Saturday, January 21, 2017

6 Tired Science Fiction Tropes It's Time to Put to Bed

The popularity of science fiction, whether television shows, movies, or books, shows no sign of lessening. Both the Star Wars and Star Trek films have made pots of money, with sequels on the way, as well as reboots of  Blade Runner, Independence Day, Robocop, and The Terminator, to single out the most prominent, while new films, whether blockbusters like Interstellar and Gravity or indies like Monsters and Europa Report, are filling cinemas. Many of the most popular television series, from Westworld to Stranger Things, are science fiction and science fiction novels have perhaps never enjoyed such high regard from critics. This isn't much of a surprise: science fiction shares with our current cultural landscape a preoccupation with both technology and the fate of our planet. But, with the glut of genre content out there, it's high time to say goodbye to these six clichés and start experimenting with new ideas, new plots, new character configurations, and hopefully more subtle iterations of all these things.

1. "The Chosen One"
The idea of a single person - and it's almost always a single man, boy, or male hobbit - destined to singlehandedly save the world is a comforting one, which is most likely why we continue to cling to it. It pervades both science fiction and fantasy narratives, from Harry Potter and Star Wars to Divergent, The Matrix, The Terminator, and every Arthurian epic ever. The trope, quite obviously, derives from the Christological narrative, but it wears dangerously thin. Is John Connor really that important, one single man leading a ragtag bunch of human soldiers in what was once California against an entire world of machines? Whether the concept of the chosen one works or not is largely dependent on the scope of the evil against which he (or rarely she) is fighting - one man against an entire planet, or a military force capable of controlling a galaxy, stretches verisimilitude close to a breaking point. More importantly, perhaps it's about time that we grew past the idea that a savior will come and fix all of our problems. Faith in a chosen one can just as easily be a justification for a lack of action. The fantasy of the chosen one needs to have run its course, in order for our stories to serve as a catalyst for real-world change.

2. The robots are out to kill us!
This trope has its roots in a legitimate anxiety about technology. Though there is much disagreement about the actual projected date, it is considered likely that computers will overtake us intellectually before the turning of the next century. And that is scary because it calls into question whether human beings will, for instance, have jobs in the future, or exert control over the economy. However, assuming that robots, having largely replaced us as far as work is concerned, are malicious anthropomorphizes machines. By portraying robots as malevolent, the reaction of insecurity and fear is re-channeled into a vindicated violence. This trope creates the illusion of both human control over their destinies and an innate human superiority over machines - comforting perhaps, but not helpful insofar as we must learn to adjust to the reality of living with machines. Far more interesting than whether or not we should destroy robots before they destroy us is the question of what humans should do with themselves once much of what we have hitherto done is being done by robots, or what we might accomplish in collaboration with robots. 

3. The aliens are out to kill us!
Naturally, it's impossible to know whether intelligent alien life exists without at least some evidence, but if aliens exist, and if there are intelligent species, and if they have the capability of space travel, and if they develop technology that permits them to reach us, we are totally incapable of predicting what they would want from us, if anything. Aliens with that kind of technology might well consider us with the same indifference most of us reserve for grass or squirrels, or even bacteria. Or maybe they would actively want to destroy us. But the idea that aliens would travel from another solar system just to kill us is highly paranoid; the idea that they would do so for our planet's natural resources is, at this stage in our history, laughable. Assuming that aliens would want to kill us is, as in the case of robots, a reaction born of insecurity and fear. It's difficult to imagine a greater blow to humanity's ego than to encounter beings vastly more technologically advanced than ourselves and that would absolutely be the case if we were to meet intelligent alien life.

This particular trope is often framed as a struggle between a scientist, or group of scientists, who are hell-bent on gaining knowledge even at the cost of human lives, and a macho hero, a soldier or pilot, who saves the day by killing the aliens... usually at the cost of the human lives the saving of which justified the destruction of the aliens in the first place. This is the case, for instance, in Independence Day, which shows the hapless humans setting off a nuclear bomb, a strategy that doesn't kill the aliens, but sure as heck kills every living being left in Houston. Let's hope these trigger-happy he-men aren't on the scene if the aliens do arrive - because the loss would most certainly be ours. Our fictional narratives should reflect that.

4. Futuristic clothing will be practical... so women wear mini-skirts
I'm looking at you, J.J. Abrams: the Star Trek reboot jettisoned a lot of the more dated aspects of the fifty-year-old franchise, but the ladies of Starfleet still wear incredibly impractical mini-skirts. Skimpy clothing on women is one of the oldest and tiredest of science fiction clichés, right up there with heroes eschewing life-saving helmets so we can see the dramatic wind whipping through their perfectly coifed hair, but far worse because it objectifies a full half of humanity, rendering women, no matter their professional role, bodies to ogle. Pants are practical, pants are comfortable, pants can be worn under a spacesuit, pants will not leave bare legs vulnerable to light saber scorches and the like. No one is going to wear a mini-skirt in space because that is stupid.

5. Blame it on the trauma
It's taken for granted that human beings have motivations for their actions. This is an idea that has survived the assault of postmodernism with flying colors. Perhaps out of laziness, perhaps because of looming deadlines or equally looming studio executives, writers usually 'explain' the heroism of the hero or the villainy of the villain through a simplistic backstory and this tendency has calcified into a fixed rule: it's all because of trauma. Whether it's a dead parent, witnessing a murder, the destruction of the home planet, believing one's mother is an insane liar, a mutilated body (a particular favorite for villains), or a dead lover, trauma motivates the hero to save people, planets, and the like and villains to oppose the heroes. This understanding of psychology is asinine because it's a form of shorthand. It allows the writers to skip character development, collapsing everything into one big ugly box labeled trauma. Even if one doesn't care much for subtlety, this particular cliché is so threadbare that it's pretty much always boring.

