I just wanted to follow up on some of the ideas I was pondering earlier today, about the science fiction genre in general and some of my personal favorite themes in specific. Ashley was saying earlier that she for some reason never really got into sci-fi, for the most part, and so she’s glad there’s still time to learn and think about it. A few weeks ago I was thinking about horror and sci-fi everywhere I went. These are two genres that deal primarily with the unknown. Sometimes the supernatural, but sometimes plainly just “what we don’t know.” In horror, what we don’t know can and usually does hurt us. Science fiction is just fiction centered around the potentials of technology and human discoveries. Maybe the earth becomes a smoking crater as a result. Maybe Klaatu and Gort stop off to tell us where we stand. (Also note, I guess: the discoveries and technology need not be human.) Sci-fi works as a blanket category for all the reactions – fear, longing, desperation, curiosity – to the possibility of other life in the universe.
Here’s where I’ll admit that I’ve been fixated on aliens, UFOs, abductions, etc. for pretty much as long as I can remember. I wonder where this interest comes from. We had lots of books on the paranormal sitting around the house. We watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and one year during Thanksgiving my dad did, in fact, sculpt the mashed potatoes into the likeness of Devil’s Tower. I read voraciously about Betty and Barney Hill or Roswell or whatever caught my eye, checked out books from the library that delved into the ancient astronaut theories, and became terrified that while I lay sleeping, a UFO might hover outside my window and its passengers might levitate me into their craft to subject me to all kinds of experiments. Luckily, this fear has (mostly) subsided, but I’m still incredibly interested in all things alien. As I mentioned elsewhere, a few weeks ago I caught this show on the Discovery Channel called UFO Hunters. And it sucked; it was an insult to everything I’ve studied and loved. Instead of trying to actually build up evidence and apply the scientific method in order to glean some facts about whether ETs exist or not, they chose a different route: Believe anything and everything, forcing evidence to fit the assumptions you’ve already made! That, my friends, is bogus, worthless pseudoscience. Oh, I also remember seeing Independence Day when it came out in 1996. My friend Noah had an action figure of one of the aliens, too. In retrospect, the movie probably sucked, but I’m sure it encouraged me to keep studying ufology. Kecksburg, PA is pretty far west of Chambersburg, but nonetheless I hope to visit it with Ashley someday. It’s basically the Roswell of the north. As I recall, something landed in the woods; residents ran to check it out but the government interceded, carried the object away, and said it was a meteor. This was in 1965.
But getting back to my starting point, with science fiction we don’t learn nearly as much about science as we do about ourselves. For example: the Cold War was full of movies about nuclear war and its consequences. Did that mean we were going to have a nuclear war? Answers may vary, but the point is that we were terrified of it and wondering how we’d cope. Would society eventually rebuild from the ashes, as, say, 1960’s The Time Machine suggests? Would mankind recede in the wake of his hubristic demise and other species take over, as in Planet of the Apes (1968)? Or would we all succumb to the bleak hilarity of a masculinity-induced grave as in Dr. Strangelove (1964)? (Strangelove‘s flip side, however, was the equally bleak resignation and grimness of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, in which President Henry Fonda is forced to bomb New York as a sign of good will.) My sleepy, not entirely coherent point is that science fiction provides us with options and arguments. We shouldn’t have the Bomb, because. As Gene Roddenberry was fond of proving, science fiction can be a great arena for giving commentary on contemporary issues in a detached, metaphorical setting. H.G. Wells is making a socialist parable with the Eloi and the Morlocks, but who needs a dry political tract when it can be an action-packed love story of the year 802,701? As I remember not-so-eloquently arguing in a paper on Brave New World in 11th grade, sci-fi satire can show what’s wrong with an idea by taking it to extremes – applying it to the world at large. Soylent Green: think Malthusian catastrophes aren’t a problem? Hope you like eating people. So, social commentary is another possible task of science fiction. I think of (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesotan) Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which he rebuffs fascism by showing that yes, in fact, it can happen here. Or Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel, which as with Wells illustrates his early 20th century socialist views.
My point is that you can say a lot with science fiction, and sometimes it’s more effective than just saying it in terms of the ordinary world we already know. Racism may make sense to your normal American in the mid-’60s, but what about when we put it in terms of the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”?
