The ten percent

>> Wednesday, March 04, 2015

But if we’re talking strictly about feature film franchises, it is curious at worst, fascinating at best, how many so-called iconic franchises rest their entire reputations, and thus the core of their fandom, on the initial one or two entries out of a handful of respective films in each respective franchise. Point being, and I ask this with no judgment and genuine curiosity, can you call yourself a fan of a given film franchise if you dislike the vast majority of the franchise’s entries?
Forbes, February 19th, 2015.

"Ninety percent of everything is crap."
- Theodore Sturgeon, supposedly.

An Onion A.V. Club piece handwringing over whether fans will embrace Neill Blomkamp's Alien sequel with as much fervor when it actually hits screens as they did when it was first tweeted about leads one to a Forbes piece full of similar concerns, wondering aloud how someone can say they're a fan of a franchise when they really only like a third of it, or a quarter of it, or even less.

Which further reflects a complaint that often comes up whenever fanboys fling feces at one another over Prometheus or The Phantom Menace or any other project that causes a vocal and loud partisan outcry.  (Mind, I write this as a seasoned shit-slinger.)  No true fanboy would castigate Prometheus as the worst film ever made, or only a true fanboy who has his head up a space jockey's arsehole with misplaced reverence for Alien would, or something.  You see both.  And why?  Why can't fans ever be satisfied, for pity's sake?

Theodore Sturgeon
Thing is, this is shallow water lapping at the ankles of people who have been genre fans long enough to remember when we all communicated much the same damn things in the letters pages of Starlog or in fanzines with much less gloss and much more reek from the mimeograph fluid causing lightheadedness, back when the Internet (such as it was) was still used for transmitting DARPA thermonuclear yield models and ASCII renderings of Playboy centerfolds.  We've been having this kind of thing about science fiction in general for decades, almost a century since at least the 1920s when SF fandom was probably invented.  We fans have hated the bulk of science fiction as long as we've been loving it, and that's how it came to pass (or probably didn't) that one Theodore Sturgeon was asked a question along the lines of, "How come so much science fiction is crap?" whereupon he looked up (maybe not), blinked, paused, and said (so the story goes), "Ninety percent of everything is crap."

One of those stories, as you may know, that's totally apocryphal and probably didn't happen, and yet it definitely should have.  Because Sturgeon (let's pretend the whole thing really happened) was completely right, the bulk of popular culture is frankly pure crap and most of it will be forgotten in ten years and nostalgically recalled as kitsch in twenty.

With SF in general, 90% of it is despised (although not always by the same people), even by fans, because it's despicable.  It's horrid.  Some of it, admittedly, is fun and horrid, or enjoyable in some kind of non-enjoying manner--ironically, for instance, or pruriently or lazily.  But, still: horrid.

And when you think of the Aliens franchise in those terms, let's say, and you take the number that Mr. Mendelson does and say that there are only two good Alien films in the entire bunch and the franchise therefore "has a batting average of 28%," well, you have to then conclude that 28% is better than 10% and therefore Alien is still nearly three times as good as most of what else is out there.

Which, I think, goes a very long way towards explaining why hope springs eternal for the Alienists.

But there's more to it than that, methinks.  Let's go back to SF in general (and you can replace SF with any genre you'd like and have the same discussion--Sturgeon's Law can be applied fractally to Romance, or Westerns, or Whodunnits): if 90% of science fiction sucks, why are there any science fiction fans at all?  Aren't they wasting a good bit of their time?  How can they be fans if they passionately hate the overwhelming mass of what they profess to love?

There's a very simple answer, really: because maybe 90% sucks, but omigod the other 10%!

And in fact, this solves the whole mystery when you get right down to it.  SF fans get worked up about crap SF because they love the good stuff so goddamn much.  Because the 10% that doesn't suck inspires a passion for the genre as a whole, because the 10% seems worth fighting for, because they care so greatly for what's good and wonderful they have to care about all of it.  Because to hate Battlefield Earth is, at some level, to defend Dune and Foundation.

And if you want to break it down to the franchise level, Star Wars fans ultimately hate The Phantom Menace because The Empire Strikes Back is worth love and devotion.  Alien fans hate Prometheus not because they have this unfulfillable yearning for the same exact experience all over again that makes them impossible to please (although there may be some faint whiff of that in the mix, granted), but because they believe Alien is worth a perfect sequel or none at all; and they hold out hope for Blomkamp's take on the material because they will always hope a particular project is part of the 10% (or 28%) and not another drop into the 90% cesspool.

We're fans for things because we believe that something, at its very best, is worth fighting for and fighting over.  Because we love.  And so the number could be much, much lower: it could be five percent, or one percent, and if we fell in love with it we'd continue to say that when this category was good, it was very good, and all the times it wasn't makes us sad and angry because we knew what it was capable of being.  We're bitterest about our disappointments, naturally.  But the ten percent?

Ten percent is enough to love on.


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