The amazing superiority of literary science fiction: Assessing the genres, Part 1.
Science fiction as produced by Hollywood has never been at a sorrier pass, as you know if you’ve seen the ubiquitous trailer for the upcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Fortunately, an antidote exists: Sci-fi as God intended — in books and magazines — has never been stronger.
Usually I complain about previews that give the whole movie away, but sometimes, as in this case, it’s a kindess. I mean, holy crap! Who put this picture together, the marketing department in collaboration with a focus group? Oh, wait. I forgot. That’s how all pictures are made these days. Sorry.
Here’s the whole movie: A sensitive and compassionate researcher played by James Franco is determined to find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. He concocts a serum, which he gives to a baby chimp. The baby grows up to be Caesar (Andy Sirkis), an ape with human — and maybe more than human — intelligence.
A nasty functionary played by Brian Cox (apparently reprising the character from the “Bourne” movies and the second “X-Men” picture), hurts Caesar’s feelings. We see an image of Caesar picking the lock of his cage with a handmade wooden tool, then rolling smoking canisters into the cages of other apes. Next, angry sentient chimps and gorillas are attacking humans in the streets of the city!
Good grief. First, somebody needs to put the CGI genie back in the bottle. Roddy McDowell in a monkey suit looked more convincing than the incomparable mime Sirkus (Golem in “Lord of the Rings” fame) does as Caesar. The more CGI I see, the less special and persuasive, the more generic and ho-hum, it becomes. Where’s Ray Harryhausen when you need him?
The real problem, though, is the essential stupidity of the plot. Science fiction is supposed to be about ideas, and it’s supposed to be about science, however outlandish. Not a wisp of an idea can be found in this trailer.
Dr. Franco’s serum involves genetic engineering, a tedious and laborious process. It could not be accomplished on the run, by means of fumes inhaled like, I don’t know, laughing gas or something. This is not a credible extrapolation of science, but something closer to magic, like Harry waving a wand. Really, though, it’s primarily a convenient plot device.
And that gorilla, the one that jumps from the bridge to attack the crew of a hovering helicopter? How did it come to be almost the size of King Kong? That bad boy is at least 12 feet tall — why? I suppose an ordinary male gorilla, however enraged, was not deemed scary enough by the focus group.
And wouldn’t the pilot have a sidearm? I’m just saying. Five or six .45 slugs to the face might discourage even a giant ape.
Finally, this movie mindlessly “updates” the mythology of the original series of five “Planet of the Apes” pictures, which came out between 1968 and 1973. Sure, genetic engineering is a more modern trope (at least it would be if it were handled better), but in the original series the apes rebelled after they were developed as slave labor — a much more potent and versatile metaphor.
Movie science fiction isn’t always this stupid. From James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) to Forbidden Planet (1956) to 2001 (1968) to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), to the first two Terminator movies, filmmakers sometimes get it right. The worst thing that ever happened to sci-fi is when mainstream producers discovered it after Star Wars.
If filmmakers have such a hard time with science fiction, my guess is it’s because they don’t read. For several years as an adolescent, thin and pimply in small-town Appalachia, all I read was sci-fi — mostly Golden Age stuff: Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Van Vogt, Campbell, Clarke, Bradbury, Hal Clement, Clifford D. Simak, Henry Kuttner, L. Sprague De Camp (what a great name!).
Then when I no longer spake as a child, I put away childish things, and read mostly grown-up stuff for 35 years or thereabouts, always meaning to sample current sci-fi but only rarely finding the time. (An exception: Damon Knight’s two late novels, Why Do Birds and Humpty Dumpty: An Oval, which are flat-out genius).
Last week, between reviewing assignments, I picked up the 2009 omnibus collection The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, which has been sitting on the window sill in my bathroom since it first arrived two years ago. Hmmm, I thought, maybe this will be fun.
I had no idea. The literary craftsmanship of these stories is consistently on a par with any collection of literary short stories. In fact, if I have a faint objection, it’s that the authors have become so polished and adroit that I find very little of the sexy pulp energy that was a common (if degenerate) pleasure in earlier ages of science fiction.
I’m not even half way through this brick-sized anthology, but the depth of imagination and inquiry has delighted me without fail, while I’ve been stunned by the literary sophistication, especially the treatment of human character, in every story.
Indeed, the best of these — and for my money, the best so far is Maureen F. McHugh’s “Useless Things” — could fit nicely into any anthology of best mainstream literary stories.
It’s a thrill, I confess, to find that I’m not the only one who has grown up in these latter days.
In coming weeks look for blog posts on the brilliance of contemporary Young Adult fiction and why so much crime fiction is abysmally bad.