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What science fiction thinks of science
January 26, 2011 8:49 PM   Subscribe

Six or seven stances science fiction movies take towards science. From John Holbo at Crooked Timber.

Sample: "I can’t think of many films that thematize the conflict between science and, say, justice or fairness. It’s usually more ‘conservative’ stuff: hearth and home and heart. (Will Smith punching out aliens, or stopping a runaway computer that has decided it knows what’s best for mankind. Ripley in Alien.) This is true even when the story would seem naturally to require objections to technological practices on grounds of justice or fairness. Minority Report and Gattaca, for example: these aren’t films about the unfairness of severely punishing people who haven’t (yet) committed crimes, or the unfairness of gross ‘luck’ inegalitarianism. They end up being about ‘authenticity’. In a weird way, Robocop is a good example of this sort of ‘science in moderation’ film: the hero needs to be a mix of old-fashioned conservative and ‘rational’ product, even though the happy mix ends up being rather unhappy for the hero himself. (He’s like Kirk, if Kirk had to be made by gluing half of Spock to half of McCoy.)"
posted by escabeche (50 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
There is something to be said for including Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings in this set. Tolkien is so conscious about excluding technology from his world that it amounts to science fiction by subtraction – namely, of science itself from the world.

Yes. It's important to consider ALL swords-and-sorcery movies when discussing SF. Because magic, elves, and epic battles against deity-scale forces are the realm of SF, and excluding them is a slight to all that is SCIENCE!
posted by hippybear at 8:54 PM on January 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


My example for the seventh kind would be the Jeff Bridges film, Tucker, and the Christopher Nolan film, The Prestige.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:58 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


how long until a tv tropes reference?
posted by rebent at 9:03 PM on January 26, 2011


So are we talking about Agora then? No? Oh ok.
posted by The Whelk at 9:07 PM on January 26, 2011


if Kirk had to be made by gluing half of Spock to half of McCoy.

My rational mind to your conservative mind... my rational thoughts to your conservative thoughts...
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:10 PM on January 26, 2011


Half-serious complaint about the everywhere equation of "Science Fiction" with "TV and Movie Science Fiction."
posted by grobstein at 9:20 PM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised that he included Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind under the fourth category. I would think that it would be a textbook example of the sixth category. The movie is less about the threat or promise of any memory-erasing technology than it is about how much we are and are not creatures who learn from experience.

This makes sense especially because Eternal Sunshine is so very Dickian. Consider not only Bladerunner, but also A Scanner Darkly, a movie for which Charlie Kaufman once wrote an unproduced script.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:28 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Half-serious complaint about the everywhere equation of "Science Fiction" with "TV and Movie Science Fiction."

I don't think this is a mistake Holbo himself, at least, is very likely to make. He writes informed pieces about written SF with some frequency.

It is a bit weird that he pulls in LotR here, but I think that's explained by a widespread tendency to lump Science Fiction films with Fantasy films. And now that I think about it, most of what is understood to be Science Fiction in film does have a great deal more in common with Fantasy generally than it does with written Science Fiction...
posted by brennen at 9:42 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Re: The Salon piece, possibly someone has been reading David Brin. Either way, I think this whole "Star Trek rational and sane, Star Wars atavistic stuff of nightmares!" bit is way oversold.
posted by brennen at 9:46 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wanted to like this but found the article pretty fast/loose/lazy and not helpful. But Cool Papa Bell, you did remind me that I *loved* the Prestige, regardless of what it's 1-7 rank should be.
posted by donovan at 10:01 PM on January 26, 2011


A lot of the anti-technology tropes in sci-fi are hopelessly tangled up with the post-modern fear of utopianism -- movies like these are often not about science or technology as much as they are about being afraid of "too much" perfection, or order, or justice, or freedom, or capitalism, or whatever else science and technology is busy standing in for this week. This is also why so many of these movies start (or end) at the bottom of one slippery-slope or another, and why the protagonists so often discover that The Truth Is In The Middle (or, alternately, in Balance, Maaaaaaan).
posted by vorfeed at 10:11 PM on January 26, 2011 [10 favorites]


