Dystopian science fiction is cheaper

by on May 20, 2014 at 2:29 pm in Economics, Film, Science, Television, Uncategorized | Permalink

So says Neal Stephenson:

In both games and movies the production of visuals is very expensive, and the people responsible for creating those visuals hold sway in proportion to their share of the budget.

I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.

As a counter-example, you might look at AVATAR, in which they actually did go to the trouble of creating a new planet from whole cloth. This was far more creative and visually interesting than putting dirt on the Empire State Building, but it was also quite expensive, and it was a project that very few people are capable of attempting.

…That [dystopian] environment also works well with movie stars, who make a fine impression in those surroundings and the inevitable plot complications that arise from them. Again, the AVATAR counter-example is instructive. The world was so fascinating and vivid that it tended to draw attention away from the stars.

There is more here, via Morgan Warstler.

JasonL May 20, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Except that Avatar was, you know, terrible. If I have my choice between unlimited funding and expansive world creation or a natural set of constraints set by dystopia, I’ll take anything that reins in hollywood excess to be honest.

Chris May 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Yeah, especially as creating a beautiful and fascinating new world can be done on a small budget. Just look at Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a beautiful and magic new world for a fraction of the cost of producing Avatar (terrible + waste of resources).

Shane M May 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Only on an economics blogs would one of the most profitable movies ever be considered a waste of resources.


andrew' May 20, 2014 at 3:45 pm

They refer to the tickets!

Urstoff May 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Only on an economics blog? You’d figure this would be the last place to call something incredibly profitable a waste of resources.

honkie please May 20, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Watson, you’ve done it again.

andrew' May 20, 2014 at 6:12 pm

He makes a good point, but I also think avatar is on the forgettable side of Cameron films.

Thor May 20, 2014 at 10:05 pm

I only wish I could forget Avatar. Awful, awful, awful.

A wet dream of left leaning anthropologists everywhere, no doubt, but a poorly written fiction.

dan1111 May 21, 2014 at 3:33 am

Avatar had a dumb script and was full of the worst kind of cliches. Nevertheless, I thought it was an astounding achievement and one of the most entertaining things I have seen in the theater–precisely because of the vivid world creation discussed in the post.

Vanya May 21, 2014 at 3:26 am

Chris, you may want to rewatch Stalker. It’s also a dystopic vision. It is certainly a beautifully filmed movie, but the world it depicts is not meant to be beautiful (or better put, those who live in it don’t see the beauty, for the most part) and it is magical in mostly sinister ways.

Das May 20, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Using existing structures also provides the viewer with something he can instantly relate to. The statue of liberty is iconinc, showing is decayed will ring true with almost every viewer.

Showing the superduperfuturestatue of stephensonity will make 50% if the viewers say wtf?!, 25% of the viewers say gof*ckyourself and the rest won’t even notice.

Adrian Ratnapala May 21, 2014 at 12:08 am

Building shiny worlds is not only more expensive, it also requires more creativity. Which is why Avatar was, you know, terrible. It really is more imaginative than say Independence Day, but still not very imaginative.

Esteban Colberto VII (Supergenius®) May 21, 2014 at 1:44 am

Oh my. Poser economists dissing Avatar as a pile of crap. Please, let’s hear what you have to say. I am sure whatever you do in life will have far more influence. Have you even read “The Diamond Age”? Wait, let me guess, to busy playing lacrosse…

Vanya May 21, 2014 at 3:41 am

I am not an economist, but I also agree that Avatar is a pile of crap. Most intelligent people of any profession agree it is a pile of crap as a story and as world-building. It made money because it was a cool amusement ride that pushed the boundaries of 3-D when it came out, but no one wants to see it again. Avatar inspired no dedicated fan base looking to expand its world the way that Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Babylon 5, or numerous Japanese animes have done. A good example – my sons saw Avatar when they were the same age I was when I saw the first Star Wars film. None of my generation ever forgot Star Wars, many people became far too obsessed with it. I have never met any boy in my son’s peer group who spends a second thinking or talking about Avatar. It’s cultural flotsam at this point.

Axa May 21, 2014 at 7:22 am

Children are sponges that suck cultural references from parents…..until they get into their teens. So, if children love Star Wars and despise Avatar, look at the parents.

