Good Sci-Fi Gone Bad: Do sci-fi audiences really want extreme, graphic violence in books, movies and television shows? (2010)

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A few months ago I was invited to review a book by a new science fiction author and after finally finishing it, I found myself wondering, “who on earth wants to read THIS?” The story was interesting enough about alien planets with interesting beings and a war between good and evil, but the characters were all deeply flawed and engaged in sadistic practices. By the end, I hated every single one of them and wished they would burn in hell. There is a faction of science fiction that thinks this is what sci-fi audiences want. But do we really? Some of the greatest science fiction of all time had nothing to do with graphic, gory violence. Ask a sci-fi buff what their favorite film or television series is and they will cite “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Doctor Who,” “Torchwood,” “Babylon 5.” Other favorites include “Alien,” “Matrix,” “The Terminator,” “Blade Runner” and, while each of those are extremely violent, they still observed the rules of violence which is acceptable in science fiction — such as, violence towards women and children was typically taboo. So while each of these films and series may have explored the darker psyche, they rarely depicted it crossing the line into the forbidden.Yet there is an alarming trend in modern science fiction to glamorize and spotlight extreme violence — and the taboos and forbidden zones of classic science fiction appear to have been tossed out the window.

The film “Kick-Ass” is a good example of a film that walked the fine line. It was perhaps one of the most bloody, gory films this year. But its redeeming factor was that it did not depict violence towards women or children. We watched Kick-Ass get pulverized, Big Daddy burnt to a crisp and one of the unfortunate background characters blown up in a microwave, but the film still observed a code of morality — it kept Hit Girl, for the most part, out of harm’s way. She was in the thick of it, but untouched. It is permissible to torture men on film, but never a woman.

Another example would be the film “V for Vendetta.” It dared to show its star Natalie Portman’s character undergo basic torture and the fans turned their backs on it for its audacity. Yet upon closer inspection, her character was never cut, beaten or brutalized, she was simply subject to water torture. It was permissible by science fiction standards because it did not cross the line of what we as a viewers and society will tolerate. Plus, the goal of Evie’s ordeal was not to break her spirit, but to spur her spirit into taking a stand. It was not to degrade or delight in her debasement.

From last year, “District 9” is perhaps one of the most disgusting films I have ever seen, but it also did not cross the line of acceptable violence. It understood that it is okay to punch and shoot people, blow things up, and threaten to torture, but it stepped back from the edge by not going there.

There are those who will offer up Stephen King as an example of the darker side of science fiction. But Stephen King is considered the King of Horror, not the King of Science Fiction. While several of his works are considered great science fiction “The Dark Tower” series, “The Stand,” “The Running Man,” and “The Green Mile,” to the world at large he will always be the King of Horror. He simply knows how to scare everyone. His intent is not to explore space and science of the future, he wants to explore the darker psyche of human beings and the monsters that may rise up amongst us. One caveat may be that he did enflame his audience by having a child pedophile be the villain in “The Green Mile,” but even Mr. King dared not cross the taboo line by depicting it. He was smart enough to realize that his audience may find that unforgivable.

Yet so many writers fail to recognize that there is a line and do not hesitate to rush right in and break all the taboo rules. “A Clockwork Orange” is a great example. Credited as a classic fantasy/sci-fi film, it is revered by a cult fandom. But truly is it considered science fiction? Perhaps it falls within the category of horror more than science fiction. Films like “Seven,” the “Saw” series, and the Swedish films based on the books “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” are more likely to fit the horror category than qualify as science fiction. Frequently, horror is confused with science fiction. In fact, for many, horror is a sub-category of science fiction. However, here at Airlock Alpha, we believe it is its own category and afford it the courtesy of its own website.

Horror should not be considered a sub-category of science fiction. It is called “horror” for a reason. It is meant to horrify its audience. The term alone gives a viewer the heads-up about what it is about. But from Comic-Con to your local book store, science fiction is usually the umbrella which horror is casually tossed under. Oh, the horrors!

However, science fiction is something else entirely. It is meant to challenge our hearts and minds by inviting us into worlds and realities that do not exist. It does not delight in finding ways to turn our stomachs and gape at the new levels of depravity human beings can dream up. Science fiction may scare us and inflame our emotions, but it also knows that unless it engages us, we will not watch or read the stories it has to offer.

Would “Star Wars” fans have been as fanatical if they had tortured Princess Leia? Would “Star Trek” fans have been as passionate and loyal if it were not for the strict code of conduct observed by the Federation? Would “Battlestar Galactica” have enflamed a whole new generation of fans if it had not been careful to treat the humanoid looking Cylons as beings with human rights? Great science fiction is careful to engage and entertain its audience, not alienate it.