So this guy seems to slot every major great sci-fi movie into some sort of category that evidences a set of flaws. (2001 doesn't care about science, and it's not a danger in the film. Uh, what?) Anyhow, I'm confused as to what the "right" message sci-fi movies are supposed send might be. And then he says he doesn't think Star Wars "hold up" very well anymore. But he likes Dune! And I don't mean the book. So, maybe John Holbo's views on movies just aren't for me.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:25 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


This all kinds of useless. Lets make a bunch of arbitrary yet ill-fitting categories, then argue about which films fit where! We might as well make a list of stances that film has about romance. It's pointless, overbroad, and unlikely to accomplish much of anything.

The sad thing is that Holbo himself recognizes this with:
Of course, seven categories won’t really work any better than Lind’s regressive-progressive divide. We will still feel like Wall-E, trying to decide which drawer to put the spork in.
And yet he persists in inflicting this on us. Bad Holbo, no biscuit.
posted by Justinian at 10:28 PM on January 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


The fantasy of Star Wars vs the relative intellectualism of Star Trek is an interesting subject. The liberalism of Star Trek was in many ways a first, but the fantasy of star wars caught the imagination of millions of the coming generation owing to its blockbuster status, myself included. I loved SW at seven, but the freaky weird picture of a green face at the credits (and in one particular episode) of ST left me behind the sofa during repeats.

Even I could see the chinks in the armour in the later star wars movies - fantasy does not often hold up to developing and enquiring minds, and ST in its later incarnations was more often than not too little too late. Of course, there were no more ST programmes until I had developed a sense of drama and no longer cared for the facile offerings they provided, though deBoer in DS9 did stir something within me.

I distinctly remember a time, a decade ago, when a mate of mine, on the announcement of LOTR and XMEN movies said "It's a great time to be geek". He was right. But the ability to discuss this with everyone on Patton Oswalt's Everything Available Forever or Whatever Network makes me wish I wasn't currently drunk, as I'd probably have something to say about it.

You've come a long way, baby, since you made a death star out of crushed paper. and an x-wing out of a paper dart.
posted by Sparx at 10:39 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Great point, Justinian - it's like a weak listicle.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:41 PM on January 26, 2011


Because magic, elves, and epic battles against deity-scale forces are the realm of SF, and excluding them is a slight to all that is SCIENCE!

A lot of science fiction has "science" that is basically magic and a lot of fantasy fiction has characters that are analogous to scientists in some way. There are tons of Dungeons and Dragons style "mad scientist" wizards; Dumbledore is known for his discovery of 9 uses of dragon blood, etc.

Really the idea of Star Wars being science fiction in a discussion of the relationship of science fiction to science is a little bit odd, because Star Wars is really only sci-fi in setting: you could replace all the technology in it with magic and not really lose too much, story-wise. It only qualifies as sci-fi because it takes place in space. So it's just as valid to invoke LoTR here as Star Wars, IMO.
posted by NoraReed at 10:46 PM on January 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


I agree with some of the points in the Lind essay, but he completely loses me on urban planning. How are suburbs -- which largely metastasized as a way for white people to get away from black people -- even remotely progressive? What about reviving our cities -- the great, modernist metropolises that we used to be so proud of?
posted by Afroblanco at 10:52 PM on January 26, 2011


At the same time, you can lose all majesty from dumbledore's presence by loudly announcing "dumblydore" should he turn up. I learned this from a MeFi post that I cannot recall right this minute.
posted by Sparx at 10:54 PM on January 26, 2011


Really the idea of Star Wars being science fiction in a discussion of the relationship of science fiction to science is a little bit odd, because Star Wars is really only sci-fi in setting

But it is setting which defines science fiction. To argue otherwise is foolhardy. So saying that Stars Wars is only science fiction in setting is like saying that apples are only edible because you can eat them.
posted by Justinian at 11:09 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


NoraReed: Star Wars is really only sci-fi in setting: you could replace all the technology in it with magic and not really lose too much, story-wise.

