Science Fiction (1998 discussion: J. Michael Straczynski, Alexander Jablokov, Henry Jenkins, others)

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Science Fiction
Interviewer: Henry Jenkins, Michael Burstein, other questioners
Interviewee: J. Michael Straczynski, Alexander Jablokov
Date(s): May 4, 1998 (discussion), January 16, 1999 (posted online)
Medium: lecture/question and answer, online transcript
Fandom(s): focus on Babylon 5
External Links: [ ]
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Science Fiction is an edited version of a 1998 discussion held at MIT.

What the Networks Don't Know About Science Fiction is an essay by J. Michael Straczynski based on his opening remarks before the open discussion.

While are the main speakers were Alexander Jablokov and J. Michael Straczynski, there are other remarks by Henry Jenkins, Michael Burstein, and various people with just first names.

Section Titles

  • Rethinking Memory
  • Science Fiction, Mythology, Religion
  • Faith, Optimism and Science Fiction
  • Ethical Drama
  • Will Mass Media Survive?
  • Self-Publishing and Television
  • Hypertext
  • Digital Characters
  • Going Online with Fans
  • Creativity and Communities
  • Babylon 5 Takes on Journalism
  • Television and Intellectual Property
  • The Battlestar Galactica Era
  • Writing for Other Media
  • Women in Command
  • Privacy and Niche Marketing
  • Subversive Ideas and Television

Some Topics Discussed

  • memory
  • the dynamic that takes place between religion and science
  • Babylon 5
  • print vs screen
  • is it good to have pro-written Babylon 5 stories in zines as it reaches a wider audience, or does this dilute the canon
  • where media is going in the future and the buzzword "convergence"
  • CGI is not going to take off
  • JMS's online presence
  • fanboys being unlikely to provide good ideas, the democracy of the media
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • The Twilight Zone
  • strong female characters
  • intellectual property rights
  • the Pentagon's employees being dumb about the internet


[J. Michael Straczynski]:

If you watch the average episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger," at the end, what have you gotten out of it except seeing some really cool stunts?

In "Deconstruction of Falling Stars," we see, at the end, humanity a million years down the road having come to a certain level where they can leave the planet and go off somewhere else. And that tells us that we're not just living ordinary lives and having dinner and holding down jobs; you're in the process of creating the future. You can now -- and folks e-mail me about this -- you can now see the progression from here that brings us to there.

And I think that once you're aware of creating the future -- which is what mythologies help us to do -- you realize that if you don't create the future, someone else will do it for you. And that's one of the primary purposes of "Babylon 5." I used myth to that purpose quite shamelessly, quite frankly.

[J. Michael Straczynski]: I think there's a quantum difference between seeing if something that I wrote, as a sketch, works on stage as opposed to letting the audience have input into its creation. I think that way madness and perdition lies. Can I walk into the Sistine Chapel and say, "You know, it needs more red over there. It's just not right. Take the wings off of that."


There will always be lots of folks who want to have input--users, readers, 'Netters, network guys, your mom and dad. It doesn't matter, you have to follow your own creative conscience; you can never let those people into the creative process or you are done as a writer or an artist.


You're looking at the wrong end of the horse, man. You're looking at the delivery system. The delivery system ain't the issue. It's the artistry that informs the creation, and the artistry--whatever the new medium is, whether it's some incredibly new means of telling stories that we haven't come up with yet--the good ones will always come from one person, with one idea, and one dream and one passion.

It will never be a group-thing; it could happen physically, but it will be crap because art comes from one person's heart.

Henry Jenkins: You alluded to this idea of desk-top television, and we hear a lot, from both critics and advocates of digital media, that digital media means the end of the book, the end of television, the end of what-not.

In "Babylon 5," however, we see a future in which people still read newspapers, "Universe Today." They still watch both news shows and entertainment shows; cult characters like Zootie can still appear through the mass media and become part of the culture still. And the classics: Duck Dodgers in the Twenty-fourth and a Half Century are still around. (APPLAUSE)

So I wonder if you could elaborate on your vision of what will be the future of traditional media, including television, which some fear may be replaced by a more interactive media.

[J. Michael Straczynski]: I can't see print going away anytime in the near future; it's too portable; too efficient; too easy to use. I was talking to a reporter, recently, who was talking about how the Internet is killing media, killing people's ability to read. I said, "Have you been on the 'Net at all?" He says, "Yeah." "How do you communicate on the 'Net?" "You read stuff." Thank you. (APPLAUSE)

And how do you evaluate a message on the 'Net? By how well it's written; how convincingly he puts across his ideas. Where the new technology will change most is really just in television itself. Television won't kill print anymore than anything else has ever killed print. It may change it a little bit, but it won't kill it.


So the television becomes more and more immersive and you can get more out of the experience and download other takes; you can download parts that they had to cut out of the show, so that I think you'll see, in the next five, ten years, the Web and television merging more than ever before in that fashion, where it means you're getting more information and experiencing more of a show.

As far as print, itself, is concerned, I think it's always been with us; it will always be with us. Every time someone says, "The death of print is upon us," I get l0 more forms to fill out.

Alexander Jablokov: Clearly what we're going to see [with people having so many more choices in viewing and reading] -- and people have been talking about this for a while -- is the rise of an editorial figure, a half-editor, half-critic. And we've always needed critics -- there's always been too much writing to wade through on our own; and you can't depend on the cover illustration or the jacket copy; or the mendacious blurbs by one's friends.

But I think there's going to have to be people that you know; it goes back down to a village, you know. Who do you ask, what's good? Where do I go to find what's good? And there's going to be people that spring up to provide this service, and you're going to have to find them, but, then, they can steer you to things.

And there's also software agents now. You tell them what you like, and they go out and they find you stuff that's more like it. They don't work very well yet because they depend on very clear-cut categories.
[J. Michael Straczynski]:: [regarding the internet and hypertext]: I see. Yeah, I agreed with Alex, to some extent, before when I read some of these things on the 'Net which are linked to l0 different locations and footnoted. It's too much like homework, and I don't want to do homework when I come home from a long day. I want to either read something or watch something.

[J. Michael Straczynski]: Artificial characters, I'm not sure we're ever going to see. You will see them in, like, a far-distant shot walking on an alien landscape because it's actually cheaper to do a CG-person walking along a road in the distance than it is to film a person and, then, mat him into it.

But I think that the technology--anything less than a cartoon or non-realistic form would work. For instance, you could do a six-foot tall, talking, praying mantis. But if you wanted somebody to have human emotions or human registration, I could be being a Luddite here but it ain't gonna happen.

[Bill]: Joe, you've given us a real opportunity in the network to communicate directly to you, head-to-head--in the forums and in one-on-one e-mail conversations--and the access that an executive producer has given, that's just unprecedented. And it's an amazing feat of humanity, using the technology of the tool, and I wanted to make that point.

[J. Michael Straczynski]: It isn't that I'm trying to be a noble human being or anything--there's too much work involved in that and too little to work with. I've always been on-line since the first CompuServe node went up in my area in l984. I've been on-line ever since, and I'm too cranky and old to change.

Additionally, there's a lot of bad information and misinformation about why television is made, how it is made, and why things were done the way that they're done. So I decided five years ago, let's have an every-day, 24-hours-a- day, on-going conversation about television; how the show was made from concept, to pilot, to series, to finishing it off. So when we're done, there's a document there that will be useful for academics, for college students, for reporters, for the average person to know why things happen the way they happen because I believe firmly that you, as viewers, can never get what you want until you articulate what it is you want; so you know why things are done a certain way; you can ask in an informed fashion, "Give me this."

If you don't know what the options are or what the problems are, you are helpless and blind. And if that process of being chronicled for five years and archived all those posts help people to understand better how television works and get the programs they want, rather than what someone wants to give them, then, it was worthwhile.

[J. Michael Straczynski]: [Responding to a call from the Pentagon]: And they said, "We're trying to get onto the Web for the Lurker's Guide and we can't figure out how to navigate the Web. (LAUGHTER) Now if the Pentagon which can blow up the world l0 times, over lunch, can't figure out the Web, that scares the crap out of me. I don't know about you.

And I said, "Well, why do you want this information?" And they said, "Well, apparently, it's what they call a forced multiplier," which is a morale booster and he sent it out to carrier groups and to battalions and field groups all across the planet. And there are some places where they haven't got VCRs, and they wanted to have synopses to fax to them about where the show was.