Michael Cassutt explains why sci-fi writers are so damn gloomy

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Last time, I complained about reviewers who devoted too much energy to bashing popcorn movies. I wasn't suggesting that they should automatically like these movies, or give them some blanket approval ... just that it's a waste of time to go medieval on them.

Reviewers aren't the only folks who squander valuable hours of their lives. The worst offenders are writers themselves.

Thanks to a bit of travel and some public appearances, I've been in touch with a lot of my colleagues lately.

And we are a grumpy group. We look at what's on TV, what's in the theaters, what's in the bookstores—assuming we can still find a bookstore that isn't part of a chain—and we conclude that nothing we want to write will ever find an audience, ever again.

To head off half a dozen comments, this is not a plea for sympathy. To quote The Godfather in a related circumstance, "This is the life we chose."

Yet, in some way, it also chose us. Grumpiness, pessimism, worry ... they are in our nature—those of us who play on the sci-fi or syfy side of the field. We're used to looking at the future, and seeing the bad things that can happen.

Otherwise sci-fi shows and fanta movies would be about happy worlds. No alien invasions. No cyborgs running amok. No Mordor.

In features, we look at the blockbusters—yes, those popcorn movies—and conclude that they leave no room for more ambitious, character-oriented sci-fi.

We look at television and see the economic troubles that have devastated the traditional network television world—GM and Chrysler TV ads contributed a lot to a company like CBS, which asked some of its most successful series to cut 15 percent from their budgets last spring.

So we see projects like ABC's FlashForward or Lost, or NBC's Heroes. Assume each costs $3 million an hour to produce. With ad revenues slipping, audiences continuing to fragment and find their sci-fi fix on other outlets, from Syfy to HBO, a writer has to ask:

How many of those are the six networks going to be able to afford?

Not so many at all. So writers look at these shows as the last of their breed.

It isn't just the money ... It's the type of shows being produced. If you like to write spaceship shows, you could look at the returning and new shows and conclude that you're out of luck. For example, I have a terrific space-based series of my own right here in my pocket, and know that the quick death of Virtuality and the lingering suffering caused by Defying Gravity mean that I'd be better off wrapping fish with it.

No matter how strongly a writer defends his or her versatility, how rabidly one fights being pigeonholed, there are two undeniable truths: We are compelled to use the same characters. And we revisit the same themes and settings.

Gore Vidal once wrote that storytellers have one, two or at most three long-running serials in their heads, all starring themselves. Just last weekend I heard a multiple-award-winning SF writer declare that his characters were all ... him.

Settings and themes are even more personal, especially for sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Stephen King has always said that he writes about the things that scare him. Ray Bradbury's darker visions of the future emerged from his own extensive list of fears.

Well, we write what we know.

So, when a writer looks at her market and sees things she wouldn't write, or couldn't, well ... it makes her nervous.

And it isn't just about money, though there is that. It's the fear that you have lost your audience. That your characters, your worlds, are just no longer interesting.

So how does a sci-fi, fantasy or horror writer get from there to a happier place?

First, step back, take a breath, and open your eyes. You might actually see the sun shining ...

Note that this past summer set a record for gross receipts for sci-fi films. Not that money is the only worthwhile yardstick, but when movies make that amount, it suggests there is an audience for what we write.

Comic-Con drew 140,000 attendees.

HBO's True Blood is the hottest thing on television right now, based on my admittedly idiosyncratic sampling. (Who'd have thought that sexy vampires in a series with lots of nudity and erotic goings-on would ever be popular? Vampire stories without some kind of sexual element, overt or covert ... well, that's like a space movie without an EVA oops.)

Warehouse 13 is turning out to be a huge success for the Syfy Channel.

And the new television season looms—and it's stuffed with sci-fi and fantasy offerings.

From ABC there's FlashForward, adapted by David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga from the Robert Sawyer novel. Then there's V, a re-imagining of the original 1984 series created by Kenneth Johnson—which made a huge splash the first time it appeared—from a new script by Scott Peters.

Fox will bring us Human Target, adapted by Jonathan E. Steinberg from the D.C. comic created by my friend Len Wein and Carmine Infantino.

The CW launches Vampire Diaries, from the L.J. Smith novels, adapted by Kevin Williamson.

(All of these are based on earlier sources ... coincidence? Trend? Can you even sell an original? Wait, there's that writerly gloom again ... )

And these are just some of the new offerings. Caprica is unleashed in January. Lost returns then, of course, for its long-awaited final revelations.

Heroes continues on NBC ... and I'm going to sample it again, after two seasons on my punishment list.

The now-venerable Smallville (venerable is a strange word to apply to a show on the CW, but there you have it) and the always-amusing Supernatural live on.

Then there's Fox, and Fringe ... the J.J. Abrams/Alex Kurtzman/Roberto Orci series wobbled, for me, during its first season, but continues to compel.

And Dollhouse ... which more than wobbled. It fell right over. The last couple of episodes of its first season showed more promise ... and it's Joss Whedon. It has to be worth a look.

So here we have explorations of fate and predestination ... alien contact ... cool comic books. That's not a bad sweep across the sci-fi spectrum.

Certainly these series allow a writer—a writer who hasn't forgotten that he's a viewer—to make those wonderful leaps into lives we couldn't possibly lead.

Which is why we read, write and watch sci-fi and fantasy, right?

So to all my writer friends ... and myself ... I say, Look at the new stuff. Consider the market—the world—as it is, as it's evolving ... not as it used to be.

It will make those around you happier.

And it might make your writing fun again.

In spite of a sense of lingering unease and uncertainty dating back to the early Carter years, Michael Cassutt has written 60 scripts for television, for such series as Twilight Zone, Max Headroom, Eerie, Indiana, Stargate SG-1 and Farscape, as well as short stories, novels and nonfiction. He also teaches a the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.