Dear Critics, we need to talk about fantasy and sci-fi.

It’s been long established that critics prefer realism to flights of imagination. And by realism I mean commentary on the existing world as oppose to actually being remotely realistic. In the mind of the average critic the ability to build and entire world with cohesive culture, history, language, geography and mythology and then weaving a compelling plot on top of that is a feat far short of taking a swipe at what currently exists.

In the minds of such critics, Jane Austen is the revered Goddess. She wrote about what she knew and will therefore be forever brilliant, while Tolkien created so therefore it will forever be lightweight and in no sense ever profound. Apparently, imagination is a non-existent virtue in such thinking.

This view has always annoyed me, not least from a creative perspective when you consider the general difficulty of the two models. I’ve always felt fantasy and sci-fi writers (perhaps genre writers in general) have been unfairly judged when what they do is in many ways considerably harder.

Lately, this thought has bugged me less as I’ve felt since the Lord of the Rings films that kind of dullard thinking has been in retreat. Once Tolkien’s work moved off the page and on to the cinema screen it attained a level of respect hitherto denied to fantasy. Through a direct line this led to Game of Thrones which (albeit begrudgingly) has managed to snatch a few Emmys along the way. Arguably, less than it deserves but progress nonetheless. The traditional prejudice seemed to be wearing thinner to the point that critics could accept fantasy and sci-fi on its merits and not dismiss it out of hand.

And then the last few months happened and I feel we are back to square one. The reason is for the reaction to the trio of releases in that time; The Last Jedi, Bright and Altered Carbon. I’m not saying that the critical responses to these films is necessarily a reaction against sci-fi/fantasy. My argument is that they show the mainstream critics are ill-equipped to evaluate sci-fi/fantasy.

I’m going to start with a highly controversial assertion. If the critics say one thing and the public says another, the critics have failed in their job. I can immediately hear a flood of counterarguments rolling my way at that idea but hear me out. What I’ve stated is unequivocally wrong if, 1) a critic’s job is to tell us what we should like and not what we will like and 2) a critic is not there to recommend but only give their personal take. I tend to think both of these ideas are deeply flawed. The idea of someone appointing themselves as an arbiter of tastes is incredibly dubious from the outset, while the idea of a personal take doesn’t sit with having a paid position in the media as a gatekeeper to culture. It’s either personal or it’s a judgement on what people will enjoy; it can’t really be both. There has to be a compromise somewhere.

The next argument would be the idea that what is popular and what is good are not necessarily the same thing. I would completely agree with that statement. On the other hand, there are far too many who seem to take the view that because something is popular it is disqualified from being good. If 3 million people rate something as 8 out of 10 there is a reason for that. You don’t have to agree with that reason but you should acknowledge it exists. And if your conclusion is that reason is people are idiots I go back to my previous assertion. If it is your job to recommend things to idiots, then you should recommend what idiots like; anything else is an indulgence.

All this is very black and white and too easy to pull apart. In reality, there is a middle ground and for the purpose of this piece I will focus on the discrepancy factor. If the critics say a film is a 93% film and the public say it is an 87% film, (or vice versa) it’s probably fair to say that most people think it’s good. There may be reasons why one group likes it more than the other but there is a consensus. Example, ‘Aliens’; on Rotten Tomatoes critics say 98% and public says 94% based on a considerable amount of reviews. It’s fair to say that reviewers professional and amateur think this is a very good film. I would say more often than not there is this kind of agreement.

Where I grow wary is when there is a huge discrepancy, let’s say more than 20%. There’s clearly two ways this can go. You can have something loved by critics that leaves fans unmoved and you can have something appreciate by the public that is dismissed by the critics. In the case of the former this seems to happen with film that are quirky, understandably so. Critics see a lot of derivative and formulaic films, Anything that breaks the mould will be appreciated. By the same token, fans who see maybe a handful of films in a year are generally less bothered by cliches and more concerned about entertainment.

In the latter case, it happens more often with genre films or blockbusters. The critics get fixated on a couple of details (something they deem people ought not to like) or parts that seem derivative and miss out on the sense of escapism and the fact that the average audience member may never have seen something like that before.24218725477_c283330936_b

All of which brings me back to the trio of sci-fi released that have so far divided critic from fan starting with the first release; The Last Jedi. At time of writing rotten tomatoes has this as 91% from critics and 48% from the public. I’ve read some articles (which I’m not going to link as they don’t deserve the attention) that have summarily dismissed this discrepancy with justifications ranging from mass bot attack to a backlash against the progressive nature of the film.

My judgement is that the bot attack theory is nonsense. There are too many reviews on rotten tomatoes that are simply from people who are disappointed; not people with agendas. Not everyone is giving one star and claiming it is the worst thing ever. Many are three star reviews fairly explaining what they felt was lacking. For the record, I’d put myself in this group. I don’t think it is worth 91% nor is it worth 48%. It wasn’t awful but it was far from being great.

As to the PC backlash. It’s fair to say that is a thing for a few people but it does not seem to be a majority. Anecdotally, the most common criticism I’ve read, heard or seen is that there were elements of the film that were off (ahem, flying Leia), poorly plotted and lore-breaking. And I think here we have something close to an explanation for the 50% discrepancy.

Generalisation warning: critics like to be surprised. Fans like continuity. Critics applaud when Luke throws aside the lightsaber. Fans irk at the seeming change in Luke’s personality. Critics enjoy the change of the good guys plans not going to plan. Fans get irate that people on the same side aren’t talking to each other for the sake of a plot contrivance. Critics swoon at an artful silent black and white shot. Fans pull their hair out when a hyperspace ram is suddenly a thing, apparently going against all previous logic of not just the film in question but the entire series.

