Great science fiction is not defined by space operas or interstellar warfare, it is defined by its execution and integration of social, historical, and contemporary issues and whether it instills a specific message or conveys meaning to both its readers and its viewers. This is the principle that sci-fi legends like Arthur C. Clare, Issac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron remained loyal to when crafted their stories, and after nearly an entire century since these talents emerged, the tradition of using the present to discuss the future still remains, as do the narratives that are created across a variety of mediums. The sensible motivation when crafting important science fiction is to write about current issues and provide solutions and depth so people can find solutions to real-world problems and find the solutions found, not only in reality, but also within the stories that are told throughout the realm of science fiction.
Soon fans and casual moviegoers will be previewed to another installment in the famed Star Wars series. The franchise was a success for a plethora of reasons, beginning with its groundbreaking special effects, sophisticated designs, costuming, the introduction of a variety of talents, but was also given acclamation because of how it explored the complex nature of good and evil. What drives the films is not what lies on the surface like the lightsaber duels or the famed jumps to lightspeed by the Millennium Falcon, the only vehicle to make the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs, it is the writing of these films, its closeness, its paradoxes, and the fact that George Lucas wanted to show the innate goodness found in his characters, who were ordinary and sometimes misanthropic, but all endowed with a sense of duty, and the conviction to do what was right in a world overthrown by tyranny and oppression.
This was something not only conceived in Lucas’ imagination, but conceived after observing and appreciating what occurred in reality so that one day he could write a story that gave people a glimpse into the complexity of good versus evil, how deep it can tunnel into one’s emotions, and how it can be told in a story that spans an entire galaxy.
“May the Force be with you” is but one of the many quotable quotes offered from the film series. It was first spoken by Alec Guinness’ Obi-Won Kenobi in the original film, A New Hope, and was but the first film to introduce the mythology. Yet, this phrase, this calling, is not unlike the phrase that Christians hear when they find themselves surrounded by believers, only it is phrased differently, with the notable word “Force” being replaced by the much more common word “God”. Thus, the similarities between the two are quite noticeable and therefore, connected to each other.
Religion did play a key role when crafting the titular Jedi and Sith rivalry. Lucas himself admitted that the Buddhist philosophy influenced his own philosophy of the Jedi, particularly how Buddhists and Jedi share the common belief that every living thing has its own individual energy and that we, as human beings, are surrounded by the same energy. Why this pertains to the ethics and contemporary meaning of science fiction is related to the commentary and message found within this philosophy, for the fictional elements in Star Wars are grounded greatly in both reality and in theology.
Theologians and scientists both found truth in the film series. Those who had faith and subscribed to certain religious doctrines appreciated the principles that bound the series together and those who spent their lives examining formulas and theories capable of solving the world’s problem felt hopeful and excited. And, while the story was set in a galaxy far, far away, the technology, like the mythology itself, is grounded in truth, a truth that could be grasped by those who desire it. Therefore, the science fiction genre offered more depth and acquired more power because of the reality hidden behind its ideas, and how it gave a more exciting and more enthralling look at the nature of good and its ability to conquer evil across the stars.
However, not every science fiction film was crafted in the same manner as Star Wars. Without a doubt there are innumerable films that are influenced by the film, but the future is not always as exciting as it appears in Lucas’ imagination. Sometimes the future is dark, disturbing, and written in a way that captures the worst aspects of humanity in order to demonstrate what could happen if we act on the more innate forces of our own nature.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and George Miller’s Mad Max series were anything but optimistic. Contrarily, these science fiction tales were created as a result of mankind’s vengeful and greedy side and showed what happens when you remove order from civilization, and when chaos rules in its place.
This clarified the growing rift occurring in eighties science fiction, and it was a division that was not new to the genre or to its viewers. On one side you had a grand world like that the one crafted by George Lucas, a setting where giant cities float in the sky and planets acquire vast cityscapes that are like a Japanese painting or cover to a Dan Simmons’ novel. And on the other side you have what appears in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and in George Miller’s Mad Max series: a darkened, gothic, sickly metropolis exploding with pornography and suffocating advertisements conjured by a manipulative mass media. Civilization is divided in two parts, with each side forced to fight for what little they have and, if necessary, kill those that stand in their way.
