Monday, November 27, 2006

The Fountain and Genres

From an article on

Writer/director Darren Aronofsky wants to make one thing clear: His epic film The Fountain is definitely science fiction, he told SCI FI Wire. "I'm glad we're talking about this," Aronofsky said in an interview. "It's a really upsetting thing, because I've met people on the road who go, 'This isn't sci-fi because there aren't ray guns.' They haven't said it that obviously, but that's their point. And the fact that science fiction in movies has been so hijacked by techno-lust and by hardware 'button sci-fi,' as we call it, where everything is, if it's not buttons, it's now holographs."
This is the observation that led me to try to better define the subgenres of speculative fiction, at least in my own mind. I'm reminded of the book group member I wrote of before; the people that Aronofsky describes appear to think that a work is science fiction because it has certain things in it. A ray gun or holographs or aliens equals science fiction, and a sword equals fantasy (unless it is a light sabre). But my training in literature tells me that this can't be right; ray guns and holographs are part of the setting of the book, not what the book is about, right? Honestly, how many genres are defined by where the book is set? Aren't genres defined by what the book is about?

Sure, science fiction (at least in the movies) usually happens in space and usually involves a ray gun, but those things aren't what the movie is know, the theme of the movie. Those things are usually just tools to get to the theme (if the movie has a theme; sometimes those movies have very little thematic going on in them at all). So, what is science fiction about?

The article goes on:
"Believe me, there were drafts of The Fountain where the guy in space had a little holograph," Aronofsky said. "But where we wanted to push our science fiction [was to] push outer space so far, and push technology so far,[to] remove all trucks from space. No more pimped-out cars in space. Return to an organic singularity, so that outer space suddenly becomes inner space. Because I think that's where technology takes you. ... You can't have those tricks. You have to simplify down to something that is absolute, that is mental and [is] no longer electronic. And I think that's where science fiction is going. And it completely is science fiction."
Suddenly Aronofsky isn't really all that different from the science fiction fans he complains about. It appears he is disturbed by the props that viewers use to determine the genre (holograph bad, organic starship good) rather than the real literary component that separates science fiction from the other (sub)genres. Again, what usually defines a genre in literature is what the book is about. And, unfortunately, The Fountain isn't about science or technology. Sure, those things play a part in the storytelling, but the real story is about a man's relationship with his wife under extraordinary circumstances. That Aronofsky can switch out the props in his story without feeling like the story has a different meaning is the true indicator that the movie is not science fiction. In science fiction, how the characters interact with those bits of science and technology is what the story is about. If Tom was attempting to maintain his emotional relationship with his wife via a holograph, that would be science fiction, but that's not what the story is about. (It can be argued that the method by which Tom continues with his relationship is magic, and then by Clarke's law, it is indistinguishable from super-science, but our point-of-view does not really give any indication that this is the case. It's natural, just unusual nature, or perhaps supernatural. Not science.)

Great film, The Fountain, even if its director doesn't get it (just kidding, Mr. Aronofsky--brilliant movie, we just use different tools to describe it).

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