Space Ramblings

Mike Resnick Blames Television for Derivative SF Writing

Mike Resnick has a new column up at Baen’s Universe (well it’s new to me anyway) blaming television for the derivative writing and fan stories that clutter up the market today.

So why do so many people want only to tell second-hand stories about Kirk and Spock and Picard and Skywalker in a handful of third-hand, shopworn, thoroughly-explored and not-very-logical universes? When they see something that interests them or impresses them, why don’t they do what Simak did when he read about Asimov’s robots, what van Vogt did when he read about Wylie’s and Stapledon’s supermen, what Gerrold did when he encountered Heinlein’s time paradoxes? Why are the book and magazine slushpiles filled almost to overflowing with thinly-disguised Enterprises and Darth Vaders and the like?

And then it occurred to me. There is one major difference between most of the writers I named, and all of the hopeful ones I’ve been encountering for the past decade or so . . . and that is that most of the writers I named did not grow up watching television. Television didn’t exist during their formative years, so they grew up reading. They did not watch the same unchanging characters in the same trite, interchangeable plots week in and week out. They did not spend hours every night exposed to uncreative, unthreatening mental pablum that convinces each new generation of couch potato that it is Art.

There are a bunch of answers to that, but none of them leave the problem to rest with television. TV bashing is cheap and easy, but it’s also simplistic.

Yes TV shows come with repetitive plots, but so much of SF storytelling was mired in repetitive pulpy writing. Mike Resnick points to Simak or Heinlein, but that’s pointing to innovative and original writers who became leaders in the field. Asking why people who churn out Enterprise-lite and Darth Vader-lite stories don’t do the same thing is a question that answers itself. After all most writers in the 40’s and 50’s weren’t innovating the field either.

Most writers begin by imitating other writers. Some never stop *cough* David Gerrold *cough*. It’s not altogether a bad thing. Gerrold has done some very interesting with the old Heinlein standards, particularly in the Chtorr wars. Writers derive ideas from each other, some break through into more original variations, but there’s also much less room to expand and grow these days.

We’re not mysteries or Westerns. We’re science fiction, which gives its writers all time and space to play with. Our galaxy has about one hundred billion stars. We’ve got at least a couple of billion Class G stars, just like our sun, and we’re starting to find out that damned near every star we examine has planets. The possibilities, scientific and fictional, are endless

Not really. We’ve already exhausted a lot of them. It’s one reason SF lit these days is more likely to be set closer to earth. SF has seen its pulp period, its new age, its cyberpunk, and a lot of what’s out there consists of trying to put a new spin on an old idea. A hundred billion stars isn’t a hundred billion ideas. And there’s only so many ways you can dress up an old dog.

They did not spend hours every night exposed to uncreative, unthreatening mental pablum that convinces each new generation of couch potato that it is Art. And, uninfluenced by the tube, they kept science fiction lively, creative and innovative.

Can TV be art? It’s hard to believe that in 2008 anyone is seriously asking the question. Most of TV is bad, but so are most SF stories and novels. It’s simply an iron clad rule. But TV shows can be creative, original, insightful as much as a story can be.

Star Trek drew heavily from SF lit. As for Star Wars, we aren’t even talking about a TV show, but a series of movies based on Serials and some of the pulpiest Science Fiction out there.

What seems to bother Resnick is fandom itself, the part that tries to live in a fictional universe or play in it at least. But the sort of people writing Mary Sue stories in Pern or in a Galaxy Far Far Away might dump their stuff occasionally in the Baens slush pile, but they’re not really trying to be writers, they’re trying to enjoy themselves. While the rise of large scale highly involved fandoms somewhat associates itself with TV shows, but as Resnick’s own Pern recollections demonstrate, it’s really not about television.

There were no doubt plenty of teenagers trying their own hand at writing Tom Swift back before television. The difference was they had less outlet for that sort of thing. Technology has enabled the growth of that kind of involved fandom, but it’s not technology that’s responsible for derivative writing.

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