This piece was written at the behest of a friend who works for Down to Earth magazine. It appeared there a few months ago in slightly edited form.
There was a time, not too long ago, when the human ability to conjure visions from beyond the domain of everyday experience expressed itself only in tales of the supernatural — in myth, legend and fairy story. Humans once lived in a shadowy world populated by spirits, gods, demons, angels, and phantasmagorical beasts. Magic and mystery were the key forces in nature. Our myths gazed into the past — often to a Golden Age that came to a tragic end, perhaps because of human wickedness or the capriciousness of the gods. It was as if we once lived in a village on the edges of a dark and forbidding forest, and told each other tales of how our ancestors, expelled from Paradise, braved forgotten perils to forge an existence on the edge of Chaos. Our fireside myths helped to fend off the ever-present darkness on the margins of settled life.
But one day a new light arrived in the village, and the forest, with all its irrational terrors, was cleared to make way for the factory. We were told that magic and mystery would soon be replaced by reason and certainty. Wild nature would be tamed. When we moved from the village to the city, the glories and dangers we imagined no longer belonged to the past, but to a future in which humankind might one day illuminate all the dark corners of the Earth. But even electric light casts shadows, and factory fumes shroud us in a new kind of darkness. In the interplay of new forms of light and dark, good and evil, science fiction finds its wellspring.
In the yoking of science — with its methodical mastery of matter — to the freedom and flight of fiction, science fiction walks a tightrope between the possible and the fanciful — something not usually expected of myth. This creative tension finds expression in three broad and overlapping ways of seeing. Science fiction can manifest itself as a lens with which to examine the possibilities latent in an idea or technology, a funhouse mirror with which to reflect society or history, or a kaleidoscope with which to experience a sensory immersion in an alien realm.
Isaac Asimov’s body of work is exemplary of the first, and some might say purest, form of science fiction — a lens that brings into focus the fuzzy implications of science and technology. Here, the science really is central, and individual human characters often seem no more than vehicles for the unfolding conceptual drama. In the robot series, Asimov explores the moral and ethical consequences of the Three Laws of Robotics — (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. Asimov’s Robots — portrayed as the epitome of rationality — contend with the inevitable conflicts and paradoxes that arise from a seemingly simple set of laws. What constitutes harm? What constitutes inaction? What should robots do if humans attempt to harm each other? And how can the robots be certain that the laws are in conflict? These conflicts culminate in the novel Robots and Empire, in which a robot with unique telepathic powers, R. Giskard Reventlov, divines a new law — the Zeroth Law — which places the concerns of humanity above those of individual humans: (0) A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. The Zeroth Law is not programmed into Giskard — it simply emerges in him — but in trying to rationally decide whether it will be good for humanity or not he ends up destroying his positronic brain. In this fatally consuming struggle we can see echoes of the tortured life of the mathematical genius Kurt Godel. Godel may have been driven mad by his logical proof that logic itself must either be inconsistent or incomplete. The robot Giskard, before he dies, passes on the Zeroth law — and his telepathic powers of persuasion — to another robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, who is entrusted with the task of being caretaker of humanity as it pushes beyond Earth to colonize the galaxy. In Asimov’s Foundation series, human society has long since spanned the galaxy, and we follow the legacy of a mathematician, Hari Seldon, who has developed the laws of psychohistory — a combination of history, sociology and statistics used to make predictions about large groups of people. (A physicist might call it statistical humanics!) Seldon’s laws predicted that the Galactic Empire would collapse, leading to a period of barbarism lasting thirty thousand years. Horrified, Seldon sets up two Foundations that are to strategically intervene in the events of the galaxy, reducing the period of barbarism to “just” one thousand years. The last book in the Foundation Series, Foundation and Earth, even links the story with the robot series, making explicit the connections between the aims of psychohistory and the Zeroth Law of Robotics. In taking a view of future history that stretches into the tens of thousands of years, Asimov’s lens focuses not on any particular technology, but on scientific rationality itself. Can humans and their technologies (robots) be used to take care of an abstraction — humanity? And who or what gets sacrificed for the “greater common good”? When science fiction takes on the form of a lens, it celebrates and critiques our scientific and technological lenses — the “extensions of man”, to use Marshall McLuhan’s nimble phrase.