Vanya May 21, 2014 at 11:42 am

Your assertion is demonstrably false, because I despised the Transformers movies, and my kids, and their peers, loved them. They have now grown old enough to be (somewhat) embarassed about Transformers, but Avatar just made no real impact of any kind on their generation and will be completely forgotten except by film history buffs within 20 years.. It’s no surprise why – Cameron forgot to put any iconic or interesting characters in his movie. Even Optimus Prime is more engaging than anyone in Avatar. A movie without memorable characters will not engage most viewers no matter how detailed the world building is.

dbg May 21, 2014 at 11:42 am

the plot and characters in Avatar were cliche and predictable. That’s not the only way to evaluate a film though. The visuals were quite striking and the overall completeness and attention to detail of the environment was a major achievement.

careless May 21, 2014 at 11:19 pm

“Dances with smurfs” killed me.

Sir Barken Hyena May 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

True but apocalyptic decay certainly fits the mood of the present moment better. Who would swallow breathless utopian Things To Come-style glitter cities today? The closest we’ve had was the space station in Elysium and that was used negatively in the plot line

Todd May 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Who would swallow breathless utopian Things To Come-style glitter cities today?

While true, I bet that’s the most likely scenario.

I think the issue is the future comes upon us so slowly, we don’t notice it. Take the Manhattan of 1984 vs the Manhattan of today. Crime is down 90%, it’s much cleaner, more orderly, there are new glittering skyscrapers. But, it happened slowly, so it’s hard to appreciate.

Adrian Ratnapala May 21, 2014 at 12:10 am

You can have it both ways. On the surface Gattaca is a dystopia, though it actually only criticises one aspect of society. But even that criticism would work if it was not set in a “glitter-city”.

Esteban Colberto VII (Supergenius®) May 21, 2014 at 1:58 am

That is what blew my mind about Elyisum. It was very much William Gibson’s baby (insider knowledge). It is Neuromancer for the common man. I work with people that have all kinds of multiple phd’s in HCI and experimental pysch – used to do the heads up displays for advanced military systems, remote real-time sensors on battlefield troops – and research for DARPA and MITRE. Few of them read cyberpunk… I dragged them out to the movie and all they saw was “political memes”. I got through to one of them, it took 4 years, and he confided in me at age 42 that it changed his life and he will be running the biggest healthcare IT project in the world w/ NLP and highly disruptive tech come next week. Back to the movie – I was sitting there going “holy shit!!!! It’s Free Side!” and all they saw and heard was immigration and healthcare access. I had to watch it literally 4 times to understand the mental model of people that never read the canon of cyberpunk. Pretty much, I have nothing but disrespect and apathy for outsiders now. Especially in considering, outside of cinema, I have a close personal friend in the Duke book club, filled with those big time bored venture capitalists, who has given up on trying to educate overly educated people like himself – he has alot of research on the reaction of the top thinkers who he forced to read cyberpunk, that just don’t fucking get it. They don’t get life. And honestly, those people will never innovate or create anything of worth to society. Praise Bob.

Esteban Colberto VII (Supergenius®) May 21, 2014 at 2:03 am

The gateway drug/book for engineers is Cryptonomicon. I have a recipe for fucking over the minds of engineers, it starts with that book. ;)

So Much For Subtlety May 21, 2014 at 3:39 am

You know, I think I preferred P-A. Maybe even mulp.

careless May 21, 2014 at 11:21 pm

He’s sort of pa, mulp, and ray Lopez combined

F. Lynx Pardinus May 21, 2014 at 6:41 am

The dinner-party rant Randy goes on when he is told to “check your engineering privilege” is pretty funny. http://www.pauldowling.me/interrogating_texts/stephenson.html

dan1111 May 21, 2014 at 3:48 am

Come on: Elysium was definitely a brain dead parable about immigration and healthcare access. The people on earth who were barred from the space station were even Latino (just in case we wouldn’t get the point otherwise).

If the makers of the movie had wanted us to see it in other terms, they shouldn’t have made it into a 2 hour political commercial.

So Much for Subtlety May 21, 2014 at 5:57 am

What is more absurd is that it was a 2 hour political commercial that did not mention costs. It is one thing to say the poor ought to have health care, and the entire population of Mexico City ought to be free to move to Fresno, but to pretend that the rich are simply hoarding the technology and refusing to share it is insane. A grown up, even one who supported giving free health care to every passing El Salvadorean, would discuss, however briefly, how this would be paid for.

