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In Defense of Science Fiction

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 01 2012 · 392 views

Essays, Not Rants! 037: In Defense of Science Fiction
You ever caught yourself explaining the conceit of a piece of science fiction and, halfway through, realize how stupid it sounds? No matter how cool it is, it just sounds silly on its way out of your mouth?
Compare these two ideas:
• A group of kids make a movie and wind up learning about life and moving on in this coming of age film.
• A mysterious alien appears in small-town Ohio giving a group of kids the adventure of a lifetime.
The former sounds like a movie that’ll become this award winning, tearjerking, instant classic. The other one sounds more like a popcorn flick with little value beyond entertainment. Thing is; they’re the same movie: Super 8. It is a film about a group of kids making a movie, and they do go on an adventure, and they do learn about life and moving on and letting go and all. And yeah, there’s an alien too, but the alien is a plot device. The alien provides an external catalyst that creates the tensions of the story. Without it, Super 8 wouldn’t have worked the way it did.

Not only that, but the alien in Super 8 essentially serves as the manifestation of one of the main themes of the film: understanding. The creature is an empath, able to feel emotions and see it through their eyes. Joe, the protagonist, has been unable to let go of his dead mother. It’s in the alien that he finds a sort of understanding and comes to terms with it and is, at last, able to let go and move on. We get a clear embodiment of the theme that doesn’t feel forced. It simply wouldn’t work in ‘normal’ fiction. The whole chain of events also has Joe develop from a pushover to the guy who’s doing his best to save the girl.

Further more, the effects of the alien’s arrival causes the two fathers in the story to step up and be dads. Their animosity (due to one being the cause of the death of the other’s wife) is put aside when they have to go after their kids.

Would it have been workable without an alien or other science fiction tropes? Possibly. Thing is, a different catalyst like a military invasion or even a serial killer would lend the movie unnecessary weight and implications. The alien allows the movie to focus in on the topics of forgiveness and letting go, without being bogged down by other themes.
One of the many races in the universe of Mass Effect are the quarians. They’re a nomadic race that, a long time ago, created a ‘race’ of AI machines called the geth. The geth rebelled against the creators, forcing the quarians to be the nomads they are. They’re based in massive ships, sending their young adults out on pilgrimages to find things useful for their Migrant Fleet. Furthermore, they wear full bodysuits due to having an exceptionally weak immune system.

Right, I know, it sounds kinda silly. Wandering aliens in spacesuits because of weak immune systems and all that.
But it creates such a wonderful way to look at issues. The quarians are ostracized from the galactic society as a whole due to their faceless nature and that most of the ones seen are only trying to find something to benefit their fleet. The Mass Effect games explores this idea as well as the idea of being excluded from your own race with the quarian character of Tali’Zorah. She’s a wanderer from a wandering people; a young woman who wants not only to do right by her people but right by the galaxy as well. In her we have a tension born of ostracism from both others and home.

Even if it’s subconscious, it makes us think about the idea of belonging and loyalties, of understanding and racism. Due to it’s scifi setting, Mass Effect doesn’t make it overt with words like “Jew” or “African-American” or anything like that; instead we’re giving an almost parableian look at the idea. Normal fiction would run the risk of sounding preachy or patronizing; in Mass Effect it comes with the setting.
Science fiction has been described as a way to run social commentary or satirize situations, something it does very well. The setting is also capable of providing catalysts for fantastic character driven stories (or adventures as the case may be). It’s such a shame that so often the very idea of science fiction gets ridiculed due to the simple fact that it is not reality.

There are some stories that can only be really told with a gap from reality; to say that the themes or points of these stories are somehow less due to them being ‘unrealistic’ is unfair.

And c’mon: science fiction has friggin’ spaceships!
Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s not science fiction, but one day you’ll be able to buy some!

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Super 8 is amazing.

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But really, I love this argument. Sci Fi is an amazing vehicle that can overtly address current issues better than any other genre. 

Have you ever read Robert L. Forward's book Saturn Rukh? 'Cus ya should. Not to mention the short story (not by Forward) Before My Last Breath.


Seriously, you need to read them.

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This reminds me, I need to see Super 8.
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Jean Valjean
Dec 01 2012 07:40 PM

:kaukau: I haven't seen it, yet.  To summarize my thoughts on this matter, science fiction tends towards the philosophic implications of a hypothetic scenario.  While it can sometimes be simple entertainment, it gives people an instead, big, hyperbolic scenario to work with that explores ideas when taken to their natural extremes.  There are certain thems that are very constant throughout science fiction, those often being questions on humanity's identity and so forth, but let's not focus on the classic questions in particular.  The point is that in works such as Lord of the Rings and Star Trek, a fantasy is created to immediately capture the imagination and fill the story with color.  Considering that the oldest forms of storytelling involve grand settings and conflicts or novel fairytale ideas, I would assume that these storytelling devices are okay, and science fiction is the contemporary form of fairytales.


Consider, by the way, what might just be the greatest movie ever made, Wizard of Oz.  Back in the day, the book was by far a science fiction fairytale.  Just consider the technology of the Emerald City and the titular character.  Then, through the fantastic premise, it finds its theme in unique ways, and the archetypes of the characters come to light through the hyperboles.  I have no criticism of authors who write life fiction, as this is necessary, but strong, bold examples of archetypes are also necessary in society.  This is why we have Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man, and a whole spectrum of other superheroes who create a pantheon of archetypes for immediate comparison, to bear the face and symbolize ideas for character and philosophy that can be continually explored.


This is what science fiction is.  It takes the complications of the real world, simplifies them on their surface with a basic premise using contemporary fairytale elements such as robots, aliens, and new technologies, and it then reminds us that they're complicated, all the while maintaining a simple high concept pitch that makes a good prelude to the case the work presents.


As usual, I do not really relate with your contemporary examples in popular culture.  I'm beginning to wonder who your target audience with these essay-rants is.  Then again, that's a stupid question, since it's probably the majority of other BZP members.



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Dec 01 2012 11:53 PM

Kraggh, these posts are mirrored here from my 'proper' Essays, Not Rants! blog. For the most part, I write these mostly for myself or based on movies I know. This week's entry was almost based on Deadfall (which comes out this Friday) since we had a screening here at NYU yesterday (the writer graduated from here).


In any case, I figured Super 8 and Mass Effect are popular enough to resonate with most people. But ENR has from the get go been based on references I know.

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