Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Fourteen

A Dying Science Fiction

I feel like Michael Douglas' character in Wonder Boys. He types the page numbers 2-6-1, then adds another 1--his novel has grown into a monstrosity of 2,611 pages and there's no end in sight. I have been working on these two series--What Is the Monster of the Twenty-First Century? and A Survey of Monsters--for several months now. I can tell you, there is an end in sight. But first I have to bring in another series . . . 

A few months ago, I looked into this question: Is science fiction dying? I wasn't sure then, and I'm not sure now of the answer. If science fiction isn't dying, it may still be in pretty bad shape. Or maybe what's dying is a certain world of science fiction, that 1940s and 1950s world of a small and devoted (and maybe homogeneous) fandom, a world dominated by a few well-known names (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, etc.), a world in which science fiction magazines hung on the newsstand like ripe fruit from a fecund tree. Now, like everything else, science fiction is extremely varied, each facet has its own well-known names and fanatic devotées, and--while science fiction magazines might be hard to find--science fiction is everywhere and in everything, including our daily lives. As an example, I am writing to you now on a machine of science fiction, while you are reading my words on a machine that is perhaps even more science-fictional.

I'm working with the idea that fantasy (high fantasy, heroic fantasy, weird fiction, supernatural horror, etc.) is a genre of the past, while science fiction is a genre of the future. If fantasy is about the past, it might very easily slip into a chronicle of decadence. Also, if fantasy is about the past, then it might be partly about nostalgia and partly about fear. Science fiction on the other hand is more likely to be progressive, hopeful, and confident--unless of course it's dystopian. Science fiction, at least in its early days, believed that the future was going to be better than the present. It had to be. After all, what we think of as science fiction came out of the Great Depression and the war years, when all its writers came of age and most of its magazines were first established. Finally, in a large part, fantasy is escapist. I imagine that people read Tolkien or Robert E. Howard to escape their own mundane existence and to immerse themselves in a fully imagined world, right down to maps of Middle Earth and of the Hyborean Age. Science fiction on the other hand tends to be about the real world. There is space opera of course, but that amounts to outer space fantasy. (I would not call Star Wars a science fiction movie.) Hard science fiction--the real stuff--takes people of today and puts them into an imagined future to see how they will live. It's why, when you read a science fiction story from the 1950s but set in the future, people smoke cigarettes, talk on the telephone, read the paper, and hand each other written notes, typed files, and so on. Authors of the 1950s did not predict the world of today, but it's a kind of science-fiction illiteracy to believe that science fiction is supposed to be predictive. Prediction is not the point at all. The point is to say something about today, or about the people of today--in other words, the people of all time--by placing them into the future. So if you're looking for the spirit of an age, look at its science fiction (or fiction in general, or more general still, at all of art).

The spirit of an age . . . that's the phrase I have used in looking for the monster of the twenty-first century, for my idea is that the monster of any given age represents the spirit of that age. So what does the science fiction of after the 1950s say about the times in which it was made? The other day, I wrote about Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That's as good a place as any to start.

Released in 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based on the magazine serial The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1954). The serial--soon after a book--is a work of hope and confidence. In the end, humanity wins out and drives the Body Snatchers from Earth by a combination of strength, courage, and determination. The underlying theme is that there is a special humanity, that we possess something that sets us apart in this universe. That confidence and the assertion of a special humanity was still in science fiction as late as the 1960s in the television show Star Trek. More on that in a minute.

In the serial and book The Body Snatchers, there isn't any ambiguity. Instead, ambiguity set in with the screening of the movie, first with the original ending, in which the outcome is so much in question, then with the revised ending, which is more hopeful, but still not entirely happy. After all, Dana Wynter gets turned into a Pod Person. If you want something even less hopeful, watch the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1978. It's still a very good movie, but the ending is entirely without hope. So what happened between 1954 and 1978? And has very much changed since the 1970s? Those questions are not just about our society. They're also about science fiction, a reflection of every age in which science fiction is written.

You don't even have to stretch it out that far. For example, compare War of the Worlds, from 1953, with Soylent Green from just twenty years later. Both movies end in or in front of a church. War of the Worlds, a movie about strength, courage, and persistence, ends in hope. There is even mention of God and a kind of gratitude for His presence and His wisdom. The monsters in War of the Worlds come from the outside. Contrast that with Soylent Green (1971). Soylent Green is also about real virtues--friendship, a questing for truth and justice--but it is also cynical and dystopian. The monsters are more human than alien. As in the first ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you're not quite sure how things are going to turn out with Soylent Green. Gone is the certainty and the special humanity of the 1950s. Now we're merely food for each other.

