Science fiction strikes me as inescapable sometimes, surrounding us in videogames, books, movies and comics. Even a videogame about a 12th century assassin, of all things, wound up being sci-fi last fall. The blockbuster Transformers and the perpetually re-released Blade Runner hit screens last year, and the easily missed Sunshine will likely find a sizable audience on DVD. It made me wonder why we love science fiction this much, a genre that can be so derivative and cliché.
“Nothing acquires quite as rapid or peculiar a patina of age as an imaginary future.”
– William Gibson, Burning Chrome.
“Patina” is an interesting word to choose. It can refer to a desirable, well worn and aged look, and also the ugly greenish corrosion on coins. And so, too, a patina’s aesthetic effect on sci-fi is one entirely of context. Science fiction’s slick veneer of prescience breaks down almost immediately, corroded by the passing of time and our better informed perspective. If this happens so quickly and consistently, why does sci-fi maintain its appeal, especially old sci-fi, which ends up inaccurate and outdated?
Well, science fiction is not, and traditionally hasn’t been, about the future, science or technology. It’s about us. Now.
Tell Me About Myself
In the Ottawa Citizen, Canadian sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer (Rollback, Mindscan) reminded us that in War of the Worlds even H.G. Wells, a pioneer of the genre, was speaking not about technology, not about the future, but about his society in his day. It wasn’t ever about a Martian invasion. That was just the context for the story he needed to tell.
“It was Wells’ attempt, using the unique tools of science fiction, to get his countrymen to see what it’s like to have one’s culture crushed underfoot by an uncaring, expansionist, technologically advanced foreign power. He’d hoped they’d realize the cruelty of what Britain was doing in India and other places.”
But it’s unlikely that every single science fiction writer sets out with the same purpose. A writer could try to pen unambiguous speculation about what the future might bring with no intentional allegories or subtext. But, eventually, her story becomes one of the future seen through the naive lens of the past. Over time it’s inevitable that, whatever her initial goal, the story will be an artifact of the time in which it was written, and a comment on that time and its way of thinking, indistinguishable from reflections on the here and now.
Sci-fi often mixes commentary and speculation, meaning to tell stories about the present, but set in a believable future. Star Trek‘s content, for instance, told stories about its own time, but its context was speculation about the future of technology. You can easily see, though, even that was just a redressing of the present. In his July 2007 article in Locus Magazine, sci-fi author Cory Doctorow suggests that the “non-futurismic version of NCC-1701 [the Enterprise] would be the size of a softball” and wouldn’t need an onboard crew. Its transporter would store multiple copies of the most competent crew member, “no redshirts, just a half-dozen instances of Kirk operating in clonal harmony.” Even the idea of a human away-team at all seems a little quaint to me. But ships with large crews are what we have now, so that’s what Star Trek said we’ll have then.
In the preface to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, Bruce Sterling said science fiction writers are like court jesters, able to speak truths without offense. “We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophecies, and scratch ourselves in public. We can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins makes us seem harmless.”
Science fiction is able to make indictments against us palatable. We can choose either to accept them as truths or dismiss them as empty fiction. Star Trek, we know, wasn’t saying that hundreds of years in the future we’ll see racism as a social flaw. It was saying that it should be recognized as such back then in the ’60s. Every comment on the Prime Directive, every mention of how the people of Earth solved their society’s problems, were not speculation on what the future might bring but arguments that something was wrong in the present.
Science fiction’s messages need not even be positive, and the genre isn’t necessarily one strictly of open-mindedness. Michael Crichton, for instance, couldn’t readily be accused of optimism. Robert J. Sawyer, in an address at Laurentian University, explained the difference between authors like himself and authors like Crichton: Sawyer’s books do not suggest that technology is a bad thing, something to be warned against. Crichton’s books do.
“Now, yes, I am an optimist about the future; I think most science fiction writers are. But the most successful science fiction writer in the world – the one who sells the most copies – isn’t. Michael Crichton is, by far, the world’s top selling science fiction writer, and yet he’s fundamentally an anti-science guy.” In fact, Sawyer went on to summarize the plots of Crichton’s most famous novels, always ending with “everything goes wrong, and people die.”
