Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 25, 2019

Love, Death + Robots showed up on Netflix recently. It has all the hallmarks of mature entertainment – full frontal nudity, sex acts of various kinds, gory violence, and the kind of words you don’t hear on broadcast TV or in movies intended for younger audiences. There’s one problem, the maturity level of the stories is on the young adult end of the spectrum. 13-year-olds will be all over this series when it should be rated R or higher.

When I was in high school I had two science fiction reading buddies, Connell and Kurshner. One day Kurshner’s mom told us almost in passing, “All that science fiction you’re reading is so childish. One day you’ll outgrow it.” All three of us defended our belief in science fiction, but Mrs. Kurshner was adamant. That really bugged us.

Over the decades I’d occasionally read essays by literary writers attacking science fiction as crude fiction for adolescents. I vaguely remember John Updike caused a furor in fandom with an essay in The New Yorker or Harpers that outraged the genre. I wish I could track that essay down, but can’t. Needless to say, at 67 I’m also starting to wonder if science fiction is mostly for the young, or young at heart.

I enjoyed the 18 short mostly animated films in the Love, Death + Robots collection, but I have to admit they mostly appealed to the teenage boy in me, and not the adult. Nudity, sex, violence, and profanity doesn’t equate with maturity. But what does? I’ve known many science fiction fans that think adult literary works are equal to boredom.

So what are the qualities that make science fiction mature? I struggled this morning to think of science fiction novels that I’d consider adult oriented. The first that came to mind was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Orwell died before the concept of science fiction became common, but I’m pretty sure he never would have considered himself a science fiction writer even though he used the tricks of our trade. Margaret Atwood doesn’t consider herself a science fiction writer even though books like The Handmaid’s Tale are both science fiction and mature literature. Other mature SF novels I can think of are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are all novels that use science fiction techniques to tell their story but were written by literary writers.

Of course, I could be howling at the moon for no reason. Most television and movies are aimed at the young. Except for Masterpiece on PBS and a few independent films, I seldom get to enjoy stories aimed at people my own age. Which brings me back to the question: What makes for mature fiction? And it isn’t content that we want to censor from the young. If we’re honest, nudity, sex, violence, and profanity are at the core of our teenage thoughts.

Mature works of fiction are those that explore reality. Youth is inherently fantasy oriented. The reason why we’re offered so little adult fiction is that we don’t want to grow up and face reality. The world is full of reality-based problems. We want fiction that helps us forget those problems. Getting old is real. We want to think young.

Love, Death + Robots appeals to our arrested development.

Love Death + Robots - robots

I’m currently reading and reviewing the 38 science fiction stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m writing one essay for each story to discuss both the story and the nature of science fiction in general. I’ve finished 10 stories so far, and one common aspect I’m seeing is a rejection of reality. These stories represent what Dozois believes is the best short science fiction published from 2002-2017. On the whole, the stories are far more mature than those in Love, Death + Robots, but that’s mainly due to their sophistication of storytelling, and not philosophy. At the heart of each story is a wish that reality was different. Those wishes are expressed in incredibly creative ways, which is the ultimate aspect of science fiction. But hoping the world could be different is not mature.

Science fiction has always been closer to comic books than Tolstoy, Woolf, or even Dickens. And now that many popular movies are based on comic books, and the whole video game industry looks like filmed comic books, comic book mentality is spreading. The science fiction in Love, Death + Robots is much closer to its comic book ancestry than its science fiction ancestry, even though many of the stories were based on original short stories written by science fiction writers. Some reviewers suggest Love, Death + Robots grew out of shows like Robot Carnival and Heavy Metal.  Even though Heavy Metal was considered animation for adults, it’s appeal was rather juvenile.

I know fully well that if Netflix offered a series of 18 animated short science fiction films that dealt with the future in a mature and realistic way it would get damn few viewers. Even when science fiction deals with real-world subjects, it seldom does so in a real way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a genre to be mature that wants to offer hope to the young. Yet, is its hope honest? Is it a positive message tell the young we can colonize other planets if we destroy the Earth? That we can solve climate change with magical machines. That science can give us super-powers. That if we inject nanobots into our bloodstream we can be 22 again. That don’t worry about death because we’ll download your brain into a clone or computer. Doesn’t science fiction often claim that in time technology will solve all problems in the same way we rationalize to children how Santa Claus could be real?

