The fiction of science and the science of fiction. And Star Wars

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A couple of the FlickFeast contributors were riffing in the forum on the question of science fiction, and why it was that, to quote the Venerable Kev, so many science fiction films “hide some very, very dark stuff with a nice glossy coating of entertainment”. Not all, of course, but the special ones do: a mediocre film dealing in dark stuff (like Silent Running) will tend to endure over an excellent one that doesn’t (it may be early days, but I fear the outstanding Attack the Block will quickly find a home in the “where are they now?” file).

It being science fiction month and all, here’s one fellow’s view on why the dark and sticky stuff works so well. In the time-honoured traditions of amateur debating, I start with some terminology.

Pedants will distinguish “science” from “technology”, and snobs will differentiate “literature” from “fiction”. These distinctions, with which one must of course take a pinch of sodium Chloride (NaCl), bear on science fiction too.

Science: Real,  revolutionary science, of the James Clerk Maxwell variety – is a creative, imaginative pursuit, more like art than technology. It doesn’t cleave to rules because it precedes them: to propose a new hypothesis is to commit a revolutionary act, and to coin a fresh metaphor. A novel scientific theory offers a hitherto unimagined intellectual architecture by which we can frame, contextualise and understand things. Usually, new theories take root only when we are confronted with phenomena which current theories can’t adequately explain. At that point we need a new narrative: this calls for a literary enterprise.

Technology: If science spawns fresh metaphors, technology comprises only dead ones. The technologist takes over when the creative act is spent and the possibilities of the brave new world imagined by the scientist have crystallised. Once a metaphor’s possibilities for meaning have hardened into a single one, then the nanobots of technology can crawl algorithmically and unthinkingly around the resulting design space, fashioning everything according to the strictures of this new dogma.

Literature: While the distinction between science and technology is clear the one between high and low literature is murkier, but it doesn’t hurt to imagine it’s there, drawn along similar lines: As science is to technology, literature is to fiction:  “Literature” coins fresh metaphors and comprises revolutionary acts: these are new tools to construct meanings and reconstruct our experiences: we use them to clear our land and mark our boundaries.

Fiction: Fiction, on this scheme, deals principally in similes and dead metaphors: it recycles the archetypes once created by the foundries of literature and uses them to till narrative earth that has already been cleared and cultivated.

Apply all that to science fiction. At the literature end put those novels and films where the point of the science is metaphorical: a literary device by which we can examine our existential priorities (examples here might be 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Revolutionary cinematic techniques (Douglas Trumbull’s pioneering use of blue screen and computerised effects and Stanley Kubrick’s figurative framing) open up new cinematic ground for exploration and cultivation: the rotating wheel of fortune, a primitive tool tossed through the ages to resolve as a space-craft and reprised in the ship’s artificial gravity mechanism, around which the humans scamper as if it were a hamster-wheel, under the unwavering supervision of HAL’s all seeing eye;  contrasted with the timeless, blind, mathematical, alien purity of the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly.

Blade Runner‘s metaphorical foundation was assured through Philip K. Dick’s brilliantly eccentric Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but Ridley Scott has significantly reframed that story by melding it with established cinematic idioms (Philip Marlow’s gum-shoe noir) and subtly shifted Dick’s emphasis from empathy to identity.

Eternal Sunshine, which is probably not everyone’s idea of science fiction at all, is Charlie Kaufman at his best, using a hackneyed sci-fi idea (memory erasure) to explore deep existential questions: what would happen if people who have grown apart really did make a fresh start without the complications of their existing history? What happens if two new lovers are confronted with the reality of life down the track when the going gets tough?

At the other end – call this Tech Fiction – are the workmanlike pieces where narrative follows a traditional archetype, and the technological wizardry serves only to goose the heart rate. Just as there are millions of technologists for every Newton, there are thousands of these films for every 2001 and some are outstanding pieces of cinema:  neither Ridley Scott’s production design masterpiece Alien, or Steven Spielberg’s box-office bunker busting E.T. The Extra Terrestrial broke significant technical or artistic ground (I dare say H. R. Giger might disagree) but deservedly will burn more brightly in the firmament than minor pieces of science fiction “literature” like Tron.

That said, Tron is an interesting case: it may not have aged well, but it had established a remarkable legacy well before the release of its actual one Tron: Legacy. Not only in its use of nascent video-game graphic technology – cutting edge at the time – but also in a challenging conceptual scheme: Tron’s “Grid” anticipates “cyberspace” in William Gibson’s  Neuromancer which in turn anticipated the real internet, and informed the schema of the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy and James Cameron’s Terminator.

And then there are the three Matrix films (Matrices?), analysed  in these pages by Mr Matthews. The three are arrayed across the spectrum from fairly hard-core science literature to hokey tech fiction (I dare say Kevin  disagrees). The original Matrix – one of the all time pinnacles of the genre – works precisely because it does recycle Tron‘s Grid, but also updates it and blends it with the dystopian Eurasian vision of Blade Runner then uses all these pieces in a novel way to explore uncharted parts of the resulting design space. We get the references: we recognise snatches of idiom, but they’re contorted and reshaped into something new and startling.

