There is a gaping rift that divides post war 20th century science fiction which often goes unacknowledged. American critics and cultural historians love to focus on Golden Era science fiction in the U.S. as representative of mass paranoia; a phenomena manifesting itself as hate and bigotry, fueled by consumerism. No doubt this vision of Cold War America’s relationship with commercial art exposes certain truths, but a greater lesson can be learned from the Cold War’s influence on science fiction. One which embraces the Russian cultural dimension much more than the American counterpart.
Where the science fiction produced by the postwar 20th century U.S. indulged in notions of space exploration and conquest——often mirroring historical arguments for Manifest Destiny——the science fiction of the U.S.S.R. entertained more nihilistic visions of space exploration, despite the strictures of socialist realist censorship. A comparison of two specific cultural artifacts, namely Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, will demonstrate the dialectic of Western and Eastern attitudes towards space exploration and contact with alien life, recognizing the science fiction of current pop cultural inclinations as the outcome, or synthesis of the American status quo with the Soviet antithesis.
By acknowledging this influence of the U.S.S.R. on science fiction, one begins to notice much more the philosophical schism which divides the Eastern and Western approaches to visions of space travel, contact with distant intelligent life forms, or human relationships with digital technology.
There are many rifts that deviate and divide the multitude of branches spiraling away from the core of science fiction. A core that, while nebulous, obsesses over what could be or what could have been. Though Asimov hesitated to describe SF as speculative fiction, preferring instead science fiction, or sci fi, it’s more fit to lean toward the speculative, and less on the science.
While there are certainly explicit, hard core sci fi books and movies, those works live under a larger umbrella which tends to encompass other genre categories that don’t really have any science inclinations. To some extent this includes horror, as many authors of science fiction don’t limit themselves to outer space, but dare to penetrate that inner, psychological space which is most vulnerable to the bette noirs that give the spooky genre its name. Lovecraft, initially, drew attention to the possibilities of combining speculative science with quasi-mystical creatures of destruction. His legacy manifests in the works of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Brian Lumley, Mike Mignola, Guillermo del Toro, Alan Moore—to name only a few. And these authors and creators don’t limit themselves to Lovecraftian fare, but also explore traditional space opera, Japanese sci fi tropes, and elements of fantasy.
Likewise, alternative history or slipstream fiction appeals broadly across science fiction fandom. As do Dying Earth tropes and genres. Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, a major influencer in this science fiction subgenre, best fits the label “science fantasy,” if a label need be applied. Though elements of the novels appear to be magical or mystical, in actuality, the settings of the books take place so far into our own future that technology has availed and failed many times over, leaving the unbelievably advanced ruins of an “ancient” civilizations in the hands of the mere cavemen that inherit it in the wake of its destruction. The aesthetics of the entire series wear the wardrobe of a fantasy novel, but at heart the characters, the environment, the stars, all adhere to an explicitly science fictional conceit: it’s post-post-post-post-apocalypse dystopia. Yet it resembles none of the tropes which have steamed rolled post-apocalypse/dystopia into YA hero quest pornography. The enigmatic qualities of the text and the environment which make it so hard to pin down are the same qualities which mark the work with the stamp of science fiction.
And even fantasy genres, which throw off the shackles of science entirely and to dare to explore worlds whose very physics differ from our own, share that same speculative core, daring to ask a “What if?” no one else has ever asked before. Whether sword and sorcery or urban fantasy, there’s a reason that bookstores shelve the science fiction and the fantasy in the same aisle. The readers and the authors of science fiction and fantasy know each other quite well, often participating in both circles, creating a broad community of people who embrace wild forms of self expression and cognitive exploration. And yes, that means cosplay. But more as a symbol of the general fandom community that creates a shared space for comic books, pulp novels, costumed shenanigans, and all kinds of (closet) nerds.
Given the many branches on the tree of science fiction, one of the greater divergences in the trunk often gets lost in the cloud of tributary twigs and leaves. The great rift, the schism which ideologically divides along the lines drawn during the Cold War—–but not for the reasons you’d suspect. American science fiction was not overtly capitalistic, nor was Soviet science fiction overly communistic. Instead, each citizenry demonstrated their own disenchantment with their particular system, or brands of cynicism and criticism that are blatant products of capitalist decadence or communist oppression.