Actually, none of the stories in Love, Death + Robots offered any hope, just escape and the belief you can sometimes shoot your way out of a bad situation. But only sometimes.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, one story, “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs is about a very realistic situation that is solved by logical thinking. Strangely, it’s the only story by a woman writer. A “Cold Equations” kind of story. That’s a classic 1954 short story written by Tom Godwin where the main character has to make a very difficult choice.

My favorite three stories (“When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots”) were all based on stories by John Scalzi and have kind of zany humor that provides needed relief from the grimness of the other tales. I actually enjoyed all the short films, but I did tire of the ones that felt inspired by video game violence. Even those films like “Secret War” and “Lucky Thirteen” which aimed for a little more maturity, rose higher than comic books, but only to pulp fiction.

The two films based on Alastair Reynolds stories, “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquilla Rift” seemed to be the most science fictional in a short story way. I especially like “Zima Blue” for its visual art, and the fact the story had an Atomic Age kind of science fiction feel to it. So did the fun “Ice Age” based on a Michael Swanwick story. Mid-Century science fiction is really my favorite SF era. Finally, “Good Hunting” based on a Ken Liu has a very contemporary SF feel because it blends Chinese myths with robots. World SF is a trending wave in the genre now.

I’m still having a hard time pointing to mature short SF, ones that would make great little films like in Love, Death + Robots. Maybe “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, which I reviewed on my other site. I guess my favorite example might be “The Star Pit” by a very young Samuel R. Delany, which is all about growing up and accepting limitations. Most of the films in Love, Death + Robots were 8-18 minutes. These stories might need 30-60. It would be great if Netflix had an ongoing anthology series of short live-action and animated science fiction because I’d like to see more previously published SF stories presented this way. Oh, I suppose they could add sex, nudity, violence, and profanity to attract the teenagers, but what I’d really want is to move away from the comic book and video game plots, and into best better SF stories we read in the digests and online SF magazines.






35 thoughts on “Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?”

  1. I watched several episodes of Love, Death + Robots so far, and they have reminded me why I don’t care for stand alone short stories. Short stories are too much like jokes – the entire story is simply a set-up for the punch line – the clever twist at the end of the story, be it shocking, ironic, profound, or whatever. The characters and setting are too disposable for my tastes. They are simply a means to the ending. Enjoyable, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s not my thing. Short stories with continuing characters, i.e. Sherlock Holmes, or Bertie and Jeeves, are different, in that they are more likely pieces of a mosaic in the lives of the characters and more care is taken in crafting the characters, setting, and story. Indeed, the authors often end up writing novels to do the characters and setting justice, which is what I prefer reading.

    As for the maturity, or lack of it, in science fiction, I guess I haven’t given it much thought. Of hand I would argue that there are stories for every age, and if science fiction is literature for youth, there’s nothing wrong with that. One hopes for great things in one’s life when one is young (naive and foolish), and if science fiction fuels that hope, well, why not? Science fiction can also be a taste of youth that lingers on all through one’s life. Science fiction doesn’t have to do everything to be worthwhile.

    I’ve been greatly enjoying reading your essays on the stories in Dozois’s book. Not so much for the stories, but for what you are discovering about writing science fiction. Eagerly looking forward to more.

    1. Chuck, the stories in Love, Death + Robots are all very short, even for short stories. I agree they are too short and can understand why they might be dissatisfying compared to longer stories. However, they are fun filler. My favorite length for shorter science fiction is the novelette. Just long enough to do some good worldbuilding, have a reasonably complex plot, convey a sense of wonder, and then provide a satisfying conclusion. I love science fiction for its far-out ideas, speculation, and extrapolation. I still read novels, even long ones, but I don’t feel most SF novellas and novels carry their length without padding. But I have lots of friends who prefer the longer the better. They love complex stories that never end.