Blade Runner is one of the great science fiction tales of our generation and will be remembered as a pillar in the shaping of the genre, particularly in regards to its cinematography and its direction. Yet, what the film also embodied was the element of taking an idea and transforming into something that presented several implications about what is happening in the real world. For example, in the film, the character Rick Deckard aka the Blade Runner, played by Harrison Ford, is charged with the task of hunting down robots that have gone rogue. The idea is simple, and yet as the plot progresses it becomes more complex and interesting. It presents implications that are related to the basic but profound principle of what it means to be “human”? And this question is answered throughout the majority of the film, constantly changing and offering intriguing answers each time a new scene is introduced. The reason why it is such a relevant question is a result of how it connects with what Scott is communicating to his viewers when exploring his future world.
After humanity lost control of the foundations of civilization, modern day Los Angeles is transformed into a grotesque version of its former self. Human beings, and mankind, have taken a similar turn, and now exist as a mere vessel for remembrance, a lifeless cadaver of what they used to be. Therefore, the concept of a man tracking robots acquires a slightly metaphorical meaning, for man is attempting to regain what was lost in hopes of returning what once was.
Xenophobia is a fear that has coursed through twenty-first century society since the first ship carrying the first boatload of visitors arrived in the first new world. Never has their been a period in our history whereby people did not fear the arrival of different people, and since this has always existed, an attempt to explore in science fiction exists as well. Blade Runner touches on the phobia, but does not make quite as much good use of it as those that came after, with movies introduced by artists like director James Cameron and legendary science fiction novelist Robert Heinlein. Both of these writers tackled the concept of xenophobia in different ways, with some drawing inspiration from various points in time, but not restricting their beliefs to something outside of contemporary reality or history. Everything, in one way or another, is influenced by the attitude that people have towards outsiders, and it is an attitude that remains relevant to this day.
Consider James Cameron’s highest grossing film, Avatar. Released during Christmas of 2009, the project is the first to truly master three-dimensional filmmaking technology and to introduce new talents, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. Upon its release, the film was welcomed with promising reviews, with critics making specific mention of its ground breaking technology, its innovation of modern-day filmmaking, and its intriguing themes that were based on corporate greed, human invasion, and a xenophobic attitude towards native inhabitants. The film did, however, draw criticism for its one-dimensional plot similar to Pocahontas, Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, and the short lived but still quite memorable animated film Fern Gully. And yet, despite this criticism the film managed to gross over two billion dollars, receive innumerable Academy Award nominations, earn a Golden Globe for Best Picture, and propelled the rest of cinema down the path of creating other films that harnessed Cameron’s 3D technology. Although it is valid to state that the plot of Cameron’s Avatar was traditional and not original, the reason why it was the best plot for this story is in regards to its strong themes and strong message, precisely what one should provide when writing science fiction.
One of the pillars featured in nearly every Cameron film is the inclusion of sinister corporations seeking to exploit others for their own personal gain. This is also included in the movie, Avatar, but more so than this there is a massive inclusion of an invasion of people’s territory and thus mimicked two crucial issues: the historical massacre of the Aboriginal people and the importance of environmental sustainability.
At the beginning of the film there is a clear note that the native Na’Vi are referred to as “savages” by the invaders. They are beings that worship the ground they walk on and proselytize their planet and this attitude is quite different from the Americans, who are merely on the planet, Pandora, to drill and extract a mineral known as Unobtanium. As the story unfolds, Cameron makes clear note that the suffering and attitudes that are required by these people is similar to the suffering and attitude that was once endured by an entire people, long ago, in our history. Therefore, the entire narrative is essentially an allegorical representation of the treatment of Aboriginals and how their land, their homes, were taken in order to create something that contrasted what they truly desired. Cameron does not state this out rightly at any point during the film, but he does not have to. The similarities and the connections are irrefutable and because they are, it is more than evident that Cameron’s science fiction epic offers moviegoers more than just the opportunity to see a new world through a three-dimensional lens. It is also to observe history through a fantastical interpretation and see something real.
The most vital and compelling contemporary issue that we, as human beings face today, is the threat of environmental change. The planet’s climate is shifting and this, according to scientists, happened as a result of our need to burn fossil fuels without considering the consequences. For several decades the planet has been growing more and more exhausted and what was once perceived as a hot day is growing into a hot week, a hot month, and into a record-breaking year. Now, after centuries of poor treatment, and an inability to adhere to what scientists have predicted, the consequences have come, and onus is clear: we must change our attitudes if we hope to keep this planet for as long as we need to.
