Why Do They Bother Calling It SF?

Science fiction gives use huge scope to do interesting things. Given a whole universe, a galaxy or even just a single stellar system to explore, think of the fascinating variety of different things people could encounter. Worlds would range from fiery hell planets near a star to desolate frozen rocks far out on a system's edge. Human, visiting or colonising such worlds, could be faced with crushing high gravity or near weightlessness, airless worlds or super-dense atmospheres. And if there is life out there, it could come in a bewildering variety of forms, with an exciting variety of shapes, sizes and mentalities.

Yet the mindless slop that passes for mass-market SF these days ignores all these wonderful posibilities, and just gives people what they're used to seeing. The likes of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Farscape have the characters visiting world after world that looks just like Earth and meeting creautre that look like humans in heavy make-up and behave exactly like humans. Why do the makers of these programs bother sending their characters out into space at all? If they want to make TV programs about people interacting with creature like humans on a planet like Earth, why don't they just make something about humans on Earth? Why meet aliens races on other planets if there is no alienness or otherness about them?

Look at Joss Whedon's film Serenity. In the opening sequence we are told that its setting is a single stellar system with dozens of planets. If this is so, we would naturally expect the planets closer to the sun to be hotter and those further out to be colder. Yet somehow, they all seem to have Earth's temperature. And they all have Earth's gravity too: there are no special effects used to create the impression of stronger or weaker gravity. Do all the planets and moons in this system just happen to have the same mass as each other and as Earth, just by sheer chance? It's ludicrous.

Serenity isn't SF. It's a interplanetary western. The backward or frontier-type worlds are all made to look like settings from a western. If Whedon wanted to make a western, why didn't he just make a western? Why does it have to have spaceships in it, if it's supposed to be a western?

I wouldn't mind so much if proper SF were being made as well. If I could see films and TV programs that did it all properly, I wouldn't complain about the bad ones. It's the lack of good ones that bothers me. People are writing good SF, of course, and some of them are very big sellers. Iain Banks is a big-selling author, and his The Algebraist is a good piece of hard SF, full of plausible sentient races from environments very different from our own; the technology that races from incomatible environments use to interact and to travel on each other's worlds, the physics of space warfare, and the interactions of biological and machine intelligence are all well thought out in this excellent book.

But this kind of thing doesn't make it to our screens. Instead we are simply bombarded with muscular men in skin-tight body-suits kissing lithe Klingon women in skin-tight body suits as a sun like ours sets over the scenery of a planet just like Earth. These things are no more SF than fairy-tales sailors going under the sea and marrying mermaids are SF.

I can see the difficulties, of course: the special effects to simulate an environment other than Earth's must be much more expensive than just filming people in a forest on Earth. But that's not the only reason. The reality is that lots of people want to see things that are familiar, not things that are different. If an SF show appeared where planets had realistic differences in gravity and temperature, its viewing figures would be low. The average couch-potato who watches Star Trek isn't interested in realism, but wants to watch a soap opera with occasional fights in it. That's what Star Trek gives them, and that's what makes it popular.