    2. Same here, the stand alone nature of each episode was one fo the things that turned me away from the show. I can’t really give a damn about characters that I’m only going to spend 10-12 minutes with.

  2. I think author’s like Ursula LeGuinn and Olivia Butler would scratch your itch for mature sci fi. Most of those works are getting old, though. Modern sci fi seems to have slim pickings. Neal Stephenson in books like Anathema definitely aims for a more thoughtful crowd. And on the cinematic side, Ex Machina was more contemplative than fantastical.

    Perhaps escapism has always trumped thoughtfulness in popular culture whine the thoughtful exploration of our humanity languishes on back shelves.

    1. I agree on your choices Le Guin and Butler. Part of my problem is I don’t like purely action-driven stories anymore. My doctor says my testosterone levels are fine, but they must be down from what they were.

      My all-time favorite SF movie is Gattaca. I also love films like Ex Machina and Her. The older I get, the more I love contemplative movies. I still enjoy a wild ride like Mad Max Fury Road and Blank Panther but for the most part I’m slowing down. I wish TV would give me a multi-part science fiction dramatic series like Downton Abbey or The Crown or even snappy one like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

  3. Excellent read. What was life before all the blood sex and death? I admire your point about hope without impunity. Consequences come. We reap what we sow. I wonder what technology teaches us.


    1. Neru, it will be interesting to see if we move into a quieter technology age anytime soon. Pendulums always swing back and forth. I don’t think we’ll give up technology, but we might have fewer disrupting products. I’m 67 and have felt several transformations. I wonder if we can keep up the exponential growth forever?

      1. Like a bean growing in a bottle, eventually it’ll fizzle out and be stunted. I think the end of the race is to say peace and United world. Its just who gets there first and calls the competition over?

  4. Both SF and comics,have been surrounded by mystery and ignorance,that have led to them being viewed as low culture.I used to read comics,which like SF,can contain mature themes.Both can reach a high level of excellence if handled well.

    1. Richard, comics and science fiction have become accepted in our culture. The Hollywood beautiful people attend ComicCon. The graphic novel is a respected art form. But all too often, the level of violence in comic book stories is at the level of The Three Stooges. Video game violence is too much like the RoadRunner and Wile E Coyote, no one really dies, but is always instantly reborn. Superpowers are fine for kids to pretend with, but shouldn’t be part of mature fiction. Don’t you think it odd that most movies require a level of disbelief usually associated with minds of 9-year-olds? I sometimes feel that none of us want to grow up, including myself.

      You and I are both PKD fans. I should have used PKD as an example of mature science fiction. Maybe that’s why he was so troubled, the adult world is really fucked up. The Martian Time Slip would be a good example of a mature SF story.

  5. There are good graphic novels, and then there are others. There are good science fiction and good fantasy stories, and then there are others. There are even some pretty good Sci-fi based movies that do more than just flash-bang the audience due to a good story. The very best of them can grab you and slam you into another/similar/different world without even your permission. Those are the best of either verbal stories or graphic stories, assuming good plotting, good characters and a good story line. A very few of them do all of that.

    Science fiction has always been about what could be, and when presented properly what should/might be. AKA that which is given and based upon what our culture permits. Some of the best sci-fi goes beyond, as does much of the fantasy.

    I suspect that a very large portion of the readership is looking for an escape from the hum-drum, mostly based upon my own and friends’ readership.

    With out citing anyone else, I will put forth this idea: fantastic fiction (aka nothing we can see and hear in a hum-drum day) cranks reality at least (or a lot) askew and then posits a question that has to be dealt with by local (and hum-drum) folks. From Heinlein on, those stories snuck in an extra something that allowed the (semi) hero to succeed, even with serious loss. But the good guys almost always won.

    We (and I) liked that. A nice neat story of the fantastic that worked out well for all (or most) of us.
    You don’t have to be a nine-year old to like that. Our minds and ideas of how a world/universe should be are a handy tool for story telling; but the very best stories make you wonder if that dirt road really leads to some place else.

