My post about the Rolling Stone top-20 sci-fi movies of the 21st century—and my version of the top-20 list—inspired some interesting comments from all over, making clear that (ahem) my opinion about what makes the best sci-fi movies is shared by some, but not necessarily all, of the sci-fi lovers out there. Of course, as I pointed out in many places, my opinion is my opinion, your opinion is your opinion, and that’s as far as opinions go, pretty much.
But the discussion was useful in another way: That is, to help define what constitutes sci-fi for the audience of 2015. This is largely an academic exercise, but for those who seek to create sci-fi to be consumed by the populace (and make them a lot of money), if might be worth taking a quick look over these conclusions to make sure you’re doing it right.
So, in order to attract the typical audience of 2015 to your sci-fi, remember these guidelines:
1. Science is just a word. Sci-fi is about science. But science is just a word. And a really vague word, at that. Anything can be said to have a science behind it, i.e.: The science of healthcare. The science of hair care. The science of Hobbit diets. The science of leaves. The science of rainbows. The science of magic. See what I’m getting at? There’s a science for everything. Therefore, everything can be in a sci-fi product.
2. Sci-fi must have something associated with science in it. So, put a blaster in your heroes’ hand, or put your dragon-slaying action on a space ship, and it’s sci-fi. Or just use any of the following words or phrases: A.I.; robot; laser; nuclear; atomic; FTL; nano; zero-point energy; cyber; force-field; warp; telepathic; hoverboard.
3. Physics… shmysics. Physics is not 100% known. Scientists haven’t solved every mystery out there. And that means that, outside of the things that have been discovered… anything is possible. Literally anything. You want planet-sized robots? Go ahead. Since we haven’t discovered all the physics about materials, we don’t know that a continent-sized piece of aluminum is impossible to make. Wanna go faster than light? Wanna travel back in time and sleep with your grandmom? Since physics doesn’t know everything… there’s really nothing stopping you.
4. Don’t lecture. A recent Facebook poster said: “If I want to learn science, I’ll read a science journal.” So, unless you write science journals, take note that your sci-fi audience doesn’t want to learn stuff. Leave knowledge out. Sci-fi is only good for entertainment.
5. Don’t sneak no book stuff on me. Sci-fi fans, by and large, don’t read. As children, they were read to by parents… in order to put them to sleep. Then they discovered TV. Game over. They don’t want movie versions of famous books by famous authors… because they probably never heard of ’em. If it’s a real famous book, feel free to use its name in your movie’s title. But don’t worry about putting any of the book’s content in there… they couldn’t care less how one compares to the other. (Okay: Some sci-fi fans read. Mostly books based on the video games they play and movies they watch, except with more of the sex and violence the law won’t let them put into the games and movies. 50 Shades of Mass Effect, anyone?)
6. “The human condition”? It better be “hot.” Sci-fi fans don’t want any of that “human condition” noise, that’s that psychological crap dad talks about from that ancient Star Trek show. What’s important is cuteness, hotness, funny-ness, badassiness and boringness (hey, gotta know who to avoid).
7. The more things that make a story exciting, the better. Today’s sci-fi fans grew up on FPSs. The Star Wars franchise started before they were born. Movies are defined by the size of their spaceships, the toughness of their action stars and the coolness of their explosions. And dragons. And light-sabers. And aliens we can have sex with. (Or blow up.) And superheroes. And the un-dead. And time-travel. And magic flying spells. And guns four times our size that can vaporize tanks with no recoil. No, they have nothing to do with science. They have everything to do with awesome.
8. Can it be made into a video game? Then it’s a good story. (Corollary: If it was a great video game, it could make a great movie; just make sure you leave in all the sick stuff that made it such a great game.)
9. Logic? That’s so 20th century. Today’s sci-fi doesn’t care about logic. It cares about epic. Spock doesn’t reason with people anymore—he beats on them and cries on Uhura’s shoulder. Robots attack people because they’re as bat-shit crazy as you are. Logic is for geeks. Don’t be a geek.
10. Problem solving = Blow it up. No more problem. Pretty self-explanatory.
This list of definitions makes it clear why movies like Cloverfield, The Host, Monsters, Reign of Fire, Gravity and Attack the Block make the Rolling Stone list of top-20 movies, while movies like Interstellar, Snowpiercer and Vanilla Sky do not: The former movies are products of 21st century sci-fi; the latter are examples of 20th century sci-fi.
Armed with this list, any author should now be able to create their sci-fi opus, and see incredible fame and rafters-shaking success in no time. They will also understand why I can’t sell any books to the modern sci-fi audience.
Oh, one last thing: Don’t like the word “sci-fi”? Just call it “fantasy”. It’s pretty much the same thing.