It’s almost commonplace to suggest that the HBO box set is now television’s answer to the novel – witness the wily self-publishers who have started publishing ebooks as a “box set”. The television series matches the blockbuster novel point for point – an ensemble cast of larger than life characters, a high stakes plot, an original and detailed location – all wrapped around an instantly recognisable high concept, whether it’s a mobster in counselling, a portrait of drug dealers on the street or the fight for the Iron Throne.
Which makes it all the more surprising that HBO is no longer developing Neil Gaiman‘s American Gods. Of course, it’s hard to translate the warmth of Gaiman’s storytelling voice to the small screen, but the novel is so clearly stuffed with televisual magic that some network or other is certain to pick it up sometime soon. Or maybe the magic is part of the problem. Maybe executives at HBO think that audiences who have gorged on the swords and sorcery in Game of Thrones aren’t quite ready for Gaiman’s urban fantasy. Perhaps HBO should turn to science fiction for its next hit.
There’s nothing new about science fiction on screen – shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who have made it a televisual staple. But these are television shows in the old style, with paper-thin plots and puddle-deep characters stretched over dodgy special effects. Things are no better in the cinema, where a summer of sci-fi produced another fistful of flops in Elysium, Oblivion and After Earth, with Hollywood still to learn that audiences are bored of generic action movies dressed in science fiction costumes. Now is the perfect time for a real sci-fi show, with the kind of breadth and depth HBO has shown television can achieve.
Imagine a world where the Allies lost the second world war, and imagine a United States under the domination of a Japanese military government. Philip K Dick‘s alternate history The Man in the High Castle provides a clear high concept – it’s all too easy to picture the US flag twisted in to a Nazi swastika on the box-set cover art. But, unusually for Dick’s writing, there is also an ensemble of characters attempting to build lives in this strange new reality.
There hasn’t been a compelling production of a Philip K Dick story since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Dozens of Hollywood film adaptations have swerved the odd twists of logic and other weirdnesses, which make his novels such compelling alternatives to cookie-cutter action plots. But almost three decades after his death, Dick remains the most famous science fiction author of his generation, and for good reason. The Man in the High Castle could be a dark classic of intrigue and paranoia, but only for the producer that has the courage to tell the story as written by its author.
Through the 60s and 70s, Samuel R Delany wrote some of the most groundbreaking, experimental science fiction. Delany was recently declared the 30th Grandmaster of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), the first black writer to win the highest honour of a field that does not do nearly enough to overcome its old white male homogeneity. I’m tempted to put forward his novel Dhalgren for television adaptation, but while I and other fans of the weird would love to see the fictional city of Bellona on the small screen, I’m willing to concede the novel described by William Gibson as a “riddle that was never meant to be solved” might fail to win over primetime audiences.
But Delany’s earlier and slightly more restrained novel Babel-17 could bring a sophisticated strand of space opera to television screens. Set in the middle of a vast interstellar conflict, Babel-17 tells the story of spoken code which has been developed as a weapon, but the starship captain, linguist and poet Rydra Wong discovers Babel-17 is a complete language – weaponised to alter the minds of enemies who attempt to learn it, offering new ways of thinking and turning them into traitors. This fascinating and unusual high concept comes with a complex, multifaceted protagonist, who moves beyond stereotypes of the kickass heroine as she finds her loyalties tested – just the kind of science fiction to consign the cliches of Star Trek to history.