The Wachowskis re-architect the universe as they go: create new spaces which are filled with literary allusions (Descartes, Baudrillard and Lewis Carroll among many others) and metaphysical thought experiments: chief among them a worked example of Hilary Puttnam’s “brain in a vat” experiment. Reloaded over-stresses the cod philosophy (there’s the following line “… although the process has altered your consciousness you remain irrevocably human, ergo some of my answers you will understand and some of them you will not”, forced in order to yield “ergo, some”, which  begets ergo sum begets cogito ergo sum: I am thinking, therefore I exist; the quotable quote from Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, the metaphysical conundrum on which the Matrix (and Puttnam’s experiment) is based.) Matrix Revolutions is best left un-discussed, failing to work as any sort of motion picture, let alone a good one.

The wookie in the room here is the Star Wars franchise. It may seem an odd thing to say, but I’m not sure George Lucas’ epochal space opera counts as science fiction at all, any more than do Lord of the Rings, James Bond, or Harry Potter, unless your sole criteria is the presence of space ships and lasers.

Now, I appreciate that this is a controversial view. The narrative structure is unashamedly as traditional is it is possible to be (via mythologist Joseph Campbell, it dates back to Gilgamesh), and what use of science or technology there may be is used entirely conventionally. You could set this film in a 10th century Denmark meadhall and it would work more or less as well.

The great films of the genre – true “science literature” – startled with their breathtaking vision: rendered the world in a whole new palette of colours. That imaginative insight bequeathed tools that have been taken up, unmodified, by inheritors: technologists who till the earth of the design space, exploiting ground already broken.

Here’s my starter for ten: I don’t expect all of this will meet with agreement, but perhaps it will carry on the debate.

By the way there is an upcoming example science fiction literature to rival the best of them, which I wholeheartedly commend: Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, about which no more I can currently say, other than “watch the skies”. Released December 7, it’s worth a special trip for.

4 Comments
  1. Tue Sorensen says

    Harlan Ellison, and many science fiction fans with him, distinguish between (“real”) science fiction and “sci-fi”, the latter being the commercial variety most often found in movies and television and bad fiction, and the former being the proper literature. It seems like this is the distinction you are going for with your science/technology and literature/fiction dichotomies.

    My own view is that a lot of “pulpy” or low-budget fiction can and sometimes do have the same meaningful and artistic substance that the more high-brow stuff has, which means that I only very rarely use the science ficion/sci-fi distinction. To me, pop culture and fine art are not all that different; it’s all in the interpretation and what is considered culturally fashionable and admirable at a given point in time. A lot of the old classics that we revere today were considered low-brow pop culture when it originally came out, and I firmly believe that a good deal of current pop culture will one day come to be seen as classic art.

    Because of this view, I don’t really buy the science/technology and literature/fiction dichotomies, either. Science is not just about new ideas; a big part of science is what’s already established – and exactly the same can be said of technology. A new piece of technology can be just as revolutionary as a new scientific theory.

    And as for literature vs. fiction, I don’t acknowledge any difference. Of course there are good and bad fiction, and maybe you could be forgiven for feeling that the worst fiction doesn’t qualify as literature, but in the case of science fiction such a view is a dangerous one, because science fiction is so much about ideas and less about literary quality. With notable exceptions, it is only in the last, say, 30-40 years or even less that science fiction has generally become more realistic and literary in the style of writing, and this trend in itself represents a partial departure from the pulpy and perhaps even allegorical style that at one time defined the genre. And surely no proper science fiction fan will say that the genre has only really become good in the last 30-40 years – after all, we generally say that the Golden Age of science fiction was the 1940s and ’50s.

  2. Kevin Matthews says

    A nice piece. I didn’t even realise I was venerable, I’ll have to see the doctor about that.
    I kinda agree with you about The Matrix films although I simply enjoy them a lot more than you do – it’s funny that when I first saw the original movie I immediately thought of TRON and began discussing the comparisons for humourous effect on IMDb.
    I think Attack The Block is going to be safe amongst the current group of films tenuously linked to the likes of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (well, Frost is in it so the link there isn’t so tenuous but they always feel like they should keep working together even while doing other great projects) and it’s certainly done well considering the rather limited release I think it had in the States.
    🙂

  3. Olly Buxton says

    Hi Tue
    I understand and agree with the general aesthetical principal that there’s no distinction between high and low art – that on any formal measure the Beatles can’t be meaningfully differentiated from Chopin and so on. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all.

    Instead I am trying to reframe the debate so that these terms *do* point at different things. Perhaps I should have used different labels to avoid confusion.

    You know a good film and you know a bad film, and you know a challenging one and one that is pat: There *is* a difference, it isn’t ineffable, that difference may (and in my view can) only exist in the eye of the beholder. You and I might not agree with each other on any specific instances, but if we are to take our own opinions seriously we must have a basis for them: we must be appealing to some sort of intellectual structure beyond “wow, that was, like profound” when we compose our reviews.

  4. Tue Sorensen says

    Of course. We can at least agree on *that*! 😉

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