Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

Brian Stableford

The Third Generation of Genre Science Fiction

Science fiction first emerged as a popular genre in the 1930s, when the example set by Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories was followed by other pulp-magazine publishers. During that decade, Astounding Stories—which dated its first issue January 1930—was transformed by degrees into John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, which became the paradigm example of what a science fiction magazine should aspire to be.

For thirty years after 1930 sf remained a magazine-based genre. Once the economic disruption of the war had passed the pulps gave way to digest magazines and much material from the magazines was reprinted in book form, but the economic foundations of the genre were firmly situated in the magazine medium. After 1960, however, the paperback marketplace expanded very rapidly; the magazine market began a long, slow but inexorable fade while paperback publishers became the principal financiers of the genre.

Ace and Ballantine, which had the most substantial paperback sf lists, increased their production dramatically after 1960 and faced increasingly stiff competition from such rivals as Bantam, Signet, and Pyramid. During the 1960s it was the repackaged sf series which Ballantine began issuing in 1965 and Terry Carr’s Ace Specials—launched in 1967—which claimed the foreground of the marketplace. Although hardcover publishers began to invest heavily in sf in the same decade, often functioning as primary purchasers, paperback deals and paperback sales provided the money which funded that investment.

The leading sf magazines continued publication, but it was clear by the end of the 1960s that they no longer set the genre’s agenda. Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds attempted to define a new avant-garde role for the sf magazine but the experiment was an economic failure and it was the paperback medium which played host to the "modernization" of science fiction. For a while, many of the leading writers in the genre were able to combine windfall profits from the paperback reprinting of old work with increasing advances for new work; this enabled many of those for whom writing had previously been a spare-time activity to become full-time professionals.

This second generation of genre sf lasted approximately the same length of time as the first. The 1990s have seen a further shift, which has displaced the economic and cultural foundations of the genre yet again. Insofar as it is a popular genre, sf is now solidly based in the TV medium. There are now as many commercial magazines devoted to TV science fiction as there are sf magazines and their collective sales are an order of magnitude higher, while paperback books tied to TV series are at least as numerous as original sf novels, and have far higher unit sales. Some tie-in books are, of course, linked to cinema films rather than series initially made for TV but, by virtue of cable TV movie channels and video cassette sales, TV has become the principal medium through which movies are now consumed.

Although it is improbable that sf written for magazine or book publication will fade away entirely, it has already been relegated to the periphery of the marketplace and it is not inconceivable that it will eventually retreat almost entirely to the realm of non-commercial small presses. The magazines which support TV sf do not, of course, carry any fiction at all, and although the books spun off from successful TV shows often present "original" stories rather than novelized scripts, they inevitably inherit many of the strictures which the TV medium places upon its own products.

The transition from magazine-based medium to paperback-based medium was a relatively painless one for most writers already active in the field. Indeed, it was seen by many as a welcome liberation. This liberation was to some extent financial, enabling rapid growth of the population of professional sf writers, but it also had an artistic dimension loudly trumpeted by Harlan Ellison’s anthology of "taboo-breaking" sf, Dangerous Visions (1967). The leading sf magazines had always labored under the burden of a careful censorship of language, theme, and manner, but paperback books had always been an "adult" rather than a "family" medium.

The transition from magazine-based medium to paperback-based medium also affected the genre’s typical formats. The short stories and novellas which had provided the bedrock of the genre between 1930 and 1960 were replaced with novels, whose typical length increased steadily under the influence of the marketing theory that fatter books sold better. This change of formats also had corollaries in terms of content. It was, for instance, one of the factors involved in the dramatic displacement of genre sf by genre fantasy, because it is much easier for writers to construct in novelistic detail—and for readers to orientate themselves within—a Secondary World which is a straightforward Earth-clone than it is to create a world which is radically differentiated from our own along any of the axes typical of sf.

Although the transition from paperback-based medium to TV-based medium has been correlated with a further injection of money into the genre, relatively little of this money has gone to established sf writers. This might be reason enough in itself for the new shift to be seen by the genre’s old guard in terms of loss rather than liberation, but the profound effect which the transition has had on the genre’s typical formats and their contents is also much more conducive to representation as a kind of imprisonment. The rapidly expanding sector of the paperback market which is TV-dependent or TV-imitative has retained the novel as its standard form, but the novels in question are heavily formularized in a manner which restricts authorial enterprise much more severely than the strictures applied to magazine sf, let alone paperback sf.

