In the interest of participating in Sequart’s special look at the genre of science-fiction, I’ve volunteered to devote this column entirely to that genre of storytelling, rather than to the usual 1,500 word ramblings about Buddhism or Superman’s underwear. The thing is, I’m not sure what angle I should really use. Science-fiction is a vast genre encompassing everything from mind-bending space epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, to stories that are simply high-concept dramas, such as the 2010 film, Never Let Me Go.
A journey through the galaxy of science-fiction would probably begin with the 1666 book, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, by Margaret Cavendish, and then continue all the way to feature films that are on the docket for later this year, like Star Trek: Into Darkness and Oblivion. Along the way you’d encounter H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine in 1895 and then later Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 novel, A Princess of Mars, possibly making a detour into the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, before soaring into modern sci-fi with Superman, Star Wars, and Star Trek, the Robot Laws of Isaac Asimov and the paranoid, drug-addled dystopias of Phillip K. Dick.
Spider-Man is science-fiction. The Ninja Turtles are science-fiction. Ghostbusters is science-fiction. Freaking Hunger Games is science-fiction. Jurassic Park. 1984. Doctor Who. Alien. Transmetropolitan. V For Vendetta. Back to the Future. FIREFLY. Where do I begin?
Why not right here, right now? This best kind of science-fiction stories always have, at their heart, something to say about the times we live in right now. 2001: A Space Odyssey might have been a story about astronauts travelling through space and between dimensions in the not-too-distant future, but it was essentially a late ‘60s acid trip. Wells’s The Time Machine painted a grim portrait of the future in which the bourgeoisie element of society lives above ground and has devolved from generations of cushy hi-tech living while the working class developed into brutish subterranean monsters. Not much subtlety there.
Stories like I, Robot and The Veldt were cautionary tales about technology. Meanwhile, Star Trek, created in the midst of a “space race” between two rival world superpowers, offered a glimpse into a more benevolent future in which the people of the world came together to explore space as a united species. Even Star Wars, which was the classic mythological hero’s journey reimagined with lightsabers and Wookies, still came about at a time in which many young people were struggling to find a path of their own in the wake of a very bloody and prolonged foreign war.
That being said, where are we right now? I’m writing this column to you not on a piece of paper but within a digital document on a computer the size of a large, thin book that is invisibly connected to a network of rapidly moving, continuously updated, nigh-limitless information. Beside me is a smaller book-shaped object that does the same thing, but I use it at night to watch TV shows and read the news so that I can keep the bigger device over on my desk. Next to that one is an even smaller device that can also project my voice to anywhere on the planet in addition to the other features I’d mentioned. And that’s the smallest of the three that does that.
I maintain acquaintanceships and friendships with people all over the world, some of whom I met while they were visiting America and was able to stay in touch with through something called “social networking,” and some of whom I have never met at all outside of the virtual arena. I can share notes, photos and videos with every other human being on the planet that has access to the information network I spoke about earlier, which is a pretty good number of them, and they can share all of those things with me as well.
Things such as journalism and the arts have become more or less democratized now since anyone with a computer and an internet connection can release their own films, songs, and long-winded opinion articles (about Superman’s underwear) to the entire rest of the world. We are, as artists and as a species, becoming more connected.
At the same time there is immense blowback from this increased connectivity. Certain governments place restrictions on these new technologies to keep people inside their country from learning about the world outside of it, and vice versa. In North Korea a 30-year-old man-child who fancies himself a god-king is threatening to unleash nuclear devastation across the planet, just as we as a species are learning to circumvent our arbitrary tribal boundaries.
As science continues to progress and its findings become more easily accessible, conservative reactionaries are doing everything in their power to cling to anachronistic dogmas left over from our Bronze Age ancestors. We’re moving forward here, but we’ve come to an evolutionary crossroads. We’re seeing the re-definition of the human race, and with that comes growing pains. Hopefully this passes, lest someone overzealously hits the reset button and plunges us into another dark age, staving off the coming enlightenment for another few thousand years. Or longer.
My question is this. Does our science-fiction today do a good enough job of reflecting what we as a society are struggling with? The latest episode I saw of Doctor Who dealt with aliens robbing people of their consciousness through their WiFi connection, so I suppose that’s marginally relevant. The space-faring utopian fantasy of “Star Trek” was recently rebooted into a sparkly new film franchise, but one devoid of any substance below the surface. “Hunger Games” had something to do with totalitarianism but I’m not sure what it was, presumably something about conscription and the need for the older generation to constantly eat its young through a roundabout process we’ve come to call “war” (another symptom of humanity’s hatred of progress).
On the other hand, films like G.I. Joe, Transformers and Battleship make war look awesome and attempt to sell you on the idea of war as well as whatever new cars or soft drinks have been released that year. The antagonists in these films are technology and beings or forces from outside the U.S.
What else? Tron was a decent enough father quest with elements of techno-paranoia, but never presented any real message. Avatar was Pocahontas with giant blue cats and bad dialogue. Inception and Looper were both smarter than the average crop of Hollywood science-fiction stories, but the stories dealt more with personal redemption than with society. Oh, and then there’s Prometheus. A movie about scientists who learn the value of faith. Fuck that movie.
Where is the science-fiction right now that is asking the tough questions? To echo an old Jack Kirby line about comics, science-fiction is journalism, but right now it’s soap opera. Why is that? Are we too afraid to ask the tough questions? Are we possibly afraid of offending one another by doing so, and therefore no one wants to step up and be the first to start the conversation? Are we afraid of what we’ll see if we hold up a mirror to society? Afraid of the reality that comes with an overheating, overpopulated planet full of otherwise smart people who have ceded all their free will to a relative handful of dumb governments? Afraid of the responsibility that comes with evolution?
(I’m using movies and TV here because film is the medium that essentially sets the pace for our culture as far as storytelling is concerned. Film is what people pay attention to, it’s what gets the most eyes and ears, it is the most potent and most powerful way to spread a message. So where is it? Where is the message?)
When given the context of the history of science-fiction, our era of this particular genre starts to look a bit timid. Which sucks because we’re there. We’re in the science-fiction world. The future place that everyone before us was always talking about, we’re living in it. It’s now or never. We’re the generation that can see real changes in the world around us start to happen using our own science-fiction, but we’re leaving all of that to the boneheads in Hollywood who want to sell us a Ford Mustang and sign us up for the Army.
We’ve got to start demanding better stories. We’ve got to start telling better stories. We’re at a point right not where the human race is starting to wake up to some very tough truths, and science-fiction is one of the most useful tools to help guide our world through such a delicate, sink-or-swim moment in history and to ease ourselves into a better tomorrow. We can still have that brilliant, beautiful Star Trek future. We can take that brave step from hairless ape to galactic explorer. We’ve got the entire universe out there waiting for us to join it. And I want to join it.
So pick up a pen and start writing. I’ll do the same. Let’s start giving the world some better ideas.