Friday, September 18, 2009

The Resurgence of Classic Science Fiction

Modern science fiction gets a bad rap, if not an entirely undeserving one. At its best, science fiction as a genre can force us to contemplate our own relationship with technology, using close parallels with the modern world to showcase things we would rather not think about. At its worst, it's simply an excuse for fighting robots or high-concept chick flicks. Yes, a lot of science fiction is crap, but let's remember Sturgeon's Law: a lot of most things are crap.

However, I've noticed a surge of science fiction recently in the vein of its much heralded "Golden Age". Two movies that I saw this summer, Moon and District 9, can be classified as "hard" science fiction in the old-fashioned sense of the word. What makes these films different from the "soft" sci-fi of Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation? Follow me through the jump to find out.

Science fiction as we know it today grew out of the literature of the 1950s. In response to the post-war technology boom and suburbanization of American, classic sci-fi writers such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury wrote loads of short stories and paperback novels that addressed the modern condition through a futuristic lens. Most of these works will never be mistaken for great literature. Characters were interchangeable, plot was nearly non-existent, and the prose was adequate at best. But, despite these handicaps, these works excelled in the concepts they introduced. Rather than reading these stories for an exciting narrative or an interesting character, these works are worth reading for their ideas.

This classic science fiction ran almost solely on ideas. I wouldn't recommend Asimov's Foundation trilogy for the gripping plot, but rather for a thorough investigation of the concept of a Galactic Empire experiencing a Gibbon-esque decline. Many of Asimov's short stories, such as "The Feeling of Power", focused on mankind's eventual replacement by technology, and its ability to be harnessed for violence. Bradbury, on the other hand, used stories such as "The Pedestrian" to highlight the alienating effects of such technology. As I sit here in the dark staring at the artificial light of my computer screen, I can see his point.

Rather than focusing solely on high-tech machinery, however, these early stories contained a surprising amount of spiritual elements, as if to accentuate the difference between the two modes of thought. Asimov's "The Last Question" posited a digital source for the beginning of time. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" suggests that perhaps religion will have the last laugh in the face of technology.

As scientific advances become more technical and computers and robots became omnipresent in our everyday lives, science fiction literature, while not dead entirely, has ceased to be as pertinent as it once was. Stories about killer robots and time-travel paradoxes are now cliche rather than innovative, and the genre has become even more of a niche than before. The genre as a whole has also shifted toward preachy libertarianism, a far cry from the tacit communalism of 1950s science-fiction.

Neal Stephenson is probably the best of example of the big-concept little-plot science fiction in today's market. Books such as Snow Crash or Anathem contain thought-provoking concepts, but fail in attempting to attach an interesting plot to these ideas. Many of his novels would function better as short stories, cutting out the narrative and focusing solely on whatever concept he wants to explore. Margaret Atwood has been writing science fiction of a more literary nature. Though she denies it at times, her works are science fiction in its classic form, exploring the permeation of technology in our daily lives, and imploring us to remember how much we really rely on this technology.

In the film industry, science fiction has given up on ideas for the most part. Films such as the new Star Trek, while perfectly good action movies, don't really fill the gap. Star Trek is a movie driven by plot and characters; all the scientific ideas are merely devices to push the plot forward. Star Trek is less science-fiction, and more an action movie that just so happens to be set in space. Concepts such as red matter, in the end, are irrelevant to the larger narrative.

But while films such as Star Trek and Transformers 2 necesitate huge budgets , classic "hard" science-fiction films can be made for relatively little. Consider Moon, the low-budget indie critical darling of the summer. Set in the not-so-distant future, Moon focuses on Sam, the employee of a mining corporation and the lone worker assigned to oversee their lunar operations. Deftly played by Sam Rockwell, the movie chronicles Sam's descent into madness in the solitude of the moon. His only companion is a computer named GERTY, who simultaneously gives him someone to talk to and drives him batty.

There are no big action sequences, no fast-paced plot. Instead, we watch Sam slowly struggle with loneliness as he confronts a mystery at the heart of his operation. This is a concept movie, a movie that uses its two hours to thoroughly explore the isolating effects of technology on a man's psyche. In a way, watching the lone hero cope with a perhaps meaningless existence is very existential, and forces us to consider not just our relation to technology, but also our intellectual perspective as human beings in this modern age of technological marvels.

District 9 was a bigger smash this summer. Despite degenerating into a standard action flick by the end, it is still firmly grounded in the "hard" science fiction tradition of concept-driven story-telling. District 9 focuses on a group of alien immigrants who are stranded on Earth. With no technology that is accessible to human beings, they have been relegated to apartheid-style refugee camps and consequently forgotten about. There is a plot in this movie, but it's largely an excuse to set up several great sequences in the District 9 refugee camp, a stunning set-piece. The use of South Africa as its setting might be a bit heavy-handed, but the film does a remarkable job of using a space-age concept to force us to confront how we treat those different from ourselves, and question what really makes us empathize with other human beings. The concept, like the best science fiction concepts, is pertinent to modern day politics and also timeless.

Both these movies, in the end, tackle the question of what it means to be "human". The protagonist of each respective film is (minor spoilers!) not quite human in the strictest sense of the word, and each one has to deal with the prejudices that come with that identity. But what does it mean to be human? Is it merely a physical trait, or is there some essence of humanity in the way we think, the way we feel, the way we perceive the world?

Movies like these two rely on the power and ingenuity of their ideas to carry them, in the tradition of the very best science fiction of the past. Though a film such as The Visitor, for example, is a powerful statement about immigration policy, we need something like District 9 to reach beyond the arthouse crowd and actually get the average moviegoer to have a conversation about this sort of thing. Action films and character dramas are a dime a dozen, but hard, concept-driven science fiction has the unique opportunity to get us to think about issues while still being damn good entertainment. With James Cameron's long-awaited Avatar premiering this winter, here's to hoping this tradition will continue.