Sunday, 13 March 2022

Crab Your Enthusiasm

Evolutionary biologists have long studied a phenomenon known as “carcinisation.” It’s a term used to describe the process by which a variety of non-crab creatures facing similar environmental pressures evolve to become more crab-like.

We would suggest that something similar happens as long-running science fiction franchises evolve over time. 

Although individual episodes of television are not exactly randomly-varying-replicators, the non-random survival of such stories within the collective imagination can lead to similar outcomes to those of convergent evolution. Major television, movie, and comic book universes all feed on the attention spans and wallets of the SFF-consuming public, and are thus adapting to one shared ecological niche. It’s easier, and safer for large media conglomerates to produce the least-objectionable programming than it is to produce something unique.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and
also anything that isn’t a crab.
(Image CC BY 4.0 by J. Antonio Baeza)
The late Jerry Pournelle once observed that “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals that the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.” Fundamentally, we have to recognize that the creation of these long-running media franchises is a product of bureaucratic commerce first, and of art second. Those in charge of these media machines are dedicated to the survival of the corporation — and thus the franchise — first and foremost, and telling a compelling story is a tertiary objective at best.

So what does the carcinisation of mass-media science fiction look like? A franchise initially premised on historical time travel eventually adds antagonistic warrior aliens, while a franchise initially premised on aliens and space travel eventually ends up being about fixing the past. For example, over the past few decades Star Trek and Doctor Who have significantly converged. There might still be slight differences between the modern incarnations of the two shows; akin to the differences between king crabs and porcelain crabs … but they are not as dissimilar as their ancestors were.

Due to the ever-rotating nature of media franchise authorship, diverging creative visions essentially produce a near-random but finite variation of plot elements. When a narrative runs long enough, most of the stories that easily fit within the base premise get told. If there hasn’t been time travel yet in your science fiction or fantasy franchise, after about a decade one of the writers will likely feel the need to add it. If there hasn’t been an evil Lovecraftian god, that’s an easy hour of television to sell. Over time, the plot elements that are popular with audiences become encoded as tropes in the franchise, and eventually are seen as “integral” to an understanding of the series’ canon.

Let’s look at the case example of “your friendly neighbourhood” Spider-Man, a multi-media narrative
Does it seem odd than a story
about a school for teenage misfits
with psychic powers eventually
becomes space opera?
(Image via

media franchise that began with a fairly simple premise: Peter Parker is a teenager with the abilities of a spider and uses those abilities to fight crime. Early stories stayed relatively close to this premise. Over the years, this fairly street-level and human-scale story became increasingly bombastic and less grounded: he battled his own clone (1973), was transported to a distant planet and bonded with an alien (1984), made a deal with the literal devil (2007), and fought a demented interstellar god of death with the fate of the universe on the line (2017). The “friendly neighbourhood” to which his tagline refers at some point became the entire cosmos of every universe across space and time. To someone approaching the character from a perspective not steeped in the history of the character, these stories would likely seem increasingly disconnected from the original premise.

To one degree or another, the same scope bloat has affected just about every mass-media franchise from Star Wars to Superman. Sadly, it leads to less diverse storytelling; it would take few changes to turn any of the most recent three Spider-Man movies into episodes of Doctor Who.

It could be suggested that the carcinisation of mass-media science fiction and fantasy has accelerated as
In the media landscape, just as in nature,
that which persists does so by
putting its survival first and
foremost, whether the result
is a butterfly or a botfly.
(Image via Karsten Heinrich)

the anglosphere media markets have consolidated; there used to be much more distinction between Canadian television and British television, but the internet has helped blur those lines. Thanks to increasingly interconnected communications networks, there is more of an intellectual monoculture across the English-speaking world than ever before. Rather than distinct media ecosystems, they have converged. This can be paralleled to an ecological niche that is declining in biodiversity; and in such situations the population of specific species can explode.

This is a phenomenon that we, as a community of science fiction enthusiasts, should be concerned about. I mean, how many crabs do we need? And what are they driving out of the habitat?

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