The Return Of Serious Science Fiction


Literary SF has a small but dedicated following, and usually defeats me, although I read a lot of it growing up, mainly because the ABCs, Aldiss, Asimov, Ballard and Clarke, were ubiquitous in paperback.

There has been a gradual move toward ‘adult’ SF lately, but mostly on film. The genre has split itself into sub-groups; on the one hand superhero movies rule, with their vast story arcs and complex graphic origins. On the other there are the knockabout robot/monster movies, from ‘Kong Island’ to ‘Pacific Rim 2’. Which nicely leaves room for something a little grown-up.

We’d had it before, of course, with films like ‘2001’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Solaris’ and ‘Soylent Green’. It revived with films like ‘Brazil’, ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘Moon’ and ‘Primer’, but has been hugely helped by Alex Garland. Now we’ve got to a darker place. ‘Arrival’ was the real game changer.

It starts pretty much where ‘Close Encounters’ ends. The opening establishes that 12 gigantic space vessels have appeared around the earth, and we have to figure out how to contact them without getting our heads blown off. Why have they come here – and why land in Devon? As one scientist says; ‘Why those places? All we can find to link them is they all have low light intensity and Sheena Easton had hits in every location.’ Amy Adams is comparative linguist Louise Banks, who finds herself in a team chosen to attempt communication.

But how do you understand a language that has not originated on earth? It’s a theme first explored in ‘The Arrival of Wang’, an Italian movie in which an alien has arrived who has learned Mandarin but lands in a small town in Italy.

Meanwhile, Ben Wheatley was working closer to home, first with the eerie, inexplicable ‘Kill List’, then with ‘High Rise’, the purest distillation of Ballard (for good and bad) yet seen on screen. From Europe came ‘A Bothersome Man’ – in which a businessman wakes up in a desert garage and is taken to a huge faceless city to start a non-job, unless he fails and has to go back…it’s a stranger, more surreal version of Frankenheimer’s ‘Seconds’. Then there were ‘White God’ and ‘Jupiter’s Moon’, both reviewed on this site, about falling from – and transcending – innocence, complete with jaw-dropping special effects. They reminded me of the wonderful ‘Avalon’, about a VR gamer who glitches the system and messes up her life.

But SF doesn’t have to be po-faced to conform to ‘proper’ SF laws. ‘Okja’, ‘Mute’ and ‘Valerian’ are all, in their own ways, fantastic SF movies, and are frequently very funny. In the darkness there’s ‘Life’, which deserves a second watch – I dismissed it as an ‘Alien’ ripoff the first time I saw it, but seeing it again at home reveals its smart-alien structure. ‘Monsters’, ‘Chappie’ and ‘Rogue One’ all brought fresh ideas to filmed SF. I loved the idea put forward in ‘Monsters’ that an invasion could create a new, annoying form of illegal alien, locked out of Trump’s future vision for the country.

Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ is ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ married to JG Ballard’s ‘The Crystal World’ (right down to the original’s alligator). In fact it’s so Ballardian it’s a miracle no-one has issued a lawsuit. But SF is full of ideas built on by others, and Garland is far more interested in the human effects of mutation and invasion.

In its slow, tentative pacing is the gestation of an intriguing idea. Would a first meeting with aliens be remotely comprehensible to us, or could it be so extreme and toxic that we would not stand a chance of survival? The strange prismatic shimmering of the forest, the silent mutating of cells, the utter confusion of the humans sent to investigate, the sense of pessimism that seeps through it, the sheer beauty of change, all mark the film as a unique experience, especially the bravura ending (which apparently mystified some people – Garland never knows how to end his films). And it does something else we’ve never seen; it hands the film to its female stars, despite having a gore level as high as Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’.

Thoughtful SF offers new ideas and a subtler visual aesthetic that feels like a way out of the tights-and-cape dead end. It explores big human ideas – although its critical reception often serves to mark out the lowbrow crits who simply don’t get that filmed SF can be something other than two guys punching each other on a skyscraper.