You can say the same about Star Trek in many ways; we've seen the links here about how the writers would say things like "Geordie does [tech thing] to solve the problem", and they'd make up some word later in the process. There was sorta-kinda vague coherence, but never much in the way of explanation for why the protagonists could, more or less freely, violate the laws of physics, and there'd be new, unexplained violations whenever it made a story easier and/or faster. Many (most?) of the stories could have been set just as well on a clipper ship on the high seas, in a world where magic worked.

The best contrast I can think of, offhand, is the first few seasons of Stargate: SG1. That was actually semi-hard SF up until about Season 4. When they did impossible things, there was usually some exposition as to why it should be impossible, and how the alien technology allowed it to happen anyway. It was far from perfect, but they didn't just go for the handwave most of the time. When unexplained things happened, it would puzzle the characters, and they'd generally keep revisiting the idea until they had a working hypothesis.

I find that style of storytelling a lot more interesting, because that allows writers to explore ramifications. There ended up being a number of plots that depended on "facts" that had been revealed in prior episodes, where the characters would do something clever with whatever they'd learned. Yeah, it had dumb stuff sometimes (the linguist's ability to puzzle out alien languages so quickly always irked me, for instance), but for the most part, they did a good job.

I found that satisfying in a way that Star Wars and Star Trek never managed. Trek nonetheless managed to have some wonderful episodes, but there was sure a lot of crap to wade through.
posted by Malor at 11:17 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


A lot of science fiction has "science" that is basically magic and a lot of fantasy fiction has characters that are analogous to scientists in some way. There are tons of Dungeons and Dragons style "mad scientist" wizards; Dumbledore is known for his discovery of 9 uses of dragon blood, etc.

Well, agreed. And to be fair, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A quote from one of our most esteemed science fiction authors.

I think one of his main failures with his argument is thinking that science fiction is about science. It's not. I mean, some of it is. But much, if not most SF uses it as a setting, not as subject matter. Sure, there are some stories which are about science in some way, but he would dismiss most of those as falling into category 3, which most of the time end up actually being stories in category 6.

I mean, SF is, at its core, a way to create a reality which allows an author to explore a concept in a setting which underscores the themes that author wants to bring forward. But they're nearly all about philosophy on some level. Even stories like Contact end up being less about the science and more a discussion of something much deeper, like the nature of faith and whether it is valid to believe in something for which you have no proof.

There really aren't that many SF books or movies which are about science (or SCIENCE!) that anyone wants to read. It's always the implications of what the science means, to an individual or society at large, which are the focus of the story. And while real science may or may not play a strong roll in the plot, it is rare to find a book or movie which is simply addressing the science as the plot, rather than using it as the setting or the macguffin to explore other issues. Even, or especially Star Trek, which was really a series of cultural morality plays reflecting the time and place in which it was produced.

I think where he does his argument the most disservice, however, is when he starts off talking about Star Trek as a paragon of what he thinks SF should be. Star Trek, as beloved as it is, was full of magical instruments and technology mostly used to move the plot forward as expediently as possible. Teleporters are cheaper than shuttle landings for the television studios. All the technobabble might as well be Harry Potter trying to figure out potions for as much sense as it actually makes to the viewer, and usually is only used to create a sense of crisis and isn't actually demonstrating anything scientific.

Plus, Star Trek, even in its first incarnation, is 79 hours of material. That's well beyond an order of magnitude longer than anything else he mentions, except maybe LotR, but even that stretches to only 11 hours in its most lengthy version. That is a hell of a lot more time to develop themes when it comes to the Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate, or the nature of the Federation, or whatever. Comparing 2 hour films (or 6 hour series) to 79 hours (or over 700 hours if you count all the series, and I don't include any of the films) is pretty unfair overall. The world of Star Trek is much more fleshed out, and feels more real and fully developed because of the repeated weekly exposure across decades and the huge amount of outside material which has been developed to explain how all of it works. Watch 2 episodes of Star Trek with no prior knowledge (is that even possible?) and compare that to a 2 hour movie, and you'll have a more accurate comparison.

And anyway. Dune isn't about science, regardless of whether he thinks it has held up better than Star Wars.
posted by hippybear at 11:28 PM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Plus, Star Trek, even in its first incarnation, is 79 hours of material.

