“We now realize we are not the center of the universe, and that is a fascinating and yet scary thing.” Casper Jetson (1822)
-written by Noel T. Manning II
Science Fiction literature (or Sci-fi) found its roots during the advent of the industrial and scientific revolutions with major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and mechanical developments. As individuals began to think of a world beyond the human race, where the heavens were within reach, writers began to ask “what if” questions. Questions that examined the concepts of time, scientific exploration, medical experimentation, and traveling to other worlds (inner and outer) were just a few of the narratives that fed the “what if” story questions.
With Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the works of Jules Verne (1828-1909) and H.G. Wells (1886-1946), readers experienced time travel, alien invasions, man-made monsters, and journeys into the depths of the oceans’ floors and through the very center of the Earth itself.
These stories captured not only the imaginations of readers, but of filmmakers as well when the medium was in its infancy. French filmmaker and special effects genius Georges Melies was inspired by these works and became the first filmmaker to explore life outside of Earth with his 14-minute film “Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon)”, released in 1902.
Throughout the next few decades, sci-fi continued to investigate themes of fantasy and fancy that other genres couldn’t thoroughly explore. These have often examined issues that were too controversial or too enraging for a present-day setting. Topics of racism, political unrest, social commentary, the environment, cultural division, identity, and class warfare have all been fodder for these tales. They succeed and appeal to audiences many times without upsetting “the norms,” because the settings are in another time, on another planet, or in an alternate reality. But, when you get to the core of these narratives, you are really able to examine the messages that exist; these are messages that are sometimes challenging to the heart, mind, and soul.
In the 1950s, many sci-fi films offered a political commentary on the “Red Scare” and represented the American Cold War fear of a possible Communist takeover of the United States. Films like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) asked the story question: “Do you really, really know who your neighbors are?” In this film, alien life forms were taking on human hosts. On the outside, the aliens looked exactly like your friends, or family members, but inside they were completely different. They were not who you thought they were; they were actually something to fear, and they wanted to take away your individuality. While many stories like this didn’t use words like communist or “reds,” the message was implied.
Science fiction challenges convention. The reported first scripted interracial kiss on television happened in 1968 during a time of great civil unrest and racial strife in the United States. It was a gamble and something that could have caused upheaval and a mass exodus of advertisers for the NBC network. NBC challenged the accepted norm by showing a white man and African American woman embrace and kiss on network television. If this had happened on a standard weekly drama or a sitcom at that time, chaos may have ensued, but since it was television’s futuristic space western sci-fi series “Star Trek,” it was accepted (the Star Trek episode – Plato’s Stepchildren, Nov. 22. 1968).
The sci-fi trend of exploring off-limit topics or hot-button issues has continued throughout the last six decades as well. Sci-fi has expanded the boundaries of thought, and acceptance; it has inspired generations to consider humanity’s impact and interactions with our world and its people. Simply put, science fiction asks the question – “what does it truly mean to be human?”
The conflicts of mind driving many sci-fi stories are only resolved when humans find balance within science. When rationality partners with spontaneity; when reason is at home with spirituality; when creativity lives alongside structure – a protagonist may find a way to overcome the crisis at hand (cyborgs, alien invasions, deadly viruses, environmental disasters, a dystopian future, doubt, fear, government corruption, etc.).
How can we (or should we) interact given unknown situations? Sci-fi allows us to take part in those exchanges (and face those fears) even if we don’t like what we see in the end. Sci-fi stories also examine a future or a world in pandemonium that is caused by humanity’s own hand. Themes of civilization becoming a slave to technology (or an invading enemy), or science destroying our souls, or the total destruction of our society are all commonplace throughout science fiction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “monster” represents the ramifications of what can happen when man tries to become a God. Our fascination with advances in technology (and humankind’s limitations) continues to inspire us, yet at the same time frighten us. We are a diverse world seeking opportunities of growth for our existing condition, while stretching beyond our potential; yet that fear of the unfamiliar and the possible dangers within that pursuit are what can feed into minds of writers searching for stories of wonder … and wander.
Types of Science Fiction
- Travelers – Through time, space, different worlds, the human mind, etc. These travelers are always on a quest for some type of knowledge, power, or change-agent, and they usually discover more about themselves in the process (than the worlds they visit) . Example: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- Invaders – These invaders don’t have to be aliens from outer space. They can be other humans, creatures, or diseases. Invaders may be searching for resources or retribution. Other times the invaders take on the protagonists as a result of an invitation to visit. Many times a working-class citizen (or everyday Joe or Jane) saves the day, not a brilliant scientist or world leader. Example: Signs (2002)
- Unchecked Scientific Inquiry – when technology runs amok or scientific exploration isn’t balanced with the impact on the human condition; madness and mayhem will happen. These films explore the ramifications of self-destructive behavior caused by a fixation of scientific discovery. Example: Jurassic Park (1993)
- Dystopia – When society has become corrupt or changed for the worse as a result of science, technology, or humanity’s mistakes (or a combination), we are transported to a world where humanity is (at times) stripped down to a raw and painfully primitive setting complete with the conflicts to match. Example: Hunger Games (2012)
- Sub-Sub Genre: Disaster films – check out the other reading in Chapter 7 to explore this topic.
- Sub-Sub Genre II – Fantasy Films – These films typically involve magic, some type of supernatural events, or amazingly strange worlds buried within our imaginations. This genre is unique, but can also overlap with the horror and science fiction genres. Peter Jackson has conquered the world of fantasy with his Lord of the Rings & Hobbit film franchise.
AMC. (n.d.). Science Fiction Films. Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/sci-fifilms.html
Barsam, R. M., & Monahan, D. (2010). Looking at movies: An introduction to film (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Buckland, W. (2010). Understand film studies. Blacklick, OH: McGraw-Hill.
Cateridge, J. (2015). Film studies for dummies. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley.
Dolinsky, M. (Writer), & Alexander, D. (Director). (1968, November 22). Plato’s stepchildren [Television series episode]. In Star Trek. Los Angeles, CA: NBC.
History.com staff. (2010). Red Scare – Cold War – HISTORY.com. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/red-scare
Manning, N. T. (2017, October 22). Beyond our reality and world – where science fiction meets science fact [pdf].
Pramaggiore, M., & Wallis, T. (2011). Film: A critical introduction (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.