This responsibility that people have towards nature is a prominent theme in Avatar. Jake Sully, the story’s protagonist, is featured in a scene where he communicates with Ewa, the living deity of the Na’Vi people, and says that on earth “there’s no green left” and that the humans “destroyed their mother” (Avatar Directed by James Cameron). This is a statement that directly connects with the escalating environmental concerns that are occurring in our world today. Thus, Cameron is providing another message to his viewers, and it is one that becomes more relevant when we see Jake Sully himself deciding to change his ways by joining the Na’Vi and leading a resistance to defend the planet that his own people wanted to destroy. This change, although a major plot point, is a word of advice from the director to the human race. It is Cameron’s moment whereby he comments on what is occurring in his own world, and by making clear statements about the environment and certain peoples’ attitudes, it is evident that Cameron’s main message in Avatar is about how we have taken our planet for granted and that we must change if we hope to maintain the beauty of our own world. It is not a subtle message and it is not a message that audiences have not heard before. However, like the story itself, which is not new by any means, the message is true, and because James Cameron established originality in the way he captured audiences’ imaginations, his beliefs became that much stronger and effective. People listened because they were entranced by the film’s environment and its power.
Science fiction is not only designed to capture imaginations and build metaphors disguised as contemporary and historical issues. The genre can go one step beyond and provide commentary and messages about the possible future, for there are many examples whereby science fiction educates people by using the genre’s standard element: science. And, the most notable example of a science fiction story that was love letter to science and all that it entailed, is none other than the infamous Star Trek series, starring William Shatner and the late Leonard Nimoy.
Star Trek the original series debuted in 1966 but did not receive its full following until well after its release. The general synopsis of the series consisted of telling the story of a group of space explorers belonging to an interplanetary alliance known as Starfleet. It followed the exploits of the ship’s captain, James T. Kirk, and his crew, across the galaxy where they used their diplomatic skills to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man has gone before. The series ran for four seasons but concluded at a time far earlier than other television serials. However, while the series ended, it still managed to spawn several films, a spin-off series, and became revered as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time.
Unlike other television series, Star Trek included elements that set it apart from other shows. To begin, it had a working knowledge of scientific theories, thus providing viewers with “real science” rather than “fantasy masked as science”. Nearly every aspect of the show, excluding its famed Warp Drive, is grounded in some form of scientific theory, specifically what fueled the famed Starship Enterprise. Unlike previous narratives involving starships, the Enterprise’s engineering is influenced by credible science, as the fuel that powered the drive was particle annihilation: matter and antimatter collision. Physicists have labeled this as the greatest producer of energy in the universe, and although immeasurably difficult to conjure, it is not outside the realm of science and thus not outside of something that could be produced in the future. Therefore, Star Trek established a forward thinking attitude and navigated its way through what was happening in the scientific field and discussed what could be discovered in the years that followed. In essence, what kind of future that mankind could potentially exist in and how special it could be.
Star Trek is also not set in a grim, totalitarian future in the tradition of Scott, Miller, or Lucas. In the world of Trek there is no war, no indication of humanity fighting over resources, bloodshed, or violence. It is a time when people have put aside their differences and seek to better themselves and their species, and this is done through space travel, an appreciation of the arts, and a willingness to strive for peace across an entire galaxy. It presented an optimistic look towards the future and adopted the attitude that the generations that followed could be better than those that came before. It also provided a statement about what world peace could be like and it is not a world whereby one government has seized control, where one race dominates the planet, and is not overwhelmed by rules or institutions. It is a world where anyone is free to love anyone they choose, where no one was discriminated, and there is no such thing as someone who is too different to belong.
Even during at its inception the television series made sure to celebrate diversity. The bridge of the Enterprise is comprised of multiple people from multiple races and backgrounds, including an Asian American actor, an African American actress, and several other actors who originated from different parts of the world. It is a time with no dividing lines based on color or creed, because in the world of Star Trek mankind has evolved out of prejudice and bigotry and matured into an elevated form of enlightenment and tolerance. It is this attitude that made the serial so compelling because it is not only popularized modern science and provided viewers with a chance to travel the stars, but also provided a glimpse into Roddenberry’s progressive and nobler world. It is an opportunity to partake in a commentary about the kind of civilization that he wanted for his children, and it is this simple and elegant idea, that propelled people’s interests, and helped them to realize that science fiction is as much about the treatment of people as it is about the discovery of vast new worlds.
