You ever caught yourself explaining the conceit of a piece of science fiction and, halfway through, realize how stupid it sounds? No matter how cool it is, it just sounds silly on its way out of your mouth?
Compare these two ideas:
• A group of kids make a movie and wind up learning about life and moving on in this coming of age film.
• A mysterious alien appears in small-town Ohio giving a group of kids the adventure of a lifetime.
The former sounds like a movie that’ll become this award winning, tearjerking, instant classic. The other one sounds more like a popcorn flick with little value beyond entertainment. Thing is; they’re the same movie: Super 8. It is a film about a group of kids making a movie, and they do go on an adventure, and they do learn about life and moving on and letting go and all. And yeah, there’s an alien too, but the alien is a plot device. The alien provides an external catalyst that creates the tensions of the story. Without it, Super 8 wouldn’t have worked the way it did.
Not only that, but the alien in Super 8 essentially serves as the manifestation of one of the main themes of the film: understanding. The creature is an empath, able to feel emotions and see it through their eyes. Joe, the protagonist, has been unable to let go of his dead mother. It’s in the alien that he finds a sort of understanding and comes to terms with it and is, at last, able to let go and move on. We get a clear embodiment of the theme that doesn’t feel forced. It simply wouldn’t work in ‘normal’ fiction. The whole chain of events also has Joe develop from a pushover to the guy who’s doing his best to save the girl.
Further more, the effects of the alien’s arrival causes the two fathers in the story to step up and be dads. Their animosity (due to one being the cause of the death of the other’s wife) is put aside when they have to go after their kids.
Would it have been workable without an alien or other science fiction tropes? Possibly. Thing is, a different catalyst like a military invasion or even a serial killer would lend the movie unnecessary weight and implications. The alien allows the movie to focus in on the topics of forgiveness and letting go, without being bogged down by other themes.
One of the many races in the universe of Mass Effect are the quarians. They’re a nomadic race that, a long time ago, created a ‘race’ of AI machines called the geth. The geth rebelled against the creators, forcing the quarians to be the nomads they are. They’re based in massive ships, sending their young adults out on pilgrimages to find things useful for their Migrant Fleet. Furthermore, they wear full bodysuits due to having an exceptionally weak immune system.
Right, I know, it sounds kinda silly. Wandering aliens in spacesuits because of weak immune systems and all that.
But it creates such a wonderful way to look at issues. The quarians are ostracized from the galactic society as a whole due to their faceless nature and that most of the ones seen are only trying to find something to benefit their fleet. The Mass Effect games explores this idea as well as the idea of being excluded from your own race with the quarian character of Tali’Zorah. She’s a wanderer from a wandering people; a young woman who wants not only to do right by her people but right by the galaxy as well. In her we have a tension born of ostracism from both others and home.
Even if it’s subconscious, it makes us think about the idea of belonging and loyalties, of understanding and racism. Due to it’s scifi setting, Mass Effect doesn’t make it overt with words like “Jew” or “African-American” or anything like that; instead we’re giving an almost parableian look at the idea. Normal fiction would run the risk of sounding preachy or patronizing; in Mass Effect it comes with the setting.
Science fiction has been described as a way to run social commentary or satirize situations, something it does very well. The setting is also capable of providing catalysts for fantastic character driven stories (or adventures as the case may be). It’s such a shame that so often the very idea of science fiction gets ridiculed due to the simple fact that it is not reality.
There are some stories that can only be really told with a gap from reality; to say that the themes or points of these stories are somehow less due to them being ‘unrealistic’ is, simply put, unfair.
And c’mon: science fiction has friggin’ spaceships!