For me Elysium only proved that immigration laws are excellent things and that the Hollywood Left are a bunch of fatuous posers.

dan1111 May 21, 2014 at 6:26 am

Exactly. In the movie, the elites have lifesaving medical treatment that they could easily provide to everyone, but they choose not to, simply because they are evil (I guess–motives for this are not too clear). It is not a serious take on the issue, though sadly it probably is how some people view the American healthcare debate.

Mercher May 21, 2014 at 7:30 am

Or a brain-dead parable about immigration that changed into to a brain-dead parable about healthcare access about half-way through – presumably because the sight of the third world masses arriving in Elysium might not have looked like a happy ending to an American audience.

J May 21, 2014 at 8:48 am

Yes! That killed me about the movie. Literally every house on Elysium has a magic disease-curing MRI machine in it. Why doesn’t some enterprising individual open a clinic down on Earth with one of those machines and make a fortune? Probably for the same reason capital doesn’t flow to 3rd world countries on the real present-day Earth: it would get seized or destroyed, or at best buried in some sort of red tape, and so it doesn’t happen. The Earth people are to blame for this state of affairs, not the Elysians, and yet they’re the bad guys. Wow the parallels to the real world are strong…

dan1111 May 21, 2014 at 8:51 am

You are trying to make the movie work, and it doesn’t. Earth is providing 21st century style health care (reasonably competently by the looks of it), even though this is probably more expensive than just having a couple of those machines.

Isaac May 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

But this doesn’t explain the popularity of dystopian sci-fi in novels.

Sigivald May 20, 2014 at 4:55 pm

And it also compares – weirdly, for Stephenson, who’s a very sharp guy – “dystopian” with “entirely alien”, rather than “dystopian” with “not-dystopian-but-not-alien”. Which makes sense in the very specific context of the question, but not quite as “why dystopia is so popular” in itself.

Taking a vaguely comparable example from gaming, it’s not any cheaper to make Fallout: New Vegas than it is to make Bioshock Infinite in terms of rendering and design cost per model [let us assume arugendo that the model count is comparable], but the latter (while “dystopian” in that the society shown is horrible) is beautiful.

CGI-ing dystopia really isn’t any more expensive than CGI-ing utopia.

I submit that dystopia is more popular also – indeed primarily – because it provides obvious plot points that the audience can relate to; hell, the “drama” in Avatar was equally “dystopian”; something like Wicked Military Dictatorship Wants To Destroy Eden. (Boring.)

Utopias and far-future unrelated-to-now-at-all scenes are harder to get a mass audience interested in (or even, perhaps, a hardcore audience). Dystopias in the near-ish future provide ready hooks for interest and mentally accessible and relatable conflict, and conflict makes drama.

(The obvious example might be Solaris, which is no dystopia, and is also not very interesting to the mass audience. Hell, I don’t understand how people think you can even make a good movie out of the book, though that’s endemic to Lem’s brand of fiction. It’s not cinematic.

It would be interesting to see what could be done with Banks’ Culture books, since they’re effectively far-future utopias, but have conflicts that are both potentially cinematic and relatable…)

ricardo May 20, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Tarkovsky’s Stalker was already mentioned by Chris. I like his version of Solaris very much; haven’t seen the more recent one.

I can imagine Hollywood messing up the Culture series big-time. Still like to see it.

Question: I know we have Star Wars and all, but why isn’t there more space opera coming out of Hollywood? There seem to be more space-horror movies than space opera.

JWatts May 21, 2014 at 4:51 pm

There is some talk of making a movie based on the Honor Harrington series. And of course Ender’s Game just came out last year (though it’s only nominally Space Opera).

Urstoff May 20, 2014 at 5:33 pm

They don’t seem unusually popular in sci-fi compared with, say, 20 years ago. Unless you mean among the public at large (anything besides The Road get much mainstream breakthrough?).

Dystopian fiction has completely conquered YA fiction, however.