That’s right: they’re the last survivors of their respective races, determined to hate each other because their black and white stripes are on different halves of their bodies. This is Fantastic Racism. But sci-fi doesn’t just have to deal with issues through metaphor. I mean, as I was discussing earlier, much of the appeal is direct discussion of very real issues that just haven’t become a physical reality yet. We don’t have sentient robots quite yet, but it’s still important to know if they’d be equal to human beings, and therefore what it means to be human, as well as whether or not they’d try to gang up on us and become unstoppable killing machines led by an evil, human-hating computer. I mean, it’s always possible. Ergo, Blade Runner: do androids dream of electric sheep? And if they do, does that mean human beings aren’t unique – does it mean we can be easily replicated, even replaced by Galateas produced by us who also dream? I had this crazy idea the other day, briefly imagining a world where golems form the earth’s main work force and are also the victims of racism. I still think it’d make a great story. But the point is that even in genuinely fantastical situations like a world heavily populated by androids, human nature still has a part. We are driven to create (and destroy) – we like creating in our own image. We’re driven to do that, too. Don’t believe me? Well, what did you play with as a kid? Odds are it was an anthromorphicized lump of plastic or fabric. And kids love dolls who can talk. Or move. You know, come to think of it, maybe I should watch the movie AI. Even if Kubrick died before he could start it, and passed it on to Spielberg, and apparently it sucks. Maybe the movie still has something to offer.
And on a similar note, time machines. We’ve never invented one; never even come close. But why not? Our great tragedy is that we can’t change the past. The past is full of suckiness and shit – our collective consciousness would do anything to go back and undo all the genocide, warfare, pain, destruction, and hatred. But since time’s a one-way street, we have no access to any moment before now. We’re also curious as hell about the future. Hey, what do you think sci-fi’s for in the first place? It acts as a cheap, low-qual substitute time machine. Not able to build some quantum mechanical doohickey in your spare time? Buy a paperback and find out what 1,000 years from now will more or less be like. Oh, the gratification, to imagine a future dominated by space captains transposed from 20th century America. To project ourselves into Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or you name it, as he takes our values and appearances on into other galaxies.
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell
I’d like to suggest that there’s some measure of power in controlling the future, too. If you’re some fucking Klansman who writes about a future where White Pride comes out on top, there might be a small psychological victory – at least for your fellow racist fuckers – right there. “See? In the end, we win! It says so right here in this book!” Or like Charlie Manson’s batshit insane predictions about “Helter Skelter” and the coming race wars which would put the Family on top. Maybe that’s not strictly science fiction, but I think it’s worthy of the title. What can I say; I always love really weird, twisted visions of the future. Maybe I like to see how far the world can be warped by authorial vision. That could be why I love Henry Darger so much, with his outsider artist ideas of an alternate world where child slaves battle non-Catholics – seriously, Madeleine L’Engle should totally have borrowed a page from Henry Darger’s book (literally). Or there’s William S. Burroughs, who straddles the line between sci-fi and… Beat queer junkie transgressive fiction. (Then again, maybe I should read his Nova trilogy.) Last night, I was discussing Philip K. Dick with Ashley. He’s a man whose personal confusions, problems, and experiences heavily informed the sci-fi he chose to write, telling of worlds where subjective realities are always crumbling, leading to identity crisis pile-ups.
After all, as Paul Gauguin would ask (in maybe my favorite painting title ever): “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Science fiction may not be able to answer these questions, but it’s a unique and very useful tool in coming up with theories. You’re able to test the limits of the human experience even more when you can think back to the earth’s volcanic beginnings, and forward to the earth’s potential descent into cold, barren darkness. I suspect that perhaps, among some quarters, talking about “science fiction” as a topic leads conjures images of rocket ships and, yes, those same all-American white masculine space captains I was mentioning, serving as wet dreams for the gratification-seeking reader. And maybe these images lead sci-fi to be tossed aside as a pointless, fantasy-indulging genre entirely disconnected from real human emotions. This kind of dismissal has happened before; hell, no sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture, though certainly a few have been nominated. (Neither has a horror movie – just goes to show how these genres are viewed by the Academy.) So, what’s my point with all this? I’m not really sure. I guess I want to try to elucidate some of the purposes science fiction in general serves. Maybe I should also mention a book I started reading, a work of utopian sci-fi from 1914 called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All about a South American paradise discovered by 3 American men, populated entirely by women who reproduce parthenogenically. I should really keep reading that. So, I’d better go to bed since it’s 3 am and I’m sleepy. But I plan to continue exploring these ideas in the future. For, as Criswell would say, that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives!