The Matrix goes as deep as a rabbit hole.
Yesterday JR Minkel argued on the SciAm Observations blog that Blinded by Science: Fictional Reality was fundamentally wrong, denying that science fiction has “suddenly and entirely ceased to matter,” as intimated by our own Bruno Maddox. Minkel advances a well-taken critique of the piece but I would—nay, will!—assert that Maddox’s main point was correct, but not exactly in the way he meant it (if I may try to re-educate the brain child of a bona fide Ellie nominee). And I’m not defending Maddox just because we get our direct deposits from the same routing number—Discover has an impregnable firewall like the one that separates the Wall Street Journal’s hard-news section from its hard-right editorial page (at least until Rupert gives them some hard knocks).
First off, Minkel is right that Maddox should not have Michael Crichton and the eccentric attendees of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (whose “median shirt type is -sweat”) stand in for the entire science-fiction world; there are some very good sci-fi writers out there, like Neal Stephenson, as Minkel points out. But will Stephenson and his ilk ever have the impact of Wells, Orwell, or Huxley? I don’t think so, and that’s the interesting thing.
Maddox says one of the genre’s problems is that “fiction—all fiction—finally became obsolete as a delivery system for big ideas,” and sci-fi is just going down with that ship. As for why fiction was dethroned from being the reigning medium, he says it might have “something to do with the Internet,” but I think it began much earlier than that—around a generation after the rise of the moving image. The real change is that mass culture has become primarily visual rather than textual: “[Insert pretentious McLuhan quote here].”
This change has hit fiction doubly hard because it by definition trucks in things no one has seen. As soon as some hack Hollywood director creates a picture of what fictional characters look like, our lovably predictable, vision-dominated hunter-gatherer brains will necessarily latch onto it (remember that reading is not at all “natural” for the human brain, unlike speaking or watching), which is why you should never see a movie before reading the book. Your imagining of a book can be ruined even by a single frame from the movie version that appears on the cover, especially because the humans pictured tend to be freakishly good-looking; The Unbearable Lightness of Being was thusly tainted for me (damn your sultry gaze, Daniel Day-Lewis!). When Bob Woodward writes a book about the Bush Administration, he can be pretty sure the reader will be able to imagine Dubya’s smirk, Rove’s Mr.-Potatohead head, and Cheney’s sneer. (By the way, if you put a top hat on our vice president and a cigarette holder in the non-sneer side of his mouth, he really does look like the Penguin, Batman’s nemesis, if somewhat less elegant. The picture’s worth a thousand.)
This phenomenon applies trebly to science fiction because it’s often set in fully imagined settings, and it’s a lot easier to look at a detailed, fantastic world on the screen than it is to visualize the entire thing. Science fiction beamed into the movies a few decades ago, and for most people that’s where it stays. Ask people who did War of the Worlds and they’ll say Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, and who the hell is Orson Welles [sic] anyway. Ask them about Minority Report and they think not of Philip K. Dick but of, yes, Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg. Sci-fi movies do raise some big questions—as in Gattaca and The Matrix—but they’re unlikely to be as deep and lasting as classic mainstream but not-at-all-lowbrow books like 1984.
Meanwhile, Stephenson and his ilk continue to write deep, well-crafted stuff that for the most part remains in the sci-fi ghetto—at least until it gets made into an oversimplified, $100 million movie by… yup, those guys.