In essence, the critics think they are watching a piece of cinema and do not have sufficient respect for the world in which it is set. Sure they may consider themselves above such things but now we’re in the territory of music magazines sending someone to review the gig of a band they hate. It all gets a bit pointless.

Next up Bright, which according to the critics was the worst film of the year…(continued in next blog).

 

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New Horizons: Choosing your time travel destination

Imagine time travel was a real possibility. Where would you go? Presumably you’d hear recommendations from friends ‘we had an amazing time in neolithic Europe’, ‘you simply must go to 15th Century India’. Magazines and websites would be full of adverts for favoured destinations. Soon enough, there would be lists of ‘time periods to visit before you die’. This is all fine and good but the problem is some places and times would quickly become overdone and ruined by all the time travellers materialising at their now overcrowded beaches and bars.

TV, film and books (let’s call it fiction) has had the use of time travel for some time now and, predictably, created a number of tourist traps as successive writers take cues from what has gone before and been popular. It’s about time (and space) that we started looking further abroad and away from the well-beaten track. Thusly, here follows a short list of tourist traps to avoid and a few suggestions of new places I’d like to see explored. Feel free to add your own ideas (comments accepted here, on facebook or on twitter).

Tourist Traps

The Old West

westernThere’s an amusing David Mitchell (the comedian not the equally brilliant writer) piece questioning why a mere 30 year period in history should constitute an entire genre when other more historically significant 30-year periods don’t. You never hear people say ‘oh, I like fiction about the 30-years war mostly’. Perhaps they should; there’s a hell of a lot more to explore there. In any case, westerns are well-established and that’s fine and if people want to make a western I’ve no problem with that. What I tire of is seeing people from many centuries later ending up there and unfailingly having at least one party member who is au fait with the period through their love of old movies. Seems unlikely given the current popularity trend of old classic westerns.

This obsession reeks of writers of a certain generation repackaging their youth and expecting all who follow to buy into the experience. Likely, if the time travel holiday were available tomorrow the old west would quickly become a new Florida riddled with ageing gunslingers distinguishable from the locals by the whiteness of their replacement gnashers.

The Late Republic/Early Roman Empire

I’m not knocking ancient Rome as a setting but when there’s so much to explore why keep going back to the same bit? As there’s more to Italy than Rome, there’s more to the Roman Empire than the section from Julius Caesar to Nero. Why not try the delights of the early Republican period as the Italian peninsular is united or witness the drama of the Punic wars? They’ve got elephants and everything! Or, if you are of a different taste, witness Constantine’s rise to power and the division of the empire between east and west. Want to see the Colosseum in it’s heyday? For that you need to travel on from Nero to get to Vespasian’s time. colusseum

When dealing with a period of hundreds of years it’s a shame to get stuck around a single lifetime.

Victorian England

English_School,_19th_Century,_Snow_Hill,_Holburn,_LondonI’ll admit a touch of bias here. I studied the Victorians early on at school and I found them to be quite an unappealing group of people. Ethically and aesthetically it seems to me to be one of the less enjoyable bits of history. That’s not to say many great things didn’t happen but does your journey through time have to mean bumping into Charles Dickens or passing under the shadow of Jack the Ripper?

Likewise, Victoria seems to be one of the least fun monarchs of the lot. If you want to dine with a King or Queen, I daresay most others would be more entertaining company. Oh, and if you are desperate to wander through a foggy London, remember the ‘pea-souper’ was called that for a reason. That pearly cloud you picture yourself bisecting in your greatcoat will actually be green and probably smell horrific.

 

Some alternatives

The Aztecs

The Aztecs were a very interesting people; fascinating architecture, a vivid pantheon with bloody rituals, and gold everywhere. For the most part they seem to have been ignored by fiction (I suppose Dr Who might struggle with the pre-watershed slot) both historical and sci-fi. Still, the story of the meeting between Montezuma and Cortez and how a great civilisation came to crumble so quickly would be interesting to observe from an outsider’s perspective.aztec

 

The Dark Ages

vikingSeeing as the ‘dark ages’ remain one of the most misrepresented periods of time, a visit here would be educational if nothing else. Most people’s notion of history seems to be that there was the Romans and then not much happened until 1066. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from anything else, there was still a Roman Empire in the east throughout the whole period. The rise of Charlemagne seems to be something unheard of to a lot of people who studied history only at school.

Oh, and there’s Vikings. Obviously Vikings are awesome in their own right (or horrific if you are on the other side) but more importantly, we need more depictions of them never bloody wearing horned helmets. We don’t use Wagner musicals to inform our history for anything else and it’s about time this annoying myth died a death.

 

A non-apocalyptic future

According to time-travel fiction, there’s only a couple of centuries at best left for human civilisation before we regress massively. That might be true, who can say for certain, and that’s one way to view the future. Does it have to be the only way? For once, can’t we see Earth a bit further on that isn’t dystopian? I appreciate this is harder to render because you can fall into the realm of futurology and having to make predictions which may turn out to be ludicrous. Equally, it’s harder to make political points about now if everything turns out all right (although there’s still room for this by showing the will to change was what made things better). That’s not to say our future has to be shown as utopian either. Maybe some of today’s problems will persist and be worse in some ways. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will all need to be hunkering down in burnt out shelters staring forlornly as the last of the water supply vanishes.

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There’s many more that can be added to both categories and I expect I will update as I go. For now, I will sign off with this. As people we like to see new things and visit new places: let’s do that as time-travellers too.