This is emphasized in one of the series’ famed episodes Space Seed. In the episode, the Enterprise crew stumbles upon another space vessel floating through space. Charged with the task of uncovering the mystery surrounding this ship, Captain Kirk, Spock, and Bones McCoy board the transport in hopes of learning more about its origins. While on board, the three crewmembers discover a man frozen in cryogenic sleep. Upon learning of this man’s identity, they see that he is in fact a specimen bred for the Eugenics War that occurred star-dates earlier. After recovering the man he is later awakened on board the Enterprise and is revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh, a former soldier who was placed in cryosleep with himself and the rest of his crew. Eventually Khan disrupts order on board the Enterprise, challenging the captain in both physical and psychological ways, using his darkened and manipulative ways to seize control. The conflict eventually escalates into a hand-to-hand fistfight in the engineering bay and concludes when Khan is placed on trial and reinserted back into his cryotube.
The episode is revered as one of the greatest in the series, mostly for its stylish direction, its key emphasis on certain characters, and the introduction of the Khan villain, who would later return for the famed and critically acclaimed Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan. In addition to the characters and direction, the episode is bound together by a series of themes that represent certain pillars of the Trek mythology, and its optimism versus pessimism attitude, and resolution in the face of conflict.
In Space Seed, Khan, unlike Kirk and Spock, is not a space explorer but a soldier from a time when men were at war. Thus, he is a soldier bred for destruction and combat, making him axiomatically opposite to those of the Starship Enterprise. He is a manifestation of what mankind used to be while everyone else in the series is a representation of what mankind should be and the episode explores what happens when these points of view conflict with one another and what comes as a result.
Khan Noonien Singh is an effective villain because of how he contrasts other characters. This is, and always has been, an essential quality within most adversaries featured throughout fiction. The Joker is a representation of chaos and Batman is an agent of order and justice. Lex Luthor is a perversion of the American dream and symbolizes the sinister side of Capitalism while Superman is the hopeful hero who fights for equality, truth, justice, and The American Way. It is only with a good villain that one can find a deeper appreciation for the heroes that oppose them, and Khan is no exception to this rule. Throughout the entire series other villains emerge with similar motives, particularly in The Next Generation when Captain Jean-Luc Picard must face his rivals, the collective Borg, who make cybernetic slaves out of those who were once humans. Yet, based on the series’ run and based on the films, it is more than evident that Roddenberry was seeking to develop stories that were different than those told at the time, and while Star Trek is not without its fair share of fist fights and space battles, it is its clear sense of optimism in the face of conflict and its progressive attitude towards the future that upholds its integrity and purpose. Chris Pine’s Kirk in the most recent Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, says it best: “We change. We have to. Otherwise we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles” (Star Trek Beyond, Directed by Justin Lin) Roddenberry refused to fight the same battles and instead strived to achieve something better than victory. He strived for peace.
The capturing of an optimistic future without bloodshed or conflict is not always an artist’s goal when crafting science fiction. Sometimes artists are aware that in order to make an omelet, you have to be willing to crack a few eggs. The saying is not quite so relevant in the case of Star Trek, but is highly relevant when exploring a narrative that was made famous for its violence as well as for its sheer lack of empathy for the corrupted, and that is the acclaimed graphic novel, V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd.
The premise of the V for Vendetta comic is about the aftermath of a nuclear war and the rise of a fascist government in nineties Britain. It also follows the life of a young woman, Evey, and her encounters with a Romantic and enigmatic anarchist named V. Together, he coerces Evey into joining him on his journey and to plot a series of systematic attacks that will overthrow the tyrannical government. However, while the plot of the story may seem like one that is linked to a superhero trying to end the reign of supervillains, Alan Moore’s comic book takes an extreme turn. V, unlike Zorro or Robin Hood, is quite sadistic in his methods, and sometimes the character goes as far as to eliminate anyone who stands in the way of his goals. The comic also includes darkened themes such as prostitution, child molestation, and the venturing into the minds of many disturbed, sadistic people. But, what makes V for Vendetta a testament to science fiction, is how it finds inspiration and how its themes continue to resurface even now, so many years after it was written.
In the nineteen eighties, Britain was thrust into a state of disbelief when the policies of its new leader, Margaret Thatcher, created a tumultuous environment full of rage, protests, and escalating hatred that seemed as though it would engulf the entire country. Alan Moore viewed this moment in history as an indication for a world that he could potentially live in, which, in his eyes, was a fascist-police state ruled by a fascist leader that categorized and enslaved any who did not fit the profile of an ideal citizen. It is because of this that Alan and David Lloyd sought to create V for Vendetta, and when they conceived the stripe, they did not hesitate to point to those whom they felt would claim responsibility over the disaster.
