Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Short Meditation on Medium

Much has been written of the impact film has had upon science fiction literature. From Le Voyage dans la Lune to Planet of the Apes, from Star Wars to Avatar, film’s role in bringing science fiction to the mainstream in undisputed. But there is another medium that’s doing just as much, if not more, to expand the audience of the genre.

From the very beginning, science fiction and video games have seemed a natural, almost inevitable, match. In the earliest days, perhaps it was simply that verisimilitude was unachievable. When the world is composed--as in Space Invaders or Star Castle--of half a dozen undentifiable blobs, “They’re aliens” is one of the more satisfying explanations. Or perhaps part of it was that science fiction and video games are both so often ghettoized. When people ask whether video games are art (or even, mind-boggingly, insist that it can never be) it carries a certain echo of older debates about whether genre fiction is literature.

Regardless of first causes, the fact remains that science fiction thoroughly dominates the narrative of the modern video game. And with the game industry now a bigger money maker than either film or literature, the implications of that dominance can not be ignored. Master Chief and Samus Aran have taken their seat alongside Ellen Ripley and Paul Atreides in the science fiction pantheon. And Eve Online has done as much as “Orphans of the Sky” to give real emotional strength to the immeasurable vastness of space.

But what does this mean for science fiction literature? Firstly, video games have become a breeding ground for new thinking about the genre, feeding directly back into the world of literature. The most undeniable instance of this is the simple existence of novels based directly upon video game franchises. These books are often ghettoized even within the boundaries of science fiction, but more people read “Halo: The Fall of Reach” than read most of the books nominated for Hugo awards. Refusing to accept these novels into the halls of SF literature would be as short-sighted as is trying to define art in such a way as to exclude Ico or BioShock. But that debate is moot anyway when authors such as Iain M. Banks and Cory Doctorow freely admit to being influenced by ideas from video games.

And then there are all the new voices video games bring to the genre. Will Wright, Sid Meier, Cliff Bleszinski, Casey Hudson. These are people whose stories might never have made their way onto paper or celluloid.

But more than anything else, the audience itself is important. For too long there has been a barrier of entry to science fiction; tropes and conventions that are old hat to the initiated, but impenetrable to the novice. Much of today’s best science fiction assumes that the reader is familiar with SF as a whole. And so we end up with a genre which necessitates beginner’s texts. A dire situation, indeed. Fortunately for us purveyors of science fiction, video games are taking up just that role. And if the only price we have to pay is that, when that “Ringworld” movie finally gets made, people say ‘Oh, just like in Halo,’ I say we gladly foot the bill.

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