Given that the future of genre sf is to be determined by impositions inherited from TV, it will be necessary for the academic study of sf to pay close attention to the nature of those impositions. The purpose of this paper is to make some elementary observations as to their underlying rationale.

1. The Formats and Formulas of TV Science Fiction. TV, as a real-time medium, is tied to the calendar and the clock. Weekly schedules are organized around a stable structure of slots, according to a pattern which changes according to the seasons. Stand-alone plays and TV movies are usually broadcast in regular slots, and are most convenient when they can be located within "anthology series" which fit individual scripts to a standard template. Longer stories may be broken up into serials, but fixed-length serials are difficult to paste into the scheduling pattern and if a tightly-structured plot has to be split into more than two or three episodes the gaps between them put a considerable strain on viewer attentiveness.

From the viewpoint of program-planners, the ideal TV format is the infinite and very loosely-structured serial which can fill the same time-slots all the year round. Such shows have the practical advantage of making continuous use of fixed sets and standard locations and can build up considerable viewer loyalty. The most popular shows using this format inherited the name "soap opera" from their radio predecessors. In order that there need be no particular pressure on viewers to see every episode, the stories told therein tend to be simple, stereotyped, and highly repetitive, involving a stable cast in an endless routine of personal dramas of the kinds which used to be the principal topics of gossip in the days when people only had real neighbors to talk about.

The second best TV formula, as far as planners are concerned, is the potentially-infinite series, in which each episode presents a self-contained story. Series can use fixed sets but they are usually more various in their locations and thus tend to be shot in carefully-budgeted batches, but successful ones can be brought back year after year for 13- or 26-part seasons. Sitcoms filling half-hour slots and drama series occupying one-hour slots both fall into this category, their different lengths determined by the fact that comedy is difficult to stretch and drama difficult to condense. There is, of course, a considerable gray area where the characteristic attributes of the infinite serial and infinite series formats overlap.

Science fiction poses special problems for both serial and series formats because of the difficulties involved in constructing plausible sets and finding plausible locations. TV sf is, by necessity, restricted to those subspecies of sf which minimize these problems: shows set in the immediate future or shows making very heavy use of fixed sets like bridgeheads and space stations. Even so, TV sf usually requires a higher budget-commitment than any other kind of popular fiction. The vast majority of TV sf shows never attracted audiences big enough to carry them through to the end of their opening seasons; those which did were usually faced with more restrictive budgets the second time around. For this reason TV sf remained a "cult" genre for two decades before achieving its spectacular breakthrough to more widespread popularity in recent years.

The shows which have made that breakthrough inevitably fall into a small number of narrow categories. Most, following the pioneering example of Star Trek, are "bridgehead dramas" which make the maximum use of their fixed sets. Such shows compensate for their lack of background variety partly by building up the soap-operatic relationships of the principal characters and partly by clever use of newly-sophisticated special effects technologies. The recent success of The X-Files has regenerated present-set sf, which superimposes similar special effects on relatively ordinary locations.

The formats into which TV shows fall require the standardization of certain kinds of plot-formulas. The most convenient plot-formula for a drama series— of which all the others are more-or-less-tortuous variants—is the "Law Enforcement" formula which is seen in its purest form in cop shows and legal dramas. The lead characters in such a series have a job which requires their continual involvement in sorting out knotty situations according to an established moral code and set of methods. Star Trek and its clones make heavy use of this formula, as does The X-Files, although both shows owe their success, in part, to an inbuilt versatility which allows them to make some use of the variants listed below. Most such shows feature characters working together in well-integrated teams.

The Law Enforcement formula shades into the "Special Secret Agent" formula, in which the uniquely qualified lead characters work for a secret organization and are continually sent forth on covert missions, which usually pose problems of method if not of morality. Shows of this kind—Mission: Impossible is the archetypal example—often stray into the borders of the sf genre and many sf shows have been cast in this mould; The Six Million Dollar Man was the most successful. Such shows frequently isolate a single technologically-enhanced lead character, although he/she is usually supported by less talented but steadfastly loyal "sidekicks."

The Special Secret Agent formula shades into the "Wandering Vigilante" formula, in which the lead characters are detached from any parent organization. They are constantly on the move for one reason or another but their peregrinations are continually interrupted by the necessity to fight for the cause of right on behalf of people they meet by chance. TV sf shows which involve time-displacements, including Doctor Who and Quantum Leap, usually adopt this formula. Such shows are even more prone than Special Secret Agent shows to feature a distinctive lead character distanced by nature and ability from his/her sidekicks.

