Click to viewEver since the first cheesy monster or goofy robot leered out from the cover of a pulpy magazine, science fiction has struggled to shake off a certain tinge of campiness. No matter how hard creators may try to tell cool stories, that slightly ironic silliness is always lurking just outside the frame. And there will always be science fiction which takes those little hints of camp and amplifies them a million-fold. A little campiness may be fun to get stoned and giggle at, but it also stands in the way of telling amazing tales about the impact of technology on humans. Here's a rulebook for rooting out the campiness from science fiction.
1. People should dress like grown-ups. That means no pajamas. No shiny gold or silver fabrics. No GWAR gear. No matter what era you're writing about, professional people will wear clothes that allow everyone else to take them seriously. And space travelers will probably wear outfits that are functional and help keep them alive.
2. No jolly lectures. This is more of a book thing. When a character stands around for three pages explaining the author's philosophies in a cheery tone, it's the prose version of a giant glittery tiara. I'm looking at you, Robert Anson Heinlein.
3. Take off that shiny apron, robot! The robots of the future will be stronger, smarter and more durable than anything we have today — they'll basically be able to sever your spine with a flick of one of their little microfilaments. So it's understandable and desirable for robots to be cute or sexy to distract us from their genocidal potential. But "cute" doesn't have to include a silly cartoon voice, a catch-phrase like "beady beady" or a funny walk.
4. Rock music cannot possibly get sillier. There are limits to what even the brain-damaged tweens of the 22nd century will bop around to — and there's no way it could be dumber than Debbie Gibson or Aaron Carter. Barring radical brain mutations, future pop music will at least be sorta catchy and have a few okay lyrics. The worst is when a novel or comic book reproduces song lyrics of the future — and they're the author's bad poetry. Somehow, these things are always worse on the page.
5. Neologisms should be plausible. In other words, if you have a future technology, and you're coming up with a name or slang term for it, it should be something you could imagine grown-ups saying. Comedy shows us what not to do in serious SF, with the zany slang in Woody Allen's Sleeper: "It's not only cool, it's Koogat!"
6. Yay sex, but boo zany ironic dominatrixes. That's pretty much all I had to say about that.
7. Cut down on the eyeliner, Mr. Spock! Yes, it matches your blue top. But just listen to Yahoo Answers: light-blue eyeshadow looks "tacky and outdated."
8. In general, aliens should be alien, not human ethnic groups or stereotypes. This pertains to campiness because the number one cause of campy aliens is a failure to imagine a truly non-human lifeform. Instead of the shock of an organism whose life cycle and culture are totally at odds with ours, we get the wacky Jamaicans in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
9. And no more cultures with just one wise saying. If an alien race has managed to make it into interstellar space and develop artificial gravity, it might also be advanced enough to afford two great philosophers or schools of thought. Worst of all are the Ferengi on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who quote the Rules of Acquisition as if they're the only book Ferenginar has ever produced.
10. If you must have villains, make them awesome. Mike Meyers did us a favor creating Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies — by giving us a template for what villains should not be like outside of comedies. Villains can be scary, or understated, or believable people whose agendas are at odds with the hero's... but they shouldn't kill us with cuteness.
11. If you must tackle religion, avoid being woo-woo. That means no priests with funny outfits. Yes, priests dress funny in real life, but they're still campy on screen. That also means no prophecies, especially ones with funny names. Visions are okay, if they're more David Lynch and less Derek Jarman.
12. Musicals are inherently campy. Do you ever find yourself watching the Buffy musical episode, or Rocky Horror, and thinking, "Gee, I wish there was more stuff like this in my science fiction?" If so, then maybe you should spend some time in fantasy-land instead. People bursting into song and doing that thing with their hands is directly opposed to the willing suspension of disbelief thing.
13. Punk is campy. Maybe it wasn't in the 1960s, or whenever you guys invented it, but it is now. Sorry. That goes for regular punk (just watch Doomsday) as well as cyberpunk (watch the Matrix sequels) and definitely steampunk. Steampunk is camp-tastic.
14. Time-travel leads to culture shock, not Culture Club. Journeying to another era shouldn't be an excuse for Renfaire/Society for Creative Anachronism goofiness. I've seen enough pithy Victorians (especially on Doctor Who) and doughty Medievals to last me a thousand time warps. And our ancestors may have been less technologically advanced, but they weren't freaking morons. (Well, okay, some of them were.)
15. Robots shouldn't pee. They shouldn't pee on people. They shouldn't pee in space. They shouldn't "vent coolant" in the middle of a hot robo-fisting scene. Robotic urine just should not be part of our lexicon at all.
16. A certain amount of cheesiness may be inevitable in science fiction. Just accept it. The difference between cheesiness and camp is that camp is self-aware and deliberate, and cheesiness is a result of someone fervently saying, "We're going to have giant robots fighting for ten minutes and it's going to be stupendous! Yeah!!"
17. Don't go retro. Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow winks so hard at classic scifi it's got a permanent squint. The 1930s fin-headed scifi was the original reference point for much of the seminal works of camp, and earns a starring role in Susan Sontag's foundational 1964 essay on camp. So looking backwards will only make you look ironic and funnily subversive.
18. Absolutely no go-go boots or sparkles. And no epaulets. Or shoulderpads. Or giant buckles, or insignias that are bigger than someone's hand.
19. No more Angelina Jolie. She's cute, but she camps up every role she's in. Just look at Tomb Raider. And the aforementioned Sky Captain. She's the main reason why this summer's Wanted will be a huge camp-fest.
20. War is hell, but shouty-jumpy soldiers belong in Monty Python. Yes, we get it — you're subverting the deadly conformity of military protocol by having your soldiers act like loons. But a little bit of armed-forces wackiness and slogan-shouting goes a long way. And that goes double for Starship Troopers' fake war propaganda.
21. Don't confuse "campiness" with "fun." You can create a fun, exciting storyline without going the campiness route. Space battles can be adrenaline-blasting, without any need for funny computer voices or zany puppet aliens. We like to watch people kickbox on the the deck of a satellite that's breaking up as much as anybody. Just, you know, without the shiny pajamas. Movie screencaps taken from Wetcircuit.