Urso May 21, 2014 at 10:44 am

My pet cultural theory is that dystopian works become more popular the more easy our day to day lives become. Because it’s hard to find true conflict or difficulty in the 21st century middle class American teenage life (beyond the self-inflicted), and the YA target audience is clearly middle class. Compare even to The Day no Pigs Would Die, which wasn’t written *that* long ago.

This is also why I think zombies are so damn ubiquitous.

Esteban Colberto VII (Supergenius®) May 21, 2014 at 2:27 am

Stephenson has been anointed with brining cradle-to-cradle ethos to “inspire the youth”. Funny thing is that the array of dystopian cyberpunk movies just started hitting screens this past year, based largely on, books written in the 1980s. The “appeal” now is really centered on complete ignorance of the part of people that vote for the tea-party (and have not traveled internationally), on why their world is changing, what is causing it, and absolute fear. On top of that is lean six-sigma, efficiency, and the belief that computational algorithms realized as applied patterns in post-production compositing tasks can replace human creativity.

I am just thrilled to see we don’t have to sit through crappy knockoff movies anymore.

Stephenson obviously is one of the figureheads in cyberpunk. We live in their dystopia now, it just isn’t evenly distributed. We have walled corporate cities filled with multi-nationals in China. This summer, all the cool cyberpunk ideas really start hitting the screens, biochemical intellectual property firewalls implanted as conditions of employment, etc. The CIA hires cyberpunk writers for situational analysis and scenario modeling after observing the taliban has been raiding the archives for ideas – started deploying real “slamhounds” this past year.

When you have literature like, say “Average is Over”… which is overtly influenced by cyberpunk dystopia, you have a rising creative class that has nothing to aspire to. While the innovators in my generation were absolutely driven by these things, we are kind of shocked to see how horrible and unethical things are as things are realized.

So Stephenson has the cradle-to-cradle manifesto in his back pocket and he is trying to help inspire something new to inspire kids. I for one, have no tolerance for intellectual grandstanding, the kind of busllshit that passes for intelligence in MR threads these days.

dan1111 May 21, 2014 at 4:27 am

“I am just thrilled to see we don’t have to sit through crappy knockoff movies anymore.”

Me too. I hated it when the guards rounded us all up, herded us into a room, stuck toothpicks in our eyelids, and forced us to watch the re-re-remake of The Incredible Hulk.

albatross May 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

Doesn’t the original idea for slam hounds go back at least to the old USSR during WW2?

Shane M May 20, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Hadn’t thought about this from a budget perspective. I’ve often wondered why so many sci-fi movies start w/ interesting idea and degenerate. Cost could be factor, although I think writers might gravitate toward dystopian plots also.

I agree with quote regarding Avatar. I thought the world creation to be the most interesting part of the movie. The biology of the animals, and the environments. It’s one of the few movies that was able to engross me atmospherically in a new world. It worked in both 2D and 3D. Sure, the story is a Hollywood story, but for me that doesn’t detract from what the film achieved. It’s became more of a case of how it can become cool to hate on the film for it’s popularity and not acknowledge areas where it was exceptional.

albatross May 21, 2014 at 9:58 am

I suspect it is far less a budget issue than a creativity issue. A writer only has to create the imagery for his new world himself, using his words to paint it for a self-selected bunch of readers. But in a movie, a whole bunch of people other than the writer have to create the imagery, and make it plausible, from set designers to costumers to actors (who have to interact with the scenery in a plausible way).

A dystopian near-future world probably makes it a lot easier for all those people to visualize what things should look like.

dearieme May 20, 2014 at 3:12 pm

I rather like King Kong.

Steve Sailer May 20, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Okay, but nothing looks more dated than attempting to predict the stylish stuff of the future: we get jackets with diagonal zippers and cars that are two feet tall. If you want to know what trendy people thought was cool in a particular year, just watch a futuristic movie from that year.

Shane M May 20, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Bladerunner imho was interesting in the way it portrayed fashion, but in general you’re right: risky.

Cahokia May 20, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Considering that fashion has also entered a great stagnation, there’s good reason for sci-fi films to depict people of the future dressing much like ourselves. The same goes for residential architecture and decor.

F. Lynx Pardinus May 21, 2014 at 6:46 am

The 5th Element averts this fashion trope.

eh May 21, 2014 at 10:15 am

It’s also an unwatchable pos.