15 comments on “The Return Of Serious Science Fiction”

  1. snowy says:

    I’l have to think about this a bit more deeply, but here is a starter.

    Super hero films don’t belong in the category Sci-Fi, they are an older literary form in lycra tights.

    Each defies physics, biology and quite possibly chemistry in their fashion. SuperTwonk defies gravity, the green knobbly one has a hissy-fit and grows, despite not have consumed any form of input from which to construct the increased physical mass etc. Not a lot of science to be found in the whole thing, [the one that looks like a reject from an ABBA tribute band has a !MAGIC! !FLYING! ![REDACTED]! !HAMMER!, …really? Take that Einstein!]

    These are demi-gods with very rough approximations to Hermes and Ares, [hopefully a proper classicist will pitch in and correct me], and the stories are epics. [I think it’s epics? It’s not sagas that’s N European.]

    [ Need very obviously from the foregoing to mull this a bit more! ]

  2. Brooke says:

    Regarding super hero films, I’m with Snowy. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, always has a laugh at this type of film and enjoys pointing out the silliness of the science and often the fiction. The male hero/demi-god (Achilles demigod, Odysseus hero) narrative is ancient and occurs across world cultures–some is epic poetry like Beowulf, others are narrative creation myths passed down as cultural inheritance.

    Serious, adult SF novels have never “gone away” and contemporary writers are getting even better in my opinion. The form lends itself to exploration of uncharted territories, e.g. human consciousness, relationships to other minds and souls, the structure of the universe, etc.

    Say on, Snowy.

  3. J F Norris says:

    Donnie Darko, an overrated “psychological horror” movie is hardly science fiction. Nor is the fantastical dystopian, alternate world of Brazil. Ah well…to each his own. We can split hairs and argue until infinity about what constitutes real science fiction.

    I was thoroughly captivated by ARRIVAL. I’d add to that the sci-fi noir thriller EX MACHINA. What did you think of that? An ingenious genre blender that casts the clichéd femme fatale of noir 40s movies in the “body” of an untrustworthy android. Brilliant idea, I thought. I recently watched on DVD TIMECRIMES, an intricately plotted time travel movie directed and written by Nacho Vigolando who did that bizarrely conceived and oddly very moving movie COLOSSAL. Though I have a huge problem with this kind of interfolding time travel sci-fi it was enormous fun watching the permutations of doubling back and tripling back in a Groundhog Day style plot that was taken deadly seriously and proved to be rather suspenseful. I guess I like my sci-fi to be more in the vein of a suspense thriller rather than an intellectual or philosophical treatise. I still can’t watch 2001: A Space Odyssey without being bored out of my mind no matter how impressive the presentation like the recent re-release in 70 mm.

    Looking forward to seeing this. I guess it’ll show up in our art movie houses here in Chicago. Thanks for the heads up. It’s added to my wish list of the few movies I’ll pay to see in a theater.

  4. laura says:

    Fascinating. I still have to see both WHITE GOD and ARRIVAL. Fortunately, I’m spending more time with books and live performances these days.

    THE ARRIVAL OF WANG also sounds very interesting. You mentioned it as the first treatment of the problem of learning a language that did not originate on earth. I feel compelled to mention LA NUIT DES TEMPS (THE ICE PEOPLE in English) by French science fiction author René Barjavel published in 1968. The understanding of an alien language is one of the principle plot devices in the story and is in my opinion very well done, especially for 1968. I realize this is a novel, not a film, but in defense of the example, it seems it was originally a scenario for a film that would have been directed by André Cayette but was deemed too ambitious at the time.

    Sadly, I don’t believe it has ever made it to the screen. It’s a gripping and clever story.

    I would be interested in knowing if there are other even earlier treatments of this theme.

  5. snowy says:

    Having established a position that men in leotards kicking the snot out of each other is not SF, [that’s what used to pass for entertainment at the municipal baths on a wet Wednesday night in the 1950s.]