The Wandering Vigilante formula shades into the "Running Man" formula, in which the lead characters are usually questing after some essentially elusive goal while being pursued and harassed by hostile forces. The Fugitive created the TV archetype, imitated by such sf shows as The Invaders. Although some shows of this kind—Planets of the Apes and Blake’s Seven are examples—feature groups of runners, the standard format involves a single individual and where groups are involved they are usually ill-assorted and conflict-ridden.

These formulas fill a spectrum which extends along a scale of alienation from formal organization to alienated individualism. Traditionally, formal organizations have been correlated with well-defined and widely-accepted moral norms but in recent years that representational norm has begun to break down, with the consequence that the Law Enforcement formula has been infected with a whole series of anxieties about the corruptibility of social institutions and the legitimacy of authority. This has displaced the moral anchorage of such dramas from the formal context in which the characters are located to the virtuous relationships within the particular group—a convenient shift in terms of series continuity because it enhances the soap-operatic qualities of the interplay between characters. It also has the odd effect of allowing the spectrum to double back on itself, so that shows like The X-Files can easily combine key features of the Law Enforcement formula with key features of the Running Man formula, their heroes alternating or combining the roles of pursuers and pursued.

2. The Narrative Closure of TV Science Fiction. It is intrinsic to the nature of series planning that the basic series situation must stay the same, even if cast members have to be replaced. The conclusion of every series-episode has to return the characters to the same situation they were in at the beginning, ready for their redeployment in the next episode. In consequence, the plot formulas of TV sf are committed to the use of "normalizing" endings.

I have argued at some length in an article entitled "How Should a Science Fiction Story End?"1 that "normalizing" endings are inappropriate to science fiction because they tacitly take it for granted that the status quo is a privileged state whose restoration is the only appropriate outcome of any situation in which the possibility of change becomes urgent. In murder mysteries and horror stories, where any disruption of the given world is evil by definition, normalizing endings are entirely appropriate. In sf, by contrast, the implication that any innovation—including all technological inventions and all scientific discoveries—must be construed as a menace to be overcome and destroyed embodies a kind of paranoia which is positively bizarre.

The necessity of normalization in stories which deploy sf motifs not only requires that all innovations be represented as implicitly menacing but that they must eventually be obliterated without trace, because even the knowledge that such things are possible would itself constitute a considerable disruption of the world in which the stories are supposed to be taking place. Even The X-Files, which has enjoyed considerable success by accepting and institutionalizing an unprecedentedly generous paranoia, encounters considerable difficulty in maintaining the series status quo, and it is not surprising that the shows now being released in its train find nothing less than the threat of the Apocalypse adequate to maintain the requisite level of paranoia.

Alien worlds and hypothetical futures are, of course, capable of much greater deformity than a "real world" setting, so it is possible for wide-ranging series like Doctor Who and Star Trek to employ endings which are parochially "eucatastrophic." Virtuous changes must, however, be reserved to particular locations which are visited and then left behind; the leading characters must continue to occupy exactly the same narrative space, confined by their fixed sets—and this ground must become, by definition, the moral high ground relative to which all other ground covered by the series will be found wanting. The cops who move through an Underworld of law-breakers, making their periodic arrests, in the basic TV formula have perforce to be replaced by a company of saints, who move through a Universe of moral imbeciles, working casual miracles as they go.

In the article cited above I suggested that conventional eucatastrophic endings are just as inappropriate to sf as normalizing endings, because they take the morality of the present as a standard in exactly the same fashion. I pointed out that the development of seriously-inclined sf begun in Campbell’s Astounding could be seen as a concerted attempt to discover new eucatastrophes which would be capable of accommodating—and perhaps even assisting— the cause of moral progress. The transition of sf from a magazine-based to a paperback-based medium did not inhibit the extension of that crusade and probably assisted it. The transition of the genre to a TV-based medium has, however, already thrown that evolution into sharp reverse.

