't please everyone and that people will have strong opinions over what is and isn't good SF/F/H, but different opinions are hardly a hall pass to snub fans of media SF/F/H offerings. Being such a fan, I wanted to find out why this attitude continues to exist and grow.
What I discovered didn't make me feel any better.
The elitists tend to blame Fantasy authors for the "quality of fan" attending conventions and buying books. I read in a report from the 2003 WorldCon in Toronto, Ontario, that the guests' overall attitude was concern over the "decline" of the genre. Science Fiction, once again, could not generate sales like Fantasy. A possible reason given: the general public no longer had the patience, aptitude, or intelligence to read Science Fiction. All they wanted was fluffy, escapist Fantasy with no real substance or depth.
Now isn't that a great way to win over new fans?
The divide between Science Fiction and Fantasy within the genre is far wider than I expected. Perhaps this divide is vast on account of the differences between them. Science Fiction can back up all its fantastic creations with either theories or concepts showcased in scientific journals. Fantasy, on the other hand, relies on faith and imagination to explain magic, dragons, and immortality. Sometimes, leaps of faith are not good enough for the elitists, and therefore they easily dismiss the depth of modern fantasy. One panelist I shared a discussion with on "Originality in Fantasy" showed no hesitation in showing her disdain for the genre as she said, "You don't need characters to drive a Fantasy. Create a good setting, add in a quest, and people will buy it." Some of my peers, though, go even further than this. I've been told, point blank, that Fantasy is for readers "too dumb for Science Fiction."
It is this kind of mentality that perpetuates the earlier-mentioned typecasts haunting this genre and its readership, and also intimidates others completely unfamiliar with it. When I tell people (outside of fandom circles) that I write Science Fiction and Fantasy, instantly the tone of the conversation changes. "I'm not smart enough to understand that stuff," they respond concerning Science Fiction, while they also proceed to tell me "Fantasy isn't the kind of book I understand what with mythical creatures, twin moons, and the like." I've heard these statements everywhere from social settings to my own interview with NPR's "The Program" broadcast here in Washington, DC.
Later on in the same conversations, I will mention the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter films and quickly I find myself on common ground. "Great flicks!" the same people would say. And in the same NPR interview, when asked, "Do you think there is only a select audience you're reaching with your work?" I responded with, "Just look at the top grossing films. More than just fans of the genre are attending these films, so I truly believe we reach a wider audience than just con attendees."
All I can wonder is what feeds this "Overly Educated Basement Dwellers" stereotype of SF/F/H fans? What separates us from the people who don't read SF/F/H, but view it instead?
I have seen people who balk at the size of a typical Fantasy or SF hardcover. And for the price of one hardcover, you can buy three movie tickets and get the entire experience handed to you on a silver platter, complete with visual effects and soundtrack. I have also witnessed and heard one story too many of SF/F/H authors who believe that if you don't understand a concept in their book—be it a magically-based hierarchy or the basic mechanics of an FTL drive—then you don't have the smarts to read their material.
As for this elitist attitude driving a wedge within its own ranks, the growing sales in Fantasy over SF could be the main reason. Fantasy does not lack substance simply because it avoids explaining the basic concept of terraforming in a trinary star system—it merely entertains one's imagination via a different avenue.
I would never deem hard SF as "too dry for consumption" or "a quantum physics textbook with a plot" because that would come across a bit arrogant. Just because it doesn't appeal to me doesn't make the material inadequate. Different tastes, right? Elitists, however, would claim "I is stupid" in light of their claim that Fantasy has no depth compared to true Science Fiction. . . .
And I haven't even begun to go into what elitists think of Horror. The red-headed stepchild of the genre. You want to start an argument? When an author says, "My latest work is Dark Fantasy," reply with, "Oh, you mean Horror?" Make sure to wear a good pair of running shoes and scope out the best places to duck for cover. Horror author Tony Ruggiero, a good friend whom I tour with quite often, has caught the hammer blow of this elitism from other SF/F authors. Why? Because of media offerings such as the Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween films.
"People assume that Horror is a slasher film, and to me, that's not horror. Horror should be scary. The gory stuff is optional."
And Tony, I can assure you, is hardly influenced by horror films. Why? Because he doesn't watch scary movies. Not even the good ones.
So, just to recap, for the elitists (which includes fans and writers alike) Fantasy lacks substance and Horror should not even be mentioned in polite company. If so, where do the founding fathers fit in? Jules Verne? H.G. Wells? Shakespeare? (Yes, William Shakespeare!) Were they no better than hacks? And what of Mary Shelley? When Dr. Frankenstein created his monster, all we were told was that he created life, electricity playing a key element in this process. Now, considering the story, did Shelley really do her research? Since Bram Stoker is best known for a vampire novel, should he continue to have an award named after him? After all, he did write that Horror drivel. And if this is true about Stoker, which of these elitists will be given the order to revoke Stephen King's National Book Award honor? I can't help but wonder if you were to put our founding fathers and mothers of this genre into a room with nothing but what the elitists are pitching as "proper" SF, how many of them would be "smart enough" to get it?
And while we are on the subject of Stephen King, let's listen to part of his acceptance speech on winning that National Book Award. In his acceptance, King recognized the literary elite in saying he himself had no patience "for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer. What do you think? You get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?" he asked.
While this is a strong statement (and perhaps, even a warning) to the literary snobs that deemed King's National Book Award a black day for American Literature, his words should also reach the elitists in our own genre, those who are turning their backs on the SF/F/H that reaches mainstream America through film and television.
And now we come to how the film Van Helsing fits into all this. The movie is getting a mixed bag of nuts when it comes to how it is being received, but keep this in mind:
1. The movie opens with an angry mob wielding pitchforks and torches.
2. The first spoken dialogue: "It's alive! ALIVE!"
3. The introduction is shot all in black and white.
Clearly, this film is not to be taken seriously . . . but fans of the genre are approaching this movie as if it is the next great epic a la Lord of the Rings. Even with a bit of SFX and action thrown in for good measure, Van Helsing does not put on airs suggesting it is nothing more than a "creature feature" from the Saturday night "Fright Fests" seen on television. Not every film can be grand scale, have character development, or show spit-polished writing, nor should we expect them to do so. If every SF/F/H movie needs to be IMPORTANT, then we are facing a future of pretentious, self-righteous "speculative cinema" of intellectual ego-stroking.
Perhaps there is a lesson we can take from this monster mash: should we take ourselves (ourselves, being the writers and the fans of SF/F/H) so seriously? After all, I myself am writing about pirates, dwarf detectives, elves, and magic talismans. I take my writing very seriously, but I also keep it in perspective. Am I trying to change the world? No, I'm just loosening up and having a really good time telling a story, and inviting you to come along for the ride. I'm not saying we can't make an impression, nor am I saying we need to lower the bar of quality. We should demand 100% from our moviemakers, our artists, and our writers, but I do not think we should be excluding the various outlets that SF/F/H offer. We should encourage such avenues, for it could be a collectable card game, an anime, or even an entertaining romp like Van Helsing that could attract someone curious about the genre to delve deeper into it. I also believe we need to just step back a little and question what is being deemed as "proper" in SF/F/H. Van Helsing is hardly an innovative, ground-breaking monument to cinematic achievement . . .
. . . But it is very much in the same class as Kill Bill, Army of Darkness, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Big Trouble in Little China. This is the film where you prop your feet up, dig into the popcorn, and have a little fun—something I think we all can afford to do, especially in this genre.