“I Remember When SF Was All About Straight Men Doing Stuff.”

At least, that’s my paraphrase of this essay from “The Spearhead”


Have you read that?  No?  Go back and check it out.  Take a walk or go sparring to work out your righteous fury, then come back to read.

Done?  Ok.

The essay in question is both 1) infuriating and 2) about genre fiction and society.  Which makes it a great topic for a blog post!  The essay is one of the writings from The Spearhead, a group blog designed to focus on men’s issues and men’s voices (as response to a perceived ‘cultural gap’ that has ignored men’s voices).  While I agree that part of the ‘let’s all be equal’ agenda must include an analysis of how cultural forces shape men’s perception of the world and define masculinity in a way that is exploitative of men and teaches exploitation of women — I don’t think the Spearhead writers and I agree on the nature of the problem with men’s status in society or how to address it.

The essay starts out with a bang:

“Science fiction is a very male form of fiction.  Considerably more men than women are interested in reading and watching science fiction.  This is no surprise.  Science fiction traditionally is about men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.  Many men working in the fields of science, engineering, and technology have cited science fiction (such as the original Star Trek) for inspiring them when they were boys to establish careers in these fields.”

This particular essay focuses on a limited definition of what ‘science fiction’ means, in a Golden Age Asimov kind of fashion, where characters were as flat as the paper they were printed on, little more than mouthpieces for expositing and resolving scientific issues.  Now don’t get me wrong — there’s some great idea work in Golden Age SF — it’s that era that helped develop SF as the Literature of Ideas.  But the genre has developed since then, it has become larger and (to me, more relevant and sophisticated.  We’ve gotten Alfred Bester and Thomas Disch, Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney and Connie Willis.

To begin with, the essay relies upon versions of masculinity that are unsurprisingly as old and outmoded as the SF they rely on.  For “Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech” — masculinity, like SF is about “men doing things, inventing new technologies, exploring new worlds, making new scientific discoveries, terraforming planets, etc.” The author references scientists who speak about being inspired by SF to move into their disciplines.  Of course I agree that  science fiction is instrumental in inspiring and encouraging scientific development.

On the other hand, it’s as if there have never been any female engineers or scientists who have never been inspired by science fiction.  And in other news, all men smoke cigars and drink scotch at work with expertly coiffed hair while wearing fedoras and the only power women have is influencing men through their sexuality while working as secretaries.  No wait, that’s Mad Men.

The author talks about the name change of SciFi as part of a feminizing trend, following the 1998 changeover when Bonnie Hammer assumed control of the channel and began courting female readers.   The 2000s era Battlestar Galactica is positioned as one of the culprits of a feminizing Sci-Fi channel, since the character of Starbuck was changed into a woman.  Strangely, it’s Starbuck the woman who is also Starbuck the cigar-smoking, hard drinking, sleeps with anything that moves.   That part is not mentioned in the essay — instead the author points to an essay by original Starbuck Dirk Benedict, bemoaning the “un-imagining” of Battlestar Galactica.

Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech also talks about the shift in programming towards fantasy and away from science fiction, because “women are more interested in the supernatural and the paranormal than men are.”  Is this supposed to be a biological pre-disposition?  The author then complains about the increasing presence of gay characters on the channel (as a death knell post-name change) — and how that means that it well be less about men doing things.  Does the set of ‘men’ exclude homosexual men in this case?

The author then cites Marvin Minsky, an AI researcher at MIT.  Minsky gives his distinction between general fiction and science fiction as such: “General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.”  This is a notably reductive definition to be sure, specious at best.  Where does 1984 fit in there?  Winston Smith ‘gets into problems and screws his life up,’ among many others. This depiction of science fiction as the only fiction with ‘real importance’ is an insular isolationist stance that fails to acknowledge that powerful, historically-relevant literature can occur without spaceships or advanced physics.  I like my SF and think it’s had important effects, but it’s not the only game in town, for sure.

“The War on Science Fiction and Marvin Minsky” is representative of the perspective of someone within the world of SF fandom, a part that exists and continues to proceed despite the fact that the mainstream has moved away from them.  Analog Science Fiction and Fact is often noted as the home of this mode of SF, and the magazine continues as it has for decades, admirable for its continuity.  I think we need the scientifically rigorous aspect of speculative fiction, the part that refuses to use handwavium to solve its problems just to get to the point and instead interrogates the ways that the possible could become reality.  Hard SF may not be for me, but it’s an important part of the genre.

A lack of hard science doesn’t automatically make a science fiction story into melodrama.  And I certainly don’t think that either scientific rigor or the science fiction genre is or should be part-and-parcel with outdated gender norms, homophobia and misogyny.

