This is the editorial of the last issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Adventure Magazine, a short-lived magazine from late 1978 to late 1979. I guess he had no idea the magazine was going to be canceled since the subject of this editorial —even if interesting— is probably not about what one would write for a final issue.
Anyway, I liked his comment on how destroying a spaceship in words is as easy as doing anything else in words. That’s something many people who write as if they were filming a movie (or a video game) usually forget.
I am frequently asked by reporters: ‘How does the current boom in science fiction affect you?’
The answer is: ‘Not at all and in no way. The boom in science fiction to which you refer is in the movies and television. My own science fiction is in the magazines and books. The latter is doing well, thank you; but it is the former which is having its boom, and the two are of different species. They bear the same name but there the similarity ends.”
That always surprises the reporters, and it may even surprise you, so let me explain. In order to do so, I must give the two species different names in order to avoid confusion.
In the movies and television, science fiction deals primarily with images, so we might call it image-science-fiction. Since the show-business people and journalists who talk about image-science-fiction refer to it, abominably, as sci-fi, suppose we call image-science-fiction i-sci-fi, or better yet, eye-sci-fi.
The science fiction of magazines and books we can simply call what we have always called it: science fiction, or possibly SF.
To begin with, then, eye-sci-fi has an audience that is fundamentally different from that of science fiction. In order for eye-sci-fi to be profitable it must be seen by tens of millions of people; in order for science fiction to be profitable it need be read only by tens of thousands of people. This means that some 90 percent (perhaps as much as 99 percent) of the people who go to see eye-sci-fi are likely never to have read science fiction.
The purveyors of eye-sci-fi cannot assume that their audience knows anything about science, has any experience with the scientific imagination, or even has any interest in science fiction.
But in that case, why should the purveyors of eye-sci-fi expect anyone to see the pictures? Because they intend to supply something that has no essential connection with science fiction, but that tens of millions of people are willing to pay money to see. What is that? Why, scenes of destruction.
You can have spaceships destroying spaceships, monsters destroying cities, comets destroying the Earth. These are called ‘special effects’ and they are what people go for. A piece of eye-sci-fi without destruction is, I think, almost unheard of. If such a thing were made, no one would go to see it; or, if it were so good that is would not be thought of as science fiction of any kind.
The overriding necessity for having special effects in order to make sure a piece of eye-sci-fi can make money means that such movies are incredibly expensive.
This puts the producers in a bind. They may possibly make so much money that any expense is justified —but how can they know in advance the movie will make that kind of money? They don’t, so there is always a tendency to cut down on expenses, and cheap special effects are incredibly bad.
Then, too, even if a producer decides to spend freely on special effects, he is quite likely to skimp on other aspects of the picture; and first in line for skimping is always the writing. The result is that the plot and dialog of any piece of eye-sci-fi are generally several grades below poor. Once a character has managed to say ‘Oh, wow!’ as a spaceship explodes he is usually a spent force.
Still further, once people get used to special effects and destruction, they quickly get jaded. The next picture must have more and better special effects; which means more expense and rottener everything-but-special-effects.
Finally, the producers of eye-sci-fi have the ‘bottom line’ psychology —that is, they consider only the final bookkeeping calculation that tells whether one has made a profit or a loss and how much of either.
Naturally, we all have a bottom-line psychology. I write for money; and you do whatever you do for money. Still, the larger the sum of money you invest and the larger the profit or loss you may come out with, the more the bottom line tends to swallow up everything else. My own books, essays, and stories represent such small profits or losses individually that I can afford to go my own way, aim for the unusual now and then, take a chance on quality once in a while, shrug off the occasional failure. You, undoubtedly, can do the same. A movie on TV producer can’t. One failure may wipe him out. one success may make him a millionaire.
With the intense bottom-line psychology that comes when one throw of the dice is the difference between pauperdom and influence, it is impossible for a producer to deal with anything that he doesn’t think is sure-fire. In eye-sci-fi only the special effects approach being sure-fire. Everything else, therefore, receives no attention. Even if some minor facet of the production can be changed in such a way as to greatly improve it without either trouble or expense to speak of, it won’t be done. Why should the producer take the time or make the effort to do so when it doesn’t matter to him, and when all his concentration must be on the sure-fire?
Well, then, do I see no good in eye-sci-fi at all? No, I am not a complete curmudgeon in this respect. Some eye-sci-fi can be amusing if it contains humor and has the grace not to take itself too seriously. That’s why I enjoyed Star Wars and why I expect to enjoy Superman when I get around to seeing it. Then, too, if something is outright fantasy and if cartoon techniques take some of the pressure off the special effects, the results can be tolerable. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings.
Besides that, a small percentage of those who are introduced to eye-sci-fi may happen to know how to read, and these may be impelled by curiosity to read science fiction, something they might not otherwise have thought of doing. Thus a boom in eye-sci-fi means our audience can grow somewhat even if it doesn’t quite go along with the boom.
It may seem to you that I haven’t made the difference between SF and eye-sci-fi clear. After all, consider this magazine you are now holding.
Is it not primarily devoted to adventure science fiction, to science of action, to destruction?
Yes, we want action, and if is necessary to destroy a spaceship, we destroy it—but destroying a spaceship in words is no more costly or difficult than doing anything else in words, so it doesn’t take up all the mind and effort of all of us. We have time and will and active desire to add other things as well —plot, motivation, characterization, and some respect for science.
Since we are all only human, we may fall short in these added qualities out of sheer lack of ability, but it is never out of contempt for our audience or out of indifference to anything but the bottom line.
We are not nobler than the people in Hollywood; if we were exposed to their pressures, we might do just as they do.
But we are not in Hollywood, we are here; and so we need only please one thousandth the size of audience that they do. We like to think that our thousandth part of the audience happens to be the best thousandth. It is an audience that can read, that likes its adventure with good writing stirred in, that has a respect for science even when it doesn’t have a professional understanding of it.
For that reason we like you more than the money we make out of you.
You see, we don’t make enough money to fall in love with it exclusively, so we can afford to like you, and write and edit and publish for you.
We hope it shows.