    I think that makes me a curmudgeon JW, and I’m ready to wear that T-shirt proudly.

  6. And even though it’s pretty hard to drag Laurel and Hardy/Buster Keaton/Chaplin into this mix, it is even harder to ignore what they brought to the screen. Fantasy? You bet. Fiction, yessir. Science, well not so much other than defying physics. Reality, such as much current fiction likes to begin with…damned right.

    Call me a curmudgeon. And no, I don’t have the T-shirt.

  7. The underground comic book artist,Robert Crumb,wrote and drew a comic script in the 1980s,called “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick”.Have you seen it?

  8. You might be thinking about John Updike’s review in the March 20, 1995 issue of THE NEW YORKER. Updike has a lot of dismissive opinions about genres. I enjoyed LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, but I agree with you that it’s aimed at 12-year-olds (or the 12-year-old in many Senior Citizens). If Netflix determines there are enough old people to watch their programming, we’ll see films based on Le Guin and Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick.

  9. I think a lot of what we have today are agents and publishers who don’t understand and never read science fiction that isn’t of the YA variety, i.e., mature tastes are not represented. I suspect it is still being written (although probably not by the desired demographic) but goes nowhere; therefore, there’s nothing to read; therefore no readers and no market.

    It is hard from me to think of some of my favorites books: Dune, Mote in God’s Eye, Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, The Time Machine, Stranger in a Strange Land, and some recent works: InterstellarNet Enigma and The Three-Body Problem as being written for immature readers. Those are certainly not the fluffers that are so popular now. I like my aliens to be alien rather than superhero or virtual-land wish fulfillment and my technology to be something other than dial-a-magic wands.

    1. Of course, all those books you mentioned are liked by teens. I first read Stranger in a Strange Land when I was 13 or 14. I read Dune the first time just a couple years later.

      However, when I reread it when I was older, it was a much different book.

      In a way, we have two definitions of adult literature. One is fiction that contains adult themes we want to censor from children. The other is themes that require some experience to appreciate.

      There are children books that both children and adults can enjoy. And there are adult books when both children and adults can enjoy. A good example is To Kill a Mockingbird.

      Of all those books, I’d say The Three-Body Problem would have been the one I wouldn’t have liked as a kid but did as an adult. It would have been too dry for my younger self.

  10. I flippantly want to say, ‘where all the characters are over fifty’. 🙂 …however, I think Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ might fit the category. Just about anything Kim Stanley Robinson has written. David Webber’s ‘Honor Harrington’ series … on the film front I agree with you about ‘Gattaca’, ‘Her’, ‘Ex Machina’ … I’d also put ‘Sunshine’ there, except for the silly final act, ‘Gravity’, ‘Interstellar’.
    I think my definition of ‘mature SF’ would have to be where I am moved, not solely because my emotions have been manipulated, but because my brain has been stimulated as well.

    1. Widdershins, I think there’s lots of SF that can be enjoyed by older SF fans, but they aren’t always mature. For decades women complained they were being left out in stories, especially science fiction. Now I feel a lack of stories where I see older people or that deal with issues that older people care about.

  11. I think there are additional works of science fiction that I would consider mature. I realize this is hopelessly subjective, but William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five are mature works. Henry Case, Y. T., and Billy Pilgrim are complete characters struggling to survive in real situations. When I use the term “real” I mean that they are dealing with the complexities of life just like David Copperfield. They strive and suffer and fail and succeed just like any other fictional character.

    1. I think maybe one distinction between mature SF and youthful SF, is the characters in mature SF are concerned with their own survival and not out to save the planet, galaxy, or universe. I just finished “Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh about a woman trying to survive in the near future where jobs are disappearing to automation. It’s not a particularly exciting SF theme, but McHugh makes this story very vivid and speculative by extrapolating on today’s trends.

  12. As for serious SF on TV, “The Expanse” is a pretty decent series. Have you seen it James? It isn’t clear whether the show will ever have any more seasons, but the current end is reasonably satisfying.