How many times have we watched a particularly disturbing scene on television and simply turned the channel? Or walked out of a movie theater because the film went too far down the dark path? Or thrown away a book because it gave us nightmares? This is the last thing that any writer should want. What good does it do if the intended audience determines the book, film or television series too disgustingly awful to watch or read? In today’s modern world where Twitter posts can make or break a film within hours of its release, the power of “word of mouth” recommendations is enormous. Labels and initial reviews such as “piece of trash” or “waste of time” can kill any fledgling work of science fiction before it even hits the theaters or sits on a bookshelf.

While self-censorship is not always ideal, it may be beneficial in ensuring that a good story gets a chance to be told. Any writer (whether for books, film or television) should ask their self, “is there any part of this story that is unnecessary and which will dis-engage my audience?” If the answer is “yes,” then by all means, take it out. But if you are a writer that feels that they can only be true to their vision by including scenes that will horrify and sicken the audience, then you must be content with only reaching a fringe audience.

For I hazard to say that the larger percentage of science fiction fans are not willing to condone and promote such atrocities, even in fiction — and better yet, they will not allow writers to profit from violations of our basic moral code. While atrocities do exist, we as a society and as fans of science fiction do not have to sanction it.

I hereby posit that sci-fi audiences will tolerate only a certain level of extreme, graphic violence, in books, movies and television shows — but only if it does not cross the line.

Related article: http://www.airlockalpha.com/node/7600

8 thoughts on “Good Sci-Fi Gone Bad: Do sci-fi audiences really want extreme, graphic violence in books, movies and television shows? (2010)

  1. I find it helpful to distinguish between sci-fi as a genre in & of itself vs sci-fi as providing a setting for a story that is of another genre. A minority of cinematic sci-fi falls into the 1st category. They are far outnumbered by horror movies where sci-fi merely provides the setting & where the same stories could be told with supernatural settings. With that as a preface, many horror fans have denounced the evolution (devolution?) of that genre from suspense to “slasher”. If these films are categorized as sci-fi rather than horror as they should be, then it puts the graphic violence issue in another light. I have a higher opinion of sci-fi in print, but there clearly are novels that simultaneously fall into other genres where graphic violence is the norm.

  2. One more thing…

    In this day and age, I don’t really make the distinction you do between men and women. Women, after all, claim to be any man’s equal, yes? What I do distinguish is between action person and civilian (for lack of a better word). Switching to a fantasy genre now – if Hercules could be bloodied, so to should Xena be able to be bloodied. They were no different. Both are supposed to be battle-hardened. Both are supposed to be tough. A woman can’t say she’s tough if she’s going to have her cuts and bruises airbrushed. If women are to be men’s equal (and there is a push to have them be men’s equal on the battlefield, yes?), then scifi should reflect this. Kids are different. I’m with you on keeping the full taboo on kids – even if they’re superheros. But in the old days, when they had comics of 12 year old Superboy, even then, he’d get beat up, bruised, etc. Not as badly as Superman, but he still took his lumps.

    • The subject of women in the military is complex. Today’s US military has the largest proportion of women of any in history. It is still working through a variety of issues. The only certainties at this point are that intelligent women are preferable to stronger but less intelligent men & that reality does not support the positions of the extremists on either side of the debate.

  3. Great post, and overall, I agree with most of what you wrote. Especially with respect to kids being subject to torture, etc. Personally, I don’t enjoy torture scenes, unless it’s the bad guy getting his or her come-uppance (and even then, I don’t like gore, broken bones, etc.) You make a distinction that I have long wished ruled the day: there is a difference between scifi and horror, and there is likewise a difference between scifi and mystery, fantasy, and adventure. For me, scifi is the exploration of ideas, of extending our imaginations from what we have today to a future, or alternative reality, etc. One of my favorite movies is I Robot. Another was the old Forbidden Planet. Blade Runner was tops too – all three explored ideas – explored where humans could be headed, and/or what would happen when we got there. I find it annoying when bookstores brick and mortar or online – doesn’t matter – lump in fantasy and horror with scifi. Such a waste of my time to have to weed through the other genres to find books I want to read.

  4. To boil it down to a simple way of saying it, I’d agree. When violence takes the main stage, it ruins everything it seems like. Even if it is for plot purposes, there are much more effective ways to go about it than breaking the taboos of women and children and so these should be avoided at all costs by a writer.

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