Yesterday evening, I got to interview Nick Lowe as part of the BSFA‘s regular monthly meeting series. Though the interview was recorded, and I guess may be transcribed for Vector, some of what we talked about might be worth kicking around here. Nick Lowe is known, especially in the UK, for his film column Mutant Popcorn in Interzone, which he’s been writing for close on 25 years. Sadly, none of the Mutant Popcorn material is online (yet), but you can get a taste of his writing from “The Well-Tempered Plot Device“.
One of the topics we talked about in the interview was the business of adapting sf stories or novels into movies. The argument Nick made was broadly similar to the one that many sf fans make, that movies “dumb down” novels, but subtler in a couple of respects. Firstly, he suggested, the more money is about to be spent on a movie, the more risk-averse is likely to be the process of constructing it. Hence, for instance, the last Indiana Jones film, which was not particularly “good” compared to the earlier versions floating around the Hollywood ecosystem, but which was the one that fewest people said “no” to. Secondly, he argued, Hollywood has become wedded to a model of how narrative works that’s increasingly narrow and prescriptive. He called this the “protagonist” model, whereby a story has to centre on a single person whom the audience has to find sympathetic and who has to grow or learn something about themselves in the process of the film. And (to finish paraphrasing Nick’s point) we have to find them in some sense heroic by the end of things.
This has two problems, according to Nick, a general and a specific one. The general one is that stories-as-narratives-of-personal-growth (the “therapy plot”, as he’s called them in the past) can be incredibly reductive and simplistic about human nature. The more specific one is that science fiction in particular has developed a panoply of narrative models other than the protagonist-growth one, and so attempts to cram sf stories into a movie frame often take away what’s most interesting about them. Just consider (say) Last and First Men, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Childhood’s End, or “The Screwfly Solution”. You could wrench a screenplay out of each of those that focussed on one narrator and their coming to a state of fuller awareness about themselves. But to do so would be to efface what’s most potent and distinctive about each of them—that they deliver emotional and intellectual excitement in ways that purely mimetic (or purely character-driven) stories never could.
So, me talking now rather than paraphrasing Nick. For a start, I wouldn’t want to (and I don’t think Nick would want to) turn the “protagonist model” into too much of a strawman. Clearly, a bunch of good stories have been and can be written using it. All I’d want to assert is that it’s not the only model. What interests me most about what Nick said is the idea that sf has developed a whole range of narrative strategies that are different from those we’re used to outside the genre. The scientific romance is an obvious case in point and—though we didn’t discuss it in the interview—Nick’s thesis would be more than borne out by the number of disastrous H G Wells adaptations lately. This is not to say that sf narrative approaches can’t be accurately represented in a Hollywood film; I at least would count Soderbergh’s Solaris as an entirely honourable attempt to be faithful to difficult source material. But such works tend to provoke baffled head-scratching from critics not familiar with the different value-system Lem’s work emerges from.
The question all this leads to—which I know is a can of worms—is that of whether (and how much) we as sf critics or readers need to assert that sf needs differing aesthetic criteria from other fields. It seems to me a particularly interesting question to raise now, when “sf” and “the literary” seem to be shuffling ever closer together in some ways. Do we still need to assert the irreducible distinctiveness and worth of, say, A E van Vogt or “Doc” Smith? Or do we just see them as the necessary developmental stages sf had to get past in order to land us in our glorious present? I find both those polar extremes unpalatable, and I know that in practice, as a reader and reviewer, I frequently find myself thinking “Only sf could do that.” Is that an excuse, though, for avoiding doing characterisation (say) more fully? The Lowe model, of sf comprising a range of quite different strategies or approaches with different goals seems to me a usefully nuanced way of understanding this issue—especially when one realises that these approaches can differ far more radically than they would in mimetic literature. I hope he’ll write it up one day. Oh, and I’d still like to see Star Maker: the movie.