    It is very difficult if not impossible to define exactly what it is, especially since the category is used as a dumping ground for anything even slightly out of the ordinary.

    The American cinema theorist Vivian Sobchack, had a stab at it:

    Science fiction film is a film genre which emphasizes actual, extrapolative, or speculative science and the empirical method, interacting in a social context with the lesser emphasized, but still present, transcendentalism of magic and religion, in an attempt to reconcile man with the unknown

    Which if we ignore every thing after ‘context’, seems to be the least worst definition of what SF should be in it’s purest terms.

    [The quote should be treated with caution, it comes from a secondary source.]

    L, there is a a sub-genre and possibly sub-sub-sub genre that speculates about such encounters, called First Contact fiction.

    Which after a quick search tracks back to an eponymous story first published in 1945 by Murray Leinster.

    [But there will be even older ones than that, the expansion of European empires would have produced many similar stories, the further they spread the more ‘alien’ the languages became. Go back further it becomes difficult to not to bump into Marco Polo at some point.]

  6. snowy says:

    Expanding out, there is the fallacy that because some SF takes place in distopian settings, all distopias are automatically SF.

    A distopian state can exist in any form, at any point in time from any number of proximate causes.

    Needs more thought!

    Let’s try some test cases:

    Lord of the Flies – forced isolation, causes a society to run out of control. Distopic but not SF

    1984 – rigid adherence to a political credo. Distopic but not SF, and swap politics for religon the story would barely be altered.

    To counterbalance those:

    Modern Times [Chaplin] is a reaction to the application of scientific theory*, but I doubt anyone would consider it a work of science fiction.

    Metropolis is interesting, it is also a reaction to the same scientific theory and considered SF because of it has a robot in it. But the story itself is of a slave revolt.

    [ I think I might have just painted myself into a corner.]

    *Taylorism aka Scientific Management,

  7. Peter Tromans says:

    It’s too hot for an anorak, but surely superheroes pre-date Lycra by 20 years?

  8. snowy says:

    They did, but they couldn’t go out in the rain until 1962.

    [The superhero look is hard to pull off under ideal conditions, even more so when your soaking wet costume has stretched so much your gusset is swinging somewhere around your kneecaps.]

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Superheroes in the past wore costumes made from a super secret formula, or leather.

    1984 – set in the future using high tech surveillance devices hidden in TV’s, the whole set up of society is an alternative reality. It’s SF. Airstrip One of Oceania with a probably fictitious leader has not yet come to pass.

    In SF you have a lot of alien science or super science (ie stuff the writer just made up that doesn’t have to make sense because a looming deadline as the comic is monthly/weekly.), it is also an alternative reality where magic exists, and alternative reality is SF (and sometimes fantasy.). Remember some of these characters are old and based on out of date science but are saddled with there past.

    SF is not about science it’s about ideas to many, Philip K. Dick said it’s not SF it it’s not about ideas. I don’t agree and so SF has many genres but the main 3 are, Hard SF (based on science), Speculative SF (aka Soft SF or Idea based, this is usually the effect of things, so sociology, psychology, or anthropology and the like the driving force), the last is SF adventure (things like Space Opera, it’s about the story and action especially.)

    Like any genre it’s what the publisher/production house says it is, SF is noted by setting (the future and/or alternative realities e.g. what if Germany won the war/ artificial worlds and so on.) and/or Devices (whether characters like aliens or time travellers or futuristic devices like a zap gun or alien artefact and so on.). The definition is quite broad and other laps other genres.


  10. Ken Mann says:

    I’m not sure it is possible to formulate a definition that includes “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Expanse” as part of the same enterprise, but I can see the pleasure in trying.
    SF is a sort of secular gothic, with giant mysterious artifacts standing in for sinister castles. I have loved it since childhood, and it is so rarely captured on film that I celebrate when an actual SF film is made.

  11. John Griffin says:

    Agree about Arrival. Utterly loved it. Watched with my wife, and her priceless remark at the end ‘WTF was that all about?!!’