I think you could use the entire Star Wars extended canon universe and get pretty much the same result that he did here, but I'm basing that on seeing the movies like... once or twice in my life and most of a KOTOR playthrough.

A friend of mine argues that the difference between a fantasy and a science fiction setting is that sci-fi changes over time and fantasy does not. Go a thousand years into Middle Earth's past or future and the technology and society will pretty much be the same as it is in LoTR; same deal with Star Wars. But that's more technology than science.

I think in a way the attitude of technology in speculative fiction might be a more interesting discussion, especially given the recent interest in steampunk/clockpunk settings, which generally force some scientific curiosity into its characters, though it's more often of the small business, independent type he discusses as the possible #7.
posted by NoraReed at 12:13 AM on January 27, 2011


But it is setting which defines science fiction. To argue otherwise is foolhardy. So saying that Stars Wars is only science fiction in setting is like saying that apples are only edible because you can eat them.

I'd say it's more like arguing about whether to group tomatoes with fruits or vegetables (note that I am specifically avoiding the question of what tomatoes are). Structurally, innately, it's a fruit, as botanists define such. Functionally, superficially, it's a vegetable: we use it in savory cooking.

So if you consider "setting" (superficial/contextual characteristics) to be the defining characteristic, Star Wars is sf. But if you're looking at some internal qualities, you could set up your categories so that Star Wars sits with Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek sits with, I don't know, some sufficiently non-mythlike, at-least-pays-lip-service-to-rationalism fantasy. (Thomas Covenant? Iron Council?)
posted by No-sword at 12:28 AM on January 27, 2011


and Star Trek sits with, I don't know, some sufficiently non-mythlike, at-least-pays-lip-service-to-rationalism fantasy. (Thomas Covenant? Iron Council?)

I'd certainly not sit Star Trek with Thomas Covenant. Maybe with the late 60s early 70s SF novels of Robert Silverberg (pre-Valentine). The themes he was exploring in novels like The Book Of Skulls or Up The Line or Towers Of Glass. Those are in some ways parallel to what Star Trek was trying to achieve, although of course a novel (even a 150 page one) can often be much more in-depth than a 50-minute television show.
posted by hippybear at 12:50 AM on January 27, 2011


The other, non-libertarian, pro-SCIENCE! grouping is Marxist science fiction, typically from British authors like Ken MacLeod (explicitly) and Iain M. Banks (looks commie to me). I say "British" but it might be "Scottish" specifically - but then Glasgow did return Communist MPs...
posted by alasdair at 1:59 AM on January 27, 2011


These were pretty weak categories, especially 5 & 6.

I think you can say a lot of interesting things about the relationship and attitudes expressed about science in science fiction. But really, science fiction is less about science and more about technology and setting. And that technology can be "real" technology, like a faster-than-light warp drive, or "fake" technology like dragon fire. Neither one exists or is likely to exist in our lifetimes.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:33 AM on January 27, 2011


Go a thousand years into Middle Earth's past or future and the technology and society will pretty much be the same as it is in LoTR;

No, actually, as Middle Earth is posited to be Europe in some unknown distant past.

The generic nowhere-time of fantasy is a relatively recent development. Most fantasy authors before the turn of the 20th century (and even a little after that time) that come to mind related their worlds to Earth in some way, as being a distant or unknown land or time. The "timeless" time of fantasy actually identifies pretty closely to the medieval setting of fairy tales. What has become Generic Fantasyland is an amalgam of Europes both feudal and Renaissance, Robert E. Howard's Hyperborea and Tolkien's Middle Earth in roughly equal proportions, now codified fairly solidly by Dungeons & Dragons.

(The preceding is from casual observation; I have not done research on this issue, and will bow to the authority of someone who has. It might actually make for an interesting paper topic.)
posted by JHarris at 3:24 AM on January 27, 2011


Phillip K. Dick on science fiction:

Science fiction contains a world
that is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, or our world transformed in a way which it is not or not yet. […] This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society – or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one – this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world he is reading about.