    I’m not so sure that “realistic” or cynical or hopeless is the same thing as mature. How do you feel about Homer’s “Odyssey”? Is voyaging to an unknown continent or to the Moon a mature thing to do? How about searching for a cancer cure? Or trying to get rid of racial discrimination? To go against such long odds you first have to imagine that things could be different.

    However. I am inclined to agree that SF is a literature more for the young. As one approaches the end of one’s life, I think it gets harder to really feel a sense of possibilities, aka “sensawunda”. After all, we won’t be around to see whatever new things happen and most of our personal chances are behind us.

    1. Nicely put, pj. The sense of “wonder” is easier to find when we are young, at least from my viewpoint. I watched a few episodes of “The Expanse” but found it less interesting than my experience of reading the books. Perhaps that means my sense of wonder is still working; or that they aren’t as good at doing that as I am. And of course, the writers are always working on the next season, regardless of the written works’ story line.

      Frankly, I suspect that good writing is often shelved when a TV show is busy making advertisements for it’s payroll.

      As for Homer’s “Odyssey”, since I’ve been there and done that (a long frigging time ago) I do not hold that as a standard for today. TV Sci-fi has been lagging behind for so long that I don’t assume anything.
      I’m still trying to keep that “sensawunda” going. And it doesn’t get easier over time – regardless/especially when thinking of the effin crap in the real world.

  13. A very thought-provoking piece you wrote, as usual. Yes, there is mature science fiction. I find Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 very mature, dealing with censorship issues and a hedonistic society, something that is coming to pass. I also find Asimov’s Foundation series, dealing with human nature and history to be mature. In other words, mature science fiction makes you think. The old Star Strek series, from the original series to Enterprise, encouraged thinking and philosophy. I have not seen the newer series, but the newer movies by Abrams are so dumbed down.

    As for Netflix, they seem too enamored with M rated shows for adults. Do not take me wrong. M and R rated have their place. Sometimes heavy ratings are needed to tell a good story in which some can’t be told without violence, profanity, or other adult themes. However, a lot of the time I feel like it’s being used as a crutch as well. HBO developed that problem over time. They used to broadcast TV series that weren’t all sex and violence and then went down that route just to get higher audience ratings because they know it sells.

    As a writer, I have to often ask myself, is this subject matter needed in my novel or my short story. If it is, I leave it in, even if it’s uncomfortable. If it’s not needed, I take it out. But in the end, I want my science fiction stories, as well as my other stories, to appeal more to the intellect.

    1. JSG – hear, hear! As an old fart in this very confusing time of life wherein truth based on history has become just another story-line to be used as fodder for future bull-shite, I am convinced (and that is not easy) that what we know is not more important when compared to what we are being told. My personal point of view is that we who hoped for and loved the idea of new and exciting exploration of the Solar System and the Universe should be important, is not just important, but is necessary compared to just putting our name/Country/trademark stamp on a monument left in space that will only be something for another civilization to find .

      I don’t GAF whether Musk or any other tech-bimbo gets to be first; and I really do care that somehow, some way our entire human race can find a way to do marvelous things in space – if we don’t completely trash our Earth-based existence first.
      Let’s consider that without a true yearning for, and effective reaching out into the space beyond our Earth we will just be another failed Empire on this planet, as so many have gone and failed before.

      I won’t live to see either of those things, but I do still have hope.

  14. Great article. The main reason why I disliked the show was the fact that it tried to present teenage maturity as adult maturity. Violence, nudity and sex, these are things a teenager thinks of as being mature. When you actually become an adult though, you realize that those things are trivial and real maturity comes from deep human emotion and tough decisions. The entire show just irritated me like a teenager trying so hard to be mature but just coming off as edgy.

  15. I didn’t watch Love, Death + Robots yet, but I gotta agree with you when you say that Science Fiction seems to be made for young people. Even though some movies present a great premise, the characters often have some traits especially designed to match with the feelings and emotions of younger people. The result, most of the time, is a fun, hollow story that you enjoy for a couple of minutes and then forget. Stories like 1984, on the other hand, are so powerful that they stick with you. I’m a science fiction writer myself, young, and I love my genre, but I think we need more profound stories.

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