Non-Fiction Reviews

Writing the Science Fiction Film

(20123) Robert Grant, Michael Wise Productions, £17.99 / Can$29.95 / US$26.95,
trdpbk (A format), xvi + 244pp, ISBN 978-1-615-93136-1.


I should perhaps point out, in the ethical spirit of openness and transparency, that this website has carried a few book reviews written by the author of this guide to making SF film. However those of you who know me will trust me to be impartial. If I did not think a book by someone I have met socially did not have merit then I would not post a review so as to preserve both the acquaintance and this site's integrity. Having said that, I have probably given away where this review is heading…

Now that we are over a decade into the 21st century, it is clear that recent years have seen something of a revolution in science fiction on the screen. Not only have special effects greatly improved, and come down in cost since the middle of the 20th century, but the ease with which material can be brought to both big and small screens has changed dramatically. Today making an independent SF feature has become easier than ever (albeit marketing remains as difficult), but anyone today can make a short SF video equipped with a small-ish camera, decent home computer and an accompanying film production software package. And if you are prepared to do it for free you can upload it to internet sites like YouTube for everyone to enjoy. Further, if your work is good enough then perhaps a professional film contract may be in the offing: witness what happened last year to the short Ruin to cite but one example. In the future, given current trends, things are set to be brighter still for SF film makers.

All well and good, but having a camera and computer alone is not enough to make a good film: one also needs experience, knowledge of the tricks of the trade as well as that of the genre. It is here that Robert Grant has provided an invaluable resource for budding SF film makers with Writing the Science Fiction Film.

This book will be especially valuable to would-be SF film makers who – while maybe appreciating a number of SF films – have little in-depth knowledge of the genre. Grant's book starts with a definition of SF and how it relates to fantasy. This could have been a stumbling block as I have seen a number of supposedly seasoned writers and (ahem) academics define genre nomenclature their own way only to make a pig's ear of it. But, for example, he makes a commendable case for films like Groundhog Day being fantasy, though strangely did not mention that 12.01 (which has the same speculative fiction plot premise of a recurring day) is SF: in the former the premise is essentially magic whereas in the latter it is the result of a science experiment. But I digress (easy to do as I love SF cinema). Grant goes on to encourage would-be film makers to decide whether SF is a genre or a setting.

Subsequent chapters deal with: creating characters; plotting; world-building; getting the science right (a vitally important aspect of SF film as this site's principal core constituency are bound to attest especially in an increasingly scientifically literate society: after all even if the film maker flunked science at school, many succeed at some level in this mandatory aspect of the British school curriculum); dialogue; and writing.

All the advice is sound and solid.

If the book has a weak point – I raise this in case you think I am being too gushing – then it is with the appendices. For example, the list of SF film festivals (actually 'speculative fiction' film festivals as fantasy and horror are included) has notable omissions not least that of Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films which has been going a lot longer than many of the others in the list). The selected timelines of films and books are highly personalised with the latter being litcrit dominated: personally I would have included an end-book reference to Science Fiction - The Illustrated Encyclopaedia as it makes for an invaluable, introductory overview of the genre (both books and films) and his highly readable and, dare I include personal bias, Essential Science Fiction: A Concise Guide provides a packed digest of SF books and films that have won popular fan voted awards or have been continually in print for many decades (with additional entries for authors who have a couple or more works meeting the criteria for an entry). However Writing the Science Fiction Film's appendices nonetheless do contain many useful pointers to worthy works and fests, so do not take this criticism too seriously. The only other point I would have made for those starting out and making short films is to read good SF short stories and especially ultra-short ones. Here, again excuse the bias but among other places, I would point them to the one-page Nature 'Futures' shorts that SF2 Concatenation selects as being the best of the bunch; a good number of these would themselves make for fine SF shorts.

So what we end up with is an incredibly useful resource I have no hesitation in recommending to prospective SF film makers. In fact more than that, some experienced film makers, unfamiliar with the genre's depths and diving into SF for the first time, would do well to seek this out.

(I also liked the book's visually-iterative cover, but one should not judge a…)

Jonathan Cowie

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