The Wrong Corpse and the Highbrow Coroner

Wednesday , 10, December 2014 10 Comments

Self-image of the Highbrow Media Critic as a Young Man

Noah Berlatsky at the Atlantic declares science fiction dead of terminal nostalgia:

Poor George Orwell wants his panopticon back.

He also quotes an important fresh voice* in science fiction that:

“we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”

Then he spends the rest of the article writing about Marvel comic books and their related movies.

The thesis, that science fiction has lost its way in a retrospective swamp of camp nostalgia for Star Wars, Star Trek and comic books is a bait-and-switch, however:

Science fiction is everywhere in popular culture, and it seems like it’s managed to be everywhere in the present by largely jettisoning the future. [emphasis added]

Berlatsky has switched terms on the reader. He isn’t talking about science fiction as a genre, he’s complaining about pop culture, as if that has anything to do with the core idea factory of science fiction, which, and always has been, books.

It does not.

If the reader needs any more confirmation, the critic’s only example of a “current” science fiction writer whose ideas run counter to the prison of pop culture is…Octavia Butler, a prog-writer who has been dead for nearly a decade, and whose most prominent work is more than thirty years past its publication date.

While Tor Books spams its blog subscribers with daily or weekly breathless ledes gushing about the latest variation on the pop permaculture baubles of Star Trek, Star Wars and Harry Potter (or Twilight or Kitchen Fire or whatever the new one is with the pouty girl who likes archery and braids), the highbrow takes its cue – and the same subject matter – and dismisses it as so much dross. And both have the audacity to treat these ornaments as if they are the sum total of all of science fiction.

Even in declaring pop culture science fiction something of a reactionary zombie, the Atlantic misses the most relevant and current science fiction movie in theaters now:


As embarrassing as that gross oversight is, what is worse is that we have a science fiction critic who does not seem to have even a passing familiarity with the new works in the genre…any new works in the genre.

Maybe old Noah should have gotten off his ark and looked around the mountain before declaring his position on it. He could start anywhere:

…and dozens if not hundreds more. Such a failure is one not only of imagination and awareness but of integrity as a critic.

If a highbrow science fiction critic can not tear himself from the youtube trailers in permanent loop long enough to pick up a single example of real science fiction published in 2014…he’s got no business serving as its critic. It appears as if the county coroner is getting paid per death certificate, and now he’s just filling them out in advance for people who haven’t been born yet.

*Oh, and that “fresh” quote from above? It’s from a kid just getting started in the business: Ursula LeGuin.

  • Patrick S. Baker says:

    I read this article in the Atlantic and was a bit more than disappointed in the writer’s attitude and lack of knowledge of the genre. Even if we buy the idea that scifi has become nothing but nostalgia because it has become part of pop culture indeed he fails to mention Interstellar, but how about the wave of shows being developed and broadcast on TV. Few of them “look back”, for example “Ascension” on SyFy.

  • Daniel says:

    It is very easy for a person to create a negative stereotype in their mind and live as if that is reality. I know plenty of non-science fiction folks who will only think of Star Wars or Star Trek if science fiction gets mentioned. That’s perfectly normal.

    What’s not normal is to be one of those people and to decide you want to write science fiction criticism…

    The interesting thing is that they can’t even conjure up a “correct thinker” like John Scalzi in this instance (which at least would indicate that Berlatsky had read science fiction written within this decade), because the quasi mil-sf wouldn’t support the LeGuinnian narrative of the piece.

  • Jill says:

    After reading the article, I don’t know he means. He rags on superhero films and compares these films to, apparently, what he thinks are good sci fi books–Ursula Le Guin? There have been a number of good non-superhero sci fi films made in the last few years–Looper and Ender’s Game come to mind. I think he needs to get out more. Maybe visit the new book section in the library, which is what I do.

  • Jill says:

    **It occurred to me that Ender’s Game was perhaps not a good example because it mines old ground (book came out in the 80s). But what about Shyamalan’s After Earth? I don’t watch that many films, and I haven’t yet seen Interstellar, but even I can think of something other than Star Wars or Star Trek.

    • Daniel says:

      Yes, and Tom Cruise had one or two big sci-fi movies out recently. I only know that they were out (haven’t seen them) but I’m not even a sci-fi movie critic!

      I would have called it cherry picking if he had come up with any cherries. A handful of old pits don’t count. It would be irrelevant…if this sort of article weren’t such a regular occurence from the highbrow.

  • The CronoLink says:

    I’m not sure Interstellar can be considered as sci-fi instead of science fantasy (but that’s just me feeling like I watched a wet-dream-by-Nolan-on-crack thing).

    • Daniel says:

      It might be helpful to know that I include science fiction, fantasy, horror as the primary colors (with weird its blend at the center) of science fiction. Yes, this makes science fiction a subset of science fiction.

      I wrote more about that here

      But in any case, Berlatsky complains about science fiction and then chats about how Star Wars and Marvel Comics aren’t the same thing as Octavia Butler, so I’m pretty sure that Interstellar is in the ballpark in either instance.

    • Jill says:

      John C. Wright posted a convenient graph on the spectrum of hard to soft sci fi that I found interesting. My husband and I were just having a discussion about this the other day; he is pretty stringent in what he would consider hard sci fi. But the spectrum for what is considered hard is, these days, quite a broad spectrum. I don’t know if that’s because the soft has become so soft, or because of the fluidity of what Daniel calls “weird” literature, that ranges from overtly supernatural to hard sci fi concepts. It used to be easier–Clarke is hard, Bradbury is soft. But it ultimately doesn’t matter to me as an author because I don’t think Amazon parses it that narrowly. Reader expectations are something else altogether.

    • “Interstellar” is about as clear-cut hard sci-fi as you can possibly get. Frankly I struggle to see the argument, unless you’re referring only to the black hole scene at the end. Which is pretty explicitly explained in scientific terms.

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