Tag Archives: Moon

Living in Science Fiction

Is the movie Gravity science fiction? This was the discussion a friend of mine and I were having while talking about science fiction and fantasy winning Oscars — Gravity got Best Director, but is it really science fiction?

Wikipedia, IMDb, and such call it science fiction, given that it’s, well, in space. That’s usually the threshold for science fiction.

But something in space is hardly imaginative anymore. An astronaut who just returned from spending an entire year in space. SpaceX launches rockets on the regular. Of course, there is the room for an outlandish situation; Moon was grounded, but had mining on the moon, countless others have aliens. Gravity, though, is about someone being stranded in space because of a freak debris field. For all intents and purposes, the setting of Gravity is as much science fiction as Apollo 13. That is to say, it’s not, it’s really not.

Gravity is, in many ways, a more modern Castaway. In both stories relatively unqualified people are, due to an event beyond human control, stranded in the middle of nowhere by themselves that then prove the resilience of the human spirit by making their way back to civilization. Granted, Gravity takes place over a far shorter period of time, but that’s kinda due to the fact that it takes place in modern reality where people can’t breathe in space.

In other words, labelling Gravity science-fiction is a product of an outdated standard that something in space is automatically considered science-fiction. That’s something that makes science-fiction so weird as a genre: what’s scifi might not always be scifi. We don’t consider the first episode of Sherlock science-fiction, even though its heavy use of smartphones would definitely qualify it as some sort of techno-thriller were it produced in the eighties. Same with Gravity; it isn’t science-fiction today, but to, say, the sixties it’d be what The Martian is to us today.

Science-fiction, at least the sort inhabited by movies like Moon, The Martian and Ex Machina (more fantastical fare like Star Wars and Star Trek are another matter entirely), are rooted in having some bit of futuristic technology. Moon’s got lunar mining, The Maritian’s got a Mars base, Ex Machina incredibly advanced AI. But if we were to develop any of those technologies the fiction part of the science would be closer to the events surrounding them. If we were to develop both rogue AI and hover cars, the biggest incongruity in Blade Runner would be that Atari was supposed to still be a major brand.

I think that’s one reason why I’ve always loved science-fiction — there’s this air to it of asking what if. What if there was something new that would change the world. It takes what you know and twists it to be something, well, more. It’s a dreamer’s genre. What if you could live on a submarine deep beneath the sea? What if we made contact with aliens? What if there were giant monsters trying to kill us and so we made giant mecha to fight back? What if we could carry phones out of the house and in our pockets?

So is Gravity science-fiction? If it is, it’s still a good movie, but it’s pretty low-grade science-fiction.Yes, it fully utilizes the genre’s capability for telling parables, but it doesn’t really do anything with the almighty What If. Not to mention it’s something that, given the right circumstances, could happen tonight. I realize I’m going back on what I said some time ago in another blog post (the one I just linked to), but no, I don’t really think Gravity should count as science-fiction.

‘cuz we’ve already got people in space doing space things on space stations.

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Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity

Yes, I’m still on my science fiction apologetics kick. As I’ve established over and over again, as a genre, science fiction can say a lot that normal fiction can’t, or say it in ways it can’t. Gravity is a fine example of this. Because like it or not, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece is science fiction. If Super 8 and Moon are science fiction, then so is Gravity.

Super 8, like E.T. before it, is fundamentally a movie about growing up and moving on. Moon isn’t about Sam Rockwell mining Helium-3 so much as it questions ideas about what it means to be human. Pacific Rim is as much about togetherness as it is about canceling apocalypses. Similarly, Gravity is a movie about faith,the will to live and what exactly being alive means. All these movies use the trappings of science fiction as the backdrop for their stories and to tell stories that could not be told otherwise.

Pacific Rim communicates its refusal to settle for the world we’re given though Jaegers and Kaiju. We’re presented personifications of fear and devastation and then told a story where those beasts can be stood up to and defeated. The movie’s centered around this idea, with other themes wound into it. It’s the clear-cut line of all of humanity against the invaders that allow it to be conveyed so clearly and yet so artfully. It plain works.

Moon uses its lunar setting to heighten the feeling of isolation that permeates the film. It also uses its twenty-minutes-into-the-future time period to address its central issue in a unique way. Duncan Jones’ film gives physicality to the question of identity and humanity; rather than having characters discuss it they’re forced to confront it. We, as an audience, don’t choke on the philosophizing, instead it’s presented to us through the story. Through the use of science fiction, storytellers are able to smoothly communicate themes and ideas that, in another setting, could feel heavy handed or just plain out of place. Gravity does this magnificently.

