Science Fiction: A Commentary On Our Society?
“Our species can only survive if we have obstacles to overcome. You take away all obstacles. Without them to strengthen us, we will weaken and die.”
The above quote comes from Captain James T. Kirk, in an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series called ‘Metamorphosis’. The episode revolves around a man out of time, trapped on a distant planet for over eighty years, away from the rest of society as it grows around him. Whilst there are other aspects that the narrative focuses on instead, this idea of a man who has had society change around him without any idea is a perfect analogy for the science fiction genre as a whole.
Sci-fi as a narrative allows us to explore worlds we will never get to see in our lifetimes, races not fathomable to the human mind and technology that our distant descendant might not even be lucky enough to discover. But despite all this, it is quite ironic that the sci-fi genre is almost used so frequently to address modern societal issues and influence our way of thinking about the modern world. It’s undeniable that science fiction has always reflected society at its time of writing. In 1933, H. G. Wells’ ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ reflected people’s worries of global conflict in the wake of World War One and predicted the development of nuclear weapons for warfare, which would come to pass in the following decade. This anxiety would bleed into the genre again in the Eighties and onwards: fear of nuclear war between the United States was a clear influence of the apocalyptic futures seen in sci-fi horrors such as The Terminator, Aliens and later with the opening of 28 Days Later, showing an eerily quiet London devoid of all life.
It is commonplace – and almost cliché – nowadays for the future represented in science fiction to be dark, a world ravaged by some form of unstoppable threat: catastrophic climate change, extraterrestrial horrors, technology turning on us, escalated political conflicts, the list goes on. asked what “grim future” he feared the most, sci-fi writer William Gibson bluntly stated that “I don’t think of those as very distinct states. It’s certainly possible to have all three at once.” Science Fiction isn’t the fear of what could happen in the face of a grim catastrophe should one arrive. It is the pessimism that any of them to occur.
The show Black Mirror is a modern example of this: a common conception of the show is that it portrays technology as bad and the inevitable downfall of society; what many people forget to consider is that many of the narratives showing someone’s downfall are human issues. An example is the opening episode ‘The National Anthem’ where the Prime Minister is forced by terrorists to fornicate with a pig to free a kidnapped member of royalty. The idea is that television is bad as everyone was too invested in what was happening to notice the princess had been freed in the centre of London. However, the idea is quite the opposite: that people’s morbid curiosity is what make them ignore what was happening in front of them. Having this scene be in one of the most populated areas of the UK exemplifies this – an empty London, just like in 28 Days Later: the modern apocalypse.
A Good Vs Evil Narrative?
When talking about the Science Fiction genre, there are one film franchise that immediately jumps out to many, and that is Star Wars; the idea of two ancient forces, the Jedi and the Sith, the Light Side and the Dark, good versus evil locked in an eternal conflict. The idea of this form of narrative has lasted for generations and will for generations more. But it is not Science Fiction, it is Science Fantasy, more akin to an Arthurian tale of old. The argument as to whether it is one or the other has waged since A New Hope was released back in 1977, but the truth is that in science fiction stories, morality is not always as clear cut as good and bad.
Take The Expanse for example, a sci-fi series of novel by James S. A. Corey, recently adapted into a Syfy and Amazon Prime TV series. Despite being set hundreds of years in the future, it still builds itself on modern-day human issues. Humanity may have colonized far-off moons and planets, but Earth is overcrowded and stuck in an economic crisis, Mars has almost become a totalitarian society, and those living in the Asteroid belts are worn down by criminal activity. Whilst there are characters that could be considered ‘villains’ in the show, the main conflict is whether the Earth-based government of the United Nations and the Mars-based MCRN will go to war. Neither side are right or wrong in the conflict and both know they will suffer greatly if a conflict occurs, but various territorial and human rights issues may make it an inevitability.
This type of conflict is an example of Murphy’s Law, an idea coined by Edward A. Murphy Jr. in 1947, stating that “anything that can go wrong, will – at the worst possible moment”. In the original context, this was regarding a mechanical issue that went horribly wrong involving Murphy, but the idea can be applied to the messages that science fiction tries to put across. Despite all our efforts, something will be the cause of our downfall as a society, be it an outside force or one influenced by our own efforts. Going back to The Expanse, this is what may cause the inevitable war – the cost of humanity thriving throughout the solar system is more issues they were unprepared to handle. To them, conflict is inevitable and it will happen at the worst moment, wiping both sides away in mutually assured destruction.
This to me is the crux of a good science fiction story: humanity creates their own means for destruction, they are their own worst villain. Look at The Terminator – humanity spends years and countless resources creating Skynet as a way to progress the human race, only for them to inadvertently create the very thing that wipes them out, their Judgement Day to quote the film. Science fiction always shows humanity as a balancing act. If we progress too much and get too greedy, it can all crumble away from us twice as quickly.