Even within the world of TV sf, the trend has moved in the direction of moral absolutism. The slightly uneasy saintliness of the various teams which play the Great Game in the Star Trek universe and the various levels of Babylon-5 has been supplemented by the stripped-down morality of Space: Above and Beyond, in which everything alien (or artificial) is by definition evil, except for androids who can pass every test of true humanity save for the "unfair" test of having been born on the wrong side of the technological tracks. The X-Files, by mingling narrative apparatus drawn from the lexicon of science fiction with apparatus drawn from the lexicon of horror film and occult pseudoscience—without any discrimination whatsoever—equates the alien with the literally Satanic, tacitly underlining the catch-phrase "Trust No One" with the assumption that the authority of scientific reasoning is as utterly corrupt as every other kind of authority. Even the most sacred bond recognized by TV narrative—the bond between partners—has come under increasing strain as The X-Files has developed. The tightly-knit relationship gradually forged by the two heroes in the show’s first series had soured by the third into the same corrosive mistrust that affects their attitudes to everything else, leaving them nothing to fight with—or for—but their private obsessions. This is not, of course, a result of conscious planning on the part of the program makers; it is an inevitable corollary of the requirement to spin out successful series indefinitely within the strait-jacket of normalizing endings. The more successful TV sf is, the more prominent this kind of subtext will become.

3. The Relationship Between Characters in TV Science Fiction. Because TV is a real-time medium all its shows must flow at a fairly steady pace measured out by rapid cutting—from one camera to another if not from one scene to another. Whenever there is no movement or action on screen there must be a stream of dialogue, which is why even the most exceptional lead character is usually equipped with at least one sidekick. In order to maintain an element of tension in this dialogue, the relationship between hero and sidekick has to have some significant element of difference.

Females make useful sidekicks for male heroes—and vice versa—because a certain amount of sexual banter can be built into their teasingly unconsummated relationships. When male heroes have male sidekicks this tension tends to be replaced by some other kind of marked difference, whose extremity serves the double function of allowing them to supplement their own resources and emphasizing that no homosexual element is involved in their constant association. Thus, the Lone Ranger was backed up by Tonto and practically every white cop in the US media nowadays has a black partner.

Sf facilitates the further extension of this formula, although the inconvenience of knitting out a regular subsidiary character in unhuman make-up deterred TV producers from adopting the motif within a regular series until Star Trek showed what might be done with such pairings. Although Kirk and Spock operated within the context of a larger and very tightly-knit team they often functioned as a hero/sidekick team in which Spock’s supposed emotionlessness provided a useful foil for Kirk’s alleged gallantry. Spock’s hard-headedness could also be compared and contrasted with the sentimentality of other members of the team, especially the conspicuously weak-kneed doctor. The show’s clones took full advantage of this precedent by creating increasingly complicated teams from which various carefully-contrasted pairs of individuals could be extracted for deployment in individual scripts.

Because the relationships between the leading characters in TV shows have this tension-maintaining function as well as the more straightforward function of multiplying resources, they often seem curiously paradoxical. Because the differences between the characters have to be so carefully maintained, TV scripts often have to go to considerable lengths to emphasize that, in spite of these difficulties, the characters are on the same side, and that whatever comes between them they will always, in the end, be able to rely upon one another. The extraordinarily ostentatious moralizing of so many TV shows is partly a result of this kind of underlining.

Given that the relationships between leading characters in TV shows have to maintain this curious amalgam of hostility and bonhommie, it is not entirely surprising that some viewers of Star Trek took delight in deliberately misconstruing the edgy on-screen relationship between Kirk and Spock as evidence of a secret and guilt-troubled sado-masochistic relationship.2 The imposition of this kind of narrative necessity can, however, have an equally perverse effect on the apparent mechanics of heterosexual relationships; The Avengers was the first TV series to make the teasing qualities of such relationships so explicit as to be exploitable as a narrative resource, but it is The X-Files that provides the most obvious contemporary key example.

On the surface Scully is just another female sidekick, not unlike those attached to Steed in The Avengers. Although Mulder doesn’t actually outrank Scully he is the one with the experience and expertise to deal with the kinds of mysteries thrown up by X-File investigations. When the series began, Scully was a hapless skeptic blinded by her faith in the orthodox world-view, desperately in need of the education Mulder could provide. However, the extension of the series could not allow Scully to retain this resolute skepticism in the face of so much evidence without making her look like a utter fool. Hers remained, for a while, the cooler head in every crisis, and the methodical analysis manifest in the awkward post-mortems which so many of the plots required her to carry out allowed her to retain some authority, but the fact that she was always wrong and Mulder always right inevitably destroyed any semblance of intellectual balance in their relationship. She became, by necessity, a deeply troubled individual.

