Today’s Guardian has a front-page article bemoaning the lack of imagination in science fiction cinema, with examples from Bladerunner, Elysium and the Fifth Element, among others. The basic claim is that SF cinema doesn’t try very hard to go outside of the context in which its writers live, and so fails to provide any really serious insights into how we think our society and technology might actually change in the future. The author, Joe Queenan, cites visible tattoos on gangsters, phone booths in Bladerunner, and background music in Star Trek. The examples aren’t powerful but on a superficial level I think they do combine to give an impression of imaginative failure in science fiction cinema. However, I think the article is largely incorrect and furthermore it fails to understand the true importance of science fiction, which, whether in film or literature, serves to give an insight into the society in which it was written just as much (or moreso) than it does the society in which it is set. Science fiction also doesn’t exist just to imagine technology that breaks all boundaries: it also serves to explore the limits of technology, or even to imagine settings which have been opened up by high technology, but simultaneously rendered into a form of new primitive. If one sees SF in terms of these imaginative goals, what a movie chooses to change and how it changes it, and what it doesn’t change, can be equally crucial aspects of the movie’s vision.
Let us consider some examples that Queenan didn’t touch on, and one that he did. Why is it that the movie Star Wars, which came out in 1977, is able to simultaneously consider faster-than-light travel and planet destroying spaceships, yet when space battles occur between small jets they are essentially World War 2 dogfights? Everything in Star Wars is advanced to a space operatic level, yet the key battles in space involve primitive aiming systems and lasers that appear to fire more slowly than bullets. What’s the story? By 1977 the USAF had access to the F-14 Tomcat, a plane capable of firing air-to-air missiles with a 100km range that enables it to take out opponents without even seeing them. But a long time ago in a galaxy far far away you need to have a wingman, and you need to get in close behind a spaceship and squeeze off some laser shots if you want to blow them up. Why? I think this is because by the 1970s the world was beginning to get a little bit fearful about the mechanization of war, and harking back to an era when victory depended on human bravery and skill rather than being the first person to notice the other one. By 1977 everyone in the USA knew (even if they didn’t want to admit it) that a plucky rebellion led by a cute princess would be so much burnt flesh if it actually tried to take on the US empire – there is no chance that they could field a small team of dedicated pilots and somehow take out Washington with a carefully-aimed rocket up Reagan’s secret shuttlepipe. They’d all be dead on take off. The final battle in Star Wars tells us more about the wishful thinking of the modern world and its insecurity about the way modern wars are fought as it does about the director’s inability to conceive of how future war might be conducted. It also makes a little bit of subversive anti-US government propagandizing possible. By reducing the final battle to a dogfight, but giving Darth Vader the power to destroy planets at the touch of a button, Lucas makes it clear what he thinks of aerial bombing, agent orange and all the other techniques of mass killing that had been deployed by the USA in its wars in Latin America and south-east Asia over the previous two decades. It’s like a kind of plea for a return to a purer form of war – and that plea wouldn’t be possible if the director stuck slavishly to the “truth” about what would happen in a space opera war. Iain M. Banks made a decent fist of describing how war might actually work in a space opera universe, and makes it pretty clear that once we free ourselves from the constraints of energy limitations, the temptation to free ourselves from all moral constraints in regards to the weapons we deploy is also going to be pretty strong. Is this more speculative by Queenan’s analysis? I don’t think so, I think it’s just a different kind of speculation.
Another speculative example that Queenan didn’t consider is the hard-scrabble life on the frontier depicted in Serenity or Alien, and its antecedents in space opera, where faster-than-light travel exists but travel between the stars can take weeks and messages are no faster than space ships. Both of these situations arise from the possibility that FTL space travel will free humanity to explore and settle different stars, but the distance between settlements and the vast cost of the enterprise will limit the ability to develop and connect those stars. In Serenity and a lot of other stellar rim type settings this is obviously redolent of a sci-fi wild west; but in the Traveller game these problems are explicitly discussed – they are a feature not a bug – and compared with the great Age of Exploration when the societies of western Europe were spreading over vast areas, and fragmenting as they did so under the challenge of maintaining trade and contact. These settings aren’t a failure of imagination, but are an attempt to describe a particular type of future, in which technology has freed humanity but the freedom it grants comes with huge sacrifices and challenges. Sometimes when things change they go backwards (thing of the battery on your smarphone if this seems like a trite observation); exploring how humans handle the trade-offs their new technology gives them is a huge part of the speculative pleasure of science fiction.
Queenan’s amusing example of the phonebooth in Bladerunner. Apparently in Deckard’s world they still have fixed landlines, and Queenan suggests that surely by 1983 in the west phone booths were already going out of fashion? Sadly, no. In the mid-70s in the UK most families still didn’t own their own phone – some communities shared a single phone line, and only one person in a street could use the phone at a time. I remember in the 1980s how rare and fantastic it was to make an overseas call, and even in the early 1990s phone ownership remained a kind of measure of poverty. The fact is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s telecommunications infrastructure was still a new phenomenon – not an established and taken-for-granted part of life like cars and planes, but a relatively modern and expensive technology. I think this is why in Bladerunner they could have flying cars but fixed phones: because cars were a settled technology, that everyone could imagine would change in the future because they are seen as an old technology; whereas phones are so new that people couldn’t imagine that they would take on a fundamentally new form within 50 years, let alone 10. I guess it’s kind of like people in a train in 1910 imagining that within 50 years it would be able to travel at hundreds of kms an hour. The technology is still too new for that. What is seen as changeable in Bladerunner – cars, humans – and what is not – phones, make up – tells us much more about the writer and the frailties of our society than it does about how technology might change.
To me these speculative elements of science fiction are what make it so imaginative, at least compared to fantasy. Queenan, in viewing science fiction primarily through the prism of how it updates technology, misses all the real richness and importance of the genre. It’s like he’s focused on the pointing finger, and missed all the gory of the heavens.