Alexei Sadeski May 20, 2014 at 3:41 pm


Steve Sailer May 21, 2014 at 2:14 am

“Her” was pretty cheap. Just high-waisted pants, panes of red plexiglass, and camera angles.

Alexei Sadeski May 21, 2014 at 3:11 am

Exactly my point!

Brett May 20, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Using the existing world and making some changes does save a lot of time on world-building and potential exposition. Look at Game of Thrones for example, which exists in its own “secondary world”. There’s a lot that has had to be explained over time in the show, because it’s all constructed and fictional – contrast that with something set in New York City, where you can just take for granted that New York City is a place that behaves in a certain way that people will grasp just by seeing it.

John Schilling May 20, 2014 at 6:09 pm

With Game of Thrones, the parts of the secondary world that we actually see tend to look almost exactly like various parts of the real world, just in different parts of the map. They have to explain where Winterfell is compared to King’s Landing, but Winterfell can look just like a Scots/Irish castle and King’s Landing just like an old Mediterranean coastal town without comment. And, as you say, people will grasp how it behaves just by seeing it.

And I’m mostly fine with that. But occasionally, there’s a part of my brain that nags me that we should be seeing what a castle looks like when it is designed by smart people anticipating dragon attack. Walls and towers, because there are still armies, but also enclosed stonework battlements with iron shutters, connecting interior tunnels, underground redoubts, and no big open courtyards. Things that would require expensive set-construction and/or rendering, so we don’t see them.

Vanya May 21, 2014 at 3:54 am

For most of Westeros’ history, if I remember correctly, there were no dragon attacks. Then the Tagaryens showed up with dragons and quickly subdued the whole continent. Under earlyTagaryen rule I assume anyone designing a “dragon proof” castle would have been suspected of treason, and under later Tagaryen rule dragons were no longer an issue. A bigger question to me is, given the long winters, castles and towns should be designed with a lot more storage than in our world – huge grain silos, underground root cellars, etc. And how are the livestock kept alive?

Zach May 20, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Dystopian science fiction also has the advantage of having a built-in conflict that engages the reader and gets all of the characters into one place interacting with each other.

At least in written science fiction, there’s currently a micro-trend away from dystopian and/or space opera plots. Some of the best recent books I’ve read recently are The Quantum Thief (charming thief in space Paris), China Mountain Zhang (very good, but more of a day-in-the-life plot), and the Solar Clipper series (merchant marine in space).

It’s funny that Stephenson is talking about this, because Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are two of the novels best suited to adaptation that have never been adapted. The Diamond Age is, if anything, Panglossian.

Todd May 20, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Looking at the wiki descriptions of those books that all seem very dystopian.

Zach May 20, 2014 at 5:24 pm

How so? The characters are reasonably happy and dealing with challenges that aren’t imposed by some planetwide catastrophe. The worlds they live in aren’t uniformly or universally worse than the one we live in.

If you call Snow Crash dystopian, what word are you going to have left over for The Road?

todd May 20, 2014 at 5:29 pm

I was thinking more of a Rodenberryesque world in which mankind had progressed significantly. A world vastly more sleek, efficient and advanced that our current world.

Zach May 20, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Ok, I’ll grant you that my list is more dystopian than that, but I don’t think they’re dystopian in the usual usage.

The Star Trek view of inevitable progression toward a future which is better in every way than the present is a choice, not the default.

dystopia May 20, 2014 at 7:18 pm

A world where the victors of World War 3 institute a world government and enforce widespread discrimination against people with genetic modifications.

foobarista May 20, 2014 at 5:06 pm

China Mountain Zhang is an interesting book, but it was written in 1993…

Zach May 20, 2014 at 5:37 pm

D’oh! My mistake.

JWatts May 20, 2014 at 4:50 pm

“And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. ”

I don’t buy into that logic. There are plenty of fantasy movies made with fantastical and beautiful cities and environments. And yet, relatively few futuristic movies with beautiful cities and environments. I think it’s more of a Hollywood ideological narrow vision than anything else. Tellingly, futuristic cities tend to be dysfunctional even if they are beautiful. Take Elysium for example, the city of the future was portrayed as the ultimate lair of Evil capitalists. In the Hunger Games it is pretty much the same. Even the newer Star Wars films follow the same trend, with the city of the future (well really a whole capital planet) as beautiful on the service, but being underplayed with evil.

