I’ve been in a weird headspace lately as far as my writing projects go. At a party last week, a stranger asked me what I liked to write. I found myself struggling to describe it in a unique way, that being the pathos of a writer – I must sound so beautifully, astoundingly, cripplingly unique because everyone else is terrible and I deserve all the recognition. (Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but you get the point.) Also, well-read and intelligent. Nearly forgot those qualities. The answer to this question was a battle against time. How to appropriately and concisely answer this query while staying within the boundaries of acceptable verbiage and time, otherwise running the risk of looking like I was having a stroke or just truly insane. That is to say, what is the catch-phrase to sum me up? I have no clue. What came out of my mouth was essentially this:
“Dysfunctional family dramas or quiet relationship examinations with a weird sci-fi bend. Well, not sci-fi in the sense that there are space ships and aliens. Like there’s this theme told through, you know what, I’m going to stop talking. Speculative fiction?”
Confusion and disinterest beset in this stranger’s eyes, he changed the subject.
Being me, this question got me thinking. Perhaps I’m misusing the term sci-fi when regarding stories about people who can walk through walls or the one about one man’s question to access a parallel universe or even the memory thief project. All of these include an important part of the equation: they’re fiction. (Unless the government is keeping more secrets than we know.) But what gets me is the sheer amount of research I’m doing to prove that things like this can happen. I’ve watched so many documentaries and read many papers on the multiverse, string theory and quantum mechanics in general. Did I understand them? Only insofar as suited me, sure, but the base knowledge I now possess brings up the other aspect of this age-old distinction of books and film. Science.
If I offer a proof of ‘impossible’ events in my scripts, am I not ascribing to the nature of Science Fiction? Granted, the evidence and science takes a back seat to the emotional core of the characters, it’s still there. Otherwise, I’d just be adding to the already more intelligent documentaries out there. So, what makes Science Fiction?
The trouble is establishing the divide between Science Fiction and Fantasy in the viewer’s eye. Fantasy naturally lends itself to elves, subterranean dwarf races and anything involving Mordor (or Tolkein for that matter). But I’d also like include pieces considering space operas. Just because the characters are human and the circumstances are decidedly human doesn’t mean you’ve got Science Fiction. Where those stories may not strictly be fantasy, the setting (a now-impossible space craft, a foreign planet) might be the key ingredient which disconnects them from the likes of Vonnegut or Asimov. There are exceptions, of course, or genre-benders, but most importantly, I believe Science Fiction regards planet Earth (or at least a world we generally recognize as such) as the setting. And for good reason. This allows for the most important ingredient: a strong message about the human condition as it is in present time. What follows may read like a movie review. Just a warning.
Last night I watched two movies, both regarded as Science Fiction in the way the movie machine regards it. Which is to say, very broadly. These films, In Time and The Thing, both had Earth settings (one in the future, one in the past), both had human characters and both had that one thing that “does not compute” with how we view and understand the world today. But where one had a message about present day, the other lacked. Andrew Niccol’s futuristic take on the economy and its subsequent toll applies to Science Fiction. At what cost is immortality? Who must pay for such a boon? And how? As two characters point out, “For a few to be immortal, many must die”.
The brilliantly succinct introductory scenes expertly draw a three-dimensional society wherein no ages beyond twenty-five, at which age you either work for a pithy amount of extra time to live or you die. We see Will Salas, your everyman in many ways, wake up in his shamble of an apartment and greet a woman his age. He says, “Happy fiftieth birthday, Mom,” and we are thrown into a new timeline. We recognize these people as human with the same problems we face (falling behind on bills, working dead-end jobs, living in a seemingly preventable poverty) and though the exchange of lifetime as currency is new and foreign, it’s immediately recognizable as a human problem. After several more encounters that set up this world and how people operate inside it (most appalling being the abject, yet ultimately indifferent treatment of the recently “timed out” laying dead in the streets), Will enters a series of disappointingly flimsy plot devices to launch him into different world – the one of the rich and, thus, immortal. Unfortunately, this is where the film loses steam as most of the decisions that Will makes either appear completely frivolous or are lazily explained too late to excise the damage from the story and character. While it’s not quite clear until close to the middle of second act, Will becomes something of a Robin Hood hoping to collapse the economy and dethrone the rich and powerful.
This came out during the height of the Occupy movement, so we regard this sect – represented at the smarmiest level possible by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser – as the 1%. ”The rich get richer and the poor get… deader.” There. There it is. Your message. Though In Time may have been nothing more than cat-and-mouse chase montage at its core, the attention to detail in regards to the science of an near-recognizable world and its over-arcing message of the current human condition places it in the Science Fiction distinction. Many could complain that the science aspect wasn’t fully explored vis-a-vis the actuality of prolonging life based on a neon bio-mechanical clock implant, but they’re missing the point. It is explained enough in the context of the story and, for me, in great suspension-of-disbelief detail.
The inherent lack of message in The Thing prevents it from entering my definition of Science Fiction. In it, we find Kate Lloyd accepting a paleontologist research position in Antarctica in a swift, unflinching and wholly undramatic fashion and discovering that the alien creature unearthed there is quite the chameleon. Her research is basic, though competent enough to lay a foundation for the premise. The setting is a recognizable Earth, 1982 and is effectively shown as such, some prop decisions notwithstanding. The only difference in this world compared to ours is the presence of this alien creature that mimics what it kills, which is to say it mimics other humans. Perfect set-up to explore the nature of humanity. Although there is an attempt to develop the intraspecies suspicion, deception and general mistrust brilliantly explored in the 1982 film by John Carpenter, it falls flat in an attempt to ratchet up the new-school tension of explosions, gun-fire and gory kill scenes. Sure, popcorn movies are great, but don’t call them Science Fiction. (If you haven’t seen Carpenter’s version, do it now. Right now.)
The lead researcher posed as an under-developed and generally flat human antagonist, but when he is summarily dispatched without a satisfying conflict between him and our heroine the film fails to say anything about human nature other than its rational need for survival. Which, guess what, is the same goal as the wordless alien creature they repeatedly light on fire. I suppose this might be the message intended and perhaps I’m too demanding when it comes to the exegesis of humanity, but this just doesn’t cut it. Because survival is literally the most basic goal of all species, terrestrial or otherwise, that’s not much of a message. Kate does instill in everyone the fear of everyone, yet it never evolves beyond the base fear that everyone could be alien. Carpenter’s take on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. pits human characters against other human characters regardless of the alien. The alien is merely a foil to bring out the worst in people: paranoia, assertive assumption, murder. When backed into a corner, most humans become destructive and poisonous to each other, no matter the cost. The true enemy is not the Thing. Rather, Carpenter’s Thing appears more as a metaphor for human nature – infiltrate and destroy. The recent take calls it like it sees it – it’s an alien, kill it. Where’s the depth in that?
So, do I write Science Fiction? Trying to prevent making it sound like I’m blowing smoke up my own ass, I’d say with complete ambivalence that I’d like to think so.