on Science Fiction
Updated: Sep 3
The following is an essay I wrote as part of my NFTS (National Film & TV School) diploma in Script Development. The language gets a little formal and the tone a little academic at times, but I hope it's of interest. The title/question I elected to write on was 'Is Science Fiction just a setting or is it possible to define genre conventions?' I promise this post is more exciting than that sounds. This is what I submitted...
The question presents an awkward ultimatum. That the label ‘Science Fiction’ should be considered simply a reference to a story’s setting would be a reductive and intellectually incurious conclusion. The task offered, by way of alternative, is to determine a set of ‘conventions’ (and here the looseness implied by the term is tightened by the word ‘define’) with which to classify and describe these stories collectively. The choice is between placing these stories within a plainly unsuitable cardboard box and enclosing them within a more sophisticated, but porous net. Set across an effectively infinite number of worlds, universes, dimensions, pasts and futures, it would be perverse to use this particular attribute to connect these stories as one group. It could even be said that they perpetually demonstrate disparity, rather than unity or similarity, of setting. For the same reason, the idea of systematically defining these films, which span the furthest limits of imaginative possibility in a way that no other genre seeks to do, would seem a steep challenge, implausible at best.
It is first worth stating the obvious, however. In most instances we can very quickly recognise works of Science Fiction because they incorporate, usually in an integral way, discoveries and technological developments non-existent in our own world and time. Identification is thus relatively easy. There is something further to say, however, something meaningful about these stories, collectively, that is worth taking time and thought and words to consider. A love of Science Fiction reflects more than an enthusiasm for lasers, aliens and spaceships and so on and so forth. Audiences anticipate and hope for more than this. This essay is less concerned with defining Science Fiction stories, than with characterising and illuminating a particular quality that seems to recur time and again within the genre.
This quality is perhaps most pronounced in three of the most influential, canonical films of the genre: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972) and Blade Runner (1982). In each of them we discover a peculiarly acute philosophical gaze, directed at some facet of the human condition. They explore themes of mortality, memory and loss, and are, in a sense, as much about inner space as outer space. In other words, they are concerned with human psychology and experience. This psycho-philosophical, explorative quality is routed in and enabled by the films’ science-fictional premises.
To illustrate this point using a familiar example, and to show that this is not just a feature of more high-brow works, it is possible to examine two premises of the Star Wars universe. One is the existence of ‘hyperspace’ technology. This technology enables travel between worlds that are light years apart, and has created an intergalactic society cohabited by countless alien species. It clearly places us within a Science Fiction realm. The second major premise of the Star Wars universe is the idea of ‘the Force’. The Force enables certain individuals to interact with and sense changes in the world around them on an effectively supernatural level - and something else besides. In A New Hope, the idea of the Force enabled George Lucas to explore the theme of faith. In The Empire Strikes Back, and in his trilogy of prequels, it enabled him to explore a conflict taking place deep in our psyches, between elements he characterised as light and dark. We can see that these premises fulfil a variety of functions falling into quite different categories. Some functions relate to plot and to the texture of the story-world, while others are thematic, and contribute to this idea of a psycho-philosophical gaze.
The remainder of this essay will elaborate on this idea with reference to more recent examples of the genre. Moon (2009) borrows heavily from Blade Runner, Solaris and 2001, thematically as well as visually, revisiting (and recycling) a number of familiar premises. As a tribute to classic Science Fiction films of previous decades, it can be examined as a convenient distillation of the genre. The Matrix (1999) is one of the few landmark Science Fiction films to have emerged in recent years, and is rich in philosophical/existential content. Men In Black (1997) is looked at as a film that is tonally very different to the above-mentioned.
The relevant premises of Moon are as follows: Its dual protagonists are clones. Oblivious to this fact themselves, they are biologically programmed to die after three years to make way for identical replacements. When a freak accident causes the latest replacement to awake prematurely and discover his predecessor before he has passed, the pair become aware that their memories are implants and realise the deceit within which they live their lives. There are a number of very close similarities with Blade Runner. The replicants Deckard hunts are also artificially created, and have been ‘born’ with reduced, pre-determined life-spans. Rachael, and Deckard himself, as we are led to believe, are at first unsuspecting of the fact that they are replicants because they have been given memory implants. These premises, which are distinctly Science Fictional in character (being based on imagined scientific advancements) have similar effects in the two films.
The fact of the characters’ abreviated life-spans brings the theme of mortality to the fore, and in Blade Runner culminates in Roy Batty’s dying soliloquy:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time... to die.
This celebrated scene has a powerful effect on audiences because Batty’s (fictional) condition is really only an acute version of a universal one. His lines are a poignant reflection on transience and human mortality. Following this moment, Gaff says something to Deckard about Rachael which emphasises this idea:
...I wouldn't fool around. I'd get my little panocha and get the hell outta here.
They just stare at each other. Gaff smiles.
It's too bad, she don't last, eh!
The smile is real and a little sad.
But who does.
‘It’s too bad, she don’t last…’ is a reference to the replicants’ shortened lifespans. But, as Gaff points out, we all of us die. All our lives are finite. In this way, these characters take on a representative, mythical significance. Science Fiction has a matchless capacity for creating these types and situations.
In Moon, there is a scene shortly after both Sams 1 & 2 (as they are identified in the script) have uncovered the truth. Sam 1’s three years are rapidly drawing to an end. ‘His depleting health has been evident throughout the film’, and by this time he ‘is beginning to look alarmingly ILL […] it seems to have jumped to a new level.’ The scene is as follows:
INT. SLEEPING QUARTERS -- DAY
Sam 1 fast asleep. Sam 2 watches him from the doorway.