Gravity could be called Life of Pi in space without a tiger. Like Yann Martel’s novel, Gravity centers itself around people trying to survive where people aren’t supposed to survive. Also like the book, it examines the meaning of life, insofar as what’s the point of being alive? Gravity explores this theme through its two astronauts drifting in space, dying to survive. Where better to ponder God then miles above the atmosphere? Where else to examine humanity’s need for connection than in the isolation of space? By setting Gravity in space as opposed to in the middle of the ocean, a desert, or vacant island, Cuarón can hone his film to what he wants to address and mask it beautifully in a sublime story about survival. There’s little preachifying, instead its message is communicated through the story and characters.

Science fiction, like fantasy, can be a parable. Within its lack of limits we’re able to personify evil itself or present a helplessness beyond the scope of anything we know. Within it lies the capability to eloquently communicate a message unique to itself. Does all science fiction explore the depth its afforded? No. But then does all non-genre fiction?

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Genre as Literature

I love science fiction. I’ve said that before on this blog, and I’ll say it again. I like spaceships. I like a world that’s a little more than ours. But when it comes to literary value science fiction almost always gets written off as being science fiction. Fantasy gets the same treatment. Why? Because it’s genre. Here’s the thing, though: science fiction can be as literary as it can be pulpy. Just like any other genre.

First off, let’s look up what exactly literary means. Wikipedia sources Joyce Saricks and defines literary fiction as “serious,” “critically acclaimed,” and “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.” Most interestingly, the term ‘literary’ fell into common usage in the 60’s. Why? To differentiate ‘serious’ fiction from genre. Which doesn’t make sense.

For example, look at The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. The former (published in 1969) deals with questions of gender and politics as well as being an outsider. There are layers and layers of this in The Left Hand of Darkness; some of it implicit and others not quite clear until after later thought. The Dispossessed (published 1974), on the other hand, looks at anarchy vs capitalism, individualism vs collectivism, and the tension when a person from one worldview visits a world where the opposite is practiced. So far, these seem to be pretty universal — and topical — themes. Both books are also extremely serious and have both been critically acclaimed (they won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, two annual science fiction accolades). So far this sounds very literary to me.

What about Ender’s Game; does Orson Scott Card’s novel fall under Saricks’ definition of literary? First glance would imply not; after all it’s just about children saving the world from aliens. Only it’s not. Ender’s Game is, at it’s core, a novel about empathy. Throughout the book Ender struggles with the tension between hate and love. Can you still hate someone, even your tormenter, after you understand them completely? What happens if this capacity for empathy is used as a weapon? And what if you’re institutionally ostracized from everyone else into becoming a weapon? Here lies the focus of Ender’s Game, not in killing aliens (whether the upcoming film keeps these themes is another issue). Like LeGuin’s novels, Ender is also critically acclaimed and, arguably, quite serious.

We can easily apply this lens to cinema as well. Underneath its slick action sequences, Inception asks questions about the nature of filmmaking and reality. Would you stay in a world where things were perfect, even if it wasn’t real? District 9 explores similar themes to Ender, albeit with regards to racism. Moon questions the meaning of identity in ways normal literature cannot.

Granted, a lot of genre fiction can be crap. Pulp novels from the early 1900’s tend to lack any sort of depth (though they set a lot of genre conventions still observed today). But then, can’t ‘normal,’ ‘non-genre’ fiction be crap too? You can find crappy detective novels, crappy historical fiction, crappy adventures, crappy fanfiction, crappy thrillers, and, redundant as it sounds, crappy romance novels. Why is some of it crap? Because some of it is good; really good. Some might even be ‘literary.’

So why was a term like ‘paraliterature’ coined to differentiate popular or commercial fiction from consecrated ‘literature?’ Does having the presence of anything outside the realms of normalcy instantly damn a piece of fiction? Way I see it, there shouldn’t be a divide: genre can be literary. Video games can be literary, look at The Last of Us! Comics can be literary (Watchmen). The problem with setting up a hard and fast guideline about where the line between literature and genre/paraliterature is that, like it or not, some of what you’re trying to keep out will inevitably slip through the cracks. Even if a criteria is as subjective as ‘serious.’ The alternate would be completely arbitrary decision making which, frankly, is just plain stupid.

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