6. Kill the villain = save the world
Though it would be quite the advantage if the fulcrum of any evil could be located in a single individual, since that would indeed greatly facilitate the elimination of evil from our lives, this is not the case. In science fiction, the hero kills the villain and... that's it! Everything's great! Hooray! Cue the medal-pinning ceremony and the banquet! And yet, most villains draw on hordes of minions - what happens to them? Apparently, none of them is capable of taking up the reins. The celebration that attends the destruction of the villain assumes that a group united by an evil intention or ideology (or just an intention or ideology in opposition to that of the heroes) can be treated like a body: cut off the head, kill the ideology. Unfortunately, an ideology doesn't dwell in one being or object in the real world, as Sauron does in the One Ring. This is a lesson we would all do well to learn; it's time our science fiction recognized that truth.

None of these tropes are terrible in and of themselves. Heck, if mini-skirts were a rarity, I could even tolerate them. The problem is rather that these tropes have congealed into structures that usually go unquestioned and that render us stories, characters, and imagined worlds that are simpler and less interesting than they could be. Science fiction is experiencing a cultural rejuvenation; it behooves us to take advantage of it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Our Screens Are Hiding from Us

I spent many hours on the internet today, as did most of the several millions of people in my vicinity, not to mention billions more around the world. Whether it elates or depresses us, much of our lives are now lived, in some sense for which we lack precise vocabulary, online. Simultaneously, our movies have become longer and more spectacular, our tolerance for long, complex books has increased (witness the popularity of behemoths such as A Song of Ice and Fire), the number of television series has exploded. We are starving for entertainment, no matter how we may stuff ourselves.

Though our online lives are as complicated, emotionally fraught, confusing, fascinating, and even at times fun, as our 'real' lives, the virtual dimension has proven immensely difficult to narrativize, though many writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other artists have been experimenting with form, genre, and style, trying to figure out a way to render the way we live now in fiction.

The problem is that our virtual lives are not terribly interesting when we are not living them. It is no great thrill to watch someone stooped over a gleaming screen, tapping at a keyboard, at work or at play on the internet. It's perhaps even less absorbing to read a stranger's texts, skim a stranger's search history, float in the wake of an aimless boat in a sea of memes.

No matter how intently engrossed in our virtual lives, the entertainment for which we hunger indicates that we are rather bored by them when we are in the position of a spectator. Although our technology permits us to explore outer space while staying safely put on Earth, our movies are only ever concerned with manned missions. Although most robots that we use now and that are in development are not androids, our fiction insists on the humanoid, whether humanoid robots or computers with recognizably human voices. The most popular genres at the box office - science fiction and action movies - zero in on individuals performing deeds of derring-do in the 'real' world. Though technology may prove of assistance, human beings race, fight, fire weapons, scheme, and conquer, their actions unmediated by their devices - this is so, even though the most popular genre, science fiction, whether in the form of superhero movies and comics, first-person shooter video games, dystopian novels, or whatever else, is as deeply tied to technology as magic is to fantasy.

This is not to say that technology doesn't play a role: there's no Star Trek without the transporter, no Star Wars without light sabers, no Batman without the Batmobile. But, over and over, it is a human character, rather than a computer or non-humanoid robot, that has the ingenious idea that will save the world, that codes the program that will undo the villain's nefarious plan, that punches, stabs, slices, zaps, etc. the enemy.

The plethora of science fiction, and especially science fiction that exists at the very center of the mainstream cultural imagination, could be seen as our way of exorcising or indulging our intense anxieties over the rapid changes wrought by technology and the pressure of questions related to the survival of the human species. If our technology supersedes us, will we still be necessary, or even worth preserving? Science fiction reassures us that yes, we will. The primary reason, almost invariably, is that humans save the world. And if we are unable to save our planet, where will we go? Science fiction tends to be less reassuring on that score; eco-fiction, dystopias, and zombie apocalypses paint dire visions of the future indeed.

But I wonder if a deeper concern is at work, one that delves more painfully into the human subconscious. As much as we cling to our smartphones, our tablets, even our adorable roombas, our technology plugs us in and in the process flattens out our lives. My generation grew up with a saccharine, poisoned rhetoric that told us we could be anything we wanted to be, do anything we wanted to do, because we were each the heroes of our own lives, and even apart from the noxiousness of that sentiment, never based in reality, our technology reminds us that it isn't true.

When we visualize a hero, we don't see a guy in his sweatpants hunkered over a tablet, alternating among chat forums, instagram, twitter, and porn. We don't see a woman, her thumbs at work on a smartphone, crushing candies, scrolling through her facebook feed, and tapping out a listicle.

But that's what we look like. That's who we are and what we do. Our entertainment, saturated with spaceships, supercomputers, and androids, doesn't show the heroes stooped over a screen. It shows us as a species for whom technology is a tool, or an enemy, or helpless without our ingenuity. It protects us from our mirror image. We are Jedi warriors, not schlubs vegging out on the couch; we are spaceship captains, ring-bearers, black knights, wizards, hackers breaking humanity out of the matrix.
Science fiction, whether utopian or dystopian, brightly lit or grimly dark, peaceful or violent, reverses the trend to which we are all subject. As we become increasingly sedentary, passive, enwrapped in the virtual and estranged from the physical world, our dreams become ever more frenetically dynamic, active, and rooted in the (imagined) body.

We don't have to wait for the machines to build the matrix. We're already building it ourselves.