Science Fiction is dying… – again – and what Downton Abbey and The Help say about contemporary American culture

There is another “death of science fiction” debate – this time in Germany. I stumbled upon it while looking for Gauck links of all things.

At the tech news site Telepolis, German science fiction writer Michael Szameit laments the impending death of serious science fiction and blames crappy TV shows and media science fiction as well as Perry Rhodan e-books flooding Amazon’s SF bestseller lists. I must confess I was a bit baffled by his list of crappy TV shows. Not that the shows he lists aren’t crappy, most of them are. But a whole lot of them are older and not currently being broadcast either in Germany or the US, unless it’s some niche pay-TV cable channel. He also seems to harbour under the misapprehension that True Blood is science fiction. Interestingly, Szameit mainly cites East European authors (as well as Cordwainer Smith and Jules Verne) as examples for “good SF”, which is explained by the fact that Szameit started his SF writing career in East Germany.

Another German science fiction writer, Myra Çakan, counters Szameit’s points by stating that if Szameit complains about Perry Rhodan, he apparently has forgotten the pulp origins of the SF genre. And complaining about crappy SF TV shows ignores the fact that there are plenty of very good SF shows as well. Finally, Myra Çakan blames the publishing industry for the decline of the wide variety of science fiction, because backlist books are no longer kept in print. What is interesting is that neither Szameit nor Çakan view indie publishing as a viable alternative.

AlterNet has an interesting article about the sanitized portrayal of master-servant relationships (even typing that feels icky) in Downton Abbey and The Help and what the popularity and critical acclaim of both say about contemporary US culture. I’ve stated my issues with Downton Abbey several times before. As for The Help, even the summary sounds incredibly problematic.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books discovers Longarm, a spicy western series with truly bizarre covers. I have never seen any of those books before to my knowledge – though I once took a wrong turn in an American mega bookstore (either Borders or Barnes and Noble – they both looked pretty much the same) and came upon a whole shelf of series westerns like this one. Coincidentally, Longarm reminds me of the German western Romanheft series Lassiter, which seems to follow much the same formula, namely a western whose virile hero has plenty of sexual adventures with plenty of women. Lassiter has better covers, though.

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4 Responses to Science Fiction is dying… – again – and what Downton Abbey and The Help say about contemporary American culture

  1. Laran says:

    I read Szameit’s article and think it very funny that he takes the same line as any other German literature person bemoaning the end of Western civilisation as we know it. What would the literary circus be without all its elitists?

    It is surprising that he actually uses bestselling numbers as the main reference point of his critique. Obviously the plebs is always much larger than the seriously reading elite.

    However, one aspect I thought interesting: Prevalence of military themes as opposed to peaceful settings and themes. I suppose this is true, but — obviously! — it reflects our times which are much more open to themes of war and violence, at least compared to pacifist past decades. It seems that nowadays there are not so many people left who have a problem with their country being in wars (as long as it is far away in Iraq or Afghanistan) and openly admitting that it is for those countries’ ressources.

    • Cora says:

      I suspect that the shift from peaceful to military themes that Szameit mentions may be partly due to having grown up in the GDR and thus being exposed mainly to East European SF, which seems to be more oriented towards peaceful cooperation to me than Western SF. And why East European SF writers were more interested in peaceful futures while Americans prefer stories of military power is another question.

      Though there has been a shift from “war is never the answer” back when I was a teen in the 1980s via “war is sometimes justified in the case of gross human rights violations” in the 1990s to “war is acceptable, as long as it’s far away and protects our interests” in the 2000s. And this shift is also notable in popular culture, particularly Anglo-American culture. The original Star Trek in the 1960s was all about peaceful cooperation, even if they did get out the phasers quite often. Star Trek TNG was still about negotiation and cooperation, though we also had a whole episode of Picard being tortured. But by Deep Space Nine and Enterprise, the Federation was embroiled in totally justified wars with lizardlike something or other aliens and none of the characters even questioned those wars.

      • Laran says:

        I agree. I think Enterprise nearly unwatchable, at least because of the “gerechter Krieg” undertones. Not undertones – main theme! Especially season 3 puts me off entirely. I can’t express my anger at seeing an Enterprise captain killing and torturing away for the greater good of mankind a.k.a America. What a cheap political answer to 9/11! Justifications included! It’s a shame – I really liked the whole prequel idea.

        Do we really want to live in a world like this? I certainly don’t. One wonders how it developped this way or who went in this direction, why. It all feels like big steps towards a dystopian future.

        • Cora says:

          I liked Enterprise… right up to the point where those “evil” aliens suddenly roasted a swath of Florida and Cuba along with the sister of the annoying chief engineer. And then it suddenly turned into a thinly veiled 9/11 analogy and a justification of war and torture. I hung on for a while, hoping that the show would get back on course, and then gave up in disgust.

          The thinly veiled 9/11 and Iraq/Afghanistan war analogies were a huge problem in SF TV for a while. The new Battlestar Galactica was the most notable of the bunch and infuriated me, because I have always been a fan of the original and was therefore furious at seeing the heroes of my childhood turned into torturers, murderers and rapists. And then I also got ridiculed for hating the remake, because by that point everybody knew that the original show was crap, because it was old, and that the remake was the best show on TV.

          But in retrospect, Enterprise was even worse. Because the original Battlestar Galactica was problematic in parts by glorifying the military and did have a very strong anti-disarmament message, all of which my childhood self completely missed. Besides, the civilian authorities in the original Galactica really were stupid and it made sense for them not to disarm, since they really were being threatened by the Cylons. Still, the civilization depicted in the original Battlestar Galactica was basically a military dictatorship, so the remake did not completely go against the spirit of the original, it just reinforced the negative elements and made every single character unlikable. Enterprise, however, completely went against the spirit of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry probably rotated in his grave when season 3 was broadcast.

          And I agree that pop culture in generally has gotten much worse in the past ten years and routinely presents things at normal that would have been taboo fifteen or twenty years ago, e.g. all of those “justified torture” scenes committed by characters who are supposed to be the good guys or the fact that police officers in American crime shows routinely threaten suspects with the death penalty and/or prison rape, when the mere mention of the death penalty in a US crime show was a “I’ll never watch this show again” dealbreaker for me twenty years ago (as a teenager I actually stopped watching a show I liked for threatening someone with the death penalty) and prison rape was so far beyond the pale that the mere concept was never mentioned.

          So yeah, it has gotten worse. And popular culture is a gauge for the general state of society here, because politicians, even on the so-called left, routinely say and suggest things that not even CSU politicians would have uttered twenty or twenty-five years ago.

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