Throughout the entire book there are continuous references to real locations as well as to real ideas, some of which actually became integrated into society well after the comic was released. One of the more notable of these ideas is the surveillance cameras posted on every street corner as part of the fascist organization Norsefire and was referred to by the government as “The Eye”. Surveillance emerged as the new topic of controversy during the second term of the Obama Administration when, after the leak put forth by Edward Snowden, people became aware that their privacy was no longer a valued commodity to one’s freedom, and if necessary, the government could overturn such rights in order to pursue what they believed to be dangerous threats. In this era, it is practically impossible to go anywhere and not have one’s picture taken. To hide from surveillance is like trying to hide from sunlight. To do so would involve restricting your movements and continuously living a life where you cannot ever reveal yourself. This is one of the many examples why V for Vendetta embodies the contemporary side of science fiction because each aspect of its story, in one way or another, provides a relevant understanding about how the present can dictate the future.
This continues into the present day with countless examples of leaders abusing their power and people being forced to rebel through escape, protest, and violence. Throughout history, nearly each century has been burdened with the consequences of poor leadership, and although V for Vendetta is a fictional tale designed to comment on what was occurring during the Thatcher years in Britain, its relevancy still remains, and it always will so long as we live in a world with government and politics.
In two thousand and sixteen, Americans found faced perhaps the ugliest election ever witnessed in United States politics. The Clinton versus Trump presidential face-off was filled with criticism, degradation, deceit, and was reduced to trivial matters like name-calling, bullying, and everything decent about politicians was abandoned for the mere sake of victory. It propelled voters down a path of misinformation conjured by a demagogue who claimed to be the answer to the country’s problems, and even without a lack of credible evidence to support much of his claims, inevitably a businessman was given the reigns of Commander-In-Chief. Whatever one’s political affiliations are, in the case of this analysis, does not really matter. What matters is the actions that took place throughout the entire six-month race and whether such action could be viewed as similar to what occurred throughout the stories found in certain tales of science fiction?
Each interpretation of the future, specifically futures whereby the fabric of humanity was broken down and what remained was a dystopia or wasteland, can be traced back to one crucial decision for a country or planet. Now, this is not to say that was has occurred in American politics could lead to the kind of devastation that has been explored in numerous films, novels, and comics. What it does determine is whether such a future is a believable possibility. This question, although provocative, does create a vision for the possible future. And, it is by this method, this side of the imagination, that all science fiction, regardless of whether it be grim, fantastic, uncanny or violent, is designed to create something that can be conceived as a possible future.
Throughout the innumerable conventions and forums across pop culture and fandom lurk thousands of eager fans that are more than prepared to see an artist’s assembly of a future world. However, amidst the vast gatherings of people are fans ready to line up with the intention of being more than just entertained. And for those who have read hundreds of sci-fi comics, seen more than enough films set in the far future, what drives the better part of their motivation is the need to learn, to delve deeper and find something meaningful, educational, and real.
Most do not realize or grasp the idea that sometimes a story is being told to tell you something that you perhaps you did not consider or contemplate before. The lightsaber duels, jumps to Warp Speed, the fight scenes, and the laser explosions are not there to keep an audience’s eyes from shifting off the screen, it is to guide the eye towards a hint of knowledge that they had little idea existed. It is about inserting the possibilities into one’s mind and provoking one’s imagination in order to interpret more than just a story. It is also about seeing the truth that appears within the narrative, and it is this conviction that distinguishes the great science fiction tales from science fiction that has dazzled but not intrigued. Intrigue and intelligence are the two qualities that must exist in true sci-fi stories, for without these it is but a mere surface tale, a story built on a foundation of sand rather than stone, and while there are a few mentionable science fiction stories that blossom on the surface, the best go levels deeper. In the end, the messages we find in the contemporary world provide great truth and should have a place in all sci-fi genres. They help us learn, and the more we will learn, the more we grow and expand, and there is nothing more rewarding or beautiful than that.
Avatar. Directed by James Cameron. Lightstorm Entertainment. 18 December. 2009.
Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott. The Ladd Company, 25 June. 1982.
Moore, Alan. V For Vendetta. Vertigo Comics. 1989. Print.
Star Trek Beyond. Directed by Justin Lin. Skydance Media. 22 July. 2016.
Star Trek The Original Series, “Space Seed”. Directed by Marc Daniels. 16
Star Wars. Directed by George Lucas. Lucasfilm Ltd, 25 May. 1977.