As convenient as it would be to have a lighting strike moment to reference, one which rent the trunk of the tree in twain, the great fork in the limbs was likely congenital. The benevolent white space colonists of Golden Era American sci fi resonated uncomfortably with colonial tendencies. Though some works are unfairly lumped in with these space-faring exploit(ation)s, especially in literature, the popular conception of American sci fi is largely characterized by pop culture’s simplifications and misconceptions, along with Hollywood’s often short-sighted realizations of seminal SF works.
With science fiction from behind the Iron Curtain, there’s always the question of what material was influenced by the censors, and which was the pure intent of the artist. Though there are many that claim that does not matter, and the work must speak for itself, that attitude does not exclude the possibility of a justified paranoia that certain elements of a book or movie are pure propaganda. Therefore, Soviet-produced science fiction cannot shrug off the influence of their government, but can still provide the reader with the unique joy of fulfilling the artist’s vision by finding the message behind the propaganda. Or hell, maybe some of the propaganda actually espouses some sensible wisdom (doubtfully fulfilled or adhered to by the political apparatus, but sound advice nevertheless).
French New Wave influence on, resulting in films like BladeRunner with noir-influence.
This blog frequently highlights parallels between medieval and modern technology and media. My recent posts on Spam, GPS and Selfies in medieval times are good examples of that. As odd as this may sound, as a medieval book historian I see such parallels with modern concepts all the time: all you need is a pair of eyes and a little imagination. A few days ago, however, I encountered (and tweeted) a parallel I had never seen before: a drawing with the appearance of a page from a modern comic book (Fig. 1, tweet here).
Fig. 1 – British Library, Stowe MS 49, fol. 122r (c. 1300) – Source
The drawing from c. 1300 shows a group of people walking, some of them with a walking stick in their hand. You can almost hear the sing-songs in the background. As it turns out, this merry scene bears more than one parallel to a modern comic book story.
She was the last person I expected to come to me. In this town, with my line of work…
“I’ve got a job for you,” she said.
“Are you the job?” I asked.
Her giggle disturbed me. She leaned across my desk and pinched my tie like I was some chump who’d crumble at the slightest flirt. But she wasn’t getting to me. Not like that.
The worst part of me found it flattering. That’s what made me uncomfortable.
“You’re not the first pleasure model I’ve seen,” I said, though my experience was limited. “But you’re the first that ever walked into my office hoping to get plastic surgery. I only do bio, sweetheart. Now scram.”
As she slammed the door behind her, I picked up my phone to report the haywire android when I saw that my son was already calling me.
Here are the 5ive Points to take away from the recent Project Blue Book disclosures:
Project Blue Book was busy. They weren’t investigating the claim’s of the village idiot or a small child. Project Blue Book opened in the wake of the historic Kenneth Arnold sightings and then the Roswell incident, both in 1947. So they had their origins in some heavy duty operations.
The Mission: Cold War. The Project served another purpose, that of comforting the people in their time of mutually assured destruction. The unexplained sightings of mysterious (and technologically superior) objects in the night sky only fueled the fear of communist victory. The government needed to send the message that it would get to the bottom of the unidentified lights.
Most of the Project’s cases had perfectly legitimate explanations. Yup. Sorry.
But others aren’t so easily explained.
The Air Force wasn’t alone in their investigation. Project Blue Book was an Air Force operation, but other federal agencies, namely the CIA and DIA, also seriously investigated many UFO claims.
If they come first, how will they come? What will be their reasons?
When we go to them, what will we take to them?
How much will we get to talk before we meet?
The Robert Charles Wilson novel Blind Lake posited a situation in which humankind’s astronomers have stumbled upon an extra terrestrial civilization of sentient beings that people mistakenly liken to a lobster.
The entities are observed via quantum-telescope, allowing amazing, unprecedented access to the lives of these beings, but with limitations similar to a conventional telescope. For instance, the quantum-telescope cannot overcome the speed of light, and all imagery the astronomers receive has traveled the vastness of space at the clunky speed of light, meaning that all observed behaviors occurred hundreds of years ago.
The story falls in the “contact” genre, portraying the first genuine encounter with an intelligence from another system. But in this story, the contact gets stuck in this sick, one-way time mirror, with us meeting them, but them never getting to meet us. They are bound to remain an object of study, acted upon, and never a subject, or true actor.