That is all. The scene depicts a clone watching his clone, and could therefore only take place within a Science Fiction film. Sam 2 is watching himself, in a manner, someone to whom he is genetically identical, who shares the same memories, but who is three years his elder, and dying. He sees a foreshadowing of his own future. One character holds up a mirror to the other. This is the lead-in to the final act, and the moment when Sam 2 resolves to take action and break the cycle. Where Roy Batty was able to utter those poetic words in the certain knowledge of his oncoming death, Sam is put in the extraordinary position of being able to see a physical manifestation of his own end. The scenes are full of pathos, and above all resonance. The writers have brought into focus a facet of the human condition, fleetingly captured in their art. This is an experience that we value greatly, for whatever reason.
The deterioration of Sam 1’s health is accompanied by hallucinations. Figures familiar and mysterious impossibly appear inside the station. This motif culminates in the appearance of a flesh and blood doppelganger, a second Sam. These scenes are direct echoes of Solaris, where scientific observers of a remote planet encounter physical manifestations of deceased loved ones. Through this conceit, the film becomes a powerful meditation on grief, memory and loss. Moon explores similar emotional territory using the premise of memory implants. Sam discovers that the person he knows and loves and remembers as his wife is now dead, and realises, moreover, that no mutual connection ever existed between them. The circumstances of his loss are therefore magnified. To reiterate – Science Fiction has an inimitable ability to create these kinds of moments.
The Matrix wears its existential preoccupations on its sleeve. Its central premise is as follows: The human race plays out its existence in a virtual, computer-fabricated world. Life as we know it is an illusion. Neo is one of a select few who are presented with a choice. He can choose to be awakened, to live with the truth, though it be an altogether harsher reality, or he can return to a state of ignorance, and be re-immersed in the matrix. Neo chooses truth and knowledge, allowing the story proper to unfold. But a dialectic is developed through the character of Cypher, who regrets his choice. For him, ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ This is in contrast to Morpheus’ perspective on life lived unwittingly inside the matrix:
you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind.
His description is reminiscent of Plato’s Cave, also known as the Allegory of the Cave, which describes a group of beings whose only experiences of their external world are the shadows they see projected on their cave-wall. The relevant book of Plato’s The Republic begins: ‘And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened’. The Allegory of the Cave is in fact more than a figure, it is a dramatic action, just as The Matrix is a series of connected dramatic actions. An inhabitant of the cave leaves his prison, and is exposed, by gradations, to an outside world previously beyond his knowledge, etc. This is The Matrix in microcosm. It is a Science Fiction tale in miniature that illustrates neatly how an unlikely fiction can be used to explore a facet of the human condition. In reality Neo’s choice does not exist. But here is another illustration of how Science Fiction can, in a dramatic way, be used to express impressions normally confined to abstract and intellectual thought.
Do these examples offer an accurate reflection of Science Fiction generally, or are these films the more cerebral exceptions to the norm? Even a film such as Men In Black (1997), which is a Sci-Fi Action-Comedy, contains Science Fiction premises which function to illuminate, profoundly, something about ourselves. The film is about a secret government agency managing and policing alien subculture on Earth. But the element worth singling out within the story-world is the Neuralizer, a device used by the men in black to erase memories. The device generates numerous comic scenes, and performs a number of plot assists, but it also provides moments of genuine thought and poignancy, and gives the film greater thematic substance overall. After the heroes have disposed of The Bug and saved the planet, the action gives over to a melancholy exchange between Kay and his protegé, Jay:
I've just been down the gullet of an interstellar cockroach. That's one of a hundred memories I don't want.
Kay reflects on the life-choice he has made, in joining the MIB, and looks back with regret at the life he left behind. Curiously, we find ourselves once again confronted with the recurrent themes of memory and loss. It is difficult to show an ageing man looking back on his life with regret and do so in an active and engaging way, maintaining audience interest. But the Neuralyzer imbues this scene with narrative tension. It makes it dramatic, because it offers Kay the chance to make his choice again. Though he can’t recoup the past 30 years, he can, by erasing all knowledge of the MIB, reset his life and claim what he once had. And he does, as we see when Jay opens a tabloid paper to discover:
MAN AWAKENS FROM 30-YEAR COMA!
Returns to Girl He Left Behind
A large photograph shows a smiling KAY, arm-in-arm with ELIZABETH RESTON, his long-lost fiancee, in her back yard in Tempe, Arizona.
She holds a large bouquet of flowers, the same kind he brought but never gave her thirty years ago.
So this is another example of where Science Fiction uses its unique license to invention in order to turn our gaze on a compelling aspect of human psychology. In Men In Black this happens to be a relatively small component in a film that is doing a lot of other things, but equally it can play a much more prominent role. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) the use of a memory erasing technique forms the basis of the entire plot. A scenario is built around it which enables a profound exploration of memory, love and our relationships with each other.
This is what Science Fiction can do. It is something we recognise and look for within the genre. There exists this explorative quality, a recurrent concern with psycho-philosophical ideas, a kind of inward gazing. Writers use the license offered by the genre to create extraordinary conditions for their characters, which highlight or magnify a universal human condition, by being in some way an acute version thereof. Science Fiction characters thus often assume archetypal, allegorical and/or mythical status. This is by no means an omnipresent feature of the genre, but it is common enough to allow us to say that a film’s Science Fiction status is more than incidental – more than just a context for adventure, action, horror, romance even. Something invaluable is often added.