We enjoy both forms of sci-fi for the same reasons, though. They tell us about ourselves, whether we recognize that immediately or not. Tales of a dystopia remind us that not all scientific pursuits are progress, and they imagine a future’s worth of those pursuits run rampant. In Crichton’s world, when humanity tries to better itself with technology, everybody dies. And this appeals to people who are concerned about the state of our world today, who see it tracking further away from some ideal. These stories are just as popular – if not much more so – than those that paint technology in a kinder light.
We’re drawn to both because they put us in the characters’ positions. And when we’re through watching, reading or playing, we’re back in our world, having, for better or worse, learned a little bit about ourselves.
The Implausibility Factor
Science fiction’s main draw to the general audience is its escapism. Sci-fi isn’t just veiled morality tales. Even if we don’t sense the message in a particular work, the medium is often enough to entertain. The genre’s appeal would be diminished or, more likely, entirely extinguished if the stories weren’t themselves enjoyable.
Living in a sci-fi world is utterly unattainable, but our imagination takes this as a challenge, allowing us to escape into those worlds more fully than with other genres. Typical stories set in the Real World have real-world restrictions that hamper our ability to imagine ourselves in them. Sci-fi escapism, then, doesn’t seem to fade away into our subculture’s consciousness like other adventure stories do. While this year’s big non-sci-fi adventure movie might be an immediate success, it’s unlikely that it will have the staying power of Blade Runner. Joss Whedon’s Firefly is still selling strong on Amazon years after the little-watched TV show was abruptly canceled. Our imaginations just can’t carry us that far into a real-world situation, but when you’re dealing with an impossible scenario, everything is possible to imagine.
Science fiction promises us that if our surroundings were different, if a new technology were invented or time simply passed, we could be the hero in the story. We needn’t be extraordinary; we need only exist in that world. We can imagine so easily what we would do in those situations, with that technology.
“If only I’d been born on Tatooine, I could have saved the galaxy” is easier and more fun to imagine than trying to create a scenario set in today’s world where I could achieve the same thing. With sci-fi, the blame for our lives not being extraordinary is placed on the universe and not ourselves. This allows us to explore every inch of those universes unimpeded, and wonder what our lives could be like if we lived in that galaxy far, far away.
The sci-fi games BioShock, Halo 3 and Mass Effect were among the greatest commercial and critical successes in videogames last year. Halo 3‘s success, in fact, was unprecedented. Mass Effect and BioShock were touted for the moral choices they presented. Both games used the genre to encourage the player to explore their own humanity, and humanity as a whole, in classic sci-fi form. BioShock was able to do this without even being set in the future, but by harnessing the same techniques afforded by traditional sci-fi, like foreign technology and a futuristic environment.
Halo 3‘s attraction was its escapist values, just like Star Wars, another sci-fantasy. Less about morality or a comment on society, it let players become engrossed in the world it presented. Aren’t you able to imagine yourself in the game’s universe because it’s so implausible, because it’s so much grander than our own world? It feels like all it would take is for time to pass, for the future to be now, and you could actually be Master Chief. And all of those games and the ones like them will eventually be relics of our time. They’ll be artifacts of how we saw the world in 2007, because our visions of the future are mere extrapolations of the present.
Our minds can accept the worlds of science fiction because they’re wonderfully derivative, too. Every science fiction novel, movie and videogame feels familiar to me because I’m a sci-fi fan. William Gibson (Neuromancer, Spook Country), coiner of the word “cyberspace,” even said in his July 2005 article in Wired that his writing was much like William S. Burroughs’s cut-and-paste techniques.
“Everything I wrote, I believed instinctively, was to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data.” He spoke of the remix culture, which seems pioneered by science fiction. “Our culture no longer bothers to use words like appropriation or borrowing to describe those very activities. Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating.” This brings the audience so much closer to the genre. Think of the fan-created Star Wars and Star Trek films, or the abundant fan-fiction stories.
And it’s been overwhelmingly science fiction authors who’ve embraced new distribution models for their works. Authors like Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross have offered some of their books for free online. Doctorow’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. There’s a singularity somewhere out there in the future where the audience and the creators are indistinguishable from each other, and it will be science fiction leading this revolution.
It all comes down to a simple thought: Science fiction is like seeing your house on Google Maps and thinking, “Wow, so that’s what my house looks like.” From another unusual and uncomfortable perspective it all becomes terribly clear. And from way up there in the world of science fiction we get to see a little bit more of ourselves, lose ourselves so wholly in everything it has to offer. We’ve clung to it for so long, and we’ll continue to do so. Well, at least in my version of the future.
Joel Kelly is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.