The sexual element of the relationship between Mulder and Scully also became stranger as the show went on. In the beginning, when they were newly acquainted, there was nothing odd about the fact that they did not immediately leap into bed. As they were routinely entrusted by the scripts with saving one another’s lives, however, and forced to endure so much hardship together, the non-consummation of their relationship began to require special explanation. Given that no explicit reason could be offered in the actual texts, viewers have no option but to draw inferences from the subtext. It is obviously not maidenly reserve on Scully’s part which is responsible for the failure of her relationship with Mulder to progress beyond tender frustration, so the logical culprit is Mulder’s impotence—an impotence which would mirror and support the broader impotence of his inability to find or make manifest the "truth" which remains, frustratingly, "out there."

The relationships which exist between the lead characters of any TV show are liable to become tortured and tortuous under the pressure of series continuity, but in shows set in the real world the torment remains stubbornly conventional. In fantasy shows like Beauty and the Beast it can at least be defiantly unconventional, but in sf the same bizarre quality which infects normalizing endings tends to be transmitted to the characters. Even the rough-hewn Lost in Space became increasingly focused upon the peculiar love-hate relationship which developed between young Will Robinson and Zachary Smith as the latter’s continual life-threatening betrayals somehow went unnoticed by the blithely air-headed heroes who were nominally in charge. Wise program planners have little option but to try to make a virtue out of this necessity, carefully injecting extra eccentricity into such sidekicks as Al in Quantum Leap, but its effect on attempts at "realistic" characterization are inevitably deadly.

4. The Heritability of the Characteristics of TV Science Fiction. The novels spun off by various TV series are obliged by their adherence to the formulas and politics of the medium to retain all the key characteristics which their parent shows exhibit. They too must favor normalizing endings and they must carefully retain the quasi-paradoxical relationships which exist between the leading characters.

The Star Trek universe is, indeed, a universe; it contains many worlds and has abundant narrative space for the creation of all kinds of bizarre ecologies and bizarre societies. Books set in that universe are not set-and-location limited in the same way that the TV shows are, nor are they closely bound to specific special-effects technologies—but that does not mean that they enjoy the same narrative freedom as books set in other science-fictional universes. Important features of the Star Trek universe are set in stone, and these include the kinds of plot-outcome which are permitted there and the kinds of relationships which can exist between the significant characters. The narrative straitjackets within which books spun off from other shows must operate are even more restrictive.

Given these restraints, it is inevitable that texts spun off from TV series should have a distinctive flavor, whose relative consistency contrasts sharply with the more varied menu offered by sf written for magazine and paperback formats. It is not surprising that the great enthusiasm which some readers have for novels set in the Star Trek universe very rarely develops into a more general affection for genre sf; if it extends any further it is highly likely to extend only as far as other TV spinoff products.

It is, of course, pointless to complain about this evolution, or even to regret it. A popular genre must, by definition, move with the pattern of public demand and it cannot escape the imperatives imposed upon it by whatever medium provides its economic anchorage. Given that genre sf’s quest for new eucatastrophes never actually contrived to find any, it can hardly be held to matter overmuch that the quest is now over. Given that genre sf’s brief flirtation with xenophilia never made the least dent in the xenophobia of the real world, it is presumably a matter of total irrelevance that the genre is being carried by its TV manifestations into an increasingly paranoid phase. Given that genre sf never had any convincing pretension to aesthetic excellence, there is nothing at stake in the observation that its recent evolution eliminates any such possibility. These observations are merely the things that we must understand if we are to understand the dynamics of the genre, and as such are primarily—perhaps only—of interest to academics.

On the other hand, it may be worth remembering that among the many theories of technological determinism, which attempt to analyze the effects which technologies have on other social institutions, there is one—first put forward by Harold Innis3—which argues that social systems are largely structured by the nature of the media in which communications are made, not by the content of those communications. If there is any truth in this thesis, the capacity of the TV medium to contain and shape images of the future, images of scientific endeavor, and images of alternative social possibility may have a greater influence on the wider structure of society than is immediately obvious.

Fortunately, history informs us that every society obtains the future it deserves rather than the future it expects, so we may have every confidence that ours will too.


1. Brian Stableford, "How Should a Science Fiction Story End?" The New York Review of Science Fiction 78:1&8-15, February 1995.

2. The world première of "Spock in Manacles: The Musical"—in which Geoff Ryman played the leading role—took place at Beccon 3, a science-fiction convention held in Basildon, Essex, in 1985.

3. Harold Innis, Empire and Communication (Oxford University Press, 1950) & The Bias of Communication (Toronto University Press, 1951).

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