We Live in a Procedural World

Procedural dramas are hot in TV, and have been for quite a while. They deliver on a number of levels which make them attractive to viewers and to networks.

They tend to be deeply episodic, making drop-in viewing much easier for a casual or sporadic viewer. This increases their appeal to networks, as it increases the saleability of a show in terms of syndication and makes it less likely that a shows’ ratings will continually decay as viewers who miss an episode or two give up due to falling behind on the story (as is prone to happen on deeply serial, high-mythology shows like LOST, Battlestar Galactica, etc.

Procedurals also allow for characters to display a high level of mastery, such as Dr. House’s Holmes-like diagnostic prowess, or Monk’s OCD-derived attention to detail. There’s a satisfaction in narratives where a mystery (especially a violent or threatening one) is solved. It’s a reassurance that the people in these jobs, (doctors, lawyers, detectives, police, etc.) are competent in their jobs and that we can continue to trust them to protect and serve us.

Since the procedural is a popular and successful mode for television (as well as film and fiction), the ever-increasing number of procedurals produces a problem:

There’s only so many ways to investigate a crime within the normal bounds of the law in the USA. The CSI-style formula has propagated, and in recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of Specilist procedurals.

Procedurals built around Specialists allow their shows to take a different approach to the procedural formula. House achieved this by being a medical procedural drama, where the criminals/culprits are diseases/injuries, and thus, the detectives are diagnosticians. Shows like The Mentalist, Fringe, Life, Lie to Me, Bones, Castle, and more each take a slightly different angle on criminal investigation, positioning one or more characters with specialist knowledge or methodology to keep the procedural formula fresh.

The Mentalist and Psych take a dramatic and comedic (respectively) approach by re-positioning a psychic as the specialist, relying on their advanced ability to read people and make intuitive leaps based on their training as ‘psychics’ (as neither characters are portrayed as possessing ‘real’ psychic powers). In Fringe, Walter Bishop’s Fringe science credentials allow him to solve mysterious deaths and circumstances propagated by ‘The Pattern’, a worldwide group of Fringe (aka Mad) Scientists. Bones features a forensic anthropologist who consults with federal agencies. Life‘s Charlie Crews is a police detective, but his stumbling efforts towards Zen Buddhism set him apart from a ‘standard’ TV detective. Lie to Me‘s specialist is an expert in the science/sociology/psychology of lying, allowing him to glean more information from suspects/informants than a standard detective. The upcoming show Castle features a mystery writer consulting and then accompanying a detective, using his experience writing mysteries to help solve them.

Of the recent specialist procedurals, a great many of them feature a male specialist and a female handler (Castle, Lie to Me, Life, Fringe, The Mentalist, etc.) This allows the shows to dodge the traditionally-expected arrangement of positioning a strong male character to ‘protect’ a female specialist (though shows like Bones keep to this model). Fringe‘s Olivia Dunham, Life‘s Dani Reese, The Mentalist‘s Teresa Lisbon, Castle‘s Stana Katic all serve one or both of two functions:

1) Protect the specialist (who is not necessarily trained to handle himself in-field). Some specialists are also-field trained, but even they require additional protection as a result of the times when their ‘weird-ness’ gets them into more trouble.
2) Provide a grounding/contextualizing force to the ‘weird’ specialist. The specialist-characters in these procedurals are often portrayed as being un-grounded or disassociated from the normal social world as a result of their special perspective on the world. Each show goes about this in a different way, and it’s not a universal. I’m merely drawing attention to a trend which has been identified in contemporary shows.

This Specialist–Handler arrangement provides a solid dramatic base for the shows, going back to shows like the X-Files (Mulder and Scully were both specialists in different areas, but Scully tended to play the ‘handler’ role more when Mulder went off on his conspiracy-chasing) and beyond.  The Handler character acts as a straight-man (or straight-woman in many cases) to the Specialist’s antics, acting as the audience’s stand-in, requiring an explanation or interpretation of the specialist’s arcane knowledge.  Dr. Cuddy is Dr. House’s handler, but so are the other fellows on his team.

Production companies will continue to use the specialist model to attempt to find space for their shows in an already-crowded procedural market.  Television viewers have seen decades worth of standard police procedurals, and this escalation into increasingly oddball specialists is an attempt to keep the lucrative procedural sub-genre fresh for viewers.  In the meantime, we as viewers have a wide variety of flavors of procedural to choose from to get our satisfaction in knowing that at the end of the hour, the criminal will be known even if they aren’t caught, and moreso than justice, mastery of knowledge will be achieved, allowing the specialist to sleep content in their ability and for us to retain our confidence in those specialists and the System which protects us.

At least, that seems to be the idea.