Mark Thorson May 20, 2014 at 5:11 pm

There will never be a “wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground”. It’s made out of copper. As soon as there aren’t any guards around, it will be scavenged for the copper. And the pedestal will be scavenged for the bricks, which has happened to many ancient structures.

That’s why if I were a sculptor, I wouldn’t work in gold or silver or even copper. I’d work in clay or plaster — something people wouldn’t be tempted to recycle.

ummm May 20, 2014 at 6:23 pm

plain ol granite will do. no one is gonna loot mt rushmore

Vanya May 21, 2014 at 3:56 am

It won”t be scavenged because no one is allowed in the Forbidden Zone.

Mark Thorson May 21, 2014 at 9:10 pm

That’s never stopped copper thieves before.

honkie please May 20, 2014 at 5:19 pm

The obvious and better explanation: Utopia makes a pretty picture and a terrible story. It’s the same reason you don’t pay twelve bucks to watch two hours of gorgeous timelapses of sunsets and birds.

todd May 20, 2014 at 5:37 pm

A post scarcity utopian Earth and exploring the galaxy makes for a good story, at least to me.

greg May 20, 2014 at 6:29 pm

If you think that it means you’ve never read The Culture novels by Iain Banks (who died of cancer in his 50s last year) which explore a post-scarcity anarchist/libertarian utopian society inhabited by himans and AIs called The Culture where almost anything can be provided to you and there are no laws. They are also a cracking read, with a deep black strain of humour and genuinely exciting and pacey.

Also Star Trek, particularly TNG is a utopian society and makes some great stories about that, particularly when they try to defend their utopian ideals.

What it is, IMO, is that it is far far harder to write utopian stories. Distopian stories are really easy because the situations write themselves, in Utopian stories they don’t. The writers actually have to think.

Chip May 20, 2014 at 8:29 pm

+1 for Banks.

So Much For Subtlety May 21, 2014 at 1:45 am

To call the Communist Iain Bank anarchist/libertarian is absurd. What makes you think there are no laws?

Are they a cracking good read? Banks has a sadly juvenile approach to sex, but a genuinely great imagination not overly weighed down by things like the laws of physics. However in the end, his stories always disappoint. They ought to be great. He starts out well. His characters are interesting if not likable. But he is a Communist. Which means he thinks that nothing people do really matters much. So his main characters suffer and struggle …. for nothing. What matters is the vast tectonic forces of economics, not what individuals do. They may as well stay at home.

Every time he does it. He sucks you in with a great story only for it to mean nothing.

Not to mention his annoying use of AIs as little portable Gods to almost literally work as Deus ex machina to solve every situation. Fighting the Culture is a lot like fighting God. The AIs have such power and no one else come close. Makes you feel sorry for the Culture’s enemies.

Adrian Ratnapala May 21, 2014 at 9:46 am

Banks hates heros. Perhaps he just hates individual people. They have to die horribly, unless they they meekly absorb themselves into some hedonic culture (not necessarily The Culture). The “sadly juvenile” approach to sex could be a good thing to investigate, but he never does, because he never really thinks about whether The Culture makes any sense at all.

It doesn’t. It’s all a big wank. Overall I like the beginning and endings of his novels, but by the ender I wander what the point is. I would feel more satisfied if it has less wanking are more physical law.

albatross May 21, 2014 at 11:52 am

So Much:

Huh? Several hero-type characters in Culture books have a huge impact on the way things work out. Trying to avoid spoilers, there’s a guy who helps bring about a massive social change on a fairly nasty world, a human/drone team that manage to save an entire planet from destruction, a humanoid couple that helps bring an end to a particular planet’s hell, and many others.

In Banks’ universe, as in ours, most people can’t change the shape of the world, and even the movers and shakers often are overridden by bigger forces. But in some sense, the surprising thing in the Culture books is that humans (or human-like creatures) can have any impact at all, given that the main entities running the Culture are AIs that are orders of magnitude smarter than humans.

I can think of several heroes in his stories (some of whom aren’t exactly the good guys) who have a huge impact–one human/drone pair rescues an entire world from destruction, one humanoid couple’s brave action leads to the shutting down of that planet’s technological hell. And others who try and fail.