Looking outward through a lens typically does not lend itself to much in the way of introspection. For this purpose we have mirrors. The 20th Century’s great genre-crossing works of dystopianism — Brave New World and 1984 — stand as canonical examples of the mirror style of science fiction. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, The state religion is Fordism, inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly line — a system based on mass production, a rigid chemically-controlled caste system, and consumption of disposable consumer goods. Any desires that cannot be met in these ways can be assuaged with the wonder-drug soma. But those who dare to be dissatisfied with their lot in life are cast into exile. In George Orwell’s 1984, a police state perpetually at war is controlled by an omnipotent Party watched over by the deified and omnipresent leader, Big Brother. It is a nightmarish world of constant surveillance, torture, paranoia, servility, and betrayal. Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death offers us an evocative juxtaposition of these two masterpieces: “As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” During the Cold War, the world seemed to be presented with two opposed visions — the cruel totalitarianism represented by the Soviet Union, or the vampiric seduction represented by Western consumerist capitalism. The logical conclusion of one would give us Big Brother, and that of the other would be Fordism. Like old testament prophets of doom, Huxley and Orwell are inviting us look within ourselves to root out the seeds of such awful destinies. In the United States we seem to be witnessing the merging of these two means of control. The increasingly militarized police force beats back the protesters and dissidents — those for whom freedom means more than mass-produced hamburgers and shiny electronic toys. As sobering allegory, science fiction can not only “hold a mirror up to nature”, it can reveal the very tendencies in humankind that alienate us from nature.
But light need not only be used for practical purposes — for looking outwards or inwards. It is also a thing of beauty in itself, requiring no justification or purpose. Most science fiction, it must be said, does not take itself so seriously as to focus too sharply on any single moral, political or technological idea. Rather than haranguing us with portentous warnings about our present or our future, the kaleidoscopic aesthetic presents a dazzling hodge-podge. Many people enjoy science fiction for no better reason than its grand canvas of spaceships, androids, aliens, ray guns, and intrepid humans dashing about the planet or the universe on an adventure of limited pedagogical value. The forms painted on this canvas become less important than the brushtrokes, the technique, the texture. A lesson might conceivably be derived from a movie like Predator or Alien but it seems as if the whole point of such movies is the sheer visceral thrill engendered in the watching. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its dark implications for malevolent artificial intelligence, is more an audiovisual adventure than a conceptual exploration — how else can we explain the power of the psychedelic dreamscape with which the film ends? This kind of interpretation seems especially true of a movie like The Fifth Element. It’s a giddy ride through a future that seems contrived purely for sensory stimulation. Even the quasi-mystical overtones in the plot appear kitschy and ironic. If we from refrain from intellectualizing our experience of science fiction, we can come to appreciate the effervescence and inventiveness of an artform that isn’t necessarily about anything. A kaleidoscope is one of the simplest celebrations of perception itself — rather than perception of something.
Some works of science fiction, however, cannot be said to fit neatly into any of the above categories. They are transcendental, in that they encompass all of the categories, creating an emergent whole that confounds easy pigeonholing. The film The Matrix is emblematic of this form. It uses the hacker aesthetic of the Internet Age as a springboard from which to launch into a stylized war between humans and rogue machines — machines that were once designed to serve humans, but later enslaved them in an illusory virtual world: the matrix. But The Matrix isn’t necessarily about the dangers of AI. It is also a mystical story of self-discovery and personal liberation, taking on an emancipatory logic found in many religions. Neo’s liberation from his womb-like prison is the first step on the road to discovering that he is the One — a man prophesied to end the war and transform the matrix itself. In this he is like the Buddha, attaining Nirvana and spreading his revolutionary message throughout the world. He is also a Messianic figure, dying and then being reborn for the salvation of the enslaved. But even this does not fully capture the multiplicity of messages latent in The Matrix. If emancipation means unplugging from a comfortable world and awakening to a real world of war and desolation, then The Matrix can also be read as a cry for left-wing revolution in the modern post-industrial world: Unplug from the matrix of consumption, and rise up against those who see us merely as a source of fuel! Whether the film-makers intended any or all of these interpretations is irrelevant. For a generation of young people, The Matrix was a rite of passage — for those who chose that path, it was an initiation into a world that could be read as a matrix of symbols.
Symbolism also plays a role in the epic television series Battlestar Galactica, but that role is far more murky. The overarching plot bears a vague resemblance to the biblical exodus, in which the Israelites wandered through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. There are also explicit references to Greek mythology — there are important characters with names like Hera and Athena. Humanity has been all but exterminated by the Cylons — a race of renegade robots created long before by humans. The remnant of the destroyed Twelve Colonies of humanity — named after the 12 signs of the zodiac — band together as a flotilla searching for a new homeland. In their quest for a home planet they turn to ancient prophesies about a 13th colony, Earth. But the series is impossible to read as a coherent set of symbols. Unlike in The Matrix, some characters dismiss the prophesies as ancient religious babbling. And, to add to the strangeness, the Cylons appear to have a religion too — a form of monotheism that opposes the humans’ jumbled polytheism. While the symbolic mysteries unfold and baffle, the series also presents us with less ethereal — but no less engaging — debates on the nature of democracy and justice, on the role of the armed forces during crisis, and on racial profiling and discrimination. The central plot element that injects an unprecedented vitality to these debates is the discovery that the human population has been infiltrated by a group of Cylons that are indistinguishable from humans. Unlike the kind of science fiction in which the enemy is readily identifiable, the humans in Battlestar Galactica are also at least partly at war with themselves. The resonance with the era of “with us or against us”, Homeland Security and terrorist sleeper cells is undeniable, and yet Battlestar Galactica does not lend itself to any easy moral, political, philosophical or religious lessons. What you glean from the series depends to a great extent on which characters you choose to focus on, or which symbols you attempt to decipher, and in this complexity its closest equivalent is perhaps the Mahabharata.