What is your favorite First Contact story? Answer in the comments section below, share, and infect.
This question seems more important than the one most others appear to be asking: Didn’t you love this movie?
By the time the movie actually arrived in theaters, there had been enough momentum behind it to knock down the theater walls. Nolan’s team marketed the film as a contender for the pantheon of SF greatness, among 2001, Solaris, and early Ridley Scott.
They cobbled a pair of very large shoes and invited everyone in town to come down to the square and await the arrival of a giant come to fill them.
Since the arrival of the giant, reviews have been mostly positive. Not overwhelmingly so, but very close. It’s not quite Star Wars but it sure as hell didn’t go down like Prometheus.
Since critical reception has been hesitant to declare that the giant that arrived to fill the shoes had a particularly small foot for a giant, ChromeStone has decided to weigh in on the debate.
Interstellar undoubtedly reaches for the grandiose, chauffeuring the audience on a trip into a devastated near-future, across the solar system, and frighteningly close to a black hole at the center of a new (to us) galaxy. The film is epic in scope both spatially and temporally.
As refreshing as it is for a science fiction movie to be so bold as to attempt the grandeur of the aforementioned pantheon, the close of the film suggests Nolan missed the point of his influences.
The clean ending of the film, with everything wrapped up in one neat little package at the end (oh yeah, except for the epic paradox that goes unresolved at the film’s “resolution”), bow on it and all, slaps the entire process of interrogation from the construction of the story as a science fiction artifact.
A successful science fiction story estranges its audience from the subject, making that which is in constant focus during the story unrecognizable. The mind futilely races to shape the murky image into a known form or understood thing, never quite catching up to the idea but spawning an infinity of imagination in the process.
The reason that 2001, Solaris, and Scott’s successful scifi duo have such influence over the genre because of their ability to resonate with viewers as deeply science fiction. The effect comes from the estrangement generated between audience and monster/robot/mysterious-space-entity by way of presenting the SF element of the story as just beyond the grasp of empathy, not because we don’t care, but because we are limited by the narrow scope of our senses and cognition. The Thing is so utterly alien, so substantially mute to our human machinations, that its motive and relevance are left entirely to the audience.
2001 ends with one big question, literally staring back at the audience, “What the hell is that big space baby?” But other questions of greater philosophical depth linger beneath the surface of the more cosmetic “Big Baby” question.
The symbolism is elementary enough that some sort of rebirth, recycling, or regeneration has been set into motion as a result of humankind’s pursuit of The Signal. But Kubrick never stopped the story to explain, or cram into the plot resolution to make sure no one walked out of the theater with any questions. Questions were the point.
Similarly, Solaris refuses to answer questions, and unlike its counterparts, does not wait until the end of the story to confound the audience. The initial tension of the story stems directly from humankind’s inability to comprehend the giant thinking planet, Solaris. As the tension escalates throughout the film, it is only because of the exponentially widening gap between the true nature of Solaris and the audience’s ability to comprehend it.
Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t trouble his audience with unresolved philosophical dilemmas, just gaping, unresolved plot holes.
The central mystery of the film (the identity of the extra terrestrial samaritans lending humankind the helping hand–and to a lesser extent, the imaginary friend in Murphy’s bedroom), were pleasantly explained by movie magic.
Who had been the savior of humankind all along?
Mankind was saved by mankind all along. Space is completely within our grasp. Just, ignore the fact that human’s would first have to successfully adapt to life off of Earth–and then advance significantly in terms of technology–before being able to render a wormhole. How did the first humans in the infinite continuum of time stumble upon the universe’s html code. What was the Prime Mover?
That doesn’t matter though, as far as the plot goes. Matt lives to reunite with his daughter at just that last moment, all loose ends neatly tied into a bow. Again, except for the giant gaping paradox.
Apparently the paradox is Nolan’s philosophical gift to his audience. Who will be the Prime Mover. Will it be us? Will it? Or dow we have to regress back to Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma and sacrifice our delicious, gluten-saturated, confection-covered delights, –by which I mean food–for a steady diet of corn?!?
This question, if it is indeed where we are intended to mine the ambiguity of the film’s moral center, disappoints. Too broad, too vague, too much a false promise, the ending disappoints. It leaves no room for the audience to decide, or to interpret. I would love to see the internet running rampant with interesting theories of value…