GiT May 20, 2014 at 11:24 pm

The Planet Earth series did pretty well on the timelapses of sunsets and birds side of things. Also Winged Migration did alright.

greg May 20, 2014 at 6:04 pm

It is also intellectually cheaper.

Distopian futures also make particularly cheap and easy fiction to write.

The Walking Dead is immensely popular but read the comics or watch the tv series or play the game and there is nothing new or interesting there. It’s all just rehashing old worn out tropes because they work and they are easy like crime fiction – theoretically endless possibilities but in real practical sense incredibly formulaic and run over the same dozen tropes with cookie cutter plots with varying degrees of polish (guy looking after child being the most dull and annoying).

There is the odd thing out there that has done or is doing interesting things with post apocalytic dystopian fiction but not much. Judge Dredd probably deserves a big nod for a post-apocalyptic world where nations and societies still actually exist.

To write a nuanced or utopian society is incredibly hard because you actually have to think about it and the society and so on and so forth. The greatest sci-fi of the last 30 years has been Iain Bank’s Culture series partly because it’s exceedingly well written and partly because it looks at a utopian society and what that looks like from the inside, to people on the outside, how it could possibly work. It is a far greater thing than plot point X happened, now everything is broken and rubbish and the world is not a safe place.

Chip May 20, 2014 at 11:48 pm

Cynicism also comes dressed as sophistication.

Optimists – even when completely grounded in data – risk sounding like fools.

Ridley’s the Rational Optimist manages to be both optimistic and convincing, but only because you’re treated to a wealth of evidence. Doesn’t really work in a movie because viewers are watching with their senses and hoping to disengage their logic center for a while.

derek May 21, 2014 at 1:19 am

I see the same in photography. The art is about eliciting a feeling with a scene, and the easiest feeling to elicit is despair or sadness by displaying an abandoned building or some broken down mess in some context. Other feelings are more challenging and require substantially more skill. So the artist goes for the broken.

Urso May 21, 2014 at 10:49 am

The comparison between zombies and pulp crime fiction is spot on. The main character in The Walking Dead is even a cop!

J May 20, 2014 at 7:04 pm

Adulthood and econblogs keep ruining sci-fi for me. Just today I heard about the novel 2312.

“The novel is set, as the title suggests, in the year 2312, in the great city of Terminator on Mercury, which is built on gigantic tracks in order to constantly stay on the planet’s nightside.”

That sounds really cool, but…why would you ever do that? Move to Phoenix, I promise it’s cheaper.

JWatts May 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm

“but…why would you ever do that? ”

From the wiki: “Capitalism has been replaced by a planned economy controlled by the quantum computers, but on the Earth there are still remnants of the market system.”

J May 20, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Ah it’s all so clear now!

andrew' May 20, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Most of everything is bad.

Having good taste is mostly disappointing. I can’t watch a single tv show. My movie tastes are measured in decades. I’m really glad I’m not a foodie.

cthulhu May 20, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Go watch “Justified”, from the beginning. Now.

andrew' May 21, 2014 at 6:37 am

Okay. Thanks.

J May 21, 2014 at 8:50 am

Well now you just sound curmudgeonly :)

yenwoda May 21, 2014 at 1:06 am

Not exactly unusual for Robinson, who as I recall had a self-assembling space elevator made by (or out of?) nano-robots in Red Mars, which managed to be one of the easier future-tech breakthroughs to swallow. But the city on tracks does remind me of the great ’70s dystopian sci-fi novel Inverted World, which would translate well to film although it doesn’t have the throw-some-dirt-on-Set-B filmability advantages that Stephenson brings up.

So Much For Subtlety May 21, 2014 at 1:48 am

Because he lifted it from an Arthur C. Clarke story if I remember correctly.

But of course it was not believable. Because Earth is full of poor Indians and Chinese. If nano-robots can make a huge space elevator for virtually no cost – and KSR’s economics are about as pathetic as his grasp of basic science – why are there any poor people left? It would be several orders of magnitude easier to make every Indian a house and a tractor than it would be to build a space elevator near Mars.

Finch May 21, 2014 at 9:59 am

KSR’s economics are so awful that they ruin his work. You have a world with nano-assembly and massive amounts of fusion power and people are inexplicably short of stuff. It makes no sense at all.