…The true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is good sf the idea is new, it is stimulating, and probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramifications in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that that mind, like the author’s, begins to create. Thus sf is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not do. We who read sf […] read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create –and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.
posted by ropeladder at 3:38 AM on January 27, 2011 [18 favorites]


Many (most?) of the stories could have been set just as well on a clipper ship on the high seas, in a world where magic worked.

I'd kinda pay to see that.
posted by Leon at 4:00 AM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


On the theme of justice/fairness, it seems like Holbo has forgotten about the entire superhero genre. Watchmen and Superman: Red Son, in particular, seem to be about the conflict between the possibility of utopia and the ability of humans to live in a just world and choose their own fate--Ozymandias, Superman, and Dr. Manhattan are all superhuman beings (although not really because of science except for Manhattan, but because of godlike knowledge) with the power to create the best of all possible worlds, but only at the expense of any kind of human freedom or self-determination (and at the expense of many human lives--the New Yorkers at the end of Watchmen weren't any worse than any of the people who lived, but their lives were sacrificed for the greater good.)

Even Warren Ellis' No Hero, which I otherwise don't particularly like, was big on the themes of power, egalitarianism, and science--what power can scientifically-enhanced beings responsibly wield over the less-capable?

And, now that I think about it, the possible endings of Deus Ex point to a tension between a world that would be inherently better for humans versus one where humans have free will. That's not really a Category 3 in that it's not splitting the difference between emotion and scientific rationalism; it's much more about the good that can come from allowing the great to rule versus the unfairness of that.

I'm sure there are a lot more examples of what I'm talking about, but I'm sick and not really thinking straight, so that's all I got.
posted by Tubalcain at 5:39 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The other, non-libertarian, pro-SCIENCE! grouping is Marxist science fiction, typically from British authors like Ken MacLeod (explicitly) and Iain M. Banks (looks commie to me).

The same Ken MacLeod that won the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Award for Best Libertarian SF Novel two or three times?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:40 AM on January 27, 2011


No, actually, as Middle Earth is posited to be Europe in some unknown distant past

Yes and no.

Middle Earth is actually very well defined in-terms of it's history - Tolkien sketched-out thousands of years of history, classified into different "ages", each of several hundred to several thousand years in duration. Generally, nowhere was there any real technological progress.

Which is strange, because in the whole Middle-Earth "realm", magic is/was not widely accessible. There were very few wizards and on-the-whole, even the Elves were not inherently magic-users. Which makes the whole "etho's" fall down a bit - because, you would think that somewhere over the course of 5-6,000 years, someone would invent a few fundamentals to make manual labour easier...
posted by jkaczor at 5:57 AM on January 27, 2011


Whoa - while I barely remember slodging through the Silmarillion, I am a fair bit short when I say; "5-6,000 years" - yikes... Timeline of Arda

But, that only "strengthens" the argument that "someone" should have made a little technological progress.

(Sorry to side-track)

Personally, I like it all (hard-Sci-Fi, SyFy, Horror and Fantasy) - as long as it does not completely devolve into "relationship soap-opera". Yes, stories must be about people - but the "hook" or "grand idea" for me needs to be bigger than the daily life of an average/rich/normal person. Admittedly, that is changing as I get older and finally develop what is probably a more normal-sense of empathy - but even then, any media I consume regarding that tends to the more "offbeat" nature (and, if Television - is generally cancelled very quickly).

However - IMO, this whole discussion comes back to general human-nature - the absolute need to classify and codify things.
posted by jkaczor at 6:16 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


That was a really lazy, disjointed piece of shit article, for sure, but this will definitely be one of those threads that's about a thousand times more entertaining and engaging than the linked content, so there's that.
posted by odinsdream at 6:19 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The article it was inspired by (from Salon) is somewhat worse than the article itself:

Here’s an idea. America needs to have a neomodernist party to oppose the reigning primitivists of the right, left and center. Let everyone who opposes abortion, wants to ban GM foods and nuclear energy, hates cars and trucks and planes and loves trains and trolleys, seeks to ban suburbia, despises consumerism, and/or thinks Darwin was a fraud join the Regressive Party. Those of us who believe that the real, if exaggerated, dangers of technology, big government, big business and big labor are outweighed by their benefits can join the Modernist Party. While the Regressives secede from reality and try to build their premodern utopias on their reservations, the Modernists can resume the work of building a secular, technological, prosperous, and relatively egalitarian civilization, after a half-century detour into a Dark Age.

I'm not sure modernism equals consumerism.

And because this strongly reminds me of Avatar, I'm just going to say here that I really wish Avatar had taken a tack different from the neo-primitivism angle it went with and actually represented the Na'vi as more technologically advanced but less militaristically advanced than the humans. After all, they have giant USB port trees.
posted by Tubalcain at 6:28 AM on January 27, 2011


I love me some discussion on science-fiction, but the categories do seem really weak, as if the author were on a deadline and someone asked him to make "One of those list posts that get tweeted a lot," or something.

I also find it interesting that he doesn't mention District 9, which to me is a film about justice and humanity. The technology of the aliens is crucial to the plot but the bigger story is what constitutes the nature of our humanity. We, humans, want their weapons, which are encoded to their biology, but we treat them with disdain, supply them with cat food (their drug of choice) to keep them amenable to our control and force them to live in tent cities while not allowing them even to reproduce. The alien refugees therefore represent both the impoverished disenfranchised and an imminent threat because of their technology, which we covet.

It takes a human taking over for any change to take place, which is typical for the movies, but the impetus for change is not nobility of character or "heart" but a stumbling error in judgment followed by desperation in the face of the same privation the refugees endure, which to me is much more convincing motivator. And we are given to understand that the aliens had a plan that would have allowed them to bring about their own escape if the human hadn't interfered in the first place, which is a nice twist.

I'm rambling here, but my point is that the author of the piece here seems to have created some arbitrary characterizations and then just left off any films that don't neatly fit into them--and there are a lot that don't. Another one that comes to mind is the truly excellent film Moon, a must-see for science fiction fans, which is mostly a journey of personal discovery. But again, the technology is pivotal to the story.
posted by misha at 6:38 AM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


misha

I guess he'd classify Moon under 6, which doesn't really seem fair to me. The best science fiction, to me, is character-driven stuff like Moon that explores the implications of living in a world where x technology exists. It's not always big-idea SF, but technology is hardly incidental to the story (Splice also seems like a good example, although Moon's a better film.)
posted by Tubalcain at 7:03 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


But it is setting which defines science fiction. To argue otherwise is foolhardy.

So what does that make movies like K-PAX or the The Man from Earth?

I suggest that the fool is one who makes generalizations in ignorance.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:21 AM on January 27, 2011


But, that only "strengthens" the argument that "someone" should have made a little technological progress.

But someone did. There is a suggestion that Mordor had a kind of proto-industrial production system for its military. Saruman did the same when he turned evil, and he brought that same evil to the Shire. I think the idea is that the right-thinking people of Middle Earth saw the inherent evil in industrialization and shunned it. Yes, machines could save labor, but they also inexorably lead to oppression, pollution, and ever-more-terrible war.
posted by jedicus at 7:42 AM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


SF films that aren't really "about" science ... Blade Runner, maybe?

wut? don't like androids?
posted by mrgrimm at 8:39 AM on January 27, 2011


So saying that Stars Wars is only science fiction in setting is like saying that apples are only edible because you can eat them.

Star Wars is about a naive young swordsman from the boondocks who meets an older samurai and sets off on a quest to defeat his father, the corrupted sorcerer. His training regimen includes swordfighting technique, meditation and horseback riding. While initially enraptured by the sense of adventure, he suffers a crippling wound in battle and becomes a recluse, meditating daily with a wizened monk until he no longer has an ego to be harmed.

Also, there are spaceships and aliens like, everywhere.
posted by byanyothername at 8:46 AM on January 27, 2011 [11 favorites]


But someone did. There is a suggestion that Mordor had a kind of proto-industrial production system for its military. Saruman did the same when he turned evil, and he brought that same evil to the Shire. I think the idea is that the right-thinking people of Middle Earth saw the inherent evil in industrialization and shunned it. Yes, machines could save labor, but they also inexorably lead to oppression, pollution, and ever-more-terrible war.

