April 4, 2020

Themes in Science Fiction.



Zombies. Ray-guns. Spacecraft that defy physics. Sure, sci-fi is rife with, well, bad plot devices that you could fly an Imperial Star Destroyer through. But if you subsist on a steady diet of the fantastic, a set of themes emerge. Here is an Astroguyz tongue-and-cheek original, a quick baker’s dozen of the themes that we’ve identified and tagged in the wild. Feel free to submit your own!

  1. The “shinny white” future: Towards the beginning of the 20th century, there was a feeling that science would be the universal panacea that would solve all our ills, and the scifi of the period reflects this. True, we should be living in an antiseptic glossy white Jetsons future by now. The problem is, being human, we love to invent new problems to solve! Occasionally, perky futures still do get through, but they tend to be more of the Brave New World variety, were evil lurks just beneath that Prozac smile… think Minority Report and Gattaca.

  2. The near term “dark & gritty” future: This is much more popular as of the last few decades…since the Cold War has ended, terrorism and possible global collapse have given rise to shadowy utopias in scifi. I would trace this back to Logan’s Run in the 70′s… everything is perfect, just don’t look down (or turn 30!) Modern day gritty futures are almost too numerous to shake a ray-gun at; Blade runner is probably the classic example.

  3. The medieval universe: Hip scifi writers are still trying to dissect and emulate the success of Star Wars decades later. But did you know that the concept of placing emperors and princesses in space is actually a very old one; Dune is probably the best example, but I’m sure someone out there in scifi land could bring me an even older one. The problem is that all those old monarchies on Earth got swept away, along with witchcraft and leeches, for a very good reason; they weren’t very effective!

  1. The “zombies are among us” theme: The X-Files got multiple seasons out of this. Zombies always seem to waiting to rise up and devour our brains… this stems from a deep seated fear of the Other. And they don’t have to be zombies…aliens or men in black will do just fine!

  2. Science as savior: Kind of a sub-genre of the shinny-white future, this theme has faded out as of late. The Professor rarely saves Gilligan’s Island anymore. Science has given us antibiotics and Iphones; teleporters and warp drive are a much tougher nut to crack!

  3. Science as Hubris: This theme is much more common to see as of late… Man gets too proud of the technology he’s created and promptly gets whacked down. Childhood’s End, (and perhaps the entire Clarke catalog) are good examples of this. As we move out into the universe, we should be prepared to have our ego deflated a little… or a lot.

4. The robots will rise up: As if zombies and aliens aren’t bad enough, our GPS units on our dashboards are always threatening to enslave us. I differentiate between the two only because this    class of scifi also intersects with the “Science as Hubris” type, because, after all, we created them! Read Asimov’s I, Robot series to get the short and the long of this commentary, then watch the re-imagined Battlestar:Galactica (link) to see just what those smart toaster ovens might be capable of!

  1. Man MUST subjugate the universe!: This sort of “Manifest Destiny” seems to be the most comforting to the general public; there is a big ole’ Galactic Federation out there, and its centered on us. Unfortunately, its also most likely wrong; any alien civilizations we meet will almost certainly have had a huge head start on us. We are the definite new kids on the galactic block. A flock of Paris Hilton turned zombie-robots is much more likely… unless, of course, we are truly alone. In which case, when we meet the Klingons, will they be…us?

  2. The alternate time line: Everybody loves a good time travel story… like every other theme in scifi, this one was already staked out first in H.G. Wells’ via the The Time Machine... but as shows from Quantum Leap to Sliders demonstrate, its appeal never gets old!

  3. The “I’m too sexy-sophisticated for syndication” theme: Grass roots scifi is really where its currently at; if you see it on the big screen, pulp authors have more than likely “been-there, done-that” eons ago. For these, I refer you to the galaxy of bi-monthly anthologies out there, as well as the uber-excellent Escape pod podcast.

  4. The “Airplane” disaster flick: Not interested in deep socio-political satire or commentary on the state of man? Write a scifi disaster flick, preferably with a threatening space rock “the size of Texas,” and Hollywood will beat a path to your door. Add a few washed up actors and some made for TV dialog, and you’ve got a scifi disaster movie. These terrible beasties come and go, so its easy to spot them in the wild. For the ultimate satire of them all, I give you Tim Burton’s excellent Mars Attacks!

  5. And the just plain bad…. Mostly movies and TV are to blame for this; sometimes, scifi is so bad, its good, or at least good to make fun of! Fans of the long running Mystery Science Theater 3000 know what I mean…its relatively easy to make a bad film, but darned hard to pull together a good one! Maybe that’s why that rare diamond does indeed shine so bright…

So, there you have it… our 10 second take on the scifi genre. Feel free to submit your own, or use this as a score card at the next DragonCon (link). I believe that scifi represents the mythology of the 20th century; when folks look back on our era, its things like War of the Worlds and Independence Day that they’ll study to get a true feel of our hopes and dreams… slightly scary, huh?


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