I’d say it’s a clear example of lazy writing – as others point out, distopia is easier to write – but KSR really seems to believe this stuff. If you ever hear him interviewed, he’s a bit of a nutball.

albatross May 21, 2014 at 12:00 pm

But we have a world now with factories full of robots, and computers, and there are still poor people in our world–not just first-world poor (lousy schools and unpleasant neighbors), but third-world poor (dying of malnutrition, without even minimal medical care, no clean water, no plumbing). So it’s not implausible to me that you could have even greater wealth in the rich countries, and still have countries full of incredibly poor people, too.

If you had written an SF story in 1914 about the world of 2014 and somehow gotten everything right, someone could have raised exactly this objection. Hang on a minute, these people are supposed to have little magic boxes they carry in their pockets that connect them with essentially all human knowledge, and yet there are still huge areas where most people can’t read? They have robots exploring Mars and tiny artificial moons they use to make navigation and communications easier, and to spy on each other, and yet there are lots of people starving to death or dying for want of cheaply mass-produced medicine?

Chip May 21, 2014 at 1:36 am

Book was a dull and preachy mess. Capitalism bad, climate change ad nauseum.

I’ll read just about anything but it was really awful.

Adrian Ratnapala May 21, 2014 at 11:41 am

Not trying to defend KSR here, but the Mercury thing doesn’t sound too bad. There is a lot of solar energy there, but there is still minerals and (for those as like it) Gravity. Probably you have to import your water.

Does it make economic sense for the the people of the 24th century? Maybe. It sounds no more unreasonable than Arizona.

Horhe May 22, 2014 at 2:08 am

Regarding the Terminator city – I, personally, interpreted it as something a very rich and advanced civilization can do just for the heck of it. Cheap doesn’t factor into it and it’s why simple Economics is so lacking in KSR’s books, which i do enjoy nonetheless. If you read the book, you’ll notice that the whole population of Mercury, a few tens of thousands maybe, are all in this single city. Nobody else wants to live on Mercury with so much more attractive real estate options in the solar system, nor is there presumably much need for added people to adequately exploit the potential for energy collection and transmission (their main industry) so these people are self selected to be sun worshiping engineers. And, indeed, they pass the time creating vacuum art galleries and pieces of installation art all across the surface of Mercury. So, on the one hand, the Mercurians get a planet roaming eco-village, while the Earthlings live in immense squalor. The difference, as I chose to interpret it, lies in institutions. As is the case with differences between unsuccessful and successful countries today, regardless of natural endowment.

JWatts May 20, 2014 at 7:33 pm

So, obviously they were fleeing the horrors of the primitive market system of Earth. ;)

sailordave May 20, 2014 at 8:04 pm

how does he explain country music?

Dismalist May 20, 2014 at 8:24 pm

We have met the enemy, and they is us!

Sucher May 21, 2014 at 12:46 am

Best sci-fi is about human/political relations.
Wild techno & gadgets are fun but secondary.
e.g. DUNE. It’s about transporting 1200 AD to (whenever it was) 10,000 AD — and it is the same people.

So Much for Subtlety May 21, 2014 at 5:53 am

I am not sure that is true. Dune did move away from the technology and towards the human relations. And it started a trend. But is the best sci-fi about human relations? I tend to think not. Asimov’s Robot series pre-dates Dune, but it is a classic, or several parts of it are classic. It is the technology that brings that world to life. Mostly because Asimov could not write decent human relations. Or all that many interesting characters.

Paul May 21, 2014 at 12:57 am

This is why everybody laughs when in the new Godzilla movie a particular Vegas icon is destroyed – it’s such a cliche now it’s become funny.

Lupus Yonderboy May 21, 2014 at 2:40 am

They sent a Slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT.
He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco facade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.

Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat.

Axa May 21, 2014 at 7:29 am

I don’t like Neal Stephenson, he has ruined Fallout 3 and 4 for me :(

Douglas Levene May 22, 2014 at 3:09 am

I’d love to see somebody make a move of Charlie Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. That’s would be a film with a wholly new imagined world and compelling (not-trite!) non-human characters. Of course, explaining the mysteries of interstellar debt in a movie would be a challenge.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: