It now became a commonplace assumption among many people that the genre of sci-fi in literature and movies is being solely concerned with exposing how the continuous technological progress may affect the realities of people’s everyday living in the future.
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Nevertheless, there are good reasons to believe that, while reflecting upon the ‘ways of the future’, sci-fi authors never cease being affected by currently predominant socio-cultural discourse, which causes their futuristic reflections to be more reflective of the actual present than of some distant future. Therefore, it will only be logical to assume that science fiction does, in fact, have less to do with science proper and more to do with the process of the human condition being continually transformed. In this paper, I will aim to explore the validity of an earlier suggestion at length.
Nowadays, Jules Verne is commonly referred to as the ‘father of sci-fi genre’. After all, in his novels, this 19th century’s French author did not only succeed in providing plausible forecasts as to what will account for the realities of 20th century’s living, but he also showed that, from his time onwards, the technological progress would serve as the only driving force behind humanity’s cultural, intellectual and moral advancement.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that Verne’s literary genius did not originate out of the blue. It is namely the fact that, throughout the course of 19th century, the process of Industrialization had assumed clearly defined exponential subtleties, which established objective preconditions for the most prominent European intellectuals of the time (such as Jules Verne) to grow increasingly aware of what will account for Industrialization’s socio-political effects.
According to Rose (1981: 122): ‘SF (science fiction)… really only comes into being in the 19th century and it is intimately associated both with industrialization and urbanization and with the Victorian crisis of faith, with the disappearance of God that marks the beginning of the modem sense of radical disconnection’. Therefore, there is nothing particularly odd about the fact that, even though he was able to predict the invention of planes, submarines and automobiles, Jules Verne never predicted the invention of petrol/diesel engines (Verne’s futuristic machines are equipped with steam engines). Apparently, while imagining the ways of the future, Verne never crossed the boundaries of 19th century’s Industrialization-driven social discourse – hence, Verne’s fascination with steam engines.
Essentially the same thesis applies to the significance of Herbert Wells’s sci-fi legacy. Throughout the course of early 20th century, the scientific discoveries that had taken place in the fields of physics, chemistry and astronomy and also the nature of European colonial practices in Africa, created dialectical prerequisites for the sci-fi authors to reflect upon the possibility of extraterrestrial life and upon what would account for the actual consequence of humans encountering space-aliens.
Hence, the nature of themes and motifs, explored in Wells’s famous sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds – being the son of its time, Wells believed that when beings, endowed with a superior intellect (Martians), come into contact with intellectually inferior beings (Earthlings), this will necessarily result in the wholesale annihilation of the latter: ‘The immediate pressure of necessity has brightened their (Martians’) intellects, enlarged their powers, and hardened their hearts’ (Wells 1894: 3).
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It appears that, while working on this particular novel, Wells remained deeply impressed by Britain’s colonial wars in Africa, when one British soldier armed with the Maxim machine-gun, was often able to mow down thousands and thousands of advancing Zulu warriors, armed with spears. In its turn, this caused Wells to base novel’s plot upon the assumption that, in the eyes of nature, there can be no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ but only ‘weak’ and ‘strong’. It is needless to mention, of course, that such an assumption, on Welles’s part, has been reflective of the realities of Western colonial expansion in the early 20th century. Therefore, just as it used to be the case with Verne’s science fiction, Well’s science fiction never ceased sublimating the spirit of its time.
When we analyze the semiotics of Byron Haskin’s 1953 film The War of the Worlds, based upon Welles’s novel, we will come to conclude that this film’s semantic content cannot be discussed outside of what represented the realities America’s early cold-war-living, strongly associated with both: people’s fear of radiation and their fear of Communism, as the ideology utterly inconsistent with American ‘traditional values’.
For example, after having stumbled upon Martian landing-pod in the woods, film’s main character Dr Forrester (who prior to Martian invasion, was enjoying an outdoor-picnic) immediately puts to use a bulky radioactivity-measuring device, as if carrying such devices along represented a commonplace practice among American picnic-goers. This scene, of course, leaves no doubt as to the fact that Haskin’s The War of the Worlds was filmed in the early fifties when the majority of Americans used to be deeply affected by an ongoing nuclear hysteria.
Given the fact that at the time of movie’s creation, American society remained utterly patriarchic (women were commonly perceived as nothing but housewives that could only have the ‘voice of authority’ in the kitchen), Haskin’s choice for having the parts of Martian machines shaped in the form of snake-heads, appears being indicative of director’s deep-seated sense of sexism. As it was noted by Wood (2003: 133): ‘The film is crudely sexist…The Martian machines are blatantly phallic, with their snakelike probing and penetrating devices… the heroine’s only function is to scream every time a Martian phallus pokes in through her window’. This again points out to the fact that cinematographic/literary works of science fiction do in fact, reflect the process of the human condition being continually reworked.
Another illustration as to the legitimacy of this idea can serve the 1961 sci-fi novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. In the novel, the character of Kris Kelvin (researcher) arrives on board of a space station, orbiting the planet Solaris, fully covered with a mysteriously looking ocean (which is later being revealed to possess the mind of its own). As the novel’s plot progresses, Kelvin gets to encounter the ghost of his long-deceased wife Harey, who had committed suicide due to the lack of love, on Kelvin’s part.
These encounters drive Kelvin to the point of having a nervous breakdown. It is only later that he gets to realize that, by embodying Kelvin’s memories of Harvey, the planet Solaris was trying to appeal to his sense of conscientiousness. Hence, the foremost motif, which is being explored in Lem’s novel – the fact that humanity’s reliance on technology alone, as the ultimate mean of dealing with life’s challenges, often proves utterly ineffective and even counter-productive.
The reason for this is simple – the ‘purposefulness’ of human existence is a rather subjective category. As it was noted by Geier and Welliver (1992: 195): ‘In view of the ontological alienness of the ocean (on Solaris) in relation to human beings, its “meaning” can only be determined negatively: it consists of holding up before human beings a mirror of their own anthropomorphic and geocentric limitedness’.
The earlier outlined motif, of course, is being fully correlative with the conventions of existentialist philosophy, which during the course of sixties and seventies was growing increasingly popular with European intellectuals. Therefore, it will not be an exaggeration to refer to Lem’s novel Solaris as another example of how the works of science fiction reflect the spatial aspects of humanity’s intellectual advancement.
The fact that the qualitative essence of currently predominant socio-political discourse in the West does affect that the particulars of how sci-fi authors imagine the ‘ways of the future’, can also be illustrated in regards to comparatively recent sci-fi movies, which despite their recentness were able to attain a cult-status, such as Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009). For example, as we are well aware of, the foremost motif in Scott’s Alien is being concerned with the process of an alien-parasite developing inside the human body and consequently killing the host.
This motif, however, cannot be discussed outside of the fact that it was named during the course of late seventies and early eighties that the policy of ‘multiculturalism’ had attained official status in Western countries. Therefore, the scene in which monstrous alien breaks through Kane’s chest appears to be highly sublimation of Scott’s deep-seated anxieties, concerned with what his subconscious psyche perceived as the unnatural process of Western civilization’s integrity being undermined from within by invading ‘ethnic’ immigrants, who exploit Western countries as their ‘breeding ground’, without caring to contribute to these countries’ well-being.
While referring to what appears to be the significance of the earlier mentioned scene in Scott’s Alien, Scobie (1993: 84) states: ‘It is extremely powerful, if crude, the image of the disruption of the “natural” order, not only in the direct association it sets up between birth and death, but also because it is male childbirth’. The ‘unnaturalness’ is the truly horrifying aspect of Ridley’s movie.
Nevertheless, given the fact that for the duration of three decades, Westerners never ceased being subjected to the ideological oppression of ‘political correctness’, it comes as no surprise that, as of today, many of them have been deprived of their ability to critically assess the surrounding reality and their place in it. In its turn, this explains why a number of citizens in Western countries have now grown comfortable with referring to Western civilization as being ‘inheritably evil’.
Hence, the popularity of Cameron’s film Avatar, which promotes an idea that one’s ‘spiritually rich’ preoccupation with looking for eatable plants and insects 24/7, as such that constitutes his or her foremost existential pursuit, is being superior to one’s existential pursuit of advancing ‘spiritually arrogant’ Western science (Clover 2010: 6). Yet, just as it is was being mentioned earlier, it is not the continuous progress of sci-fi genre as ‘thing in itself’, which defines the qualitative nature of this genre’s literary or cinematographic emanations, but the actual nature of what appears to be the currently predominant socio-political discourse. The example of Cameron’s film Avatar serves as yet another proof of this statement’s validity.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation is fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis as to the fact that science fiction has indeed less to do with science and more to do with an endless reworking of the human condition – just as this assignment’s theoretical premise implied.
Clover, J. (2010) ‘The Struggle for Space’. Film Quarterly 63 (3), 6-7.
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Geier, M. & Welliver, E. (1992) ‘Stanislaw Lem’s Fantastic Ocean: Toward a Semantic Interpretation of “Solaris”’. Science Fiction Studies 19 (2), 192-218.
Rose, M. (1981) ‘Filling the Void: Verne, Wells, and Lem’. Science Fiction Studies 8 (2),121-142.
Scobie, S. (1993) ‘What’s the Story, Mother?: The Mourning of the Alien’. Science Fiction Studies 20 (1), 80-93.
Wells, H.G. (1894). The War of the Worlds [online] Coradella Collegiate Bookshelf. Web.
Wood, R. (2003) Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan – and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press.