This is pretty much the message of Princess Mononoke, too. If you want to present an anti-science message, I think Fantasy is a much easier genre to work with than Science Fiction.
posted by Quonab at 9:44 AM on January 27, 2011


I wouldn't say Lord of the Rings is all about the modern vs. the pastoral, although there definitely is that thread.

But ... think about this. If science fiction is about what life is like should technology X exist, then consider that LotR is about what life is like when a weapon of mass destruction exists.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:13 AM on January 27, 2011


Really the idea of Star Wars being science fiction in a discussion of the relationship of science fiction to science is a little bit odd, because Star Wars is really only sci-fi in setting: you could replace all the technology in it with magic and not really lose too much, story-wise.

If anything, a Darth Vader with wooden prosthetics made by Ewoks would have been far more sinister than the way they showed him in the film.
posted by snofoam at 10:51 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is pretty much the message of Princess Mononoke, too. If you want to present an anti-science message, I think Fantasy is a much easier genre to work with than Science Fiction.

I wouldn't call Ghibli's movies anti-science (and I'm not accusing you of that, either!). There is an anti-industrialization theme running through quite a few of them, but even that is humanized and nuanced to a degree that's pretty rare--Lady Eboshi doesn't want to burn the forest down, she wants to provide a place of refuge and safety for people unable to defend themselves in a violent world. The humans in Pom Poko just want a nice place to live (as the tanuki heartbreakingly point out near the end) and end up making concessions so that the tanuki won't be totally wiped out. The warring countries in Nausicaa just want their world back, et cetra...

If we're going to map things by their stance on science, I'd put Ghibli's films in the "healthy" box--technology can provide a higher standard of living for some while also eroding ecological interdependencies and everyone has a different--equally noble hearted--view of how it should be used.
posted by byanyothername at 12:10 PM on January 27, 2011


So what does that make movies like K-PAX ... ?

Uh, shitty?
posted by OverlappingElvis at 12:53 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


The same Ken MacLeod that won the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Award for Best Libertarian SF Novel two or three times?

You understand that the term "libertarian" means something different in the U.K. than it does in the U.S., right? I seem to recall Macleod's politics having distinctly Trotskyist roots.
posted by aught at 1:10 PM on January 27, 2011


How are suburbs -- which largely metastasized as a way for white people to get away from black people -- even remotely progressive? What about reviving our cities -- the great, modernist metropolises that we used to be so proud of?

100% this. The shit he lumps in together at the end have nothing in common and makes no sense. He says that people who "love trains and trolleys" are regressive -- wha? I don't think most people who believe in public transportation do so because they want to go back to the 19th century and think old trains are cool. He makes the mistake of equating environmental consciousness with anti-technological nostalgia and pastoralism -- pretty typical Randian and Libertarian fallacy. Sure, there are plenty of "let's get back to nature, man!" type hippies, but many people believe in the possibility of advances in science and technology helping solve the problems caused by industrialization, pollution, etc. It's far more "regressive" to insist on maintaining and expanding existing, flawed forms of science (coal, oil, more gas-burning cars) than to try to develop new models of civilization that attempt to rectify current problems. His model of "progressivism" -- which I applaud for its secularism -- isn't really all that progressive, at least as its presented in this article. It just seems to be, "intensify and improve what we've got" rather than "develop new ideas and paradigms."
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:14 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


You understand that the term "libertarian" means something different in the U.K. than it does in the U.S., right?

That may be true but it isn't why MacLeod won the award. The Libertarian Futurist society explicitly means the American meaning of the term. Yes, everyone (including Ken as far as I am aware) is quite bemused that a Trotskyist kept winning a Libertarian award.
posted by Justinian at 1:18 PM on January 27, 2011


a Darth Vader with wooden prosthetics made by Ewoks

I'm imagining the ones used by Yoshimitsu in Soul Calibur. And it is AWESOME.
posted by NoraReed at 9:08 PM on January 27, 2011


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