Norbert Cunningham is the Times & Transcript editorial page editor. His column appears here every Friday.
Published Friday November 5th, 2010
Where has all the great science fiction gone?
Or put another way, is it just me or is there an incredible dearth of truly imaginative and thought-provoking science fiction these days compared to times past, particularly in the realms of television and movies? This despite the fact that “space” themed shows seem to be all the rage, along with the obsession with vampires, zombies, ghosts/spirits and mediums, the latter two genres of which are thinly veiled American religious pablum for the most part. One ought not to expect much from that list given that the topics themselves are inherently one-dimensional and provide little room to take them further than they’ve already been taken.
But science fiction, now there’s a genre with a full range of possibilities for exploring a universe of themes while also entertaining us. Yet few appear to have taken advantage of the opportunity, opting rather for the easy and superficial, and at times simply banal. That, or a meaningless display of special effects and ‘action,’ code words for little more than blowing things up, crashing stuff into other stuff, and a variety of faux martial arts impossibilities.
One of the most recent, and successful, of science fiction movies was Avatar. It was visually beautiful, showed imagination creating an alien world (though it was much less original than the hype has it), and provides a fast-paced viewing experience, even if its 3-D effects are underwhelming and typically gimmicky. It’s a good B-movie in many ways, but it isn’t good science fiction.
Avatar is a prime example of what’s lacking in much of today’s science fiction: original ideas and thought-provoking stories. Simply transferring Pocahontas to an alien planet doesn’t qualify. And anybody who thought there was some kind of profound message in the (ironically for an alleged 3-D breakthrough) one-dimensional plot has clearly not done much reading or thinking lately. Here is what it said, with no qualifications: aboriginal people are in tune with nature and white people are not; big corporations are evil and destroy the environment, but aboriginals do not. Full stop.
Black and white, no shading, no subtlety, no questioning of these popular myths that are so absolutist and lacking in any evidence that they are, in fact, a manifestation of ignorance just as great as that the movie depicts large corporations as possessing.
Avatar, and many other alleged science fiction movies and TV shows, are nothing more than the old good guys/bad guys, cowboy and Indian stories dressed up in high tech dreams of space travel. They are mostly vehicles for empty “action,” offering no insight into humanity.
If they aren’t cowboys and Indians, they’re monster movies with no point but to defeat the monster. The exceptions are few and far between (District 9, for example, had plenty of action but also more profound themes that left viewers thinking for days).
Even Star Wars, another blockbuster series, offered little but action and platitudes about good and evil, however well done. And alas, a potentially great Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy ended up being a bit of a mess and superficial, partly because the movie-makers failed to find a good focus for their rendering of a classic, but impossibly sprawling series of books.
Another problem with science fiction today, ironically, is that it is full of really bad science and easy twists on modern science that shows more ignorance than understanding or imaginative extrapolation.
Given the tremendous progress in most of our sciences, including genetics, understanding of evolution, physics, nano-technology and cosmology, up to and including the successor to “string theory” known as M-theory (membrane or ‘brane’ theory), this can only be called a colossal failure of imagination on the part of those writing and making today’s science fiction entertainment.
The original War of the Worlds was imaginative and based on good science, making an important point. The remake was just, literally, a bloodbath without plot, disappointing coming from Stephen Spielberg who did give us ET and Close Encounters, two better than average sci-fi flicks.
Even the 1960s hit Planet of the Apes, for all its bad acting and dialogue, had something interesting and thought-provoking to say. And it at least had an air of believability about it. Today’s writers don’t even appear to be trying. One more “humans have become the hunted” show and the theme will be in the running for most over-used modern cliché. Part of the problem, of course, is that while called “science fiction,” most of this stuff is anything but. What little “science” they feature is merely window dressing for tired old plots.
We need a visionary, and one who will avoid the following at all costs:
Assuming there was an ancient, much more intelligent race millions of years ago (almost certainly an impossibility, says the science); spaceships exploding in big balls of fire (space is an airless vacuum and there would be no such spectacular explosions); forgetting that gravity doesn’t exist in space; use of unbelievable aliens that couldn’t possibly, due to physical limitations, manufacture even a rudimentary bicycle let alone a spaceship, no matter how ‘smart’ their brains; Depict alien worlds, including highly advanced ones, without assuming they would look very much like a stereotype of medieval Europe, including clothing, stone castle-like structures, old-fashioned torches and, yes, even suits of armour; assume all women in the future will dress like belly dancers or mythical Amazon warriors whose most fearsome feature is breast size (yep, Hollywood is still that shallow); and forget the meaningless references to “quantum” this or that if it’s not exploring a good idea or possibility.