  12. snowy says:

    I know I’m flogging a dead horse, but having nailed my colours to the mast, strapped myself to the wheel, and resigned myself to go down with the ship. I shall do so, but with all guns blazing, in a flurry of metaphors more mixed than a Christmas pudding.

    Having “padded up” I’m going into bat for SCIENCE!


    Is set in the future, but if I wrote a book, [never going to happen!], about remote Mongolian yak herders set in the year 2050, it wouldn’t automatically make it Science Fiction.

    It speculates about what life could be like under a totalitarian regime, [informed by GO’s time in Spain], as you have it an ‘alternative reality’, but this doesn’t make it Science Fiction. Alternative realities have been around for a long time, just to pick one, ‘Gullivers Travels’ explores lots of them.

    There appears to be one and only one thing that is used to hook this story into Science Fiction, the ‘telescreen’. It appears if I remember correctly about twice in the story, as a symbol of total state domination. When Winston alters or redacts texts the process appears to be entirely based on manipulating physical records.

    “Winston dialled ‘back numbers’ on the telescreen and called for the appropriate issues of The Times, which slid out of the pneumatic tube after only a few minutes’ delay.”


    “What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail, but he did know in general terms. As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of The Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead.”

    It just a symbol, [based on a theory of coercive control put forward by Jeremy Bentham in the 19th Century]. While it is a dominant threat, it can be evaded, the fear of being denounced by others is ever more present and dangerous.

    Is ‘V for Vendetta’ a work of Science Fiction? Just because it is set in the future under a totalitarian system? Or is it a Distopian Fantasy?

    Oh I give in!

    You are all right, there is an inversion of classification at play. The over-arching classification should be Speculative Fiction, which would encompass Science Fiction, Fantasy, Alternative History and any other weird thing that couldn’t be crowbarred in somewhere else. To sort out this mess would be more difficult than choreographing a feline syncronised swimming team, [there are never enough sacks around when you need them, bricks are expensive and even if you get through to the next round, you need to start all over again with another lot!] We are therefore stuck where we are, with this dreadful hotch-potch.

    *grumble, grumble*

  13. Jan says:

    At the bottom of it isn’t SF a modern expression of the fairy story or the fantasy stories of old?
    Examinations of morality within a different context to that in which we find ourselves at present?

    Whether that be a young lad in a Giants castle pilfering golden eggs (beanstalk transport) or Captain Picard worrying about the prime directive (Starship Enterprise transport) isn’t the examination of morality essentially the same? Adventure, danger ……different possibilities.

    Ok the vocab is very different the scientific possibilities a million times greater. Now we have Ray Bradbury s “The Sound of Thunders” butterfly effect – the consequences of disruption of the continuum trough time travel. Dystopian futures, optimistic futures more alien worlds and forms than we can comprehend.

    But it’s all dragons and princesses sleeping for a 100 years at its base isn’t it?

  14. Helen Martin says:

    I am reading “Ready Player One” and where would you put that? Aside from the fact that it is a paean of praise to the video game, which makes it something else entirely. Perhaps.
    And I think 1984 is S.F. but I’m open to conversion on the matter.

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    Snowy your right about how difficult it is, Techno Thriller (No not the happy house type, Sam Spaced, DJ Gumshoe to the stars, walked into the Green room to find partner dead, O’D on Tizer, he knew straight away it was murder as his partner, Over Arching only touched Vimto.)

    Sorry off topic, the techno thriller is classed as borderline SF, so ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ the film based solely on it’s science McGuffin gets a review in the Aurum Book of Science Fiction Movies as well as other SF reviews.

    Sadly if it is set in the future then it can be marketed as SF, even your Yak story would be marketable as SF. One of the best ways is to see film versions, even the Cushing 50’s 1984 looks SF when watched. Snowy think of your story as a film it opens with the ominous voice over (or little teletype print out) 2050 and the Mongolian Yaks……

    To be called SF it doesn’t even have to be that far in the future.


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