The Thing from Another World (1951) was also remade, as The Thing, in 1982. The first movie is brimming with confidence in America and in humanity at large. The ending is unambiguous, full of hope and triumph. The ending of the grungy, cynical remake is none of those things. 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was remade in 2008. The first movie is a sort of warning: we might still save ourselves. The remake reflects the spirit of our age in its hatred for humanity. In Keanu Reeves' version, we are already lost. Only the animals shall be saved.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) was essentially remade as Alien (1979). In the first movie, the monster is the monster. In the second, the monster is a monster but also a kind of red herring, for an earthbound corporation, seeking to retrieve the alien for its own purposes, is the real force behind all the mayhem. In other words, human beings, more specifically corporate  men, are now the enemy. (1, 2)

When Worlds Collide (1951) is full of positive human values. Although the Earth is destroyed (a kind of cruelty), humanity is saved and enters into a new Eden. The movie ends in glorious hope. Melancholia (2011), on the other hand, reflects the moviemaker's despair, his sense of doom, his nihilism, and his hatred for himself and for the rest of humanity. In Melancholia, humanity doesn't do a thing to save itself. We go passively to our destruction, believing we deserve it. It's worth noting here the words of Lars von Trier, the writer and director of Melancholia:
For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew, then I met [Danish and Jewish director] Susanne Bier and I wasn’t so happy. But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German. And that also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler . . . I sympathize with him a bit.
The totalitarian monster rears its ugly head.

In the original television show Star Trek (1966-1969), the crew of the Enterprise are confident, hopeful, bold, daring. They are very human, too. They love, they fight, they are warm- and sometimes even hot-blooded. They venture into the unknown galaxy, full of courage and strength. They solve problems. They don't doubt themselves or the rightness of their cause. The crew of the Enterprise under Captain Picard have some of those virtues, though a warm, loving, or emotional nature seems to have been expunged among them. More recently, in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the crew of the original Enterprise, played by new actors and loose in a new universe, share a great deal with the originals. They're emotional for sure. Every one of them cries like Andrea Martin playing Marsha Mason. But they lack a certain something of the original. That lack reflects the spirit of our age, for the crew in Star Trek Into Darkness don't know how to solve their own problems. They lack confidence in themselves. They run to the old Spock like a child running to his mother. Moreover, they save Khan and his people for a future war because they themselves realize that these people from an earlier era have something that the people of Captain Kirk's time lack. In other words, the people of the Federation and the Federation itself have become decadent, as we in our own times have become decadent. They seem on the verge of giving up the cause of freedom and of embracing totalitarianism. Their Nazi-like uniforms are emblematic of that. Into darkness indeed.

After World War II, science fiction promised so much. It promised a better world, with limitless atomic energy, universal prosperity, distant horizons, a united humanity, an end to war, and because of all that, greater human happiness. In the seven decades since, science has achieved wonders, yet we have also had Chernobyl and Fukushima, intractable poverty, an end to American manned spaceflight (we now rely on the Russians, i.e., the Klingons, to get us into space), an evermore Balkanized humanity, and a continuation of our warring ways. I would hazard a guess that people are no happier now than they have ever been, and in some ways are probably a good deal less so. We are cynical, disillusioned, and in despair. We hate ourselves and each other. Science has proved a disappointment. It has failed to give us everything we thought it would give. We believe that the future will be worse than the past. It's no wonder that so much science fiction of today is dystopian or post-apocolyptic, and why people want to escape in fantasy to an imagined past. If science fiction is dying, it may be only because we have lost hope.

Without hope among humanity and without a vision of a better future through science, science fiction can hardly hope to survive. The props and the themes of science fiction permeate our society and culture. They aren't going away. The monster of the twenty-first century would reflect all that. For instance, the monster of our times might be explained in scientific or material terms rather than by some supernatural agency. But I don't think the monster of our times can be a purely science-ficitional monster. The cryptid monster is gone. The science fiction monster is still with us. But I think it's a hybrid, made for our decadent, cynical, and nihilistic age.

(1) The theme is repeated in Aliens (1986) and in Avatar (2009), otherwise known as Dances with Smurfs and Ferngully in Space. Both are from director James Cameron, who has enriched himself through the same kind of corporations he has demonized in his movies. He and Al Gore must be pals. But you have to understand, rules and policies are made for you, not for them. Or as the saying goes, some animals are more equal than others.
(2) To read more on the idea of corporate dystopia, see:
Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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