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Why I Don’t Like Amateur Science Fiction

March 4, 2015

“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”

 – Charlie Chaplin

This is a tough one to write, because I know lots and lots of people who have made or are making science fiction, and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you. :)

But here’s why I don’t like amateur science fiction: Because it’s boring.

I recently read a comic called Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan. It’s a pretty fantastic blending of Sci-Fi and Fantasy – lots of crazy characters that are common in both genres interacting in fun ways. But that’s not what makes it so good.

What makes it so good is that it takes those elements for granted: the crazy sci-fi (there are people with tube-style televisions for heads that can show things they want to project, but when they get emotional, they lose some of that control and start to show images reflecting their feelings), the great fantasy (there’s a spaceship forest where spaceships grow and if they like you, they might take you where you want to go), all that is just there. But the story is about the parents of a baby girl who are hunted and hated because they’re from warring races, and the child is considered an abomination.

It’s a chase, with our lead characters on the run from some truly powerful, fascinating, and gruesome people. It’s fun and exciting and just a good story. And it also has all these fantasy and sci-fi elements. But it’s just a good story.

And that’s where amateur science fiction tends to fail. I’ve sat through way too many films that are only about the sci-fi concept, and doesn’t seem to care that I’d like to be entertained. Also, most concepts, I’ve seen before, 50 years ago on the Twilight Zone, or read 30 years ago in an Alan Moore comic in 2000 AD (a book that’s been around long enough to have passed the future year of its title).

Because everything’s been done already. There’s no new idea that you can show me. And that’s OK, it doesn’t have to be new. But it does need to be entertaining.

An old teacher of mine (another old screenwriting teacher – Hi, Gil!) hammered this home with me. A guy in my screenwriting class thought he had the greatest idea for a film – aliens come and they eat our garbage and shit gold bricks. I wasn’t deep enough into storytelling to get what wasn’t working there- it sounded original, but felt empty. And Gil hit it on the head with the question “And what’s the story?” The guy repeated the same thing about the aliens. “But what happens?” And that’s the problem. The idea is a setting – it’s the same as “I’ve got an idea. It takes place in prison.” That’s not a story – there are no events. It’s not even the premise, it’s just one element of something that could take place in a story. But it’s not a story.

A story is about a guy who comes across a gold brick, and tries to hide it from his family that he’s trying to abandon (there’s a character with a goal). And he goes through ridiculous trials and conflicts to keep the brick from the family. As he finally is able to escape with his new-found wealth, the global economy is shattered when aliens are discovered and the gold standard is ruined by their bathroom habits.

Way too much amateur science fiction studies the aliens, instead of telling a story that could work whether it’s about aliens or not, and the aliens are just a cool element in a much cooler story.

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