But the quintessential example of transcendental, mystical science fiction is the original Star Wars trilogy — the series that ushered in a golden era of popular science fiction filmmaking in the 1980s. From the very outset it appears to go against standard science fiction protocol. It not set in a future Planet Earth, but “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. It features grand battles between good and evil, but it resists any identification of these conflicts with contemporary political questions. And though it has all the riotous jazziness of pastiche — part Western, part Japanese samurai story, part WWII campaign against Nazi SS officers — it has an emotional core that goes beyond cinematic thrill-seeking while simultaneously satisfying that urge. In transforming the genre, Star Wars occupies a special place in the history of popular science fiction: it’s a blockbuster that paints a mythic story on a galactic canvas. It should therefore be no surprise that Joseph Campbell — the preeminent scholar of world mythology — was a major influence on its creator, George Lucas. Star Wars is in many ways an old story wearing new interstellar clothing. The plot can be recreated from the chapter subheadings of Joseph Campell’s 1949 magnum opus The Hero With A Thousand Faces, in which the monomyth — a basic pattern reflected in many of the world’s myths — is described. The saga begins in Episode IV: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker encounters the droids who show him Princess Leia’s secret message asking for help. He then seeks out Obi-Wan Kenobi, who introduces him to the Force, which “surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” This stage is what Campbell calls The Call to Adventure. But at first Luke refuses to join Obi-Wan on his mission, instead choosing to stay and work on his uncle’s farm. This is the Refusal of the Call. After his home has been destroyed by the forces he tried to ignore, Luke’s doubts about joining the mission fade away. Soon Luke, under Obi-Wan’s tutelage, begins to feel the Force, after which Obi-Wan tells him “You have taken your first step into a larger world.” This is the Crossing of the First Threshold. Later, Luke, Han Solo and Leia are trapped in the trash compactor of the Death Star. They are in the Belly of the Whale. Luke goes into it a boy, and emerges from it a man. The characters progress though the Road of Trials, culminating in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi with Luke’s Atonement with the Father.
It may seem that in mythologically-tinged science fiction, we have all but forgotten the word “science”. Recalling a key scene from the first film (Episode IV), will help us restore the link and bring our discussion full circle. Luke Skywalker, trying to target a vulnerability in the Death Star, hears the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobe, telling him to use the Force, rather than the computer targeting system. In doing so, Luke succeeds where others who used their computers failed — using the Force allows him to destroy the Death Star. One can’t help but interpret this climax as a momentary turning away from all that is technological and robotic. The forces of evil with their martial technologies are captained by Darth Vader — “more machine now than man” — while the forces of good are lead by a scruffy band of rebels and an old man espousing a “sad devotion to that ancient religion”. Even someone fully embedded in the world of technology — sitting in its very cockpit — has a choice regarding whether or not to fully submit to the machine. And in Star Wars, it seems as if organic mind must establish its dominion over mechanical matter, never allowing it to fully determine the way the rebels achieve their goals.
In this opposition — between mind and matter, organic and mechanical, spiritual and material — Star Wars bridges the gap between ancient myth and modern fiction, rendering problematic any simple dichotomy between the old and the new. At crucial points in human history we are confronted with the New — new circumstances, new ideas, new tools, and new ways of living — and the lack of precedent means that the wisdom of the past can never fully encompass the New. The New is therefore related to what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the Real: “that which is outside language and that resists symbolization absolutely”. The New confronts us with the power of the Universe to surprise us, to challenge us, and to threaten our cosy certainties. But those who do contend with the New — by learning, adapting and transforming — are those who have been able to put old tools to new use. They realize that humans are a part of this universe, not separate from it, and can participate in bringing forth what is New from their own wells of creativity. Rather than retreating from the shadows cast by modernity in order to be warmed by the age-old fires, the creators of science fiction, Prometheus-like, venture into the shadows to bring back visions of what might lie beyond the margins of Possibility. In showing us what our lenses, mirrors and kaleidoscopes are capable of, science fiction invites us to wonder what we humans are capable of, if only we are brave enough “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.